Meeting Venerable Thubten Chodron: Reflections of a Buddhist Youth

Yesterday, I had the immense good karma to chat with Venerable Thubten Chodron and my fellow Dharma friends, Perry, Ching Wi, and Niki about our practice and innermost thoughts toward Dharma work. I went without any expectations; and I didn’t even have a single question in my head for the Venerable.

Perry started by sharing a framework for Dharma education, that he and Wen Jie, another Buddhist youth leader, came up with. In just a few words, Ven. Chodron summed up the key characteristics that such a framework should have:

  • People like to know there’s a structure to the path, so it’s good to provide this for them.
  • How the discussions happen is key. The session has to draw people out so they can share about what’s going on in their lives. (And isn’t this what the Dharma is all about?) When people come to Buddhist centres, they’re not just seeking information. They’re seeking virtuous friends and internal transformation. So we need to create an environment conducive for this type of sharing.

Perry mentioned the word “frustrated” quite a few times. Having been (actively and not-so-actively) involved in Dharma propagation since 2007, I, too, have been through periods of intense frustration and disappointment with the conditions and people that I had to work with. So I could understand Perry when he told us how frustrated he was, with the Dharma being so perfect, and yet he still hears people telling him they “are lost even after five years of being in a Buddhist group”.

I have come to realize that for me the best way to propagate the Dharma is to embody it. However, I do not practice very hard. The only sutra that I can memorise is the “Heart Sutra,” as my mother taught me to chant it when I was young. I attend meditation retreats, but I often doze off. I am seldom able to solve kong-ans (Zen riddles). I often have thoughts of aversion towards people I dislike. But I tell myself that it’s okay, as I am trying. Like all my spiritual friends, who are trying so hard to make time for self-cultivation and helping others at the same time, I do what I am able to do. This thought alone comforts and moves me deeply. I do not feel guilty, and I know I do not need to.

In my hiatus of sorts, I came to realize that being kind to myself is the only way I can be kind to others. I have to make time for my own practice. I am not there yet, but I am trying. Ven Chodron told me before I left that this was a good attitude to have.

Ven Chodron pointed out that people often do not see their own good qualities and that part of our Dharma practice is to point out people’s good qualities to them. We do this not to flatter them, but with a sincere mind that admires others’ virtues and good qualities. Hearing that others see goodness in them, people are encouraged to practice. I am fortunate enough to have friends and family who are extremely affirming of my talents and abilities, while wisely guiding me along the way. Perhaps we should go about surrounding ourselves with such friends.

Ven Chodron also reminded us that right motivation is the most important thing. Sometimes we can be so goal-oriented (having grown up in Singapore), that we forget about the process. But the Dharma is all about the process, she said. “All this doubt and frustration is part of the process. It is what you have to work with, to transform into the path. What you’re doing and the difficulties you experience are not wasted energy. Learning how to work constructively with these circumstances is the bodhisattva path.”

Thank you, Venerable, for this teaching. It was so gratifying to hear this, as I still feel helpless from time to time, wondering why things are this way and that, why I just cannot work with some people. “There are so many conditions that must come together, and everyone has different karma. You cannot control others’ present actions or the karma they bring with them from the past. All you can “control” is your own mind, your own motivation. In addition, when you work on a project that can benefit many people, its success depends not on your actions alone, but on the karma of all the people who have the potential to benefit from this project.”

With practice, I think I can learn to accept this fact of life, and my “trying” can be done with so much more joy. Ven. Chodron also advised that as Dharma workers, we have to ask ourselves, “What is it that moves me, and what do I aspire for?” When we know this clearly, we’ll be much more patient with ourselves.

Measuring the “success” of our Dharma propagation work could be an issue in results-oriented Singapore. Ven. Chodron shared that the way she measures success is not by numbers—the number of people attending an event or the amount of money raised for a beneficial project. Rather, success is when the friends and family of the people she works with say, “You’re a lot nicer person now. You don’t get as angry as you used to; you’re kinder and more peaceful now”. Isn’t this the Dharma’s function, and isn’t this what the work we’ve been doing is all about?

That day, I went home remembering all the affirmation, unconditional help, and scathingly honest advice that I have received from likeminded spiritual friends and teachers all these years, and I felt deeply grateful that our paths have crossed. That was the first time I could fully identify with what the Buddha said about spiritual friends, “Spiritual friendship is the whole of the holy life”; and my wish to practice hard so I can benefit myself and others, became stronger than before.

The writer is from Dharma In Action, a gathering of Buddhists from all walks of life collaborating on innovative and pertinent initiatives that foster stronger fellowship within the Buddhist community in Singapore. They see themselves as a dynamic platform where engaged Buddhists can share resources and work together open-mindedly, for the betterment of the Buddhist community, and ultimately, the society. Hence, they always welcome collaborations with fellow Buddhists and organizations. Website: www.dharmainaction.net
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In this world few of us can endure the pain and discomfort of cultivation, yet we also can’t hang onto pleasure.

The world stimulates greed which pulls it into motion. When we move we feel we are insufficient but only in stillness do we experience our original sufficiency.

Only the practice of stillness brings us the fullness and deep joy of self-sufficiency.

– Reverend Heng Sure

My practice has slackened so much, it’s now inexistent. DILIGENCE!

The Low Down on Bowing and Repentance Practice

Originally published Tuesday, November 9, 2010
at dharma mirror

Reverend Heng Sure, Ph.D., of Berkeley Buddhist Monastery shares his insight on bowing and repentance practice from the Buddhist tradition.

Interviewed by Loc Huynh

[reprinted from Dharma Mirror, Fall 2005]bowing01

Since the third century CE to this day, bowing to the Buddha is the most common practice for Asian Buddhists. However, among Westerners, bowing practice, as compared withmeditation, is not as well-known. Last summer, I had an opportunity to speak with Reverend Heng Sure, the director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, and asked for more information about Buddhist bowing and repentance. In the late 1970s, Reverend Sure and a fellow monk did a three-year bowing pilgrimage for world peace along the coast of California. Their journey began in Pasadena and ended three years and 800 miles later at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas in Ukiah. And most astonishingly, their knees had already endured over a million bows….

Loc: Would you describe the purpose and benefits of a bowing practice?

Rev. Sure: Bowing, like other Dharma practices, can be considered a technology. It’s actually a method for changing one’s consciousness. And because it’s a Dharma practice, it works by using the body. It is true that Buddhism emphasizes the mind; however, we often use the body to get to the mind. A renowned Chinese monk from the Tang dynasty, Master Cheng Guan, explained that bowing reduces pride, teaches us respect, and increases our goodness. Bowing awakens these qualities within, effecting our conscious state and view of ourselves and place in the world. The technology of bowing, from his ancient description, is precise. He considers bowing as a medicine, an antidote for pride. It also teaches respect because when we bow, we are physically down on the ground and potentially allows a feeling of reverence to emerge in our heart. Bowing increases goodness because the “self” shrinks. Things that we do with a reduced sense of self, and we’re not talking about low self esteem, but things we do without the big “ME” in the middle, tend to turn out better. Bowing is the first of the ten practices recommended by Samantabhadra (Universal Worthy) Bodhisattva, one of the four revered bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Bowing is a foundational practice, along with generosity, and ethics, for preparing someone for a spiritual life.

Loc: Buddhism does emphasize reducing arrogance and pride.

Rev. Sure: Bodhisattvas in the Buddhist sutras, no matter how high their position, all still bow to the Buddha. That is, everyone up to the stage of buddhahood still make bows. In America our cowboy culture gave us the “self-made man,” the independent individual, who says, “I don’t kowtow to no man.” That can become, “We don’t listen to no country, we don’t need no allies, etc.” The developed world has machines that tromp over the earth and other species. We consume and cut down forest, dig up minerals, and somehow feel it’s our given right to kill other creatures and eat their bodies. Those unwise attitudes result from an inability to humble the self and live in harmony as part of a larger community of living creatures on the planet. The flipside of pride and arrogance is isolationism and loneliness; we do not feel at home wherever we go. Hence, as a culture, we can definitely use a method that can ease this sense of loneliness.

Loc: Did bowing for three years on the California highway deepen the connection you have with people along the way?

Rev. Sure: The longer I bowed the more connected I felt. With each bow I gradually saw a certain sameness in people’s faces; I felt a kinship with the people I met. I stopped feeling separateness and, with that change in my perception, people’s responses to me changed too. I saw that underneath the exterior, there is a profound family relationship shared among people, animals, and living things. The first pictures of the planet earth taken from space showed a tiny blue marble in an inky black universe that stretches on forever and forever. Looking at those photos we realized that all creatures are like people in a lifeboat together. We share the water, temperature, and climate. We are a family; some in furs some with horns; some have wings and scales. Our skins are different colors and our mouths speak different languages, but we all share the same elemental makeup of earth, air, fire, and water.

Bowing shows you this organically. With each bow, the self slowly disappears. In the future I hope to keep bowing to “finish the job.” Most of us don’t think to bow; it’s so slow and boring. People often asked, “What are you gonna get out of that?” Kids get bowing right away. It feels good to bow. Adults often take longer to try it out. For adults, if they can get through the first couple bows, often it feels so good to lower the head; it feels as nourishing to the spirit as water on dry plants—it’s very healing.

Loc: I have some friends who just got back from a three-week bowing repentance session at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Can you tell us more about this event?

Rev. Sure: Every spring the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB), convenes a three-week bowing session, called the Ten Thousand Buddhas Jeweled Repentance. During this event at CTTB, we bow to the names of 11,111 buddhas. This Dharma practice is based on the sutra The Buddha Speaks the Sutra of the Buddhas’ Names.

Bowing together in ritual movement with 600 people, moving to music for eight hours a day creates a powerful catharsis. Those who have tried this ceremony know that the first day, you can think you’re going to die from so much bowing. The ego really resists being lowered so much. On the second day, you don’t doubt it, you know you’re dead. On the third day, metaphorically speaking, we really die, the ego has given up and gotten with the program. But after the fourth day, we’re reborn, so to speak and bowing becomes effortless from that time on.

Loc: What kind of effects does bowing in repentance have on the body and mind?

Rev. Sure: Bowing a repentance liturgy is designed to bring to consciousness the negative things that we may have committed in the past. Bowing changes the blood flow to the upper body, particularly to the brain, and it seems to dislodge memories or thoughts that may be buried in the mind, or in our kinetic memory. Seated meditation doesn’t function the same way because sitting is stationary and our blood circulation slows down. When we bow, we place the head on the same level with heart. The flowing blood and changing energy stimulates and washes clean the effects in the psyche of deeds we have done with our body, mouth, and mind. While bowing, memories and thoughts of all kinds come to mind, thoughts that may be terrifying and embarrassing. They arise because the act of bowing relaxes the muscles from the shoulders, the small of your back, and the chest; it exercises the stomach muscles and the diaphragm, which also hold muscle memory. Attitudes and buried or repressed thoughts we can no longer “stomach” naturally return to awareness up during bowing.

 

Loc: What prevents your bowing from just becoming purely mechanical?

Rev. Sure: If we are bowing in repentance, we can use a verse from the Avatamsaka Sutra:

bowing02“For all past bad karma,
Created by beginningless, greed, anger, and delusion,
And created by my body, mouth, and mind,
I now repent and reform entirely.”

Each bow helps us confront and let go of memories. The power of this technology comes from a combination of physical, psychological, and spiritual elements. Essentially the repentance allows us to say “Yes, I made a mistake and, yes I won’t do it again, I’m sorry.” When negative memories arise, and are repented of, they lose their power to block our consciousness and impede our moving on to healthy spiritual growth. Venerable Master Hua described the process as, “Big disasters becomes smaller disasters; small ones disappear.”

Bowing without an attitude of sincere repentance will not be as effective; bowing with sincerity helps clean up our stuff inside. The Buddhas and Bodhisattvas taught the Dharma to help people like us to leave suffering behind and ultimately, to go freedom from birth and death. The method of repentance helps us change and transform our minds.

Loc: How does the doctrine of “emptiness” apply to repentance?

Rev. Sure: The self works like a hingepin on the structure of karma. If the view of self is gone, then there is no place for offenses to land or to stick. By emptying out the self with each bow, and here I’m using empty out as a verb, “to empty out,” gradually we can actually change the outlook of the Self, the big “me” in the center. If the thing that does good and bad deeds is not entirely in charge, if the agent that does deeds is gone, and ultimately doesn’t exist, then how much the less do the offenses themselves exist? And if we can then repent of the mistakes we have made, then slowly we turn the balance sheet around. Offenses are reduced, merit and virtue increases.

If we are determined to change and become like the Buddha, and want to transform afflictions and change the direction of our life, then repentance and bowing are good methods to do so. Bowing is slow and dull but it works to clean the mind’s closets.

Loc: How can people new to Buddhism or people who cannot attend long retreats apply the Dharma of repentance?

Rev. Sure: When I was a student, I was uninterested in reflecting on what I was doing. As a student I wanted experience—the more action the better. And when things happened to me I was unlikely to say to myself, “Oh that bang on the head was the result of something I did.” My attitude was, “Ouch! Darn! Bad luck!” Then I’d take an aspirin or drink the pain into oblivion.

I didn’t have a clue that I might benefit by reflecting and changing my behavior. It’s not easy to take that first step: to listen to myself and think things over.

But when we start to practice, and if we get some instruction in the principle of cause and effect, we can understand that things that happen to us are repercussions set in motion by our own behavior. What happens to us is the harvest of seeds we planted.

The next step is to learn how to move from passive understanding to conscious control. Upon reflection we make sense of behavior by comparing with a standard. The Dharma teaches about the Ten Evil and Ten Good Deeds, a set of ethical standards; the Ten Evil Deeds guide us to refrain from creating unwholesome karma with the:

Body

Three mistakes with the body include killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. Instead of killing, the Ten Good Deeds exhort us to be kind to all creatures. Instead of stealing, we are guided to be generous and to appreciate what we have. Instead of sexual misconduct, we are encouraged to be true to our commitments in our relationship and to cherish our body and energy. The world’s major religious traditions are unanimous in teaching that irresponsible sexual behavior leads to emotional confusion and heartbreak. Further, careless emotional entanglements make it difficult to find stillness in the mind.

Speech

There are four evil deeds done with the mouth, so the Dharma guides us to refrain from lying, gossiping or schism-making, harsh, and frivolous speech.

Mind

As for the mind, there are three evils: greed, hatred, and delusion. Delusions refer to false views—seeing things the way they aren’t, and believing things that are not based in reality.

The Ten Good Deeds are a Dharma standard by which we can judge our behavior. If we observe and reflect our conduct in harmony with their guidance, our actions will yield positive results and we will harvest a life that we want to live.

Loc: And when we make a mistake?

Rev. Sure: When we make a mistake, the first step is again, to see cause and effect at work, to understand that we are creating the world we’re moving into. Secondly, reflect and catch ourselves in our habitual, unmindful and unskillful actions; and third, from understanding and seeing our actions, we become empowered to take action and change. We then resolve to change our negative behavior to the positive and in this way, to benefit the world. At this point, we will be on the spiritual path and will be using our life unselfishly. Our journey will lead us to meet with wholesome friends and good things will arise out of that community.

 

Rev. Heng Sure has an M.A. in Oriental Languages from UC Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He serves as the Managing Director of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery and teaches on the staff at the Institute for World Religions. He lectures on the Avamtasaka Sutra at the Berkeley Monastery every Saturday evening. He is actively involved in interfaith dialogue and in the ongoing conversation between spirituality and technology. He may be reached at www.berkeleymonastery.org.

 

Quotable quotes

from Reverend Heng Sure’s Dharma talk last night “Healing our Minds: Buddhism and Stress”

  • (On social engagement) This is the time when doing nothing is doing something.
  • Suffering (or stress) is reality, not pessimism.
  • (Buddhist) Precepts are an ethical commitment that gives you clarity on secular issues.
  • Religion should make kids think about things they’ve never thought of before.
  • Stress is frozen bodhi. Practice should melt it back into the sea of bodhi. You should enjoy practice.
  • A good teacher always gives you things you cannot do.

More about the teacher: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heng_Sure

and the websites he insists for the audience to visit:

http://www.drby.net

http://www.drbu.net

http://www.dharmaradio.org

无常

The fathers of two friends passed away in the past two months due to cancer. Visited one of them today with my mum, and they said “still can’t believe that he’s no more”. Uncle passed away just before Hari Raya, so they aren’t celebrating.

It’s depressing, but I guess it’s a good reminder of life’s impermanence and we should treasure everyone around us as if we’re spending the last moments together. It’s horribly difficult, but let’s all try.

In the Straits Times, May 19, 2008:

Buddhism is the main religion here, and fast growing: The number of people aged 15 and up who said they were followers jumped from 27 per cent of the population in 1980 to 31 per cent in 1990. In 2000, the last census, the figure was 43 per cent, or 1.1 million people.

Buddhist converts told The Straits Times that the religion offered comfort in the face of uncertainties and disasters, and a constant reminder to look beyond the materialism of the rat race and to attain calmness and happiness through meditation and reflection.

Read the full article here.