“O” is for Opposites…., Right?


“O” is for Opposites…. Like Evil vs. Good, Right?

I recently had a conversation with someone on the topic of “evil.”

The person asked, what does Buddhism teach as the essence and cause  of “evil?” My answer was “Ignorance.” In Buddhism, ignorance is considered the first step in the 12 links of Dependent Origination.  In particular we talked about self-responsibility balanced with the wisdom of interdependence;  so there are many causes and conditions for actions and events.

It was a brief conversation during a lunch break in the midst of a workshop but the conversation stayed with me….

Then there was the Charlie Hebdo shootings and its aftermaths ….And in the same week, the shooting of four men across the street from SFZC’s City Center.

Around these events, I was in the midst of teaching a class series on The Heart Sutra in my sitting group. I was working on a talk to summarize this seminal teaching in the Zen tradition. One of my reference was Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Heart of Understanding. In a chapter entitled “Buddha is Made of Non-Buddha Elements,” he tells a story of a visit between Buddha and Mara which gave me the inspiration for the talk on the topic of “evil;” which seems especially pertinent given these events.

Usually, when we think of “evil,” my take is that our conditioning is to think it as the  direct opposite from “good.” With this dualism as a framework, we tend then to reject “evil” if we want to hang on to “good;” especially the “I’m a good person!” instead of the “I’m a bad person!”

Our continual grasping at “evil” and “good” as polarized concepts — which also often leads to similarly framing groups of people — tends to increase suffering and can trigger reactions of hatred.

When we’re able to let go of our conditioned dualistic framing — when we’re not so rigid in thinking we “KNOW!” what makes another (or ourselves!) “evil” versus what makes another (or ourselves!) “good” —  the possibility for accessing compassion as a response becomes more possible.

That’s my take, framed here at the talk for EBMC’s POC Sangha January 8th:  “Evil” from a Buddhist Perspective: Buddha and Mara:

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    What’s yours?

“N” is for New Year! Happy 2015….Yes?


“N” is for New Year! Happy 2015!…..Yes?

2015 is rolling in….. Very soon; in just a few hours for those of us in the United States. This morning’s new shows had scenes of people celebrating the count-downs to 2015 in places such as Australia,  Hong Kong, and Taiwan. THEY are already IN 2015!

TIME…..It’s a construct. We forget this. On a day-to-day basis, most of us take it to be “the truth.” We forget that it’s our agreement on what  a specific marker is; in this case: for what we agree is the passing of a “moment” or “time!”

This became clear to me while I was practicing at Tassajara…

During Practice Periods (PP) there is a sesshin (retreat) every month. One March, in the middle of a 7-day sesshin, it was announced that daylight saving was that night but that we would NOT change our clocks so that the sesshin schedule wouldn’t be effected — mostly so that we wouldn’t lose an hour of sleep; especially important when you were already getting up at 3:50 in the morning!

At which point, I remember my mind coming up with, “WHAT??? Don’t we have to change our clocks?? How can we NOT??? What about the rest of the world?? How can we be ‘out of sink’ from them???”

And then I realized/remembered that “What time  it is” is an agreement which a group of people make together. At Tassajara during a PP — and especially so during a sesshin —- we are isolated from “the rest of the world” so why not?? It’s merely a set of parameters which we all agree to!

Btw, this lead to the realization of another mis-thought— Because it’s really just the U.S. and not “the rest of the world” which has daylight savings!*

As a new year rolls in, it’s often a time when many of us reflect on events of the current year — which is really 364 days which have gone by already; …. so really about the past! —- and realize, once again, the teaching around holding on to fixed ideas/strong beliefs/delusion…. And, about how when we take concepts to be “truths” and then we forget that they are just that — concepts — the possibilities for us to experience suffering is more likely!

So…”Yes, I agree to this concept of ‘a year’ and of ‘2015’”…. And, with it, to wish a Happy 2015** to you, yours, and all beings!! May it be filled with realizations, and, therefore, ease!!

Warmly, Liên

* Oh, and neither Arizona nor Hawaii observe DST! …For another twist, check out the Navajo Nation’s take/agreement on Arizona’s on observance of DST: http://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2012-11-12/daylight-saving-donut-arizona-ken-jennings-maphead

** “2015,” of course, is based on the Gregorian/Christian calendar.
  — Being Vietnamese American, I also agree to the concept of “Lunar New Year.” From which, we are still in the midst of year #4713; changing on Feb. 19, 2015, the year of Sheep/Ram.
— By the Buddhist calendar, we are in year #2558. This is calculated from the Budda’s Parinirvana in 543BCE. Interesting explanation at https://www.facebook.com/BuddhAmbedkarWe/posts/467070390030531

Also, click on the “Upcoming Events” tab for a list of 2015 practice opportunities!

“M” is for May — “May we all have inner & outer safety”


“M” is for May

For me, the word “may” brings up “May I…” — As in the phrases used in the practice of cultivating metta:

May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I be well.
May I have inner & outer safety.
May I be peaceful & at ease.
May I be happy.

I was “given” these phrases to carry and recite/chant many years ago by Margarita Loinaz, a teacher from my first sangha, the Women of Color Sitting Group. My memory is that the middle phrase about safety  — not typically used in traditional metta practices — was added, given my early life in Saigon during the American War.**

“May” seems like something very appropriate for our current times. I’m thinking especially so after the lack of justice done in Ferguson last week….New York, this week….Somewhere else next week?…. I’m thinking about how difficult it is for inner safety to be known and strengthen when outer conditions are so completely devoid of not only equality and what we were taught as our “inalienable rights” but also just pure human respect and decency.

When I had started to ponder about what “Buddhist teaching” I could offer for “M,” what continued to come up was “may.” It was always in relation to the metta phrases but my initial thoughts was about it in context of the holidays season…. Especially as, these days, I often offered “goodwill” as  another interpretion for metta/lovingkindness.

That was the impetus when I sat down to write this post, ….. And, (you all know how I like to be inclusive with “and” as opposed to “but”) it now feels completely appropriate to include Ferguson, etc.

Since goodwill is something we especially think about and bring forth at this time of the year, hopefully, it will bring with it a broadening  not only of our hearts and intentions but also our views and actions towards all. To echo the last post about “love as an action,” may we also realize that, with goodwill/lovingkindness, comes responsibility.

These days, my take on the Mahayana path— and the Bodhisattva vows which comes with it —  is that it’s all about broadening our perspectives (Wise View/Understanding), taking responsibility for our karma (read: becoming aware of our unconsciousness; really, the -ism’s — Wise Intention/Thoughts) so that we can live a life engage in wise-compassion (Ethical Conduct: Wise Speech, Action & Livelihood), strengthened by our practice (Wise Mindfulness & Concentration).

Therefore, for this time of year and for our current times, I’d like to offer, in particular:

“May WE ALL have inner & outer safety.”

Deep, warm bows to all, Lien

Find a related talk on this page: ebmcPOC-Buddha’s Enlightenment Means Black Lives Matter

** In Vietnam, it’s called “the American War;” to reference it from conflicts with other colonizers such as China and France.

“M” created by Netsui. Thank you! Go to “Netsui Arts” for her great works!  https://www.flickr.com/photos/netsui/

“L” is for Love


“L” is for Love


My all-time favorite line on love is from bell hooks:

“To begin by always thinking of love as an action

rather than a feeling

is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner

automatically assumes accountability and responsibility.”

I appreciate this way of framing love because it takes it beyond the conventional view of it as a feeling or an intention. Yes, it can be these things and our resulting actions and behaviors — individually and/or as an institution — can have grave impact.

Here’s a link to a piece I wrote which speaks to this: Our Way

B coming down steps

Love is an exploration. Join us after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for The Love Series — an offering of the Access To Zen Sitting Group.

“K” is for “no Kidding!”


“K” is for “no Kidding!”

On November 3, at the A2Z Sitting Group the topic will be:

Gone Girl   and the   Fukanzazengi

Yup, you read right. No Kidding. Last Monday, in A2Z Sitting Group, I began to talk about Dogen treatise on zazen.  Dogen’s “koan,” you could say, is if we are enlightened then why do we need to practice?  For many  of us, the same question can be framed as:

“Why practice?”

“How do I gauge my practice?”

“If I don’t become calmer, nicer, better, XXXX-er then what’s the point to practicing?”

It seems that these questions play out most in our ideas of ourselves and in relationship with others. As we got into our studies last Monday, what felt most enlivened was the examples of and our discussions around relationships.

I saw Gone Girl last weekend. It’s been nudging at me.

Preparing to present the Fukanzazengi and in our discussions, more and more it came up about how Buddha Nature is not  separate from ourselves and how we interact in life…..

Interactions….. So yes, I’m going to relate points from the Fukanzazengi to the movie. You heard it here first. No Kidding.

It’s done! Click here to view:  Variety

“J” is for Joy


“J” is for Joy

Currently, my take on joy is  that it’s easier to experience, feel and intuit than to be able to define clearly.

Joy is often talked about in relation to working with anger. Here are some words from viewonbuddhism.org, quoting the Dalai Lama on these topics:

…there are various factors that contribute to attaining that level of joy and happiness which we conventionally also recognize as sources of happiness, such as good physical health, …the wealth that we accumulate, …and a circle of friends we trust and with whom we can relate emotionally.

    Now all of these are, in reality, sources of happiness, but in order for one to be able to fully utilize them with the goal of enjoying a happy and fulfilled life, one’s state of mind is crucial. If one harbors hateful thoughts within, or strong or intense anger somewhere deep down, then it ruins one’s health, so it destroys one of the factors. Even if one has wonderful possessions, when one is in an intense moment of anger or hatred, one feels like throwing them—breaking them or throwing them away. So there is no guarantee that wealth alone can give one the joy or fulfillment that one seeks. Similarly, when one is in an intense state of anger or hatred, even a very close friend appears somehow “frosty,” cold and distant, or quite annoying.

    What this indicates is that our state of mind is crucial in determining whether or not we gain joy and happiness. So leaving aside the perspective of Dharma practice, even in worldly terms, in terms of our enjoying a happy day-to-day existence, the greater the level of calmness of our mind, the greater our peace of mind, and the greater our ability to enjoy a happy and joyful life.

Healing Anger: The Power of Patience from a Buddhist Perspective

Joy is something I’ve explored some….While not fully able to define it, the end of this talk shares some thoughts on “inconceivable” and “conceivable” joy:


Photo: “J” created by Netsui. Thank you! Go to “Netsui Arts” for her great works!  https://www.flickr.com/photos/netsui/

Beginning SEPTEMBER 8th, A2Z Sitting Group Moves to Mondays


We’re sitting together on Mondays now!! 

Beginning September 8th, 2014
(no meeting on Labor Day, 9/1)

Same time:     7:30 – 9 p.m.
Same place:   SFZC Conference Center at 308 Page St.
Same topic:   16 Bodhisattva Precepts thru Sept. 22

Go to this page for complete info: http://www.accesstozen.org/sitting-group/


Photo by Deb Svoboda. Go here for her amazing work!


“I” is for “I have Buddha Nature?”


Dharma talk at City Center on August 16

Note: It’s Katagiri Roshi who said, “The function of the mind is to secrete thoughts.” I quote this line from him all the time so not sure how I got it wrong yesterday! Didn’t even know it ’til later.

Here is the Terry Ehret poem at the end of the talk:

sometimes in the open you look up
to see a whorl of clouds, dragging and furling
your whole inventoried history. You look up
from where you’re standing, say,
among the stolid mountains,
and in that moment your life
becomes the margin
of what matters, and solid earth
you love dizzies away from you
like the wet shoreline sucked back
by that other eternity,
the sea. At times the spinning
earth shrugs you off balance,
gravity loosens its fist, hoists you into the sky,
and you might spend your life trying to recover
this nearness to flight.

Thank you,  J. Delfina Piretti, for use of your calligraphy!

A2Z Sitting Group to meet at 300 Page 8/13

We will be going to hear Konin Cardenas speak in  the Buddha Hall tomorrow, Aug. 13. That’s next door to our usual meeting place; at 300 Page Street.


Konin will be speaking “about inclusivity, sangha, and what we mean by community, with an emphasis on Bodhisattva vow and how to help without adding hierarchy. So it will be at least partly about not praising self at the expense of others.”

As our current exploration on the precepts is around speech, this will be very timely.

See you there!

“H” is for Heck!…. And Hell


“H” is for Heck!…. And Hell

“H” is for “Heck, but it’s been a long time sense I’ve posted anything!”

Wow! How time does fly!….And, I’m happy to say, perhaps as the saying goes, it’s ’cause I’ve been having FUN! Yeah for summer!  But, enough about me….

When thinking about “H” in context of Buddhism, “Hell” keeps coming up. Maybe ’cause “G” was for “God”….

Hell is one of the 6 realms in the Buddhist cosmology. They are often put in this descending order: Heaven, Titans, Human, Hungry Ghosts, Animal, and Hell.

Yes, Hell is last. It is the realm considered most full of suffering. Here are a few more general details:

Heaven: Where Gods and Devas live. In a realm filled with long life, so full of pleasure and ecstasy that there is no awareness of other’s suffering. And, therefore, do not have the ability for wisdom nor compassion.

Titan: Asura resides here. They are full of the opposite traits of the previous realm so are filled with hate, jealousy,  envy — leading to much anger. These qualities are so all-consuming that there is no room for even the thought of developing and/or accessing other qualities such as compassion or wisdom; nor to think of other people.

Human: Is consider the most auspicious because here there IS suffering and joy. Thought to be in just enough measure to be able for the possibility of a sense of balance of the two and, therefore, the time, room, space for the desire to cultivate and access compassion and wisdom; both for self and for other.

Hungry Ghost (Preta): Here, one is again, so consumed by wanting  that one is obsessed with only how to end such craving. A “hungry ghost” is depicted in many paintings to have a long, skinny neck and a bloated belly.

Animal: In this realm, the need for survival supersedes all other thoughts or aspirations.

Hell: Here, suffering and lamentation is all-consuming, leaving no room for other thoughts or aspirations.

The 6 Realms are not talked about much in the practices I’ve done. Mostly it is brought up as more of mental and emotional states that we can go thru…. often times, in just a few minutes.

For instance: You see someone in a crowd….. (a very, common, Human experience/Realm) You go into papancha, fantasizing about how great that person is; how she/he/they ask you out. it’s  wonderful and, after x-number of dates, the two of you fall in love (Heaven Realm)! …Many more fantasies of  glowing events in your coupled future — perhaps at street fairs through-out the summer; at your favorite ice cream shop or restaurant (at these places, you order all the latest foodie recommendations and before you know it, you leave the shop/restaurant with stomach ache or a hangover the next day! [Animal Realm]), or (back to those future plans!)… on the beach during a sunset or sunrise,.. etc.  etc. (Hungry Ghost Realm). Then, perhaps you wanted to go to the Jazz Festival but they wanted to go to Opera in the Park….or, at one of these events, you catch them checking out another person and, next thing you know, there’s a fight (Titan/Asura Realm). The fight escalates and then they are wanting to “date other people” or “let’s just be friends” …. So now you’re devastated! (Hell Realm)!!!

Oh, and did I mention?……..You’ve been sitting in the Buddha Hall, waiting for the speaker to finish his/her/their bows and do that thing-they-do with their many layers of robes………

“H” is also for Ha!