Notice What You Have (Platform Sutra, Section 12, Part I)


I have come here today because I have a connection of many lifetimes with you officials, clerics, and laypeople. This teaching has been passed down by the ancients. It isn’t something I discovered by myself. But if you wish to hear this teaching of the ancients, you must listen with pure minds. And if you wish to get rid of your delusions, you should understand it as past generations have.


Recently, I was in California with a friend. We were talking practice. He is not a practitioner, but he was interested in what it means to practice. I gave him some practical advice. When you feel compelled to say no to something, use that body response to open up to saying yes instead. The more you slow down and become aware of your body (through meditation and other activities), the better you can become at noticing these body responses as they arise. And through this awareness, real change can occur – putting ourselves in the direction of the 3 Jewels rather than the 3 Poisons.

This was not my teaching. This is something I learned from Haju Sunim, one of my teachers with the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom, and her insistence to be more aware of our bodies through practice. As I heard those words come out of my mouth to my friend, gratitude arose in me for my teachers and their teachers and their teachers’ teachers and so on. These teachings are not about anyone of us in particular. It is an ancient knowledge – as fresh and alive and old and mysterious as our very body-mind.

And with this gratitude, I have had a shifting sense of what this blog should be about. For the most part, I will structure the posts this way: one part scripture, one part reflection. The more scripture I read, the more I have faith that the path of practice has already been laid out for us. We just need to practice it with our utmost heart. And so I offer reflections as an expression of gratitude for the ten thousand teachings that our teachers across the many lineages and traditions have offered us.

In the tradition in which I practice, we have something called the 6 Right Livelihood Guidelines – a practical interpretation of Right Livelihood. The third guideline is Practice Gratitude: Notice What You Have; Be Equally Grateful For Opportunities And Challenges; Share Joy, Not Negativity. This teaching of right livelihood has been given to us through numerous lineages of teachers and sincere practitioners. As Huineng says, it is not something we discovered by ourselves. I am fortunate enough to have encountered the teachings because of these numberless beings. So today I practice gratitude by reflecting on this ancient gift and offering this post to you.

(Note: The passage from Huineng is in section 12 of the Tunhuang version of the Platform Sutra, translated by Red Pine.)

As the Crow’s Path Goes

A crow takes flight from her branch. The wind carries her, tumbles her, moves her in the ten directions. Other crows and sparrows and branches come and go, sometimes in the way, sometimes helping along. Always responding to these variations in the field, continuously harmonizing with the wind, the crow finds another branch and settles down alongside other crows resting from wayward flights.

As the crow’s path goes, it is neither here nor there. From the moment she takes flight, the path comes alive. And each moment she flies, the path behind her dies. She is drawing a circle in the sand as a wave washes over. There is no invisible road she wanders. She is the road, origin and destination.

And yet her path is not chaotic, without order, without grace. Her movements are controlled by her sense of the way. Her movement is a spontaneous outpouring of devotion to the wind. And once she lands, you can draw out her path. She moved from one branch to the other. The origin and destination seem outside her, guiding her, calling her as she continues to oscillate between motion and rest.

I sometimes wonder how close the Buddha’s path is to the crow in flight. As he grew older, the teachings and practice came alive. He was the crow in flight, harmonizing with his circumstances. Then when he died, his path was traced out and recorded in the teachings handed down across the years. He was the crow who flew from one branch to another, part of a lineage of crows that stretches back many kalpas, always flying from one branch to another.

And for us, on our branch, about to take flight, do we rest in the wild faith of the invisible path that is no path at all? Or do we rest in the faith that at the end of our flight, whether in this lifetime or in a thousand lifetimes, another branch will be there, a branch beyond all branches, waiting for our arrival?

There is no answering these questions. And no dogma to make the choice and doubt go away.

As the crow’s path goes, just fly.

Dhammapada, Stanza 34

Version 1

Like a water creature
Plucked from its watery home and thrown on land,
This mind flaps;
[Fit] to discard [is] Mara’s sway.

Version 2

Like a fish
pulled from its home in the water
& thrown on land:
this mind flips & flaps about
to escape Mara’s sway.

Version 3

As a fish when pulled out of water and cast on land throbs and quivers, even so is this mind agitated. Hence should one abandon the realm of Mara.


Discarding, escaping, abandoning:
How much more flipping & flapping?
The mind’s home is no home –
It laughs in the ocean and shouts on the land.

(Note: Version 1 is from the John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana translation. Version 2 is from the Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation. Version 3 is from the Acharya Buddharakkhita translation.)

Meditation as Experimentation

I have been steeped in reading and writing lately. I just finished teaching a class on the History of Modern Philosophy, I am preparing to teach a class on issues relating to Freedom and Authority, and I am working on a seminary paper that is about the word ‘sutra’ in the Platform Sutra.

At times, it feels like new vistas have opened up before me, both philosophically and spiritually. And perhaps some of these vistas are more than just flickers and flashes passing in the night.

But this morning, while I was sitting, one thing stood out: I cannot think myself through this!

At the same time, practicing with the Platform Sutra and the Diamond Sutra have changed the way I approach practice on and off the cushion.

So here is a thought – passing and fleeting as any other: meditation is a kind of experimentation. Here is an idea for liberation: count your breaths. Then sit and see if you taste peace while doing this. If you sit for 10 minutes, then try 20, then 30, then 60, then 2 hours. When your practice breaks, what remains? What else is there to bring you to peace? In this way, meditation is a kind of experimentation of those crazy ideas we have about Buddha and liberation and peace in our minds.

And then, we experiment off the cushion or while not formally practicing. So we could count our breaths while sitting. Can we still follow them when rushing to work? When talking with friends? When falling asleep? When showering? What does it mean to follow the breath anyways? What are we following? In this way, life is a kind of experimentation of those crazy ideas of peace and happiness we have in our minds.

Doesn’t matter what your practice is: breath counting, hwadu, koan, visualization, and so on. Keep experimenting with it. Let it change as you change, let it change you as you change it, all of which is no change at all, just the practice deepening and illuminating more and more.

Then when you think you are getting it, experiment again and again and again…


On a Change of Consciousness and Contemporary Protest Movements

From what I gather, there is a change of consciousness coming about.

But this is not mysterious metaphysics!

It just everyday people waking up to the fact they are responsible for their actions and lack of them, that they can change their patterns of behavior, and that once this is done great change can result.

This is evidenced by both tea party and occupy wall street protest movements.

Although we may be different in our goals, we are not different in recognizing our ability and responsibility to bring about change through action.

Cannot and Do not

One of my teachers, Haju Sunim, would often reply to our habitual stories about what kept us from practicing: It is not that you cannot, it is that you do not.

This is both refreshing and humbling.

It is refreshing because if we simply do not do it, then we can easily change that by doing it. There is no impossibility!

It is humbling because it shifts responsibility for our awakening on to us. Why choose delusion?

So whether it is refraining from harming others with our speech or sitting until we fully awaken: it is not that we cannot, it is that we do not.

Zen and the Cult of “Being in the Moment”

Don’t be deceived by spiritual leaders
And their practices of being in the moment.

Sitting on the cushion, watching your breath,
Eating take-out in your car, late for work,
Drinking fresh brewed tea in noble silence,
Walking with ten thousand sounds in your ears,
Letting plans come and go,
Being ripped apart from the anxiety of I don’t know:
You cannot escape this very moment!

No practice can bring you back to where you are;
Before you move, you are already there.

It’s as easy as falling asleep
And as difficult as waking up.

Zen is Difficult and Dangerous

Following a theme I mentioned in my last post – working with uncomfortable practice – I just read “Zen Practice is Difficult and Dangerous” over at Huffington Post by Rev. Zesho Susan O’Connell at San Francisco Zen Center. (Thanks to Brad Warner over at Hardcore Zen for linking to this article.)

I suggest giving it a read and, if you are engaged in Zen practice with a teacher, taking it into your practice and daily life. What unfolds when we dive in the deep end of practice? What is practice when we move beyond self-help and other-help?

What is the bodhisattva path when we move beyond thoughts of social activism and social complaisance, where there is no perception of a self, a being, a life, or a soul?

Don’t Get Comfortable

During our summer meetings back in July, Ven. Samu Sunim instructed us:

Don’t get comfortable in your practice. When you get comfortable, your training dies! Practice dies!

The specific context was about being frugal and efficient, especially in one’s use of natural resources. His remarks were prompted by our morning practice session. It was humid and we were sweating while prostrating, so we turned on the fan. When we sat, we left the fan on. In neither case was the fan necessary, but especially while we were sitting. We got lazy. And our practice suffered for it.

I want to explore Sunim’s remarks across various posts in the coming weeks. There is physical comfort and psychological comfort and both are dangerous to practice. Also, there is a contradiction in this for me that must be explored through practice. I live a comfortable life. I have shelter, food, a dog, friends, a partner, part-time employment, and good health. And yet I see truth in what he says – I see it because I experience it in my training. So how can I engage uncomfortable practice with the comfortable life I live?

Of course, I will also post about my studies, which now include the Diamond Sutra, the Platform Sutra, and the Awakening of Faith. These have changed my perception of and engagement with practice, Zen, and Buddhism, primarily by disabusing me of previous beliefs – or at least bringing out that I was fond of getting stuck and calling it progress. One way of getting stuck was that I was about to leave this blog altogether. Well, here is my practice of pulling my feet out of the mud.

But, reality is what it is, and I have teaching and job searching and many unexpected things that are calling me. So I will post as regularly as possible, which may be infrequently. Thank you for reading when you cross this blog’s path. Thank you for practicing. Thank you.

Diamond Gathas, Summer Break

Hello!  May this post find you at ease or with a friend nearby to help you through.  Sometimes sitting, sometimes going to a cheap summer movie.  Whatever your poison, whatever your antidote.  May you take up your practice with the fierceness and compassion of a Buddha!

I am coming close to summer retreat and student meetings in Toronto.  I have been busy studying and finishing a paper on the Diamond Sutra and so have not had time to post here.  I don’t expect to post again until later in July.  So please come back and see what arises then!

For now, I am including a small snippet from my paper on Practicing the Diamond Sutra.  This part has to do with composing gathas (four-line stanzas) about it.  Part of this is out of context, since it is only a part of the paper, but hopefully the idea is clear enough – as clear as any of this can be, that is!

Thank you for reading!


Another way of practicing this sutra is to compose gathas about it.  The Buddha tells Subhuti that if someone “grasped but one four-line gatha of this dharma teaching and made it known and explained it in detail to others, the body of merit produced as a result would be immeasurably, infinitely” great.[1]  Which four-line gatha of the Diamond Sutra?  This question is mistaken.  There are only two four line gathas in the Diamond Sutra and they occur in chapters twenty-six and thirty-two, long after the Buddha talks about gathas in chapter eight.  So there must be another way of grasping gathas about the teaching than simply turning to one of these two.  Furthermore, it is important to remember that there is no Diamond Sutra text.  The sutra that we read and understand arises from our translations and interpretations.  It is brought to life by our living, breathing, and practicing it.  And the wisdom teachings that it conveys, these teachings – not the words in some book – give birth to Buddhas and bodhisattvas.  Composing gathas about this is to compose gathas about the Diamond Sutra.

Here are some gathas I have composed that are inspired by my practice of the Diamond Sutra.  Anyone can take up this practice.  Even if you have not read the sutra, you can compose gathas about your everyday ordinary life, which is none other than the way of Buddha!

*          *          *

Practicing enlightenment without thoughts of enlightenment

This is just sitting with live hwadu

Sounding the moktak is discipline, birdsong is concentration

The breath that does not end or begin is the mother of all Buddhas and bodhisattvas

*          *          *

How many walked this path before?

And how many will take it up?

Summer rain washes away all traces

Of Winter’s retreat in quiet places.

*          *          *

The Buddha’s awakening is a non-awakening

Thus we say he is awake!

Can we turn the Dharma-eye on ourselves and say:

We too are awake!  There is no one who is awake!

*          *          *

Give, Give, Give! Practice Charity!

There is no gift to give

No giver and no one to receive

But do not forget there are mouths to feed!

*          *          *

How do we decorate the flower hall?

Make peaceful hearts in times of war?

Feed hungry mouths with empty hands?

Live fully in this world without demands?

*          *          *

How do we decorate the flower hall?

Make peaceful hearts in times of war

Feed hungry mouths with empty hands

Live fully in this world without demands

*          *          *

Take up this sutra and practice it

But do not get caught up in this and that

Before you move you are already there

Just a barefoot Buddha, empty hands, flowing tears

*          *          *

[1] P. 6 of Red Pine’s The Diamond Sutra; Chapter 8 of the Diamond Sutra.