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.

 

 

 

Meaningless Meaning

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“ 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

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“ 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.

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

The Bowing Bodhisattva

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One of my favorite parts of the Lotus Sutra is the story of Bodhisattva Never Disparaging.  This Bodhisattva was said to have lived in the mythic past and he did not devote his time to reading or reciting the scriptures, but simply went about bowing to people,  bowing in reverence to everyone he met and honoring their inherent Buddha nature.   We don’t know his real name because Never Disparaging was a title given to him by others as a dig because he always would bow deeply and say, “I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance.. “ and then bow again.  I can imagine him walking up to people today on the street and bowing, “ I bow to the Buddha nature within you, one day you too will be a Buddha.”  We would probably name him Crazy Bowing Guy Bodhisattva.

 

The practice of gassho illustrated in this story, the honoring of others inherent Buddha nature, is essence of the way of oneness and can be applied not just to other people but to all things. The practice of bowing is a tangible practice that can help us cultivate a non-dichotomous reality when we come to understand that,  “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are the same.”  It can also help us realize the interdependent nature of all things and is the true spirit of namu amida butsu.

 

I have a friend who practices bowing. One example he shared was that whenever he exists a street car or bus he bows to the driver to thank them – some smile but most ignore him or wave him off.  The same was true for Bodhisattva never Disparaging but even worse.  According to the Lotus Sutra not everyone was appreciative and some would get so angry they would try to hurt him.  I remember times in my past that I didn’t want others to tell me how good I was or about my “potential” mostly because I was doing certain things that were far from where I wanted to be. It would make me realize how far I had fallen. Like Dulcinea in Don Quixote who curses him because of his respect and courtly love for her only makes  her suffering greater because it now she has become so much more aware of being nothing more than a prostitute.

 

Many of us suffer from inferiority complexes, self-hate, feelings of worthlessness and a constant mantra of harmful self-talk.  We may have compassion  for others  but rarely does it reach back to ourselves.  Because of this it can be hard to see the inherent goodness within ourselves or acknowledge the reality of our own capacity for evil.  We build our identities  around so many false narratives, that our “self”  is nothing more than a teetering house of cards.  When something challenges those narratives we push away not wanting to acknowledge it, we retreat into our self-imposed ignorance.  This does not stop our Bodhisattva from bowing.  allowing his humanity to shine forth upon us.  He is still bowing toward us. Maybe he knows that the simplest things can get passed the myriad of landmines we place to protect our egos, knowing that arguments, judgements, reasoning, will never be as effective as a heartfelt, humble bow of a Bodhisattva.   With humble compassion and without judgement, Never Disparaging Bodhisattva invites us to realize our Buddha-nature welcoming us,  as he helps us to realize  “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are the same.”  He is bowing right now before each of us,

 

“ I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance. Why? Because you are all practicing the bodhisattva way and are certain to attain Buddhahood.”  Lotus Sutra – Chapter 20

 

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.

We are all Refugees.

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Lately the world seems on fire, with mass shootings, mass migrations and terrorist attacks.  People are more polarized of late, cultural shifts, deep old wounds are festering and all of these are changing the landscape, the earth seems to be moving under their feet and many are taking refuge in nationalism, bigotry and fear.  The rawness and depth of this really hit home with me, especially when the little refugee boy washed up on the beaches of Turkey.  I have a boy about this age…the image haunted me for days.  What would make a father put his child at risk like that.  A picture of the city his family left was published with the caption, “this is why you put your children on a boat.”  The city the boy was from was destroyed; a city of skeletons, torn and broken homes, some burning, desolate and abandoned streets, the same streets that had heard laughter and music, the buzz and honk of rush hour, bird song and the heart beats of lover, now was a city of the dead, with only the sound of distant mortars, more a mausoleum of lost hopes, and dreams.  Looking at the picture I was reminded of the words of the Buddha, “The world is burning.”   And it is not just from war torn areas, there are refugees everywhere, there are spiritual refugees, spiritually homeless who have homes, spiritually friendless who have friends, those who know where they are at is not “right” that something is missing. It seems we are all looking for refuge, looking for a spiritual home.

Thinking of the small child dead on the beach, I wondered if that was my child, where could I find refuge from the pain, disappointment and impermanence of it all.  Refuge is a condition of being safe or sheltered from pursuit, danger, or trouble, it’s a coming home. But we don’t have to experience the horror that the family from Syrian experienced to ask for or seek refuge.  I have come to realize that as spiritual refugees many of us have wandered through self-help books, careers, relationships, materialism and addictions to find some home, some sort of refuge but only to be disappointed. The Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa explains that anyone who ‘goes for refuge’ must therefore be a ‘refugee’, so that as Buddhists we are ‘refugees from conditioned existence.”

As I have keep going on our journey I have found it, and it has always been waiting for me in the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha, it was like coming home. I think this makes sense since we go to refuge saraa-gamana which in Pali could be translated as “coming home” we come home to the Buddha, the Dharma and the sangha.

It is my hope that faced with such suffering as the refugees from Syria, I could still find my refuge by taking refuge in the Buddha, in the fact of his Awakening: and the three jewels, placing trust that he actually awakened to the truth, that he did so by cultivating qualities that we too can cultivate. That through my understanding of impermanence and the compassion of the Buddha, that awakening can be my ultimate refuge.”

May it be so.

Myoshin Ross-Leibow