Don’t Lose Sight of Your Light

Buddha-nature is a fundamental dharma and a number of sutras discuss its universality, yet none of them actually use the term, “Buddha-nature.”

The Surangama Sutra, for instance, expounds the principle of Buddha-nature in terms of “pure” mind and uses the metaphor of light.

The Buddha said, Ananda and all of you should know . . . that living beings, since the time without beginning, have been subject continuously to birth and death because they do not know the permanent True Mind whose substance is, by nature, pure and bright.”

Later, the Buddha explains that living beings have lost sight of the light, the original brightness, even though it shines within them all day long, and because they remain unaware of it, they make the mistake of “entering the various destinies.”

The Surangama’s essential point is how to make people recognize their Buddha-nature. How much can you see of the Buddha-nature inside of you?

The sutra is a teaching for the Buddha’s cousin, Ananda; it is his sutra. The title, “Surangama,” means “indestructible.” Because the light is always shining within us, whether we see it or not, it is, in a sense, indestructible or unyielding. When we are able to see our Buddha-nature, and not lose sight of it, the “light” becomes the basis for the way we live and act out our life, and then this becomes our own indestructible sutra.

Not only is the purpose of meditation to cultivate a peaceful mind and rest our minds in the now, it is also a tool to help open our eyes to our Buddha-nature.  When the Buddha said to his disciples “be a lamp unto yourself,” he was telling them not to seek the light outside of their own lives, look within. In This Light in Oneself, Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote,

One has to be a light to oneself; this light is the law. There is no other law. All the other laws are made by thought and so are fragmentary and contradictory. To be a light to oneself is not to follow the light of another, however reasonable, logical, historical, and however convincing.

You cannot be a light to yourself if you are in the dark shadows of authority, of dogma, of conclusion. Morality is not put together by thought; it is not the outcome of environmental pressure, it is not of yesterday, of tradition.

Freedom is to be a light to oneself; then it not an abstraction, a thing conjured up by thought.”

So, don’t lose sight of your light.


December 8: Bodhi Day, Sad Day

River_Buddha2bToday is Bodhi Day, which in Mahayana Buddhism is set aside for commemorating the day the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautauma (Shakyamuni), attained enlightenment. From what I have seen it is predominately the Japanese Buddhist traditions that observe this day, known as Rohatsu, literally “eighth day of the twelfth month.” In the Tendai sect, the celebration is called Jodo-e or “completing the path to becoming a Buddha (through attaining enlightenment) [Jodo but with different characters means “pure land.”].

There are different accounts of what supposedly happened that morning when the Buddha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana River, most of them portray the event as some mind-blowing, almost psychedelic experience. I doubt that was the case. Regardless, all the accounts agree that what happened was a result of meditation.

Here is what the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki had to say about Bodhi Day, the Buddha’s enlightenment and meditation in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

I am very glad to be here on the day Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bo tree. When he attained enlightenment under the Bo tree, he said, “It is wonderful to see Buddha nature in everything and in each individual!” What he meant was that when we practice zazen [meditation] we have Buddha nature, and each of us is Buddha himself. By practice he did not mean just to sit under the Bo tree, or to sit in the cross-legged posture. It is true that this posture is the basic one or original way for us, but actually what Buddha meant was that mountains, trees, flowing water, flowers and plants–everything as it is–is the way Buddha is. It means everything is taking Buddha’s activity, each thing in its own way.

But the way each thing exists is not to be understood by itself in its own realm of consciousness. What we see or what we hear is just a part, or a limited idea, of what we actually are. But when we just are–each just existing in his own way –we are expressing Buddha himself. In other words, when we practice something such as Zazen, then there is Buddha’s way or Buddha nature. When we ask what Buddha nature is, it vanishes; but when we just practice zazen, we have full understanding of it. The only way to understand Buddha nature is just to practice zazen, just to be here as we are. So what Buddha meant by Buddha nature was to be there as he was, beyond the realm of consciousness.”

It is highly unlikely that the Buddha spoke the words Suzuki attributes to him, of course, but it doesn’t matter. The spirit of the words is what is important.

For many of us, each December 8 comes with a touch of sadness, for on this date in 1980, 34 years ago, John Lennon was shot to death outside his apartment building in New York City.

Turn off your mind, relax
And float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

That love is all
And love is everyone
It is knowing
It is knowing

That ignorance and hate
May mourn the dead
It is believing
It is believing

But listen to the
Color of your dreams
It is not living
It is not living

Or play the game
Existence to the end
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning


Thich Nhat Hanh, Slavery, and Phillis Wheatley the Slave-Poet

According to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hahn’s condition remains stable. As I reported several weeks ago, he experienced a severe brain hemorrhage on November 11 and has been hospitalized ever since. Evidently, the hemorrhage has slightly reduced in size, and while edema is still present, it has not worsened.

The latest press release states, “Thay continues to rest peacefully with the ticking clock on his pillow, and we sense that he is relying on his deep awareness of breathing, rooted in Store Consciousness, to guide his healing process.”

Thich Nhat Hahn had been invited to participate in an event organized by the Global Freedom Network, on December 2 at the Vatican. Leaders of the world’s major religions came together to sign a common declaration condemning slavery and to “call on the United Nations to end human trafficking and slavery globally.”

Thay was represented by a delegation of 22 monks and nuns. His prepared speech read by Sister Chan Khong, his first ordained monastic disciple.  An excerpt:

In this age of globalisation, what happens to one of us, happens to us all. We are all interconnected, and we are all co-responsible. But even with the greatest good will, if we are swept away by our daily concerns for material needs or emotional comforts, we will be too busy to realise our common aspiration. Contemplation must go together with action. Without a spiritual practice we will abandon our dream.”

In November, Walk Free, a partner of The Global Freedom Network, released a report saying “Slavery still grips tens of millions worldwide.” 35.8 million to be exact, a shocking number. Slavery in defined as “the systematic deprivation of a person’s liberty, and abuse of their body for personal or commercial exploitation.”

Tomorrow, December 6, will mark the 149th anniversary of the ratification by the states of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States of America. Although President Lincoln’s 1863 final Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves held by the Confederate States, it and the previous proclamations were but first steps in the process of freeing all slaves.

Just as the Emancipation Proclamations are important human rights documents, so too are the poems by a woman named Phillis Wheatley, and one in particular, from 1772, a poem that “provides readers with an emotional appeal of slavery, forcing readers to evaluate their views on the institution of slavery.” * When she composed the poem, Wheatley was herself a slave.

She was born in Africa, captured and sold into slavery as a child. In 1761, she was purchased by John Wheatley of Boston. He soon recognized Wheatley’s intelligence and she was taught to read and write by his 18 year-old daughter, Mary.

Phillis Wheatley became well known for her poetry, and was not only the second published African-American poet but also the first published African-American woman.

In October 1772, she was asked to write a poem for William Legge, the Earl of Dartmouth, who had just been appointed secretary of state for the colonies. The poem is entitled “To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” and the 3rd verse reads,

phillis-wheatleyShould you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Phillis Wheatley was freed on October 18, 1773.

You can read the entire poem and more of Wheatley’s work at the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Phillis Wheatley herself at Biography and Wikipedia.

And make sure you go Global Freedom Network to sign the declaration to end slavery once and for all.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Phillis Wheatley Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) Jamie Baldwin and David Townsend Candidates, Master of Arts in English Education Department of English & Theatre University of North Carolina, Pembroke


Dharma Rain

Over the past few days in Los Angeles we have been experiencing a very rare natural phenomena, something called “rain.” Water droplets that fall from the sky. Imagine that.

Whoever said it never rains in Southern California, didn’t know the half of it. I mean, it used to rain, every now and then.  We actually had some winters that were extremely rainy, but that was in the past. We’ve been in a severe drought for the last four years.  When it began to drizzle on Sunday, it was only the second time it has rained since April, and I think, only the 3rd cloudy day since then, too. In SoCal the weather is the same every damn day: relentless sunshine.

But, now . . . rain . . . lovely, beautiful, wonderful, nurturing rain. And when it comes to water falling from the sky, no one summed it up any better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who said, “The best thing one can do when it’s raining is to let it rain.”

rain3In Buddhism, the word rain is vassa or vutthi. Rain was essential for crops in India during the Buddha’s time, and they usually got plenty of it.  Rain in India can last for several weeks or a month. Not only was rain important agriculturally, but it was also critical for the sustenance of human life. Still is.

In the Samyutta Nikaya, Buddha says,

Rain sustains both slack and bold, as a mother nourishes her only child. The life of all earthbound creatures is sustained by the falling of the rain.”

The rain retreat was an important event in the year for the Buddhists, as they were generally nomadic, and it gave the bhikkhus an opportunity to rest, study, and concentrate on meditation.

Rain was equally important as a metaphor. In the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha compares himself and his teachings to rain. This famous passages appears in the “Medicinal Herbs” chapter. The Buddha describes how rain falls equally

everywhere at the same time, its moisture reaching every part. The grasses, trees, forests and medicinal herbs – those of small roots, small stalks, small branches and small leaves, those of medium-sized roots, medium-sized stalks, medium-sized branches, medium-sized leaves or those of large roots, large stalks, large branches, and large leaves, and also all the trees, whether great or small, according to their size, small, medium, or large, all receive a portion of it. From the rain of the one cloud each according to its nature grows, blossoms, and bears fruit.”

Then the Buddha describes himself as like a great cloud “having appeared in the world, for the sake of all living beings,” contemplating all things equally, and sending down the Dharma rain, filling all the world, enriching all people, and in pouring out this rain, empowering all who receive it to become Buddhas.

It’s wonderful allegory that reminds us that everyone has Buddha-nature, and while the dharma rain falls equally and has but one taste, each person absorbs the rain and is nourished by it according to their own capacity. That is how it should be. In this way, universality and individually are two but not two.

Thus, like Longfellow, I say, let it rain. Another American poet, and a much better one, Langston Hughes said,

Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby.”

This is not quite a lullaby, but this tune sung by Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, is just about the best rain song ever.