Monday, June 25, 2012

Choosing a Buddhist Tradition to Follow

It is often said that one should choose one path or vehicle ("yana") of Buddhism to follow. Within Buddhism there are a few main yanas or vehicles, i.e. Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. And within these three, there are the sub-vehicles. In Therevada, different Sayadaws, for example, adopt different approaches to meditation - from slightly different to quite different. If you are not aware of these differences between Theravadan masters, you really need to find out. Whereas in Mahayana system, we have  Pure Land, Ch'an or Zen, Tien Tai, Avatamsaka School, Lotus Sutra School, Mantra or sometimes called the Secret School, which includes the Vajrayana Path. But due to Tibetan Buddhism's distinct culture and practices, Vajrayana is often perceived as a separate vehicle of Buddhism. It actually is part of Mahayana. And even within Pure Land, we have many different types of Pure Land, such as Chinese Pure Land, Japanese Pure Land which is again divided into Jodoshinshu, Jodoshu, Ji-shu and Yuzu-nembutsu-shu and several other variants. Within Zen, we have Soto and Rinzai Zen as well as the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and probably other lineages of Soto, Rinzai and/or a combination of both.  Within Tibetan Buddhism, we have the different lineages particularly the four main lineages of Nyingmapa, Sakyapa, Kagyupa and Gelugpa. Then within the lineages of Nyingmapa, Sakyapa and Kagyupa, there are other sub-lineages and sub-sub-lineages. The tantric or secret school is not only found in Tibet. It is also found in China, Mongolia and Japan. These traditions have their own lineage masters.  On top of these schools and lineages, there are many dharma teachers for each school/tradition or lineages. Hence we have myriad dharma paths of Budhdism. In the Sutras, this is expressed as the 84,000 dharma doors! 

While the many different paths or vehicles are rightfully to be seen as provisioning of the appropriate dharma according to the propensities of sentient beings, just like appropriate medicine for each ailment, many Buddhists are now confronted with this issue of too many choices and not knowing which one to follow. Actually this is a ridiculous situation if you think of it as not knowing which medicine to take since there are so many medicines.

I cannot advise anyone which vehicle or path to follow. I think nobody can. Nobody should. Ultimately it is up to you. But, I can share with you my experiences with the different paths. For me, I have either studied or come across these different paths in my over 30 years of Buddhism. Not counting my previous lives, of course, even though I have reasons to believe that I have studied and practiced the dharma before in my previous lives. It was not a conscious choice for me for most of these dharma doors, as in for me to decide, “Oh, now I am going to study Pure Land Buddhism.” It did not happen that way at all. It was all a case of opportunities. In high school, since the national curriculum for Buddhism was Theravada in nature, and moreover, the teacher advisor then was a Theravadan, therefore I studied formal Theravadan teachings in school. But I had a group of friends that were also interested in Mahayana Buddhism, and there was a growing interest in the teachings of Master Hsuan Hua. So, with an open mind I also followed suit. Within Mahayana, I was introduced to Chinese and Japanese Pure Land, then through sheer luck (some people interprets that as karma) I met a Zen teacher who introduced me to Zen. But prior to that, while studying Master Hsuan Hua, I had always been fascinated with all the Ch’an stories. With Mahayana, it was natural to just expand the scope to cover Tibetan Buddhism. In my home town, the Karma Kagyu Society was among the first to establish itself. Through some friends, I was invited to attend the teachings of the visiting Lamas. Eventually, the doors to Nyingma, Sakya and Gelug opened themselves. It was good that throughout all these, I did not have any preconceived wrong idea as to which one is the truest path. I just allowed myself to learn and learn. Over the years, I developed a reasonable grasp of each method or “dharma door”.

I feel that it is not wrong to learn all these. It is only in choosing a meditation technique that you need to stick with one. Otherwise you will not progress if you do not develop one technique long enough.  You will also not achieve any results if you did not focus on it for some time. So, for that one technique, you definitely need to learn and receive guidance from one particular teacher. You can refer sometimes to a group of teachers with the same technique, but you should have a teacher whom you are closest to whom you receive most of the guidance. You need different techniques for different spiritual levels. I also happen to follow Je Tsongkhapa’s graduated path. According to him, only if you are skilled in the common general path (i.e. sutra and paramita path), then only you should enter the tantric path. In accordance with this guidance, one should develop one’s meditation skill first on any technique, before one embarks on the tantric generation and completion practices. However, you can use the lower tantric practices or simple Mahamudra practice to develop the common general path, as mentioned. Or, you can use the Zen techniques. The key is to develop your samatha and vipasyana first. But I am aware that many people nowadays just go direct to highest yoga tantra. Then in highest yoga tantra, they only start to learn about concentration, which is different from the common general paths. That’s because in Tibetan techniques, during meditation, many of them involves objects that move during meditation through visualisations. So, many beginners in HYT find it difficult to achieve one-pointed concentration. Therefore, ideally, one should first develop the basic meditational skill (using any technique) and achieve samatha-vipasyana first before embarking on higher tantric practices. Then you can drop the previous technique and start practising the tantric methods.

So, I find that all the paths and dharma doors that I have studied and practiced is not beyond Je Tsongkhapa’s graduated path. Some people may have the idea that I am fickle minded in not sticking to one path or lineage but in fact, I have done nothing incorrect as far as practising Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings is concerned. In fact I have been doing it correctly if you listen to what Je Tsongkhapa had to say.

Je Tsongkhapa encouraged people to study more than one path/vehicle. In Lam Rim Chen Mo, he said, “Each Mahayana scripture – from summaries to the most extensive texts – gives a great many teachings on the profound meaning, but also leaves many things out. So you must draw points that are not taught in certain texts from other texts that do teach them, and you must draw points that are not taught extensively in certain texts from other texts where they are taught extensively. You should understand that this is true for the category of the vast bodhisattva deeds as well. A partial path, in which either the profound or the vast is missing, cannot be considered complete. This is why it is often said that you must be skilled in all vehicles in order to be a guru who is fully qualified to teach the path.”

For me that is a most important guidance, which I have just found out recently. Je Rinpoche was not only good in Mahayana scriptures, he was good in Theravada texts as well, as evident from the many Theravada texts he quoted in his writing. All the while, I have been learning from all different types of vehicles and texts. Now I realise that I have been subconsciously in fact been following the path of Je Tsongkhapa and Sakyamuni Buddha, who both learned from many teachers before their own accomplishments. Je Tsongkhapa learned from Drikung, Nyingma, Sakya and other Kagyu masters. Sakyamuni Buddha sought teachings from Hindu-like teachers at that time. Whoever thinks that I have been mistaken in not sticking to one particular lineage or tradition is mistaken.

But I also do recognise that not everyone is cut out to follow the path that I am following, which is following the quintessential path of Sakyamuni and Je Tsongkhapa.  Most people have to follow one tradition or path from beginning to end. I would recommend you to try and if one is not giving you the results as expected by the dharma, or a majority of people (which is different from as “expected by your own self”), then you seek other paths. Remember that it is not about a certain path meeting with your own set of expectations. For example, if you have been doing Tibetan deity visualisations for many years but still unable to achieve a calm mind (i.e. your mind is still wandering wildly), then perhaps deity visualisations are not for me. Seek advice from your guru but also remain open for other methods, such as recitation of the Buddha’s Name (Pure Land method), recitation of mantra, or doing Zen koan investigations. When you have seen some progress, then stick to that technique. But often it is due to karma that we are attracted to a certain tradition or path over others. For example, sometimes the Zen tradition that we like may not be so convenient for us because their centre or temple is too far away from our home. And then we have a Tibetan centre that is closer to us. This happened to me in the 1990s. I could not find a Zen centre to practice. So, my Zen interest went into cold storage for more than a decade until it recently resurfaced. My karma for Zen has ripened. So, if it is karma, do not worry so much. Important thing is you get to doing it and reducing your greed, hatred and ignorance, because that is the fundamental goal of every Buddhist path and tradition. If you can achieve that, it does not matter which path you have been walking on, does it? Putting it another way, so long as your illness can be cured, does it matter that you know what medicine was it that you have been taking? Think about it. Those who have been reading my blog posts on "Zen or Tibetan Buddhism" topics will find this post related. I hope someone finds this post of some use.  Then I would not have wasted my time. Amitabha!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Developing a Strong "Centre" to Stabilise Emotions

Some personal notes from Zen Master Wu Bong’s talk at Su Bong Zen Monastery in 2011.
I find these to be highly consistent with Tibetan Buddhist teachings. That is why one Zen Master told me that if we start discriminating between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism by merely looking at the outer aspects, instead of the core messages, then already we have a wrong thinking. Some of the below words really strike directly into my heart and it cuts deep inside the layers of delusion at every moment of hearing it. It’s like an oil rig with the pipes being drilled deep into the core of the earth. We need these masters to reveal such treasures deep inside our mind. Hearing Zen Master Wu Bong’s talk (and others like him) we can get glimpses of reality, otherwise hidden from us. Some of these may not be his exact words, but his meaning is what I am trying to convey. Do let me know if I have not conveyed the meaning accurately. To listen to his talk in full, refer the link below. It is a bit lengthy but you will not regret listening to it at the end. Some of the below dharma were responses to the questions posed by the audience.
1. The reason why our mind flows together with our emotions is because our centre is not yet strong. With more practice, and following the guidance of the dharma teachers, then our centre will be stronger. Then we will not be so easily swayed by emotional turbulence. (My note: Problem now is whether you know what your “centre” is. It is like a pole that you hold on to during a strong wind.)
2. Seung Sahn Sunim summarized the Buddha’s formula to achieve enlightenment by this equation: TRY MIND + DIRECTION = ENLIGHTENMENT. “Try Mind” and our “Direction” are two terms he used very often. It is important to know our direction in life and in this case, our direction to enlightenment. “Try mind” is our practice. “Direction” is our purpose for seeking enlightenment. Is it seeking for my own enlightenment? If there is “I, my, me”, then “self-esteem” can easily turn into “self-arrogance”. It becomes practice for “I, my, me”. Difference between “self-esteem” and “arrogance” is “I, my, me”.
3. Your Zen Master is always in front of you. Everything (including enemies and friends we don’t like) is our teacher and comrade in the path.
4. Make use of everything that comes our way as teaching us the dharma, and as our practice.
5. Make use of everything to return to “don’t know”. But even if you attained this “don’t know”, that is only the beginning. The rest of the people around you are still suffering.
6. Our practice is not for ourselves. Not for “I, my, me”. All of this suffering we see in this world is our responsibility. 
There are many dharma points just from the notes above. I would suggest you slowly digest it, just like what I am doing - i.e. still going through these points.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Karma, Precious Human Rebirth & Impermanence

I got a shocking news last Wednesday that an acquaintance fell from his chair yesterday and hurt his spine. That day he was in the intensive care unit! According to the nurse, he went into the operating theatre at 4pm but at about 6.25pm, he was still inside. Long surgery! I pray and hope he does not sustain life-long permanent injuries. And what's sad is that he is said to be only around 30 years old! Karma does not have a stench. You cannot smell it coming.

After 8 gruelling hours in the ops theatre, at about 12 midnight, he was wheeled out. His parents were not physically there. Do you know why? Apparently I heard he does not have any parents anymore. He only has 2 younger sisters. One is preparing to go to England to study. So, she cannot be there. Pity isn't it? Only one other sister was there. Mostly friends have to go support him. At 2am, he regained his consciousness. But his condition post-surgery is yet to be known. I keep my fingers crossed he does not become paralysed.

I heard that, except for the head, the rest of the body cannot move - the hands and legs still numb. O - dear!

Some intensive chantings were done on Friday night and when I visited him on Saturday morning, he could move a few of his left hand's fingers a little and his left leg. Amazing... considering he could not move anything at all the previous day. A Buddhist monk advised him to recite Na Mo Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa every day for at least 20 minutes. And I also donated some money for him to do lamp lighting and wrote his name on it, at the monk's temple. His uncle donated RM100 to have his name as sponsor for printing dharma books. I went to the branch of City of Ten Thousand Buddhas here to make that donation. Then I went back again a 2nd time to bless him with an image of Master Hsuan Hua. I got a pendant with Master's image on it from that CTTB temple. I hope he improved much further. He is too young to lie on a bed for the rest of his life. His accident sends a powerful message of karma, impermanence and precious human rebirth to us all.  

Update - 16 June, 2012
Since then, he is said to have more and more movement in his hands and legs, but still far from complete recovery.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


This is another of my poem titled "Friendlessness" to reflect my understanding of Dogen's teachings. It also reflects my acceptance of what I think is my karma in this life. I just have to accept it and do the best in that situation. But people will not understand such verses unless they themselves have studied Dogen's texts. It really is deep.   

The Heart Sutra says,
"Form is emptiness; Emptiness is form"
But Dogen Zenji says,
“Form is form; Emptiness is emptiness.”
Which position is correct?
“Hundred blades of grass,
Ten thousand things.”
Everything performing its own function.
Fishes swim, birds fly.
What is my function?
What is your function?
Not my business,
But you should know.
Namo Amitabha.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Winter Does Not Become Spring

I wrote the verses below to summarise what I learned from Master Dogen (from his famous Genjikoan chapter within Shobogenzo text). It is also consistent with what I understand from Tibetan Buddhist Masters. I have some kind of awakening experience, although not satori, due to these teachings by Master Dogen. See if you experience the same thing: -

"Does spring come from winter?
  Does Buddha come from sentient being?
  Nay, winter does not become spring.
winter is a period of time, so is spring.
 When one set of conditions end, another begin.
 Just the same,
 Sentient beings do not become Buddhas.
When your conditions as sentient being ends,
The Buddha within will emerge. 
No arising... no abiding... no ceasing...."


Saturday, June 2, 2012

3 Months Intensive Meditation Retreat in Korea

If anyone interested to participate in this intensive meditation retreat under a Zen Master, please check the following info which is extracted from their website. For the application form and more info, please check - 
Basic Requirements (minimum one week participation)
The retreat is open to all who have had some experience of meditation and can sit for a minimum of one week. (Monks and nuns are required to sit for the full 90 days.)
Applicants must be over 18 years old and are expected to stay for the full period that they have applied for. Our retreat accommodation is in simple, shared rooms, sleeping on the floor (heated in winter) with mattresses. Basic Requirements (minimum one week participation)
The retreat is open to all who have had some experience of meditation and can sit for a minimum of one week. (Monks and nuns are required to sit for the full 90 days.)
Applicants must be over 18 years old and are expected to stay for the full period that they have applied for. Our retreat accommodation is in simple, shared rooms, sleeping on the floor (heated in winter) with mattresses.
Entry Dates
* You may only enter on the following entry dates.

June 2012 : 2 (to join the start of the retreat), 9, 23
July 2012 : 7, 21
August 2012 : 4, 18, 25
You may leave on any Saturday after lunch.

How to Apply
If you wish to join the Kyol Che Retreat please complete and return the application form with a recent photograph of yourself. All applications should be submitted at least 2 weeks before your entry date. We have limited places for the retreat and applications will be considered on a first come, first serve basis, so apply early to avoid disappointment. Please ensure that you:
- indicate the period that you wish to sit
- provide full information about your meditation experience
- attach a recent photograph
- complete the application form fully
All applications need to be reviewed and approved by the Mu Sang Sa Guiding Teacher. This also applies to former retreat participants.

1. Kyol Che is held in silence.
Zen Master Seung Sahn says, "Silence is better than holiness". Bodhidharma sat silently in Sorim for 9 years. Silence deepens your practice and benefits you and others. If your job does not require talking, keeping silence will help you. You should also keep silence in your room.
2. Be on time for all practice periods, Dharma talks and meals.
Always go to the Buddha Hall, Zen room, or Dining room punctually when the moktak is hit.
3. Do not enter or leave the Zen room after the chugpi is hit for sitting meditation unless you are going to or returning from an interview.
4. Walking meditation is a continuation of sitting meditation.
You may leave the Zen room during walking meditation when necessary. When re-entering the Zen room, do so quietly at your proper place in the line. Always walk softly in the Zen room, especially when walking on the stairs.
5. Everyone must come to all practice periods.
If you are sick and cannot attend, please write a note to the Head Monk before the practice period that you will miss.
6. Everyone must come to all formal meals. They are a part of our practice. If you do not wish to eat a meal, you should still attend.
7. Do not enter the kitchen unless you have been given work to do there.
8. Do not use the small kitchen under the staircase in the Zen building during chanting or sitting meditation.
9. Mobile phones, personal computers or any communication equipment may not be used during the retreat. Please deposit your mobile phone with the Director or Financial Director. All outside communications are suspended for the duration of the retreat. In the case of an emergency, contact the Head Monk or Director.
10. Do not walk up the mountain alone if you do not know the way.
11. Men and women should not go for walks outside alone with each other. That is, one man with one woman. You should go in groups of three people or more.
12. Men and women should not go into each other’s rooms. The exception to this rule is when teachers need to give private interviews or consultations to students.
13. Do not come to the temple office unless you have been asked by one of the Directors.
14. Do not talk to visitors to the temple. If they approach you, please direct them to the temple office or the Director.
15. The head monk will control the opening and closing of windows in the Zen room. If you have a problem or request, let the head monk know.
16. Do not feed or play with any animals.
17. Do not shave your head if you are a layperson. If you wish to keep your hair short, it should be at least 2 cm long (about 1 inch).
18. Bowing robes or working jackets and socks are to be worn whenever you are outside of your room.
19. Do not wear brightly colored clothing during the retreat. Do not wear hats in the Zen room.
20. The use of tobacco and alcohol are detrimental to our practice. Retreat participants should not consume alcohol or smoke tobacco while on retreat.
21. Personal books should not be read during the retreat. Only the books provided by the Zen Center may be used. Read them in the tea room during breaks and return them to the bookshelf.
22. Everyone will have a job during the work period each day, mostly cleaning the temple and working in the kitchen. Work period is part of formal practice. Please attend to your work period assignment with mindfulness.
23. Do your laundry during the scheduled times. Don't work on your laundry during walking meditation. If you hang your laundry on the lines outside, take it down before evening practice.
24. Do not bring your watch into the Zen room if it makes a beeping sound.
25. Bedroom lights should be switched off by 9.20 p.m.
26. If you have a health problem, let the Health Master know.
27. If you have any special dietary needs, please let the House Master know in advance.
28. If you need something, write a note to the Head Monk, House Master, or appropriate director.
29. If these rules are consistently broken by any participant, they will be given two formal warnings by the Head Monk and a third warning by the Guiding Teacher. If the rule concerned is still broken, the person may be asked to leave.
30. All exceptions to these rules and temple guidelines can only be made at the discretion of the Guiding Teacher, Joshil Dae Bong SN and Abbot Dae Jin SN.