Reversing the Light to Shine Within

In my readings of Buddhist and Taoist literature over the years, I have often run across variations of a certain phrase, “turning the light around,” translated differently with slight changes of meaning changes depending on the context. The phrase comes from the Chinese huiguang, “turn around light”.

MP8776In the Taoist classic The Secret of the Golden Flower (as translated by Thomas Cleary, 1991), “turning the light around is a means of refining the higher soul, which is a means of preserving the spirit, which is a means of controlling the lower soul, which is a means of interrupting consciousness.” In Ch’an, originally known as the Inner Light School, it’s a term for the process of meditation: “Now when you turn the light around to shine inward, the mind is not aroused by things.” (Lu Yan 829–874).

Huiguang is also linked in Ch’an to hua-t’ou, literally “source” and essentially refers to the mind in its natural state undisturbed by thought, but often associated with kung-an (Jpn. koan) practice. In the Korean Zen of Chinul, the phrase is “tracing back the radiance,”* a specific practice of seeing the radiant nature of the mind within the present moment and then tracing the radiance back to its source. Chinul connects the practice to a method associated with Avalokitesvara (“Hearer of the Cries of the World”) of tracing hearing back to its source within the mind.

Hsuan Hua (1918-1995), the great Chinese teacher who played a leading role in bringing Ch’an to America during the 20th Century, presents a different take on this phrase, one that shines a bit more directly on our state of mind in daily life, in his commentary, “The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra.”  In this treatment of the Heart Sutra, Hsuan Hua comments on a line or few words from the text with a verse he composed and then a short explanation. Here he analyzes the first three words of the “shorter” Heart Sutra:

When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva


Reversing the light to shine within,
Avalokiteshvara enlightens all the sentient beings; thus he is a Bodhisattva.
His mind is thus, thus, unmoving, a superior one at peace;
With total understanding of the ever-shining, he is host and master.
Six types of psychic powers are an ordinary matter,
And even less can the winds and rains of the eight directions cause alarm.
He rolls it up and secretly hides it away;
And lets it go to fill the entire world.


The name Avalokiteshvara is Sanskrit; in Chinese it is rendered guan zi zai, “Contemplating Ease”. To be at ease is to be happy about everything and to be without worries or obstacles. To be unimpeded is to contemplate ease. If you are impeded, then you are not contemplating ease. Reversing the light to shine within is contemplating ease. If you don’t reverse the light to shine within, you’re not contemplating ease.

What is meant by “reversing the light to shine within”? Regardless of what the situation is, examine yourself. If someone has wronged you, you should think to yourself, “Basically, I was wrong.”

If you say, “When people don’t act properly toward me, I don’t look to see whether I’m right myself; I just smash them right away, smash their heads in so that blood flows” – then you haven’t won a victory, but have only shown your complete lack of principles and wisdom. To reverse the light to shine within is to have principles and wisdom. Reverse the light and contemplate whether or not you are at ease.

I will explain the two characters zi zai, which together mean “ease”. The zi is oneself, and the zai is where one is. I’ll say it word for word. Are you right here (zai), or aren’t you? In other words, do you have false thoughts, or not? If one has false thoughts, then one (zi) is not right here. It’s very simple. To reverse the light to shine within is simply to see whether you have false thoughts. If you have false thoughts, then you aren’t at ease. If you don’t have false thoughts, then you are at ease. That’s how wonderful it is.

“The Heart of Prajna Paramita Sutra” with “Verses Without A Stand” and Prose Commentary of the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua, English translation by the Buddhist Text Translation Society

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* Robert E. Buswell, Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen, University of Hawaii Press, 1991


White Tara

WhiteTara-thangkaIn my apartment building, people often leave unwanted items in the laundry room for others to take. I’ve gotten some good books, a nice lamp, and who knows what else that way. A week ago, someone left a Tibetan thangka of White Tara (made in Thailand) down there, and luckily I was able to grab it before anyone else did. A thangka is a painting on cloth that depicts a Buddhist figure or mandala. The one I found is exactly like the one shown on the right here, and it fits nicely with the motif of my Buddhist space in the living room where I have a statue of Kuan Yin and the Medicine Buddha. And it gives me an excuse to write a little about this Buddhist icon.

Tara is a female celestial Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, however in Vajrayana, the esoteric offshoot of Mahayana, she is regarded as a female Buddha. As far as I know, Tara is always female. Kuan Yin, on the other hand, is usually seen as male in Buddhist temples and monasteries (since they are generally run by male monks and priests), and as female by lay followers, at least that’s traditionally been the case in China.

Tara is sometimes regarded as an emanation of Avalokitesvara (Ch. Kuan Yin, Tib. Chenrezig), having originated from that bodhisattva’s tears. In Tibetan Buddhism, she is known as Jetsun Dolma.

Tara is a saviouress, who like Kuan Yin hears the suffering cries of the world; she is a Bodhisattva of Compassion; a Mother of Liberation; and in Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, a meditation “deity.”

She may have been borrowed from Hinduism, where she is a “Goddess” in Shaktism, a devotional form of Hinduism. Tara’s mantra used by Hindus and Buddhists alike is, om tare tuttare ture svaha.

There are 21 different Taras: White, Red, Green, Black, Yellow, and so on, each representing different qualities.

Occasionally, we find that White Tara is considered the female counterpart of the male form of Avalokitesvara. White Tara is also a bodhisattva of compassion, and additionally associated with health, long life, and healing. The White Tara mantra is essentially the same as the Tara mantra but with some additional words to indicate the healing aspect: om tare tuttare ture mama ayuh punya jnana pustim kuru svaha.

In 1996, at one of the first Dalai Lama teachings I attended (on Tsongkhapa’s “Three Principle Parts of the Path”), the fourth and final day was given over to a White Tara Empowerment. It was very ritualistic and symbolic, involving a “secret” mantra and a mandala that we were not allowed to see, so we were given blindfolds (I peeked, of course). Afterwards, the Dalai Lama said, “This initiation develops potentials to develop bodhisattva-nature.” I’ve attended a number of similar empowerments, and it’s usually the same thing – no one seems to have any real understanding of the deeper meaning or exactly what one is empowered to practice. Maybe I don’t talk to the right people or stick around the group long enough to find out, but I do wonder about the value of giving teachings that no one understands. However, this is standard operating procedure in the Tibetan tradition, the idea being that even if you can’t comprehend the empowerment you still form a karmic bond with the teachings, a notion I find rather dubious.

The theory behind tantra, which does not always involve some element of physical sex, is complex, especially in regards to meditations on so-called “deities.” Regardless, using icons such as White Tara and Kuan Yin as objects of meditation, or as symbols of inner qualities we should aim to cultivate, can be useful and empowering.

I feel these female Buddhist icons connect to the notion found in Chinese philosophy of yin, as in yin/yang but different from the “Yin” in Kuan Yin’s name. Yin is the female principle, passive energy that resonates with love and wisdom. It’s a kind of energy inherent in all people, regardless of gender, but may be more or less dominant according to the person.

And this is consistent with the general theory behind Vajrayana or tantra, as explained by Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta in An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism,

The fundamental theological position of the Buddhist Tantras and that of the Hindu Tantras thus becomes the same. As there is the belief in Hindu Tantras that the two aspects of the reality are revealed in the world in the form of male and female in general, so there is the belief in the Buddhist Tantras that all men and women are nothing but the manifestation of Upaya and Prajna respectively; or in other words, all men and women are Upaya and Prajna in the ultimate nature.”

As I understand it, in our ultimate nature all men and women are actually a union of Upaya and Prajna. The male aspect, upaya, means “skill in means” and refers to the methods or means used to realize awakening. Prajna is wisdom, traditionally regarded as a feminine quality (Prajna-Paramita or Transcendent Wisdom is the “mother of all Buddhas”).

yinyang_001Again, we’re not talking about gender, but inner qualities that all people possess. Yang or male energy is aggressive, hard, fast and associated with fire and the sun. Yin, female energy, is passive, flexible, soft and associated with earth and the moon. They are not opposing forces, but are complementary to one another, and indeed, they are interconnected. Yin links to prajna, and yang to upaya.

In any case, with regards to White Tara, the thangka is now hanging on my wall, and when I gaze at it, I reflect on the vision of White Tara that Lama Anagarika Govinda experienced and described in his autobiography, The Way of the White Clouds,

After some time a new change took place, and a female figure formed itself before my eyes. She had the same youthful grace as Manjusri, and even the lotus, which grew from her left hand, seemed to be the same. But instead of wielding the flaming sword her opened right hand was resting on the knee of her right leg, which was extended, as if she were about to descend from her lotus-throne in answer to some prayer of supplication. The wish-granting gesture, the loving expression of her face, which seemed to be inclined towards some invisible supplicant, were the liveliest embodiment of Buddha Sakyamuni’s words:

‘Like a mother, who protects her child, her only child, with her own life, thus one should cultivate a heart of unlimited love and compassion towards all living beings.’


1984 Knockin’ on the Door

1984George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-four takes place in the nation of Oceania where the Inner Party, headed by Big Brother, controls the government, and everything else including the people’s daily lives. Two-way telescreens are installed in apartments and homes so that the inhabitants of Oceania can be monitored at all times. Telescreens with hidden microphones can also be found in work places and public places. Privacy in Oceania does not exist.

Nineteen Eighty-four was published in 1949, 64 years ago. 1984 the year came and went 29 years ago. But, friends, today in 2013, a real 1984, a 1984 of Big Brother, of ever-present surveillance, is knockin’ on the door.

Yesterday, both The Guardian and the Washington Post revealed that the National Security Agency and the FBI are engaged in what may be the single biggest infringement of American civil liberties ever by tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, monitoring phone calls, photos, email, video, audio, documents, and connection logs. Who are these Internet companies? They are companies that offer services most of us use every day. The US government is monitoring Gmail, FaceBook, MSN, Hotmail, Yahoo, Google, Skype, AOL, and YouTube. The government’s program is called PRISM.

Read this chilling exchange on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, between the host and Glen Greenwald, an American journalist with the Guardian:

Greenwald: “Yeah, what this program enables the National Security Agency to do is reach directly into the servers of the largest Internet companies in the world, things that virtually every human being in the Western world uses to communicate with one another, and take whatever it is they want without any checks of any kind, there’s no court looking over their shoulder to see what they’re taking, and they don’t even have the check that they have to go to the Internet companies and ask for it any longer, they have been given, or taken depending on who you talk to, direct access into the pipes where all the conversations take place and can suck up whatever they want at any given moment . . .

Morgan: What this means in a nutshell, is that the NSA on behalf of the Obama administration has been secretly looking at just about any kind of communication they see fit from any American.

Greenwald: I think this is really the important point, Piers, and that there is a massive apparatus within the United States government that with complete secrecy has been building this enormous structure that has only one goal and that is to destroy privacy and anonymity not just in the United States but in the world. That is not hyperbole. That is their objective, to make it so that every single form of human communication, human interaction, human behavior can never be beyond their reach, and they have developed extraordinary sophisticated technologies and enormously expensive mechanisms in order to make that happen. And it is well past time we had a debate about whether that is the kind of country or world in which we want to live, but we haven’t had that debate because it’s all done in secrecy and the Obama administration has been very aggressive about bullying and threatening anybody who thinks about exposing it or writing about it or even doing journalism about it, and it is well past time that come to an end.

I have never been in favor of the Patriot Act. As one who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, I had hopes that he would at least place some restrictions on this law, if not rescind it entirely. But evidently, President Obama thinks this is a good thing.

The problem is that there are no checks and no oversight. The law says nothing about what the government can do with this power, and it is all done in secrecy.

The aim is to go after terrorists. Yet, throughout our history, we have always said that the United States should never engage in activity that betrays our values. This is a sentiment that President Obama has echoed often. Of course, we have failed to live up to that guiding principle on many occasions, and this is one of them. The concern, given what we now know about what the IRS has been up to, as well as other incidents in history, is that this sort of power can be easily abused. And as Greenwald noted later on the CNN program, what we have seen with the “phone records scandal” is that the government wasn’t just going after terrorists, they were targeting all Americans indiscriminately.

It begs the question from Juvenal’s Satires: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will watch the watchers?

And these from Spirit:

Knockin’ on your door
Will you let it come?
Will you let it run your life?

Someone will be waiting for you at your door
when you get home tonight
Ah yes he’s gonna tell you darkness gives you much more
than you get from the light.

Plexi-plastic eyeball, he’s your special friend
he sees you every night
Well he calls himself Big Brother
but you know it’s no game
You’re never out of his sight.

Knockin’ on your door
Will you let it come
Will you let it run your life?

It’s time you started thinking inside your head
that you should stand up and fight
Oh just where will you be when your freedom is dead
fourteen years from tonight?

Those plexi-plastic ‘copters, they’re your special friends
they see you every night
Well they call themselves protection
but you know it’s no game
You’re never out of their sight.

1984 Knockin’ on your door
Will you let it come
Will you let it run

Randy California for Spirit, 1970.


Inner Solutions

In a book called Emotional Healing Through Mindfulness Meditation: Stories and Meditations for Women Seeking Wholeness, author Barbara Miller Fishman, Ph.D. tells the stories of eight women, some of whom were dealing with extremely heavy sufferings, such as an abusive relationship, the death of a loved one, and of one woman who was depressed in her marriage and wanted to seek out an old lover. In the introduction, Fishman describes how as a psychotherapist and a student of Buddhist meditation she taught mindfulness skills to these women, specifically how to observe experience through the “six sense gates” (seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and thinking):

Reflecting for a moment, it becomes apparent that all experience has to come through these sense gates; without them, we cannot know the world. Observing experience at the sense gates shifts the focus of attention from outside us to inside us, from blame to the capacity to take responsibility for our own thoughts and feelings and the effect they have on others as well as ourselves.

Healing Buddha
Healing Buddha

It’s important to remember that while there are many external solutions to problems, the purpose of Buddha-dharma is to help us find the internal solutions. And these two approaches may at times seem to be in conflict with one another. But it is the inner world that Buddhism is most concerned with, not the outer one.

This is something I have to remind myself of constantly, even with my many years of practice, and because we have conditioned so strongly to look for solutions outside of ourselves, I think it’s is a challenge for many others as well.

Another good book that deals with this subject is Chasing Elephants: Healing Psychologically With Buddhist Wisdom by Diane Shainberg a clinical psychologist and Zen Buddhist priest. “Chasing elephants is a phrase that means looking for things outside of ourselves,” she writes. Inner healing is only possible when we quit looking for external solutions.

This doesn’t mean that we ignore or reject external solutions. They may bring justice, relief, or a sense of closure. External solutions can be very encouraging. For instance, today I met with one of my doctors to review the results of Monday’s CT scan of my liver. I was not expecting very good news. During my recent chemo treatment, they discovered 5 or 6 tumors and these treatments in the past have not been that effective. But, I was pleasantly surprised. The chemo had effectively treated all but one of the tumors, and evidently it got part of that one. This really bolstered my spirits. Even so, the encouraging news will have a short shelf life, because I still have cancer, and to put it bluntly, cancer is a real mind fuck.

I have to leave the external solution in the hands of my doctors, trusting that they know what they are doing. Obviously, as I learned today, projecting negative thoughts and outcomes doesn’t help anything. Getting angry at the doctors or their staff when things don’t go as smoothly as I like, is not good either, and getting angry at the disease is just futile. I have to work on the inner solution of healing my mind, healing the emotional wounds and overcoming the mental stress.

In Monday’s post on The Healing Aspect of Emptiness, I quoted Lama Zopa Rinpoche from his book Ultimate Healing. In the first chapter, he writes,

To fully understand disease, we have to understand [the] inner cause, which is the actual cause of disease and which also creates the physical conditions for disease. As long as we ignore its inner cause, we have no real cure for disease .  . .

If the inner cause of a problem exists, the external conditions for the problem will also exist, because the inner cause creates them.”

This idea may be difficult to accept, but this is what Buddhism teaches. Personally, I am not convinced that every problem has an internal cause. Some things just happen. Wrong place, wrong time. I am willing to accept a certain amount of randomness. But I am convinced that the only way to truly change a problem or experience healing is to own a problem internally. Otherwise, we are just left with anger, resentment, and frustration, and those are not good healing agents. Not only that, but as Buddhism tell us, there is every possibility that without this inner work, we will experience the same sort of problem endlessly.

I read that Lou Reed, the former leader of that great 60s band The Velvet Underground, had a liver transplant last month. On Lou’s website his wife, performance artist, Laurie Anderson, writes,

When I was speaking recently with a journalist from the London Times, I said ‘I don’t think Lou will ever fully recover.’ We were not talking about his physical condition . . . We were talking about how a traumatic event – a surgery or calamity – can change your life. These things make you reevaluate everything in your life. And while they mark you forever, these traumas can be extremely positive. And I think for Lou this is especially true. He gets a chance to see things with enormous perspective.”

Lou with famed Tai Chi Master Ren Guangy

I saw Lou Reed in concert in New Orleans in 1974. During the song “Heroin” he shot up onstage, or pretended to, but I understand that in the last decade or so, he has been practicing Tai Chi, an internal martial art. I have no doubt that the perspective he has these days is from the inside out.

And Ms. Anderson is right, trauma can be positive. I told my doctor this morning that I was experiencing some pain in my liver. He said, “Pain is good,” and while I appreciated that he meant pain is a positive sign of healing after a treatment, I took it philosophically as well. Pain is good. It hurts, but without it we could never learn, we would never grow.  

It is only through a relationship with my pain, my sadness, that I can truly know and touch the opposite—my pleasure, my joy, and my happiness.”

– Claude AnShin Thomas, Zen monk, teacher, and author, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace


The Healing Aspect of Emptiness

Sunyata, frequently described as the emptiness of all things, is not a term that naturally brings to mind thoughts about healing. However, it is a mistake to understand emptiness just in the negative sense, only as a negation of the “thingness” of things. We can use other words as a translation for sunyata, such as non-substantiality, transparency, and openness, which allow us to have a more comprehensive of the term. Openness, in particular, widens our view because within emptiness things are not static, rigid, predetermined, easily categorized or contained. In Buddhism, reality is not particle-like but rather space-like, and space represents the greatest openness.

Miyamoto Musashi's calligraphy of "ku" or emptiness.
Miyamoto Musashi’s calligraphy of “ku” or emptiness from The Book of Five Rings

Equality is another word that fits. As Nagarjuna taught, emptiness and interconnectedness (pratitya-samutpada) are synonymous. Because we are interconnected with one another, there is no possible way to maintain an attitude of superiority over others, nor can we immunize ourselves from the sufferings of others. Their life is equal to ours and their suffering is our suffering.

The great Tibetan lama Tsongkhapa (1357–1419)  taught that there are “three principle parts of the path”: renunciation, bodhicitta, and emptiness.

Renunciation does not necessarily mean to renounce the material world. It’s not letting go of transient things themselves, but rather to letting go of our attachments to them. Renunciation means to change our way of thinking.

Bodhicitta is the aspirational wish to realize awakening for the sake of others, the highest expression of selflessness and compassion.

By emptiness, Tsongkhapa was referring to a correct view of emptiness, or a deep understanding that things are devoid of an inherent self-being (svabhava). In other words, wisdom.

In Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry, Terry Clifford writes,

In the medical analogy of the general Mahayana, love and compassion is the medicine that cures the sickness of hatred and anger. In the higher Mahayana, shunyata [emptiness] is the ultimate medicine. Emptiness is the antidote for all poisons and defilements. Therefore, there is no need to withdraw from the world to be cured of its poisons. In fact, the love and compassion of the Mahayana demands that the bodhisattva stay in the world of passions in order to help other beings.”

In Mahayana Buddhism, emptiness is the foundation for both renunciation and the compassion of bodhicitta. However, these are not three separate parts, they are an integrated whole.

Changing one’s way of thinking is not easily done. In this respect, developing a deep understanding of emptiness helps transform our view of suffering and disease. The Buddha taught that everything comes from our thoughts, that we create the world with our mind. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, in Ultimate Healing The Power of Compassion, notes that “the mind itself is fundamental to healing disease . . . we have to heal the causes of suffering, which are in our mental continuum.”

The world we create with our mind consists largely of concepts and names (nama). Names are merely labels. We label a chair a “chair” or a door a “door,” and so on. These labels, however, are not the ultimate reality of these things. We label ourselves “I” or “self” and come to believe that “I” or “self” has some sort of substantial reality. From the false sense of “I,” distinctions are imagined and everything becomes a specific, determinate entity.

I should remind you that this is from the standpoint of the ultimate truth. In the conventional truth, of course, I exist and so do you. Yet, owning to the fact that we are interconnected, we are, in a sense, one. Therefore, no separate, substantial “I” or self-being can be asserted.

Now, as Ramanan* points out,

To seize the determinate is really to allow oneself to be misled by names; it is to imagine that different names mean separate essences; this is to turn relative distinctions into absolute divisions. When names are not seized as separate substances, then they cannot be made objects of clinging.”

With a firm grasp on the concept of emptiness we can learn to un-name, un-label. We should be able to see how “disease” is just a label. Lama Zopa writes,

All our sickness is the creation of our own mind . . . unless our mind makes up the label “I” there is no way that we can see the I. in the same way, unless our mind makes up the label “cancer” or “AIDS,” there is no way that cancer or AIDS can appear to us.”

This is a difficult concept to grasp, because I, like many others, can tell you that cancer is very real. It not only appears to me, it is substantially destroying me. And yet, cancer is empty. Lama Zopa helps us resolve this disparity in this way:

Understanding how our illness and all our other problems come from our mind is an important point in healing, because if something comes from our mind, we can control it, we can change it. Since this means that our mind has the power to eliminate disease we have no need to feel depressed or upset. Knowing how much freedom we have should inspire us and give us hope.”

We cannot say that perceiving the emptiness of cancer will cure or eliminate it. When Lama Zopa says that we can control and change it, this means that we can eliminate the control illness has over our mind. Additionally, as with any kind of suffering we might face, we can resist the temptation to give in to resentment and anger.

Having a disease need not destroy our happiness, our peace, or the quality of our life. On the other hand, the practice of meditation where we rest and calm the mind, giving it an opportunity to heal and rejuvenate, has been proven to improve both physical and mental health.

Mahayana teachings state that the cause for enlightenment is meditation on emptiness, but this is a bit of a misnomer as there is no specific “meditation of emptiness,” except perhaps in Vajrayana and tantra. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama talk about “space-like meditation on emptiness” and “illusion-like meditation on emptiness” but he has never explained these in detail. Lama Zopa talks about loving-kindness and tong-len, or “taking and giving” (a technique for developing bodhicitta where exchanges self for others, taking on the sufferings of others), as examples of emptiness meditation. Mindfulness meditation, along with reflection teaching on emptiness  presented in the Heart Sutra, can also take us there.

You might read or hear about meditations where dissolving into a state of emptiness. That only leads to nothingness. While emptiness is not anything substantial in itself, such as an absolute reality, it is not nothing. Realization of emptiness is a state of mind, a way of looking at reality differently. Emptiness itself cannot heal, but it can open our minds to healing possibilities we were not aware of before, and the mind is where a significant part of the battle against disease and suffering must be fought.

That which cannot be known is called emptiness. And yet, by knowing form, one knows emptiness. Knowing of nonexistence while knowing of existence is also emptiness. People in this world look at things mistakenly, and when they cannot understand something, call it emptiness. This is not the true emptiness. It is delusion.”

Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

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K.Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass, 2002