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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh on Rebirth

At first, we might think of reincarnation as a soul entering a body. The body is seen as impermanent and the soul as permanent, and when we get rid of one body, we re-enter another. You might be surprised to know that people in Buddhist Asia are not fond of reincarnation. They want the circle of birth and death to end because they know it represents suffering without end.

The Buddha taught that a so-called "person" is really just five elements (skandhas) that come together for a limited period of time: our body, feelings, perceptions, mental states and consciousness. These five elements are, in fact, changing all the time. Not a single element remains the same for two consecutive moments.

Not only is our body impermanent, but our so-called soul is also impermanent. It, too, is comprised only of elements like feelings, perceptions, mental states, and consciousness. When the idea of an immortal soul is replaced, our understanding of reincarnation gets closer to the truth.

But if we observe the things around us, we find that nothing comes from nothing. Before its so-called birth, the flower already existed in other forms -- clouds, sunshine, seeds, soil, and many other elements. Rather than birth and rebirth, it is more accurate to say "manifestation" (vij├▒apti) and "remanifestation." The so-called birthday of the flower is really a day of its remanifestation. It has already been here in other forms, and now it has made an effort to remanifest.

Manifestation means its constituents have always been here in some form, and now, since conditions are sufficient, it is capable of manifesting itself as a flower. When things have manifested, we commonly say they are born, but in fact, they are not. When conditions are no longer sufficient and the flower ceases to manifest, we say the flower has died, but that is not correct either. Its constituents have merely transformed themselves into other elements, like compost and soul.

-Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), pp 133-135 (Source:

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: "Essential Chan Buddhism: The Spirit and Character of Chinese Zen."

One day, the Buddha asked his disciples: "How long is life?" 

"Maybe fifty years?" replied a disciple. 

"Wrong," said Buddha. 

Another disciple said, "Months." 

"No," Buddha said. 

"Days? Weeks?" another disciple suggested. 

"Wrong. Wrong," said Buddha. "Not years, not months, not weeks, not days." 

Then they asked, "How long is one life?" 

"Our life is only as long as one breath."


Thus begins the insightful book, Essential Chan Buddhism: The Spirit and Character of Chinese Zen. It is a collection of some of the vast wisdom from Chan master, Guo Jun. The book is easy to read but not simplistic. Each chapter is relatively short, so it is a great way to begin a book on Buddhism since it prepares the reader to absorb the teachings one at a time, without rushing through. Thus, staying in the present moment. At times, I would break after only reading a paragraph to simply breath and reflect on what I just read. Too often I rush through books without taking breaks to let what I read seep into my heart to be reflected in my actions.

This leads the reader to experience the wisdom personally, through study and contemplation, rather than being told simply what to believe. Master Guo Jun reminds us that true wisdom comes from personal experience and not simply memorizing teachings. That is knowledge, but knowing a lot doesn't mean that we have absorbed the lessons of that knowledge toward changing the way we act. I know some people who are amazingly smart at memorizing the sutras or knowing all the rules but are personally very difficult to interact with because the knowledge has fed their ego. Whereas experiential wisdom is reflected less in what we say and rather in what we do. To quote Master Guo Jun in the book, "Wisdom is expressed in every action, by mere presence."

I have experienced this first-hand with Thich Nhat Hanh. The minute he walks into the room, you feel the energy in the room change. You feel him teaching through his mere presence. His slow and deliberate movements evoke living solely in the present moment. His soft spoken speaking style imparts the wisdom of thinking before you speak, so as to only speak essential words. This teaches me to choose my words wisely, so as to avoid or reduce harmful words.

The book offers much for those new to Buddhism, and insight to long-time Buddhists looking to return to the "Beginners Mind" of Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki. The book doesn't necessarily have to be read front to back. It's easy flip to a random chapter in the book and learn a quick lesson, which is great if you are pressed for time. Overall, I'd recommend this book to beginners, long-time practitioners and especially those looking for direct lessons from the Chan tradition of Buddhism.

~i bow to the buddha within all beings~

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dealing with Anger.

Over the years, I have wrestled with anger and felt it's sting every time. A lot of times I get angry for reasons that I feel are justified, but even so, I pay a price for letting someone's rude actions disturb the calm waters of my mind. One example being rude drivers on the roads, but getting angry at them doesn't do any good for my mental health. I might feel justified, like I sometimes do, but striking-out at other people is like a bee stinging you when you try to take their honey. They strike-out in anger by stinging you, but in the process they are hurt worse because in the process of stinging you they die.

I'm learning through Buddha that there are other ways to react to problems, solve disagreements or process disappointments than through anger. There are other ways to resolve differences without lashing out in rage. People are less likely to compromise with you or change their behavior if you yell at them with angry words and insults. They simply yell back and you're even further away from resolving your problem with them!!

I'm trying to do meditation in the car to lessen my anger while driving. I simply try to focus on my breathing and remember that mistakes happen but how I react determines how much those mistakes will affect me in a painful way. Another method I try to use is seeing the rude drivers as people suffering greatly. They are unhappy inside, so they lash out at others because they don't know how to handle their pain. They are like a wounded animal that tries to bite you even though you aren't trying to hurt them. They are confused and don't know how to solve their problems, so they blame everyone out of ignorance and delusion. It helps me have compassion toward them instead of anger, which calms my mind rather than succumb to the ego's desire for vengeance.

~i bow to the buddha within all beings~ 

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Friday, January 04, 2013

Meditation, Medication and Psychological Disorders.

The mind is likened to a pond of water. Restless thoughts are like pebbles thrown into the water. They send out a ripple of activity, disturbing the tranquil surface. When the water is constantly agitated with restless thoughts, we cannot see clearly to the bottom of the pond, which represents our inner wisdom. When we stop the restless thoughts, we calm the waters, enabling us to see clearly to the bottom—where our wisest, most enlightened self resides. -Dr. Neal F. Neimark, M.D.
James: Meditation calms the waters in my mind like a powerful medication, and unlike some of my psychiatric medications, meditation has no negative side-effects!! That does not mean, however, that someone should stop taking their doctor-prescribed medications. Meditation should be an augmentation of your current psychiatric medical plan, not a replacement. Unless otherwise advised by a medical professional.

We would never recommend a cancer patient stop their medication for a "meditation-only" treatment plan! Yet, I hear some well-meaning Buddhists advise people to stop their medications. That is dangerously short-sighted. I think the confusion stems from confusing the mind with the brain--both are interconnected, and need attention in the psychiatric patient, but should be treated differently. Medications aren't very useful in changing the mind. If so, drug addicts would be enlightened Buddhas!!! The illicit drug changes the brain chemically to give the impression of nirvana-like bliss, but when the drug wears-off, the user is left, once again with his harmful habits and cravings.

Consider this example:

The brain is like a computer, and the mind is like the screen or monitor. The screen/mind, will only project what the computer/brain feeds it. In this example, psychiatric medications wouldn't change the mind's karmic habits anymore than replacing computer screens will change the content being projected by the computer/brain. In the mind of someone with a psychiatric disease, the computer/brain is infected with a "virus" or disease, which spits-out jumbled-up imagery and sound (psychiatric symptoms). Being someone with a psychiatric disease, I know how helpful and vital psychiatric medications are for these medical conditions. However, the medications aren't a cure, there was something missing. I didn't feel like I had a complete treatment plan until I found Buddhism.

This is where meditation is most effective in aiding those with psychiatric conditions. It's the answer to the "What now" question. A lot of people suffering from medical conditions such as bipolar and schizophrenia know that medication alone isn't giving them relief from their suffering. Unfortunately, many believe that there is nothing else that can help them, which is why I often recommend Buddhism to fellow sufferers, so that they can get that extra help to assist their mental stability.

Meditation can be difficult for some patients with psychiatric disorders, especially if you have attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.) or difficulty concentrating. If you're first starting to meditate and find it difficult to concentrate then I recommend chanting meditation. It's also good for meditators without psychiatric disorders, especially on days when they are particularly agitated or distracted. It will help calm the mind while focusing it on something positive and ease distraction. The repetition will clear your mind to enable spiritual insight. An added bonus is that the resonating sound will relax your body to ease the tension and stress from the day built up in your muscles.

I'm not an ordained monk or meditation teacher, but as someone with a psychiatric disorder I've realized that chanting meditation is a great way to meditate on days when your thoughts are simply racing too much.

-i bow to the buddha within all beings-

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