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Awakening Confidence in Our Capacity for Loving Kindness: The Blessing of Dipa Ma Print

Awakening Confidence in Our Capacity for Loving Kindness: The Blessing of Dipa Ma 


"Dipa Ma exhibited no pretense, no fabrication. She was quite simple and direct, and there never was a sense that she was assuming the persona of a great spiritual being. Her lovingkindness poured out of that very simplicity and graciousness."

In the transition of the Buddhist teachings from Asia to the West, there is an understanding that doesn't come easily into our culture—the importance of confidence in oneself.

Traditional Asian teachings emphasize "Right Effort," one of the elements of the Eightfold Path as reflected in the very last thing the Buddha said to his disciples: "Strive on with diligence." Meant to be empowering and personally liberating, that message is somehow not understood in the same way in the West. Effort seems burdensome, or even terrifying. We might disdain or dismiss the whole idea that the path demands effort. At the heart of many of these reactions is, I believe, a feeling of helplessness. We might subtly think, "I can't do it. I don't have what it takes to 'strive with diligence' or to bring about a change in my actions." The dharma has worked for twenty-five hundred years, but we assume, "I am the one who will defeat the entire methodology preserved for all of these centuries!"

Because we tend to think in this way, it is so important to understand what having confidence in ourselves means. For me the person who exemplified the power of transforming self-deprecation into self-confidence—perhaps more than anyone else I have studied with—was my teacher Dipa Ma. Her teaching of Right Effort was coupled with her ability to mirror to each of her students a powerful sense of his or her own ability.

Dipa Ma was born in Bengal, and, as was customary in the India of her time, her family arranged a marriage for her when she was twelve years old. At fourteen she left her home to join her husband, who was working in the civil service in Burma. She was lonely and homesick, but her husband was gentle, and they actually fell in love and grew quite close. However, when it appeared over time that she was unable to bear a child, their happiness was tested. Her husband's family even urged him to put her aside and take another wife, but he refused. Year after year her inability to have children continued to be a source of great shame and sorrow to her. After twenty years a child was finally born, a daughter who died at the age of three months.

Some years later another daughter, Dipa, was born and lived. So significant was this occurrence that Dipa Ma acquired the name by which we know her: Dipa Ma—Dipa's mother. The following year Dipa Ma became pregnant again, only to bear a son who died at birth. As she mourned the death of this baby, Dipa Ma's health began to deteriorate severely. Just at the point when she was beginning to overcome her great sorrow and make some peace with all of the losses she had sustained, it was discovered that, at forty-one years of age, she was suffering from a severe heart condition. Her doctors feared that she might die at any moment.

Struggling with her own frailty and the possibility of her imminent death, Dipa Ma had to face yet another trial. Her husband, who had been in fine health, came home one day from the office feeling ill. Later that same day, he died. Dipa Ma was devastated. She couldn't sleep, yet on the other hand she couldn't get out of bed because she was so distraught. But she had Dipa, who was only five years old, to raise.

One day a doctor said to her, "You know, you're actually going to die of a broken heart unless you do something about the state of your mind." Because she was living in Burma, a Buddhist country, he suggested that she learn how to meditate. Dipa Ma very carefully considered his advice. She said she asked herself, "What can I take with me when I die?" And she considered the "treasures" of her life: "I looked at my dowry, my silk saris and gold jewelry, and I knew I couldn't take them with me. I looked at my daughter and knew I couldn't take her. So what could I take?" Dipa Ma's answer was: "Let me go to the meditation center. Maybe I can find something there I can take with me when I die."

Clearly everybody suffers to some degree or another in life, but it is a great mystery why some people emerge from their suffering with greater faith and determination to understand, to love, to care, to go deeper, while others do not. The Buddha said that the "proximate cause," the condition that most readily gives rise to faith, is suffering. Dipa Ma endured tremendous suffering and loss and pain, and she transformed it into motivation to find a deeper truth. Somehow, despite all she had undergone, she seemed to have a belief in her own capacity to awaken, to make something out of all her pain and suffering. She was empowered by her suffering rather than defeated.

Dipa Ma went to a monastery, so weak from her physical and emotional suffering that she actually had to crawl up the temple stairs in order to get to the meditation hall. Her motivation was so strong that nothing was going to stop her. I often think about the intensity of Dipa Ma's motivation to practice. I find it deeply inspiring to imagine her—a tiny, exhausted, worn-out, grief-stricken woman—crawling up the temple stairs to learn how to meditate, to find something that wouldn't die. The strength of our motivation is the foundation of our practice. When we nurture our motivation to be free, we simultaneously nurture the confidence that our efforts can, in fact, lead to freedom.

When Dipa Ma first started meditating, Right Effort meant simply not giving up. As she tells the story: "When I started doing the meditation, I was crying all the time because I wanted to follow the instructions with full regard, but I couldn't do so because I only fell asleep. Even standing and walking, I fell asleep all the time. I just needed to sleep. So I cried and cried, because for five years I was trying to sleep and couldn't—and then, when I was trying to do meditation, all I could do was sleep. I was trying so hard not to sleep, but still I couldn't do it."

When she went to her teacher to report her difficulty, he said, "This is a very good sign that you're falling asleep, because for five years you've been suffering so badly that you couldn't sleep. But now you're getting sleepy. That's wonderful. Sleep mindfully. Just do the meditation as instructed." With her powerful perseverance, Dipa Ma continued, and, as she relates, "One day all of a sudden my sleep disappeared, and I could sit."

Movement, or progress in the practice, is not so much a matter of learning a skill, although there are skills involved, as it is a reflection of our motivation, of our depth of commitment and care. Because of this, it isn't necessarily a sign of failure if you find yourself falling asleep all the time. What's actually happening is not as important as the willingness to open, to look, to persevere, to carry on. Unfortunately, our extremely judgmental minds find that kind of progress hard to measure. It's much easier to reflect on a meditation period and say, "Wow, this spectacular vision happened." But to look back and say, "I kept going, even though it was hard," is a true measure of progress.

When Dipa Ma began to experience the fruits of her practice, she began to say to people, "Come to the meditation center. You've seen how I was disheartened by the loss of my husband and my children and because of my disease. But now you are finding that I have changed and I am quite happy. There's no magic to it. It simply comes from following the instructions of the teachers. I followed them and I got peace of mind. You come too, and you'll also get peace of mind."

Having come through that tremendous suffering to some level of peace, Dipa Ma was left with the gift of an extraordinary ability to love and care and have compassion. Her presence itself was a blessing. Students would go up to her, and she'd put her arms around them and stroke them; she'd do that with everyone. I never saw her interacting with people in a way that excluded them or created a feeling of separation. I think that came from her own experience of pain and her recognition that we are all vulnerable to suffering. Even if the current circumstances of our lives are happy, we all share this vulnerability. Our pleasure rests on a fulcrum in a very fragile balance, and the next breath might bring something very different, something undesired. Her own sense of this fragility translated into tremendous love and care.

Dipa Ma exhibited no pretense, no fabrication. She was quite simple and direct, and there never was a sense that she was assuming the persona of a great spiritual being. Her lovingkindness poured out of that very simplicity and graciousness. She could be as interested in feeding you dinner as in hearing about your meditation practice. The expression of her lovingkindness could center on an ordinary event, but she was so completely present with everybody that it became extraordinary.

She had raised her daughter by herself in great poverty, all the time doing her meditation practice. When Dipa got married and had a son, Dipa Ma became a grandmother. She then had a great many chores and responsibilities. When someone asked her if she found her worldly concerns a hindrance, she said, "They're not a hindrance, because whatever I do, the meditation is there. It never really leaves me. Even when I'm talking, I'm meditating. When I'm eating or thinking about my daughter, that doesn't hinder the meditation."

When she was visiting the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Mass. in the late 1970's and early 1980's, I would watch her as she played games with her young grandson, both of them laughing with pleasure, then she would get up and give somebody meditation instruction, then do her laundry by hand and hang it outside on the line, then do some walking meditation, then go back in the house and sit for a while. Her grandson would be running around the room, and her daughter would be cooking and watching television, and she would meditate in the midst of all that activity. Someone would arrive and sit down in front of her; she would open her eyes and bless them, caress and hug them, and then go back to meditating. It was all quite seamless.

Later in her life, someone asked her what went on in her mind, what were her prevalent mind-states. She said, "There are only three: concentration, lovingkindness, and peace." Her consistent response to life events reminded me of the Buddha, who rested upon the same qualities no matter what situation he was in - unlike many of us, who react one way in one circumstance and another way in others. We might be filled with lovingkindness when we're all alone but have much fear and difficulty when we're with people. Or we may feel connected and happy when we're with people but uneasy at being alone. Our lives can be fragmented without this strength of integration. Dipa Ma seemed to be simply who she was, at all times and in all circumstances. I will always remember Dipa Ma for those three qualities of simplicity, love, and integrity.

The power of her tremendous motivation could be felt behind her warmth and lovingkindness. It was obvious how meditation practice had given her back her life. She did not take the practice casually in any way, and was a very demanding teacher. She was resolute about everyone's capacity to be free, and she insisted that we all do our absolute best to realize and actualize that capacity through Right Effort. She had powerful faith and confidence in each one of her students, and in the Buddhist techniques of awakening.

Once in Calcutta she was asked about a teaching that is recorded, not in the actual scriptures based on the Buddha's words, but in the later commentaries, that says only a man can be a fully enlightened Buddha. If you were a woman, you would have to be reborn as a man in a future life in order to attain the state of complete Buddhahood. Hearing this, Dipa Ma drew herself up to her full height of four feet and said, "I can do anything a man can do." In a traditional context this was a radical statement. It symbolized her conviction that the power of endeavor and motivation to bear fruit is not limited in any way.

That was the gift she gave to those who came to her. She knew, and she let each of us know, that we could be free. The practice was not meant only for somebody in a long-ago time and faraway place, not only for the Buddha sitting under a tree or for people who had the luxury of leaving their responsibilities behind. We can do it ourselves. We can be free. And our effort to be free, which we are fully capable of, is a valuable measure of our success.

In 1974 I went to Calcutta to say good-bye to Dipa Ma when I was leaving India for what I thought would be a rather quick trip home before I returned. I was convinced that I was going to spend the rest of my life in India. "I'm going back for just a short time to get my health together," I told her, "to renew my visa and get some money, and then I'll be right back." She looked at me and said, "When you go to America, you'll start teaching meditation with Joseph [Goldstein]." I said, "No, I won't," and she said, "Yes, you will." I said, "No, I won't. I'm coming right back," and she said, "Yes, you will." "No, I won't," I insisted.

The amazing accomplishments I had seen in my own teachers had convinced me that I would need to be a student for the rest of my life. I told Dipa Ma that and continued, "I'm not capable of that. I can't teach meditation." She looked at me and said, "You can do anything you want to do. It's only your thinking you can't do it that can stop you." Of course she was right.

So she sent me off to America with that blessing, which was a great empowerment. I knew the encouragement was not only about me; it was about everyone's capacity for goodness, for wholeness, for understanding, for love. We are much more capable than we can imagine. Having confidence in ourselves is not to be confused with conceit, which focuses on the individual self. Instead we can have confidence in the potential for the innate human goodness within all of us.

We are all vulnerable to pain, and, like Dipa Ma, we are capable of using painful circumstances to understand more clearly, to connect more deeply. The tremendous urgency in someone like her can spark an urgency within us to find the truth, to live in a better way, to give up counting on superficialities for happiness, to not be dependent on that which crumbles, changes, and dies. Such a deep passion for freedom, for the dharma, can evoke passion in us, and her willingness to practice through any circumstance can inspire us to do the same. With that inspiration, those times when we are uncertain and afraid can become doorways into the unknown that are as wonderful as they are terrible.

We really can do it. We can be perfect embodiments of the coherency of being that Dipa Ma revealed. We can know who we are and be who we are through all of our changing circumstances. We can transform suffering into compassion. We can do so much with this precious life, with the innate capacity of our minds to awaken and to love. Right Effort arises when we have the confidence that we can be free.

Sharon Salzberg is a co-founder and guiding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She has practiced and studied in a number of Buddhist traditions since 1970 and teaches both intensive awareness practice and the cultivation of lovingkindness and compassion. Sharon Salzberg is the author of Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness and A Heart as
Wide as the World, and editor of the book Voices of Insight, from which this article is taken courtesy of Shambhala Publications.

Awakening Confidence in Our Capacity for Loving Kindness: The Blessing of Dipa Ma,
Sharon Salzberg, Shambhala Sun, March 2000.

Click here to visit the Mindfulness Meditation Spotlight page./catchusers3/2010620/shambhalaback/Archives/Features/2000/Mar00/DipaMa.htm

Existence & Nonexistence Teachings on Dzogchen Print
Shambhala Sun | March 2000

Existence & Nonexistence

Teachings on Dzogchen by 
“If you believe there is a thing called mind, it is just a thought. If you believe there is no thing called mind, it’s just another thought. Your natural state, free of any kind of thought about it—that is buddhanature. Mind is similar to space, in that it is insubstantial, not material. Isn’t it quite amazing that something that is insubstantial is also able to experience?”

            Whatever practice you do, please do so while embracing it with the Three Excellences.
            The first is the excellent preparation of bodhichitta [Skt., lit. “awakened heart”]. The bodhisattva resolve is to form the thought, “I will attain complete enlightenment for the sake of all beings.” Engendering that motivation is a superb way to begin one’s practice.
            This excellent preparation is indispensable for all Buddhist practitioners, because we all have had many lifetimes other than this one. The pure vision of the fully enlightened ones sees that we have been through countless lifetimes. In every one of these, we had a father and a mother. We have had so many lifetimes that every sentient being, without a single exception, has been our own father and mother. Thus we are connected to all other beings, and to merely wish enlightenment and liberation for ourselves is far too limited. To achieve enlightenment in this way would mean abandoning all our parents.
            Please understand that all sentient beings, all our parents, want nothing but happiness. Unfortunately, through their negative actions they only create the causes for further pain and suffering. Take this to heart and consider all our parents, wandering blindly and endlessly through painful samsaric states. When we truly take this to heart, out of compassion we feel motivated to achieve enlightenment to truly help all of them. This compassionate attitude is indispensable as a preparation for practice.
            The excellent preparation also includes the taking of refuge. Do we actually have the ability to genuinely help other beings? Do we have the power, the wisdom, the boundless compassion to do so? At present we don’t. Who does? Only the fully awakened Buddha actually possesses the power to protect others, as well as the pure teachings on how to attain enlightenment. In addition to these two, there are those beings who uphold these teachings in an unbroken lineage. These three, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, are the only true protection and rescue for unenlightened beings.
            We should regard these Three Precious Ones as our shelter, our refuge and our escort, from now on until complete enlightenment. They embody a reliable and authentic source of protection. To entrust ourselves and place our confidence in the Three Jewels from this point until we ourselves become truly able to benefit others is called “taking refuge.” Together with bodhichitta, taking refuge is the excellent preparation. Taking refuge essentially embodies all hinayana teachings, while all the mahayana teachings are contained within forming the bodhisattva resolve.

            The second of the three excellences is called the “excellent main part beyond concepts.” This has two aspects, development stage and completion stage. This excellent main part beyond conceptual focus is a synonym for vajrayana, the vajra vehicle of Secret Mantra.
            Development stage is usually understood as visualizing the support, which is the buddha field and the celestial palace, and what is supported therein—the form of the deity. The palace and deity are considered to be the pure world and pure being. We may think that this is a product of our imagination, but in fact it is an exact replica of the original state of all things. It is how things already are in actuality—also called the great mandala of the manifest ground.
            Thus, visualization is ultimately not a matter of imagining something to be what it isn’t, but rather, of seeing it as it actually is. It is acknowledging things as they already are. This is the essential principle of vajrayana. Within this principle is contained both development stage and completion stage.
            Development stage is not like imagining a piece of wood to be gold. No matter how long you imagine that wood is gold, it never truly becomes gold. Rather, it’s like regarding gold as gold: acknowledging or seeing things as they actually are. That is what is meant by training in deity, mantra and samadhi. The body, speech and mind of the deity is contained within the three aspects of vajrayana practice called development, recitation and completion.
            All appearances are the mandala of the deities, all sounds are the mandala of mantra, and all thoughts are the mandala of enlightened mind. The nature of all apparent and existing things—of this entire world and all its beings—is the great mandala of the manifest ground, our basic state. These three mandalas are present as our ground. The practice of a sadhana is based on manifesting from this ground. Sadhana practice is also based on some very essential principles: that the tantras are contained within the statements, the statements within the oral instructions, and the oral instructions within the application of the sadhana itself.
            Let me rephrase this vital point. In vajrayana, a sadhana is the act of manifesting what is originally present in the form of the threefold mandalas of deity, mantra and samadhi. When practicing a sadhana, we are not superimposing something artificial atop the natural state of things. Rather, it is a way of acknowledging our original state, in which the nature of all forms is deity, the nature of all sounds is mantra, and the nature of mind is samadhi. This is the basic principle of development stage. And the differences in profundity between the teachings of sutra and tantra lie in how close the teachings are to the original nature. The closest, the most direct, are the Vajrayana teachings.
            What are the reasons for the development and completion stages? The profound development stage enables us to attain enlightenment in one lifetime and in one body through deity, mantra and samadhi. And completion stage means that the deity is none other than our originally enlightened buddhanature. Its essence is present as Body, its nature radiates as Speech, and its capacity is pervasive as Mind.

            Our originally enlightened essence contains within itself the awakened state of all buddhas as the three aspects of vajra body, vajra speech and vajra mind. Training in these three vajras is intrinsically contained within the profound state of samadhi, which is none other than one’s own nature. That is the starting point or source of the excellent main part beyond concepts.
            Deity, mantra and samadhi are the enlightened body, speech and mind. Vajra body means the unchanging quality which is the identity of the deity. The unceasing quality is the identity of the mantra, while the unmistaken or undeluded quality is the identity of the deity’s mind. These three vajras are complete in our buddha nature. They are also called dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya [Skt.: the three bodies, or kayas, of the Buddha; respectively, the dharmakaya level of absolute, primordial mind; the sambhogakaya level of energy, emotions and symbols, and the nirmanakaya level of manifested form].
            These profound methods of Vajrayana—practicing a sadhana, meditating on the deity, reciting its mantra, and training in samadhi—are called a quick path. The essence of this is the nature of mind. This is the unfailing, unmistaken vajra speech of the perfectly enlightened Buddha, which can enable us to attain complete enlightenment in one lifetime. This teaching has been passed through an unbroken lineage of great masters all the way down to my own root guru. While my ears have been very fortunate to receive this teaching, I myself am nothing special. Although I may take great words in my mouth, please understand that I am merely repeating what I have been fortunate enough to receive.
            It is very difficult to really learn something or to be educated in it without a teacher. You probably all know this very well, having gone to school so many years. The education we have received is something that we can make use of our entire lives. Even so, our education has not brought us even one inch closer to the state of perfect enlightenment. Our years of effort in school are ultimately of no real benefit.
            Because you are all intelligent, I think you can understand why I am saying this. No matter what we do in this life, all the information we gather and all the knowledge we accumulate and all the effort we make to amass wealth through work and business—when the time comes for us to leave this life, all of it is futile and in vain. It will not help us in any way whatsoever. I can easily say this since I am not educated at all! So I can smile and act big about this. Don’t be angry, please.
            What I’m trying to say is that we may well succeed in becoming extremely rich and gain great material profit. We can buy the most expensive clothes or manage to be famous in this world so that everyone knows our name. That is quite possible. We can pursue these worldly attainments very enthusiastically and think that there is plenty of time to enjoy them while we are in the first half of our lives.
            However, in the second half of our lives, as we age and become elderly, life starts being less fun. I speak from experience here. It begins to be difficult to stand up and to move around. You get sick more often and you start to ail in different ways. What lies ahead of you is only further sickness and finally death.
            All these disasters are lined up in front of us, and we will meet them one after the other. What comes after death is not clear to us right now, because we cannot see our next rebirth. We cannot even see if there is anything after this life. When we look down at the ground we don’t see any lower realms; when we look up in the sky we don’t see any heavens or buddhafields. With these eyes we have now, we don’t see that much.

            Please consider this: right now, you have a body, a voice and a mind, don’t you? Of these, mind is the most important. Isn’t it true that your body and voice are the servants of mind? Mind is the boss, and here comes more about mind. The five physical elements of earth, fire, water, wind and space do not perceive. Mind, in contrast, means that which can experience; that which perceives. The five sense organs of eyes, ears, tongue, nose and body do not perceive and experience. A corpse possesses the five sense organs, yet a corpse does not perceive, because it doesn’t have a mind.
            The term corpse means that the mind has departed. We say that the eyes see, that the ears hear, that the tongue tastes, the nose smells and so forth—but it is only possible for this to happen when there is a mind to experience through the senses. The moment what we call consciousness, mind or spirit leaves the body, the five sense organs are still there; but there is no experience taking place through them.
            Mind means that which knows pleasure and pain. Of all the different things in this world, only mind experiences and perceives; nothing else. Therefore, mind is the root of all states—all samsaric as well as all nirvanic states. Without mind there would be nothing to feel or perceive in this world. If there were nothing that feels or perceives in this world, the world would be utterly empty, wouldn’t it? Mind is completely empty, but it is at the same time able to perceive, to know.
            The three lower realms are arrayed according to the degree of pain experienced in each, just as the three higher realms are arrayed according to degrees of pleasure. Everything is based on that which feels pleasure and pain, which is mind. In other words, mind is the basis or root of everything.
            Mind is empty, and while being empty, it still knows or experiences. Space is empty and does not know anything. That is the difference between space and mind. Mind is similar to space, in that it is insubstantial, not material. Isn’t it quite amazing that something that is insubstantial is also able to experience?
            There is mind, but it is not tangible or substantial. You cannot say that there is no mind because it is the basis of everything; it is that which experiences every possible thing. You cannot say really that there is a thing called mind, and yet at the same time you cannot say that there is no mind. It lies beyond both extremes of being and not being. That is why it is said, “Not existent, since even a buddha does not see it; not nonexistent, since it is the basis of both samsara and nirvana.”
            If we were without a mind, we would be corpses. You are not corpses, are you? But can you say that there is a mind that you can see, hear, smell, taste or take hold of? Honestly, you can continue to search for it exactly like this, scrutinizing for a billion years, and you will never be able to find mind as something that either exists or doesn’t. It is truly beyond both extremes of existence and nonexistence.
            The absence of contradiction between these two is the principle of the Middle Way—that mind is beyond conflict between existence and nonexistence. We do not have to hold the idea that there is a concrete mind or that there isn’t. Mind in itself is natural “thatness,” meaning that it is an unformed unity of being empty and cognizant. The Buddha called this unformed unity shunyata, emptiness. Shunye means empty, while the -ta in shunyata, the ‘-ness’ in emptiness, should be understood as meaning “able to cognize.” In this way, mind is empty cognizance. Natural thatness means simply what is by itself. Our nature is just like that. Just recognize that fact, without coloring it with any kind of idea about it.
            If you believe there is a thing called mind, it is just a thought. If you believe there is no thing called mind, it’s just another thought. Your natural state, free of any kind of thought about it—that is buddha nature. In ordinary sentient beings, this natural state is carried away by thinking, caught up in thought. Involvement in thinking is like a heavy chain that weighs you down. Now it is time to be free from that chain. The moment you shatter the chain of thinking, you are free from the three realms of samsara.
            In this entire world, there is nothing superior to or more precious than knowing how to break this chain. Even if you were to scan the entire world, or piece by piece put it through a sieve in an attempt to find something more precious, you’d come up with nothing. None of the buddhas of the past, present and future have discovered an instruction that is more profound or more direct in attaining enlightenment. To ask for teachings on the nature of mind means to understand how to recognize mind nature.
            The traditional way of receiving the instruction on how to realize the nature of mind involves first going through the training of the preliminary practices of the “four times hundred thousand.” After that, you would carry out the yidam [Tib.: deity] practice, staying in retreat and completing the set number of recitations.
            Finally, after all this, this teaching would be given. But nowadays we live in different times. People are so busy that they have no time to actually sit down and go through all this training. My root guru told me once that different times were coming. He said, “If you happen to be in front of people who ask about and want to hear about the nature of mind, explain it to them. If they have the karmic readiness, they will understand, and if they do understand, they are benefited. To benefit beings is the purpose of the Buddha’s teachings. It’s all right.”
            When I was young, I often tried to do that. It’s like someone pointing out the sunrise. Often people look towards the west and see that the sunlight has hit the mountain top; that’s how they know the sun has risen. But actually what they have to do is turn around and see the sun rising in the east. When someone tells them to do so, they turn around and say, “Well, yeah, the sun is actually rising in the east!” That is how I have been teaching, and that is how I will continue to teach now.

            So: you have heard that our mind is actually empty, meaning it is not a concrete thing, and that at the same time it is able to perceive, to understand, to experience. When you hear this and think about this, can you trust it? Is it clear? Can you decide on this point?
            Our mind is empty, and yet it does think. That it is empty means there is no concrete substance with any definable attributes. And yet, mind does think. Isn’t it true that we are always thinking about the past, present or future? And aren’t we so busy thinking that we have one thought after the other, day and night, incessantly?
            This is not something that has suddenly happened. It has been going on for a long time, through countless past lives in samsara. We have been spinning around involved in one thought after another in different realms in samsara. That is the essence of samsaric existence. And if we carry on in the same way, we will be busy thinking one thought after the other until the very end of this life.
            It doesn’t stop there. Of course there is no body in the bardo [Tib.: the intermediate state between death and rebirth], but mind continues churning out one thought after the other due to habit. After a new rebirth, regardless of whether it’s in the lower realms or the higher realms or the deepest hell, everything is simply one thought after the other. Yet all the time, the very nature of all this thinking is buddha nature—the enlightened essence.
            Let me give you an example for the relationship between thinking and the nature of mind. The nature of mind is like the sun in the sky, while thinking is like the sun’s reflection in water. Without water, it’s difficult for the sun to reflect, isn’t it? Water here is the analogy for all perceived objects, for anything held in mind. If you drained the water from a pond, where does the reflection go? Does it run out with the water? Does it stay suspended in mid-air?
            Holding subject and object, perceiver and perceived in mind, is symbolized by the reflection of the sun in the pond. Without the sun in the sky, would there be any light in this world? No, of course not. And yet, one single sun is able to illuminate the entire world. This single sun is like the nature of mind, in that it functions or operates in many different ways: it has great warmth and brilliance, and through its heat it sets wind in motion. In comparison to this, the reflection of the sun is nothing. Is the reflection of the sun able to illuminate the entire world? Can it even illuminate a single pond?
            Our enlightened essence, the buddhanature, is like the sun itself, present as our very nature. Its reflection can be compared to our thoughts—all our plans, our memories, our attachment, our anger, our closed-mindedness, and so on. One thought arises after the other, one movement of mind occurs after the other, just like one reflection after another appears. If you control this one sun in the sky, don’t you automatically control all its reflections in various ponds of water in the whole world? Why pay attention to all the different reflections? Instead of circling endlessly in samsara, recognize the one sun. If you recognize the nature of your mind, the buddhanature, that is sufficient.
            Understand the difference between buddhanature and its expression, which is thoughts. Thoughts appear in many types. There is attachment, anger and stupidity; there are the fifty-one mental events, the eighty innate thought states, the eighty-four thousand disturbing emotions.
            No matter how many different types of content the mind can manifest as, they are all simply expressions of the nature of mind. The eighty-four thousand different types of disturbing emotions are like eighty-four thousand different reflections of the sun in different ponds of water. If you take the sun and put it in your pocket, you automatically control all eighty-four thousand reflections. Similarly, the very moment that you recognize your natural state, the buddha mind, your enlightened essence—in that same moment, all eighty-four thousand types of disturbing emotions are simultaneously vanquished.
            All the different thoughts we can have are either of the past, present or future, so they can be called past thought, present thought, or future thought. The Tibetan word for thought is namtok. Nam means the perceived forms of the five senses and the mental objects. Tokpa means the concept formed about what is perceived. Sentient beings are constantly busy producing namick, making one idea after the other about what is experienced. This thinking of your own mind’s thoughts is exactly what hinders and obstructs liberation and enlightenment.
            If we try to stop thinking it only gets worse. You cannot shake off or throw away the thinking. Can you throw away your shadow? Can you somehow cut the flow of thought created by your own mind, maybe by detonating a nuclear bomb? Will this stop the mind from thinking? It will kill you, sure, but your thoughts will continue in the bardo and into the next life. Is there anything else in this world that can stop the mind from thinking?

            To stop thinking, you need to recognize your essence. It’s like seeing the sun in the sky just once—forever after, you know what the sun looks like. If you chase one reflection of the sun after the other, you’ll never be able to see all possible reflections. There is no end to that. The sun in the sky is the real sun, and without it, there would be no reflections. Its reflection in the water is only an imitation.
            In the same way, all thoughts are only expressions or displays of your essence; they are not your essence itself. Without being free of thought, without the thinking having dissolved, vanished, disappeared, there is no way to be liberated or enlightened. There is a saying: “Use the thought as its own antidote.” In the same way, the reflection of all suns comes from the original, real sun. If you recognize the real sun in the sky, there is no need to chase around after all its reflections in this world in order to see the sun.
            The most important thing is your empty, cognizant mind. Its natural emptiness is dharmakaya, also called empty essence. Your natural ability to know and to perceive is cognizant nature, sambhogakaya. This being empty and being cognizant are an original unity. The famous statement “unity of empty cognizance suffused with awareness” refers to your own nature, the essence of your mind.
            After having been pointed out your nature and recognizing your essence, you see that there is no “thing” to see. As I have repeatedly said, “Not seeing a thing is the supreme sight.” We need to see that. It is seen the moment you look, and in the moment of seeing it is free, liberated.
            This seeing may last no longer than a few seconds, perhaps no longer than three snaps of your fingers. After that brief period of time, we either get carried away by the thought of something, or we become forgetful. This happens to all ordinary sentient beings. From beginningless lifetimes until now, we have been continuously carried away by forgetfulness and by thinking.
            The moment you recognize, it is already seen. There is nothing extra remaining that you missed. This is not like space looking at itself, because space does not see anything. When your mind, which is cognizant, recognizes itself, you immediately see that there is no “thing” to see. It is already seen in the same moment. At that very moment there is no thought, because the present thought has naturally vanished.
            The moment of recognizing mind nature is called ordinary mind, whether you talk about Mahamudra, Dzogchen or the Great Middle Way. When recognizing, don’t do anything to it; don’t try to correct or improve it; don’t alter it by accepting one thing and rejecting another, motivated by hope or fear—don’t do anything to it. An ordinary person is involved in conceptualizing with the present thought. Don’t conceptualize with a present thought. Present thought means wanting or not wanting, with hope or fear. Just disconnect from the present thought; don’t follow it up. The moment you are free from thoughts of the three times, that is the buddha mind.
            You don’t have to try not to think the present thought. We need to train in just letting go of what is thought of; that is the practice. In this letting go there is not even a dust mote to imagine, so it is not an act of meditating. At the same time, do not be distracted from this for even one second. It’s like trying to imagine space, because there’s nothing that needs to be imagined or meditated upon. Do you need to imagine anything to imagine space?
            When we hear “Don’t be distracted,” we may think that we have to do something in order to be undistracted. People usually think that trying to remain undistracted is some kind of deliberate act. This would in fact be so, if the aim was to maintain a particular state of concentration for a long time. Deliberate action would be necessary in that case. But I am not telling you to do that. The moment of natural empty cognizance doesn’t last very long by itself, but that’s perfectly okay. You don’t have to try to prolong that moment; rather, repeat it many times. “Short moments, many times”—this is the training in uncontrived naturalness. Uncontrived naturalness means you don’t have to do anything during that state. It’s like ringing a bell. Once you ring the bell there is a continuity of sound; you don’t have to do anything in order for the sound to continue. Simply allow that continuity to endure by itself until at some point the sound fades away.
            At the moment of recognizing your mind essence leave it in naturalness, simply as it is. If you keep striking the bell, the sound is interrupted by the effort. Just leave that recognition be without altering it. That is the way to not lose the continuity. Soon enough the recognition will vanish by itself. As beginners, naturally we will forget after a bit. We don’t need to try to prevent that or guard against it with great effort. Once distracted, again recognize. That is the training.

            Every level of teaching has its own purpose, and even though the very heart of the Buddhadharma is to recognize mind essence and train in that, still, there are obstacles and hindrances that need to be cleared away and enhancement practices that need to be done.
            An obstacle is something that prevents us from remaining in the natural state. These can be cleared away by certain practices. There are also ways to improve or enhance our practice and to deepen our experience. These two—clearing hindrances and enhancing—are extremely useful.
            Outer obstacles are connected with our environment; inner obstacles with our physical body, and innermost obstacles with our thought patterns. To dispel these, it’s extremely beneficial to do the preliminaries and the inner practice of deity, mantra and samadhi. Hindrances need to be removed, as they are the result of negative deeds that obscure our nature. Relying on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and on the guru, yidam and dakini as support quickly clears away hindrances.
            Enhancement practices, for instance, are to develop devotion to the enlightened ones and compassion for sentient beings. Devotion and compassion strengthen the recognition of mind nature. Other practices also further enhance mind essence; however, the Third Karmapa stated the most essential point when he said: “In the moment of love, the empty essence dawns nakedly.”
            In the moment that either devotion or compassion is felt sincerely, from the core of our heart, there is really nothing to obscure us any longer. The more we train in devotion to all enlightened masters, buddhas and bodhisattvas, the more our progress in recognizing mind essence will be enhanced. In exactly the same way, generating loving kindness and compassion for all sentient beings will also help tremendously to enhance our realization of buddhanature.
            Let us conclude this teaching by engaging in the last of the Three Excellences, the excellent dedication. As a result of having studied these teachings, please dedicate the merit and make aspirations for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Tulku Urgyen Ripoche (1920-1995) was one of the great Dzogchen masters of this era. He studied and practiced both the Dzogchen (Skt.: Maha Ati) teachings of the Nyingma school and the Mahamudra teachings of the Kagyu school, and was the Dzogchen teacher of the late sixteenth Karmapa. Over the course of his life he spent more than twenty years in retreat, including four three-year retreats. Tulku Urgyen established six monasteries and retreat centers in the Kathmandu region, where today his teachings are continued by his sons Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Chöling Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. This article is excerpted from As It Is  and is presented with the kind permission of Rangjung Yeshe Publications. ©1999 Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
Existence & Nonexistence Teachings on Dzogchen, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, March 2000.


Zen Talks and Poems Print

Zen Talks and Poems

By (1876-1958)

“Strangers to this Zendo usually are unable to see anything more than its atmosphere of quietness," said Nyogen Senzaki. "The vastness lying beyond can only be detected by those who know what real Zen practice is all about.”

A Lecture on Meditation: For Beginners

Quietness is an element in meditation, but merely striving to attain quietness leads nowhere. It is like putting a paper bag over a cat’s head: it will walk backward but will never be able to advance. A cranky old man who scolds children for making noise violates with his loud voice the very quietness he upholds. The same thing happens when one forces himself to enter quietness. It is only when one forgets both the world of noise and the realm of quietness that one is able to enter into the kingdom of true silence. This, however, is not what we are gathered here for, either. Watching movies or resting in the park is just as good as sitting here in this Zendo, if what you want is quietness. Strangers to this Zendo usually are unable to see anything more than its atmosphere of quietness; the vastness lying beyond can only be detected by those who know what real Zen practice is all about.
You should not even for a moment think that you are dwelling in quietness. You are the students of nonthinking—what right have you to enjoy your tranquillity! Just march on bravely, regulating your breath and working on your koan, if you have one. Zen meditation is the most simple method in the world for mind training. Meditation is complicated and difficult only when one becomes more interested in his own opinions and ideas than in disentangling himself from all traces of dualistic thinking. As Nanin once said: “Unless you empty your teacup, I cannot fill it.”
A beginner aims to empty his mind and tries to drive all thoughts away. But aiming and trying are also thoughts! So aiming and trying keep one from one’s goal, of becoming emptiness itself. When you think you are in emptiness, you are not in emptiness. When you think you have discovered your Buddha-nature, you are far away from it. When no thought arises, there is no need to drive thoughts away. When nothing is born, nothing dies. When nothing is good, nothing is bad. What you never had, you will never miss. What you do not see does not disappear. What cannot increase cannot decrease. This is true emptiness. This is samadhi. When you enter into this condition, then you are walking in the Palace of Realization. Never to think—even for a moment—that you are enlightened: This is the ideal of Zen meditation.

As a wanderer in this strange land forty-two years,
I commemorate my teacher each autumn.
Now, on the sixth floor of this hotel,
He gazes at me as severely as ever.
“How is the work, Awkward One?”
He might be saying to me.
“America has Zen all the time. Why, my Teacher,
    should I meddle?”

Namo Tasso Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhassa!
        (November 2, 1947)


I have been asked to explain what realization is, but if it could be explained it would not be realization. While you are kneading the dough of your thoughts, you cannot enjoy the bread of realization.
Confucius said:

My friends, do you think I was hiding it from you?
No! I would never do such a thing!
It was only that you were unable to see it.

Walking through the forest of many thoughts, just keep on walking until you find yourself cornered in a place that admits neither of advance nor retreat. Here your knowledge will be of no avail. Even your religion will be unable to rescue you. If you are really eager to enter realization, just go straight ahead, holding tenaciously to the question “What is realization?” March on bravely! Surrounded by enemies, use your own sword; in the center of the battlefield, carve out a way for yourself. There will come a time when all of a sudden you will lose hold of your sword and at that moment—behold! You will have gained your true self.
“All sacred books are like poor candles to the sun,” said Kosen, comparing them to his own realization. Jakushitsu once said:

Didn’t I tell you it was there?
You could have found it without any trouble at all.
The south wind is warm;
The sun shines peacefully;
The birds warble their glad songs.
Spring blossoms in every treetop.

Zen is not a puzzle; it cannot be solved by wit. It is a spiritual food for those who want to learn what life is and what our mission is in this world. Mere scholarly pursuits will never lead to realization. Zen is not so much a religion as it is the essence of life itself, the naked truth of the universe, which is none other than the experience of Mind.
He who feels uneasy in his inner life can come to Zen and find clear understanding and real joy. Zen does not propagandize. There is no need. All will come, sooner or later. Some will come from the literary class, along with some deep thinkers. Sorrow and struggle may lead others to Zen. But however you come, however you are led to Zen, you must come with a clear conscience and a pure heart. You must come with a desperate desire to see life as it really is; and must not permit anything to keep you from this, no matter how many blind alleys of religious creeds you may have stumbled into in the past.
You may read all the books in all the libraries in the world; you may write thousands upon thousands of pages of your own thoughts. But if your mind is not thoroughly clear; if your knowledge does not come from the real source—you will never know who you are, you will remain forever a stranger to your true self.

Early in the morning
In the western sky,
One star blinks at me.
I love its green light.

My friends, do you say
You could not sleep last night?
The heat of this late summer bothered you;
You could not find any cooler place.
Why did Bodhidharma come to China?
The question, I know, also bothered you.
Wait until the evening sun colors the mountains
With its gentle ray.
You get more than coolness at that moment.
You meet the blue-eyed monk face to face.
        (October 7, 1951; Commemoration of Bodhidharma)

In This Lifetime

I could show you my clenched fist and open it like this—and bid you all good night. Unfortunately, however, educated on this side of the Pacific, you Westerners are somewhat deficient in intuitive matters, and so I am forced to give as a substitute, dualistic explanations, though that’s not at all the way to express Zen.

Man began by assuming that the things about which he wished to learn existed outside of himself. Wondering what that is, he established so-called “science,” which is the study of thatness. Soon, however, he discovered that his science explained only how things are, not what they are, and so man turned inward. Seeking to understand what this is, he established psychology and epistemology. Together these constitute the study of thisness. But, paradoxically enough, when the mind itself thus became an object of study, it ceased being this and became that. The experience of true thisness had been rendered impossible by the very nature of man’s science (which can only understand thatness).
Of course Zen monks in China and Japan do not traffic at all in thisness or thatness. Somehow they manage to live quite happily and peacefully, for all that! Do you want to know the trick? They dwell in the region of what is known as suchness. Here is a story:
One day Seppo, a Chinese Zen master, went to the forest to cut down some trees. His disciple Chosei accompanied him.
“Don’t stop until your ax cuts the very center of the tree,” said the teacher.
“I have cut it off!” answered the disciple.
Seppo said: “The old masters transmitted the teaching to their disciples from heart to heart. How is it in your own case?”
Chosei threw his ax to the ground and said, “Transmitted!”
The teacher suddenly took his walking stick and struck his beloved disciple.
See how intimate these two woodcutters are! Monks are by nature co-workers, whether meditating in a Zendo or laboring out of doors. Priests, on the other hand, are just like actors, cooperating beautifully onstage, but once offstage, fighting together like cats in the green room. This is why Buddha prescribed that a monk’s life should be as simple as possible, and used his own life as the model. The two monks in this story are true followers of Buddha. Together they carry the lamp of Dharma, the wisdom of suchness. No doubt about it!
The teacher said: “Don’t stop until your ax cuts the very center of the tree.” He was an expert woodsman as well as Zen master. Many Americans are currently seeking Truth, visiting classes in philosophy one after another, and studying meditation under various Oriental teachers. But how many of these students are either willing or able to cut through to the tree’s very core? Scratching halfheartedly around the surface of the tree, they expect someone else to cut the trunk for them. Such people should stay in church where they belong, praying to the Supreme Being so that It will do their work for them. Zen wants nothing to do with such mollycoddles!
Chosei had caught the sparkle of Zen before his teacher had even finished, and so he said, “I have cut it off!” He was such a quick worker that he thought, acted and spoke at the same moment. This is realization in this lifetime.
Seppo was pleased and said: “The old masters transmitted the teaching to their disciples from heart to heart. How is it in your own case?” Chosei threw his ax to the ground—now that should have been enough! I can’t figure out why this upstart had to spoil everything by adding, “Transmitted!” The teacher’s blow came in no time, and Chosei certainly deserved it. Man is destined to fall at the very moment he thinks he has attained the summit. Those who declare themselves as having attained something are not genuine Zen students. We say in Japan, “The mouth is the cause of all troubles.” It sure is! When it takes in too much, it causes indigestion; when it speaks out too much, it hurts even a friend’s feelings. Basho once wrote a haiku on this; here is an English translation:

When I say a word
Oh my lips shiver
In the cold wind of autumn.

Someone wrote a poem about this woodcutters’ story; I will read it for you and so close my speech.

Chosei had a good ax.
It was sharp enough
To cut a stump in two
With a single stroke.
Seppo made his big stick
A whetstone to sharpen it even more.

Thank you.

Have a Cup of Tea

One time long ago in China there was a white-haired priest famous for his greeting. As students would arrive for Zazen he would say to them, “Have a cup of tea.” When an old monk would come to his room, the greeting would be the same. Often strangers would stroll by the temple gate, and after asking them to come in and seating them on tatami near the Buddha, he would have a cup of tea with them. Eventually his young assistant grew weary of the repetition of “Have a cup of tea” night and day, and so said to the priest: “Why do you have to keep repeating the same thing over and over again?” Looking into the young man’s eyes the old priest replied: “Have a cup of tea.”

Zen monks are unique people—fanciful and bizarre, spontaneous action comes naturally to them. They are full of whimsy and surprise. Though conventional people consider them eccentric and strange, they sail on through, oblivious to the world’s opinions and judgments, like ships keeping an even keel on high seas. I am one of these strange monks; I too like to say, “Have a cup of tea.”
Once you have lifted your cup, turn it twice and bow. Something happens in the taking of tea that is more than tea and more than politeness. Two can turn to one and the taste be filled with wonder.

One day at dusk an American tourist dropped some coins into a box at the entrance to a Japanese Buddhist shrine. After pulling the cord, to which a bell was attached, she bowed before the Buddha. A priest came out from the shadows and, bowing in turn, beckoned to her. As she went toward him he said, “This is the first time I have ever seen a tourist bow. Won’t you come in and have a cup of tea?” They sat together on tatami behind the huge bronze Buddha. He lit some incense and a candle, and placing them on a low table close by, began to talk. He had been to America ten years before. He wondered how life was there now. With television and highways, all of that speed and power, he wondered what effect such things were having on the individual citizen. Speaking with affection of Whitman, Thoreau and James, remarking how Zen they were, he said: “American youth will learn from them.” Then in silence he whisked the tea—young leaves from old trees grown in the shade, old leaves from young trees grown in the sun. The sun had gone down; dark shadows moved across the paper door. As his guest prepared to leave, he placed a bundle in the palm of her hand. Prayer beads. His own. “These beads are old. I am old. Please take them to America and keep them near you.” She looked up at him and bowed.

Yes, it is the taste that matters—the flavor of the moment, of people and places. When I make a cup of tea for a guest, I become a servant; when my guest receives the cup with naturalness and ease, he becomes the host. This is the taste of tea and the essence of ceremony.
Most Zen monks are indifferent to formal skills, styles and techniques. They prefer to improvise, in accordance with place, mood and people. Once a friend of mine—a monk from another temple—took five Zen students to the country, where they walked in the woods, rode bicycles, swam and danced in the moonlight. When the air became chilly and darkness descended, they lit lanterns and retired to a rustic shelter. In a cluster of pines, facing a walled-in garden, they picnicked around a low wooden table next to a burning stove. When the water began to boil it sounded like a soft breeze coming through a pine forest. The night was shadowy and still. My friend the priest turned to his hostess and asked her to bring him the largest bowl she had. She went to the kitchen and returned with a vegetable dish made of clay in the shape of a giant cup. Sitting at the head of the table, my friend looked out into the night, smiled a quiet smile to the guests—most of whom had been trained in ceremonial tea; one was even a teacher from Tokyo—and bowed. “I will now present a most presumptuous bowl of tea,” he said. With precise gestures and a gentle elegance he folded paper napkins and placed one in front of each person. The student next to him picked up her sandwich, breaking the bread into small pieces which she passed around the table. With a simple but courtly grace the priest picked up a tin spoon and scooped out seven portions of powdered green tea. Then he poured boiling water into the bowl, whisked it until a jade-green froth appeared on the surface. He turned the bowl twice, putting the most beautiful side away from himself and toward his guests—some of whom were old, some young, some Eastern, some Western, some Jewish, some Buddhist and some Christian. Each in his turn took the bread and ate. Each one drank from the same cup. Then the priest began to chant, the soft tones of his voice flowing through the very bloodstreams of the assembled guests. At that moment, everybody was nobody. Like the table. Like the bowl and sky. A sip of Zen. A sip of tea. Or was it wine and a wafer?

Nyogen Senzaki was the first great Zen master to live and teach in the United States. Trained in both the Zen and Shingon traditions, he worked at mostly menial jobs for the first 17 years after his arrival in 1905, giving occasional Zen talks when he could afford to hire a hall. In 1931, he established the Mentorgarden Zendo in Los Angeles; from 1942-1945, he was interned as an enemy alien. Nyogen Senzaki died in 1958. These talks and poems are from Namu Dai Bosa: A Transmission of Zen Buddhism in America, by Nyogen Senzaki, Soen Nakagawa and Eido Shimano. ©1976 by The Zen Studies Society. 

Zen Talks and Poems, Nyogen Senzaki, Shambhala Sun, March 2000.

Riding the Crest of the Wave Print

Riding the Crest of the Wave


“In subtle and in more obvious ways, the experience of birth and death is continuous," says Judy Lief. "All that we experience arises fresh, appears for a time, and then dissolves. It is as if we were riding the crest of a wave in the middle of a vast ocean. That arising and falling of experience is our life; it is what we have to work with.”

We could look at our life as a whole as a journey from our birth to our death, but we should not stop there. We could take a closer look.
What is our experience of life right now? What is our experience of our life moment to moment? When we look into our immediate experience, we realize that not only is our life as a whole bounded by birth and death, but each moment within that journey is also bounded by birth and death. So it is not just at the end of our life that we encounter death; we are confronting death at every moment.
Death begins with ourselves. It is a part of our life, a part of who we are. Much as we try to keep them apart, death and life cannot be separated; they are completely interwoven. So the boundary between life and death is present all the time, not just when we gasp our last breath. This may not be so hard to grasp intellectually, but experiencing it personally is another matter. It requires that we change our whole approach.
Cultivating an awareness of the immediacy of death is a threat to everything we hold dear. It is a threat to our self-image, a threat to our attempt to make our world solid, a threat to our sense of control, and a threat to our desire to keep death as far from our life as possible.
We have this notion of me and my solid life: “Here I am, ‘me,’ in my solid life, and somewhere on the border of that is this threatening thing called ‘death.’ There is this ‘me’ that I know and love, and then there is ‘death,’ out to get me.” We think, “At some point—but not now!—I am going to have to relate to this thing because I know it’s out there and eventually it’s going to catch up with me.”
It is as if our life is a line that grows longer and longer over time. Inch by inch we fight to extend it until eventually the Great Scissors comes and—Chop!—that’s the end of our particular line. We know it is a losing battle, but we are afraid to let down our guard. As a result we freeze up, like old rusty engines in need of oil.
We maintain that frozen approach to life by distracting ourselves from our immediate experience. When we are not just zoning out, we keep ourselves occupied with thoughts of the past and the future. Over time we keep adding more stuff, and we are afraid to let go of any of it, just like a bag lady with her shopping cart. By holding onto those memories, we try to keep what is already past alive. When we are not busy thinking about the past, we are speculating about what’s going to happen in the future. By speculating and planning we try to make future possibilities a reality.
To make ourselves feel more solid and real, we continually blur the lines between past, present and future. We try to force all of that into one airtight package.  Although it is a struggle to maintain, we prefer this struggle to the tenuousness of the present moment—and for the most part, it hangs together pretty well. But in fact our life is not one solid thing from beginning to end.
At any given moment, one part of our life is already gone and the other part of it has not yet happened. In fact, a great deal of our life is gone for good—everything up to this very point in time. If you are thirty, for example, that means that your first twenty-nine years are dead and gone already. They will not be any more or less dead and gone in the future, at the time of your physical death, than they are already. As to the rest of our life, it has not yet happened, and it may or may not ever happen. The boundaries of our life are not so clear cut. The distinction between life and death is not black and white.
We do not actually live in either the past or the future, but in that undefined territory where past and future meet, on the boundary of what is gone and what is to come. That boundary is vivid but not all that substantial. It is the cutting edge of our life and death. The past is at our back, just an instant behind us, nipping at our heels; and the future is totally questionable. Directly ahead of us we see our death closing in on us. We are caught between those two throughout our life, from our first breath to our last.
It is as if we were riding the crest of a wave in the middle of a vast ocean. What is immediately behind us is constantly disappearing as we ride the edge of the wave; and as we are propelled forward, we can neither turn back nor slow that wave’s powerful momentum.
The practice of mindfulness is a way to become more familiar with that undefined territory where past and future touch. Through meditation practice, gently, step by step, we learn to make friends with death as it arises in our immediate experience. We begin to reconnect with the immediacy of life and death here and now. On that cutting edge, death is our constant companion.
Practically speaking, if we want to be more at ease with our own death and better able to help others as well, we need to develop our awareness of this moment-to-moment encounter of life and death. Mindfulness practice is a powerful tool for doing so.
Birth and death are close at hand, not just in the distant past and the distant future. They can be seen in the birth and death of each experience as it arises and dissolves. At first it is difficult to stick with the experience of the immediacy of death; it is a little too close for comfort. But as we become more familiar with this experience, our awareness begins to expand so that our personal experience of the reality of birth and death is ongoing rather than sporadic.
Mindfulness practice starts very simply, with what is most close at hand, the breath. What is our experience of each breath, as if comes and goes? The breath is our most simple, and perhaps most profound, connection with life and death. Our life begins with an inbreath and ends with an outbreath. So our breath has weight; it is fraught with meaning. It is not just dead air. With each breath we can feel that contrast of life and death, that slight edge of discomfort. When our breath goes out, it just goes; it doesn’t come back. Every time that happens there is a subtle threat, a tiny flicker of doubt: “Wait, I’ll hold a little bit of breath back, in reserve, just in case. I need you. Don’t just go!” And when we breathe in, we think, “Thank heavens! You’ve come back! I’m still alive!” It couldn’t be more basic.
As a byproduct of the cultivation of mindfulness, we begin to notice similar boundaries and meeting points throughout our experience. We begin to take note of our thinking, for instance, as a process rather than just a collection of thoughts. Thoughts seem to arise out of nowhere: by the time we notice them, they are already there—we don’t know how they got there, they are just there blithering away. But as we settle down and look further, we begin to see that they come and go too, just like the breath. Thoughts go through a cycle of birth and death, just like we do. Like people, thoughts arise from nowhere, they hang out for a while, and eventually even the most stubborn thoughts fade away.
In subtle and in more obvious ways, the experience of birth and death is continuous. All that we experience arises fresh, appears for a time, and then dissolves. What we are experiencing can be as subtle as the breath or the thinking process, or as dramatic as losing a job, getting a divorce, or losing our life. That arising and falling of experience is our life; it is what we have to work with. As we go about our lives, and especially in working with the sick and dying, we should never forget that we too are dying.

Acharya Judy Lief is strange indeed. You’d think after all these years she would actually have learned something useful, but oh well. Fortunately she has lots of friends to keep her occupied and lots of irritations to keep her freaked out. She’s getting pretty old now, but who isn’t? Her favorite food is Irish whiskey and she loves to hang out at the Lower Deck. Please read her article, because otherwise you will hurt her feelings. [ed.: Judy Lief is a senior teacher (acharya) in the Buddhist and Shambhala traditions. She is the executive editor of Vajradhatu Publications and editor of the Dharma Ocean Series of teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. She is the author of Making Friends with Death: A Buddhist Guide to Encountering Mortality.]

 This article was originally published in the March 2000 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.


Rooting Around Print

Rooting Around

By The roots of a word, says Barry Boyce, contain a rich bank of associations and metaphors that reveal the marvelous ways in which disparate ideas link and interrelate.

Some 2500 years ago, ancient Indian grammarians contemplated how it is that sound becomes meaning. Panini, who is thought to be the first in human history to scientifically study speech and language, wrote that when the mind has the intention to speak, it “gives impetus to the fire within the body and the latter drives the breath out.” In this way, words are born.
Following in his footsteps, the great grammarian Patanjali, whose philosophical breadth and depth has been equated with Aristotle’s, wrote of shabda (Sanskrit for sound), the ether from which words are formed. Other grammarians would go on to say that shabda was a quality of the sky, of space itself, invisible but not eternal, capable of being produced and destroyed. Yet others wrote that speech derived from a primordial shout.
Bombarded as we are with words upon words—written, spoken, chattered and electronically generated—effortlessly spent as if we are dropping small change on the ground, we easily become blind to the profound magic of speech. It becomes simple to treat words as so much blather to be expended in the run of a day. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
It’s occasionally worthwhile to take the measure of words, to listen to them and roll them about in our mind, to hear how we shape the air with our mouths and lips and nose and cut it with our teeth and produce something that gives birth to an idea in the world or unleashes storms of response.
When I studied grammar in school, it trained me to think of language as a pre-constructed entity with rules to be followed, rather than as a dynamic act that both follows rules and makes the rules as it goes along. Words are an ongoing consensual creation that spark and snap in each new usage. They have shape, but they move and evolve. Their meanings cannot be pinned down in a dictionary. A good dictionary can paint a picture or point in a particular direction, but definitions are themselves made of words, so as we seek to find the definition of a word, we follow a path of synonyms into infinite regress.
Having gained some appreciation for the wonder of words and their liveliness, I took up the pastime of searching for the roots of a word and contemplating the ideas and images that gave it birth. In English, the roots of many words can be found in Latin and Greek and in the language that most likely predated them, called Indo-European, the mother language also of Sanskrit, German, Russian and a variety of other languages. It is a mistake to look to etymology for the current meaning of a word, but it can show you a rich bank of associations and metaphors that reveal the marvelous ways in which disparate ideas link and interrelate.
I used to sit for hours in the dictionary area of the library and pore over the volumes of Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanic Etymological Dictionary, discovering, for example, that the Indo-European root sed, to sit, through various transformations over the millennia gave us sit, set, ersatz, settle, saddle, soot, seat, seance, sedentary, sediment, session, siege, assess, dissident, obsess, possess, preside, reside, subsidy, supersede, subside, sedate, soil, and chair.
This potpourri of simple, physical terms like saddle and chair and more complex notions like session (a sitting together) or preside (to sit in front of) or possess (to have the power to sit with, therefore to own) all derive from the basic notion of sitting. Complexities boil down to simplicities.
Over the years, a few words have become favorites of mine, where the etymology can reveal something about the word that says even more than the word itself. In celebration of the subtle power that lies in words, I would like to share a few of these, all of them words that are virtues.
The first is “subtlety,” which comes from the Latin subtilis, which originally meant “the thread passing below the warp, the finest thread.” Subtlety then is the kind of thread that is very hard to see but which nonetheless is vital to the integrity of the whole fabric. It’s a beautiful image that speaks to why it’s so important to pay attention to subtleties.
“Abide” is from Old English abidana. Bidan meant to remain, and the a intensified it, so it meant “intensively to remain,” “to remain completely, utterly.” To abide is to stay when there is the temptation to go, not to move when one is drawn to move. There is great power in abiding. As is said so powerfully of the title character at the end of the movie The Big Lebowski, “The dude abides.”
“Ardor,” an older synonym for “zeal” or “passion,” comes simply from the Latin ardere, to burn. To pursue something with ardor is truly to be filled with fire or to be on fire; the metaphor behind the word is as powerful as the word itself. To have ardor is to burn, to be hot, and others can feel it in your presence.
“Religion,” a word that carries such baggage today, most likely came from the Latin verb religare, to tie fast. The point of religion in human life may be some kind of binding, to be bound tightly to something that provides strength and union, be that God or gods or the practice of meditation. Perhaps, the binding is the key, not a belief system.
Such explorations in words are simply a means to enrich the appreciation of the breadth and depth of even a single word, so that we might value each of them all the more, knowing their lineage and the richness of their personality. For all of their shortcomings and their vagueness, words are after all the main vehicle we have to reach out from the vastness of our own mind.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

Rooting Around, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, March 2000.

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