Archive for September, 2007


A Guide to Sitting Chan

By Chan Master Changlu Zongze
Translated by Guo Jue

Chan Master Zongze Cijue Ji lived in the Changlu
Monastery from 1086-1093. He was a teacher in both the Chan and Pure
Land traditions; in 1089 he led a recitation retreat during which he
encouraged both monastic and lay practitioners to chant Amitabha
Buddha. The work translated here, originally titled "Zuo Chan" (Sitting
Chan), strongly influenced the writing of Zen Master Dogen Zenji and
the development of the Soto lineage in Japan. 

One who aspires to attain wisdom as a bodhisattva
should first give rise to the mind of great compassion, generate great
vows and cultivate samadhi diligently in order to deliver all sentient
beings, without seeking liberation for oneself. With this mindset, one
lets go of all phenomena and brings the myriad engagements [of the
mind] to rest. Whether one is moving or resting, the body and mind
should be unified without a break. One should eat and drink with good
measure, not consuming too much or too little. One should sleep just
adequately, without deprivation or idleness.

When one intends to engage in sitting Chan practice,
one should find a quiet place, prepare the seat with adequate cushions,
and then loosen any clothing that is tight.

Having done so, one assumes a serene and orderly
demeanor and sit in the full-lotus posture, i.e., placing the right
foot on the left thigh, and the left foot on the right thigh.
Alternatively, one can sit in the half-lotus posture, by placing the
left foot on the right thigh. Then proceed to place the right hand on
top of the left foot, the left hand on top of the right hand, with the
thumbs touching each other.

Straighten one’s upper body slowly and lean forward
swaying the body to the left and to the right. After that, settle down
and sit upright. Do not sit tilting to the left or right, or to the
front or back. Allow the spinal vertebrae to align naturally like a
stupa. However, do not stretch the body too much. That may result in
the quickening of the breath and thus disturb the peace of mind.

The ears should be aligned to the shoulder and the
nose to the navel. Let the tongue touch the upper palate. Close the
mouth and the jaws together lightly. 

Leave the eyes slightly open so that one will not
fall into a stupor. The samadhi one attains will be the most powerful
with the eyes open. In ancient times, many eminent monks practiced with
their eyes open. Chan Master Fayun Yuantong also disapproved of
engaging in sitting Chan practice with eyes closed. He referred to this
as practicing in the "ghost caves of the dark mountains". The meaning
of his admonition is profound and only one who is accomplished realizes

After the posture is set, and the breathing calmed, one relaxes the lower abdomen.

Do not entertain any wholesome or unwholesome
thoughts. When a thought arises, one should be aware of it immediately.
With this awareness, the thought will disperse instantly. Eventually,
one would cease to be involved with all phenomena, and one’s practice
would naturally become seamless. This is the essential technique of
sitting Chan practice.

Sitting Chan practice is a Dharma gate through which
peace and happiness can be cultivated. However, many people become sick
engaging in this practice. This is because they do not know how to use
their minds properly. If one applies the practice properly, one’s body
will naturally be light and at ease, one’s mind will be comfortable and
sharp, and one’s awareness will be clear and bright. The taste of
Dharma enriches one’s spirit, bringing the pure joy of quiescence. For
those who are enlightened, practicing in this manner is like dragons
receiving water, and like tigers roaming freely in the mountains. For
those who are not yet enlightened, practicing in this manner is like
blowing air into a fire, there is no need to exert much effort. If they
understand clearly and correctly, it is definite that they will succeed.

However, when one’s practice advances, one may
encounter more demonic phenomena, as there are numerous favorable and
unfavorable conditions along the way. As long as one can maintain
proper mindfulness in the present moment, nothing will become an
obstruction. These demonic states are clearly delineated in various
texts, including the
Surangama Sutra, Master Gui-Feng’s Guide to Cultivation and Realization Based on the Sutra of Complete
, and the Great Samatha-Vipasyana [by Master Zhi-Yi]. In order to take proper precautions, one should not ignore these texts.

When one intends to get out of samadhi, move the body
slowly and stand up in a gentle and peaceful manner. There should be no
abrupt motions. Afterwards, one should protect one’s samadhi power all
the time, practicing expediently in all situations, as if one is
protecting a little baby. That way, the power of samadhi will be
attained easily.

One must know that the cultivation of Chan samadhi is
most urgent. If one’s mind cannot settle down in Chan samadhi, even
though one may advance in the practice of contemplation, one will still
feel lost. The extraction of pearls from the bottom of the ocean is
best done when there are no waves. When the water is disturbed, the
task will become difficult. Likewise, when the water of samadhi is
clear and pure, the pearl of the mind will manifest by itself.
Therefore the
Sutra of Complete Enlightenment says: The unhindered pure wisdom arises from samadhi. The
Lotus Sutra says: One should go to a quiet place free of
disturbance to cultivate and regulate one’s mind. Let the mind settle
and be immovable, like Mount

Therefore, it is through practicing in conditions
that are quiet and free of disturbance that one can transcend the
worldly and enter into the saintly. When one’s life comes to the end,
to be able to expire while sitting or standing, one must rely on the
power of samadhi. For those who are determined to accomplish the goal
of liberation in one life, it is possible that they may still be
wasting time [even with their strong determination]. For those who keep
on procrastinating [without giving rise to a firm determination], what
can they do but to follow the force of karma [helplessly]? That is why
the ancient masters have the following admonition: Without the power of
samadhi, it is as if one is capitulating in front of the door of death;
it is as if one merely closes one’s eyes and returns empty handed,
having roamed around like a vagabond. I hope that my fellow Chan
practitioners will read this article frequently [and use what they
learn to] benefit themselves and others, so that all will attain
complete enlightenment together.



The Buddha called the workings of karma one of the “four
unconjecturables.” We could drive ourselves crazy speculating on how it
will play out, he said (Anguttara Nikaya 4.77).

What can I understand from a karmic perspective about the 50+ pounds
of fat I am carrying? I am 55 years old and ready to lighten the load.
(signed) Thanks, Iris

Sandra Weinberg responds:

The law of karma refers to the law of cause and effect: we perform an
action and at some point we experience the results. Referring to the
extra pounds, if you eat more than your body needs, you will most
likely gain weight. However, if you mindfully shift your habits of
eating and do more exercise, you will probably lose those extra pounds.

The Buddha expressed this principle in a four-clause formula:

Where there is this, that is;
With the arising of this, that arises.
When this is not, neither is that.
With the cessation of this, that ceases.
Samyutta Nikaya

You can cultivate new habits by staying very mindful and aware
of your thoughts and actions around food. When you become conscious of
your intentions that precede eating you have a better opportunity to
make skillful choices for yourself. Otherwise, if you continue to act
in your habituated ways around food, you create the conditions for
future discomfort.

I wish you well, Iris.

What is happening when we’ve made extensive efforts at living
mindfully and purifying karma through meditative practices, then we
experience a deluge of major, difficult, and no doubt karmic
experiences? Is this a “karmic cleansing”? I’ve had trouble not only in
threes, but in nines and twelves. Is there some way to avoid this, or
is this the type of growth that is necessary on the path to
(signed) Kate Robinson

Thanissaro Bhikkhu responds:

There’s no technique for burning off old karma. In fact, the Buddha was
especially critical of teachers in his time who thought old karma was
something you could burn away (see Majjhima Nikaya
101). Meditation doesn’t purify old karma; it gives you the skills to
deal with it without suffering. One way you can lessen the impact of
old karma is by developing the brahma-viharas — unlimited
goodwill, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity. The Buddha
compared these unlimited mind states to the water in a river, while
limited mind states are like the water in a cup. (See Anguttara Nikaya
III.101.) If you put a large salt crystal into the cup, you couldn’t
drink the water; but if you threw the crystal into a river, you could
still drink the water because there’s so much of it compared to the
salt. So try to develop an attitude of good will for everyone, without
exception, so that the billions of good will in your mind can take the
nines and twelves in stride.

I have a question about the karma of physical pain. I have chronic
migraines and have had some painful surgeries and injuries. From my
understanding [of karma], I have caused some physical pain to others in
the past or was cruel in some way. My profession in this lifetime is in
the healing arts—I have chosen to help others become healthy and pain
free. Is my current profession negating my karma of pain for the next
lifetime only—or will I be able to “work off” some of the karma in this
lifetime, to reduce the pain I am currently experiencing?
(signed) Kristen M. Teagle, DC, Colonial Chiropractic

Thanissaro Bhikkhu responds:

Karmic seeds don’t come in packets that say, “This seed will flower in
this or that lifetime.” Some seeds sprout immediately; others take a
lot of time to mature. What you can anticipate is that the sprout will
be like the plant that produced the seed. Helping other people
skillfully will make it easier for you to get effective treatment for
your own ailments, sometime in the future—perhaps soon, perhaps further
along, perhaps both. In the mean time, if you learn to meditate, it
will help you deal with any pain that arises from your migraines, by
teaching you the skill of separating your awareness of pain from the
pain itself.

How do you address the karma involved in Alzheimer’s disease?
(signed) Mikel Dunham, Santa Monica, CA

Thanissaro Bhikkhu responds:

Traditionally, dementia is karmically connected with taking
intoxicants, either in this lifetime or a past one. Often you can see a
connection between dementia and the kinds of things the person was
worried about. I know of a student who was able to use mindfulness so
that the onset of Alzheimer’s wasn’t so disturbing to him. Instead of
anticipating the loss of his mental powers, he stayed focused on “What
am I aware of now?” The skillful karma of staying focused on the simple
quality of awareness in the now in this way can help diminish the
anguish that comes from anticipating what will happen if and when the
disease worsens in the future. As for the person caring for the
patient, perhaps the best karmic gift you can give the patient, and
yourself, is your own calm, mindful presence. Again, skillfully
focusing on the present helps lessen the suffering for both parties.

For many years, I have worked in honorable professions which served
to help or protect people from harm or injury. Now I find myself in a
profession (not exactly by my choice) in which I investigate employees
of wrongdoing or policy violations. Many times I am saddened at the
eventual outcomes of doing my work well. Although these employees have
chosen to do something wrong, my work uncovers the wrongdoing, and my
interviews get them to confess. Usually this leads to termination of
their jobs. It greatly affects their careers, their family life, their

How is this affecting my karma? Am I working against “Right
Occupation” on the Noble Eightfold Path? I have much compassion for
these people and handle them gently and respectfully. Many thank me for
how I treated them in the interviews and understand why I investigated
them. I still go home with a heavy heart.
Your thoughts?
(signed) Namaste, Carl

Thanissaro Bhikkhu responds:

If there’s no one there to uncover these problems, people will continue
their wrongdoing, so what you’re doing definitely qualifies as right
livelihood. And it’s especially admirable that you honor their humanity
and dignity in carrying out a difficult task. If you were to quit your
job, there’s no telling what sort of person might take your place.
Still, if the work leaves you with a heavy heart and affects your
meditation, you might want to look for another job. In the meantime,
dedicate the merit of your meditation practice to the people you work
with, and continue to do your job with as much equanimity and integrity
as possible.

If indeed we are perfect just as we are, why would we be concerned
about karma? Discussions about karma are often pointing out that we
could get better results if we would change some of our behaviors,
including our speech. That certainly implies we do some things that are
not so perfect. – Walt Shugert

Lama Surya Das responds:

The absolute truth that we are perfect as we are and all is perfect as
it is needs to be balanced by the relative truth (or conventional level
of understanding) that all is not the same on other more human and
physical levels. This is the middle way taught by Buddha, beyond
extreme views– views such as nihilism or materialism: that on one hand
nothing matters or all is nothing, or on the other hand that everything
is real, solid, permanent.

Sure, in BuddhaVision or the ultimate View/Perspective, we are
all perfect; and yet, we can still use just a little tweaking. We
should not confuse ultimate verities, like oneness and emptiness (sunyata),
with relative facts such as we all — most of us, at least — far
prefer to be unharmed than harmed, to live rather than die, to enjoy
rather than to suffer, and so forth.

In the world of forms and actions, which is where karma is
applicable, like reproduces like and what goes around comes around;
psychologically speaking, it is a matter of conditioning, habituation,
and creating ruts which we then feel stick in. Fine distinctions and
discrimination needs to be applied. According the ineluctable law of
karma–or cause and effect– every single word, thought, intention and
deed has implications and repercussions. The bad news is that we are
heavily conditioned. The good news is that karma is workable; we can
recondition and even decondition ourselves. This is what transformative
and liberating Dharma is all about.

There is a colorful Tibetan tantric saying that we should not
kill at least and until we can also resurrect the dead. But don’t run
away with this idea!

What, if any, is the relationship between the law of attraction and
cultivating positive energy and the idea that we create our own reality
and karma?

I have many years ago independently come to believe that we do, in
fact create our own reality and that on which we focus our attention
and interest we attract to ourselves. Simultaneously, I struggle with
this idea, probably because I have been a social worker in the field of
child welfare and an activist for peace and justice for many years. I
cannot resolve this concept with the abuse of children, or children who
contract deadly diseases, or who starve to death. Thank you. – Rocci

Nagapriya responds:

Although the idea that we ‘create our own reality’ may be popular, even
among Buddhists, this notion requires qualification. A traditional
Buddhist view might suggest that we are born into this world owing to
previous karma but this does not mean that everything that then happens
in it is a direct result of our previous karma; that would be
deterministic. It may be more useful to think of our world as
co-created and to regard our experiences as interdependent. One of the
consequences of this is that others can impinge on our lives for good
or ill. The fact that someone may harm us, or that we may catch a
disease, need not necessarily mean that we ‘deserve’ this outcome, only
that we live in a world where such things are possible.

While our conduct is likely to influence how others relate to
us, it does not fully determine this. For instance, a generous person
may well attract reciprocity, but also fall prey to exploitation. This
exploitation may not result from their past bad actions but more from
the fact that some people are good at spotting a free meal ticket. At
the same time, our karma will play a role in determining how we deal
with any potential exploiter.

I think that if we want a good index of the kind of person we
are, we need only look around: who are our closest friends? What is our
partner like? What are our kids like? Our interpersonal relationships
should tell us a lot about the kind of life we are living. But no
matter how compassionate we may be, we are still susceptible to
illness, death, and many other unwelcome outcomes that are endemic to
the human condition. Moreover, our very compassion may attract us to
situations of great suffering, not because we deserve to suffer, but
because we want to alleviate it.

I believed I understood karma, both good and bad and how it affects
our lives and futures. I thought I understood how it carries over and
affects us beyond our death, until recently. Now I am a bit confused.
If ultimately in Buddhism, there is no "I", "me" or eternal soul, and
none of these carry forward after death, then what does karma affect?
If we are just sort of plugged into a ‘life force’ or the
Buddha-nature, and then our bodiess die with no soul to move on to the
next life, then how or what does the karma we gather during life
affect? Thank you.

Nagapriya responds:

The problems you indicate have been problems for Buddhist philosophers
for centuries and I am not sure they have ever been fully resolved.
Buddhists have offered various answers down the ages, the most
frustrating of which is to say that the workings of karma are beyond
human understanding.

Buddhist philosophy sees existence in terms of dependent
origination; things arise in dependence upon conditions which, in turn,
give rise to other things. Rather than fixed entities that endure
through time, there is instead an endless flux of conditions. That goes
for us too. We tend to think of ourselves as having a ‘self’ because we
have a sense of continuity; we can remember things that happened
yesterday, last year, even in our childhood. However, the fact that
there is continuity does not imply identity. In what way are we ‘the
same’ as our childhood selves?

I sometimes use a genetic model to explain how karmic
continuity could potentially continue across lives. Children are the
product of their parents’ genes, with consequent family resemblances,
but they are not identical with them. While it is often loosely said
that ‘we’ will reap our karma in future lives, it would probably be
more accurate to say that our ‘karmic genes’ (to coin a phrase) will be
passed on to a future being who will inherit some of our patterns of
thought, feeling, and behavior.

But I also think of karmic consequences as transindividual; our
acts have implications not just for some future descendant but also for
our family, friends, co-workers, and even the world in general. Our
actions reverberate not just across space through our social network
but through time as well. In this way, what we do now may have
consequences not just for ‘our’ future self but for many other beings.
Such reflections may help us to take more care about the choices we
make in the present.

Why do I feel so much guilt about everything? Even things I know I’m
not even remotely responsible for? It’s not just me. I notice that
others have the same issue. It does seem to be fading, as I grow older.
But what is this issue with Guilt that everyone seems to have? Please
don’t be "glib" with your answer. Thanks for your help, I do appreciate
it. – Judith Roberts

Nagapriya responds:

I feel sad that you anticipated a glib response since I know from
personal experience that guilt is a corrosive, life-draining condition.
It is also rather complex and there may be many different causes behind
it. So far as I know, there is no Buddhist term that directly
corresponds to it. In Buddhist ethics there are the twin concepts of
shame (hrii) and sensitivity to moral censure (apatraapya). These are
seen as positive emotions which enable us to develop ethically.

Guilt, however, is in my view a limiting emotion but,
ironically, it may arise partly through the development of a tender
conscience. We may feel guilt for many reasons. Obviously, it may be
that we have done terrible things and we fear discovery but I am going
to assume that the source of your guilt is elsewhere. It is common for
people to attribute guilt to Christian teachings about ‘original sin’
and I certainly know many Catholics who still suffer owing to the sense
of guilt instilled in them as children. But besides the imposition of
guilt from outside, there may be a more inherent, existential guilt.

Guilt seems to be related to the sense of owing something to
others that one has not – perhaps even cannot – pay back. It may take
the form of indebtedness, a sense that others have suffered for my
benefit and, while I may have played no role in causing their
suffering, I feel guilty because I enjoy some of its fruits. The wealth
of my nation, for instance, rests partly upon the pillaging of its
former colonies and, while I strongly condemn that, I am nevertheless a
beneficiary of it and so am implicated in it. Moreover, this is not
really something I can contract out of. Inevitably, we are all
associated with many unskillful acts that we cannot fully stand clear
from. This may result in a feeling of guilt which nags away at us even
while we may not be directly responsible for any wrongdoing. While this
may sound like a rather heavy burden, at least it may prevent us from
falling into the trap of moral superiority.

But there is another kind of guilt too. This might be summed up
as the guilt that we feel at not fulfilling our own potential. We may
be all too aware that we fall short of our ideals; we aspire to be
compassionate and yet continue to act selfishly. This chasm between our
idealism and our imperfection can be very painful, resulting in intense
feelings of guilt because we are failing to live up to our own values.
Is their any respite from this painful condition? Part of the solution
may be in learning to forgive ourselves our imperfections, which is not
to say that we excuse or revel in them. If we can face our limitations
with some degree of acceptance then, more positively, we may gain
something in humility.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5 other followers

September 2007
« Aug   Oct »

Blog Stats

  • 1,929 hits