(Not) Two Ways of Oneness

Oneness and Buddhism are sometimes mixed together. As with most claims, it is unclear what this means. And this lack of clarity results in delusion and mistaken views.

Oneness is usually made out to be homogenizing. An experience of oneness, on this view, would be a dropping away of difference and an arising of sameness. Rhetorically, this view of oneness is used to erase difference, as in your different experience of this predominantly white sangha is superficial because really we are all one. Metaphysically, this view raises questions about monism: are we all just one thing or are we all made up of the same kind of thing?

More to the point, this is a particular view of oneness and it isn’t the only view and, from the standpoint of Buddhism as a practice of liberation, it is unhelpful.

Another view of oneness that I believe is helpful on the path toward liberation is oneness as utter particularity, as the absolute uniqueness and non-sameness of each and every particular thing.

Experientially, oneness as utter particularity would be an experience that fully embodies, embraces, and realizes the unique, heterogenous, and not-similar-to-anything-else moment of experiential arising. Rhetorically, this view of oneness would embrace difference, as in your different experience of this sangha is something we must pay attention to because our experience of it as homogenous is rooted in ignorance. Metaphysically, this view points in the direction of deep particularity and causality, in other words, in the direction of karma and responsibility.

Furthermore, oneness as utter particularity embraces and radicalizes oneness as homogeneity, whereas oneness as homogeneity erases particularity. Each of us, each moment of arising of experiential awareness, is utterly particular. In that sense, there is a sameness in each moment of arising, in each thing. It is the sameness that can only be found in complete difference.

Realizing this sameness in complete and utter difference is the path of liberation.

Metta for Troubled Times

In a recent online article for Lion’s Roar, Mushim Patricia Ikeda offered her way of practicing Metta (“How to Practice Metta for a Troubled Time,” June 3, 2020). Across many different presentations, the core practice remains the same: the familiar set of phrases one repeats, extending Metta (loving-kindness, goodwill) to oneself, others, friends, neutral people, enemies, plants and animals, and eventually to all things boundlessly. What changes is the presentation and context within which this practice is offered, which changes the intention and mindset of the practitioner. Here is where Mushim’s offering is so needed now.

Please read her post. Here are some key quotes to see how the practice is framed:

“Metta meditation is not a magical spell you can cast on the population of the U.S. in order to produce a state of utopian bliss. It is not a cure-all for oppression and the unequal distribution of power and privilege.”

And then later…

“Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about the need for “aggressive nonviolence.” There are times and situations in which we have to show up and throw down, and this may be such a time. Whether I do that from a mind of toxic hatred, or from a mind that recognizes that every human being has at some point been my mother, my parent, or guardian, depends on how well I practice metta.”

Sometimes people wonder how can I be a Buddhist and protest? Is being an activist and practicing Metta incompatible? Mushim cuts straight to it: Metta practice is not some magical formula to fix things; you still have to act and get out there on the streets and shout Black Lives Matter and, if you are a white person like me, listen and follow Black leadership as you do so; but HOW you do so will impact a great many things – how you engage your fellow activists, how you confront agitators, and how you explain your actions to those who question you will create effects (wholesome, unwholesome) in the minds and bodies of those around you; and so the intention you bring to your actions matters.

Metta is a tool for shaping that mindset, not to keep one from acting, but to shape that action.

Bows to you, Mushim, for writing this piece and shaping Metta practice in this way. May whoever comes across this blog and her article read her article with openness and interest. May we all practice Metta so we can be of service to those around us with right intention and right heart and right action. May we all shout Black Lives Matter and may we follow those shouts with actions – marching, supporting with our dollars and our voices, advocating for change at the local, state, and national levels, and more, always more…

Loving-Kindness as Protection from Fear

The Metta Sutta is one of many traditional Paritta or protection chants across Buddhist cultures. It is said that the Buddha first gave the practice of metta or loving-kindness to monks who were afraid of the tree spirits in the forest. By practicing metta, the monks transformed their fear into love and transformed the anger of the tree spirits into kindness and generosity.

Sharon Salzberg comments on this story with the following wisdom: “…a mind filled with fear can still be penetrated by the quality of lovingkindness…a mind that is saturated by lovingkindness cannot be overcome by fear.” (From Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness)

Here is a part of the Metta Sutta to recite to yourself. See if it protects you from fear, even if ever so slightly. See if it brings loving-kindness to yourself and to those around you.

“[And so I wish]: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born –
May all beings be at ease!”

This Isn’t Like Retreat Unless You’re On Retreat

Recently I’ve read posts, tweets, and even short articles likening the current situation of mostly widespread isolation to retreat.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, unless you happen to be on retreat right now. For the rest of us not on retreat, the likening is confused.

I get it, in a sense. It sounds nice. It sounds hopeful. But it creates the delusion that this is like a retreat. And that’s harmful.

For the teacher I just read about who is covering her colleague’s classes because that colleague is now on a ventilator, is her situation like a retreat?

For the Sangha member who conveyed how difficult it is to work, cook, watch and teach two kids, while she and her partner face losing their jobs, is their situation like a retreat?

For the overwhelmingly black and Hispanic voters waiting hours to vote at 5 of what used to be 180 polling sites in Milwaukee, is their situation like a retreat?

No, not at all, not even one bit.

Each situation is what it is. I won’t attempt to describe those situations beyond the surface details I know. But those surface details tell me they aren’t retreats. They are something else entirely.

As a Buddhist, I have faith that each situation has within it the potential for liberation, like a retreat has the potential within it for liberation. But that doesn’t make those situations retreats. And unless the people in those situations are Buddhists or care about Buddhist pathways for liberation, it’s more harmful than helpful to bring this up.

What is helpful for us all is to understand our situations and the situations of those around us for what they are, in all their differences and particulars, and to respond accordingly. If you happen to be on retreat, then respond to the retreat. If you are that teacher covering classes for your ventilated colleague or one of many black or Hispanic people waiting in dehumanizing lines to vote in the midst of a pandemic, then respond accordingly as you see fit.

From what I have been reading, hearing, and seeing, this is not like a retreat (unless you’re on retreat). And there is power in seeing things for what they are. Only then is transformation possible.

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. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-mirror-of-zen/id1161759809?mt=11

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.

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: http://www.international.ucla.edu/buddhist/article/127536
  • 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: http://www.international.ucla.edu/buddhist/article/127546


  • 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: http://www.international.ucla.edu/buddhist/article/127549

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