“U” is for Unconditional

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“U” is for Unconditional

If you’ve been following us at all, you’ve heard me talk about Metta before. “Metta” is the Pali word which is usually translated as “Lovingkindness.” I much prefer “Unconditional Friendliness” or “Unconditional Goodwill” (though I admit that they don’t roll off the tongue quite as nicely….)

In the case of Metta, I prefer it ’cause “Love” generally has a certain stickiness to it to us in the West. “Love” comes with soooooo many ideas and conditionings…. AND, with that, all the complexities as the layers build around the concept.

Plus, in “unconditional friendliness, ” the UNCONDITIONAL is what’s important….And really what I want to talk about today.

“What would it be like to give (and receive) UNCONDITIONAL friendliness?”

No strings attached. Just simple friendliness or goodwill. Unadulterated. Clear and cleanly given (and receive).

And, more importantly, I think, is this question:

“What would it be like to live life UNCONDITIONALLY?”

“What is it to say “Hi” UNCONDITIONALLY?”

“What is it to eat a meal with simple, UNCONDITIONAL acceptance and gratitude?”

“What is it to BE with someone (or yourself) UNCONDITIONALLY?”

Take a minute and do/say/be again whatever you just did/said/was UNCONDITIONALLY? How does it feel?

“What is an ATTITUDE of UNCONDITIONALITY?”

I wonder? I unconditionally wonder……

“T” is for Thinking

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“T” is for Thinking

It seems that “thinking” has gotten a bad rap in the pop-realms of meditation and mindfulness. For many, when they imagine what “meditation” is, they think of it as akin to a “sin” even!  In my beginning course, I always start the class by surveying the reasons why people want to learn meditation. The predominant answers echo these:

“I want to stop my thinking!”

“How do I stop my random, chaotic thoughts?!”

“I don’t want to have anxious thoughts!”

Dogen, in the Fukanzazengi (his treatise on zazen & practice-realization) has these famous words:

“Think of not thinking….Non-thinking.

This in itself is the essential art of zazen.”

Many interpret “non-thinking” as “having no thoughts.”

WHACK!!

“Thinking is not a problem,” I’m always telling people. I usually then follow up with,

“In Buddhism, a thought is just a thought. Period.”

Thinking is not a problem when you can just know it as that…. a thought; a mental formation. IF/WHEN you’re able to just leave it as-it-is, THEN it’s non-thinking.

Of course that’s hard to do. VERY HARD. Mostly we interpret, “translate,” make-it-into-a-story (mostly about “me” or “you” or “us” or “them”)…. And then it’s no longer non-thinking.

Therefore, it’s helpful to know how to not-think. To purposefully focus where you think to train the mind. This isn’t that easy to do either.

Maybe that’s why people don’t stick with practicing mediation for long. It does take effort to practice not-thinking and non-thinking.

So when what you think, “Should be easy!” isn’t; it seems easier to just quit.

And, that’s probably when you could miss out on real understanding —  which leads to real practice…. Just sitting. No pushing away thoughts. No grasping thoughts. Just letting them come and go as they may.

To hear a related Dharma talk: The Zen Wave
And then, if you want to stop thinking about thinking and go on to learn how to practice “not thinking” and “non-thinking,” check out our brief video and description of Meditation Training

Enjoy!

“S” is for Sangha

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“S” is for Sangha

Sangha is one of the Three Treasures in Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha

These can be framed as:

Buddha is an example of the capacity for awakening.
Dharma are the teachings on the laws of nature and the practice of awakening.
Sangha is where we manifest our awakened nature through interactions with others along with “grass, trees, and walls.”

The word “Sangha” in Pali means “comprising” or “assembly.” 

In Sanskrit, the word means“bound together”; even “nailed together.”

In my opinion, the implications are clear: It’s our practice in Sangha which shows how we are all interconnected. Nothing and no one is left out. All can be seen and meet.

When you’re not willing to do this yourself, it’s in sangha that it gets reflected back to you.

Sometimes we’re not ready for this. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to keep it at “my practice.”

I remember once at a Practice Period (at a monastery), a staff person asked the Practice Leader,“I’m so busy (with my job), I don’t know if I’m really practicing here. When do I get to do my practice??”

The Practice Leader answered, “‘Your’ practice? ‘Your’ practice?? What’s that? Do you really think you are practicing alone here?”

We do not practice alone. We practice with and for others. What we do, whether we call it “practice” or not effects — has impact —  all around us.

Or, another way to put it is: Practice isn’t about “meditating to fix myself or to make myself better.” I always say the the biproduct of meditation is more calm and ease.

..And, it’s only through interactions with others/all beings that we can really know and see whether we are contributing to less harm.

We had a good discussion on this in the current A2Z class series How We Brought/Are North American Buddhism: Past & Present Asian American Perspectives. It’s been full of great interactions; not all of it “easy.” AND, it is through engagement that we learn more; about ourselves and about others.

Come join us. It’s a drop-in class. Check out this last week’s talk and discussion:

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For full details on the book and terms referenced in the talk, go to Heartwood

“R” is for Re-Claiming, Re-Visiting, Re-Envisioning

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 “R” is for Re-Claiming, Re-Visiting, Re-Envisioning

Mindfulness andMeditation has been getting lots of press in the past year. In fact, I was Googling for info on the January 2014 Times magazine  “Mindful Revolution” issue. What came up more easily was Huffington Posts’ critique on said cover. The Huff Post started out well with its title:

Actually TIME, This Is What The ‘Mindful Revolution’ Really Looks Like

It went on to say that Time’s feature of “a beautiful, white blonde woman meditating on the cover” did not represent the range of meditators. The online article writers then cited what, for them, represented the range:

  • Meditation is helping students, especially in low-income areas.
  • Veterans and soldiers using meditation to cope with PTSD.
  • Mindfulness is transforming end-of-life care.
  • Mindfulness has become part of a revolution in mental health care.
  • Mindfulness is slowly beginning to transform the medical profession.
  • Athletes — from at-risk youth to NBA stars — are improving their game through meditation.

These are ACTUAL categories from the post! Check it out for yourself:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/04/this-is-proof-that-mindfu_n_4697734.html

What’s missing? 

ASIAN AMERICANS!!!

Perhaps, perhaps, one could make the case that they are not referring to “Buddhism,” and therefore, Asian American are not represented?

I have my doubts. “American Buddhism” or “Western Buddhism” are terms in the media and popular culture. Usually, the term implicitly negates Asian Americans or categorizes us into a different or separate category.

And, the divestment of “Buddhism” from “meditation” and “mindfulness” can be seen as one way to take the “cultural,” “ethnic-ness,” or “religiousness” out — secularizing — as a process of white supremacy and appropriating of Buddhism by the mainstream.

These and other topics are being studies in the current weekly A2Z class series; as we strive to Re-Claim, Re-Visit and, perhaps even Re-Envision, “meditation” and “mindfulness.” For full details, go to:

How We Brought/Are North American Buddhism — Past & Present Asian American Perspectives

Come to the classes or check out the talks and info after each week’s class by looking under the “Sitting Group” tab above.
“C” created by Netsui. Go to “Netsui Arts” for her great works!
https://www.flickr.com/photos/netsui/

“Q” is Question & Quest for Truth in Compassion

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“Q” is for Question and  Quest for Truth in Compassion

I often say that in Zen, the QUESTION is more important than the answer.  That in Zen, we practice to stay with the question more than having to land on an answer. That the exploration that comes with being able to stay with a question can bring so much richness and unexpected outcomes; perhaps even insight.

That was always what “Q” was going to be about.

And, as I went thru my days the past couple of weeks, trying to get these thoughts about “Q” onto this site, questions arose in me that I had to practice staying with:

How can we hurt and harm each other so much…And so continuously?
How can a group of people sing about a person hanging from a tree??
How can we not see inequality and injustice all around us?
How can people who practice not be able to see it in ourselves?

My exploration also included asking myself how I can say what needs to be said in a way that could be heard?

So, “Q” has become more than holding and working with questions — The exploration took me to the QUEST for how to speak and share what I’ve observed within mainstream, convert Buddhist centers. I offered this talk at San Francisco Zen Center March 14, 2015 out of love and compassion, as encouragement. May it be for the benefit of all beings.

Love & Compassion: How is Selma/Ferguson Here & Now?

“P” is for Prayer

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“P” is for Prayer

Perhaps you don’t think of “prayer” when you think of Buddhism. I don’t think most people do; perhaps including Buddhists!

AND, as I kept trying to figure out what to do “P” on, “prayer” kept coming up…..

Perhaps  it’s because there’s been many deaths and challenging aging and illness events in my life and in the lives of my various sanghas members lately….

Here are some thoughts on prayer and how it could fit into a “Buddhist viewpoint.”

Prayer often arise at those moments when we meet a situation that seems beyond our sense of “This is what’s happening ‘to me’ or ‘in my world.'” It seems, to me, to arise at those moments when the LARGENESS of life and living makes us go, “Huh?”….Maybe even “What the f___!”

Another way to put it is….. At those moments of awe. When I was young, I remember hearing in the Presbyterian church we went to that “Yahweh,” the Hebrew word for “God,” means “to be” or “to become.” However, to say this name of God was to be blasphemous. I don’t remember why this was so…..These days, I’m wondering if perhaps, the admonition not to use this name of God was a way to say “God” and what he represents is TOO BIG to think that we could grasp and/or hold on to? Perhaps, that “God” is similar to “All encompassing” so how can we think of even naming this force?

How does one name AWE?

Similarly, at a moment when we find it hard to make sense of the LARGENESS of life and life’s happenings, is when a need for something which can help us to be with this vastness that a prayer is wanted? Something for us to utter in this moment which helps to ground us, to place us, in the midst of such wonder….And , perhaps to also be able to be with the accompanying fear or anxiety; or even with joy which comes with it? Or, perhaps, a wanting of some utterance to help us hold the sadness or grief in such a moment?

At such times, I’m thinking that Christianity responses with the thought of “Yahweh”/”God” and the utterance of “Amen.”

What does Buddhism provide? That’s what I’m pondering……

What’s coming up is Metta, Karuna, and Mudita…..And Upekkha; the 4 Brahma Viharas. These are the four qualities of heart and mind in which EASE and OPENNESS can be accessed and known.

Metta: Open  Friendliness/Lovingkindness….Heck,  “Just Kindness” and Goodwill.

Karuna: Compassion. Willingness to BE WITH. “Respect for the human condition”

Mudita: Sympathetic/Emphatic Joy is the usual translation. I like to say Inclusive Joy. Joy with another.

Upekkha: Equanimity. Balance of mind. Patience when the bigger picture can be accessed or held.

These are qualities we already have and they are qualities we can cultivate. We practice cultivating the ground for easier access to remembering and resting in them when we mos need it.

For those moments when our mind or heart skips a beat and has the spaciousness to not follow its habitual reactions and contractions. At such moment, it’s possible to  utter:

May I meet this with friendliness as it reveals itself to me.

May I be with pain or suffering as it is and not try to make it, or myself, different.

May I rejoice and be happy for my own or other’s good fortune.

May I be aware of interdependence and that all are dependent on many and various causes and conditions. That  all things, people, and situations have a design that I may not be able to see, know, or understand.

These four Brahma Vihara qualities interacts with each other, helping us to hold our awe and wonder with what we could call a “safety net” of ease and openness.

And, if we need to shorten it (like with the utterance of “Amen”) then ours could be “May.”

A prayer of  “May it be possible.”

“O” is for Opposites…., Right?

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

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

He 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

  • What’s yours?

“N” is for New Year! Happy 2015….Yes?

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“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”

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“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

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“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.