Saturday, May 26, 2012

Too Big For Any Sticks or Stones to Hurt Us

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me!

What child growing up in America has not invoked this mantra at least once or twice when faced with the taunts and teasing and name-calling that seem to be an almost “inevitable” part of childhood life? + From an early age we recognize the wisdom of these words, and even though we might not always succeed at bringing to life their truth we at least come to realize our potential for being “big enough” that no verbal insult need ever darken our mood.

But what does it mean, anyway, to be big enough that no such words can ever harm us? Perhaps it means we’re big enough to know that, when considered along with our multitude of other qualities, the so-called bad quality of wearing thick glasses or having freckles all over our face is but a trifle. Or perhaps it means we’re bigger still and have come to realize that wearing thick glasses or having a freckly face is merely what is – neither good nor bad – despite what anyone else might say. Perhaps it means we’ve got so many real friends that being accosted by one who is not amounts to only so much noise out on the playground. Or perhaps we’re even bigger than that and have arrived at the conclusion that nobody would purposely try to hurt another unless they were already feeling a lot of hurt of their own.

The Buddha being pursued by Angulimala

But what about those sticks and stones? They really do break our bones; and in this day and age, with people hurting all over the world, there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of people who are willing to make others hurt as well. Can we ever be big enough that not even the sticks and stones of the most violent aggressor can hurt us? The Buddha apparently thought so. Not surprisingly, however, the bigness that the Buddha advocated was not that of a football linebacker or a mixed martial arts practitioner; it was the bigness of seeing the self in an entirely different way. For instance, in the Kakacupama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw, the Buddha states:
Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That's how you should train yourselves. (Majjhima Nikaya 21)

Wow, that’s pretty big! Is it even possible for us to live up to such a standard? Could the Buddha himself have lived up to it, for that matter? I do tend to be a pretty critical reader, after all. Actually, I’m very much inclined to believe that he could have lived up to it – and that we all can, for that matter – even as I sympathize with those readers who might wonder whether the saintly or superhuman state of mind described above could ever truly be realized given the deeply ingrained nature of our instinct for self-preservation. Perhaps this must remain a matter of faith for us – until such time as we might verify it for ourselves, that is – for the Buddha actually lived a fairly long life ++, skillfully avoiding threats of violence along the way.

The painting above, for instance, depicts the Buddha using “psychic powers” to remain just out of reach of the murderous bandit, Angulimala, shown here wearing his infamous necklace strung with the severed fingers of his many victims. So depraved was Angulimala that he was purportedly contemplating the murder of his own mother when the Buddha fortuitously happened along and presented himself as a potential victim in her stead. By the way, Angulimala’s mother is the one who can be seen escaping into the forest as her son pursues the Buddha. The story ends with Angulimala renouncing his murderous ways after becoming transformed by the depth of the Buddha’s teaching. This is a powerful story of redemption, to say the least. Nonetheless, the Buddha’s reliance on those mysterious “psychic powers” in order to remain just out of harm’s way strikes me as a rather odd element in this story. After all, if we all just cultivated a few “psychic powers” of our own we might never find ourselves in the unenviable position of being savagely carved up, limb by limb! But that doesn’t quite strike me as what the Buddha’s teaching is all about.

There is another story, however, this one contained in the Jatakas, “birth stories” – tales of the previous lives of the Buddha, his followers, and his foes – that tells of the future Buddha feeling such great compassion for a starving tigress and her cubs that he allows himself to be eaten so that the mother and her offspring might survive (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 160). Ah, but isn’t it convenient, the critical reader might be thinking, that a story would be contrived related to some incredibly magnanimous deed performed in a previous lifetime! Tell me a story where it actually happened, you might be thinking. Tell me a story in which such compassion and loving-kindness was actually put into practice during the most extreme of circumstances and witnessed by those who lived to speak of it. I hear you. I told you I was a critical reader, didn’t I?

Well, the Buddha’s life is the Buddha’s life. Thankfully it was such that he was able to live and teach for many years. Please allow me, then, to borrow an example from an altogether different wisdom tradition. Perhaps you remember a great teacher saying: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Of course, these are the words that Jesus is reported to have said on behalf of those who were in the process of torturing and murdering him. Clearly, the mind that Jesus revealed as he uttered these words is the same mind that the Buddha urged his disciples to have in such circumstances.

Now, the unrepentant skeptics reading this might not let me off so easily – or the Buddha or Jesus, for that matter. Sure, you might be thinking, if you were to somehow convince yourself that heaven awaits after your crucifixion, if you were to somehow make yourself believe that you’d be reborn into a better life after being hacked to death or eaten by tigers as long as you proved yourself worthy by maintaining compassionate equanimity throughout the ordeal, then, yes, perhaps you could do it. But there is no heaven at the end of this road, you might have already decided; there is no next life after this one is over. This is it. It is to you, dear unrepentant skeptic, that I address the remainder of this post:

So, this is it. Or at least this is as much as we can count on now that we’ve let our wishful thinking fall away. We’ve reconciled ourselves to greeting the end as we might yield to deep and dreamless sleep – sleep from which we’ll not awaken. But deep and dreamless sleep is not so very bad. Sure enough, none of those enticing ideas of heavenly realms or souls reborn has any place in dreamless sleep, but neither do the nightmares or torment or anguish that visit from time to time. And so we vow to live each day to the fullest – working our way through our very own “bucket list” of things to do and places to see – accumulating memories as we might accumulate fine collectibles to be kept on a shelf in our memory somewhere. And when the end is near we’ll dust them off and admire them one by one – smiling with self-satisfaction as we peacefully drift off to sleep.

What? Does such a life sound rather shallow? Does it seem but a small and meaningless concern when approached in such an acquisitive way? As if we’re living out our days like some piece of high-tech video recording equipment, making a movie that no one else will ever watch – one that will be erased the very moment that it’s a wrap. Besides, filming might not go according to script. Perhaps instead of gorgeous cinematography capturing excitement and adventure amidst fantastically beautiful settings our movie will end up being a documentary of sickness and struggle, loneliness and despair, set against a backdrop of utter meaningless and hopelessness. Yes, a life so small is fraught with danger.

And so we strive for a life that’s bigger – deeper and more meaningful. We fall in love and we raise families; we cultivate friendships and community. Our self is mirrored back at us in larger and larger circles and that which is considered other becomes diminished – if only marginally. In doing so our sense of self expands; and in so doing we hope deep down that our actions will long outlive us, rippling outward after we’re gone – amongst family and friends, and throughout the communities and institutions that we’ve helped nurture throughout our lives.

Ah, but still we know full well that the simple passage of time will temper both the happiness and sadness that recollections of us might evoke, until such time as we are just a name recalled one last time without emotion, and then no more. No, nothing that we can ever claim as ours will stand the test of time. Nothing that we hold onto can remain within our grasp for long. No matter how hard we might try to keep something safe and sound and protected it will nonetheless grow old, grow sick, and die. This is the truth of our existence that is more horrifying than any sticks or stones that might be used to break our bones, more horrifying than being hacked apart by bandits, even. For this truth is not that of some remote possibility that we might be fortunate enough to avoid. It is the truth of every moment of every day for everyone. Yes, it appears we must be bigger still. But how?

One way, of course, is to keep expanding the circles of that which we might call the self – to keep pushing further and further over the horizon that which is considered other. Does it really make sense that we care so much for that which we have arbitrarily identified as “self” and not at all for that which we consider “other”, even though that “other” might live right next door? Certainly we can bear witness to “our own” sense of unease that there is poverty in the neighborhood down the road no matter how secure “our own” gated community might seem. Certainly we can see that it does little to protect “our own” children if the children of “others” grow up hungry, uncared for, uneducated, and more likely to resort to criminal behavior to survive. Certainly we can see that as well amongst the nations of the world. We simply can’t live in isolation, secure in our selfhood, as others remain mired in poverty, war, and internal strife (or under our thumb, for that matter). Certainly we can see it as well with respect to the environment. No longer does it make sense for us to think that we can keep our own little corner of the world pristine and healthful even as we turn the rest of the world into our trash dump – and a warming trash dump at that. 

It looks like I’ll need to continue this exploration in a subsequent post. I think we’ve made enough progress, however, to view with greater clarity the various wisdom stories retold above. Any hatred or ill-well that we might feel toward our aggressor arises in proportion to the strength of our view of self and other. The insane strangeness that we attribute to one who might willingly give his own body to feed some hungry tigers occurs because of our inability to fathom another way to think about self and other. The ability of Jesus to forgive those who were killing him relates to his ability to recognize the deluded thinking of his aggressors – their inability to see beyond their hard and fast views of self and other.

Thanks for reading! Have a great Memorial Day weekend. I’ll continue with this topic next week.

+ I put quotes around ‘inevitable’ because we adults seem to be making at least some progress with respect to dealing effectively with bullying in the schools. Perhaps as we learn to better model appropriate behavior such taunts and teasing will become a thing of childhoods past.

++ The Buddha is thought to have lived into his eighties before succumbing to what is generally thought to have been some type of food poisoning. Mettanando (2000) hypothesizes that the actual cause of death may have been mesenteric infarction.


Majjhima Nikaya 21. Kakacupama sutta: The simile of the saw (Thanissaro Bhikkhu Tr.). Access to Insight, 30 June 2010,

Majjhima Nikaya 86. Angulimala sutta: About Angulimala (Thanissaro Bhikkhu Tr.). Access to Insight, 14 June 2010,

Mettanando (2000). Did Buddha die of mesenteric infarction?

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Image Credits

Photograph of a temple painting of Angulimala chasing after the calm Buddha by Tevaprapas Makklay via:
Photograph of a Thai monk with tigers by MichaelJanich via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Sunday, May 13, 2012

On Being a "Good" Buddhist - Reflections on the Diamond Sutra

The Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra is often called, quite simply, The Diamond Sutra. Thich Nhat Hanh (1992) suggests, however, that we refer to it by its full name: The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion. The Diamond Sutra and the Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra, or Heart Sutra, are perhaps the two best known sutras amongst all those that comprise the Mahaprajnaparamita (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 128). I’ll be quoting quite liberally from The Diamond Sutra throughout this post. Unless otherwise noted, all translated passages are those of Price & Mou-lam (1990). Okay, let’s dive right in:     

Buddha said: Subhuti, all the bodhisattva heroes should discipline their thoughts as follows: All living creatures… are caused by me to attain unbounded liberation nirvana. Yet, when vast, uncountable, immeasurable numbers of beings have thus been liberated, verily no being has been liberated. Why is this, Subhuti? It is because no bodhisattva who is a real bodhisattva cherishes the idea of an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.

 – The Diamond Sutra (p. 19)

Why did the Buddha say these words? Yes, he had a teaching to convey, but my question is more fundamental than that. How is it that one who does not cherish “the idea of an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality” even begins to think that he has a teaching to convey – one that will be worthwhile for an entire world to heed? The answer, I think, relates to the fact that the recognition of having a unique gift to offer does not in and of itself constitute the cherishment “of an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.” Rather, it is the recognition of what is. The recognition that each of us, each self that is not other, is a unique gift to be offered to the world lies at the very core of the bodhisattva ideal. Practice, then, for the bodhisattva, involves the cultivation of and the offering up of this gift of the self that is not other for the liberation of all beings – the seamlessly interconnected web of life in totality.

So, what is our gift – the gift of the self that is not other? Will it be our time, our voice, our heart, our labor, our talent, our money, our intention, our meditation, our prayer? Perhaps, for some, it will be the totality of being, without any such distinction as I’ve just made. For me, practice involves an ongoing evaluation of how my time and energy and resources might best be utilized for the betterment of the world. That is what the Zen aphorism “chop wood, carry water” means to me in this complex modern age. Can anyone make such an evaluation for us? Can anyone decide for the tree which direction its roots should extend in order to best receive the nourishment of the earth? Can anyone tell it which way to hold its branches in order to best receive the sun? By being thus, by being true to its being, with its entire being, the tree without fail ultimately maximizes what it offers up for the sake of all beings – without any cherishment “of an ego identity, a personality, a being, or a separated individuality.”

Ah, but then again, there are people who seem to know precisely what our gift should be. Full of ideas, they are, as to how we might be of utility in the fulfillment of their vision of a liberated world. They seem to know just what it takes for us to be “good” Buddhists. What does it mean to be a “good” Buddhist, anyway?

Some years ago a friend of a friend was going through a rough patch in life. He’d lost his girlfriend and his apartment and, inexplicably, he was going to have to leave town for a few months. So he asked me if he could park his vehicle in my driveway in order to keep it from getting towed away if it were to be parked on the street somewhere. Well, given the unpredictability of this young man and the uncertainty as to the length of time the vehicle would be sitting in my driveway, given as well the fact that the vehicle had already seen better days and likely had very few miles left on it, I foresaw having to deal with an abandoned car – the title of which was not in my possession. Despite my almost instant misgivings, I duly considered the circumstances and then politely refused the request. “Well, thanks a lot, bo-dhi-satt-va Mark!” this friend of a friend replied in a voice fairly dripping with sarcasm. Apparently in his mind a bodhisattva is one who is at everyone’s beck and call to comply with any request under the sun. Is that what it means to be a “good” Buddhist – to be at everyone’s beck and call – to give in to every request for our time or whatever else might be desired of us? After all, we are trying to save all beings aren’t we?

Subhuti, [the Buddha said]… incalculable is the merit of the bodhisattva who practices charity without any attachment to appearances. Subhuti, bodhisattvas should persevere one-pointedly in this instruction.

– The Diamond Sutra (p. 20)

Hmmm, was I a “bad” Buddhist then for not letting that friend of a friend park his vehicle in my driveway for months on end? Perhaps some of your minds are already racing off, chasing after thoughts of: “well, you could have said this,” or “you might have done that,” or “what if you’d offered to do this,” or, better yet, “so…, what is it that you were so afraid of, anyway? Why were you so afraid of letting him park in your driveway for a few months?” Of course, the assumption underlying these musings is that there is some perfect way to behave in any given situation – the way that a “good” Buddhist would behave – and any other way of behaving is born of our fear, conditioning, and delusion. But since we’ll never be able to agree on what that perfect way to behave actually is, we’ll very likely end up running off to find a teacher – you know, someone who’s enlightened and knows all the right answers – who can assure us that we either are, indeed, a “good” Buddhist, or who can at least provide us with a prescription for how to become one. Ah, but then again, maybe this concern about being a “good” Buddhist or a “bad” Buddhist is really just an outgrowth of our “attachment to appearances”. This “good” Buddhist stuff is getting harder and harder to figure out, isn’t it? 

Subhuti, what do you think? If anyone filled three thousand galaxies of worlds with the seven treasures and gave all away in gifts of alms, would he gain great merit?

Subhuti said: Great indeed, World-Honored One! Wherefore? Because merit partakes of the character of no-merit, the Tathagata characterized the merit as great.

Then Buddha said: On the other hand, if anyone received and retained even only four lines of this discourse and taught and explained them to others, his merit would be greater. Wherefore? Because, Subhuti, from this discourse issue forth all the buddhas and the consummation of incomparable enlightenment teachings of all the buddhas.

– The Diamond Sutra (p. 25)

What are we to make of this passage? An initial reading might prompt the recollection of the proverb pointing out the difference between giving someone a fish and actually teaching them to fish. Such a reading only works up to a point, however. Yes, the Buddha is valuing education over the giving away of even vast sums of material wealth, but the education that is being valued is not related to that of teaching someone to accumulate material comfort on their own. Rather, the education that the Buddha is speaking of relates to that of the fundamental nature of reality. The Buddha had long since forsaken that which material wealth can impart. He knew all too well from his days living as a wealthy prince that material comfort can only go so far toward keeping suffering at bay. Existence is suffering, after all. Thus, the truly valuable gift to someone existing in this realm of samsara is the gift that liberates them forever from the delusion that has them suffering in the first place.

We might also look at this passage through the lens of translation versus transformation. Relative changes taking place upon this plane of ordinary reality merely amount to translation. According to Ken Wilber, much of religious practice involves translation – allowing us to feel good about ourselves and our lives, perhaps even comforting us in our suffering. Such comfort might even be confused, if only for a brief time, with the actual alleviation of suffering. Unfortunately, though, it does nothing to alleviate suffering in the ultimate sense; it doesn’t cut through the illusion that gives rise to our suffering in the first place. It merely “kicks the can down the road”, to use an expression; it merely “rearranges the deck chairs on the Titanic”, to use another. The Buddha’s teachings, however, point out the path toward transformation – the alleviation of suffering via the realization of the truth about the nature of existence. Transformation, by the way,  is the title of an earlier blog piece of mine. 

So, what does it mean to be a “good” Buddhist? Are we being good Buddhists when we erect statues and shrines in the name of the Buddha?

Subhuti, what is called “the religion given by Buddha” is not, in fact, buddha-religion.

– The Diamond Sutra (p. 25)

Thich Nhat Hanh (1992) translates this line as:

Subhuti, what is called Buddhadharma is everything that is not Buddhadharma. (p. 7)

Are we being good Buddhists when we forsake our own life’s work in order to dutifully follow or comply with the dictates of another? Are we being good Buddhists when we involve ourselves in frenzies of doing, doing, doing – no matter how apparently high-minded our motivation might be, no matter how much we might think we’re being a bodhisattva?

Subhuti, someone might fill innumerable worlds with the seven treasures and give all away in gifts of alms, but if any good man or any good woman awakens the thought of enlightenment and takes even only four lines from this discourse, reciting, using, receiving, retaining, and spreading them abroad and explaining them for the benefit of others, it will be far more meritorious.

Now in what manner may he explain them to others? By detaching from appearances – abiding in real truth. So I tell you:

Thus shall ye think of all this fleeting world:

A star at dawn, a bubble in stream;

A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

When Buddha finished this discourse the venerable Subhuti, together with the bhikshus, bhikshunis, lay brothers and sisters, and the whole realms of gods, men, and titans, were filled with joy by his teaching, and taking it sincerely to heart they went their ways.

 – The Diamond Sutra (p. 53)

“They went their ways.” What an interesting ending. They took the teaching sincerely to heart and yet they didn’t renounce their homes and their families and their work. They didn’t renounce their possessions and stay for the rest of their lives with the Buddha so as to accompany him on his alms rounds and follow him from place to place and hear his teaching over and over again. They didn’t even vow to return home and found temples or erect monuments. They went their ways. Now, just in case this ending is a bit too abrupt for some readers, let me quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s translation, which is a bit wordier in this regard:

After they heard the Lord Buddha deliver this sutra, the Venerable Subhuti, together with the bhikshus and bhikshunis, laymen and laywomen, and gods and asuras, filled with joy and confidence, undertook to put these teachings into practice. (p. 24)

Okay, how about we say that they went about their ways, each one undertaking to put the Buddha’s teachings into practice. Perhaps we could say that each one vowed to actualize the self that is not other to the very best of their ability. So, do you think you know what signs to look for in order to spot the “good” Buddhists in your midst? Is there something in their demeanor or their dress, their actions or their words, that shouts out to you, “I’m a Buddhist! And a good one at that!” God, I hope not. {Wink.}


Nhat Hanh, T. (1992). The diamond that cuts through illusion: Commentaries on the prajnaparamita diamond sutra. Parallax Press.

Price, A. F., Mou-lam, W. (1990). The diamond sutra & the sutra of Hui-Neng (tr. by A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam). Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Image Credits

Blue Diamond by Anusorn P nachol via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Confessions of an Ambivalent Buddhist

Observed by Buddhists all over the world around this time of year, Vesak Day is a day of reflection upon the birth, enlightenment, and death of the historical Buddha. The precise day on which it falls in any given year is determined by the calendar utilized by whichever sect is doing the celebrating. For most, it will be observed this weekend. Here in St. Louis, however, Buddhists of various sects have agreed to gather collectively on the 20th of May.

Vesak Day at Borobudur

I have numerous fond memories of Vesak Days past, many of which have been held on the beautiful grounds of a monastery just west of town, overlooking rolling wooded hills and the Missouri River valley. Vesak Day is a time of meditation, self-reflection, ritual observance, Dharma teachings, and lots of good food and fellowship – in addition to it quite often falling on a sublimely gorgeous spring day.

One of the rituals performed involves the “bathing of the baby Buddha,” a ritual in which practitioners dribble ladles of water or tea over a statue of the infant Buddha – thereby cleansing and refreshing it. As far as rituals go, the symbolism is fairly straightforward; we are cleansing, refreshing, and renewing our practice – quite a meaningful undertaking however you might care to look at it.

For some reason, though, I feel compelled to confess that whenever I’ve performed this ritual I’ve observed within “me” a curious mix of intended sincerity balanced with faint amusement, intimate belongingness shaded with distant socio-cultural curiosity, humility offset by dismissive rationality. What a strange blend! Yes, I’m quite an ambivalent Buddhist at times, aren’t I? I suppose I’ll have to give you some background in order for you to really understand where I’m coming from.

I was raised Christian, and with at least a fair amount of diligence I took to the task of internalizing this faith of my upbringing. Perhaps it’s a foregone conclusion to say that whatever diligence I might have brought to this task was not ultimately successful. My own personal wrestling match between faith and reason ended with faith pinned to the mat and reason raising its clenched fist in victory. Science would be my new religion. Mathematics would be the language of my bible. Ah, but that, too, proved to be a less than satisfactory endeavor. And so it was that Eastern philosophy became my new frontier of exploration – eventually leading me to a regular meditation practice nestled within the context of Dogen Zen. Dogen Zen is the scientific method of religion, after all. Cultivate and verify, he taught his students. For me, this became a way of seeing that was more powerful than the Hubble telescope or any subatomic particle accelerator with respect to enabling me to see the reality of existence.

Fast forward a few years… I’ve declared myself a Buddhist. Indeed, it was Buddhism – through the lens of Dogen Zen – that brought me to this new place of understanding. And what do Buddhists do around this time each year? They observe Vesak Day, of course. Now, before this Dogen Zen practitioner ever attended a multi-sectarian Vesak Day celebration, I’d already sorted through enough of the various Buddhist teachings and practices – teachings and practices that are either attributed to the Buddha himself or inspired by following those who collectively took those teachings to places that no single individual could have possibly taken them in the course of a single lifetime – and I’d decided what “I” believed. I’d decided what “my” practice was all about. This was the mind that I brought with me to that first Vesak Day. And so it was that this disaffected Christian come Dogen Zen practitioner, this scientific method embracing cultivator-and-verifier, lined up alongside my fellow western converts and those who’d grown up in Buddhist households in China, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, and Sri Lanka – those who’d been “raised Buddhist” – in order to bathe the baby Buddha.

Oh, but perhaps I’ve not yet adequately described the true flavor of the stew of conflicted emotions that “I’d” felt while standing in that line. You see, one of the teachings regarding the Buddha that I’d sorted through at some point in my journey was the following passage compiled and translated by Sherab Chodzin Kohn (1994):

One night during the midsummer festival in Kapilavastu, Queen Mahamaya had a dream. In the dream she ascended a height, and a large and beautiful white elephant with six tusks entered her womb through her right side…. When she awoke, she had a feeling of great well-being and knew she was with child…. Mahamaya’s pregnancy lasted ten months. It was springtime, in the month of Vaishakha, when she began to feel the imminence of the birth…. In the middle of the month, on the full-moon day, Queen Mahamaya was walking in the grove when suddenly she felt heavy and raised her right arm to take hold of a tree branch for support. Just then, as she stood grasping the branch, the bodhisattva was born into the world, instantly and painlessly…. Then the bodhisattva, who already had the form of a small child, took seven firm steps, looked into the four directions, and said, “I am the leader of the world, the guide of the world. This is my final birth.” [other versions have the infant Buddha pointing one hand to the heavens and the other to the earth as these or similar words are spoken.]…. At that time, a great rishi, a seer, named Asita was living alone in the mountains practicing meditation. He saw with his clear sight that a momentous and auspicious birth had taken place somewhere in the world…. (pp. 3-5)

Of course, the similarities between this story and that of the birth of Jesus are striking: the supernatural predestination, the heavenly and non-sexual impregnation, the birth as a king, the witnessing throughout the world by those wise enough to see. Do I believe it? Oh, please don’t make me spell it out for you!

Our Practice

When we speak of our practice, what do we mean? Are we speaking only of those things that we actually do or believe? Are we speaking also of that which we might like to do or like to believe if only our practice were just a little bit deeper? Are we speaking of those practices that are generally engaged in by the group with whom we share the strongest affinity, whether or not we engage in them ourselves; or those things that are generally believed in by the group, whether or not we believe in them ourselves. Are we also speaking of those things that we neither want to do nor want to believe but which we do nonetheless and at least refrain from professing sentiments to the contrary for the sake of unity, cohesion, and harmony? I would venture to say that, on an individual level, our practice is constantly being reinvented. Our ego generally becomes less rigid and our sense of self becomes more fluid as time goes on. Our practice deepens and as it does our way of being in the world becomes transformed. Moment by moment – when we’re paying attention, anyway – we cleanse the buddha residing within us and refresh the practice that is ours. In a similar way our religious organizations are continuously reinvented. Priorities change, membership changes, new beliefs about what constitutes our practice arise. Nothing stays the same, not even the practice of Buddhism.

It is often said, and it appears to be true, that every country that has ever been introduced to Buddhism has adopted it, adapted it, and made it its own. This is taking place before our very eyes, even if we don’t quite grasp what is happening. The Sanshin Zen Community, for instance, when drawing up plans for their practice center in Bloomington, Indiana, chose a Shaker inspired architecture in order to, as I understand it, reflect both the simplicity of Japanese Zen and the reality of practice in a new land with a different cultural heritage.

Shaker Architecture

What will American Buddhism look like in the coming centuries? Will there still be ambivalent Buddhists ladling water over the statue of the baby Buddha (surely I can’t be the only one!), or will all the cultural accretions have been peeled away by then, leaving but a foundation upon which a truly American form will be built? Will American Buddhism eventually become so thoroughly transformed by the skepticism, the rationality, and the disregard for quaint belief and authoritarian dictates characterizing the American approach to life that all of us, whether we even know it or not, will have adopted a practice of cultivation and verification – with all that cannot be verified falling away into irrelevancy? Already, Buddhist teachings related to mindfulness have become so thoroughly subsumed within the realms of psychology and counseling and physical well-being as to have become unrecognizable as religious practice; they have become clinical techniques. Consider Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for instance. Will this process become so utterly complete at some point in time that Buddhism will no longer exist in name but will, nevertheless, be even more influential than ever?

Japanese Zen practice is intimately wedded with monastic practice. I think it bears keeping in mind, however, that for a monastery to have survived for hundreds of years it needed to have solved some very practical problems such as how the practitioners would be fed, how they would be housed, how the facilities would be supported and maintained; in other words, what work would be absolutely necessary for the continuation of life itself – in addition to all those things that we might think of today as practice. Thus, monastic practice was a holistic approach to life/practice, an organic outgrowth of the needs of the community in totality.

American Zen practice is now being formulated in Zen centers and sitting groups and in front of personal altars all over the country. What is our practice – that which we might collectively call American Zen? What will it look like in a hundred years, or five hundred? It is my perspective that, unlike traditional monastic practice, growing organically out of that which was absolutely necessary to the needs of the community in totality, Zen center practice is now heavily influenced by the background and personal preferences and idiosyncrasies of the teacher, the force of personality of certain practitioners and/or the pliability of others. And yet, even as practice becomes less and less about what we (and the entire world) need and more about what some individuals want or think that we all need, we still hear people talk about our practice as if it is writ somewhere in stone.

A successful religion has many “points of entry”. For one it might be an affinity for the study and contemplation of scripture. For another it might be engagement in ritual practice. For one it might be the stillness to be found within prayer or meditation. For another it might be fellowship with like-minded individuals. For one it might be faith or belief or the attribution of meaning. For another it might be joining in the work that has been agreed upon by the community as being important to its continuation or which is of an outwardly charitable nature even as it is rooted in successful inward practice. For a religion to focus on one or merely a few of these to the exclusion of the others merely limits its accessibility. Likewise, when an individual Zen center or sitting group or individual limits practice to only one or a few of these to the exclusion of others, growth potential is constrained.

So, what is our practice, anyway? I haven’t a clue. No, I do have a clue. It is life itself! I’d love to hear conversation take place along these lines, however. Toward that end I humbly submit this post. Regardless of whether we actually discuss anything, though, in one hundred years American Buddhism will have become what it will become, and at the end of our lives our practice will have become what it will become – albeit with far less intentionality.

Happy Vesak Day!

Vesak Day Lantern


Kohn, S. C. (1994). The Awakened One, A life of the Buddha. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Image Credits

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank