Friday, December 28, 2012

Living With An Untamed Mind

It was a half hour or so past midnight and those of us gathered in the meditation hall at Sanshin Zen Temple had just completed six days of sitting zazen from 4:10 in the morning until 9:00 in the evening and an even longer seventh day meant to commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment upon seeing the morning star. An offering to the Buddha had been made; the Bodhisattva Vows and the Heart Sutra had been chanted; rohatsu sesshin thus came to a close. A few of our number retired immediately, more in need of sleep than anything else. The remainder, perhaps feeling more wired than tired, gratefully accepted the Okumura’s offer of a nightcap of warm sake and fellowship upstairs in their private quarters. This had been “sesshin without toys,” after all, sesshin in the very rigorous and austere Antaiji-style instituted by Shohaku Okumura’s teacher, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Relaxing in a chair sipping sake and enjoying free-flowing conversation after a week of fourteen or more periods of zazen per day was a luxury too fine to pass up!

I listened to the conversation bounce around the room for a time, content simply to look at and listen to those whom I’d not really seen or heard for an entire week, despite having spent hour after hour in their presence. Oh, yeah, and there was warm sake to sip also.

“I’m intrigued by the altar statue of the Buddha sitting upon a tiger,” I finally remarked to Shohaku-san. The tiger had been growling over my shoulder all week long as I sat zazen, and staring me down each time I approached it during kinhin.

“Actually, it is not a tiger, it is a lion,” Shohaku-san smiled, “and it is not the Buddha, it is the bodhisattva Manjusri.”

I smiled at my error, less concerned with the particulars than with the overall message being communicated. Besides, there was very little ego left in me to be embarrassed for not knowing about what I have since learned is a fairly common depiction of Manjusri, the bodhisattva who utilized wisdom in order to tame the lion of mind. My interest was born of the fact that it mirrored my own experience throughout (much of) the week – that of being a calm observer of those otherwise untamed aspects of mind.

The Bodhisattva of Wisdom (Manjusri) is usually depicted wielding a sword and a copy of the Prajnaparamita – the collection of sutras containing the well-known Heart Sutra (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, pp. 128, 219). Such images have fairly straightforward interpretations, i.e. wisdom being used to cut through delusion so that suffering may be transcended. However, images such as the one featured – that of Manjusri sitting atop a lion – invite numerous interpretations. Does the lion represent the strength and stamina of a mighty beast that may be put to noble use, such as providing a vehicle for the practice of the Dharma if only its power and wild urges could be controlled? Does the calm figure represent our so-called True Self and the lion those wild karmic forces that we might ride comfortably if only we would stop identifying with them? Ah, but if the lion is Manjusri’s mind, then what is he – and, likewise, what are we?

Perhaps we could view the image in a less overtly dualistic way and interpret the entire image as mind and the calm figure as that aspect of mind, bodhicitta, which aspires to awaken from the sleep of delusion. Actually, this interpretation fits nicely with a more modern psychological way of thinking about the mind. Modern psychology posits that we all possess something called an executive system which plays a coordinating and directive role with respect to the activities of body and mind. However, since the executive system coordinates and directs both healthy and unhealthy behavior, wise and unwise activity, we should not equate it with bodhicitta. Rather, bodhicitta would be more akin to a value that influences the executive system – informing it that this is a more suitable aspiration than that, awakening is a more suitable aspiration than remaining asleep (trapped within karma).
Can I have a treat, or maybe devour you?

So, back to this thing called sesshin… When we’re sitting facing a wall for nigh on twelve hours per day, all week long, we have plenty of time to watch the workings of the mind. There are times when the body is sitting comfortably and solidly, and the mind is alert and calm and ready to climb high above the tree-line to where any distinction between watcher and watched falls away like a stone tumbling down below into the valley of conceptualization. Ah, but there are also times when the pain (or boredom, for that matter) of so much sitting comes to the fore, and the mind, weak and worn out, seeks refuge amongst the forest of ideas. Headlong it races down below the tree-line and into the comforting embrace of delusion – for in delusion there is brief respite from that which seems so daunting. Yes, but there are other times when pain swirls like a raging storm, whether it be the physical pain of hour upon hour of sitting or the psychic pain of grief and loss and discontent, and yet the mind remains calm and alert – as if sitting upon a sunny overlook high above where any raging storm might reach, or perhaps like a peaceful bodhisattva riding on the back of a roaring lion.

Can we please go for a walk, or shall I just kill you?
In this regard, sitting sesshin is simply an intensified microcosm of everyday life. In everyday life we have moments of keen awareness and clarity of insight. We also have moments of dark delusion in which we become whatever wild animals our karma might direct us to be. In between, however, is the potential for us to pay watchful attention to body and mind and emotion, to sit calmly atop the lion of our existence – feeling each ripple coursing through it, sensing the beating of its heart, knowing its contentedness as well as its rage – without ever saying to ourselves: “this is me.”

At least part of the wisdom of Manjusri, then, is this ability simply to watch the arising and falling away of those phenomena that, whether considered in isolation or in aggregation, are routinely identified as “our” life. Joy and happiness, pain and sorrow, anxiety and depression, loneliness and boredom, contentment and fulfillment, anger and frustration – these are the many aspects of the lion’s purr and roar. They are merely phenomena that arise and pass away. When viewed as such they cease to be disturbing, even in their wildness; and when viewed as such they likewise cease to be so wild.     

A Manjusri and his Lion, it's a beautiful thing.



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

Image Credits

Manjusri riding a lion courtesy of Buddhist Images Resource via:

Manjusri riding a lion courtesy of Buddhist Images Resources via:

Manusri riding a lion courtesy of Buddhist Images Resources via:

Manjusri riding a lion courtesy of Buddhist Images Resource via:

Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Have Yourself a Buddhist Little Christmas

Alright all you Buddhists out there! By now you’ve weathered a good month and a half of what we commonly refer to as “the holiday season” – that period during which the cultural collective storms out of the starting gate the moment the Halloween decorations come down, gathers momentum as Thanksgiving approaches, hits its stride on that notorious shopping day known as Black Friday, and then continues at an all-out sprint until collapsing into a physically and emotionally exhausted, overeaten and hungover pile of debt-burdened human wreckage on New Year’s Day!

Jizo statue
How does it feel so far? Are you going stir-crazy from hearing Christmas carols nearly everywhere you go? Is the ubiquitous presence of wasteful and distasteful lawn art finally starting to wear you down? Has workplace pressure to pony up for an offering of useless crap for the annual “white elephant” gift exchange put your principles of simplicity to the test? Okay, and how many times have you lamented to friends and family about the rampant commercialism and materialism on display during these times, or deftly deflected the queries of acquaintances regarding whether or not you’ve put up a tree – and if not why not? Oh, and how many times have you contemplated writing your local municipality in order to enquire about the amount of and the appropriateness of public funding being used to purchase and hang all of that “holiday” bunting and all of those “seasonal” banners and all of those strings of “festive” lights from public buildings and lampposts and trees. Yeah, I’ll admit it. I’ve had all of those scrooge-like sentiments at one time or another!

Sure enough, you don’t have to be a Christian convert to Buddhism (as I am) to have such sentiments. I’ve heard plenty of Christians lament the materialism and lack of focus on the true meaning of Christmas. And who knows what it must be like to be Jewish or Muslim or whatever without ever having had a personal religious or cultural connection to the holiday. I feel your pain! Well, perhaps it would be a little more accurate to say that I have felt your pain.

You see, over the years as my practice of Buddhism has deepened I’ve gotten more and more adept at the practice of equanimity – though not perfect by any means! You might recall from an earlier blog post that equanimity (along with compassion, sympathetic joy, and loving-kindness) is one of the four Buddhist virtues known as the Brahma-viharas, or “Sublime Abodes” (Sangharakshita, 1980, p. 144; Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 394). Practicing equanimity allows us to more easily remain unperturbed by all that might otherwise be “karmically charged” for us. Clearly, the practice of equanimity is beneficial with respect to letting go of such scrooge-like sentiments as those that I’ve admitted to above, but it is indispensable if we aspire to nirvana – unconditioned peace – peace beyond all causes and conditions.

In addition to the abundance of opportunities for the practice of compassion and loving-kindness over the holiday season, there are many opportunities to practice sympathetic joy as well. Perhaps we can reflect upon how others just might be experiencing joy from those very sights and sounds that tend to drive us up the wall. Perhaps without the holiday season the lives of many would ring flat or be devoid of hope for the future of humankind. I distinctly remember having occasion over the holidays to notice at least a modicum of progress in the cultivation of equanimity and sympathetic joy. It was years ago as I was driving home from the very first weeklong meditation retreat that I ever did. Now, over the course of a week your mind can get pretty still, and as I wended my way through the countryside looking at the various decorations on the houses and in the yards here and there I felt none of my more typical disdain. I felt only a warm sense of well-being knowing that people were hopeful, and joyful, and desiring to make the world a more beautiful place for others. So I’m actually pretty cool these days when it comes to all of the aforementioned holiday trappings. At least this aspect of our collective karma carries no appreciable charge for me. Ah, but familial karma is always another story…

I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about: You think your practice has gotten fairly solid; you’ve come to see with at least some clarity the nature of your karmic conditioning; you consider yourself a brand new person, willing to let bygones be bygones so that your troubled relationships might proceed on an entirely different footing…, and then you go home. I’m sure that everyone will agree that when it comes to testing the strength of your practice, there really is no place like home!

“So, are you still into that Buddhism thing?” “Do you really have to do all of that kowtowing stuff?” “Now, tell me, are you expected to give them any money?” Indeed, the  questioning of our adopted spiritual practice is just one of an endless variety of buttons that our families will manage to find…, and push…, again and again. But that always reminds me of one of my favorite quotes precisely related to this Buddhist experience of going home. A student of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s once told him: “When I was a Buddhist, it drove my parents and friends crazy, but when I am a Buddha, nobody is upset at all" (Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 7). By the way, I suppose a Christian could very easily replace ‘Buddhist’ with ‘Christian’ and ‘a Buddha’ with ‘Christ-like’ in the preceding quote and get quite a bit of mileage out of it when circulating in non-Christian circles, don’t you think?

It has occurred to me, however, that there might be yet another way for a Buddhist to embrace the holiday season. As everyone knows, Christian theology tells us that Jesus was sent to earth by God precisely so that humans might be saved from eternal damnation; but that is essentially what we vow to do when we accept the bodhisattva vow to save all beings. In fact, there is a figure in Buddhist lore that is actually a very Christ-like one, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva – “venerated in folk belief as a savior from the torments of hell and helper of deceased children” (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 186). He is often depicted as a monk holding a staff with six rings, one for each of the various realms of existence – that of the gods, that of the titans or demons, that of the humans, that of the animals, that of the hungry ghosts, and, of course, that of the hell-beings (Schuhmacher & Woerner, 1994, pp. 21, 116, 186). Please keep in mind that some Buddhists interpret these six realms as the various modes of existence for humans here on earth. Don’t we know or have we not ourselves been an occupant of each of these realms over the course of our lives?

Might we then take some comfort in the fact that Christians all over the world are about to celebrate the birth of a figure very much like one esteemed by many in our own Buddhist tradition? No, the stories don’t enjoy complete correspondence, but I’m fairly certain that it would be exceedingly difficult or impossible to discern one who is striving to be Christ-like from one who is emulating the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva – and isn’t that what really matters?

In Japan, the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva is known as Jizo. Ksitigarbha’s affinity for children is very much accentuated in the forms of the Jizo statues common there. As can be seen in the images accompanying this post, Jizo statues are commonly crafted with very child-like features due to the fact that they are often erected with a particular child in mind – one who has either been deemed to be in need of Jizo’s assistance in the afterlife or is presumed to have been the subject of his protection in this life. Thus, as can be seen, some Jizo statues are adorned with the clothing of children. I ask you, then, would it really be so strange for us Buddhists to begin associating the day of birth of the baby Jesus with, ahem, the birth of the baby Jizo? {winking…, respectfully}

I wish everyone of all faiths a peaceful and joy-filled holiday season. But even as I say that, I am aware that it will most certainly be one of the most trying times of the year for a great many people. Whether this is your first Christmas without one of your loved ones or whether it always brings with it the pain of a long-ago loss, I wish you peace. Whether it is not so much anticipated for its potential for joy as it is dreaded for the expectation of difficulty and contentiousness, I wish you peace. Whether you fully anticipate it being everything that you dream of or whether you already know that it will fall far short of the magazine-spread Christmases that the marketers would dearly love you to buy, I wish you peace. This holiday season let us aspire to simply be as fully human as we can be – neither god nor demon, neither animal nor hungry ghost, and certainly not one of the hell-beings. And if it helps to keep Jizo in mind, then by all means do so.



Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. A Hyperion publication.

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980). A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

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


Image Credits

Jizo with “red scarf” by Chris Gladis via:

Jizo collection at Zozo-ji by Selefant via:

Kamakura Hasedera sculptures by Chris 73 via:



Copyright 2012 by Maku Mark Frank