First Thoughts: The Robe of Liberation

Illustration by Eric HansonWearing the Buddha’s teachings, says Geoffrey Shugen Arnold Sensei, is like wearing your skin. It’s not something you can take on and off.

Each morning we chant the Verse of the Kesa: “Vast is the robe of liberation, a formless field of benefaction. I wear the Tatagatha’s teachings, saving all sentient beings.” The “robe of liberation” is the o-kesa, the monastic’s robe, or the rakusu, received with the precepts and worn by both monastic and lay practitioners. That robe is the Tatagatha’s teachings, the Buddha’s teachings. We should all strive to wear the Buddha’s teachings. But this is not like wearing an outfit that you put on and take off depending on the circumstance or season or fashion. It’s a timeless and formless robe, more like the way you wear your skin. It’s like your blood and bones, and the way you wear those, the way you wear your heart and lungs, and the breath within you. It is the robe of liberation that supports us and allows us to stand upright, to look straight ahead, to feel the ground under our feet, and to leap forward. And though this robe is formless, unborn, and undying, just like your blood, skin, and bones, it needs to be taken care of. This is what practice is about, to profoundly care for and take care of this very life.

How do we live this way? This is the great matter of the buddhadharma. The Verse of the Kesa tells us to make our life about being in the world in the most natural and ultimately effortless and radical way; that is, to alleviate all the suffering. In order to do that, we must cease from evil, practice good, and actualize good for others. We need to be clear about what needs to be done and what does not need to be done. We need to not indulge our confusion, which means we have to recognize our confusion and see it as confusion. We also need to not indulge our small-minded views, which means we have to recognize the views that are small-minded, or self-centered, and not indulge them. We have to be able to recognize our greediness and our anger. If we don’t recognize these things, if we don’t see them clearly, then we will indulge them.

Remember that delusion thrives in darkness. Seeing the light is not only the light of illumination, of wisdom, but it’s also the fire of our deepest aspiration that burns off everything unnecessary. Because there is darkness we are easily hidden from the truth, so we need to know what to do from within our hiddenness. How do we go straight ahead when we’re turning in circles? How do we open up and find spaciousness again when we have become confined? This is a most important practice: to know what should be avoided in that moment of our attachment to regret, to shame, to self-hatred or inertia. This is how we learn to take responsibility, to atone and renew our vows. When we understand this in a very deep way, in a very beautiful way we join the family of buddhas.

From Mountain Record: the Zen practitioner’s Journal, Summer 2012


Gary Snyder: “Don’t Feel Guilty”

Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker of Inquiring Mind talk with Gary Snyder about how to relate to the discouraging state of the world.

Inquiring Mind: Our techno-toys and the way we live our lives in the modern world are causing great harm to other species of life. How do we extricate ourselves from this often unconscious violence?

Gary Snyder: Well, first of all, don’t feel guilty. There’s no point in feeling guilty about our harm in regard to the world. On the most basic level, every living organism lives by eating other organisms. This is what ecology is all about—an energy transfer. We know that we are all impermanent, but we can take solace in the fact that whatever it is that we’re made of will not go to waste. It goes on in different forms. That becomes our final act of generosity to the universe.

What I’m getting at here is that the injunction not to do any harm can’t be seen as an absolute as in the Ten Commandments, those black-and-white ethical laws of the Abrahamic religions. In old Sanskrit, ahimsa means “do no harm” or “cause the least harm.” The precepts in Buddhism are meant as challenges, like koans, in which you keep asking, “How did I deal with that today?” And you don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t do so well. Instead you say, “Well, I’ll do better next time.” This is an important difference between the East Asian approach to ethics and the more absolutist, dualistic rules of the Occidental religions.

Inquiring Mind: So we try to do better, but how do we live with the magnitude of the crisis without slipping into fear and blame?

Gary Snyder: Okay, second rule: remember the teaching of impermanence. There is no final resolution to anything, ultimately, except the resolution that each of us makes in our own way. You have to have a clear eye and the ability to look at the actual condition of the physical universe and not run away from it.

An Occidental approach is to say that it is a fallen universe. Some of the fundamentalist sects say, “Satan is controlling the place, so let’s get out of here.” Some of the Hindu schools, too, seek liberation from birth and death, becoming totally free of the meat wheel of samsara. Kerouac called it “the quivering meat-wheel.”

But I like the Buddhist approach that advises us to live openly, without blame, and to be willing to fight where you feel it is necessary, to give in where there is no choice, and to keep your own balance in the midst of the fray.

From Inquiring Mind, Spring 2012


Mission Impossible

We’re all capable of being bodhisattvas, says Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. We just need to keep our expectations in check.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, Dü Garab Wangchuk, the King of Maras, sent some beautiful people to distract Vimalakirti from his meditation. So Vimalakirti did a special meditation turning all of them incredibly ugly, which made them upset. When he asked them how they had become who they were, and why they were creating obstacles for people like himself who sincerely pursued the path of meditation, they explained, “We were sent by our king, Dü Garab Wangchuk, who was threatened by your samadhi and wanted to distract you. He told us to seduce you, but instead we have become these ugly rags.” Vimalakirti then taught them how negative intentions return through the law of cause and effect to create unwanted consequences. He gave them a lot of other teachings as well, so they became well educated in the dharma and dramatically transformed.

When we are mindful, we are conscious; we can see clearly. But often habits are so strong they catch us off guard and can manifest as a punch—punching our world, our reality. This is not always obvious, as habits can be hidden behind a smile or an appearance of politeness. A punch can even look quite sweet!

So in our meditation practice we begin to see the details of our mind. We ask, what is happening right now? Am I at peace? Do I hate what is happening or not? Do I care for it or not? Do I wish to be somewhere else? Do I force myself to be here? These details are not always acknowledged, and yet this is the material of our practice. The Buddha said, “I teach for those who know and those who see.” They are very simple words, aren’t they? But for me it means a lot. If we don’t see our mind as it really is, there is nothing much we can do.

From Forest Sangha Newsletter, No. 91, 2012


To Poland With Love

Zen Master Bon Shim recalls her deep gratitude to the late Zen Master Seung Sahn, who brought hope to those living under the harsh conditions of communism.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been looking for some guidance, something that could help me understand my life and this scary world. Growing up in a Catholic family, my only choice had been to go to church almost every day to pray for some help. Finally, a friend of mine who knew I was looking desperately for answers to my existential questions told me that a great Korean Zen master was coming to Krakow and that I should go to the airport to greet him. I was very excited and could hardly wait, imagining what a great Zen master would be like. When the day finally came, I went to the airport to wait for him an hour before his flight arrived, holding a bunch of flowers. The Zen master appeared with eight American students, and at first I was disappointed because he looked ordinary, like any other Korean person. Only later, when we went to my friend’s house and he started talking, did I know I had just met my teacher.

From then on, Zen Master Seung Sahn came every year to our country, which was still communist at the time. Life was very hard in Poland during the last years of communism, with martial law and no food in the shops, so Zen Master Seung Sahn’s visits were extremely important for Polish people. He gave us hope and helped us see things from a different perspective.

The path to liberation had a deep meaning for us, living in an oppressed country, so our sangha grew quickly. We had so many people for retreats that we could hardly manage. Every time Zen Master Seung Sahn arrived, there was a public dharma talk. Once, six hundred people attended his talk. He also used to travel a lot, and any time students invited him, he didn’t hesitate—he just went there, gave a talk, and a new group appeared.

Personally, I also benefited greatly from him on many levels. He would stay at my place whenever he came to Poland. It was inspiring to see him getting up at three o’clock every morning. My baby used to wake up around this time and would sometimes cry a lot. When Zen Master Seung Sahn noticed it, he did a beautiful ceremony for the baby. Every time he came, he looked at my little boy with his keen eyes. And when my older son was a teenager he had many teenage problems, so once Zen Master Seung Sahn had a serious talk with him. I’ve never known what this talk was about, but since then my son has been getting up at 5 a.m. for morning practice.

Our great teacher saved many lives.

From Primary Point, Spring 2012