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What did Yan T'ou Whisper? A Commentary on "Te Shan Holds His Bowl" Print
Shambhala Sun | September 2001

What did Yan T'ou Whisper? A Commentary on "Te Shan Holds His Bowl"


Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer gives a commentary on a Zen koan

Mumonkan Case 13: Te Shan Holds His Bowl

Te Shan went to the dining room from the meditation hall holding his bowl. Hsueh Feng was on duty cooking. When he met Te Shan he said: "The dinner drum is not yet beaten. Where are you going with your bowl?"
Te Shan turned around and went back to his room.

Hsueh Feng told Yan T'ou about this. Yan T'ou said: "Old Te Shan does not understand the last word of the truth."

Te Shan heard of this remark and asked Yan T'ou to come to him. "I have heard," he said, "you are not approving my Zen." Yan T'ou whispered something into Te Shan's ear. Te Shan said nothing.

The next day Te Shan delivered an entirely different kind of lecture to the monks. Yan T'ou laughed and clapped his hands, saying, "I see our old man finally understands the last word of the truth. None in China can surpass him."

Mumon's Comment

Speaking about the last word of the truth, both Yan T'ou and Te Shan did not even dream it. After all, they are nothing but puppets on a shelf.

Mumon's Poem

If you understand the first truth
You understand the last.
Last, first,
What are we talking about anyway?

Norman Fischer's Commentary

This is a wonderful type of story, the type that involves not one master showing the way to a disciple or group of disciples, but a group of Zen adepts sharing the dharma together, teaching each other through their interaction and therefore teaching us. This is something beautiful to me-the relationships we can have in the dharma when we're no longer jockeying for position, no longer wary of each other, but having a beautiful trust together so we can help each other to bring up the truth.

There is a long apprenticeship in practice. It takes a while of sitting and walking, listening to talks and hanging around with teachers and dharma friends, and applying the practice to your life-all of that to orient yourself to the teachings, to the way of life. Practice, as I see it, isn't something we understand or even something we do. It's something we are, something we become saturated in.

I always think of Suzuki Roshi's very famous line: walking in the mist you can't tell that you are getting wet, but when you get inside you see that your robe is soaked through. Practice is getting soaked through with the way until you don't even notice anymore that it's the way. You can't hurry it; it just takes time. No matter how smart or non-smart you are, or how talented or non-talented you are, it just takes a certain amount of time.

This is a form of learning we are not used to these days, the apprenticeship way. Now we think of certifications and programs. Modern education is like modern business; it goes by numbers and spreadsheets. But for these ancients-and us Zen students too today-it's not like that. We just live the life, hang around together, and by and by we find ourselves soaking wet with the dharma.

When we are soaking wet with the dharma it means we are fully committed to it. But not exactly that. Fully committed implies there is something you are committed to. More accurately you could say that you are fully committed to the dharma because it is clear to you that there is nothing but the dharma; there is no other way to live. To say there is another possibility, another choice, is a kind of absurdity, like a winged horse or a chicken with lips.

So it does take a while, but then there is the next stage-the one we find in this story. Here are three monks whose joy and occupation is the continual exploration of the truth. And of course the joke in the story is that there is no truth. When I say there is no truth, this doesn't mean there is no truth. It only means that the truth will never be possessable, will never be graspable, will never be known by us.

This being so, you might think that there's no point in searching for the truth. Why bother? But for these old monks, and for all seasoned Zen students, it is clear that even though you will never grasp the truth (because the truth is simply not that sort of thing) you will always seek for it-with all your heart and with all your might and with all your soul. This is the way to live a human life. This is what the human heart yearns for-to know the truth. And once you are willing to dwell within that search, then compassion surrounds it because you see that you are joined in the search by everyone and everything. This is the Zen style of compassion: love is identical with the search for truth.

The three characters in this story are all famous masters. All three are quite pungent characters well known in the tradition. They all appear in many other stories, so we know quite a bit about them.

Te Shan started out as a scholar of the Diamond Sutra, an arrogant fellow who came south to challenge the Zen guys he had heard about who claimed to need no sutras but to see the truth directly through everyday experience. His story is well known, particularly how he met his Master Lung T'an, who blew his light out. After that he became a fierce master famous for teaching using very few words, as in this story. He is the one who used to say, if you are wrong I give you 30 blows and if you are right I give you 30 blows.

The other two always remind me of the Marx brothers because their names in Japanese pronunciation are Seppo (Hsueh Feng) and Ganto (Yan T'ou). Hsueh Feng is the sad sack who always struggles but can never get anywhere. He practices hard, even has many insights, but they are never enough. In this story too he is the one who is not quite getting it. The whole story in this case is actually a kind of joke on him-not a malicious joke but a rather elaborate joke-a little piece of Zen theater designed to help him get over his problem, which is Zen problem #236, the problem of trying too hard to do it right, as if there were a way to do it right. Zen problem #235 is goofing off and not trying because you think there is no way to do it right, being too casual. Zen problem #237 is making just the right effort without worrying because you think there is no way to do it right. In Zen there are only problems, no solutions. Actually, there are solutions but they are all identical to the problems.

In any case, H'sueh Feng's problem is he tries too hard. His enlightenment story, which comes after this story by some years, also involves his relationship with Yan T'ou. The two of them are stranded in a hut in a snowstorm on their way to enroll in a mountain monastery. Hsueh Feng is meditating day and night, while Yan T'ou is relaxing and cooking meals and cleaning up, and maybe doing a little sitting practice now and then.
Yan T'ou finally says to Hsueh Feng, What's up with you? What is your problem? And Hsueh Feng reveals that his heart is uneasy. He feels a compulsion to practice. He's desperate. Yan T'ou then asks him to explain, and Hsueh Feng oddly goes on to describe his many enlightenment experiences and moments of great insight under his various masters. Yan T'ou listens patiently through this whole story and finally says to him, All of that is fine and good but it's all stuff you have brought in from the outside. Don't you know that the family treasure doesn't come in the front gate? It's inside all along. At this Hsueh Feng is finally unburdened.

But at the time of this story he is not yet unburdened. As this story goes:

Te Shan went to the dining room from the meditation hall holding his bowl. Hsueh Feng was on duty cooking. When he met Te Shan he said, "The dinner drum is not yet beaten. Where are you going with your bowl?"

Te Shan turned around and went back to his room.


Hsueh Feng is well known to have been an expert tenzo (chef). He is thorough, serious, energetic, dedicated, probably picky about details, so he was always asked to be tenzo. It is said that he always traveled with his own knife and rice bucket, figuring he'd need them at the next monastery. Anyway he is tenzo, and the abbot, Te Shan, probably walks through the kitchen to get to the refectory. Te Shan is a little spaced out that day and he comes in early for the meal, carrying his bowl.

This would have been an embarrassment. Ordinarily a monk like Hsueh Feng would be very apologetic here, saying to the master, Oh sorry sir, but the meal isn't ready yet. Some accounts say the meal was late-even more reason to be apologizing. But even if it weren't late, even if the matter were entirely Te Shan's mistake, you'd apologize. In the monastic mandala the teacher is the buddha at the center. That's how the system works. The teacher's actions are always ultimate truth, so you always bow, even if the teacher messes up.

This is not the way to do it in ordinary life, but it is how the monastic mandala works. Everyone knows, or should know anyway, that on the relative level the teacher isn't actually a buddha, but also everyone knows that the way the system works to liberate everyone is to imagine that that teacher is the buddha. This enables the teacher to do his or her job, and it enables the student to realize that he or she is identical to the teacher and therefore also a buddha, and free of the personal self that is so seductive and burdensome. Or let's say, free within the personal self. At any rate, you would bow.

Hsueh Feng is being arrogant, though. He is a senior student, has been around a long time, is after all a very capable practitioner, and Te Shan is at this point rather an old man. So Hsueh Feng says, You made a mistake old man. You're wrong.

You can see that this might be a pretty tense moment. The other kitchen workers are looking on shocked at this remark, waiting to see how the old guy will react. Is he going to rear up and bite Hsueh Feng's head off? Is he going to register shock or chagrin?

No, none of that. Te Shan shows his profound peacefulness. Like all good practitioners, he is always ready for anything, expecting nothing. He is very simple. He has no ax to grind, no reputation to protect. As far as he is concerned, he is not the abbot, he is not the teacher, he is just a simple monk, as the Dalai Lama always says of himself. Corrected by the tenzo, he simply turns around and goes back to his room. Robert Aitken Roshi, in his commentary on this koan, brings up the symbolic sense of the abbot's room, the hojo. It is a ceremonial room, a sacred room. It's the room where the deepest and most intimate of all ceremonies take place, the abbot's home, his dharma heart. So Te Shan's going back to his room also has this symbolic dimension.

Then, as the story goes,

Hsueh Feng told Yan T'ou about this. Yan T'ou said, "Old Te Shan does not understand the last word of the truth."

Hsueh Feng is swaggering here: I guess I showed the old guy. I must be getting pretty good. I was able to stand up to him easily, without blinking an eye. How did I do? We might think, Why doesn't Yan T'ou just let him know what a fool he's being? Why doesn't he tell him, Jesus, you were arrogant to do that? What's the difference whether the teacher is late or early? The whole idea is that the teacher always arrives at exactly the right moment.
But no, it doesn't work like this. When it comes to the most intimate things, I have found you can't tell anyone anything. It can be plain as day but you can't tell anyone, because if you tell them they'll misunderstand. You can't point out people's blind spots to them. If they weren't blind spots you could, but since they are blind spots they won't see them. Even if they see them they'll see them in a distorted way. So it's better to just be loving. When they are ready to see through the blind spot they will.

This is what Yan T'ou does. He goes along with Hsueh Feng's view of the situation and says, Yes, yes, you certainly showed that the old man is lacking. He couldn't say anything to you. He just turned tail and ran away. Surely you bested him in dharma combat. We know he's a good teacher but you must have poked him just at the spot where he is weak.
Then, as it says,

Te Shan heard of this remark and asked Yan T'ou to come to him. "I have heard," he said, "you are not approving my Zen." Yan T'ou whispered something into Te Shan's ear. Te Shan said nothing.

This is interesting. What did Yan T'ou whisper into Te Shan's ear? We have been reducing this profound koan to a little New Yorker short story, so maybe continuing in that way we would say that he told Te Shan what was going on with Hsueh Feng.

But that's too easy, I think, and would not do honor to the intensity of the lives these old guys were living. Of course it must have been that Te Shan knew that Yan T'ou did not disapprove of him and even if he did, the old man would not have cared at all. Whatever someone thinks of you-good or bad-really has nothing to do with you, just as whatever you think about another person has nothing to do with the other person. It is always about you. Te Shan knew this of course; he is not worried that Yan T'ou disapproves. He is just following circumstances, poking around to see where he can be helpful.

This reminds me of a conversation I had the other day with a friend who works in a large company. There is some sort of business deal going on that is very secret and he is doing all of this dealing on e-mail. One of the other employees broke into his e-mail account. He was shocked. I said to him, "Don't be shocked. Change your password and love everyone anyway. What do you expect? That's how people are. Naturally, we are all motivated by fear and desire. No surprise or disappointment in this. It's normal. But you love them anyway." So this is his new motto: change your password but love them anyway.

That's what Te Shan is doing. He's changing the password and loving them anyway. Yan T'ou knows all about this and when he whispers in Te Shan's ear it is the whisper of a co-conspirator in the truth. So I do not think he is saying anything discursive. Usually this whispered word is a key koan point: what did Yan T'ou whisper?

The story continues:

The next day Te Shan delivered an entirely different kind of lecture to the monks. Yan T'ou laughed and clapped his hands, saying: "I see our old man finally understands the last word of the truth. None in China can surpass him."

Here the joke is completed, leaving Hsueh Feng and the other monks in open-mouthed wonder. What kind of lecture did Te Shan give this day? We don't know, but it must have been something that had to do with the incident in the kitchen, directly or indirectly. Maybe he said, "Whenever you are accused, you are already guilty." Maybe he said, "Whatever happens to you neither accept it nor reject it." Maybe he told everyone that the dharma is vast and wide and that he did not understand it but hoped that he would someday. In any case, whatever he said he must have taken away any doubt about his understanding or not understanding the last word-or perhaps he created more doubt about it, made it seem as if indeed he did not understand the last word.

That's why Yan T'ou got up and clapped his hands the way he did. Anyway, Hsueh Feng never did get the point-not until much later on, in the snowstorm. He continued to think that the dharma was something, some standard outside of his own mind that he was supposed to master. But it isn't like that. It seems so hard for us to appreciate that the practice isn't about something. It's about nothing. It's not about building ourselves up; it's about letting ourselves go. Once we do that, it becomes clear that we're O.K. and that whatever happens is O.K. We can work with it. This is not a matter of morality. What happens might be bad. It might be terrible. We might protest it mightily. But what happens happens. What is is. Everything unfolds in the dark. You can't see it and you don't know what it is.

Mumon's comment: Speaking about the last word of the truth, both Yan T'ou and Te Shan did not even dream it. After all, they are nothing but puppets on a shelf.

Yes, puppets on a shelf. Like us too. The winds of karma blow us this way and that way. Nothing to be done. Of course, our actions are part of karma, so we act. We know that good actions will have good results and bad actions bad results, but we can't say how it will look in the scope of this small lifetime. Buddha understands the truth; he is the only one who does. None of us has even a dream of the last word; only Buddha does. Of course we are Buddha. But also we are not Buddha. Living on the razor's edge of this koan happily is the effort of our practice.

Mumon poem: If you understand the first truth / You understand the last. / Last, first, / What are we talking about anyway? /

Now it couldn't be clearer. These days I don't go to the San Francisco Zen Center much, but I do go once in a while to collect some food from the kitchen. I go into the walk-in refrigerator and get some lettuce and tofu to take home for meals. When I do this I often encounter a new student, someone who arrived maybe a few weeks earlier. Sometimes these new students look at me, this old guy rooting around among the veggies, and especially if I am a little unshaven they wonder if I am some homeless person stealing food. Some of them give me a dirty look. They think, "What are you doing here? You don't belong here."

I suppose I could think, "What the hell, I used to be the boss around here! How could they not know who I am?" But to tell you the truth, I think it is really wonderful that they don't know who I am. Then they can be free and so can I. When I think I know who I am, then I am in trouble. And anyway, the new student has something to teach me for sure. He is my teacher. He is the dharma master and I really am just some old homeless guy rooting around for food. First truth, last truth. How about truth of this moment, truth that arises fresh in the meeting of this moment? But let's not talk about it.

Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen priest who served as abbot of San Francisco Zen Center from 1995 to 2000. He is now a senior teacher at the Center and the founding teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation. He is a co-author of the forthcoming Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Comment on the Rule of St. Benedict (Riverhead).

What did Yan T'ou Whisper?: A Commentary on "Te Shan Holds His Bowl", Norman Fischer, Shambhala Sun, September 2001.


The Universal Meditation Technique of S.N. Goenka Print

The Universal Meditation Technique of S.N. Goenka

Norman Fischer interviews S.N. Goenka

Hundreds of thousands of people—from iliterate Indian farmers to Roman Catholic priests—have benefited from the famed 10-day meditation course pioneered by vipassana teacher S.N. Goenka. Drawing from the Buddha's earliest teachings, Goenka teaches a simple yet powerful technique of close attention to every sensation.  

Norman Fischer: Please tell us, if you will, how you became involved in practicing and teaching Buddhist meditation.

S.N. Goenka: At first, I hesitated in getting into the Buddha's teaching. I was born and raised in Burma in a very staunch, conservative Hindu family. We were told from a very young age that the Buddha was wonderful because he was an incarnation of Vishnu. But his teaching was not considered good for us.

However in 1955, at the age of 31, I started experiencing severe migraines and couldn't get any help or relief. At that time, a very good friend—I have always been very grateful to him—said, "Go and take this ten-day meditation course." I hesitated. If I became a Buddhist, what would happen to me? I wouldn't believe in a soul, I wouldn't believe in God. Then I would go to hell. No, this was not for me.

I hesitated for a few months, but then my friend pushed me again: "Why don't you go and see U Ba Khin?" As well as being a teacher of vipassana (insight meditation), U Ba Khin was a householder, and in fact, a government official. When I went to see him, I immediately felt that he was a saintly person. The first thing I said was, "I have come for my migraine headaches." He said, "No, Goenka, I can't help you. Go to a doctor."

Because of that response, I was very much drawn to him. You see, at the time I was a very popular person in my own community. I was president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as president or secretary of at least twenty social organizations, including hospitals and schools. Usually, a guru feels great about having such a prominent person as a student. But instead he said, "No, I won't take you." He had no attachment to name or fame or gain. He explained very lovingly, "Look, what I teach is a path of high spirituality from India, but our country has lost it. Don't devalue it. Don't make use of this technique to treat some physical disease. This technique is to take you out of all misery, not just the misery of a migraine."

His approach attracted me, but I was still doubtful. This was Buddhism, after all. Then he asked me a question: "You are a leader of the Hindu community here in Burma. Does your Hindu religion have any objection to sila [Pali: morality]?" No religion in the world would say that they are against morality. So I replied, "No sir, I have no objection to sila."

He continued: "How can you observe sila if you have no control over your mind? I will teach you control of the mind. I will teach you samadhi." In Hindu scripture, samadhi, concentration, is regarded as a very high thing. The rishis, the great meditators, all do samadhi. But we householders don't know what samadhi is. We revere samadhi, but we don't know what it is. If somebody wants then that is wonderful. "No sir," I replied, "I have no objection to samadhi."

Then he said, "Well, mere samadhi won't do. It will control your mind, but deep inside the behavior pattern is like a sleeping volcano. It will erupt again, and you will forget everything and you will break your sila. So I will teach you the purification from the deepest level of the mind, panna [Pali: wisdom]. Do you have any objection to panna?"

At the time, I was a teacher of the Bhagavad Gita. I'd been explaining prajna [Sanskrit: wisdom] to people, but I never really knew it, I never practiced it. It was mere talk. Many times after giving a lecture on prajna, I would come home and feel so sorry. Why had I spoken of all these things? I had no trace of liberation from craving, liberation from aversion. I had so much ego and yet I talked of prajna. So I said to U Ba Khin, "If somebody teaches me panna, no sir, I have no objection."

"Well Goenka," he replied," I will teach you only sila, samadhi and panna. Nothing else. Just accept that. If you accept that, then come." So I took the ten-day course and I found it good. The teachings of the Buddha were so complete, so pure.

Norman Fischer: In my Zen practice and in other forms of Buddhist practice, there is a lot of ritual, and also clergy and hierarchy. Do you feel there's any benefit or advantage for Buddhism in ritual?

S.N. Goenka: I don't wish to condemn anybody, but if my teacher had asked me to perform rites or rituals, I would have said good-bye. My own Hindu tradition was full of rituals and ceremonies, so to start again with another set of rituals didn't make sense. But my teacher said, "No ritual. Buddha taught only sila, samadhi, panna. Nothing else. There is nothing to be added and nothing to be subtracted." As the Buddha said, "Kevalaparipunnam." [Pali: "The whole technique is complete by itself."]

Norman Fischer: Can you please tell us about your course of instruction in vipassana-the details of it, how it goes, how you teach people?

S.N. Goenka:
Everyone who comes to the basic ten-day vipassana course must take five precepts, because morality is very important as a basis. New students, at least for those ten days, must observe these precepts very scrupulously. If one keeps on breaking sila, one cannot practice at all. After the ten days are completed, students are their own masters. If they find it is good for them to continue with the precepts, then they can do so. Older students take eight precepts.

For the samadhi aspect of the program, we work with the respiration, the breath. We use the natural breath as it comes in and as it goes out, keeping attention to a limited area-the entrance of the nostrils. Then from the fourth day onward one is trained to observe the sensations throughout the body-pleasant, unpleasant or neutral-and understand their basic nature. Every sensation has the same nature: arising, passing away, arising, passing away.

Understanding this impermanence, one maintains equanimity as much as possible. One doesn't react, and not reacting starts changing the habit pattern at the deep level of the mind. Over time, one has built up and strengthened the blind habit pattern of reaction. Any pleasant experience-craving. Any unpleasant experience-aversion. This habit pattern has to be broken. It can be broken at the surface level, but the Buddha wanted to purify the totality of the mind, so we work at the deepest level.

Norman Fischer:
Do practitioners simply observe whatever sensations arise in the body, or do they go systematically through the different parts of the body?

S.N. Goenka: We use a systematic approach. We want the students to reach the stage where they experience all kinds of sensations and experience them in every part of the body. If you work systematically, then the stage of experiencing all kinds of sensations throughout the body comes much earlier.

Norman Fischer:
Is this a guided meditation, in which you say, "Notice sensations at the top of the head, notice sensations here, notice there."?

S.N. Goenka: Yes, very much so, in the sense that the students remind themselves to keep on moving systematically. If they don't notice any sensation, they stay for about a minute and then move on calmly. Whether some sensation crops up or nothing crops up, you keep moving.

Norman Fischer:
The sutras speak of many kinds of people with many different tendencies. Do you find that this technique works better for some kinds of people than others, or that some people can't do it?

S.N. Goenka: In my experience, I haven't found a single person who has been unable to do it. The most illiterate people from the villages in India, people who had never heard what Buddha taught, and people who are long-time devotees of Buddha-all get equal results. It's so simple. When I ask them to observe the breath, they observe the breath. An illiterate person can also observe the breath. And they can take their attention to a particular part of the body. Why should there be any difficulty?

Norman Fischer: You addressed the World Peace Summit at the United Nations. What is the relevance to world peace of a meditation technique, which seems like a very personal thing?

S.N. Goenka: We want peace in the entire human society, yet we don't care whether there is peace in the mind of the individual. When we talk of human society, the human being matters most. And when we talk of peace, the mind matters most. So the mind of each individual matters most. Unless there is peace in the mind of the individual, how can there be peace in the society?

There may be different techniques. We don't say that this is the only way. For me it is the only way, but other religions say that they have another way for people to find peace and harmony. Very good, go ahead.

But what I am teaching is universal. Anybody can practice it, from any religion or tradition, and they will get the same result. We have people coming to vipassana courses from every religion in the world, and they all get the same result. I don't tell them, "Convert yourself from this religion to that religion." My teacher never asked me to convert to a religion. The only conversion is from misery to happiness.

Norman Fischer: The fact that there is no ritual makes it easier for people all over to join.

S.N. Goenka: More than two thousand Christian priests and nuns have taken the meditation course. One nun, a mother superior who was over 75 years old, told me, "You are teaching Christianity in the name of Buddhism. I should have learned this technique fifty years ago." Because there was no technique in her background. She had sermons on love and compassion for others, but they still left her asking how to actually practice love and compassion. With the vipassana technique you purify the mind at the root. Love comes naturally. You don't have to make an effort to practice metta, loving-kindness. It just comes.

Norman Fischer: So even though there is no conversion effort, others are nonetheless attracted to this practice?

S.N. Goenka: People are attracted by the results of the practice that they see in others. When a person is angry, the influence of that anger makes everybody unhappy, including themself. You are the first victim of your own anger. This realization is another thing that attracted me to the Buddha's teaching. In my early days, I believed that you lived a moral life in order not to disturb the peace and harmony of the society. In other words, as a Hindu I understood that one must live a life of morality to oblige society.

But when I took my first ten-day course, I started to understand that I was not obliging anybody else, I was obliging myself. Because when I performed any unwholesome action, I couldn't perform that action unless I had generated defilement in my mind. Every defilement, every unwholesome action, starts with an unwholesome mind. As the Buddha said, "Pubbe hanatu attanam, paccha hanati so pare"-"you first harm yourself and then you harm others." You can't harm anybody without harming yourself."

That was so revealing to me. Previously when I was angry, my mind was absorbed in thinking about the other person and the situation. My mind would just roll around in that without knowing that it is such thoughts that fuel the fire of anger. I had never been taught to observe myself. When I started observing myself, I discovered anger, lots of burning. My whole body burned, my heart rate increased, tension increased. I thought, "What I am doing? I am burning myself!"

Having practiced the meditation technique, now I know that when I live a life of sila I oblige myself first, not others. Others get obliged, which is good, but I am the first person to benefit. That is a wonderful difference in the Buddha's teaching from any other teaching I know.

Norman Fischer:
I understand that you have a good friendship with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Can you tell us how that developed, particularly since His Holiness' tradition, with all its color and ritual, contrasts with your approach?

S.N. Goenka: In the first year when I moved to India from Burma, there was a big public function put on by Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar's followers, who had become Buddhists. They invited me to their annual celebration of the day that Dr. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. There were some one and a half million people in attendance. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was invited, along with me and the Japanese teacher Fuji Guruji. We were invited as chief guests, and each of us gave a speech. Mine was translated into Tibetan and His Holiness liked it so much that he said that he wanted to meet me and discuss things.

We started at nine o'clock the next morning and at two-thirty or three we were still talking-all about technique. He was very happy with my teaching. But when I said, "Quite a few people on the second day or third day see light," he responded, "No, no. That must be illusion. How can somebody see light in three days? It takes years to see light."

I replied, "Venerable sir, I saw light in my eyes. And so have many other people. I would not say it is an illusion. You better send a few of your lamas and let them experience it. If I am wrong, I will rectify it. I don't teach them that they must see light. It is merely a sign, a milestone on a long path, not the final goal."

So he sent three lamas to my next course in Sarnath. All three of them saw light, and they were so happy. When they went back and explained that to His Holiness, he was also happy. He said, "Goenka, come here and give a course to my people." Then I wrote him back, "When I give a course these are the rules. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings, but if your high lamas don't agree to my rules, I cannot teach." He sent a message back to me, "Goenka, they will follow whatever you say for the full ten days. So don't worry; they will follow your rules."

The course took place in the Tibetan library in Dharamsala, not far from where His Holiness was living. On the first day, when I told all the very top-ranking lamas my rules, they protested: "But every day, we have rituals to perform, we have to chant so many recitations, we have to prostrate so many times."

"Nothing doing," I replied. "For ten days, nothing doing." And they said, "No, we can't break our life-long vow." So I sent word to the Dalai Lama, "Sir, I can't teach. Your people don't agree. I'm sorry, I have to go." And he sent word to the lamas through his private secretary, "You have to followGoenka's instructions, even if it means breaking your rules. Whatever he says, you must agree to do." They all did it, and they got the same result. Rites or no rites, rituals or no rituals, the technique gives results.

Normally I don't go out during a course, but the Dalai Lama wanted to discuss how it was going, so I visited him two times. We had long discussions in detail about the technique I teach and about his technique also-without judging, just exploring with inquisitiveness. We each enjoyed our discussions tremendously. Since then we have been friends.

I am not interested in any kind of politics. Of course I have great sympathy for whatever is happening to the Tibetan people, but I can't take up that cause. It's not part of my duty as a dharma teacher. Even the most undemocratic person, even the greatest tyrant, will be a good person if he practices. Just as Buddha was not interested in the politics of the different kings of his day, so that's not my job either. His Holiness understands that very well. We are not political friends, but rather dharma friends.

He did keep asking me about sunnata, emptiness. "You've got no sunnata?" he would ask. But after I explained my understanding of it, he accepted what I said: that when all solidity is dissolved in the technique, and there's nothing but vibration remaining, that is sunnata. Then you experience something beyond mind and matter-sunna-nothing to hold there. You have sunna of the mind and matter sphere and sunna of the beyond mind and matter sphere. His Holiness seemed to be quite happy with that explanation. He had no objection.

S.N. Goenka is a teacher of Vipassana meditation in the tradition of the late Sayagyi U Ba Khin of Burma (Myanmar).

Norman Fischer is a poet and Zen priest who served as abbot of San Francisco Zen Center from 1995 to 2000. He is now a senior teacher at the Center and the founding teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation and co-author of Benedict's Dharma: Buddhists Comment on the Rule of St. Benedict (Riverhead).

The Universal Meditation Technique of S.N. Goenka, Norman Fischer, Shambhala Sun, September 2001.

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Bodhichitta: The Excellence of Awakened Heart Print

Bodhichitta: The Excellence of Awakened Heart


The mind of enlightenment, called bodhichitta, is always available, in pain as well as in joy. Pema Chödrön lays out how to cultivate this soft spot of bravery and kindness.

It is only with the heart that one can see
rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

-Antoine de Saint Exupéry

When I was about six years old I received the essential bodhichitta teaching from an old woman sitting in the sun. I was walking by her house one day feeling lonely, unloved and mad, kicking anything I could find. Laughing, she said to me, "Little girl, don't you go letting life harden your heart." 

Right there, I received this pith instruction: we can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder and more open to what scares us. We always have this choice.

If we were to ask the Buddha, "What is bodhichitta?" he might tell us that this word is easier to understand than to translate. He might encourage us to seek out ways to find its meaning in our own lives. He might tantalize us by adding that it is only bodhichitta that heals, that bodhichitta is capable of transforming the hardest of hearts and the most prejudiced and fearful minds.

Chitta means "mind" and also "heart" or "attitude." Bodhi means "awake," "enlightened," or "completely open." Sometimes the completely open heart and mind of bodhichitta is called the soft spot, a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound. It is equated, in part, with our ability to love. Even the cruelest people have this soft spot. Even the most vicious animals love their offspring. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche put it, "Everybody loves something, even if it's only tortillas."

Bodhichitta is also equated, in part, with compassion—our ability to feel the pain that we share with others. Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions of all kinds: anger, craving, indifference, jealousy and envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot—our innate ability to love and to care about things—is like a crack in these walls we erect. It's a natural opening in the barriers we create when we're afraid. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment—love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy—to awaken bodhichitta.

An analogy for bodhichitta is the rawness of a broken heart. Sometimes this broken heart gives birth to anxiety and panic; sometimes to anger, resentment and blame. But under the hardness of that armor there is the tenderness of genuine sadness. This is our link with all those who have ever loved. This genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we're arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all.

The Buddha said that we are never separated from enlightenment. Even at the times we feel most stuck, we are never alienated from the awakened state. This is a revolutionary assertion. Even ordinary people like us with hang-ups and confusion have this mind of enlightenment called bodhichitta. The openness and warmth of bodhichitta is in fact our true nature and condition. Even when our neurosis feels far more basic than our wisdom, even when we're feeling most confused and hopeless, bodhichitta—like the open sky—is always here, undiminished by the clouds that temporarily cover it.

Given that we are so familiar with the clouds, of course, we may find the Buddha's teaching hard to believe. Yet the truth is that in the midst of our suffering, in the hardest of times, we can contact this noble heart of bodhichitta. It is always available, in pain as well as in joy.

A young woman wrote to me about finding herself in a small town in the Middle East surrounded by people jeering, yelling, and threatening to throw stones at her and her friends because they were Americans. Of course she was terrified, and what happened to her is interesting. Suddenly she identified with every person throughout history who had ever been scorned and hated. She understood what it was like to be despised for any reason: ethnic group, racial background, sexual preference, gender. Something cracked wide open and she stood in the shoes of millions of oppressed people and saw with a new perspective. She even understood her shared humanity with those who hated her. This sense of deep connection, of belonging to the same family, is bodhichitta.

Bodhichitta exists on two levels. First there is unconditional bodhichitta, an immediate experience that is refreshingly free of concept, opinion, and our usual all caught-up-ness. It's something hugely good that we are not able to pin down even slightly, like knowing at gut level that there's absolutely nothing to lose. Second there is relative bodhichitta, our ability to keep our hearts and minds open to suffering without shutting down.

Those who train wholeheartedly in awakening unconditional and relative bodhichitta are called bodhisattvas or warriors—not warriors who kill and harm but warriors of nonaggression who hear the cries of the world. These are men and women who are willing to train in the middle of the fire. Training in the middle of the fire can mean that warrior-bodhisattvas enter challenging situations in order to alleviate suffering. It also refers to their willingness to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, to their dedication to uncovering the basic undistorted energy of bodhichitta. We have many examples of master warriors—people like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King—who recognized that the greatest harm comes from our own aggressive minds. They devoted their lives to helping others understand this truth. There are also many ordinary people who spend their lives training in opening their hearts and minds in order to help others do the same. Like them, we could learn to relate to ourselves and our world as warriors. We could train in awakening our courage and love.

There are both formal and informal methods for helping us to cultivate this bravery and kindness. There are practices for nurturing our capacity to rejoice, to let go, to love, and to shed a tear. There are those that teach us to stay open to uncertainty. There are others that help us to stay present at the times that we habitually shut down.

Wherever we are, we can train as a warrior. The practices of meditation, loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity are our tools. With the help of these practices, we can uncover the soft spot of bodhichitta. We will find that tenderness in sorrow and in gratitude. We will find it behind the hardness of rage and in the shakiness of fear. It is available in loneliness as well as in kindness.

Many of us prefer practices that will not cause discomfort, and at the same time we want to be healed. But bodhichitta training doesn't work that way. A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. We can try to control the uncontrollable by looking for security and predictability, always hoping to be comfortable and safe. But the truth is that we can never avoid uncertainty. This not knowing is part of the adventure, and it's also what makes us afraid.

Bodhichitta training offers no promise of happy endings. Rather, this "I" who wants to find security—who wants something to hold on to—can finally learn to grow up. The central question of a warrior's training is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear, but how we relate to discomfort. How do we practice with difficulty, with our emotions, with the unpredictable encounters of an ordinary day?

All too frequently, we relate like timid birds who don't dare to leave the nest. Here we sit in a nest that's getting pretty smelly and that hasn't served its function for a very long time. No one is arriving to feed us. No one is protecting us and keeping us warm. And yet we keep hoping mother bird will arrive.

We could do ourselves the ultimate favor and finally get out of that nest. That this takes courage is obvious. That we could use some helpful hints is also clear. We may doubt that we're up to being a warrior-in-training. But we can ask ourselves this question: "Do I prefer to grow up and relate to life directly or do I choose to live and die in fear?"

All beings have the capacity to feel tenderness—to experience heartbreak, pain and uncertainty. Therefore the enlightened heart of bodhichitta is available to us all. The insight meditation teacher Jack Kornfield tells of witnessing this in Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge. Fifty thousand people had become communists at gunpoint, threatened with death if they continued their Buddhist practices. In spite of the danger, a temple was established in the refugee camp, and twenty thousand people attended the opening ceremony. There were no lectures or prayers, but simply continuous chanting of one of the central teachings of the Buddha:

Hatred never ceases by hatred
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

Thousands of people chanted and wept, knowing that the truth in these words was even greater than their suffering.

Bodhichitta has this kind of power. It will inspire and support us in good times and bad. It is like discovering a wisdom and courage we do not even know we have. Just as alchemy changes any metal into gold, bodhichitta can, if we let it, transform any activity, word or thought into a vehicle for awakening our compassion.

At one time the Buddha gathered his students together at a spot called Vulture Peak Mountain. Here he presented some revolutionary teachings—teachings on the wide open, groundless dimension of our being—known traditionally as shunyata, as unconditional bodhichitta, as prajnaparamita.

The Buddha had already been teaching on groundlessness for some time. Many of the students there on Vulture Peak Mountain had a profound realization of impermanence and egolessness, the truth that nothing—including ourselves—is solid or predictable. They understood the suffering that results from grasping and fixation. They had learned this from Buddha himself; they had experienced its profundity in meditation. But the Buddha knew that our tendency to seek solid ground is deeply rooted. Ego can use anything to maintain the illusion of security, including the belief in insubstantiality and change.

So the Buddha did something shocking. With the prajnaparamita (perfection of unconditional wisdom) teachings, he pulled the rug out completely, taking his students further into groundlessness. He told the audience that whatever they believed had to be let go, that dwelling upon any description of reality was a trap. This was not comfortable news for the audience to hear.

It reminds me of the story of Krishnamurti, who was raised to be the avatar by the Theosophists. His elders continually told the other students that when the avatar manifested fully, his teachings would be electrifying and revolutionary, shaking up the very foundations of their beliefs. This turned out to be true, but not quite in the way they had imagined. When Krishnamurti finally became head of the Order of the Star, he called the whole society together and officially disbanded it, saying that it was harmful because it gave them too much ground.

The Vulture Peak experience was something like that for the Buddha's students. It wiped away all their existing conceptions about the nature of reality. The Buddha's principal message that day was that holding on to anything blocks wisdom. Any conclusions we might draw must be let go. The only way to fully understand the bodhichitta teachings, the only way to practice them fully, is to abide in the unconditional openness of the prajnaparamita, patiently cutting through all our tendencies to hang on. 

During this teaching, known as The Heart Sutra, the Buddha actually didn't say a word. He went into a state of deep meditation and let the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, do the talking. This courageous warrior, known also as Kuan-yin, expressed his experience of the prajnaparamita on behalf of the Buddha. His insight was not based on intellect but came through his practice. He saw clearly that everything is empty. Then one of the principal disciples of the Buddha, a monk named Shariputra, began to question Avalokiteshvara. This is an important point. Even though a great bodhisattva was teaching and the Buddha was clearly in charge, the profound meaning emerged only through questioning. Nothing was taken complacently or on blind faith.

Shariputra is a role model for us as students. He wasn't willing just to accept what he heard; he wanted to know for himself what was true. So he asked Avalokiteshvara, "In all the words and actions and thoughts of my life, how do I apply the prajnaparamita? What is the key to training in this practice? What view do I take?"

Avalokiteshvara answered with the most famous of Buddhist paradoxes: "Form is emptiness, emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form, form is no other than emptiness." When I first heard this, I had no idea whatsoever what he was talking about. My mind went completely blank. His explanation, like the prajnaparamita itself, is inexpressible, indescribable, inconceivable. Form is that which simply is before we project our beliefs onto it. The prajnaparamita represents a completely fresh take, an unfettered mind where anything is possible.

Prajna is the unfiltered expression of the open ear, open eye, open mind that is found in every living being. Thich Nhat Hanh translates the word as "understanding." It's a fluid process, not something definite and concrete that can be summed up or measured.

This prajnaparamita, this inexpressibility, is our human experience. It is not particularly regarded as a peaceful state of mind, or as a disturbed one. It is a state of basic intelligence that is open, questioning and unbiased. Whether it comes in the form of curiosity, bewilderment, shock or relaxation isn't really the issue. We train when we're caught off guard and when our life is up in the air.

We train, as Trungpa Rinpoche said, in "not afraid to be a fool." We cultivate a simple direct relationship with our being—no philosophizing, no moralizing, no judgments. Whatever arises in our mind is workable.

So when Avalokiteshvara says, "Form is emptiness," he's referring to this simple direct relationship with the immediacy of experience—direct contact with blood and sweat and flowers; with love as well as hate. First we wipe away our preconceptions and then we even have to let go even of our belief that we should look at things without preconceptions. We keep pulling out our own rug. When we perceive form as empty, without any barriers or veils, we understand the perfection of things just as they are. One could become addicted to this experience. It could give us a sense of freedom from the dubiousness of our emotions and the illusion that we could dangle above the messiness of our lives.

But "emptiness also is form" turns the tables. Emptiness continually manifests as war and peace, as grief, as birth, old age, sickness, and death, as well as joy. We are challenged to stay in touch with the heart-throbbing quality of being alive. That's why we train in the relative bodhichitta practices of the four limitless ones and tonglen. They help us to fully engage in the vividness of life with an open, unclouded mind. Things are as bad and as good as they seem. There's no need to add anything extra.

Imagine a dialogue with the Buddha. He asks, "How do you perceive reality?" and we answer honestly and say, "I perceive it as separate from me, and solid." He says, "No, look deeper."

So we go away and meditate and sincerely contemplate this question. We return to the Buddha and say, "I know the answer now. The answer is that everything is not solid, everything is empty." And he says, "No. Look deeper." We say, "Well, that's impossible. It's either one way or the other: empty or not empty, right?" and he says, "No." If this were our boss, perhaps we wouldn't care, but this is the Buddha, so we think, "Maybe I have to hang in here a bit and go further with the irritation I'm feeling at not being given any satisfaction."

So we meditate and contemplate this question; we discuss it with our friends. Next time we see the Buddha we say, "I think I can answer your question. Everything is both empty and not empty simultaneously." And he says, "No." Believe me, we're feeling very groundless and that means rattled. It's uncomfortable not to be able to get ground under our feet. But the process here is of unmasking: even though we're irritated and anxious, we're moving closer to seeing the true unfixed nature of mind. Since "No" is all we can get out of the Buddha, we go home and spend the next year trying to answer this riddle. It's like a Zen koan.

Eventually, we return and say, "Okay. There's only one other possible answer. The nature of reality is that it neither exists nor doesn't exist. It is neither form nor emptiness." And we feel good! It's a beautiful groundless answer. But the Buddha says, "No, that's too limited an understanding." Maybe at this point his "No" is such a shock that we experience the wide-open mind of prajnaparamita, the mind that is satisfied with no resting place at all.

After Avalokiteshvara told Shariputra that "form is emptiness; emptiness also is form," he went even further, pointing out that there is nothing—not even the Buddha's teachings—to hold on to: no three marks of existence, no suffering, no end of suffering, no imprisonment, no liberation. The story goes that many of the students were so dumbfounded by these teachings that they had heart attacks. A Tibetan teacher suggested that more likely they just got up and walked out of the talk. Like the Theosophists with Krishnamurti, they didn't want to hear this. Just like us. We don't like to have our basic assumptions challenged. It's too threatening.

Now if this teaching had come only from Avalokiteshvara, the students might have been able to rationalize their fears. "This is just a warrior on the path, not so different from us. He's very wise and compassionate, of course, but he has been known to get things wrong." But the Buddha was sitting right there in deep meditation, clearly pleased with this presentation of how to abide in the prajnaparamita. There was no way out of this dilemma.

Then, inspired by Shariputra's questioning, Avalokiteshvara continued. He taught that when we understand that there is no final attainment, no ultimate answer or stopping place, when our mind is free of warring emotions and the belief in separateness, then we will have no fear. When I heard this many years ago, before I had any interest at all in a spiritual path, a little light bulb went off: I definitely wanted to know more about "No fear."

This instruction on prajnaparamita is a teaching on fearlessness. To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to that extent we dissolve our fear. The synonym for total fearlessness is full enlightenment—wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world. Meanwhile we train in patiently moving in that direction. By learning to relax with groundlessness, we gradually connect with the mind that knows no fear.

Then Avalokiteshvara proclaimed the pith of the prajnaparamita, the essence of the rug-pulling-out experience, the essence of the fearless, open state of mind. It came in the form of a mantra: "OM GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SVAHA." Just as a seed contains the tree, this mantra contains the entire teachings on abiding in prajnaparamita, abiding in the fearless state.

Trungpa Rinpoche's translation is, "OM gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, so be it." This is a description of a process, a journey, of always stepping out further and further. We could also say, "OM groundlessness, groundlessness, more groundlessness, even beyond groundlessness, fully awake, so be it!"

No matter where we are on the bodhisattva path, whether we are just beginning or we've practiced for years, we're always stepping further into groundlessness. Enlightenment is not the end of anything. Enlightenment, being completely awake, is just the beginning of fully entering into we know not what.

When the great bodhisattva finished teaching, the Buddha came out of his meditation and said, "Good, good! You expressed it perfectly, Avalokiteshvara." And those in the audience who hadn't walked out or died from heart attacks rejoiced. They rejoiced at hearing this teaching on stepping beyond fear.

From The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. ©2001 by Pema Chödrön. Used by permission of Shambhala Publications.

Pema Chödrön is a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape  Breton, Nova Scotia. She is the author of The Wisdom of No Escape, Start Where You Are and When
Things Fall Apart. This article is excerpted from her book, The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, available from Shambhala Publications.

Bodhichitta: The Excellence of Awakened Heart, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, September 2001.

Click here to visit the Pema Chödrön Spotlight page.


"Something Has to Change": Blacks in American Buddhism Print

"Something Has to Change": Blacks in American Buddhism

Lawrence Pintak tells the compelling stories of three African-American dharma teachers. He asks them why American Buddhism attracts so few people of color and what can be done about it.

Jan Willis was feeling euphoric. Sitting in the basement of a church in London's impoverished East End last summer, she looked around and realized that of the 40-odd people in the room, 31 were black.

"Black Buddhists!" she exclaims at the memory. "In 25 years in Buddhism, I had never been in such a sangha. I felt so high. It was great!"

For Willis and the handful of African-American Buddhist teachers now beginning to speak out, Buddhism in America has been a homogeneous world inhabited largely by upper-middle-class whites.

"There are a lot of black Buddhists who are in the closet. They just don't feel comfortable being part of the great white sangha," says Insight Meditation teacher Ralph Steele. "One of the most common phrases I hear from young black Buddhists when they do step out into the white Buddhist sangha is that they feel uncomfortable."

Through the eyes of African-American teachers like Shu Shin priest Joseph Jarman, white Buddhist America is largely blind to the existence of a black sangha. That was driven home to him at last year's Buddhism in America conference. "People there had never known there were African-American Buddhist priests and educators in this country; they just never appear," he recalls. "That was like opening another door."

For Willis, Steele and Jarman, their journeys as Buddhists have been part of a larger journey of emerging from the shadows of racial prejudice. They continue to deal with it, subtly and not so subtly, both in the greater society and within the American Buddhist world.

The world that Jan Willis experienced as a barefoot little girl playing in the dusty alleys of an Alabama mining camp in the mid-1950's was carefully divided into black and white. The border lay just a few blocks from where she lived, where the white cottages began. Forbidden territory. Stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan's shadow lay heavy over the hamlet where Willis was born and raised, a tangible presence even to a little girl. She saw firsthand the beatings and other punishments meted out to blacks who stepped out of line-those who committed transgressions like accidentally stepping on white-owned property while walking to school or the grocery store, with its "white" and "colored" water fountains. If she had any doubts about her place in the world, they were consumed in the flames of the cross the Klan ignited on her front lawn one terrifying night, as Willis, her sister and her mother cowered in their home waiting to die.

The bomb they expected that night never came, but the Klan's constant threats and intimidation took their toll. "This unimaginable psychic terror crippled my self-esteem and the self-esteem of many black people," Willis would write years later in her book, Dreaming Me: An African-American Woman's Spiritual Journey. "I am witness to its scars."

In her search for healing, she would march with Martin Luther King Jr. in Birmingham, take part in the armed takeover of the Cornell student union building by militant blacks, and ultimately find her way to the hut of a gentle Tibetan monk in the hills outside Kathmandu. From a Buddhist perspective, it would be said that a combination of karma and auspicious coincidence brought Willis to the doorstep of Lama Yeshe Thubten, the teacher who would become her root guru. However, for most African-Americans, she believes, lack of money keeps the door to the dharma firmly shut.

"There are far too few people of color in Buddhist centers and retreats, in part because of the nature of where the retreats are and the fact that they cost money," says Willis, now one of the nation's leading Buddhist academics. "It's about class. Working class people can't take a month off to go on retreat.

"Buddhism is a commodity like everything else in the States," the Wesleyan University professor of religion adds. "Trungpa Rinpoche talked about 'spiritual materialism.' You can choose among hundreds of different traditions and lineages in the spiritual supermarket, and then you pay.
"That's part of why Soka Gakkai has had success," she says of the Japanese Pure Land organization, which counts many blacks among its members. "They're in the cities, they've tried so hard to bend over backwards to assimilate with American holidays and they have a simple ritual." The same, Willis continues, is true of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, the group she met with in Britain. But in the American sanghas of the more traditional Buddhist lineages, blacks are largely absent.

Ralph Steele has also begun to tackle prejudice and exclusion within the sangha.

"Diversity," he says, "is a magic word here in America, but no one has been tackling diversity on a cultural basis in Buddhism." The New Mexico-based teacher wrote a letter last year to 25 leading American Buddhists calling for a greater emphasis on inclusion. "Our sangha will end up being like the Christian Church—there will be a white Buddhist sangha, a black Buddhist sangha, an Hispanic Buddhist sangha—if we don't begin to do something about bringing Buddhism into the whole of an American sangha."

Spirituality runs in Ralph Steele's blood. The grandson of a minister, Steele's family has run a church for the past 150 years. A devout Christian upbringing is one of the things that Steele shares with Willis and Jarman—and the vast majority of African-Americans.

He also shares with them the experience of living as an outsider. Steele grew up on Pawleys Island, a then-isolated speck of land off the South Carolina coast populated by freed slaves from Sierra Leone. Steele grew up speaking Gullah, a Creole language formed from Elizabethan English and African dialects. He was 12 years old before he spoke English.

"It has always been a practicing Christian community," he said. "What that means is that when some Christians elsewhere started saying they were 'born again,' that never happened there because no one ever left Christ."

An Army brat, Steele's first exposure to the dharma came during his high school years in Japan, when he began to study martial arts. He remembers the day his instructor leaped up and kicked the rim of a basketball hoop.

"That's when my life began to change," he says. "Right then I knew that life was different from how you see things."

Like so many Vietnam veterans, Steele was nearly destroyed by the war. Along with physical and psychic scars, Steele brought home an addiction to heroin and a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit. He credits devotion to his martial arts teacher and to the discipline of martial arts practice with getting him through.

"It wasn't the martial arts itself," he says. "It was the teacher, the trust in the teacher." Back in the States, Steele enrolled at the University of California at Santa Cruz and signed up for a course on Buddhism—taught by a young black professor named Jan Willis. "I was pretty tough on him," Willis reports without elaboration.

Among the things he learned from her were techniques of meditation from the Tibetan tradition. "That helped, because I was simultaneously going down to Palo Alto VA hospital to deal with flashbacks," he says. "Meditation allowed me to begin to get some balance."

His Christian connection still strong, Steele would go on frequent meditation retreats at a Catholic hermitage in Big Sur, and, for a time, even considered joining the order. But his link with Buddhism was cemented when Willis went on sabbatical and Lama Thubten Yeshe came to teach in her place at UC-Santa Cruz. Not long after, the 16th Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, came to town: "I went on a one-week retreat to prepare to meet him. When I went up to get his blessing, we had this exchange: I gave him a rosary and he gave me refuge."

Now a psychotherapist, Steele runs the Life Transition Institute in Santa Fe, a center built around the body-mind meditation practices pioneered by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. But Steele had several stops en route to New Mexico. He practiced briefly in Seattle, using Buddhist psychotherapy techniques, but he began to receive death threats and left for Portland, Oregon, where he spent many months with the renowned Tibetan teacher Kalu Rinpoche. In those days, the idea of teaching Buddhism never crossed Steele's mind. But then, nine years ago at a Metta retreat with Joseph Goldstein, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), Steele looked around and realized that he and one Vietnamese practitioner were the only non-whites in the crowd. Steele recalls that he said, "Joseph, something has to change," to which Goldstein replied, "Yes, but for now just do the practice."

Steele did. But eventually, during a retreat in Santa Fe, he told Jack Kornfield, another IMS co-founder, that he was ready to teach. "I saw myself starting to become a closet practitioner, and I didn't want to do that," he says now. And how does his Christian family back on Pawleys Island take his new role? "They all accept what I do. People walk their practice there. They have a deep understanding of what practice is."

Not everyone involved in mainstream Buddhism is sitting with hands folded in their laps when it comes to diversifying the sangha. Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California, for example, is opening a new center in the heart of Oakland. Ralph Steele sees such steps as positive, but not enough. "More people are speaking it than actually doing anything," he says sadly. Where efforts are being made, the transition is not always easy. Steele recalls a diversity training day at Spirit Rock when discussion turned to the idea of proactively seeking out Buddhists of color. "They got the message that their sangha wouldn't be the same and they got scared," he remembers. "The reaction was: 'I don't know if I could handle that kind of shift.' They had to sit with that and assimilate it."

So where are the black Buddhists, if not in the sanghas of the mainstream schools? Robina Courtin, an Australian nun who heads a dharma prison project, has a ready answer: "They are all in prison."

Joseph Jarman, whose own son is behind bars, reluctantly agrees. "The vast majority of them are." The reason, he says, is that only in prison do many African-Americans encounter the dharma. "In our culture, many people commit crimes because of psychological perspectives of the Devil or some negative energy overtaking them," says Jarman, who runs a martial arts dojo and leads a multicultural sangha in Brooklyn. "Buddhism doesn't have those perspectives, but instead offers tools for dealing with non-positive energy."

Jarman has firsthand knowledge of those tools. In the late 1950's, he served in a secret U.S. Army Special Forces unit in Southeast Asia. The experience was so traumatic that for a year after his return he was literally mute. "I was in a negative space—a super-negative space—filled with depression and completely alienated from society," he recalls. "I was going to a library daily and not speaking, and one day, the librarian, this old man, gave me this book and said it was the teachings of the Buddha."

Shortly after, as he began to recover at a Milwaukee hospital, Jarman met the Japanese priest who would become his teacher: "I said, 'Hello,' and he said, 'I give you ten thousand years and then I will kill you,' and I said, 'O.K.'"

A month after that enigmatic encounter, Jarman, a fifth-degree black belt Aikido master, was invited to a karate demonstration at a nearby Buddhist temple. "And who is there, but this guy. After that, I began to go there once a week." The teachings, Jarman says, helped him to transform his image of himself and move beyond the anger and suffering to which he had clung since Southeast Asia. He would go on to become a successful jazz musician, retiring in 1993 from the renowned Art Ensemble of Chicago.

In spite of the marginalization of blacks in the American sangha, Willis believes that Buddhism can offer the kinds of transformation that she—and Steele and Jarman—have experienced to other African-Americans.

"Buddhism offers a method for helping us improve our self-esteem, because the legacy of slavery and racism is so heavy," says Willis, who describes her autobiography as a narrative about self-esteem. "It's something people don't want to talk about but that all of us feel the weight of."

Willis came to the dharma at the height of the civil rights movement in the sixties, eventually choosing a fellowship to study Buddhism in Asia over an invitation to join the Black Panthers. Soon after she met Lama Yeshe, who offered the angry young activist an entirely new perspective on herself. "That's what Lama Yeshe took 15 years doing, transforming me. It took that long," she says with a laugh, then continues, imitating her teacher's broken English: "'You O.K. You mind pure. You quick intellect.' All the time, he'd tell people, 'Be strong like this woman.' I think we can all use that."

In particular, the black students who come to her angry, confused and uncomfortable in their own skins could benefit from this message of basic purity, she says. "I want them to know there are some methods out there for helping with self-confidence and self-esteem," says Willis. "I truly believe that Buddhism—especially tantric Buddhism, because visualization is so central to the method—is something that can help us re-envision ourselves, help us put down this heavy weight we carry around with us."

Willis calls herself a "Baptist Buddhist." Growing up in the revival meeting tents of the Old South, she watched in awe as friends and relatives were swept up in spiritual frenzy. "Quite simply," she wrote in Dreaming Me, "nothing scared me more than black women engaged, as good feeling Christians, in the activity known as 'shouting.'" But it was in just such a setting that the diminutive 14 year old "found Jesus" and was baptized in a water tank out behind the church. On that day, Willis first felt herself engulfed in spiritual love as friends and family reached out to welcome her into the bosom of the church.

"These hands were wondrous things. They were like the Holy opening its arms to me. This love, in a flash, dissolved all my fears. These hands took me completely beyond myself. They reached out with equanimity toward all," she writes in the book. "For the first time, I felt that I belonged to a family as big as humankind itself; and yet even bigger than that, taking in all creatures who breathed and cried and struggled and sang."

Years later, meditating on a Himalayan mountain, she would again touch that equanimity and recognize the common roots of love and compassion that link the Christianity into which she was born and the Buddhism she had embraced. Still, it was with some trepidation that she returned to Alabama with her new-found beliefs, only to find her conviction that Buddhist meditation had much to offer African-Americans confirmed by none other than the pastor of the church where her father served as deacon.

"We Baptists could use some of these methods," she recalls him declaring. "It's one thing to say, 'Love thy neighbor.' It's a whole 'nother thing to do it." That, she says, holds true even for Buddhists: "I can't even love myself! So we're talking about transforming prejudices about others and about ourselves." Willis and colleague Marlise Bosch, a women's counselor in the Netherlands, are currently at work on a booklet containing a series of visualizations and exercises designed to help American Buddhists confront—and go beyond—their innate prejudices.

"The fear is there, and for any human being in this country to say they don't have any issues with regard to another culture is absurd," says Ralph Steele, who looks forward to teaching the exercises. "But when you sit in a room and face off with other human beings, stuff is going to come up."

The foundation of Willis' booklet was laid at a series of workshops she held at the Vajrapani Institute, in which participants used drawings, visualizations and movement exercises to begin to recognize how they viewed those around them. "We started with awareness of our own prejudices, writing lists of what we thought the first time we saw someone in a wheelchair, a child with Down's Syndrome, an old person driving," Willis recalls. "Not one minute had gone by before the words discomfort, frustration, mistrust, anger and hatred came up."

In her early days in India, several lamas told Willis that she had been Tibetan in a past life. The patch of white in her hair, she was told, was a mark Tibet's dharma king, Trisong Detsen, conferred on those who had helped construct the great monastery at Samten. If that were true, she wondered, why was she reborn in the body of an African-American woman? Willis now thinks she has the answer.

"Can you think of two more oppressed groups: to be a black woman in the Jim Crow South?" she asks with a laugh. "I figured I was supposed to do something with this life, I had no idea it was going to be this: developing meditations on transforming prejudice. But that upbringing made sure I was familiar with it."

Earlier this year, Joseph Jarman sat in meditation beneath the Bodhi Tree, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. It had been more than 40 years since he had first been exposed to the basic ideas of Buddhism. Now he was deep in a spiritual experience that he would forever treasure.

"I felt like I was floating," he recalls. "Even though I have meditated for 30 years, I never had that feeling. The energy was just like a barrel of water being poured down on you. It's the most positive energy I have ever felt." But there was something else about his visit to Bodhgaya that deeply struck the 63-year-old Chicago native: it was the energy of equality.

"People from all over the world come there and the most amazing thing was that every level of the human condition was right there without criticism and without conflict," he says. In earlier travels abroad, the acceptance that Jarman experienced highlighted the pervasive nature of prejudice among Buddhists in his native land. He had braced himself to encounter the same prejudice when he traveled to Japan in 1990 to be ordained at the main temple of his lineage in Kyoto. "I was on edge in the beginning, looking to see if they were going to say, 'This black guy is here, we better not eat with him.' But they all accepted me as one of them."

Still, neither Jarman nor the other black teachers I spoke to have any illusions that Buddhists elsewhere are free of prejudice. They know it's something Buddhism has struggled with since its earliest days. "The Buddha did address that, but he addressed it on the level of class differences," observes Steele, who encountered prejudice among Buddhists in Thailand and Burma during his year of study there. "Here, it is culture—the whites forgetting the issue of privilege—and that delusion causes things to go spinning off into unhealthy thinking such as racism. It's one culture interfering with another and that brings up lots of fear."

"We are all prejudiced," agrees Jan Willis. "We are all forming these judgments. In Buddhist psychology we know about this, so let's do what we do best at Buddhist centers: let's do some of these meditations that are specifically geared toward helping us recognize—become mindful of—prejudices and transform them. I want us to feel comfortable in our own skin. I think that's a starting place. Then we can see we're all human beings, and then maybe we can stand in each other's shoes," she says.

The irony that practitioners who are striving to see beyond dualism find themselves viewing their own sangha in terms of black and white is not lost on the trio.

"We gotta crawl before we can walk," says Ralph Steele. "The dualism has to be looked at. You can't say, 'It's not there.' It's like looking at the four noble truths. There's dissatisfaction and the cause of it, how to stop it and the skills of addressing it. The sangha in America is sitting under the Bodhi Tree to be awakened on this issue, and it's going to have to happen on all different levels."

There is also, the three teachers agree, the issue of what—and how—to teach would-be American Buddhists, particularly those from among the African-American and other minority communities. Steele says he chose to concentrate on Theravada Buddhism—even though he studied under many revered Tibetan lamas—in part because of its simplicity. "It's like the Apple computer," he says. "User friendly."

Willis argues that communicating the practice in a digestible form is only part of making it accessible to African-Americans and other people of color. "One part of accessibility is making it comprehensible. One part is making it affordable. One part is making the centers in places where people can get to them. One is developing things that don't require a month-long retreat.

"There have to be accommodations made. Otherwise it's going to remain a homogeneous group of people with means and free time," Willis warns. "And I think there is more to the message of Buddhism than that."

Adds Steele: "I would love to sit in a retreat that is actually diversified. Some people say it will happen. I agree, but I want to push it a little quicker so it can happen in this lifetime."

Lawrence Pintak is a freelance writer living in Princeton, Massachusetts.

"Something Has to Change": Blacks in American Buddhism, Lawrence Pintak, Shambhala Sun, September 2001.


A Serious Operation on the Mind Print

A Serious Operation on the Mind


David Swick on the ups and downs and ups of his first Goenka vipassana meditation course.

Getting up at 4 AM I kind of enjoyed. Having only tea and fruit for supper I didn't mind. Sitting for 10 hours a day produced aches and pains, but I was coping, and I could feel my mind clearing up. Everything seemed fine until the afternoon of Day 4, when I plunged into hell.

I had been practicing basic shamatha—following the breath to increase mindfulness—regularly for four years, and read widely on Buddhist history, theory and practice. I knew shamatha and vipassana were different, so I should have been ready for something new. But I wasn't prepared for a jolting surprise.

The first 3 days we practiced anapana, which is like shamatha but with more concentrated awareness. Then on the afternoon of Day 4, S. N. Goenka—on audiotape—introduced vipassana meditation. From now on, he said, we will move our concentration over every inch of the body, and we will observe the sensations.

Okay, he instructed us, start at the top of your head and observe all sensations; then move to your forehead; then down to your eyes…observing, observing…and on down to your toes, before starting the whole process again. One sweep of the body might take ten minutes or more.

These sensations, he said, are proof that the body is not a solid entity, but energy in constant motion. Every time we observe a sensation with a calm mind, instead of wanting more or wanting it to go away, we see things as they really are—that they all share the fundamental characteristic of impermanence. This, Goenka said, is what the Buddha taught.

At the break I stumbled out of the hall, in shock and unhappy. I lay on the grass thinking, I'm going to spend the next week feeling sensations? I don't want to do this! How do I know that what he says is true? Maybe the sensations are simply created by the attention of the mind. Why haven't I heard of this before? What the hell am I doing here?"

For the next three days I struggled to do the technique, while constantly debating its validity. I knew I had a classic Western mindset. I wanted proof—proof that could only be had by experience—before trying the experience. The battle raged on in my mind. I grew frustrated and tense.

On the morning of Day 6 I reached a point of crisis. During one of the three daily sittings of "strong determination"—an hour in which you should move only if absolutely necessary—scanning my chest area revealed extreme tension around my heart. I felt as if I might explode and jumped to the idea that I was having a heart attack.

Hypochondria is not one of my usual indulgences. Knowing this helped my fear gain power, and my chest set tighter. Growing more alarmed, I stopped doing vipassana and switched to shamatha, in the hope of getting grounded. And so I survived the rest of the hour. At the break I decided to go to my tent for a minute to take stock. As soon as I pulled back the flap and was alone, I fell on the floor and burst into tears. I don't cry often and was making up for some dry years. It was a hard, pounding sobbing that continued for 10 to 15 minutes.

Afterwards, washing my face in the men's washroom, I decided I wouldn't sit any more that morning. Walking back outside, though, I saw the kindly course manager looking for me. Seeing me from a distance, he turned and headed back to the meditation hall. I changed my mind then, deciding it might be best to get back on the horse, as it were, and try again.

The rest of the morning passed without incident, and at noon I signed up to talk privately with the course teacher. I told him my experience, and after verifying I had no medical condition, he said this was just another example of what happens when mind and body interact, and not to take it seriously. Sensing his conviction, I was somewhat reassured.

Before going to sleep that night I sat overlooking a creek, thinking, "Well, friends of mine have done this and liked it. Maybe I should just gave it an honest try, even if I don't believe all the theory and doubt the history. In four days, I can throw it away." That night I slept soundly, and in the morning worked hard on perceiving sensations.

The next four days zoomed by. To my surprise, I liked vipassana meditation a lot. Sensations came in all kinds: little squirrelly curls, tiny crawling ones (twice I checked for insects), big pains, tingling, cold spots, dampness. Regarding them all with equanimity was positively empowering.

On the last day, Goenka said (again, on tape) two things I was pleased to hear. If you don't believe everything I say, he said, that's fine—what's important is to practice. And: these ten days have been a serious operation on the mind, and you should see a difference in your life. If you used to get angry with your wife for twelve hours, it should now be eight hours, or six hours, or less. You should see positive change right away.

For the next three days I looked for positive change. I drove with my horn less than usual and felt more empathy for strangers, and wondered if these would last. Then proof that something real in me had changed arrived, in a rare meeting with my father. Our relationship has been strained for decades, and we only see each other briefly every two or three years. My impatience and his poor listening skills have at times made a fiery combination.

Our first hour together everything seemed, unfortunately, the same as always. Then he launched into an old family story featuring me as the punch line. I could feel anger rising but decided—uncharacteristically—not to inflame matters. I thought I'd let the episode pass, but then was amazed to hear myself explaining the other side to the story. When I finished, my father looked at me in an unfamiliar way. And then he said, "Oh."

I had explained a point to my dad without passion, and he had actually listened and heard me. This may sound like small potatoes to you, but to me it was loaves and fishes.

So I continue to practice (about half the two hours a day that Goenka suggests), and know I will return for another 10-day course. I may not yet believe all the theory, and still need to look into its claim on Buddhist history, but the practice is working for me. For now, that's all that matters.

David Swick is a former columnist for The Halifax Daily News.

A Serious Operation on the Mind, David Swick, Shambhala Sun, September 2001.

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