Bodhisattvas Say Bad Things Too

My teacher always encourages us to memorize Buddhist scriptures – long, short, medium, whatever we can do. One that I have worked on is the Bodhisattva’s prayer (a section of the much longer Way of the Bodhisattva). And the other day this prayer worked on me by calling these lines out:

Whether those who encounter me
Conceive a faithful or angry thought
May that always be the source
For fulfilling all their wishes.

May all who say bad things to me
Or cause me any other harm
And those who mock and insult me
Have the fortune to awaken fully.

My initial and habitual response is to consider offering compassion and loving kindness to those who may wish me ill. The verse seems to be asking us to see in them their potential to awaken, to see them as potential Buddhas, and so to check ourselves when we are treated badly. This is definitely part of the point, but this interpretation also has a lot of self oriented perspective in it.

What if we are the ones doing the mocking and insulting? What if the one we are mocking and insulting is the Bodhisattva or aspirant reciting this prayer? Then we are the ones who should have the fortunate to awaken fully and we are the ones who should have our wishes fulfilled from that mocking and insulting rot of ours.

One of the beautiful things about this prayer is what it is asking of us. It is asking us to be compassionate towards those who hurt us. But it is asking us, “Why do you think you are the Bodhisattva? Why do you think this is all about you? Aren’t you the one mocking and insulting someone right now? May that be the source for fulfilling all your wishes and may you awaken fully out of your delusions of self.”

The prayer is asking us to be both the Bodhisattva and the deluded being. Because we are both. Because Bodhisattvas say bad things too. Because we have the potential to awaken moment after moment, whether we are playing the Bodhisattva or playing the deluded fool.

Rituals of Impermanence and Impermanent Rituals (2)

There are rituals of impermanence – the Sand Mandala, the practice of burning resolutions made during a New Year’s service, and more – and there are impermanent rituals – rituals that do not last forever, rituals that come to an end. Both help us to let go of attachment…but not let go of the act! And by letting go of attachment (and not the act), we experience the act, the ritual, without residue.

Seeing the impermanence of our rituals is essential to spiritual liberation. The ceremonies we come to love and cherish, the temples and spaces we call home, the people we practice with, all impermanent rituals, all coming and going. And when they go, what is it…that frees, that sings awakening? The feelings of loss, the tears at things coming apart, the sadness, the attachment even, all are part of the practice of impermanent rituals. It’s not about not feeling. But feeling deeply and without attachment. So the process unfolds, and we unfold as part of the process, and there is no getting stuck.

Zen Master So Sahn wrote in section 74 of the Mirror of Zen:

If in the hour of your death you make even the slightest distinction between the enlightened and unenlightened, holy or unholy people, you will be inexorably pulled into your next rebirth through the womb of a donkey or a horse, or stuffed into an iron furnace raging in hell, or become an ant or a mosquito.1

When we get attached to ritual – whether spiritual or mundane – we make distinctions. We carve the world into rituals and non-rituals, into spiritual and non-spiritual. And with attachment to ritual follows movements of mind and feeling that pull us through the “womb of a donkey or a horse.” If we don’t practice the impermanence of rituals now, in this very moment, then in the moment of our passing we will see the end as final and as a loss…and we may just find ourselves reborn as an “ant or a mosquito.”

But if we practice the impermanence of rituals now, if we learn to let go and be completely free by, paradoxically, being completely with each and every thing as it unfolds, then there is no distinction between holy and unholy, no distinction between spiritual and mundane.

The red mountain sings awakening.

The broken cup shouts wake up.

From the crack in a wall

Runs icy water.

1. Excerpt From: Boep Joeng. “The Mirror of Zen.” iBooks.

Rituals of Impermanence and Impermanent Rituals (1)

Where does the Sand Mandala live? Its creation, its compassion, its vibrant energy, its dissolution, its impermanence: where is it and what is it?

The Sand Mandala from the previous post, it is there and it is not there. What is created and destroyed, that is the vehicle. But the practice and the teachings of the Sand Mandala, where do they live? Where does their power to cut away at our delusions, greed, and anger live? Not separate from the vehicle, but not identical with it.

It is easy to miss the teaching. I did. Yesterday I was working with a Vietnamese Buddhist monk here in the Springs. I was helping him take down a temple bell. He is slowly taking down a structure that he created 8 years ago. As I was leaving, he said, “Here, just like the Mandala, the dissolution of things. We created it; now, we destroy it. And maybe we will create it again.”

Although it is not a colorful and intricately designed Mandala of Compassion, the structure is the Mandala. How? It is a ritual of impermanence, the embodiment of compounded things coming apart.

The Sand Mandala that the Tibetan monks created and their weeklong process of creation were amazingly beautiful and powerful as a teaching, spiritual practice, cultural practice, and work of art. But if we leave that teaching at the creek where the last remnants of sand washed away, then we missed it.

If we see the Mandala in the falling leaves, the dying plants, the coming and going of all things, then we catch a glimpse of that vast realm of compassion.

May we all catch that glimpse! May we all enter that gate of compassion! May we see the Mandala in the coming and going of the ten thousand things!



A Compassion Mandala and the Magic of Everyday Mundane Acts

This week in Colorado Springs, a local Buddhist group, the BodhiMind Center, coordinated with a group of touring Tibetan Monks from the Ngari Institute to create a week of Tibetan Buddhist ritual and practice centered around the creation of a Sand Mandala. All proceeds from the week went to support the Ngari Institute – and if you are reading this and feel compelled to donate, please Click Here for more information.

The Compassion Mandala Tour spread a message of love and kindness through the ritual creation and destruction of a Sand Mandala. But how? Through the mystery of how art, ritual, and practice can fuse into something beyond words, but also through the completely ordinary too, right here in the everyday mundane acts of sentient beings.

Two monks worked on the Mandala throughout. By the end of the first full day, the Mandala began to take shape. All throughout the day, visitors gathered around the Sand Mandala, from guests to the Fine Arts Center to classes of elementary school children. The Monks worked with single pointed concentration while people stood over their shoulders or watched from video screens set up in the hallway. At one time a young girl was nestled up next to a monk while he continued to work on the Mandala. When the monks took a break, they would talk with others around them, share tea, and walk up and down the hallway smiling, stretching, and relaxing. Surely in all this was love and kindness.

By the following day, hours into their practice, the two monks continued with the same single pointed concentration. Sitting on mats and cushions, slowly tapping out sand in intricate patterns and designs, they continued their work of compassion through their art and practice, through perseverance, through vital energy dedicated to a single task of love and kindness. Sitting alongside and watching in meditative inquiry, how could one not be moved by their practice and generosity? It filled the room and the city, as evidenced by the number of people who came to just take it in.

After it was completed, the Mandala was raised on a platform and surrounded by candles, Buddha statues, and flowers. Although the monks were done with their part of the creation, the effects continued to grow and spread. Visitors came to see the finished Mandala. Students around town were making plans to attend the Dissolution Ceremony. Pictures were shared on social media. The Compassion Mandala continued to spread far and wide.

The dissolution ceremony brought people from all over the town. Some just happened to be there because they were visiting the Fine Arts Center that day. Many arrived for the ceremony itself. After chanting, prayers, and music, the monks began to sweep the sand into a pile in the center of the platform. The Sand Mandala was no more. Small scoops of sand were handed out in little bags. The rest was placed in a jar along with flowers and brought down to Monument Creek where it was spread among the ten thousand elements.

So in all of this, where was the love and kindness? The compassion? Where was the Sand Mandala?

It was in the air, the ritual, the practice. It was radiating beyond anything that can be expressed with words. It was felt deeply without knowing how it was felt. It was in the air, water, earth, and fire and in the combinations of these elements. But it was in all of these ritual and spiritual and magical things because it was in the small everyday acts of love and kindness and compassion. It was in the small child sitting next to the monk watching him tap sand onto a platform. It was in the monks’ long hours of sitting and meditation. It was people stepping aside so others could see the Mandala. It was in the hugs and smiles and hellos of old friends seeing each other again there next to the Mandala. It was in the planning, the hours of preparation, the volunteer meals, the tea being offered, and all the other ten thousand acts of kindness to make the events run smoothly.

The magic of compassion arises from the everyday mundane acts, and the everyday mundane acts are what make the magic of compassion alive and beyond words. May you find compassion, love, and kindness in your everyday life! May you be well, at ease, and happy!

With a deep bow of gratitude from Colorado Springs…



Question your Teachers

My previous post (Humility and Belief Revision) ended with some questions I ask myself as a teacher. It posed further questions for students, but stopped short. The teacher-student relationship in any form is complicated, but that doesn’t mean it must be disempowering for students.

As the previous post made clear, teachers are bounded by history, context, and ideology (not to mention memory, age, and other physically embodied constraints). There is very little a teacher can say without some qualification as to their certainty about what they say. Of course the context may not warrant so many qualifiers. But if you get to know a teacher well enough, and the humility is not present, then let that be a sign to move on.

I find this most pressing in Buddhist teacher-student relationships. The dynamic requires a humbling on both sides, and so requires the student to bend toward the teacher – but in the service of developing one’s practice. That must always be kept in mind!

So ask yourself: what am I being asked to do? And is this teacher full of themselves? Or are they bending while I am bending? Are we both turning in to the Dharma together? If not, well – someone might be selling you something, or trying to control the situation. Not a healthy place to be.

Humility and Belief Revision

774bdfc898db2100b01ea0fdeae9ba8bI am starting a project on Descartes’ Meditations. More than just in the title, Descartes’ work has a deep affinity with the tradition of meditations or spiritual exercises of his time. And beyond the traditions he was familiar with, there is the larger tradition of meditation via doubt especially among the Zen schools that resonates with Descartes’ writing and practice. Although I stumbled upon these connections after I brought my Buddhist practice together with my reading of the Meditations, I am in no way the first to think this; indeed, part of the joy so far has been to read about these connections from authors across various disciplines!

My first encounter with Descartes was at UCLA. It was my first college philosophy class. Professor Joseph Almog strolled in, rolled back his sleeves, and started right in on the Meditations. All we covered that quarter was the Meditations. In fact, I think we only covered various sections from the text primarily around the mind-body problem. And the professor taught it all without notes – just the chalkboard, his mind, our minds, the text somewhere in the background, and abstract philosophical analysis. It was breathtaking (for a naive freshman like myself)!

I took other classes where we covered the standard topics in the Meditations. I taught them in various classes and made sure students understood the role of skepticism, the reasons and arguments for foundationalism, the arguments for God’s existence and their obvious problems, and more. Students questioned me and I gave them my most definitive answers in return. Of course there were subtleties of interpretation, but this was how the Meditations were to be understood.

And from where I stand now, all of that was horribly superficial, and just wrong as a reading of Descartes.

So what happened? History and context and ideology happened. We all learn from someone, and they are informed by their context and history. And learning is constrained by the context of learning – its aims, its political and pedagogical agenda. And we are human and take stands, both intentionally and unintentionally, and that ideological formation impacts our teaching. All this is obvious once you immerse yourself in this way of thinking. And yet just today after reading an article it dawned on me how full of myself I was teaching Descartes as if I knew the work, the arguments, the problems, the answers!

The beauty of this process is belief revision: we can change what we believe. And this impacts action: we can change how we act. And this impacts speech: we can change what we say. And putting all this together requires humility: recognizing our limited or bounded understanding, and bending ourselves to change unboundedly, to unknowing mind, to not being full of ourselves, over and over again.

The inquiry continues. It must continue. Not just about Descartes. But about everything we believe and encounter in our daily lives. And I am left thinking about how to teach in the face of bounded understanding and unbounded change. What does it mean to be a teacher when all these constraints are salient? How can I empower students by guiding them, when I know their guide is positioned in this way? How can I be honest in my limited understanding, while still positioning myself as someone who has something to teach?

There are similar questions for students, whether students of philosophy, Buddhism, or any discipline at all. And there are not so simple answers to all of this. But for now – its on my mind and in my heart. Making amends for my previously limited understanding, moving forward while keeping in mind and heart the way I am formed and bound by history, context, ideology, and teachers, and reminding myself that unbounded change is the path of humility and awakening.

Readings V – Korean Buddhism

1599px-eca69dec8bacec82ac_eb8c80ec9b85eca084_2I recently put together a bibliography of readings that I studied during my seminary years and beyond. Since study is an important part of Buddhist practice – yes, even for Zen practitioners, and definitely for those of us that did not grow up in Buddhist cultures – I thought I would put that list up here.

This is the last in a series of posts on this topic. The list below is incomplete on many fronts. So if you happen to have extra reading suggestions, please add them in the comments!

General History

  • Buswell Jr, Robert E, “Buddhism in Korea,” from Buddhism and Asian History, eds. John Kitagawa and Mark Cummings, MacMillan, New York, 1987. (PDF; from Sunim)
  • Buswell Jr, Robert E, “Buddhism in Korea,” from Encyclopedia of Asian History, Vol. 1, Scribners, New York, 1998. (PDF; from Sunim)
  • The Korean Buddhist Research Institute, eds. The History and Culture of Buddhism in Korea. Seoul: Dongguk University Press, 1993.
  • Lee, Ki-baik. A New History of Korea. Translated by Edward W. Wagner with Edward J. Shultz. Seoul: Ilchokak Publishers, 1984.

Unified Silla Period

  • McBride, Richard D. Domesticating the Dharma: Buddhist cults and the Hwaŏm synthesis in Silla Korea. University of Hawaii Press, 2008.


  • Muller, A Charles, ed. Wonhyo: Selected Works in The Collected Works of Korean Buddhism, Volume 1. The Compilation Committee of Korean Buddhist Thought and the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2012. Web Address:
  • Buswell Jr, Robert E. “The Hagiographies of the Korean Scholiast Wonhyo: The Dating and Provenance of the Vajrasamadhi.” In The Formation of Ch’an Ideology in China and Korea: The Vajrasamadhi-Sutra, A Buddhist Apocryphon. Princeton University Press, 1989, Chapter 2.
  • Buswell Jr, Robert E. Cultivating Original Enlightenment:Wonhyo’s Exposition of the Vajrasamadhi-Sutra. Collected Works of Wonhyo vol. 1. University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu. 2007.
  • Muller, A Charles, and Cuong Tu Nguyen, eds. Wonhyo’s Philosophy of Mind. The University of Hawaii Press, 2012.


Chinul / Jinul

  • Buswell Jr, Robert E. Tracing Back the Radiance: Chinul’s Korean Way of Zen. University of Hawaii Press: Honolulu. 1991.
  • Buswell Jr, Robert E, ed. Chinul: Selected Works in The Collected Works of Korean Buddhism, Volume 2. The Compilation Committee of Korean Buddhist Thought and the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2012. Web Address:


  • Cleary, J C, tr.. A Buddha from Korea: The Zen Teachings of T’aego. Shambhala, 2001.

Hyujeong or So Sahn

  • Boep Joeng, tr. The Mirror of Zen: The Classic Guide to Buddhist Practice by Zen Master So Sahn. Shambhala Publications, 2006.
  • Jorgensen, John, tr. A Handbook of Korean Zen Practice: A Mirror on the Son School of Buddhism (Songa kwigam). University of Hawaii Press, 2015.
  • Jorgensen, John, ed. Hyujeong: Selected Works in The Collected Works of Korean Buddhism, Volume 3. The Compilation Committee of Korean Buddhist Thought and the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, 2012. Web Address:

Kusan Sunim

  • Kusan Sunim. The Way of Korean Zen. Tr. Martine Batchelor. Ed. Stephen Batchelor. Boston: Weatherhill, 2009.

Song-chol Sunim

  • Song-chol. Echoes from Mt. Kaya: Selections on Korean Buddhism. Lotus Lantern International Buddhist Center, 1988.

Modern Korean Buddhism

  • Park, Jin Y. Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism. SUNY Press, 2012.

The Collected Works of Korean Buddhism