The Cure

The Rajavavadaka Sutra speaks of “those four great terrors, which it is not easy to escape by speed or strength, or to turn aside by drugs or charms or spells.” This is a reference to the Four Sufferings: birth, old age, illness and death. These sufferings are unavoidable in the course of our lives.

Modern medical science can help us to cure the third suffering of illness, and drugs are often a part of the treatment. However, there is no medical treatment as important as our own natural power to recover from illness. Our immune system, for instance is made up of different types of cells and proteins that protect us from invasion by any bacteria or virus.

Buddhism teaches that both physical and mental illness arise from the poison of ignorance, of our own ignorance. The cure for ignorance is wisdom, which begins with being responsible for our own health.

We can say that there are two causes for illness, an external cause, such as exposure to bacteria or a virus, and an internal cause. We have to be responsible for the internal. To be responsible is tremendously empowering. It requires a certain amount of self-honesty, though. It means admitting to ourselves that ultimately we are the cause of most of our sufferings, but it also means we are the solution.

Many of us excel at avoiding responsibility. I’m pretty good at it myself. The question we continually need to ask is how do we know when we are avoiding responsibility? Ego and arrogance co-conspire to protect us from the harsh truth about our tendencies. However, since they arise, like ignorance, from within our mind, they can be defeated.

We may not always win out over a illness or a particular suffering, but we can always win out over ourselves. Dharma can be our medicine. It can protect us from invasion by the poison of ignorance, the bacteria of arrogance, the virus of ego. Just as medical science helps us increase our natural healing power, Buddha-dharma helps us to tap into our inherent power and develop our natural wisdom.

Enlightenment means taking full responsibility for your life.

– William Blake



I’m getting ready to take a brief trip up north to the Bay Area and Monterey. I thought I’d get out one of my favorite novels and reread it, Cannery Row by John Steinbeck, to kind of get in the mood. Not that I need to get in the mood, but it’s a good excuse to become reacquainted with an old friend: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.”

As I was digging around for one of my three copies, I ran across Turtle Island, a book of poems by Gary Snyder, whose name certainly brings forth Northern California associations for me. Buddhism, too. Thumbing through Turtle Island, I found a great poem I hadn’t read in years, and I just had to share it with you. It’s called “Avocado”:

The Dharma is like an Avocado!
Some parts so ripe you can’t believe it.
But it’s good.
And other parts hard and green
Without much flavor,
Pleasing those who like their eggs well-cooked.

And the skin is thin,
The great big round seed
In the middle,
Is your own Original Nature –
Pure and smooth,
Almost nobody ever splits it open
Or tries to see
If it will grow.

Hard and slippery,
It looks like
You should plant it – but then
It shoots out thru the
fingers –
gets away.


Something You Already Know

Dharamsala-June 1 (

I hadn’t heard about the Dalai Lama’s remarks to young Tibetans in Dharamasala when I published my last post, although it would have been a neat trick if I had, since I wrote the post a day before he spoke. However, I had similar thoughts in mind. Paraphrasing his remarks, the Tibet Post International reports that the Dalai Lama told the young people “no [one] can say that one religion is good and another religion is bad. Usually, religion is just like medicine. We have to prescribe it according to the conditions of each patient and each disease.”

These remarks were made on June 1, the beginning of a three day session in which Tibet’s spiritual leader conducted teachings to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to young Tibetans and students in Dharamsala, using as his texts, Tsongkhapa’s In Praise of the Buddha for His Teaching on Dependent Arising and Nagarjuna’s Drops of Nourishment for People.

I have to admit that I am not as generous or ecumenical as the Dalai Lama. I’m not so sure that I agree with him about what one can say about a particular religion or that religion itself is usually like medicine. Nevertheless, in my post, I did compare Buddhism, which I don’t really consider a religion, to medicine.

I mentioned how the Buddha is called “The Great Physician” because of his diagnosis of the disease of suffering and his prescription for its treatment.

Continuing with that theme, Chapter 3 of the Bodhicaryavatara (“Conduct or Way of the Bodhisattva”) by Shantideva contains a verse that is part of a well-known “aspirational prayer”:

May I be the medicine
For all beings ailing in the world,
May I be their doctor, their nurse,
Until their every sickness has been healed.

Although Shantideva is considered the author of a great work of literature, and his poetry is praised for its profundity and depth, his book contains many “stock” phrases (not unusual in Buddhist literature), and in this instance he may have been inspired by a passage included in his other work, Siksasamuccaya (“Compendium of Doctrine), from the Vajradhvaja Sutra:

May all beings be like efficacious medicines and drugs. May all beings stay far from the poisons of greed, anger, and delusion. May all beings be like the sun arising, by scattering the veil of darkness and gloom for all beings.”

The wish to become medicine is just one expression of the greater aim of bodhicitta, the “aspiration for awakening,” which is the subject of the Bodhicaryavatara. The Dalai Lama says that

Bodhichitta itself has two aspects: aspiration and application. Aspiration is simply wishing to attain enlightenment for all beings, the desire to pursue the path. Application begins with taking the vow of bodhichitta and promising to put it into action. Aspiration is like simply wanting to go somewhere; application is actually going.”

Actually, I think it is difficult to say that any religion or spiritual philosophy by itself is medicine. The people who use spiritual teachings to improve their lives and to help others are the real medicine. Elsewhere in the Bodhicaryavatara, Shantideva says, “If the doctor’s instructions are ignored, how will a patient in need of a cure be healed by the medicine?” It stands to reason that if we don’t practice Buddhism and try to put the teachings in action through the course of our daily living, then having such an great physician and effective treatment does us very little good.

According to, the word “medicine” comes to us “via Old French from Latin medicina ( ars ) (art of) healing, from medicus  doctor, from mederi  to heal].” All of which implies action taken. A doctor engages in the practice of medicine, “to heal” means to engage in the art of healing. The Buddhist art of healing consists of aspiration and application, and both aim at healing ourselves and others. One without the other is like a one-wheeled cart: it won’t take you very far.

If you’re like me you’ve heard this sentiment about taking action, applying the teachings and so on many times. But it is such an important point that it’s good to recollect it often. Or as Woody Guthrie once said, “Let me be remembered as the man who told you something you already knew”


Five Kinds of Vision

I made a mistake the other day when I suggested that we should try to engage more in “inductive” reasoning. That should have read “deductive”. To me, the names are misleading. I get them mixed up because “deductive” calls to my mind the image of a detective assembling clues, moving toward the solution of some crime.

But now that I think I have it straight . . . Western science and philosophy is based on the inductive method, where examination is conducted systematically, step by step, until a conclusion is finally reached. Like my detective. Eastern philosophy, however, uses the deductive method, in which the conclusion comes first. In this approach, as utilized in Eastern philosophy, the conclusion is assumed to be valid until proven otherwise, and based on the conclusion it is hypothesized that if one does this, then that will happen.

So, here in the West, to even begin to understand Buddhism, we have acclimate ourselves to another way of thinking. The reason so many of us have a difficult time grasping Buddha-dharma is because we remain stuck in the inductive mode. Perhaps some of us are not even aware that this philosophy relies on a completely different mode of reasoning than we are accustomed to using.

It’s really a strange phenomena. Many people want to practice Buddhism, want to call themselves Buddhists, and yet, they are so resistant to many of its principles. There are quite a few people these days who are picking, tearing them apart, because, in my opinion, they don’t understand it. They don’t get it, so they want to prove to you that it’s not worth understanding, that it’s not really valid. I can’t begin to fathom how anyone could follow a philosophy and yet have so little confidence in it. I think that would change if they could develop more understanding of this deductive approach.

Related to this subject is the principle of the Five Eyes (panca-caksu), or five kinds of vision, which has its origin in Pali sources and was later explained in great detail by Nagarjuna in the Maha-Prajna-paramita Sastra.

The five eyes are:

(1) the physical-eye, or the faculty of sight, that sees the ordinary objects before it;

(2) the spiritual-eye sees birth and death, good and bad, causes and conditions;

(3) the eye of Wisdom sees the true nature of things, emptiness, nirvana;

(4) the eye of Dharma is inspired by the thought of universal compassion;

(5) the Buddha-eye, the eye of awakening.

It’s said that only a Buddha holds all five, but does not use them all at the same time. Only the physical-eye is innate at the beginning, the four other kinds of vision are potentialities that must be cultivated. In his translation of the Diamond Sutra, the great Ch’an monk, Hsuan Hua (founder of City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah, California), commented:

Are they produced from within or do they come from outside? The five eyes are not produced from within; nor do they come from outside: nor do they exist in the middle. Cultivate, use effort, and when your skill is sufficient you will have them naturally. Before sufficient skill is attained, no amount of seeking will cause them to function. Seeking is false thinking. Seeking without the thought of seeking brings a response.”

The four eyes preceding the buddha-eye are limited. However, the eye of the Buddha is said to be free from delusion and filled with compassion for all beings. Ascending the Five Eyes is a purification process, as Nagarjuna points out:

All the five eyes of the Buddha arise from prajna-paramita [transcendent wisdom]. The bodhisattva while cultivating prajna-paramita purifies his five eyes.”

The “five eyes” were once explained to me as five different ways of perceiving Buddhism:

(1) the Physical-eye is where we start from, simply apprehending physical objects; for instance recognizing that Buddhism is a religion with temples and priests and monks and lay people and statues, etc.

(2) the Spiritual-eye is also the eye of experience: Buddhism is viewed as a philosophy that contains excellent wisdom.

(3) the eye of Wisdom: Dharma becomes a tool.

(4) the eye of Dharma: Dharma become the focal point of life.

(5) the Buddha-eye: Buddhism is not merely a religion, a philosophy, discipline, or a way of life – it embraces all that and then goes beyond. With this eye, one has cultivated the two qualities of wisdom and compassion, but compassion becomes the primary motivation of life.

As previously stated, the first four eyes, or ways of viewing, are limited. The physical and spiritual eyes cannot see beyond mere form. The eye of wisdom sees the emptiness in form and embraces both the ultimate and relative, but compassion is not yet at the center. The eye of dharma, the aspiration to realize awakening for the sake of others, is the portal into the highest kind of vision.


When the bodhisattva becomes the Buddha the eye of wisdom itself comes to be called in turn the eye of the Buddha. As ignorance and other klesas [mental afflictions] including even their traces, will all have been concluded, (the bodhisattva) gains a clear comprehension in regard to every thing . . .  When one gains the eye of the Buddha nothing remains unseen, unheard, uncomprehended and unrecognized.”

Take this with a grain of salt. It doesn’t mean that a Buddha is some sort of superhuman being. The most significant thing a Buddha sees, hears, comprehends and recognizes is (ala Avalokitesvara) “the cries of the world”, for as Nagarjuna stated, when a bodhisattva gains the vision of a buddha, compassion becomes the sole motivation of life.

And it should go without saying, that the sort of wisdom and compassion we are talking about is cultivated only through the twin paths of meditation and ethical conduct.


The Aesthetic of Meditation is Not Broken

I recently read an interview with a guy who says that the aesthetic of meditation is broken. I must be pretty dumb, because I don’t understand that at all. Aesthetic has a number of meanings, but dash if know which applies here. He also says that Buddhism needs to improve itself by looking to the design world, although he doesn’t specify which one if any he is referring to, and he talks about delivery models. The only thing I know about delivery models is Domino’s. They usually get the pizza to my door sooner than they say it will take over the phone. That, to me, is a good delivery model.

What’s broken is our approach to meditation, and for that matter, Buddhism. People make it all too complicated. Overcoming suffering is more important than any of the above stuff, or attaining various stages of realization or becoming stream-enterers or arhats. Being a bodhisattva is more important than becoming a buddha.

That’s why in the Heart Sutra, the Buddha stays in the background and a bodhisattva takes center stage and why one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples seeks guidance from the bodhisattva and not from the Buddha. The Mahayana authors of this sutra were sending a message. They apparently didn’t feel that they could just come out and say it, so they made their point with allegory. I think they were casting the bodhisattva as the higher ideal.

The seed of this thought was sown in my mind some 14 years ago at the Dalai Lama teachings on The Precious Garland. It’s just grown since then. I supposed it might qualify as a realization. The funny thing about realizations, though, is that they’re not much use unless you act on them. That’s the hard part. Putting them into action. That means changing our behavior, the way we think, speak and act. We should be more concerned with changing our lives than with trying to redesign the dharma-wheel.

As I said, I think it’s our approach that’s broken. The problem is with us and not the so-called delivery models. For one thing, I feel that if you are analyzing meditation in terms of how it is presented or what you want to achieve or even what you experience while meditating, then you’re doing something wrong. I’m not suggesting that presentation is unimportant, but it’s not as critical as learning how to practice meditation, and no teacher can practice for you. Nor am I saying that goals are verboten or you shouldn’t observe thoughts that come up during meditation. But you have to let them go. Especially once you get up from the meditation mat.

In fact, what we do after meditation is what Buddhism is all about. The only crucial issue in meditation is to what degree we have calmed our mind and how we are able to utilize that calmness, that clearness of mind, to transform our life. The goal is to overcome suffering. The first step in conquering suffering is to accept it. I’d say that acceptance trumps just about everything else. Our Western minds are geared towards deductive thinking, analyzing everything. You may not like hearing this, but Buddhism does require a certain amount of becoming Asian and by that I mean engaging in more inductive thinking.

People have a tough time with concepts like karma and rebirth because they resist them. They approach Buddhism as if it were a belief system and they don’t want to believe anything and they damn well don’t want to be told to believe in anything. We haven’t been able to completely throw off our Judeo-Christian conditioning. That’s understandable, after all, we’ve been brainwashed. There is probably a better word to use, but it comes down to the same thing. Our previous religious experience was precisely about belief. That’s not so important in Buddhism. So, if you don’t want to believe in karma or rebirth, then don’t. Just quit resisting. Let it go. And definitely, quit griping about it.

If we can leave resistance behind, if we can let go, then it doesn’t really matter if in the end we come to the conclusion that these concepts are not reasonable or if we think that they’re the greatest things since sliced pizza. All that truly matters is that we learn to become more accepting and let go of our attachments. If you stop resisting one thing, then you can stop resisting something else. Like suffering.

I would say that an understanding of karma helps in this regard because the prime point of karma is that we create our own suffering. Knowing this on a deep intuitive level will help us come to terms with it. Another way to put this is that we want to take away suffering’s power. When suffering comes there is really no way to resist it. We have to accept suffering. To do otherwise is to be in denial.

It’s like the errant thought that arises during meditation. We recognize it, accept the fact that it has arisen, and let it go. I am suffering. I must accept the fact of it. Lamenting the fact or wishing that I were not suffering changes nothing. Meeting suffering head on in this way helps us chip away at its power to destroy our lives.

Sometimes I like to say that you just have to surrender to the dharma. People don’t like the word surrender, though. They resist it. As I am using the word, it implies acceptance, not some form of slavery. Quit fighting. Quit analyzing so much. Practice the art of acceptance.

We can examine everything in various ways and yet never escape the truth that ultimately there is not a single thing that can be seized as substantial.

But you don’t have to accept my words. You can resist them if you like. That’s your privilege. After all, I’m not enlightened. I’m not an arhat or even a stream-enterer. But please, if nothing else, heed my advice about delivery models. When you want a good, hot pizza delivered fast, call Domino’s.