First Thoughts – Winter 2012

Excerpts of Buddhadharma’s favorite writings and teachings from Winter 2012, featuring Thich Nhat Hanh, Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor, and more.

By Lion’s Roar

Behind Door Number Three

When we realize the emptiness of self and the truth of enlightenment, we see there is nothing to strive for. Thich Nhat Hanh on aimlessness, the third door of liberation.

One gatha from the sutra Yogacarabhumi­shastra says that all of us contain a stream and that we don’t have a separate self. It reads: “Living beings is the name of a con­tinuous stream, and all phenomena as the object of perception are only signs. Therefore there is no real change of birth into death and death into birth and no person who realizes nirvana.”

There are two things this gatha is teaching us. First, we don’t have a separate ego, a sepa­rate self. And second, everything comes from our perceptions; everything is an object of our perception. There is no one who attains nirvana, because if there is no separate self, then who will do that? At first we think we have to choose: Either we are in the ocean of death and birth, and then we suffer, or we are in nirvana, so we don’t have to suffer. But after that, we have to go further in our under­standing. We have to see that birth and death are nirvana. If we are deeply in touch with birth and death, then we are in touch with nirvana. These two things are not separate, and because of that, there is nobody in the stream of birth and death, and there’s nobody to go to nirvana. So we don’t have to do any­thing. We don’t even have to practice.

In Buddhism we have three doors of lib­eration. The first door is emptiness, the sec­ond door is signlessness, and the third door is aimlessness.

Aimlessness means that you don’t need to go anywhere and you don’t need to aim for anything; you are what you are searching for. When the river realizes that she’s water, and that the cloud is in her because she is also water, she has no aim to run after, and she is in peace. It’s the same with us: We run after the Buddha; we run after satori, enlighten­ment. But you don’t need to run after enlight­enment; you are already enlightened. Steadily there, peaceful, clear in your mind—you are already what you are searching for.

From The Mindfulness Bell, Summer 2012

Concerto in Ego minor

Ven. David Xi-Ken Astor finds inspiration for his meditation practice in the legendary classical pianist Glenn Gould.

I was watching a documentary about the late pianist Glenn Gould, perhaps the great­est interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach of any generation, and was struck by how he seemed to disappear behind the work he was performing, especially when he played Bach. It was as if he removed his human form completely and let the music come through him. The transformation encompassed his entire body, and you could tell his mind was in another space. His play­ing reminds me of the line in a Zen poem: “Barn’s burned down—now I can see the moon.”

The lesson I took away from watching this video is that, like Gould, who let his ego fall away so he became a conduit for the music, when I let my ego fall away, honed by my practice, I can connect with how I am conducting the activities of the moment and thereby maximize the karmic results for promoting good.

It seems that there are two aspects within each of us—the functional being who learns to master the technique required for excel­lence and the ego that wants to control the process and is hard to get out of the way. In other words, one part of me—the reservoir of knowledge, the muscle memory, and the overall life experience that influences how I act—is a conduit for energy. The other part is the self-centered egotist who wants to cri­tique, take credit for his accomplishments, and accept the appreciation of others.

I tell my students that it is important to learn to get out of the way of what you are doing, and just let your practice shine through. This takes some perseverance and is not easy to do with a lot of grace in the beginning.

Consider these words by Shunryu Suzuki from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex.” It takes a great deal of practice to be a “beginner.” A beginner’s mind means one has no agenda for any outcome. The energy that arises from a beginner’s mind flows from letting go of all the personal preferences, the attachments, and the distorted worldview we come to think is reality. When we learn to touch the spiritual element of our being, we bring happiness and harmony into a world full of awakened potential.

From the Engaged Dharma website (, September 2012

“Strive on with Diligence”

Because the monastic path can be especially difficult, Ajahn Sundara reminds monks and nuns of the Buddha’s final words.

Energy—the ability to arouse effort, persis­tence, and the capacity to exert oneself—is probably one of the most important qualities to be developed in the training of a monas­tic. It is also one of the factors of the noble eightfold path. The last words of the Buddha before passing away into parinibbana were: “All compounded things are impermanent; strive on with diligence.”

Monastic life, with its emphasis on medita­tion, moral restraint, and renunciation, deeply challenges our conditioning and habits. The practice and the training, through mindful­ness and wisdom, cut through the habits of identifying with the currents of the mind. It requires vigilance, energy, and perseverance to withstand the power of our desires, fears, and feelings of loneliness, hunger, and grief, and the resistance of the mind that can arise toward almost anything: a daily routine that seems repetitive, having to work with only a few hours of sleep and on one main meal a day, or living among people one has not cho­sen to be with. The recollection of death and the uncertainty of life are important incen­tives that urge us to live wisely and to not delay the precious opportunity to realize the end of suffering, nibbana.

From The Middle Way: Journal of The Buddhist Society, August 2012

If Those Continents Could Speak

In this original submission to First Thoughts, Christopher King imagines a natural world in which its many parts feel separate.

Something amusing occurred to me recently. I was looking at an aerial view of the Earth on television and thought to myself, if those con­tinents could speak, I bet they would say they were totally separate from one another. They would know nothing of the oceans’ floor. Their self-containment would be an illusion created by the tricky oceans, convincing them that they were completely isolated. And those same oceans, so big and rough, would surely be too arrogant to even consider that they were connected to the rest of the atmosphere.

The oceans know nothing about evapora­tion or the other bodies of water that they feed. They are oblivious to anything but their powerful waves. My guess is that if you could interview any one of the zillions and zillions of drops of water that make up any one of our oceans, they would never admit that they are simply one of the zillions that make up the whole. How could they know? They’re so small. They cannot see themselves crashing on the beach, or look up and see the gigantic ships gliding across their surface.

I bet you that if existence were interview­ing me right now, she’d say, “You know, you and that drop of water really have a lot in common.”

“I Want!”

Desire in and of itself isn’t actually a problem, says Zen Master Wu Kwang (Richard Shrobe). The difficulty arises when self-clinging is involved.

Once, during an interview, a student asked Zen Master Wu Kwang: “Desires are inexhaustible. What does this mean?” Zen Master Wu Kwang replied: “I want!” The student asked: “Then how do you extinguish them all?” Zen Master Wu Kwang said: “I want!”

Commentary: Human life is “I want!” Even to direct yourself toward extinguishing desires is a want or desire. Strictly speaking, desire, or even preference, is not the problem. Clinging and self-centered craving are really the core of the issue. One must ask: Why do “I want,” and for whom? How do I use the energy of desire to go beyond just I, my, me? When you’re hungry, eat; when someone else is hungry, give the person some food.

From Primary Point, Summer 2012

The “Good” Student

Nancy Thompson wants good grades from her Buddhist teacher, but it doesn’t work that way.

Three years ago, I started working one-on-­one with a Buddhist teacher. One thing I run up against constantly in this student–teacher relationship is my desire for affirmation. I got good grades all through school because I knew how to discern what teachers wanted and then do my work that way. I can’t do that with this teacher. What he wants is for me to know my own mind, not to be good at buzzwords or jargon (although he seems to like buzzwords and jargon).

The relationship is a dance—sometimes a formal minuet, sometimes a funky, unself­conscious groove to the tunes of the artist formerly and currently known as Prince, sometimes a contortion straight out of Mar­tha Graham, with swirling skirts and beating fists. I’m constantly finding my way between trying to please my teacher and following his recommendations to see what I can learn about myself. Through this dance, I explore how am I reacting to his suggestions. Have I reacted this way in the past? What am I defending? Can I drop my concepts and take to heart what I’m hearing?

In Woman Awake: Women Practicing Bud­dhism, Christina Feldman writes that women who embark on a spiritual journey find them­selves trying to accommodate themselves to structures and traditions largely created by men—similar to what occurs in the larger culture—in order to feel safe, accepted, and loved.

When I am in touch with my deepest self, my original nature, I know that I don’t need someone else’s affirmation that I’m good—I already know that I am basically good. But to stay in touch with that knowledge, I need to be aware of when I’m operating not from that place but from the place of the ten-year­old who was validated by getting an A on an assignment. And when I am that ten-year-old, I need to hold her in loving awareness and let her know that being that way is okay. An A— or a B or even (I feel the tension rising in my chest) a C—is not a measure of my wisdom, just my knowledge. And it’s not a rating of my being, just my work. Maybe I can improve my work. But I don’t need to improve my nature; it’s already off-the-charts good.

These are the things I’m learning from working with my teacher.

From The Interdependence Project (, September 2012

The Power of a Smile

A simple smile is enough, says Geshe Dorji Damdul, director of Tibet House in New Delhi.

If you wish for happiness and joy, have an affectionate smile. Don’t restrain it, ever. Shine forth this smile of unconditional love toward everyone, leaving none aside. Even the poorest have a smile from their hearts to give you. What greater gift can you expect, even from the richest person, than this most beau­tiful smile from the heart? It is so immaculate, so precious.

Wisdom—seeing all things as miragelike— provides you with peace and confidence in all situations. Drink this nectar of wisdom yourself and share it with all sentient beings. Rescue them from the turbulence of fierce samsara, caused by our failure to realize that all things are dreamlike.

Let’s walk the path together to this oasis of wisdom nectar, pervaded with the soothing sunshine of unconditional love and tenderly blossoming with the fresh, beautiful flowers of sentient beings.

Forever you will be free and in peace.

May this wisdom of dependent origination soon be born in you.

May this sunshine of infinite compassion soon be poured forth upon you.

From Tibet House Bulletin, March 2012

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.