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The Power of Positive Karma Print

The Power of Positive Karma


Rebirth and karma are the Buddhist beliefs that Westerners find hardest to accept. Yet are they really so foreign to us? If we look at our own experience, we find that thoughts, emotions, and self-images are continually arising, ending, and being reborn. We see that the seeds we plant in our consciousness in one moment will determine what we experience in the next. This is also what we experience as we go from lifetime to lifetime. Therefore, says Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, we should be concerned above all else with creating positive karma to lay the ground for our future enlightenment.

Beings evolve through karma, take birth because of karma, enjoy and (function) through karma.  —Karmavibhanga Sutra

Buddhism teaches that in our true nature, we are enlightened—totally open, peaceful, joyful, compassionate, and omniscient. The Buddha proclaimed:

Profound, peaceful, and free from concepts,
Luminous and uncompounded—
A nectar-like nature—that I have realized!

This aspect of our mind is “the true nature of the mind.” When we become aware of and perfect it, we become blossoming buddhas.
We’re all attracted to these highest views. But some students of Buddhism just want to meditate on the nature of the mind, emptiness-wisdom, free from concepts, without opening their hearts to the merit-making practices that are indispensable to liberation. They regard important practices like praying and generating devotion as “theistic” and “dualistic.”
There are many ways to make merit, or positive karma. The most comprehensive are the six perfections (paramitas) that Mahayana Buddhism prescribes as the path to enlightenment. They are: giving (generosity), discipline (morality), patience (fearlessness), diligence (eagerness), tranquillity (contemplation), and wisdom.
The first five perfections, collectively referred to as “skillful means,” are especially for accumulating merit. The sixth, wisdom, involves realizing the true nature of mind, which is wisdom-emptiness.
The undervaluation of skillful-means practices to develop merit is unfortunate. Their purpose is to refine and transform our mind. Devotion opens our hearts. Compassion dissolves ego. Prayer unites us with our enlightened qualities. Pure perception transforms our awareness. Serving others, especially those who rely on us, is the purpose of dharma. There is no such thing as a buddha who doesn’t help others. So the more we open our hearts to skillful means, the more quickly and surely we reach buddhahood. We should never abandon these practices, for the path of skillful means is perfected in the goal of enlightenment, just as bricks become the finished house.

The Need for Dualistic Practice

Why do we need dualistic practices, such as generating merit, to reach a state that transcends duality? Because we have to start from where we are. Our mind’s true nature is covered by karmic turbulence caused by our grasping at self and our negative mental habits. “Grasping at a self” refers to the way we grasp at mental objects as truly existing, perceiving them dualistically as subject and object. The aspect of our mind that perceives this way is conceptual mind. Conceptual mind and the true nature of mind are like the surface and depths of the ocean: The surface is choppy with wind-tossed waves; beneath it is still and peaceful.
Most of us can’t glimpse into the depths, our true nature, because our conceptual mind is constantly churning out turbulence. Grasping at self tricks us, like a nightmare, into believing that we are separate from the world and each other. This triggers negative emotions, from craving and anxiety to jealousy and aggression, which spill out into unhealthy words and actions.
Every dualistic perception, every negative thought, feeling, word, and deed, leaves a negative karmic imprint in our conceptual mind that walls us off from our true nature. On the other hand, positive mentalities leave positive karmic imprints that open our mind, loosen grasping at self, and thin out the barriers to our true nature.
As long as we have dualistic concepts and emotions, the world is solid to us. Our suffering is all too real. Circumstances matter. If our surroundings are chaotic, it will be hard to find tranquillity. If we experience peace and joy, however, we will be inspired to generate even more peace and joy. Then whatever we say and do will be the words and deeds of joy and peace. We progressively loosen our grasping at self, and eventually we glimpse the luminous nature of our mind. If we perfect this realization, we uproot grasping at self and become fully awakened.

Merit and Emptiness

I am not saying that we should not meditate on the nature of the mind. My point is that we should do so in conjunction with skillful means. Buddhist masters have always said that buddhahood is the result of two accumulations: of skillful means and of wisdom. Merit and wisdom are each as indispensable to attaining enlightenment as two wings are to a bird’s ability to fly. Chandrakirti (7th century) writes:

With two widely opened white wings
Of relative truth [skillful means] and absolute truth [wisdom]
The kings of swans [bodhisattvas] and their flock of swans [disciples]
Soar through the ocean of supreme Buddha qualities.

Practicing skillful means such as generosity and morality is a powerful way to create positive karma. The more wholeheartedly we devote ourselves to it, the deeper its positive imprints go in our mind and the more walls we break through. Trying to meditate on emptiness without accumulating merit may not make an impact on the walls barricading our true nature. So its effect is uncertain at best. Saraha (1st century) writes:

Without compassion [merit], the view of emptiness
Will not lead you through the sublime path.

And Gampopa (1079-1153) says:

Great wisdom will not take birth in you
If you have earned little merit.

Attempting to meditate on emptiness without merit can invite self-deception. We might think that we are in a state of awareness without grasping, when we are actually grasping at a subtle level at meditative experiences like clarity, joy, and no-concepts. It is grasping, or attachment, that keeps us in samsara. Tilopa told Naropa (11th century):

Son, appearances are not the issue.
Rather, attachment to them is.
So Naropa, cut [your] attachment.

Or,  meditating only on emptiness, we could drift into the absence of thoughts. Contemplating in this state creates no merit, but leads to rebirth in samsara’s formless realms. Jigme Lingpa says, “If you are attached to ‘no-thoughts,’ you will fall into the formless realms.” Beings there remain semi-unconscious without making progress for possibly millions of years.


So we need to create circumstances conducive to our development. Since we live in a world that is created by and operates through karma, we have to abide by its laws and travel the path of positive karma. To emphasize the importance of making merit, we should note that even the buddhas observe karma. Guru Padmasambhava said, “My realization is higher than the sky. But my observance of karma is finer than grains of flour.”
Some people think karma is fate. “It must be my karma,” they sigh, resigning themselves to some calamity. But karma doesn’t have to be bad. It can be good. And we make our own karma. Every thought, feeling, and deed sows a habitual karmic seed in our mind that ripens into a corresponding positive, negative, or neutral experience. Anger and jealousy manifest as painful, unhappy experiences. Selfless, joyful thoughts and feelings flower into wondrous, fulfilling experiences.
So we don’t have to resign ourselves to “our karma.” We control our karma. Every moment is a new juncture, a chance to improve our way of thinking and thus our circumstances. This principle of interdependent causation is the bedrock of the Buddha’s first teachings, the four noble truths.

Karma, Merit, and Samsara

No matter how seemingly pleasant, samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth, is a delusory nightmare of confusion and suffering. Nothing lasts. In some lives we may be reborn in higher realms; in other lives we go to lower realms, depending on which of our karmas are ripening and how we lived our preceding life.
Our cycling in samsara stems from grasping at self. Nagarjuna writes:

If we grasp at the (five) aggregates, we are grasping at self.
If we grasp at self, from that (arises) karma, and from (karma arises) birth.
Through these three, without a beginning, middle, or end,
Revolves the fire-brand circle of samsara
By depending on each other as the cause.

So Shantideva asks:

All the violence, fear, and suffering that exist in the world
Come from grasping at self.
What use is this great evil monster to us?

To uproot grasping at self, we need to realize wisdom. To realize wisdom, we need merit. Merit releases us from negative emotions, the cause of samsaric suffering, and loosens our grasping at self. As that happens, we glimpse the true nature of our mind. Once we do, we can meditate on the true nature to perfect the realization of wisdom. Until then, we need to make merit.
If we don’t tackle our negative emotional patterns, we are bound to repeat them and remain in samsara. Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) writes: “The root of all ills is taking rebirth in samsara. That must be stopped. Stopping it depends on preventing its causes, which are karma and negative emotions. Between these two, if there is no negative emotion, karma will not become the cause of rebirth. However, if you have negative emotions, then even if there is no accumulated karma, new ones will quickly pile up.”
So we need to check ourselves and start from where we are. There are three possible mindsets: negative, positive, and perfect. By perfect I mean total wisdom, the nonconceptual realization of our true nature.
Chances are, we are a mix of positive and negative, as only realized masters are perfect. As long as we are mired in negative emotions, we can’t leap to perfection, just as we can’t jump from a mountain base to its peak. So we need to go from negative to positive to perfect. Acting as though we were near spiritual perfection when we aren’t is just fooling ourselves.
Atisha (982–1055) once said, “The ultimate meaning of all teachings is emptiness, of which compassion (skillful means) is the essence.”
“Then how come,” his disciple asked, “so many people say that they have realized emptiness when they haven’t made a dent in their hatred and attachment?”
“Because,” Atisha replied, “their claims are mere words.”
Our ego is solid like a rock. The more we generate compassion and devotion and make merit, the softer it gets. Eventually it becomes intangible. One day, it dissolves. All the cloud-like traces of negative karmas vanish from our sky-like mind, and our sun-like unstained enlightened nature shines forth spontaneously. The Buddha says:

Sentient beings are buddha in their true nature.
However, (their true nature) has been covered by adventitious obscurations.
When their obscurations are cleared, they are the very Buddha.


We sometimes think that karma depends only on what we do. But what counts most is our mind. The Buddha said:

Mind is the main factor and forerunner of all actions.
Whoever acts or speaks with a cruel mind will cause miseries for himself …
With a pure thought, will cause happiness for himself.

Karma has its greatest chance to change our lives when we leave our body at death. When we enter the bardo, the transitional passage between death and our next incarnation, all we are is mind. Freed from the strictures of our physical surroundings and body, our mind runs its own show. Our karmic habits unfold as the terrain, sights, and sounds of the bardo and propel us to our next birth.
If we have cultivated compassion and devotion, loving images will greet us. Flowers may shower upon us from the sky. Buddhas and teachers to whom we prayed could appear. Negative mental habits, however, will manifest as frightful images.
People often assume that they will come back as people. But a human rebirth requires much merit and many aspirations. It doesn’t happen automatically.
There are six realms in samsara, and infinite Pure Lands, or paradises, outside samsara. We go where our karma impels. Nagarjuna says:

Greed, hatred, and ignorance give rise to unvirtuous deeds.
(Thoughts with) no greed, hatred, and ignorance give rise to virtuous deeds.
Unvirtuous deeds cause all suffering and (births in) inferior realms.
Virtuous deeds (cause births in) higher realms and happiness in all our lives.

In particular, Nagarjuna explains:

Hatred leads you to the hell realm.
Greed leads you to the hungry ghost realm.
Ignorance mostly leads you to the animal realm.

Some modern Buddhists don’t accept rebirth and karma. These teachings, however, go back to the Buddha. The Lankavatara Sutra says:

There are six realms of transmigration where beings take birth.
They are the realms of gods, demigods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell.
You take birth in those realms because of superior, middling, and evil karmas.

There is much evidence to support the notion of rebirth. Many masters remember their past lives and see where they will be reborn. Apang Terton (1895–1944/5) told his family, “I will be reborn in the Sakya family. Come visit me when I am three.” Sure enough, Kyabje Sakya Trizin (1945–) was later born in the Sakya family and remembered details of his life as Apang Terton.
When my own teacher, Kyabje Dodrup-chen Rinpoche, was a toddler, he described details of his previous life and Guru Padmasambhava’s Pure Land, which he had visited between lives.
Tibet also has a remarkable tradition of delogs, or returners from death. Delogs travel extensively in other worlds until they revive, days later, to share what they learned. My new book, Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth, includes eleven such first-hand accounts. Although these delogs never met, their descriptions of the six realms, Pure Lands, and bardo are strikingly similar.

Pure Lands

It is at death that merit makes the greatest difference for our future. If we made merit and aspirations, we could go to a Pure Land, a paradise of light and love where beings become enlightened in one lifetime.
Many of us like it here on Earth. For all its attributes, however, the human realm is filled with struggle and uncertainty. Who knows, if we come back here in our next life, whether we will have the leisure to practice? Also, human beings are highly emotional. There is no telling whether, in a fit of passion, we might make some big mistake and regress.
However, in the Pure Lands, where we are supported by countless enlightened beings, we never regress or experience negative emotions. We evolve until we become enlightened. It is the ultimate example of positive karma building on itself until perfection is attained.
Some people have the misimpression that going to the Pure Land is selfish. When beings first take rebirth there, they have clairvoyance and can help those with whom they were linked in their previous lives. As they grow, they do even more. When they become enlightened, they become a source of boundless service for all beings through infinite manifestations. Their manifestations appear wherever they can help. As the Vimalakirtinirdesha Sutra says, “It is impossible to liberate others while you are bound. It is possible to liberate others when you are free.”
In Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth, I focus on Sukhavati, the Blissful Pure Land, as the easiest Pure Land to take rebirth in. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, the body of love and wisdom, manifested it so that beings with good karma could take rebirth there without needing high spiritual realization. All we need are four causes.
First we need to repeatedly think in detail about and visualize Amitabha and his Pure Land. If these perceptions become part of our mental habit, they will arise before us when we die. Second, we need merit, as the fuel to ferry us there. Third, we need to commit to lead all beings to the Pure Land, thus magnifying our merit. Fourth, we need to make strong aspirations and dedicate our merit as the cause of our and all beings’ rebirth in the Pure Land. This augments our merit many times and ensures that our merit goes towards rebirth there.
Sometimes our obstructions and resistance to practice feel insurmountable. But if we stay on the path of training, accepting the teachings as they are, we will be making progress—whether we can see it or not—and the goal of peace, joy, and enlightenment will be ours to share with all.

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet, where, as a young boy, he was recognized as a reincarnated Buddhist master. In 1958, he fled the Communist Chinese invasion and settled in India, teaching university-level Tibetan and Tibetan literature.  In 1980, Tulku Thondup was invited to Harvard as a visiting scholar. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he translates and writes on Tibetan Buddhism. His most recent book is Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth. 

 This article was originally published in the may 2006 issue of the Shambahala Sun, and is excerpted in our 30th-anniversary collection of the finest meditation teachings from the magazine, as printed in our January 2010 issue. To read all of the other excerpted pieces in their complete form, click here.


She Who Hears the Cries of the World Print

She Who Hears the Cries of the World


The Buddhist path isn’t just about the accumulation of wisdom. It equally requires the development of compassion—an intelligent sympathy for the suffering of all beings and the heartfelt wish to liberate them. In Buddhist iconography, this compassion is embodied in the bodhisattva Kuan Yin, who is said to manifest wherever beings need help. Engendering such compassion is not only good for others, says Christina Feldman, it is also good for us. By putting others first, we loosen the bonds of our self-fixation, and in doing so, inch closer to our own liberation.

Compassion is no stranger to any of us: we know what it feels like to be deeply moved by the pain and suffering of others. All people receive their own measure of sorrow and struggle in this life. Bodies age, health becomes fragile, minds can be beset by confusion and obsession, hearts are  broken. We see many people asked to bear the unbearable—starvation, tragedy, and hardship beyond our imagining. Our loved ones experience illness, pain, and heartache, and we long to ease their burden.

The human story is a story of love, redemption, kindness, and generosity. It is also a story of violence, division, neglect, and cruelty. Faced with all of this, we can soften, reach out, and do all we can to ease suffering. Or we can choose to live with fear and denial—doing all we can to guard our hearts from being touched, afraid of drowning in this ocean of sorrow.

Again and again we are asked to learn one of life’s clearest lessons: that to run from suffering—to harden our hearts, to turn away from pain—is to deny life and to live in fear. So, as difficult as it is to open our hearts toward suffering, doing so is the most direct path to transformation and liberation.

Compassion and wisdom are at the heart of the path of the Buddha. In the early Buddhist stories we find young men and women asking the same questions we ask today: How can we respond to the suffering that is woven into the very fabric of life? How can we discover a heart that is truly liberated from fear, anger, and alienation? Is there a way to discover a depth of wisdom and compassion that can genuinely make a difference in this confused and destructive world?

We may be tempted to see com–passion as a feeling, an emotional response we occasionally experience when we are touched by an encounter with acute pain. In these moments of openness, the layers of our defenses crumble; intuitively we feel an immediacy of response and we glimpse the power of nonseparation. Milarepa, a great Tibetan sage, expressed this when he said, “Just as I instinctively reach out to touch and heal a wound in my leg as part of my own body, so too I reach out to touch and heal the pain in another as part of this body.” Too often these moments of profound compassion fade, and once more we find ourselves protecting, defending, and distancing ourselves from pain. Yet they are powerful glimpses that encourage us to question whether compassion can be something more than an accident we stumble across.

No matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves feel com–passionate. But we can incline our hearts toward compassion. In one of the stories in the early Buddhist literature, the ascetic Sumedha reflects on the vast inner journey required to discover unshakeable wisdom and compassion. He describes compassion as a tapestry woven of many threads: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. When we embody all of these in our lives, we develop the kind of compassion that has the power to heal suffering.

A few years ago, an elderly monk arrived in India after fleeing from prison in Tibet. Meeting with the Dalai Lama, he recounted the years he had been imprisoned, the hardship and beatings he had endured, the hunger and loneliness he had lived with, and the torture he had faced.

At one point the Dalai Lama asked him, “Was there ever a time you felt your life was truly in danger?”

The old monk answered, “In truth, the only time I truly felt at risk was when I felt in danger of losing compassion for my jailers.”

Hearing stories like this, we are often left feeling skeptical and bewildered. We may be tempted to idealize both those who are compassionate and the quality of compassion itself. We imagine these people as saints, possessed of powers inaccessible to us. Yet stories of great suffering are often stories of ordinary people who have found greatness of heart. To discover an awakened heart within ourselves, it is crucial not to idealize or romanticize compassion. Our compassion simply grows out of our willingness to meet pain rather than to flee from it.

We may never find ourselves in situations of such peril that our lives are endangered; yet anguish and pain are undeniable aspects of our lives. None of us can build walls around our hearts that are invulnerable to being breached by life. Facing the sorrow we meet in this life, we have a choice: Our hearts can close, our minds recoil, our bodies contract, and we can experience the heart that lives in a state of painful refusal. We can also dive deeply within ourselves to nurture the courage, balance, patience, and wisdom that enable us to care.

If we do so, we will find that compassion is not a state. It is a way of engaging with the fragile and unpredictable world. Its domain is not only the world of those you love and care for, but equally the world of those who threaten us, disturb us, and cause us harm. It is the world of the countless beings we never meet who are facing an unendurable life. The ultimate journey of a human being is to discover how much our hearts can encompass. Our capacity to cause suffering as well as to heal suffering live side by side within us. If we choose to develop the capacity to heal, which is the challenge of every human life, we will find our hearts can encompass a great deal, and we can learn to heal—rather than increase—the schisms that divide us from one another.

In the first century in northern India, probably in what is now part of Afghanistan, the Lotus Sutra was composed. One of the most powerful texts in the Buddhist tradition, it is a celebration of the liberated heart expressing itself in a powerful and boundless compassion, pervading all corners of the universe, relieving suffering wherever it finds it.

When the Lotus Sutra was translated into Chinese, Kuan Yin, the “one who hears the cries of the world,” emerged as an embodiment of compassion that has occupied a central place in Buddhist teaching and practice ever since. Over the centuries Kuan Yin has been portrayed in a variety of forms. At times she is depicted as a feminine presence, face serene, arms outstretched, and eyes open. At times she holds a willow branch, symbolizing her resilience—able to bend in the face of the most fierce storms without being broken. At other times she is portrayed with a thousand arms and hands, each with an open eye in its center, depicting her constant awareness of anguish and her all-embracing responsiveness. Sometimes she takes the form of a warrior armed with a multitude of weapons, embodying the fierce aspect of compassion committed to uprooting the causes of suffering. A protector and guardian, she is fully engaged with life.

To cultivate the willingness to listen deeply to sorrow wherever we meet it is to take the first step on the journey of compassion. Our capacity to listen follows on the heels of this willingness. We may make heroic efforts in our lives to shield ourselves from the anguish that can surround us and live within us, but in truth a life of avoidance and defense is one of anxiety and painful separation.
True compassion is not forged at a distance from pain but in its fires. We do not always have a solution for suffering. We cannot always fix pain. However, we can find the commitment to stay connected and to listen deeply. Compassion does not always demand heroic acts or great words. In the times of darkest distress, what is most deeply needed is the fearless presence of a person who can be wholeheartedly receptive.

It can seem to us that being aware and opening our hearts to sorrow makes us suffer more. It is true that awareness brings with it an increased sensitivity to our inner and outer worlds. Awareness opens our hearts and minds to a world of pain and distress that previously only glanced off the surface of consciousness, like a stone skipping across water. But awareness also teaches us to read between the lines and to see beneath the world of appearances. We begin to sense the loneliness, need, and fear in others that was previously invisible. Beneath words of anger, blame, and agitation we hear the fragility of another person’s heart. Awareness deepens because we hear more acutely the cries of the world. Each of those cries has written within it the plea to be received.

Awareness is born of intimacy. We can only fear and hate what we do not understand and what we perceive from a distance. We can only find compassion and freedom in intimacy. We can be afraid of intimacy with pain because we are afraid of helplessness; we fear that we don’t have the inner balance to embrace suffering without being overwhelmed. Yet each time we find the willingness to meet affliction, we discover we are not powerless. Awareness rescues us from helplessness, teaching us to be helpful through our kindness, patience, resilience, and courage. Awareness is the forerunner of understanding, and understanding is the prerequisite to bringing suffering to an end.

Shantideva, a deeply compassionate master who taught in India in the eighth century, said, “Whatever you are doing, be aware of the state of your mind. Accomplish good; this is the path of compassion.” How would our life be if we carried this commitment into all of our encounters? What if we asked ourselves what it is we are dedicated to when we meet a homeless person on the street, a child in tears, a person we have long struggled with, or someone who disappoints us? We cannot always change the heart or the life of another person, but we can always take care of the state of our own mind. Can we let go of our resistance, judgments, and fear? Can we listen wholeheartedly to understand another person’s world? Can we find the courage to remain present when we want to flee? Can we equally find the compassion to forgive our wish to disconnect? Compassion is a journey. Every step, every moment of cultivation, is a gesture of deep wisdom.

Living in Asia for several years, I encountered an endless stream of people begging in the streets. Faced with a forlorn, gaunt child I would find myself judging a society that couldn’t care for its deprived children. Sometimes I would feel irritated, perhaps dropping a few coins into the child’s hand while ensuring I kept my distance from him. I would debate with myself whether I was just perpetuating the culture of begging by responding to the child’s pleas. It took me a long time to understand that, as much as the coins may have been appreciated, they were secondary to the fact that I rarely connected to the child.

As the etymology of the word indicates, “compassion” is the ability to “feel with,” and that involves a leap of empathy and a willingness to go beyond the borders of our own experience and judgments. What would it mean to place myself in the heart of that begging child? What would it be like to never know if I will eat today, depending entirely on the handouts of strangers? Journeying beyond our familiar borders, our hearts can tremble; then, we have the possibility of accomplishing good.

Milarepa once said, “Long accustomed to contemplating compassion, I have forgotten all difference between self and other.” Genuine compassion is without boundaries or hierarchies. The smallest sorrow is as worthy of compassion as the greatest anguish. The heartache we experience in the face of betrayal asks as much for compassion as a person caught in the midst of tragedy. Those we love and those we disdain ask for compassion; those who are blameless and those who cause suffering are all enfolded in the tapestry of compassion. An old Zen monk once proclaimed, “O, that my monk’s robes were wide enough to gather up all of the suffering in this floating world.” Compassion is the liberated heart’s response to pain wherever it is met.

When we see those we love in pain, our compassion is instinctive. Our heart can be broken. It can also be broken open. We are most sorely tested when we are faced with a loved one’s pain that we cannot fix. We reach out to shield those we love from harm, but life continues to teach us that our power has limits. Wisdom tells us that to insist that impermanence and frailty should not touch those we love is to fall into the near enemy of compassion, which is attachment to result and the insistence that life must be other than it actually is.

Compassion means offering a refuge to those who have no refuge. The refuge is born of our willingness to bear what at times feels unbearable—to see a loved one suffer. The letting go of our insistence that those we love should not suffer is not a relinquishment of love but a release of illusion—the illusion that love can protect anyone from life’s natural rhythms. In the face of a loved one’s pain, we are asked to understand what it means to be steadfast and patient in the midst of our own fear. In our most intimate relationships, love and fear grow simultaneously. A compassionate heart knows this to be true and does not demand that fear disappear. It knows that only in the midst of fear can we begin to discover the fearlessness of compassion.

Some people, carrying long histories of a lack of self-worth or denial, find it most difficult to extend compassion toward themselves. Aware of the vastness of suffering in the world, they may feel it is self-indulgent to care for their aching body, their broken heart, or their confused mind. Yet this too is suffering, and genuine compassion makes no distinction between self and other. If we do not know how to embrace our own frailties and imperfections, how do we imagine we could find room in our heart for anyone else?

The Buddha once said that you could search the whole world and not find anyone more deserving of your love and compassion than yourself. Instead, too many people find themselves directing levels of harshness, demand, and judgment inward that they would never dream of directing toward another person, knowing the harm that would be incurred. They are willing to do to themselves what they would not do to others.

In the pursuit of an idealized compassion, many people can neglect themselves. Compassion “listens to the cries of the world,” and we are part of that world. The path of compassion does not ask us to abandon ourselves on the altar of an idealized state of perfection. A path of healing makes no distinctions: within the sorrow of our own frustrations, disappointments, fears, and bitterness, we learn the lessons of patience, acceptance, generosity, and ultimately, compassion.

The deepest compassion is nurtured in the midst of the deepest suffering. Faced with the struggle of those we love or those who are blameless in this world, compassion arises instinctively. Faced with people who inflict pain upon others, we must dive deep within ourselves to find the steadfastness and understanding that enables us to remain open. Connecting with those who perpetrate harm is hard practice, yet compassion is somewhat shallow if it turns away those who—lost in ignorance, rage, and fear—harm others. The mountain of suffering in the world can never be lessened by adding yet more bitterness, resentment, rage, and blame to it.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the beloved Vietnamese teacher, said, “Anger and hatred are the materials from which hell is made.” It is not that the compassionate heart will never feel anger. Faced with the terrible injustice, oppression, and violence in our world, our hearts tremble not only with compassion but also with anger. A person without anger may be a person who has not been deeply touched by harmful acts that scar the lives of too many people. Anger can be the beginning of abandonment or the beginning of commitment to helping others.

We can be startled into wakefulness by exposure to suffering, and this wakefulness can become part of the fabric of our own rage, or part of the fabric of wise and compassionate action. If we align ourselves with hatred, we equally align ourselves with the perpetrators of harm. We can also align ourselves with a commitment to bringing to an end the causes of suffering. It is easy to forget the portrayal of Kuan Yin as an armed warrior, profoundly dedicated to protecting all beings, fearless and resolved to bring suffering to an end.

Rarely are words and acts of healing and reconciliation born of an agitated heart. One of the great arts in the cultivation of compassion is to ask if we can embrace anger without blame. Blame agitates our hearts, keeps them contracted, and ultimately leads to despair. To surrender blame is to maintain the discriminating wisdom that knows clearly what suffering is and what causes it. To surrender blame is to surrender the separation that makes compassion impossible.

Compassion is not a magical device that can instantly dispel all suffering. The path of compassion is altruistic but not idealistic. Walking this path we are not asked to lay down our life, find a solution for all of the struggles in this world, or immediately rescue all beings. We are asked to explore how we may transform our own hearts and minds in the moment. Can we understand the transparency of division and separation? Can we liberate our hearts from ill will, fear, and cruelty? Can we find the steadfastness, patience, generosity, and commitment not to abandon anyone or anything in this world? Can we learn how to listen deeply and discover the heart that trembles in the face of suffering?

The path of compassion is cultivated one step and one moment at a time. Each of those steps lessens the mountain of sorrow in the world.

Christina Feldman is the author of Compassion: Listening to the Cries of the World (Rodmell Press). She is cofounder and a guiding teacher at Gaia House, a Buddhist meditation center in Devon, England, and a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

She Who Hears the Cries of the World, by Christina Feldman, Shambhala Sun, May 2006.

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You Already Understand! Print

You Already Understand!


Bodhidharma, founder of the Zen lineage, is said to have described Zen this way: “A special transmission outside the scriptures / Not depending on words and letters / Pointing directly to the human mind / Seeing into one’s nature and attaining buddhahood.” There’s no better example of Zen’s direct, penetrating spirit than these exchanges between the late Seung Sahn—one of the great Zen masters to have lived and taught in the United States—and his students.

Someone asked Zen Master Seung Sahn,
“What do you think about the beginning of this world?”
“The beginning of this world came from your mouth. Ha ha ha ha! Do you understand?”
The student was silent.  
“Then I will explain: what is this world? You must under–stand that point first. You make time, space, cause and effect. In three seconds, when you asked that question, you made this whole world. Physics used to teach that time and space, and cause and effect, are absolutes. But modern physics teaches that time, space, and cause and effect are subjective. So you make this whole world, and you make your time and space.”
The student said, “I still don’t understand.”
Zen Master Seung Sahn replied, “OK, so first you must understand, what is time? One unit of time is an hour. But my thinking sometimes makes this hour very long, or very short. You go to the airport to pick up your girlfriend. You haven’t seen her in a long time. You wait at the airport, and the airplane is very late. Five, ten, twenty, thirty minutes—waiting, waiting, waiting. Even another half hour passes. Ten minutes seems like a whole day. So this one hour feels like a very, very long time because you want to see her very much, and you sit there saying, ‘Where is the plane? Why hasn’t it arrived yet?’ But yet some other time, you go dancing with friends, and dance all night, and even one hour seems to pass by very quickly. Now that same amount of time measured as ‘one hour’ seems very short. ‘A whole hour has already passed? It seems like only a minute!’ So mind makes one hour very long or very short. Time depends on thinking, because time is created by thinking. The Buddha taught this, and we can test it in our everyday life. ‘Everything is created by mind alone.’
“It is the same with space: Spain is here, and New York is there, Korea is over there, and Japan is over here. People in Spain say, ‘This way is north, that’s south, east, and west.’ But on the opposite side of the earth, Korean people say that north is here, south is over there, and east and west are here and here. If I stay here, my north, south, east, and west are like this. If I am not here, my north, south, east, and west disappear. Cause and effect are also the same: if I do some good action, I go to heaven; bad action, go to hell. That’s cause and effect. But if I don’t make anything, where do I go?
“So I make time, and space, and cause and effect. I make my world; you make your world. A cat makes a cat’s world. The dog makes the dog’s world. God makes God’s world. Buddha makes Buddha’s world. If you believe in God 100 percent, then when you die, and your world disappears, you go to God’s world. If you believe in Buddha 100 percent, then when your world disappears, you will go to Buddha’s world. But if you believe in your true self 100 percent, then you make your world, and that’s complete freedom: heaven or hell, coming and going anywhere with no hindrance.”
Zen Master Seung Sahn looked at the questioner. “So I ask you, which one do you like?”
The student was silent.
“Anytime you open your mouth, your world appears.”
The student asked, “So, who was the first person to open his mouth?”
“You already understand!”
Amid general laughter, the student was silent for a few moments. Then he bowed deeply.


A student had the following exchange with Zen Master Seung Sahn:
“What is enlightenment?”
“Enlightenment is only a name,” he replied. “If you make enlighten-ment, then enlightenment exists. But if enlightenment exists, then ignorance exists, too. And that already makes an opposites-world. Good and bad, right and wrong, enlightened and ignorant—all of these are opposites. All opposites are just your own thinking. But truth is absolute, and is before any thinking or opposites appear. So if you make something, you will get something, and that something will be a hindrance. But if you don’t make anything, you will get everything, OK?”
The student continued, “But is enlightenment really just a name? Doesn’t a Zen master have to attain the experience of enlightenment in order to become a Zen master?”
The Heart Sutra says that there is ‘no attainment, with nothing to attain.’ If enlightenment is attained, it is not true enlightenment. Having enlightenment is already a big mistake.”
“Then is everyone already enlightened?”
Zen Master Seung Sahn laughed and said, “Do you understand ‘no attainment’?”
“‘No attainment’ is true attainment. So I already told you about the Heart Sutra. It says, ‘There is no attainment, with nothing to attain.’ You must attain ‘no attainment.’”
The student rubbed his head. “I think I understand …”
“You understand? So I ask you, what is attainment? What is there to attain?”
“Emptiness,” the man replied.
“Emptiness?” Zen Master Seung Sahn asked. “But in true emptiness, there is no name and no form. So there is also no attainment. Even opening your mouth to express it, you are already mistaken. If you say, ‘I have attained true emptiness,’ you are wrong.”
“Hmmm,” the student said. “I’m beginning to understand. At least I think I am.”
“The universe is always true emptiness, OK? Now you are living in a dream. Wake up! Then you will soon understand.”
“How can I wake up?”
“I hit you!” [Laughter from the audience.] “Very easy, yah?”
The student was silent for a few moments, while Zen Master Seung Sahn eyed him intently. “I still don’t get it. Would you please explain a bit more?”
“OK. Can you see your eyes?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Oh? How?”
“By looking in a mirror.”
“That’s not your eyes! That is only a reflection of your eyes. So your eyes cannot see your eyes. If you try to see your eyes, it’s already a big mistake. Talking about enlightenment is also like that. It’s like your eyes trying to see your eyes.”
“But my question is, when you were a young monk, you had the actual experience of enlightenment. What was this experience?”
“I hit you! Ha ha ha ha!”
The student was silent.
“OK, one more try. Suppose we have before us some honey, some sugar, and a banana. All of them are sweet. Can you explain the difference between honey’s sweetness, sugar’s sweetness, and banana’s sweetness?”
“Hmmm …”
“But each has a different sweetness, yah? How can you explain it to me?”
The student looked suddenly even more perplexed. “I don’t know …”
The Zen master continued, “Well, you could say to me, ‘Open your mouth. This is honey, this is sugar, and this is banana!’ Ha ha ha ha! So if you want to understand enlightenment, it’s already making something. Don’t make anything. Moment to moment, just do it. That’s already enlightenment. So, first understand your true self. To understand your true self, you must understand the meaning of my hitting you. I have already put enlightenment into your mind. Ha ha ha ha!” [Extended laughter from the audience]

Shoot the Buddha!

After a dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a young woman said to Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Tomorrow is my son’s birthday, and he told me he wants either a toy gun or money. But I have a problem: as a Zen student, I want to teach him not to hurt or crave things. So I don’t want to give him a toy gun or money.”
Seung Sahn replied, “A toy gun is necessary! [Laughter from the audience.] If you give him money, he will only go out and buy a toy gun. [Laughter.] Today a few of us went to see a movie called Cobra, starring Sylvester Stallone. Do you know this movie? A very simple story: good guy versus bad guys. Other movies are very complicated, you know? But this movie had only two things: bad and good. Bad. Good. A very simple story.
“Your son wants a toy gun. You think that that is not so good. But instead, you should view the problem as: How do you use this correctly? Don’t make good or bad: how do you teach the correct function of this gun, OK? That’s very important—more important than just having a gun or not. If you use this gun correctly, you can help many people, but if it is not used correctly, then maybe you will kill yourself, kill your country, kill other people. So the gun itself is originally not good, not bad. More important is: what is the correct function of this gun?
“So you must teach your son: if Buddha appears, kill! If the eminent teachers appear, kill! If a Zen master appears, you must kill! If demons appear, kill! If anything appears, you must kill anything, OK? [Laughter.] Then you will become Buddha! [Much laughter.] So you must teach your son in this way. The gun itself is not good or bad, good or bad. These are only names. Most important is, why do you do something: only for ‘me,’ or for all beings? That is the most important point to consider.”

Crazy Mind

After a Dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, a student asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Is there such a thing as a clean mind?”
“If you have mind, then you must clean your mind. If you have no mind, cleaning is not necessary. So I ask you, do you have a mind?”
“Do I?”
“Do you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Where is it?”
The student looked puzzled for a moment. “Where is it?”
“Yes, where is it? How big is your mind?”
“Uhhh …”
“This much [holding arms open wide] or this much [narrowing them together]?”
The student tilted his head back and stretched his arms open wide. “This much right now.”
“Ooohh, only that? That’s very small! [Much laughter from the assembly.] That’s not your original mind. Originally, your mind is the whole universe; the whole universe and your mind are the same. Why do you make just ‘this much’? So that is a problem. Since you make ‘this-much’ mind, now you must dry-clean your mind. Use don’t-know soap. If you clean, clean, clean your mind, it will become bigger, bigger, and bigger—as big as the whole universe. But if there is any taint, it becomes smaller, smaller, smaller. But actually, you have no mind, I think.”
“You think I have no mind?”
“Yes, no mind.”
The student was silent.
“You don’t understand, yah? Do you have mind?”
“Well, I don’t understand a lot of … I don’t understand a lot … umm … I …” [Laughter.]
“The Sixth Patriarch said, ‘Originally nothing: where can dust alight?’ So maybe you have no mind.”
After a long silence, the student brightened a bit. “OK, you talk about right livelihood, you talk about having monk karma and wanting to practice Zen … umm … and my question is … not to live in a Zen center … to live in the world it’s very difficult to practice, umm … to coincide practice and livelihood, umm …. So the mind that meets the mind that’s conflicted is the mind I’m speaking with … from … umm …”
“Yah, your mind is a strange mind,” Seung Sahn said.
“A strange mind?”
“Yah, strange mind. Nowadays everybody has a strange mind, because inside it’s not correct, not meticulous, not clear. This strange mind is like an animal’s mind, not really a human being’s mind. It is maybe eighty percent animal mind, twenty percent human mind. So that is strange, that’s crazy. Nowadays there are many, many crazy people. But everybody is crazy, so this crazy is not special. Even a Zen master’s speech is crazy. Yesterday I said in a dharma speech, ‘The sun rises in the east and sets in the west.’ Those are crazy words. The sun never rises in the east nor sets in the west. The sun never moves! Only the earth moves, around and around the sun, so why make this speech about the sun rising in the east and setting in the west? That’s crazy! [Laughter.] So that means: crazy is not crazy. Not crazy is crazy. [He looks at the questioner’s face.] Do you understand that? Crazy is not crazy; not crazy is crazy.”
The student started to say something, but stopped.
“Ha, ha, ha! Now complicated! That’s no problem. Zen teaches that if you have mind, you have a problem. If you don’t have mind, then everything is no hindrance. But everybody makes mind, so there are many problems in this world. Say you own a hotel. Mind is like this hotel’s manager, who should be working for you. Usually, everything is OK in the hotel, but this manager is always causing problems: ‘I want this, I want that.’ ‘I like this, I don’t like that.’ ‘I want to be free, go here, do that …’ That is mind, OK? The Buddha taught, ‘When mind appears, dharma appears. When dharma appears, form appears. When form appears, then like/dislike, coming/going, life and death, everything appears.’ So if you have mind, you have a problem; no mind, no problem. Here are some very popular words: ‘Everything is created by mind alone.’ These are good words; they have a good taste. Your mind makes something, and something hinders you. So don’t make anything! Take your mind and throw it into the garbage. Only don’t know!”
The student sat, expressionless.
“So Zen practice means you fire this low-class hotel manager, because he’s doing a bad job in your high-class hotel. You must take control of your hotel, which means you control your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. The owner must be strong. If the manager doesn’t do his job correctly, the owner must say, ‘You are no good! Why didn’t you fix these things?! That’s your job! Why did you take all the money?! I’m going to fire you!’ Then this manager will be afraid, ‘Oh, please don’t fire me! Please!’ Then the owner must say, ‘You listen to me, OK?’ ‘OK, OK, I’ll only follow you from now on!’
“You must hit your mind, OK? Tell your mind, ‘You must listen to me!’ If your mind says ‘OK,’ then no problem. If not, you must cut this mind. How? You must use your don’t-know sword. Always hold on to this don’t-know sword: mind is very afraid of it. If you keep this don’t-know sword, then everything is no problem.”
Brightening up considerably, the student bowed and said, “Thank you very much for your teaching.”

Why Zen Seems Difficult

After a dharma talk at the Cambridge Zen Center, someone asked Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Why does Zen seem so difficult?”
“Yes,” the man said. “Why does it seem so difficult? I didn’t say it was, but why does it seem so difficult?”
“Seem difficult? Zen is very easy; why make difficult?”
The man persisted, “All right, I’ll ask you as a psychologist: why do I make it difficult?”
“A psychologist said that? Who said what?”
“Why do I or anybody make Zen difficult?”

“You say ‘difficult,’ so it’s difficult. A long time ago in China there lived a famous man named Layman Pang. His whole family was a Zen family. Layman Pang used to be rich, but then he realized that many people don’t have enough food to eat. So he gave all of his land to the farmers. He had many precious jewels and other possessions, but he thought, ‘If I give things away, they’ll only create desire-mind in other people.’ So he took a boat out to the middle of a very deep lake and dumped all his priceless possessions overboard. Then he and his daughter went and lived in a cave; meanwhile, his wife and son moved into a very small house. Sometimes the Pangs would visit Zen temples to have dharma combat with the monks. They had a very simple life, and practiced very hard.
“One day, someone asked Layman Pang, ‘Is Zen difficult or easy?’
“He replied, ‘It’s like trying to hit the moon with a stick. Very difficult!’
“Then this man thought, ‘Oh, Zen is very difficult.’ So he asked Layman Pang’s wife, ‘Your husband said Zen is difficult. I ask you, then, is Zen difficult or easy?’
“She said, ‘Oh, Zen is very easy! It’s like touching your nose when you wash your face in the morning!’
“The man could not understand. He thought to himself, ‘Hmmm … Layman Pang says Zen is difficult; his wife says it is very easy. Which one is correct?’ So he went to their son and said, ‘Your father said Zen is very difficult; your mother said it is very easy. Which one is correct?’
“The son replied, ‘If you think it’s difficult, then it’s difficult. If you think it’s easy, then it’s easy. Don’t make difficult and easy!’
“But the man was still not satisfied, so he went to the daughter. ‘Everyone in your whole family has a different answer to my question. Your mother said Zen is easy. Your father said Zen is difficult. And your brother said don’t make difficult and easy. So I ask you, is Zen difficult or easy?’
“‘Go drink tea.’”
Seung Sahn Sunim looked at the student who asked the question and said, “So, go drink tea, OK? Don’t make ‘difficult.’ Don’t make ‘easy.’ Don’t make anything. From moment to moment, just do it!”

Tollbooth Bodhisattva

One afternoon, Zen Master Seung Sahn and several of his students were driving down Route I-95, from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City. They chatted from time to time as they drove, with the students asking him questions about various things. At one point they stopped at a tollbooth. The driver handed the tollbooth operator some money, and was waiting for his change. One of the students said to her through the open window, “Nice day, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she replied. “But, my goodness, where did all this wind come from?” After she gave them their change, they drove off.
The car was quiet for several miles. Then Zen Master Seung Sahn turned to his students and said, “That was no ordinary woman at the tollbooth. That was Kwan Seum Bosal [the bodhisattva of compassion] asking you a great question: ‘Where did all this wind come from?’ What a wonderful koan! You must always be alert to the teaching that comes your way, all the time. Let go of your mind and then you can see what’s actually in front of you. So I ask you, where did all this wind come from?”
No one could answer.
“OK. I’ll give you a hint. Zen Master Man Gong wrote a poem that will help you:

Everything is born by following the wind;
    everything dies by following the wind.
When you find out where the wind comes from,
there is no life, no death.

When you have an answer ‘like-this,’
You see nature through spiritual eyes.”

© 2006 by the Kwan Um School of Zen. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Seung Sahn was the first Korean Zen master to live and teach in the West. He was founding teacher of the Kwan Um School of Zen, an international organization of more than one hundred centers and groups.  Seung Sahn died in 2005.  This article is excerpted from a new book of his teachings, Wanting Enlightenment Is a Big Mistake, published by Shambhala. Click here for more information or to order.



Inner Victory Print

Inner Victory


While concentrating or settling the mind is common to many spiritual traditions, the special practice of Buddhism is applying that concentrated mind to develop insight: examining our experience closely and precisely in order to understand the true nature of mind and its objects. This is the famed practice of vipassana, taught to us here by the renowned Burmese master U Pandita.

With every moment of noting an object, a meditator who practices insight meditation enters the noble eightfold path, the way of release from suffering. In our tradition, the primary object of attention is the rising and falling of the abdomen due to the breathing process. Each time a meditator notes the rising and falling of the abdomen, he or she has to make an effort to reach the object. In the language of the noble eightfold path, this is known as right effort. The effort expended allows the meditator to observe and remember the object. Distraction is reduced; one begins to be able to sustain attentive mindfulness on the object. Eventually mindfulness arises continuously. This, in the language of the noble eightfold path, is right mindfulness. When mindfulness is continuous and sustained, then gradually the mind will begin to stay on the object in a fixed manner. This, again in the language of the noble eightfold path, is right concentration.
With right effort the kilesas, or defilements, will not be accepted into the mind. Right effort helps to block off the entrance to the so-called path of unwholesomeness, or path of mental defilements. Simultaneously, the path of wholesomeness opens up. Mindfulness protects the mind from attack by kilesas. Concentration has the effect of unifying and focusing the mind so that it stays on the object as and when it arises. These three mental factors—effort, mindfulness, and concentration—together are known as the concentration group, which is one sector of the noble eightfold path. They’re also known as the training in concentration, or the teaching of concentration. In ordinary shorthand we just call them samadhi.
When the concentration group comes together in the mind, kilesas don’t stand a chance. As the meditator aims the mind again and again, his or her awareness gets more and more focused and direct. Sensuous thoughts fail to arise. Nor will there be thoughts of hatred and ill will. The desire to torment others will disappear. Since the mind goes straight to the object of meditation, it does not slip off into lust, distractions, and other forms of torment. The obsessive mental defilements are overcome. In one minute of practice, right aim arises sixty times. Right aim is another factor of the noble eightfold path.
While noting the rising and falling of the abdomen moment by moment, one sees its nature sixty times a minute. The actual nature of the movement will be seen, understood, and known for oneself—not through the mediation of anybody else. When other objects arise, they will be known in the same way. This direct understanding is right view. The two factors of right aim and right view together are called the wisdom group of the noble eightfold path. They’re also called the training in wisdom, or the teaching of wisdom. With training in wisdom, even the dormant or latent defilements will be temporarily dispelled. Seeing the actual nature of the mind-body process, we begin to cut through to more subtle levels of knowledge.

Whenever one observes presently arising objects directly—which means observing them as soon as they arise, with morality, concentration, and wisdom—then one will be free from gross, medium, and subtle or latent defilements. There will be freedom from lobha: craving, desire, lust, and all similar feelings. There will be freedom from dosa: hatred, anger, ill will, and their relatives. Moha—bewilderment, delusion, unclear seeing—will also be absent. When greed, hatred, and delusion are absent the mind is pure, clean, clear.
If the mind is not clear and clean, we are accepting a low standard of living, a low status. On the other hand, if the mind is pure we should think of this as a high standard of living, a high status. One’s mind and behavior become refined. Freed from greed, hatred, and delusion, we are untroubled within. Everything cherishes these qualities of refinement and calm. Here we see how meditators benefit directly from their practice. At the same time, others who live nearby will also gain indirect benefits. The meditator does not agitate his or her surroundings and so the world becomes more peaceful for everyone.
Gaining a victory with the help of morality, concentration, and wisdom is known as dhamma success, or dhamma victory. When one gains this dhamma success in one’s own small world, there will be fewer problems overall. One’s own mind and surroundings become cool and peaceful. We spread less harm; the world gets better for everybody.
Some people gain victory by weapons, others by the use of power. Still others manipulate groups or even threaten, frighten, and torture others. These external victories are based in greed, hatred, and delusion—lobha, dosa, and moha. They have mixed consequences at best and certainly don’t qualify as dhamma victories. Instead they’re known as adhamma victories, that is, truthless victories. Gaining adhamma victory, one tends to lose one’s integrity and dignity, and problems arise as a consequence. The Buddha has given us instead the insight meditation practice, a path that leads to victory over ourselves. When we have this inner victory, it is we who reap the greatest benefit.


The crux of meditation practice is to sustain continuous mindfulness. For this one needs stability and durability of mind, strong effort, and the courage to overcome difficulties.
Moreover, a meditator needs discernment. She or he must be capable of assessing what will be suitable, as opposed to what will be distracting or otherwise deleterious to the continuity of mindfulness. In deciding whether to undertake an activity, then, a meditator must reflect wisely, make a decision, and stick to it.
Some meditators allow gaps to arise in their mindfulness. These people must try to revive their good qualities, and resume. Durability of mind, effort, courage, and discrimination can never be slack or halfhearted. We need extraordinary durability, extraordinary effort, extraordinary courage, and extraordinary discernment.


Our meditative tradition was founded by the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw of Rangoon. According to his instructions, satipatthana vipassana, also known as insight meditation, is the primary teaching. Discourses on metta, loving-kindness, are also offered, though far less often. This is because insight wisdom has the capacity to liberate the mind by seeing the dhamma directly.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone can practice high-level insight meditation. It is a demanding practice, suitable for a minority of exceptional people.
The benefits to be gained from this type of meditation, furthermore, are primarily for oneself. Others do benefit, but this happens somewhat indirectly. Since metta is easier for most people to develop and it benefits everyone, the practice of loving-kindness really ought to become widespread. But if we undertake the practice of metta, we must never lose sight of the unique possibilities offered by vipassana meditation.



Any basic sitting posture is all right, whether the legs are crossed or folded. One can be sitting in a chair, but if so, the back should not be supported. The body should be as upright as possible and the eyes should be closed (unless you are drowsy).

Primary Object

The main object of awareness is the natural breath, as it is. Do not try to control the breath in any way, simply allow it to come and go while closely observing what happens in the area of the abdomen. The rising of the abdomen along with the in-breath, and the falling of the abdomen along with the out-breath, will consist of a variety of sensations and experiences. All of these should be noticed as continuously as possible. Let there be no gaps in your attention.
The observation of any object has three parts:   

1. Occurrence: attention should arrive quickly, as close to the arising of the object as possible.
2. Labeling and observation: label the rising movement as “rising,” and the falling as “falling.” Observation should be careful and diligent, the label gentle and simple. It is not necessary to form elaborate concepts of what is going on. Labeling merely identifies the event and serves to direct the mind toward it.
3. Knowing the nature: in the rising and falling of the abdomen, one knows the sensations as they are. In the rising, for example, there are likely to be sensations of tension, tightness, stiffness, and hardness. There can also be vibration and movement.
It is not possible to observe the rising and falling continuously for a very long time. Other objects will arise; when they do, it is often recommended to move the attention away from the breath.


Numerous other objects can be the focus of attention.

1. Eventually the mind wanders. When this happens, shift attention to the wandering and take it as a new object. Label it, but do not get attached to the content of the thoughts. This is very important. The thoughts may disappear right away, in which case you return to the rising and falling. The thoughts may also seem great and fascinating, or else horribly absorbing. No matter how thoughts appear, all of them resemble soap bubbles. Try not to jump onto a train of thoughts and get completely lost!
If the wandering mind persists and you become thoroughly absorbed and distracted, cut off your involvement in thinking and return to the sensations at the abdomen.
Minor or background thinking is to be ignored.
2. Pain will arise in the body. When these sensations become predominant, let go of the rising and falling. Label the pain as “pain, pain” and observe it for a while. Label it again.
There are four things to be known about physical pain: its quality or characteristic—for example, it may be burning, stabbing, piercing, tearing; its intensity—it may increase, remain the same, or decrease; its location—it may stay put, vanish, spread, or move; and its duration—it may last for a short moment or for an entire sitting, or it may blink on and off.
Do remember that the purpose of paying attention to pain is to know its nature, not to heal it or make it go away. All the same, sometimes pain will disappear or change under close observation. On the other hand, its intensity may well increase. Any such changes are to be registered.
Facing strong pain calls for patience and determination. Don’t change your posture; instead, try to know the pain more deeply. Changing one’s posture weakens concentration. If pain becomes excruciating, though, it is okay to move as long as the change of posture is carried out in full awareness.
3. Loud sound can occur. Label it “hearing” and observe the process of hearing. Notice the volume of the sound and its impact on the ear, and any mental reactions. It is not good to spend too much time on external sounds because this leads to distraction. Do not decide to take sound as a primary object.
4. Internal seeing may arise—visions and visual impressions of colors, forms, landscapes, and sights either remembered or imaginary, realistic or fantastic. Or visions of colors, forms, sights either remembered or imaginary may arise. It is to be labeled “seeing,” and observed. Be careful not to get carried away with it for it can become absorbing or thrilling, and is often quite pleasant. This can become an issue for some meditators.
5. Moods or mental states—joy, sloth, hatred, and so forth—will become pervasive, strong, or predominant. Take the mood as the object; label and observe it. If it dissipates, return to the rising and falling. Often, moods and emotions will be associated with sensations in the body. If so, give preference to those sensations rather than any thoughts that may also be arising in association with the mood.
In brief one must label and observe everything. Whatever object is the most predominant at any given moment is the focus of attention. You start off with the rising and falling; initially, this develops concentration, stabilizes the mind. Later on, examining a greater array of objects builds energy and flexibility. You also return to the primary object whenever there is nothing else that is clear and easy to observe. If several objects are about the same in their intensity, simply choose one of them.

Mental Factors for Success

The most important meditative factor is mindfulness. It should be continuous—ideally from the moment of waking up to the moment of falling asleep. Concentration and effort are important too. The meditative factor of “aiming” is the knowing mind focused at the object. It is with effort that we propel the mind toward the object. When the mind and object are in contact there is “rubbing”—a connected contact of attention and object. Mindfulness will arise, and so will wisdom, based on concentration.

Schedule on Retreat

In the beginning of a retreat, you should sit one hour and walk one hour, more or less. Forty-five minutes of each is also fine. Later on you can sit longer and walk a bit less. On retreat, meditation lasts all day and evening. Meditators get up at four or five o’clock in the morning and stay up as late as they can, meditating. They often reduce their hours of sleep to four or even fewer. Often, too, the last meal of the day is eliminated and only tea is taken. This helps to increase the hours of practice and reduce sleepiness; it also adds wholesome volition by following the example of monks and nuns, whose precepts include forgoing the evening meal.

Walking Meditation Instructions

Choose a lane or path where you can walk up and down undisturbed. Divide one hour of walking meditation into three segments.
For the first twenty minutes you can walk relatively fast. Note “left, right, left, right” while paying attention to the predominant sensation in the relevant legs and feet.
For the next twenty minutes, walk a little slower. Note “lifting, placing” or “lifting, lowering” while paying close attention only to the foot that is moving. When you note “lifting,” try to have the noting and the attention coincide at exactly the moment when the heel leaves the ground. When you note “placing” or “lowering,” start with the first moment of heaviness arising in the foot. Register the first touch on the ground and stick with the shift in weight until the foot is fully still. Then move your attention to the other foot, the one that is about to move.
During the final twenty minutes, walk as slowly as possible. Note “lifting, moving, placing” while paying attention to the moving foot only. The slower you go, the faster you will progress!
During walking meditation, you will be aware of sensations or movement. There may be trembling or unsteadiness, especially at first. The movement will not be continuous, and you may also experience slightly odd sensations. For example, you may feel as if you or your foot are being pushed.
Practice restraint of the senses, not looking here and there. Nor is it necessary to look at the feet; just place your gaze a little ahead of yourself, so that you can see where you are going. Sense-restraint while walking develops concentration; it also avoids unwholesome mental states not yet arisen.

Slow down all your movements on retreat. Moving super slowly is a great tactic, which helps us see many, many minute details in the body and the mind. Myriad things arise that we are usually not aware of; seeing them develops wisdom. However, if you succeed only in feeling restless, or if a torrent of thoughts develops, find a pace where your mindfulness can coordinate with your body movements.
You should be aware of all activities without exception. If there is a sound on waking, it should be noted. Notice sitting up in bed. Also be aware of meals, of taking food onto the plate, and of all the complex activities required for eating.
Continuity, restraint, and slowness will support your meditation. ©

Sayadaw U Pandita is abbot of Panditarama Monastery and Meditation Center in Rangoon, Burma. He makes frequent visits to Western affiliate centers to teach vipassana meditation in the tradition of Mahasi Sayadaw.

Inner Victory, Sayadaw U Pandita, Shambhala Sun, May 2006.


The Accidental Vegetarian Print
Shambhala Sun | May  2006

The Accidental Vegetarian

Noa Jones

Noa Jones goes back and forth on the question of whether or not to eat meat. It’s something she’s still chewing on.

Recently I was invited to spend the weekend at a family dairy farm in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. My hosts greeted me with a banquet—prepackaged sweet n’ sour tofu with boiled carrots for me, burgers and steaks for them. Like many people, they assumed that since I am a student of Buddhism I must be a vegetarian, which I am for the most part. But I was tempted by those steaks, and the next morning when the house filled with the smell of bacon, much to their amusement, I found myself unable to resist. Pigs are gentle, smart, and proud, and they have an alarming similarity to humans when it comes to DNA. But I decided to eat that crispy piece of pig, thinking I was doing it as part of my Buddhist practice, not in spite of it.

I’m doing my best to walk Siddhartha’s path with my vision firmly fixed on defeating dualistic thinking such as happy and sad, heaven and hell, us and them. Along the way, I’ve been told by some Buddhists that this philosophy extends to the food I consume as well. The rochig (Tib.), or “one taste” doctrine, one of the highest of teachings in the Vajrayana, holds the view that samsara (cyclic existence marked by suffering) and nirvana (liberation from cyclic existence) are ultimately one. According to my understanding of this doctrine, one could eat substances without discriminating between good and bad, delicious and disgusting, ethical or unethical—whether it be a plate of slugs slathered in barbecue sauce or a scoop of fresh guacamole. I have to admit that it’s going to take a lot more practice for me to perfect that kind of pure vision. In the meantime, though, I find myself picking and choosing from the various schools of Buddhist philosophy as they suit me—bacon tastes good so I use the “one taste” argument from the Vajrayana to justify eating it. But if I were asked to go out and kill the pig first, I would become an instant Mahayana or Theravada Buddhist, most of whom abstain from eating meat.

It’s because of my shortcomings in the commitment department that I don’t feel comfortable walking around advertising my spiritual practice by proclaiming, “I am a Buddhist.” Similarly, I don’t say, “I am a vegetarian.” I have yet to find my inner fanatic on either front. Instead, I dabble. True vegetarians, like religious practitioners, can be fundamentalist extremists, bombing foie gras factories, declaring jihad on veal eaters, and organizing guerilla attacks on ladies wearing mink stoles. On the other hand, there are many who are all talk and no action—not practicing what they preach. I am lost somewhere in the middle. I say “lost” because of my inexact motivation. For the most part my path is unexamined; I am simply following my instinct, and my instinct is to forget about nonduality and avoid meat. It’s kind of gross to put something dead in your mouth…even if it tastes good.

It’s difficult to make arguments for eating meat. Most meat-eaters play the protein card. Others don’t feel macho unless they find flesh on their plates. They insist we are natural-born killers and have been since our Neanderthal days. I’ve also met many longtime vegetarians who “force” themselves to eat meat once a month or once a week because their Chinese or Tibetan doctors said it was necessary to help “ground” them. Their motivation is self-preservation. I do not know the science behind ground beef’s grounding properties, but I do know that many strict vegetarians seem frail, lacking in color, and susceptible to a light gust of wind. This may be because many vegetarians tend to subscribe to a number of other nutrition philosophies, constantly tinkering with their digestive systems—chugging slimy green drinks, swallowing pills and tinctures, scrubbing their colons. Personally, I feel that a little toxicity is good. Along with all the bacteria in my intestines, it helps protect me. It’s like homeopathy. Homeopathy is also my rationalization for drinking margaritas and smoking the occasional cigarette.

True vegetarians are usually quite clear about their motivation. On the sectarian front we have environmentalists who can recite statistics about the acres of farmland it takes to support one beef cow, the resulting nitrogen pollution, and the depletion of underground water supplies. Looking at it from the point of view of the relationship between human biology and the planet, even the most zealous Atkins dieter has to realize that we all run on carbohydrates; it is our basic fuel. All animals eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. The Atkins dieter, by the way, is the complete opposite of the fundamentalist vegetarian. During the first two weeks on the Atkins diet, one consumes almost nothing but animal products. I admit that I tried it once when I was looking to drop a few pounds. It worked, but my fridge looked like a morgue, my tongue tasted like a cow patty, my digestion quit—and soon after so did I.

There are vegetarians motivated by compassion—strict Hindus, many types of Buddhists, and animal rights activists—who do not wish to harm other beings. In the original teachings of the Buddha, taking life is the first of the negative actions to be avoided. And according to some texts the karmic repercussions of taking life—a standard sentence of 500 lifetimes in an intermediate hell—comes to everyone involved; from the butcher to the one who orders a Big Mac. Although the butcher gets the lion’s share of the bad karma. Even the highest Tibetan lamas are not above reproach. In his classic, Words of My Perfect Teacher, the great eighteenth-century Tibetan yogi and sage Patrul Rinpoche chastises carnivorous lamas who accept offerings of meat and devour “piles of the still quivering ribs of yak until their mouths gleam with grease and their whiskers turn red.” He warns that they will be reborn in the ephemeral hells where they will have to pay back with their own bodies. Yet some of the most learned, authentic lamas I know eat meat. They must know something I don’t.

There are other reasons to quit eating meat. Heart-attack candidates heed the reports that connect meaty diets with coronary artery disease as well as other degenerative diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Clean freaks might choose to eat low on the food chain to avoid eating what other things eat. Aesthetes and those who have seen artist Sue Coe’s Porkopolis series, depicting the American meat industry at its most gruesome, stay away from meat because it sickens them just to look at it.

But most meat eaters choose not to look. I actually have a little respect for those hunters and fishermen who are willing to look their dinner in the eye before they eat it. They are either brave or heartless or both. But as you skate down the aisle of your supermarket’s meat department, the grisly reality of your bacon’s origin is completely concealed by the sanitized packaging and presentation. Neat little geometric piles of pink and white with fancy labels camouflage the suffering and sacrifice they require. Eight billion animals give their lives to feed Americans every year. What would happen to sales if the meat department was decorated with images of cows wading through pools of coagulated blood, chickens crushed into forty-one-cubic-inch cells, geese being force-fed until their livers burst, pigs squealing on the conveyor belt?

In India, the butchers sit at the markets with skinned carcasses, usually goat, and slice off pieces as needed. It seems more honest than a Happy Meal; it allows us to face the death involved and makes it more personal. Indeed, putting a being inside your own being seems to me the most intimate act one can perform, more than sex even, because as my teacher once said, “at least in sex it comes back out again.”

Being a Buddhist doesn’t give one the license to condemn those who choose live monkey hearts over those of an artichoke. If you look closely, Buddhism doesn’t endorse any absolute moral codes of conduct. Different teachings apply to different people at different times. It is all up to the individual and so much depends on their intention. Patrul Rinpoche said, “What makes an action good or bad? Not how it looks, nor whether it is big or small, but the good or evil motivation behind it.” And that motivation is not always apparent. One teacher told me that we can never truly judge something by appearances or even actions; one’s view or motivation is the final reference point to determine whether merit is deserved. For example, Adolf Hitler was reportedly a vegetarian. Does that make him a good person? The yogi Tilopa sat by a river killing and eating fish. Does that make him a bad person? I will never know Hitler’s motivation, but according to the teachings, Tilopa was motivated by his wish to liberate the fish. He was killing out of compassion.

Unfortunately, many nonvegetarian Buddhists fool themselves using Tilopa’s example to justify their habit. They say things like “this pork chop is lucky to be eaten by me because I’m making a karmic connection and praying for its liberation.” But I think that is disingenuous and actually may result in more negative karmic residue than being honest and saying “I am giving in to desire.” That is more direct and shows awareness. Just be clear about your motivation; don’t sweeten it by thinking you are being some kind of savior.

My friends have advised me that it is better to eat little parts of big animals than lots of little animals. A plate of shrimp requires a dozen lives. But one pig or cow can satisfy a whole crowd of stir-fry fans. The bacon I ate last week came from a pig who lived in the backyard. The milk in our steaming mugs of coffee came from the same family of cows that we had hooked up to the milking machines earlier that morning. It was a luxury most people in the modern world will never know. I thought about the being whose life was taken to satisfy me as I lifted the fork. I hesitated before I could actually take a bite. I hadn’t eaten any flesh for the better part of a year. Like sex or city living, when you take a long break from eating meat, it’s hard to imagine physically going through the motions again. I admit it tasted very good. But by the time it began its passage through my digestive system, I started to regret my indulgence. I didn’t want to be so in debt to the pig. I didn’t want it to be part of me. I couldn’t help but imagine the flesh becoming part of my flesh. Instant karma.

Searching within myself, I can only find that the motivation behind my abstinence is nothing but simple repulsion. It’s not very noble, I know. And I am easily swayed by desire. All this makes me slightly uncomfortable, and my instinct is to sweep it under the carpet. But as I continue listening to and contemplating the teachings, this discomfort will hopefully guide me in developing my view. For the time being, rather than labeling myself a vegetarian or nonvegetarian, I will emulate my friend Robert, who coined the term “Vajra-tarian”—a mix between a Vajrayana Buddhist and a vegetarian. I will not seek out a plate of Miss Piggy, but if faced with it I will not make a big scene. I’ll just keep chewing on it. ©

NOA JONES is a West Coast freelance writer.

The Accidental Vegetarian, Noa Jones, Shambhala Sun, May 2006.


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