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

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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.

 

 

 

My Blind Self: a poem

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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.

Haiku as Awareness Practice.

Japanese Cherry Blossom Garden Wallpaper

 

I would like to talk about Kobayashi Issa and Haiku, well technically senryu as practice.  Haiku’s focus us usually nature and senryu is like haiku but the focus is primarily on human nature and emotion. For today, when I say haiku I mean both haiku and senryu.  So who is this Issa fellow.  He by far one of my favorite poets of all times.  He was a Pure Land priest and poet and is considered one of the four masters of haiku in all of japan. In his lifetime it is said that he wrote over 20,000 haiku!  Issa lived a difficult life and knew loss and impermanence intimately,  outliving three children and his wife.  He is most known for this haiku written shortly after the death of his young daughter,

 

This dewdrop world —

Is a dewdrop world,

And yet, and yet .

 

And a less well known one.

 

Outliving them,

Outliving them all,

Ah, the cold!

 

His poems strike at the heart of being human and the challenges of being “foolish and passionate beings.” who live in the midst of samsara. And yet even in the midst of his suffering, Issa finds the promise of the Buddha way and Amida’s grace and faces his life directly, not with just sadness but with the wide range of human emotion. In the midst of  Issa’s difficult life he was able to cultivate great compassion that he expressed toward the lowliest of creatures.  His haiku exemplifies a respect for all life and that all life is moving toward awakening, he is a master of the mundane and the mythic.  Here are a few examples.

 

Don’t worry, spiders,

I keep house

casually.

 

On the flower pot

Does the butterfly also hear

The Buddha’s Promise

 

They praise the Buddha too

Frogs on the rocks

In a row.

 

Swatting at a fly

And praising Amida

Buddha

Climb Mount Fuji,

O snail,

but slowly, slowly.

 

I love Issa’s frogs chanting the nembutsu! And the last haiku is one of my favorites.  Here, even Issa realizes the irony of …  “praising the Buddha at the same time condemning, one by one, the insects that rove over my table.”

The reason I bring up Issa,  is some years ago, I was inspired by him and Basho to take up writing haiku.  Initially I was fascinated  by the powerful imagery and emotional impact of such a short poem, with three lines and a certain number of sound units. I wrote a few hundred, I posted them up on walls around salt lake city anonymously, some very large others small transparencies glued to random bricks on sides of buildings. It was fascinating to see people stop and read them and watch their reactions.  As a form, my haiku were sometimes  more fragments than really haiku. My mother-in-law calls them “littlies”.   Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg called them American sentences since they broke a lot of the rules of traditional haiku but the “practice” was still there.  At first I didn’t realize the practical cultivation of awareness that writing these poems offered. In time, I began to notice the practice of writing and thinking “in haiku” was  shifting my attention, I began to see the profound in the simplest things.   My mind slowed down, became more focused, more open.  I began to see timelessness and meaning in everyday events, in a tiny green insect walking across the pages of the book I was reading, of a mother and child interacting, the intimacy of being in the present moment with my breath or quietly drinking a cup of tea.  Here are a few examples of my practice.  ( Warning for you syllable counters, these do not follow the traditional sound unit form.)

 

A kite leans
against a window
falling snow

 

dark winter sea
a lone boat
bobbing

 

a mother sings
her child’s eyes
heavy – heavier

 

thrown into the air
young child laughing
– now a mother

 

the old man flying

a kite his mother

calling him home

 

sleeves rolled up
he gives his son a bath-
new widower

 

a small child cries
called home by his mother-
litter of puppies

 

Reading and writing haiku can become a form of practice.   The haiku becomes a manifestation of simple  awareness,  of the profound present, it helps us to recognize the flow of energy and the interdependence of all things, of being present with someone or something, that the world is created over and over again in every moment.  This can happen because ideally the haiku is egoless – no self, it can open a world where one forgets the separate self.  In my experience because of the practice of haiku, I could more easily let go of the “storied self” with all its subplots and dead ends and become aware of the openness that is found in simple awareness.   I like how Elizabeth Searle Lamb has explained haiku,

 

“haiku epitomizes a moment that occurs naturally in our lives, but that we often hurry or gloss over. Haiku awareness is a simple way to slow down and tune in to this fleeting moment, to appreciate what is right in front of us.  For a fleeting moment we pause and note the sunlight on the sheets as we make the bed, note the warm sun on our cup as we sip tea, or note the fading light on the curtain as we enter the room. And we let out a breath or sigh. Pausing.”

 

Thank you and

Namu Amida Butsu

Not knowing is the most intimate.

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From a young age many of us are afraid to be someone who doesn’t know. Maybe we are afraid to be seen as dumb and therefore unacceptable, so we wing it and hope the other person doesn’t see that we actually don’t have a clue. This is not just anecdotal, studies have shown that when children are giving unanswerable questions, they makeup answers, to seem like they know rather than to be found not knowing. This habit sticks with as we grow up, for some of us they become the three hardest words to say. We all know that feeling; usually half way through, when we realize we really have no clue what we are saying and how much easier it would have to simply say, “ I don’t know”. Instead we find ourselves five years old again, dancing around with our made up answers, again hoping no one will notice.

To act as a “knower” is fraught with challenges and pitfalls. Deciding that we know this is the way it is.”….. has a tendency to close us off to a myriad of other possibilities. We become fixed in our ideas and perceptions, our world gets smaller and smaller. Another problem with knowing and being afraid of not knowing, is we can never really be confident that what we know is reality. To paraphrase Mark Twain. “…they think they know something that just ain’t so.”

To be clear, the knowing I am referring to is not confusion or paralyzing doubt and it is not knowing in opposition to not knowing as in not knowing the capital of Nebraska, or even a set of propositions such as the four noble truths. When I say “I don’t know” I am talking the spirit of openness and curiosity a “I don’t know! Let’s find out!” or “Let’s keep going and see what happens,” it is the not knowing of faith. Suzuki Roshi wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “With beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert mind there are few.” Beginner’s mind is the essence of not knowing”. For those trapped in “knowing” the vista is limited, the questions are answered, all is settled, the world is fixed, but in the end, the light at the end of the tunnel is not more knowledge but the Dukkha Express and it is coming fast.

So how can we cultivate the non-dual spirit of “I don’t know”? The first thing is to simply being willing to not know, to let go of the knowing. I have found the world is lighter when I am free of having to know, I am more patient, less stressed, open. Here are two concrete things we can do to cultivate the not knowing.

First there is a good practice suggested by Buddhist teacher, Gil Fronsdal, is to attach “I don’t know” to as many thoughts as possible. For example, when thoughts arise like, this is good or this is bad or I can’t handle this; these become, I don’t know if this is good or I don’t know if this is bad or I don’t know if I can’t handle this. As he says, “the phrase “I don’t know” questions the authority of everything we think.” It allows us to be free of fixed ideas, it can create curiosity and allows an openness to creativity.” He goes on to say that this simple phrase can help us challenge tightly held beliefs and can “pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs.” Not knowing opens the world to us, it makes a way for us to be compassionate, patient, kind, honest and help cultivate equanimity.

The last thing that we can do to cultivate the essence of “I don’t know” is bowing. James Ishmael Ford has written about not knowing and how it relates to the act of bowing.

“Don’t know. Not knowing. That is the ancient spiritual practice of bowing in a nutshell…The bow, I suggest, can open our hearts, can take us places we never dreamed of, to a palpable, transformative, endless world of possibility called not knowing. This is what I really want to underscore: this not knowing has endless creative possibilities, to throw in another metaphor, one or two simply aren’t enough for this place, this moment when we surrender to not knowing, when we bow to life: we discover a well that apparently is bottomless, bubbling with life-giving waters.”

I raise my hands in gassho and bow to each of you.

I would like to close with the words of Zen teacher of the 9th century, Dizang, “not knowing is most intimate.”

Namu Amida Butsu.