Archive for January, 2007


dealing with noise- meditation

Carol, one of my meditation students, lives in a very noisy apartment in New York. She wrote: "The subway train is right across the street, the police/fire station is right around the corner, and to top it all off there is a dance club on the bottom floor of my building! I’ve tried pretty much everything – earplugs, music, meditating at work instead of home – the only thing that really works is just to let it go and stop fighting it, but sometimes the noise will still yank me out of concentration."

I replied as follows: "I think I used to live in that apartment, except that it was in the city center of Glasgow, Scotland. I think you’re on the right track by stopping fighting the noise. Take that one step further and appreciate the noise – embrace it. As you prepare for meditation, really notice and appreciate all of the noise around you.

Call to mind the living, breathing, feeling human beings behind the noise and wish them well. And then accept that noise as part of your meditation practice. Stay loosely focused on your breathing, and let the noise be a sort of secondary focus of the practice – like the ring around the bull’s-eye. If you stop seeing the noise as the enemy of the practice and instead see it as part of the practice, then the conflict will vanish."
Trying to fight the noise is unlikely to work. The noise is not going to go away because you don’t like it. If you respond aggressively to it then you’re just getting yourself into a fight that you cannot win. In that apartment in Glasgow I had a dance club across the street, a taxi stand outside the windows, and a washing machine through the wall from where I meditated. When the washing machine got noisy, for example, what I would do was embrace the noise, just as I suggested to Carol.
I’d take this even further. What I’d do was reflect that the noise of the washing machine was a perception that existed in my consciousness. Since the noise of the washing machine was in my consciousness, and since my consciousness was meditating, then I reasoned that the washing machine was also meditating.
Realizing this made the washing machine noise just another part of my experience, like the sense of weight on my cushion, or like my breath, or like the emotions in my heart. It was no longer something separate from me that was interfering with my practice, but was a part of my practice.
Doing this, such noises could cease to be a problem altogether, and actually seemed to enrich my experience of meditation. Of course the logic in the above paragraph may not be entirely sound! But the important thing was that in creatively finding a way to stop seeing the noise as an enemy and to start seeing it as just another part of my experience – and a possible aid to may practice – it actually became an aid to my practice.

Genjo Koan: Actualizing the Fundamental point

As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.
As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.
The buddha way is, basically, leaping clear of the many and the one; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas.
Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.
The experiencing of the myriad things through using oneself is delusion; the experiencing of oneself through the coming of the myriad things is awakening.
Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realization, who are in delusion throughout delusion.
When buddhas are truly buddhas they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.
When you see forms or hear sounds fully engaging body-and-mind, you grasp things directly. Unlike things and their reflections in the mirror, and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated the other side is dark.
To study the buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no trace continues endlessly.
When you first seek dharma, you imagine you are far away from its environs. But dharma is already correctly transmitted; you are immediately your original self.
When you ride in a boat and watch the shore, you might assume that the shore is moving. But when you keep your eyes closely on the boat, you can see that the boat moves. Similarly, if you examine myriad things with a confused body and mind you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.
Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expressions of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.
This being so, it is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death. Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth. It is an unshakeable teaching in Buddha’s discourse that death does not turn into birth. Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.
Birth is an expression complete this moment. Death is an expression complete this moment. They are like winter and spring. You do not winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.
Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and area moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water.
Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot hinder enlightenment, just as a drop of water does not hinder the moon in the sky.
The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realizes the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky.’°
When dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it is already sufficient. When dharma fills your body and mind, you understand that something is missing.
For example, when you sail out in a boat to the middle of an ocean no land is in sight, and view the four directions, the ocean looks circular and does not look any other way. But the ocean is neither round nor square its features are infinite in variety. It is like a palace. It is like a jewel only looks circular as far as you can see at that time. All things are like this.
Though there are many features in the dusty world and the world beyond conditions, you see and understand only what your eye of practice can reach. In order to learn the nature of the myriad things, you must know that although they may look round or square, the other features of oceans and mountains are infinite in variety; whole worlds are there. It is so not only around you, but also directly beneath your feet, or in a drop of water.
A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air. However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its realm. If the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.
Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be the bird and life must be the fish.
It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies. Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.
Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it, this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now.
Accordingly, in the practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it&emdashdoing one practice is practicing completely.
Here is the place; here the way unfolds. The boundary of realization is not distinct, for the realization comes forth simultaneously with the mastery of buddha-dharma.
Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your consciousness. Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.
Zen master Baoche of Mt. Mayu was fanning himself. A monk approached and said, "Master, the nature of wind is permanent and there is no place it does not reach. Why, then, do you fan yourself?
"Although you understand that the nature of the wind is permanent," Baoche replied, "you do not understand the meaning of its reaching everywhere.
"What is the meaning of reaching everywhere?" asked the monk again. The master just kept fanning himself. The monk bowed deeply.
The actualization of the buddha-dharma, the vital path of its correct transmission’ is like this. If you say that you do not need to fan yourself because the nature of wind is permanent and you can have wind without fanning, you will understand neither permanence nor the nature of wind. The nature of wind is permanent; because of that, the wind of the buddha house brings forth the gold of the earth and makes fragrant the cream of the long river.

No trace left behind

Her ordination name means ‘true emptiness’, but Sister Chan Khong, a close aide to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, has had a very rich, fulfilling life.
How long and shiny and black it must have been – the hair that is no longer there. Those who knew Cao Ngoc Phuong, the previous incarnation of Sister Chan Khong, invariably recall her long silky tresses. They would flow in the wind as she rode her motorcycle around the city of Saigon, or nearby villages, on her numerous charity and peace missions. While penning countless petitions on behalf of the Boat People, migrants from her homeland, the ever-buoyant Phuong might gather her hair up into a bun, using nothing fancier than a pen to hold it in place; helping others always meant far more to her than personal beauty.
Two physical features seem to have defied the passage of time, however. Her youthful, some would say angelic, voice, and her eyes – eyes that still shine, as luminous as those of a child. Floods of tears have flowed from them on countless occasions; tears of joy as well as tears of sorrow. But those eyes miraculously maintain their vigour – their unextinguishable zest for life.
Now in her mid-sixties, Sister Chan Khong is as busy as ever. A close aide to Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh for over four decades now, she has been the driving force in various peace campaigns, dharma classes and the day-to-day running of Plum Village, the religious community in southern France. One follower went so far as to say, "That Plum Village has become what it is today, and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s [Thich Nhat Hanh’s] teachings is to a great extent a result of Sister Phuong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath."
Others, including Thich Nhat Hanh himself, put it more simply: Sister True Emptiness is a bodhisattva, a saint of compassion.
"My students are also my teachers. I learn so much from them. Sister Chan Khong (True Emptiness) is among the foremost of these. [She] has a great capacity for joy and happiness. That is what I appreciate most in her life. Her unwavering faith in the dharma is strengthened each day as she continues to enjoy the fruit of transformation and healing born from the practice. Her stability, joy, and happiness are wonderful supports for many of us in Plum Village and in the circle of the greater `sangha’. Working for social change and helping people are sources of joy for her. The love and concern that underlie her work are deep. True Emptiness is also true love. Her story is more than just the words. Her whole life is a dharma talk." ? THICH NHAT HANH
Labels, praise, accusations of wrongdoing, even – the Buddhist nun has weathered them all and remains seemingly unperturbed. Her autobiography mentions an "amusing" anecdote about two friends discovering a photograph of her captioned "war criminal" at the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in the early ’90s. Shortly after her ordination in 1988, she told a lay practitioner, "I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference between us."
Elsewhere, she wrote: "Who is Chan Khong, Sister True Emptiness? Who is Cao Ngoc Phuong? She is made of her ancestors, the land called Vietnam, the air, the suffering, the friendship, the teachings, the cruel ignorance of the war-makers, and the love and understanding of several previous teachers and friends during her first 30 years in that spot of the world, and then another 20 years among many bodhisattvas in the West."
Which comes first: Humility or awareness of how everything is inter-connected? Can the two qualities be separated at all? In the same memoir, Chan Khong explained why it took her such a long time to become ordained as a bhiksuni (a nun of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition). Having notched up major achievements from a very young age, she had come to a realisation that there were many "seeds of arrogance" within her.
"I knew that if I was not mindful, I could become arrogant. With my shaven head, people could admire me more than my real value [merited]. So I decided not to shave my head, but instead to continue as a ‘formless’ nun in order to avoid being treated well by some people without earning their respect. I would give my seeds of arrogance a chance to wither and transform themselves."
In a way, the journey made by Cao Ngoc Phuong – from a secular to a monastic life – parallels the transformation that has swept through her homeland over the last four decades. And her story, more powerful than any epic drama, is a hopeful one. Amidst the ravages of human cruelty, there remains a selflessness, a devotion, and a capacity to share; surely, the very best thing one can offer to fellow beings on this Earth.
Born in 1938 into a well-to-do family in Ben Tre, a town in the centre of the Mekong delta, Phuong learned very early on about the spirit of giving from those around her and, in particular, from her father who taught his nine children (she’s the eighth) never to exploit the poor: "If you can afford his produce, buy it, and if you cannot, don’t buy it. But never bargain with a poor farmer because for you a few dong may not be much, but for him it is enough to support his children," she quoted him as saying.
World War Two ended with the Communist Party, under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, attempting to wrest power from the French colonial authorities. Hundreds of people classified as "dissidents" were persecuted, one of them being Phuong’s father. Testimony about previous kindnesses he’s shown to his tenant farmers helped his case, however: while other landlords were killed, he was spared, and after being detained for three weeks he was set free to rejoin his family. Not the husband of Phuong’s grade-school teacher, though; he was summarily executed. That incident prompted the young girl to question if battling suffering and injustice by the use of force, whatever the ideological pretext, was the right path to follow.
Nor was she impressed with the Buddhist establishment. "Growing up, I never met a good Buddhist teacher. They [the monks] just chanted at funerals and received donations – it seemed to me that they were more concerned about death than life." Even when she came across a respectable monk, this sceptical young lady still felt that there was a wide gap between the conventional interpretations of Buddhist practice and that of social work.
That was to change. In late 1959 Phuong attended a series of lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh at a temple in Saigon. After having exchanged views with him about how best to strive for social change while keeping within the spirit of Buddhism (thoughts later to blossom into the concept of "Engaged Buddhism"), she said she realised that the Zen master "was the teacher I had been looking for".
Thus began a most fruitful teacher-disciple relationship, one that continues to guide, balance and enrich the dharma practice of both participants. In his introduction to Sister Chan Khong’s book, Thich Nhat Hanh recalled an important lesson he learned from his student:
"It was in 1966, when the war in Vietnam had become unbearable, and I was so absorbed in working to end the war that it was hard for me to swallow my food. One day, Chan Khong was preparing a basket of fresh, fragrant herbs to serve with rice noodles, and she asked me, ‘Thay, can you identify these fines herbes ?’ Looking at her displaying the herbs with care and beauty on a large plate, I became enlightened. She had the ability to keep her attention on the herbs, and I realised I had to stop dwelling only on the war and learn to concentrate on the fines herbes also. We spent 10 minutes discussing the herbs that could be found in the south of Vietnam and the ones in the central regions, and that encounter took my mind off the war, allowing me to recover the balance I needed so badly. In 1968, when I was in the south of France, I sought out the fines herbes of Provence with my full attention and interest.
"Years later, a friend from America asked me, ‘Thay, why do you waste your time planting lettuce? Wouldn’t it be better to use the time to write poems?’ I smiled and said, ‘My dear friend, if I do not plant this lettuce, I will not be able to write poetry’."
From Sister Chan Khong’s perspective, the inclusive, non-discriminating mind of her teacher allowed her ample freedom and trust, as they worked together to rescue the destitute. Unlike other monastic and lay leaders who were critical of the powers-that-be at the time, Thich Nhat Hanh opted for a pacifist, non-partisan stance in his campaigns for peace. Phuong was also one of the first six "cedars" ordained into the Tiep Hien (Inter-Being) Order, an innovation of Thich Nhat Hanh’s. Breaking away from the tradition-bound Sangha, the monks, nuns and lay people of the Tiep Hien Order vowed to live their lives in accordance with the "14 precepts" while engaging in public service.
Those were hectic but fulfilling days. Given an opportunity to put forward his ideas on religious reforms for the first time in 1964, Thich Nhat Hanh submitted a three-point recommendation to the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (then the dominant institution). Basically, the progressive monk suggested that the Buddhist clergy play a more active role in peace campaigns and in training future leaders and social workers in the practice of engaged Buddhism and non-violent struggle. Here, "charity" goes beyond giving and receiving. Social work and rural development, in the monk’s scheme, can and must be "the work of personal and social transformations".
Although church elders were hesitant to carry out these proposals, Thich Nhat Hanh successfully pushed for the establishment of the Institute of Higher Buddhist Studies (later renamed Van Hanh University) in 1964, and, a year later, its offshoot, the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS). Cognisant of Phuong’s vast experience working with slum dwellers in Saigon, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to her – she was then in Paris finishing a thesis on biology – asking her to come back and help him with SYSS activities. Little did they realise that less than four years later the Zen master would be making a similar request – but this time that his student leave Vietnam to serve as his assistant on an international peace mission, a move that resulted in both of them being exiled from their home country for almost the next four decades.
But during the years that came in between, both Phuong and her teacher devoted themselves to often-perilous crusades to end the war and help its victims. Every now and then they had to risk their lives working on the front line, like the time they carried food supplies to villages near the Ho Chi Minh Trail, where the most intense fighting was going on between the communists and the nationalists (from South Vietnam).
"We stopped at the most devastated villages, distributed gifts and stayed the day with the people. At night, we slept on our boats after a simple meal of plain rice. The smell of dead bodies was everywhere, horribly polluting the air. When we saw wounded soldiers from either side, we helped them without discrimination.
"Seeing such immense suffering, Thay Nhat Hanh cut his finger and let a drop of blood fall into the river [saying]: ‘This is to pray for all who have perished in the war and in the flood’."
Despite their relentless efforts to restore peace, the war escalated. The US increased its military aid to the southern regime while the (Hanoi-based) National Liberation Front escalated its attacks. Even the Unified Buddhist Church was split – and a rival church, supported by the government of North Vietnam, emerged, a state of affairs that continues to the present day.
Similar tensions were evident in the campaigns initiated by Thich Nhat Hanh. A week after the Zen master’s departure from Vietnam (to hold a peace conference in Washington, DC, which prompted the Saigon regime to denounce him as a "traitor"), the dean of Van Hanh University issued a statement dissolving the student union, which had been under Phuong’s presidency, and nullifying its links to the SYSS.
Phuong was personally targeted. She recalled how the same dean reportedly told SYSS supporters: "I don’t know whether Thay Nhat Hanh is communist or not, but certainly Cao Ngoc Phuong is."
Later on, she recalled that, "In the context of Vietnam at that moment, calling someone ‘communist’ meant killing him or her even without a weapon."
The following years were to prove a real test of her will-power and tenacity. Phuong was jailed for a week, had to shoulder heavy responsibilities with scanty resources (at one time the SYSS had to take care of training 300 students with only $1 in the bank), faced a series of losses as friends of hers were either abducted, or murdered, or sacrificed their lives in the quest for peace. The fate of Nhat Chi Mai, a fellow member of the Tiep Hien Order who immolated herself in 1967, was one of her biggest "sorrows" – and yet it inspired Phuong to work harder "to find ways to end the suffering of Vietnam".
Which she did, in many ways. Cut off from her homeland, Phuong continued her campaigns to raise awareness about the plight of her compatriots, and for the unconditional withdrawal of US troops from her homeland. Following the end of the Third Indochinese War in 1975, she and Thich Nhat Hanh embarked on several other aid programmes: to help Vietnamese refugees (the Boat People); to petition successive communist regimes about human rights violations; and to plant in future generations, in Vietnam and elsewhere, the seeds of love and peace. From modest beginnings, the Tiep Hien Order now boasts several thousand followers who live as far apart as Europe, the US, Australia and Asia. And this extended community continues to grow.
Returning to Vietnam after a lapse of "37 and a half, almost 38 years", Sister Chan Khong confided, was like coming to a virtually "new nation". Everything seemed much better, she said, compared to the massive destruction she had witnessed during the war. She can still recall the gruelling period when she and SYSS colleagues had to scramble to provide relief and shelter for 11,000 war victims in Saigon.
"All the houses [in the vicinity of the SYSS campus] were destroyed. The bombs also bombarded the cemetery, and the coffins exploded. But now … the cemetery has long been dismantled and become a very beautiful commercial trade centre. And I couldn’t recognise anything."
The improved economic situation and growing affluence aside, Sister Chan Khong is doubtful whether there have been any improvements in public morality, however. While Vietnam was being torn apart by successive wars, there were many girls who sought to live a peaceful, monastic life, but couldn’t. Circumstances forced them to become "tricky and dishonest" in order to save themselves and their siblings, she lamented.
But three decades on, Vietnamese people are still running after money and fame – often, at all costs. "It breaks our heart," the Zen nun remarked on hearing that 16- and 17-year-old girls are now willing to sell their bodies in order to buy brand-name motorcycles. "The bankruptcy of morality" has become a increasingly worrying phenomenon in today’s Vietnam.
"And it is not only the lay people, this [bankruptcy] also infects the monastic [circles] as well. People talk about how big their temple is, but they don’t really care how many people are practising [dharma]. They talk a lot about impermanence, but everyone has such a big self!"
Ever optimistic, Sister Chan Khong said it may be late, but "never too late" for reforms. Thus her tireless efforts to campaign for Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam (see sidebar).
During his three-month pilgrimage to Vietnam (January to early April, 2005), Thich Nhat Hanh spoke to thousands of people throughout the country – bureaucrats, politicians, intellectuals, street vendors, taxi drivers, artists. But in between Thay’s dharma lectures were Sister Chan Khong’s unique, and invaluable, methods of imparting Buddhist teachings.
Sometimes it was her lucid, soothing voice which served as a channel of dharma during various meditation retreats. For hundreds of participants, Sister Chan Khong’s chanting of Plum Village songs during "total relaxation" sessions was akin to stumbling upon a gurgling, refreshing spring.
Other times, it was her simple, yet shrewd application of Vietnamese heritage to modern ways of life. Over the Tet (Vietnamese new year) celebrations in February, she performed an "oracle reading" for hundreds of Buddhist followers.
"During those three days, I sometimes had to stay up until 11pm," she said with a laugh.
"Many cab drivers came to tell me, ‘I’ve been to hundreds of [dharma] talks, but Sister’s [Chan Khong’s] way of teaching is so simple. Now I can be reconciled to my wife [or mother]’."
The secret to achieving such popularity? The Tale of Kieu by the early 19th-century poet Nguyen Du, Vietnam’s answer to Shakespeare, is well known to locals. But instead of just deriving worldly pleasure from this literary classic, Thich Nhat Hanh came up with Buddhist interpretations that have proved intriguingly accurate and which fit situations faced by individuals who consulted him. More importantly, her two-line oracle readings have provided insights into how one can lead a rightful, happy existence.
Indeed, one of the ideas the Zen master proposed to the Establishment is for Communist Party members to be able to "become closer to Vietnamese culture". Ironically, those in the corridors of power have been deprived of their right to worship their ancestors ("they have to hide the altars in their bedrooms," Sister Chan Khong said), or even to visit temples. But proper integration of Buddhist (or any other religious) teachings with the conduct of state affairs could be beneficial. "Even communists have ‘Buddha’s nature’ too," she remarked, with another laugh.
For Sister Chan Khong herself, the opportunity to reconnect to her homeland has been an overwhelming experience. Apart from her first three days there, when she was seriously ill, the three months she spent in Vietnam was one of continual juggling of numerous, pressing tasks. But that serene composure of hers, those smiles of contentment, never waned. It was a long wait, but well worth it.
"Upon our arrival, we found ourselves in front of a thousand Buddhist [followers]. They chanted the [Plum Village song with] name of [the bodhisattva] Avalokiteshvara. While listening, I sent my whole energy to the millions of Vietnamese who have died for this land. Tears were flowing from my eyes.
"I looked at every face there, and [from] my heart sprang this: ‘All of you are the fathers and mothers of Vietnam. You have given birth to wonderful children. You have given such great love and care to keep our country safe throughout thousands of years. I thank you all’."


Compassion and Wisdom

"The human heart is basically very compassionate, but without wisdom, compassion will not work. Wisdom is the openness that lets us see what is essential and most effective."

            As human beings, we all try our best to bring about a world based on kindness and compassion. What seems to go wrong, however, is that what I want, what I personally would like, becomes more important than the benefit of the whole community.
            Whether we look at religion, philosophy, science, development or politics, wherever there has been human society it has manifested wisdom and compassion. But because of our tendency to be involved with our own selfishness, our own likes and dislikes, we develop walls and isolate ourselves from others.
            We do not allow the openness that can be felt between human beings to express itself because of two fundamental things: hope and fear. All of us want some happiness and no one wants to suffer, so every action we take is motivated by the thought of how can I  be happy, how can I avoid pain. In a world already divided in so many ways, we create a world of our own. A very selfish attitude develops.
            All philosophies and religions in the world aim to break through this wall of self-isolation, so that we can work with one another with real care and compassion. From a Buddhist point of view, we examine ourselves carefully—not as a way of blaming ourselves for having created this division, but as a way of working with the root cause of the problem.
            The problem is not with the world, or with other people, but with ourselves. Wisdom is innate in us; it is not something that can be bought, heard or received from outside. But our involvement with the external environment and the distraction of our own emotions causes a kind of layering or veiling that prevents us from observing ourselves carefully. We do not give ourselves enough time and space to use our innate wisdom to observe ourselves before we act.
            However, through meditation, to use an Eastern term, or examination or analysis, to use more Western terms, there exists the possibility for wisdom to arise within every human being. Meditation is the process of looking inward, of refraining from our dualistic tendency to pay more attention to external issues than to the internal issues we don’t want to work on.
            A society based upon peace, harmony, wisdom and compassion is not going to come about unless each person begins with themselves. Through our ignorance, our failure to use our innate wisdom, we make many excuses for not starting with ourselves. The biggest excuse we use is that we require the other person to change before we do. So if I get up in the morning and things don’t happen the way that I want, everything gets blamed on my external world. On days when everything goes right, people look good to us and appear kinder.
            If we reflect on it, we realize that our perception of the external world has much to do with our internal attitude. Our mind makes excuses based on external circumstances that reflect what we feel inside. When we see a person and he does something we like, then he is a good person. But if this same person does something we don’t like, then he is a bad person. So transforming the external environment must begin with transforming the inner self, because only when the self is tamed and a fair amount of awareness exists within us will we have the strength to relate properly with others.
            The human heart is basically very good, very generous, and very compassionate. But it may not always work together with wisdom. The result is that we have many people ready to go out and change the world for the better, but who still view philosophy, religion, and politics according to what they like, according to what they want.
            Even in matters of spirituality—where we struggle to attain some selflessness and to let go of attachment, ignorance and selfishness—even there we assert that what we think is wisdom is correct. We assert that what we think is compassion is the correct compassion. Even at the very peak of meditation, we may still have these same opinions, but we use the excuse that it’s for the benefit of all sentient beings. The endless struggle with the self creates this same problem over and over again.
            Realizing the innate wisdom in every human being must begin with training the self. To break through ignorance requires breaking through ignorance in all of its forms.
            Ignorance is not something that comes from others. Ignorance is something that comes from the projection of the self. In Buddhist philosophy, we speak a lot about illusion, which refers to how human ignorance, or the human mind, creates a lot of external phenomena, and how once that illusion is created, we see it as very solid and permanent.
            In meditation, we break through that illusion of external phenomena by analyzing its dream-like nature. The first step is to understand how we create our own illusion—to see how this human mind works to create and solidify the world. If then we can let go of our attachment to that illusion, we will be free from pain, free from our own expectations, and free from our own hope and fear.
            Until that level of awareness is achieved, however, every moment of your life, everything you use or consume, comes about from dependence on others. You sit on chairs which were made by other people. You wear clothes which were made by other people. You eat food cooked by other people, which in turn was grown by other people. As much as you would like to believe that you are your own person and have achieved things through your own efforts, the truth is that you are linked with all other beings.
            This awareness of our interdependence leads directly to a sense of responsibility, and letting go of our self-grasping. Until we have achieved true selflessness, completely free from ignorance, we can begin in a smaller way by giving back to others what we have received in order to benefit others the best way we can.
            Whether we call it compassion, love, caring or a Buddhist term such as bodhicitta, it means the same thing: that in your actions, speech and thought you put others before yourself. Some of us practice meditation to achieve this understanding; others are able to understand this without formal meditation. But no matter how good compassion sounds when you talk about it, it really comes down to practicing it. And no one understands you as well as you do. You need the wisdom to look inward to see what kind of a person you are.
            Compassion means letting go of your self-identity, letting go of proving that identity all the time. Compassion means you work in the way the wind works, the sun works, or the air works. Take, for example, how the air assumes the shape of the room. The air does not say, “I will give you this breathing space provided you breathe the way I want.” Everyone enjoys the benefit of being able to breathe in the air. It is the same way with the sun: the sun does not stop shining when there are clouds in the sky.
            In that same way, selflessness free from attachment, or compassion used with wisdom, means that one goes beyond the way you want to do things. If you can let go of making yourself the most important person in the world, there will be more capacity and spaciousness within you to work with others. You will find more space, time and energy within yourself.
            For example, because of your good heart and kindness, you go to work in a hospital or a hospice. But you find that there are restrictions and you can’t do things the way you want to. You find yourself fighting against the system, and you reach the point where you are exhausted by your efforts. You conclude that your compassion is not being used in the best way.
            What needs to be understood at this point, by applying wisdom to your compassion, is how much solidity you are bringing to the situation. Because you are holding on to how you think things should be, your feelings of frustration have overshadowed the creativity you might apply to the situation.
            When we want to generate compassion, we ultimately end up working with our own emotions. We discover that any situation which overwhelms us does so to the degree that we solidify it. So without wisdom, compassion will not work. Wisdom is what enables us to be unconditioned and unbiased in our actions. With wisdom, we are not limited to a single cause or purpose; we do our best in a given situation, and then we move on.
            Without wisdom, we too often become focused on one single problem or issue, which we think is the most important thing. But we live in a world that is populated by human beings, and as long as there are billions of human beings at work, there will not be a single thing that everyone accepts. There will be many things that are not done or said exactly the way that you like. If you look at different philosophies—whether Christianity, Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism—all of them arise from compassion. But I believe this one is correct, you believe that one is correct, someone else believes another is correct. Even with such a universal concept such as compassion, Buddhists feel it necessary to call it bodhicitta, Hindus feel it necessary to call it karuna, Christians feel it necessary to call it love. We stick to our own terms.
            Wisdom teaches us that these differences should not cause us to pull back. They should not stop us from exercising our compassion with even greater strength and motivation. When the Buddha first gave teachings, how many people understood them? None. Because of that, he refused to give the teachings for a period of seven weeks, but then he began to teach again.
            If the Buddha had refused to teach because no one listened to him, we would not have the Buddhist religion today. Similarly, if I insist that my words and my compassion have to be accepted by everyone, that really would be decadent wisdom. That would be wisdom for me and no one else. But real wisdom is letting go of the fixation on what I think is right, in order to see more clearly what is really helpful. Wisdom is the openness that lets us see what is essential and most effective, what truly needs to be practiced by all humanity. This is very necessary. This is something that we need to practice.
            Wisdom requires that we work with the inner self, in order to act in accordance with the basic goodness we all have. And when we meet with obstacles or difficulties, we can use them to develop more inspiration, for if we sincerely value kindness and caring, that belief will give us the courage to overcome all obstacles. Wisdom is being able to use obstacles in this way. Otherwise, wisdom becomes some sort of museum piece, and we end up collecting philosophies, logics and teachings just like people who collect old furniture.
            The wisdom of all the world’s traditions needs to be nurtured and cared for, not collected. Our innate wisdom needs to be developed, understood and sharpened. Each person must develop the quality of fearlessness so that wisdom can cut through their ignorance. The best wisdom is that which you have the courage to apply to yourself. Only then can you really understand human beings as they are. Then you can give yourself and others the chance to grow individually, to think as they want. All of us need space to develop.
            We can all learn together to some degree, but the transformation of the world must begin within ourselves. Compassion and wisdom need to function together, combined with skillfulness, tolerance and patience. If we give ourselves the time and space to really observe our own thoughts and actions, good can come about. We give ourselves and others a lot of space in which to function properly; rather than act selfishly, we act selflessly.
            Much of this is easy to say. Practice definitely begins with ourselves. When we look into a mirror, we usually know what we want to see, and so we see only what we want. To see what is really in the mirror, good or bad, and to work with what we see, is very important and very necessary. It takes some courage.
            So think carefully, because times change. Every moment of life, we lose someone that we know. Time does not wait for anyone, and because there is change in every moment, frivolousness harms only ourselves. But if, in our short lives as human beings, we are able to be of some benefit to someone else, then that is the activity of an enlightened being.


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January 2007
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