Deep Listening as Buddhist Practice

A Dharma Glimpse  

I have been thinking a lot about listening lately.  Actually I think about it a lot.  For many years I thought I was a good listener and over time I have realized how untrue that was. But that seems true for most of us;  we have a high opinion of our own listening skill and have  tendency to think we are better listeners than we are.  I know the Buddhadharma has helped me become a better listener.

I first came across the idea of listening as practice  in Taitetsu Unno’s,  River of Water, River of Fire. I had never heard of the idea of “deep hearing”  or Monpo (to listen to the Buddha dharma) before.  What he was talking about was more metaphysical than what I took away from it.  I can appreciate what he was sharing and compare it to the soundless bell that Rev. Gyomay wrote about in the Center Within.  At the same time I also look at it not only in a metaphysical sense, but as a more mundane daily practice of hearing the call of the Buddha in each person I deeply listen to.

 

Our sangha in Salt Lake is looking to become part of a group called Urban Confessionals. This groups whole purpose is to offer free listening to anyone. It is simple, make a sign that says “free listen” and wait for someone to listen to, just listen to.  We haven’t made our first venture out yet but I am looking forward to it. The reason we are doing it in the first place is that we see this as a great opportunity for practice.  To listen to another,  to listen deeply to an “other” can be a great act of compassion. I love this quote from a guy named David Oxberger, “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference “  For me the call of the Buddha to be compassionate would also be a call to listen. Listening is a way for us to open ourselves to other people,  and to ourselves.  We are following the challenge of  Thich Nhat Hahn who has written,

 “We surely have not cultivated the arts of listening and speaking. We do not know how to listen to each other. We have little ability to hold an intelligent or meaningful conversation. The universal door of communication has to be opened again.

This is so much more than hearing someone, it is listening deeply to them and their suffering. and not turning away.  Rev Gyomay in Tan Butsu Ge wrote,   “listening is a very important understanding in Buddhism.  To hear connotes the “I”  hears, it is the ego subjective way of hearing. To listen is to be aware, to attend and has no tinge of ego in it.”   Deep listening is beyond ego, beyond judgement, it is only concerned with the suffering that is there.  That is why, on our altar we have Kwan Yin. The one who hears the cries of the world and does not turn away.  The practice of deep listening is exemplified by this Bodhisattva and we follow her example and have faith that as Thay writes, “While listening, you know that only with deep listening can you relieve the suffering of the other person.”  He goes on to say and we follow the aspiration

 “Aware of the suffering caused by …the inability to listen to others, I vow to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering.” This is exactly the universal door practiced by Avalokitesvara.”

Rev Castro of the Seattle Buddhist Church, after hearing a talk given by Reverend Koyo,  taught that “ Our religion should sensitize us to deeply hearing, acknowledge and gassho – whether to life’s pleasures or life’s pains.”  How better to do this than deeply listening to a stranger or to our spouse or our child?  This deep listening of another person is another way of Deep hearing (listening) of the Dharma” it is a way of  embodying the Buddha Dharma in practice.

 

May it be so.

Out of Work Bodhisattvas

Lately I have been thinking of all the out of work Bodhisattvas wandering around smiling with signs saying, “ Will Gladly Share Merit” as people shuffle by with their heads down, some saying, “No thanks, I don’t need any.”  Others just pointing at the goody two shoes, laughing at them, “them bleeding heart liberals” they say, “You gotta earn your own merit boy”, while they walk around dissatisfied, and hollow, singing,  “ I built this! I built this!” scratching their heads because they still feel so unsatisfied.

I think I have always been attracted to the idea of a Bodhisattva. I appreciate the traditional concept of the vow taking and the rebirth back to everyday life, the suprahuman powers to take on a myriad of forms to guide us, help us, teach us and sometimes even pull us begrudgingly toward awakening and always willing to  share with us the merit of their compassion. I also appreciate the more expansive everyday conception of the Bodhisattva as expressed by Taitesu Unno when he writes that the Bodhisattva can be, “anyone who meets the challenge and provides care for the needy…whether that person knows anything about Buddhism or not.”

In the more traditional Mahayana Buddhist view point there is the idea that our positive deeds, acts or thoughts generate a sort of spiritual energy or power that can be accumulated.  This concept is fundamental to the idea of Karma and Buddhist ethics. This view extends to the idea that the merit that is generated by our skillful actions can be shared with other beings. In the early Theravada, it was with  deceased relatives. In the Mahayana that was expanded to all beings.  The Bodhisattva “shares” his merit with all sentient beings to help them toward enlightenment. Taking to its logical conclusion  we see the life and career of Dharmakara Bodhisattva who becomes Amida Buddha.  In the more expansive and less religious definitions, also seen in the writings of Gyomay Kubose and Thich Nhat Hahn, the more mundane merit generated by these Bodhisattvas can come in very concrete and everyday ways.  Something simple as a hand up, a listen and a place to be safe.  Both kinds of Bodhisattvas can be recognized by their practice of  Ksanti, their practice of patience, patience with us and our struggle to receive their help. Patient and out of work until we accept their gifts.  The awakened Bodhisattva knows as Sunada Takagi  has written that life is, “as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving”. 

 The practice of receiving, let alone even asking for help is challenging for many of us. The first time  I really, open heartedly  asked and accepted help wasn’t until I was in my late 40’!  All those Bodhisattvas in my life offering their merit and their compassion and me walking past them, sometimes with my head down, other times mocking them.  In my delusional thinking I believed that to need help was to be weak and to be weak was to be unlovable.

I think at this point it is important to realize that receiving is different than taking. We take food, love, money all the time.  The difference between the two is that when we take, our small-Self is saying, “ I earned this!”  When we get love from our wife or our children, when we get kudos at work, when we eat a lovely meal, we aren’t receiving the love, acknowledgement or food; we see ourselves as earning it. We take it because it is ours.   A similar strain of this construct is when we see ourselves as unworthy to receive anything. This can manifest as self-doubt and shame. In both strains we are stuck in seeing giving and receiving as economic exchanges but how could it be any other way?  I was never taught how to receive. How about you?  Most of us have been taught that it is better to give than to receive but how can that be since to give you need to have someone to receive? Proportionally it doesn’t add up.

Truly receiving is something different from taking. There is an inherent humility. There is an openness of heart, an acknowledgement of our interdependence and an awareness of our dependence on a myriad of things. Receiving is a place of openness and courage in that it implies a vulnerability; we may ask for something in that open space and not get it.   Yet in realizing our lack of control, our inability to fix love, joy and peace in place by somehow earning them, those very things arise naturally. Everything I receive is a gift, a gift to me and a gift to the give. An ever expanding circle of giving, where in the end there is no giver, no receiver and no gift.  A gift is not something earned and the “merit” offered by all the Bodhisattvas is a gift of love of boundless compassion as they watch on in our attempt to control the world. When we insist on ‘earning our keep” and we do not receive the gift , we miss out on the  boundlessness of grace that is offered us by everything and by all of our patient Bodhisattvas waiting for us.  I try to remember that even in the Dharma, what we receive from the teachings is so much greater, exponentially greater, than anything we put into the teachings.

In a previous paper I wrote about the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of gratitude. Before the path can open up there is the receiving; receiving the teachings and the compassion of the Buddhas and for us Pure Land leaning practitioners, receiving and entrusting in the compassion offered by Amida Buddha manifest in the formless form of his Pure Land.  For me the Way of the Nembutsu is the path of receiving the grace of Amida and all the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, of setting aside calculations, schemes and dualistic and conceptual thinking, of sitting and chanting in an awareness of the abundance of the Buddhas and the Dharma and the Sangha.  I challenge myself and you to make room in ourselves to receive, to receive the abundance the Buddhas have to offer us.

When we turn toward our Bodhisattva ready to receive, she turns around her sign and on the other side our no longer out of work Bodhisattva has written this line,

“The buddhas say come, come, and dance.”*

And we dance.

MIBS

*  a line from Sakyong Mipham’s poem titled Come, Come and Dance.

Offerings to the Buddhas

In his commentary of the Tan Butsu Ge or the Song of the Buddha; a section from the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra, Gyomay Sensei writes,

“ Ku Yo, of offering is a very important virtue in the Buddha’s Way…Ku Yo is done in relation to someone who is more worthy than oneself…to do Ku Yo is one way of expressing profound gratitude and nourishment for the very source of our gratitude…it is an honor to do Ku Yo.”

The concept of Ku Yo really resonates with me.  To make offerings to all the Buddhas is something that brought me back to Buddhism, after being away for a while.  I have no idea of why this is what brought me back. If I look at my history one would think that this is what would drive me away instead of draw me nearer. Recently I was re-reading the Shorter Pure Land Sutra about how one of the practices in the Pure Land being was to make offerings to countless Buddhas of other Buddha lands. In Sukhavati, it rains Mandarava blossoms  all the time and those flowers are gathered up and then offered to countless Buddhas across the universe. Along with other meditative or bodhisattva practices there is also the practice of Ku Yo.  I love that fact that the offering to the Buddhas is not something that is rare but something that is constantly unfolding. I like to think of the flowers as a representation of the compassion and practice of those living in the Pure Land; the flowers raining from the sky represent the fruit of practice and awakening. As Mark Healsmith has written,  “The flower is a wonderful exemplar of the uniqueness yet interconnectedness of all life “ and makes the offering of them an expression of the interconnectedness of all life and  “profound gratitude, for the very source of our gratitude.”

 

The other reason why Ku Yo resonates with me, is it is something that I have been contemplating. I have been thinking about Ku Yo in the frame of the  “Way of Gratitude” and some of the barriers that impede our cultivation of it.  I have been thinking about the role of humility and gratitude and how humility is one of its prerequisites. I think at times we struggle with gratitude because we struggle with humility. As I have been thinking about this and asking others, I found that for many of us we struggle with humility because we have not really experienced it,  only its unhealthy sibling; Shame.  In humility we are open, we are ready to learn, we show both sides of the leaf.  With shame we close our self off from the outside world and bury our leaf in the darkest hole.   In this state of mind when we see someone with boundless compassion or great practice we do not see it as something we can learn from but they become a source of  further comparison and  a deepening shame of our failures.  That which could give us hope and insight to our Buddha Nature only becomes a testament of our failures. Gratitude gets choked off in the darkness.  Humility on the other hand opens us up to awe and the acceptance of our limitation, it frees us to “keep going” without the burden of judgment and shame.

 

As Goymay writes, Ku Yo practice is  being done in relation to someone or something that is more worthy than oneself.  More worthy than me? A part of us does not like such a statement.  Here is where many of us live in a paradox. In our shame we feel unworthy and yet we bristle at the idea of someone being more worthy than us?  Why is this idea so challenging for some of us? Maybe it is because we  have inherited the karma of “rugged individualism” and a misplaced meaning of “equality”?  In opening services at our Sangha, we recite lines from the opening they use at Plum Village Sangha in France. One of the lines says, “may we be free from the “equality complex””,  to remind ourselves that there are things greater than ourselves, like the three refuges for example; the Dharma, The Sangha and the Buddha. I am grateful that there are things in this world greater than me!  I feel a sympathetic joy and gratitude to those I make  offerings to.  I think that Ku Yo is the fruit of “sincerely seeking the true life” (46) There is no Ku Yo without “true life” and no true life without “Ku Yo”, they “co-arise”.  Offerings to the Buddha inspire us to become Buddhas, they come from the heart, there is no ego in it.” (46) all the time realizing that what bows and is bowed to are the same.

 

I have great appreciation for the more psychological and secular forms of Buddhism and they have been companions with me on my journey. At the same time I appreciate the idea of something greater than my small ego-self, a point of reference that elicits awe, a devotional expression within samsaric dualism, that works dynamically through poetry, metaphor and experience to dissolve all dualisms into the great ocean of compassion.

 

 

in the company of good people

Twenty-Five_Bodhisattvas_Descending_from_Heaven,_c._1300.jpg

I would like to start with this line from the Shorter Sukavati Sutra on why it is a good idea to cultivate a heartfelt desire to be born in Amitabha’s pure Buddha field.  This Buddha field is an auspicious place where humans and Bodhisattva intermingle. The Buddha says it is good to aspire to be born there,  “ They should do this because in that Buddha-field, they will be in the company of good people such as these bodhisattvas.” To be in the company of good people, that is the benefit, the value, the reason the sutra specifically gives for going to the Pure Land.  I find that rather fascinating.   So what does this transcendent world, this mythic vision of the Pure Land have to do with my mundane everyday life?  I am drawn to this line because it brings to mind the importance of spiritual community, of the sangha. Both the Pure Land and the sangha are places to be supported in our practices, cultivate compassion and gain wisdom and attain enlightenment. There is the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child and I like to think that it takes a sangha to help me become a  Buddha.

 

For many of us, we come to the Buddha through solitary paths; books, magazines, maybe film and   some of us may even have a “Buddhist” friend.  We live in an unprecedented time, where the Buddha’s teachings are available in all kinds of media. For thousands of years only monks read the Sutras, now a precocious high school kid in Grand Rapids Michigan, on his way to a part time job washing dishes at Denny’s, can be seen reading the Flower Ornament Sutra, or any one of the Nikaya Suttas.  Buddhist books sell well and my first encounter with Buddhism was Zen Mind Beginners Mind by Suzuki & How to Cook our Life by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi.  What was your first encounter?  I wonder if it is uniquely western that the first time we set foot in a Temple or Dojo is sometimes years after our first, second or even third encounters with the Buddha. My first entry was 10 years ago and it wasn’t until another 5 years that it became a part of my practice.   Many of those who come to our gatherings have never been and our meeting is their first encounter with communal practice.  I hear from many of them, “it’s like coming home”.  For many we start the path with the first two jewels, the Buddha and the Dharma.  We sit balancing precariously on a two legged stool.  I didn’t even realize that there was a third jewel!.

 

The importance of the sangha should not be undervalued, it is the third thing that Buddhists take refuge in.  As Eshu Martin has written,  “The sangha is where we cultivate relationships with other human beings, coming into genuine relationship with others who are engaged in the activity of awakening.”   The sangha is also an aid, it lights a compassionate light on ourselves to help us grow, to see ourselves as we really are.  It is not a place of simple harmony but also a place of transformation.  Martin sensei  goes on to say,

 

“When we engage … we find that in spite of all of our efforts, again and again we rub up against one another in a way that makes us uncomfortable, in a way that makes us angry or upset. This practice doesn’t steer away from these kinds of interactions but instead binds us together so that by rubbing up against one another we become polished, smooth.

 

We find that by doing this, as we go forward into the world we don’t have so many rough edges. We’ve begun to engage in the practice of instead of making more rough edges, hanging onto our sharp points, we begin to engage in the practice of manifesting harmoniously with whatever it is that we come into contact with.”

 

We interact with each other in the practice and by doing so we are polished, smoothed out, transformed.  This is something that could not be accomplished without the sangha. The importance of the sangha is illustrated from this quote that I love from Thich Nhat Hanh regarding the sangha,

 

“It is said that the next Buddha will be named “Maitreya,” the Buddha of Love. I believe that Maitreya might not take the form of an individual, but as a community showing us the way of love and compassion.”

 

In my personal practice the Pure Land is Here and now and the Pure Land is also a transcendent Buddha-field.  In both pure lands, it is the company of good people of Kalyāṇa-mittatā, spiritual friendships  in the practice of awakening that I aspire.  The sangha, your sangha, however it manifests, is filled with the perfume of dharma flowers given as offerings in Sukavati.  May we all go in harmony as a sangha to the other side.

 

May it be so.

 

 

 

Meaningless Meaning

Cherry Blossoms Nembutsu91

“ A reporter from a local newspaper came to our house to interview my wife about the Japanese tea ceremony. This report continually asked, “What is the meaning? What for? Why do you do that? What is the purposes for that?” This kind of question was directed at everything in the making tea – at every gesture, every implement. Without thinking or deliberating, my wife finally replied, “No meaning. Meaningless meaning. It is purposeless purpose.”  – Gyomay Kubose

Purposeless purpose, Meaningless meaning, what does this mean? I have been finding the syntactical structure a lot lately, effortless, effort, purposeful purposelessness, etc. So I have been thinking about this for a little while now and even though it made an abstract sense when I first read it, I wanted to dig a little deeper. I love the story of the reporter and Sensei Gyomay’s wife. I can see both of them talking past each other. I think there maybe two aspects of meaning and purpose, one a utilitarian aspect and another a more existential or religious aspect.

The reporter, in our above quote seems to me to be trying to understand the utilitarian purpose of each act. It would be similar to a reporter asking a dancer what is the purpose of all those gyrations across the stage when you could simply walk across it. As if the purpose of dancing was simply locomotion, as if the purpose of the tea ceremony was to make a cup of tea., which it is but which it isn’t. A utilitarian perspective, that everything must have a purpose, is binding and stifles creativity, it can’t transcend its objective of “finding purpose” and value is then only found utility.

Is it that we are looking to get past meaning and purpose because meaning or purpose are dualistic? When we get past the conceptual binds of purpose and meaning do we then find being? Is it through the embrace of meaninglessness, tapping into the spontaneous outflow that we are free to experience being? Are Meaning and Being paradoxically within the meaninglessness? D.T. Suzuki wrote that, Maybe then, religion is a way to experience an expansive “being- ess”.“It may sound strange to hear that one can…live in purposelessness. Everything we do in life has a purpose, but in the religious realm we become conscious of realizing purposelessness, meaningless meaning and meaning itself.” allowing us to get past conceptual meaning to experience non-conceptual being-ness? True Being, living in naturalness, is like what Gyomay Sensei writes, “… the flower itself cannot help but bloom as it does – there is no intention,” “When you love you love. There is no purpose. Why do you ask for meaning? Is this spontaneous activity the ground of pure being? Here is something I read regarding this same idea in regards to Amida Buddha from D.T. Suzuki,

“Meaningless meaning is this: there was no telelogical intention on the part of Amida when he made his 48 vows . Everything expressed in them was the spontaneous outflow of his great boundless compassion, he great compassionate heart, embracing everything and extending to the farthest end of the universe.”

Again in the words of Gyomay Sensei, “… the flower itself cannot help but bloom as it does – there is no intention,” “When you love you love. There is no purpose. Why do you ask for meaning? There is just doing, effortless doing. This reminds me of the Chinese Wei wu wei, or action without action, effortless doing. I have heard that the enso of Zen is the representation of wu wei.

Here is the same teaching from the Post Modern composer John Cage but instead to the Tea Ceremony he is applying the same concepts to writing music,

What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”

~John Cage

Also in the teaching of Emanuel Kant who believed that the thing that makes beauty, beauty is not purposiveness…but something’s ultimately being without a purpose.

Meaningless meaning makes intuitive sense to me , it is a way to free meaning from the conceptual to the experiential. The experimental is valued over the conceptual, in the Mahayana and I like the way that this idea is applies to the nembutsu by D.T. Suzuki wrote that,

“ Namu-Amida-Butsu” is “meaningless meaning,” and if we try to give it some kind of meaning, or start to think that some significance should exist within it, then the six-syllable Name is no longer one’s own, and floats away up to the highest clouds.”

And as I recently heard in talk given by Dr. Mark Blum, that the illogic of the nembutsu is its logic. So there is something profound in this construction.

May we all embrace the meaningless meaning, the purposeless purpose, the effortless effort and the logic of the illogical.

May it be so,

The Grace of Oneness

3666cbfb70aee8b7c7a5bc5cc6f2f52c

“ This realization of oneness involves the highest type of communication and respect.  IF your life is realized in the this sense…you would see that the whole world supports you.  You exist because others; everything supports your life.  This totality, this oneness evokes a gratitude and a great joy beyond explanation.” Gyomay Kubose

 

We live a life immersed in grace;  the grace of being supported by all things at all times. We are supported by the solar system, by the sun that continually lights our world and drives the processes that help the earth to give us air to breath, water to drink and food to eat, that helps us to see, We are supported by the smallest things, to the largest. We are supported by microbes and bees that help create the food we eat, and by all the trees that help us breathe.   The bees give us grace every day, the trees give us grace, and there is also the grace given by our ancestors down through long passages of time; so much grace given that is still within in us now.  We are all interdependent and existent in this very moment.  In the midst of our diversity and interdependence we can come to direct realization of Oneness and by doing so we can communicate our respect and gratitude for them, for all of life, for all the gifts which in oneness we have received  and which are unmerited.

 

For me, namu amida butsu is an expression of this oneness and grace, an expression of Buddha-nature.  The oneness that Gyomay Sensei is writing about in the above quote, is for me personified as Amida Buddha.  Because of Oneness I exist and therefore I exist because of namu amida butsu. This is how I understand the idea among some teachers, that  the nembutsu is simply an expression of gratitude for all that Amida Buddha has done for us. My practice of chanting the nembutsu is a form of the highest form of  communication and respect. Through this practice I cultivate a recognition / realization of Oneness, and all that Oneness does for me every day, and this brings forth the fruit and joy of gratitude.

 

This reading has tied into something that I have been thinking about gratitude, gratitude as a form of awakening.  A few years ago I had an experience in the midst of great suffering, where something shifted and I was overwhelmed with an intense gratitude for everything I had experienced and everyone I have ever known, even for just a moment.  I spent hours going through my email list send out heart felt thank yous to everyone on my list. I think even companies whose email list I was part of even got a thank you.  I am sure a few who received the emails shook their heads, I called friends, I reached out to as many as I could to share my gratitude for their very existence.   In this space of gratitude, I wept and I laughed.  It was confusing at first because of the amount of tears that fell.  I remember thinking that I am crying so hard, but I am  not sad so why am I crying? I realized that for me that is how deep and profound gratitude expresses itself.  I also realized that for many years I had seen “love” as the highest emotion, the goal of religious practice, that love encompassed all.  I have had moments were I loved everything, even the street sign that I was standing under, and yet that night I experienced something even more expansive and sublime than “love”;  I experience an unbounded gratitude. Writing this and remembering what it was like, the lines from last week’s report are even more profound  “ We should always be ready to die, able to say, “thank you for everything”  In some ways, that is what I experienced that night, the “thank you for everything” and remembering it helps me to understand what Gyomay Sensei was teaching.

 

I like what Jeff Wilson,  a Jodo Shin minister has written,  “in Shin Buddhism our main focus is the practice of gratitude. We practice simply to give thanks for what we have received. It’s a small shift in one’s perspec­tive, but when pursued, it can be transformative.”  This came home to me the other night when I was holding my little boy in my arms, he was cuddled against my chest and I was just feeling him breathe and thinking how much I loved him and I just repeated thank you, thank you, thank you and the love expanded exponentially with the ever expanding gratitude.  I think the cultivation of  gratitude is important because it acts as a catalyst that can expand positive states of consciousness. Cultivating gratitude by recognizing  and by expressing it, manifests more gratitude, and deepens our awareness of Oneness.

 

Namu amida butsu

Namu amida butsu

Namu amida butsu

 

May it be so.

My Blind Self: a poem

Ryoanji-statue-of-Buddha-black-and-white.jpg

vii.

 

My blind self
pierced by Amida’s light
illuminated and dissolved
into the great ocean of compassion

into the Oneness of life –
Palms together, embraced

just as I am.
Each step with the Buddha,
my truest self, my Amida self –

the deep flow of the oneness of realty –
all beings one with me,
palms together

and bowing,
 

“namu amida butsu,”
“namu amida butsu,”

embraced just as I am.