Shining Through Suffering

Like everyone, I experience brief periods of depression from time to time, but I don’t think I have ever felt as blue as I have this past week. Not in a long while anyway. It’s not just the death of my cat. I’ve dealt with the death of loved ones before. I’ve counseled people who have suffered the loss of loved ones. Tara’s death has served as the catalyst for bringing up a multitude of  . . . stuff. Feelings about my life, where it’s going, where it’s been, etcetera  and etcetera.

I haven’t been able to focus on much of anything. Haven’t felt like focusing. At the same time, I haven’t felt like engaging in self-pity, feeling sorry for myself. Let’s just say, I’ve had better weeks.

Somewhat perversely, there may be nothing more effective for taking you out of the depths of your own suffering as witnessing the sufferings of others.

I’ve been watching the Casey Anthony trial off and on. Today I thought I would tune in for a moment or two to see what was happening and there was George Anthony testifying yet again. I have a lot of empathy for George and Cindy Anthony. To lose your only grandchild like that and then to have your own daughter accused and possibility guilty of murdering her – their pain must be excruciating.

Today, George Anthony testified that he was so grief-stricken over the loss of his granddaughter Caylee that he wanted to kill himself. In a statement that mirrors my own feelings about Tara, my cat, he said, “I believe I failed her.”

From the outside, George Anthony looks like a tough guy. A hardened ex-cop. But earlier in the day, he broke down while on the stand. As he wept, the judge asked if he need to take a break and he replied no, that he wanted to continue. He said, “I need to have something inside me to get through this.”

My first thought was “You already have something inside.” Yet, as soon as the thought appeared, it seemed insufficient. We hear it all the time: the answer is inside you. The truth is within. How many times I have written something similar to that just this month. After a while, it begins to sound trite I suppose . . . and insufficient.

For some reason I thought of This Light in Oneself by Jiddu Krishnamurti. I got it off the bookshelf and turned to the section from which the book gets its title:

Most of us, if we are at all aware of our inward confusion [want clarity]. Let us see if we can come upon this clarity, so that your mind and your heart are very clear, undisturbed, with no problems and no fear. It would be immensely worthwhile to see if one could be a light to oneself.”

I wondered, how is it possible to see a inner light when everything inside you is ablaze with the flames of incessant suffering?

To do that requires meditation . . . We are going to see for ourselves if we can come upon the state of mind that is always in meditation. To lay the foundation for that meditation one must understand what living is, living and dying. The understanding of life and the extraordinary meaning of death is meditation. It is not searching out some deep mystical experience, not a constant repetition of a series of words . . . That only makes the mind quiet, but it also makes it rather dull, stupid, mesmerized. You might just a well take a tranquilizer . . .

But Jiddu, I’d like to take a tranquilizer. I wish I could get my hands on some. I’d like to tranquilize myself for about a month.

We all want to accept someone who promises something, because we have no light in ourselves. But nobody can give you the light: no guru, no teacher, no savior, no one.

So, I guess pills are not the answer either.

He tells us not to accept authority, to follow no one, that there is no path. I’m not sure if I am familiar with Krishnamurti enough to know if he means this is same way that the Heart Sutra does, or if he is speaking literally. Either way, it still feels insufficient.

But It will always be insufficient, because the truth of this light in oneself is a lonely truth. In the end, we are left to our devices. Meditation is but a tool, not a tranquilizer that makes everything wonderful after we take it. Only we ourselves can make meditation work for us. It would much easier if there really was a God to absolve all our sins or a celestial Buddha in a Pure Land whose name we could chant with the confidence that after we die, we’ll be in paradise.

Yet, the fact is that it is by oneself that we must do the work of grinding through the hard karma and the jagged emotions that belong to us alone. This lonely truth doesn’t condemn us to loneliness, however.

We stand-alone but we are not solitary. We’re not talking about cutting ourselves off from others, living in a forest as a recluse or residing safely behind monastery walls. If we experience loneliness, it is only because we are forgetting how we are interconnected with everyone and everything around us.

We are standing in the real world where real suffering takes place and it’s much harder to cross over suffering here. We can’t hide. No one can take away our sufferings. No one can give us the light. But I think that when we get that light to shine in this place, it shines brighter because it reflects all the lights shining within others.

Elsewhere in the book, Krishnamurti says,

We are going together to investigate what it means to be a light to oneself, and see how extraordinarily important it is to have this light.”

We are going together . . .


Qian: The Creative Principle

Qian: The Creative Principle

I’ve been studying the I Ching, or “Book of Changes”, off and on for over a decade now. And consulting it. I’ll toss the coins to see what hexagram they correspond to and then study the text. I’ve thought about doing I Ching readings as a little sideline but have never gotten around to it. The I Ching is often called “The Oracle” but the truth is that it’s no more a soothsayer than a Ouija board or one of those 8-balls you turn over to get a smart alec answer to some question posed (I had one as a kid; the answer I always seemed to get was “Not very likely.”).

At the same time, the I Ching is incredibly complex. Based on the interaction and balance of yin and yang, the I Ching explains how life is a process of movement and change. There are 64 hexagrams (2 trigrams each) composed of six horizontal lines that are either solid (yang) or broken (yin) and may be moving (indicating cyclic reversal) or fixed. From the 64 hexagrams, there are over 4000 possible permutations. It does not divine the future, but it does distill wisdom. Carl Gustav Jung, the famous Swiss psychoanalyst, studied the I Ching for years. He once said that it was a challenge to

feel one’s way into such a remote and mysterious mentality as that underlying the I Ching. One cannot easily disregard such great minds as Confucius and Lao-tse . . . much less can one overlook the fact that the I Ching was their main source of inspiration.”

If you look beyond the entertainment aspect, you’ll find that the advice given by the I Ching, pertaining to patterns of movement, stillness and transformation, relate not only to the way we view our world and live in it, but also to our spiritual practice. I’ve read many times that Taoist meditation has its origins in the I Ching and based on Jung’s comment, it seems like a reasonable statement.

A solid line represents yang, the creative principle. Yang also symbolizes other principles or qualities; however, the subject today is creativity. I am defining creativity in the same way that American existential psychologist Rollo May did in his book The Courage to Create: “its authenic form – the process of bringing something new into being.”

Creativity is not the exclusive property of artists. Each of us are constantly engaged in a creative process. Mostly, in the act (or art) of creating our lives. How we create is through thoughts. Meditation and texts like the I Ching can help us initiate creative thinking by suggesting new avenues of thought for improving and enhancing our quality of life. Being creative, though, doesn’t necessarily mean being original. Creativity is often just a procedure of collecting other thoughts, concepts, and experiences we come across as we fare along the Way and learning how to apply them.

So here are some thoughts you can collect today, from the I Ching and the first hexagram Qian, the creative principle:

The power of creativity is vast and great, it is the source of all things. Clouds form, rain falls, and everything develops in their proper forms.

Qian: Pure Yang, Creativity.


Creativity is successful and sublime. Good fortune comes from perseverance in the right way.

Structure and Imagery of the Hexagram

With 6 unbroken lines, the hexagram denotes strength. Its primary image is Heaven, representing the primal creative power of the universe. Its the source of all things, and is constantly in motion. The hexagram has 4 attributes: benevolence, virtue, justice, and perseverance (wisdom).


Creativity initiates change and everything obtains its true nature. When change is used to strengthen character and achieve harmony with nature, the result is beneficial and correct. In this way, aspirations are fulfilled and harmony is established. A sage understands the relationship between beginning and end, and comprehends how the lines of the hexagram reach completion, each in their proper time.

As the text states, Qian is pure Yang, signifying movement and change; it is associated with strength and male energy, which is hard and firm. Qian is called “opening the door”, indicating new beginnings.

Creativity in this sense is the strength of mental energy, initiating energy. Strength can also mean the courage to be honest with yourself. Or, staying true to your original vision, holding on to your values. Success in both thinking and acting comes from your level of consistency and perseverance.

Yet, if in using Qian, you are unyielding, this can be dangerous. The text states that “an overbearing dragon causes regret.” In China, the dragon is regarded as a symbol for wisdom and dignity and sagehood. So, it says that a dragon must have “an understanding of end as well as beginning, of retreat as well as advance, of failure as well as success.”

The I Ching wants us to understand the path of change. In term of spiritual development, change means personal transformation. When we are strong in character, and strong enough to win over ourselves, the result is beneficial to both ourselves and others. The tao of creativity is to become skillful at transformation so that all will find their true nature and destiny, and in harmony with each other, create meaningful lives.

The creative act is an intense experience of the present, and as such, timeless.”

– Lama Govinda, The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism


Critiquing the Heart Sutra

The Heart Sutra is a Buddhist text that explains how prajna-paramita (transcendent wisdom) goes beyond fundamental ignorance to penetrate ultimate truth or things as they really are. This wisdom is not intellectual knowledge, rather it is an intuitive wisdom that when uncovered leads to the transcendence of suffering and the flowering of compassion. The Heart Sutra is also a practice in that it teaches a method for training the mind.

The other day while browsing some Buddhist blogs, I ran across a blogger who had analyzed the Heart Sutra in terms of which parts are formulaic, advertising, meaningless filler, repetition, stuff that is wrong, stuff that is weird, and actual content. Even the term prajna-paramita was classified as just unimportant religious formula and therefore, unnecessary. In the end, everything judged to be of no value was removed and there was not much left. Well, this is nothing new. Indeed, the sutra was crafted from a process of reductionism.

It’s likely that the precise history of the Heart Sutra will never be known. There is some disagreement among scholars as to whether it originated in India or China. Some maintain the sutra was composed in 1st century CE by a monk of one of the early Buddhist schools. Other scholars date it several centuries later. I think it was probably “composed” by a number of people, one or more of whom added elements that are not found in the Prajna-paramita sutras (Avalokitesvara/Kwan Yin from the Lotus Sutra) and there is a strong influence from esoteric or tantric Buddhism whose practitioners had a keen interest in distilling Buddhist teachings into short phrases (dharani and mantra) and eventually into single letters (bija or seed syllables).

The Heart Sutra is based on the collection of 40 Prajna-paramita Sutras. These were first redacted into the Maha Prajna-paramita Sutra with 100,000 lines. Following this was a 25,000 line sutra, an 18,000 line version, a 10,000 line sutra, a 8,000 line version, and eventually a 40 line version which is the essence of the Heart Sutra as we know it today. Around 250 CE, we have the first mention of a Prajna-paramita dharani (Chih-ch’ien), and later, a mantra: Tadyatha Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasam Gate Bodhi Svaha, which was further trimmed down by hacking off Tadyatha and Om. Finally, they condensed the Heart Sutra into a single bija or seed syllable, dhihmma, and then shorted it to simply dhih.

This centuries long process was undertaken for specific reasons, and while one aim was to negate the most fundamental concepts of early Buddhism, it was not a complete negation. After the negations, the concepts are then reaffirmed, only now in a new light, in the transcendent light of going beyond. On one hand the authors offered up a critique and on the other they presented an valid alternative view.

As many of you know, there are two versions of the Heart Sutra, a long version and a short one. The longer one has a prologue where the Buddha enters into a samadhi called “perception of the profound” (observation of emptiness) and an epilogue where he praises Avalokitesvara. The short version is normally used for recitation. In my opinion, every word is important and necessary, especially in the shorter version. This is a cryptic text. Each word has meaning, is a symbol, represents a thought, a concept. The Heart Sutra, in one way or another, discusses every major concept in Buddhism, and I would go even a step further to say that it touches upon nearly every philosophical idea known to the world. How is that possible in such a short work? Well, that’s the genius behind the text. It’s like a form of shorthand.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Heart Sutra is so sacred that it can’t be altered or subjected to different interpretations. I’m just saying that this carefully crafted work shouldn’t be filtered through one’s personal preferences or gutted for the sake of post-modernism or secularism.

In the context of Prajna-paramita literature, the term prajna-paramita means transcendent wisdom. This concept is perhaps even more central to the sutra than the concept of emptiness. Paramita means “crossing over” or “going beyond.” When Avalokitesvara sees that the five aggregates are empty of self-being, the sutra says that he was able to “cross over all suffering.” [The sea of suffering, the raft, the other shore, nirvana.] This implies real transcendence: the wisdom that goes beyond not only the extremes of conceptual thinking but suffering as well.

The relevance of the mantra at the end (“gone, gone, gone beyond, gone far beyond . . .”) to the rest of the sutra is that it serves as a coda, summing up the sutra. And yet it has further significance. The mantra is a call to action, it implores us to go beyond, go beyond our preferences, our preconceived notions, our attachments, the limitations we place on ourselves, the limits of our mind – go beyond everything, entering into a new realm of insight and wisdom, which in the end means seeing things differently than we did before, seeing things with a pragmatic and intuitive kind of wisdom.

By the way, the phrase “crossing over all suffering” is not found in either the Sanskrit or Chinese versions. It’s usually added to English translations for clarification, to further emphasize the point of transcendent wisdom. The text is altered in this way for the purpose of clarifying  and supporting the sutra’s message.

So then, before we start to critique of this little gem, I suggest we try to practice it, study it, develop a basic understanding of the meaning and how it uses words and meanings to describe prajna-paramita which goes beyond words and meanings.

There are some very good books on the Heart Sutra. One of the best is Heart of the Universe by Mu Soeng Sunim. It’s very short and offers an excellent explanation of emptiness. Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart of Understanding is also short and captures the positive spirit of the sutra. Elaborations on Emptiness by Donald S. Lopez Jr. is excellent as well, although I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book as it’s a rather scholarly presentation from the viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhism. Red Pine’s The Heart Sutra and There Is No Suffering: A Commentary on the Heart Sutra by Master Sheng Yen and Chan Master Sheng-yen are also fine. I found Essence of the Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings to be somewhat light, but it’s not a waste of time.

Here I am reciting the Heart Sutra in English. The text of the sutra is below.

Great Heart of Transcendent Wisdom Sutra

Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, while practicing deep Prajna-Paramita, clearly saw that all five Skandhas are empty and crossed over all suffering. Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness; emptiness does not differ from form. Sensation, perception, volition, and consciousness are also like this.

Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness: Not beginning, not ending, not stained and not pure, not increasing and not decreasing. Within emptiness there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; no seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no touching, and no thinking; no realms from sight to mind; no ignorance and no ending of ignorance, no old age and death and no ending of old age and death; no suffering and no beginning and no ending of suffering, no path; no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.

Therefore, the Bodhisattvas rely on Prajna-Paramita, the most excellent wisdom, and with no hindrance of mind, no fears and no illusions, they enter into Nirvana. All Buddhas from the past present and future practice in this way and awake to complete and perfect enlightenment.

Therefore, know that the Prajna-Paramita is the great bright mantra, the great transcendent mantra that relieves all suffering. Know this as truth and declare:

Gone, Gone, Gone Beyond, Gone Far Beyond, Be Set Upon Awakening!


“In every human heart, there is a Symphony of Nature”

A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend to The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in Pasadena. It’s a private nonprofit collections-based research and educational institution established in 1919 by Henry E. Huntington. He was a railroad magnate and among his many holdings and operations were the famous “Red Car” trolleys here in Los Angeles.

Since our interest that day was on the Botanical Gardens, we just breezed through the library at the end. The collection is rather eclectic. Apparently, it’s the only library in the world with the first two quartos of Hamlet. They also have the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a Gutenberg Bible on vellum, the manuscript of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, the first seven drafts of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and the double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. And then to show that they’re not snobbish when it comes to literature, there’s a collection of manuscripts and first editions of works by Charles Bukowski.

We didn’t see any of that stuff. We did check out Gainsborough’s Blue Boy, though. When Huntington purchased it for $700,00 in 1921, it became the second most expensive painting in the world. Number One was da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Neither are even in the Top Ten Today.

But we went The Huntington to stroll through the gardens and they’ve got more than a dozen of them, including the Desert Garden, with more cacti than you can shake a stick at; the Japanese Garden, with a Zen rock garden and a bevy of bonsai trees; a beautiful Rose Garden; and the Liu Fang Yuan or “Garden of Flowering Fragrance.”

It was a typical June Gloom day with grey skies overhead, but that didn’t stop me from taking beaucoup photos. Today, I’ll just share three. You can see the rest at my photo site here. The text is from “A Chinese Garden of Serenity” translated by Chao Tze-chiang.

In every human heart, there is a Symphony of Nature . . .

Natural scenery – such as the azure mists on the hills, the ripples on the water, the shadow of a cloud on a pond . . . all of which are existent and yet non-existent, half-real and half-unreal – is the most agreeable to the human heart and most inspiring to the human soul. Such vistas are the wonder of wonders in the universe.

When the wind blows through the scattered bamboos, they do not hold its sound after it has gone . . . So the mind of the superior man begins to work only when an events occurs; and it becomes a void again when the matter ends.

A drop of water has the tastes of the water of the seven seas; there is no need to experience all the ways of worldly life. The reflections of the moon on one thousand rivers are from the same moon: the mind must be full of light.


Cultivating Appreciation for Sufferings

A vital element in our practice and understanding of dharma is a sense of appreciation. In the way I’m using the word, it’s not the same as gratitude. Gratitude is a feeling in response to something received – a kindness, a gift, an opportunity. Appreciation, on the other hand, is a quality that should always be present and is not dependent upon any external causes. It goes beyond merely being an aesthetic admiration of the beauty and wonder of life. We develop this sense of appreciation at the very core of our being and it encompasses everything we observe and experience. That includes appreciation for our sufferings.

We naturally want to avoid suffering. We seek freedom from life’s miseries. Buddhism is supposed to help us attain nirvana, which is freedom from sufferings. In Mahayana, we say that sufferings are nirvana. Many people wonder how that makes sense. How can nirvana be the very thing we are seeking to escape?

Understanding “sufferings are nirvana” begins with the recognition of a simple fact: it is only through suffering that we can even approach nirvana. It’s like the simile of the raft. You’re on this shore and in order to reach the other shore, where nirvana awaits, you must cross over the sea of suffering. There’s no other way. You have to do it.

In Shoji (“Birth and Death”), Dogen wrote,

When we see that sufferings are themselves nirvana, there is no need to avoid suffering or to seek nirvana. Only with this understanding is there a possibility for freedom from birth and death.

“Birth and death” is often a metaphor for Samsara, this mundane world we inhabit, and because Samsara is permeated with suffering, so it too is a metaphor, representing suffering itself. What Dogen is saying is that nirvana can be found only in the here and now, in this world, in the midst of suffering.

He also says that there is no need to avoid suffering, but the truth is we cannot avoid them. Now, he’s actually referring to the non-dual nature of sufferings and nirvana, and he may not have also had the idea of cultivating appreciation for suffering in his mind when he wrote those words, but they certainly lend themselves to that additional interpretation.

Appreciation for one’s sufferings may be a hard concept to wrap our minds around, but when you consider, for instance, that suffering can be a teacher, it starts to make sense.

I didn’t pay that much attention in the past when people would tell me about the loss of a pet. Kinda like baby pictures. To me, all babies look the same. Ho hum. Yawn. But now I know what it feels like to lose a beloved pet. When I hear of someone’s loss in the future, I’ll be able to feel their pain. I had to do through my own suffering to be able to see the suffering of others. My personal suffering taught me a lesson.

A small lesson, perhaps, and yet, that’s what life really consists of – small things. The big stuff, the large events of life come few and far between, actually. Typically, life is just a series of small moments. That’s one reason why mindfulness practice is so beneficial. Because mindfulness helps us to become aware and have appreciation for the small, present moments that make up our life. And the small lessons.

Appreciation is a prerequisite for awakening. We often think of awakening as being this big, esoteric thing. A quality of an elevated state of being. But awakening, too, essentially is rather small. At least, it starts out that way. It’s just being aware of the moment you’re in. Thich Nhat Hanh came up with a little verse I like a lot:

Breathing in, I am happy.
Breathing out, I smile.
I am in the present moment.
It’s a wonderful moment.

That moment may be joyful or sorrowful. Buddhism doesn’t make any distinctions between what sort of present moments are worthy of our awareness. Nevertheless, whether the moment is good or bad, if you have appreciation, it’s wonderful. To be able to see it in that way is the essence of awakening, perhaps even the key to freedom.

We cannot avoid sufferings, so when they come, try to cultivate appreciation. It’s hard to do, but within your suffering is something very valuable for your life. Remember that irritation is the stimulation that produces a pearl. Should a tiny grain of sand get inside an oyster’s shell, the oyster coats the irritant with layers of fluid, and from that coating, a pearl is formed. No irritation, no suffering – no pearl.

My present tribulation is not so heavy,
And will be beneficial;
Let me be glad of a suffering
That redeems the world of its suffering.

– Shantideva, Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life