Buddha's Brain

"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." ~ Buddha

Universal Compassion

Posted on March 16, 2017

Shri Krishnah sharanam mama

I take refuge in the all-attractive Lord who is the true identity of all being.
Sharanam means refuge. This beautiful initiation mantra from the Pushtimarg tradition in India invites us to seek refuge, particularly when we are driven by strong emotions. Anger, hate and fear close us off to love and compassion. Seeking refuge means having the capacity to step back and to use particular tools or techniques….in this case, the repetition of mantra…..to protect us from reacting immediately. Instead, we engage the mind with something calming, which buys us time and gets us back in touch with our true essence: boundless love and compassion, Buddha and Krishna. Resolving a situation from this place yields much more constructive results. It means responding instead of reacting. It gives us the ability to stop cycles of violence and the escalation of conflict. Even if the other party refuses to cooperate or feels threatened, taking refuge in the mantra cleanses our heart and spirit, and moves us from separateness toward oneness.

Mantra transcends the calculating intellect and awakens a feeling of love and sweetness, gradually melting away the hard walls we have built around our hearts. The vibration of the Sanskrit language has a profound, transformative effect on a cellular level. My Teacher, Yogi Swamiji always described how chanting mantra affects our electromagnetic field and brain patterns, the master glands and even the stability of the blood. Mantra can totally remake our psyche. Asana and meditation practices have similar effects, inducing a mental focus and an energetic shift that become stronger than habitual, conditioned, reactive behavior.

Every major spiritual tradition agrees that love and compassion are the most important qualities for sustaining and protecting life. Each tradition has a figure who embodies perfection in love and compassion. In the Hindu/yogic tradition it is Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. He is often depicted as a child whose disarming qualities inspire us to love without inhibition. In Buddhism it is the supreme bodhisattva,

Avalokiteshvara, who made a great vow to assist sentient beings in times of difficulty, and to postpone his own Buddhahood until he has helped every one of them achieve nirvana. His mantra is Om mani padme hum, meaning that, in the same way that the lotus flower grows out of the mud, compassion is often deeply understood through great suffering and huge spiritual challenges. In Christianity the iconic figure is Jesus, whose story holds many parallels to Krishna’s. Krishna was born in a prison, Jesus in a stable, and both had to spend much of their lives in exile. Through the practice of sincerely contemplating these divine, enlightened beings, we do our very best to awaken their luminosity inside us, and to tailor our lives according to their examples.

Sister Chan Khong, a Buddhist nun, and dear friend of my Teacher Ven. Sudharma, ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh, endured unimaginable suffering during the war in Vietnam and has become one of the most outstanding living embodiments of compassion in our times. Although she had a degree in biology, her main mission was always to feed the hungry and the poor. What makes her service even more powerful is that she has had to serve anonymously, under a false identity, so as not to put the recipients of her aid in danger. Many times she risked her own life, dodging bullets and bombs while riding her bike through the streets of Saigon. One day, after a bombing, the streets were littered with dead bodies, and the government did not clean them up. The community of monks, nuns and peace workers took it upon themselves to remove the bodies and give them a proper burial. They could accomplish this extremely difficult task only by seeking refuge in the breath and in mantra. When boat people started drifting ashore in neighboring Southeast Asian countries, those governments ordered them pushed back out to sea, where they would eventually drown. For Chan Khong the first priority was saving lives, and in order to circumvent senseless rules and inhumane practices, disguises had to be used, laws had to be challenged in nonviolent ways and violations of human rights had to be reported to the international press. She was exiled from Vietnam, separated from family and friends and expelled from countries that did not want their cruelty exposed to the world. Sometimes she would be overwhelmed by strong emotions and start sobbing uncontrollably, until she remembered to take refuge in her breath. She and her sangha practiced walking meditation to learn the art of calming their feelings before taking action. From this practice came the ability to understand and have compassion for the people committing atrocities.

Compassion is a big word that is often trivialized. Most of us have been conditioned to be selective about our compassion. We may be able to express some degree of compassion to our family and friends but are unconcerned about those who live on the other side of the world, don’t look like us, or speak a different language. Chan Khong describes returning to Paris after being expelled from Singapore and being appalled to see people eating, drinking, laughing and enjoying life in cafes. Did they not know that their fellow human beings were drowning at sea?

Through the practices of Manta, Pure Practice and Yoga we learn that compassion does not discriminate.

Rise Up Like Rooted Trees

Posted on December 7, 2016

This sculpture of the historical Buddha shows him with characteristic lotus wheel marks on his hands and feet, wearing monastic dress, and performing the gesture of touching the earth, a reference to his enlightenment. Artistic centers developed in a number of kingdoms along the Himalayan range, including the Khasa Malla kingdom of northwestern Nepal, to which this fine image of the Buddha can be attributed. The sculpture is sturdy and has a proportionally large head with a low forehead and broad shoulders. Characteristic of the Khasa Malla period are the beak-like nose and the downcast eyes widening at the sides. The details of his monastic robe, the ornamented hem across the chest and the tail end on the shoulder, are quite stylized. He wears upturned earrings inlaid with turquoise, an unusual feature of the Khasa Malla aesthetic.

This sculpture of the historical Buddha shows him with characteristic lotus wheel marks on his hands and feet, wearing monastic dress, and performing the gesture of touching the earth, a reference to his enlightenment.
Artistic centers developed in a number of kingdoms along the Himalayan range, including the Khasa Malla kingdom of northwestern Nepal, to which this fine image of the Buddha can be attributed. The sculpture is sturdy and has a proportionally large head with a low forehead and broad shoulders. Characteristic of the Khasa Malla period are the beak-like nose and the downcast eyes widening at the sides. The details of his monastic robe, the ornamented hem across the chest and the tail end on the shoulder, are quite stylized. He wears upturned earrings inlaid with turquoise, an unusual feature of the Khasa Malla aesthetic.


“If we could surrender to Earth’s intelligence, we would rise up rooted, like trees.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

One day recently I woke up with no voice, just a breathy whisper. This is challenging under ordinary circumstances but on this particular day it felt like catastrophe. I was scheduled to teach a Dharma talk on Nāgārjuna’s Sixty Verses of Reason in front of my dear Teacher, His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India. It was to be my final exam as an Elder nun and first in line as a female Lama under His Holiness. Still under the covers I tried talking. Nothing, just air rushing out, no matter how hard I pushed to make my vocal chords work.

Terrible images flashed before my eyes; Geshes, Lamas and all my dear Teachers looking at me with dismay and incomprehension. Fear has a mind of its own. I am shy under the best of circumstances. Preparing for public speaking can feel like suiting up for battle. But in recent years, my voice tires after long teachings or retreats. On good days this can give my voice an interesting, husky quality.

People have actually asked how long it took me to develop this gravelly, smoky voice, finding it soothing for meditation, maybe picturing lots of whisky and cigarettes. Yet on bad days, after a weeks long retreat of teaching and talking with students, the voice is breathy. It is as if you are in one of those movies where you can see and hear people but they can’t see or hear you, as if you are a ghost or a captive whose shouts can’t be heard. In a culture in which words are everything, to be voiceless is also to be invisible. I also felt strangely defenseless.

When most of us think of determination, we think first of imposing our will on the world, insisting on a particular outcome, our vision. Yet real determination appears when we keep going, surrendering what the ego wants, which is always to look good, to sound good, to win. Real perseverance is willingness, not will. Really determined people are willing to give up what the ego wants and to go on, no matter what is going on around them. Persevering does not mean being rigid and fixed, but flowing like water, willing to meet the conditions at hand yet never giving up.

I stepped out of my living quarters for the 10 minute walk up the craggy path to His Holiness’ temple and headed for a true unknown. Naturally, at times I was gripped with uncertainty. In those moments, I discovered how fear narrows the focus. When I shifted my attention away from my thoughts and projections about others to my own experience in the moment, my tunnel vision broadened and softened. My view became more generous. By myself on that craggy path, practicing without witnesses, I experienced how giving space and acceptance to my fear brought courage and grounded me.

Things happen all the time in this world that can make you feel as if the ground is giving way beneath your feet. Things that you think are solid and unchanging are not. The body that seemed so reliable, the relationship you thought would last for life, the narrative about your life you took to be reality, everything is subject to change. What can we trust in such a world? It turns out we can trust our deeper wish to wake up and see just this. It turns out that under the ego there is an earthier essence that wishes to be part of a larger world. Touching this earth allows us to open and be more aware.

At the His Holiness’ temple and living quarters (formally titled: Thekchen Chöling) I was met by pure kindness. A dear brother monk fetched me a cup of tea. Another provided a powerful hand microphone. After prostrations and my offering to His Holiness, I mounted the steps to the stage and took my seat as a Teacher, focusing on my actual moment by moment experience, not my thoughts. I accepted the fearful images that flitted through, nothing coming out of my mouth…..Anne Boleyn treading softly to her execution, whispering prayers as the blade came down.  I once heard that generosity is best practiced in private. Determined to show up and give what I could, I became generous with my own experience, not identifying with my fears but embracing them as I might a child or my dog. I discovered the courage of being with what was happening without fighting or freezing or running away.

I encouraged the His Holiness, the Lamas and Geshes surrounding me to use my breathy voice to listen as if the speaker was on her deathbed and about to impart the secret of life. The secret wasn’t in me but in the listening. The more closely we listen, the more we hear, especially the wordless aspiration and knowing in ourselves. Afterwards, His Holiness assured me they could hear me very clearly. Partly, this was the sound system. But it was also because of the way they listened. More than one Lama told me they were more touched by my willingness to show up than by anything I might have said about determination under other circumstances. “Monks can be very lazy so this would have been a perfect excuse to lounge in for the day!” a dear brother monk laughed.

In the great myth of the Buddha’s journey, there comes a point when he is completely overwhelmed. As he sits meditating under the Bodhi tree, the devil Mara sends temptations to distract him from the wish of his deepest essence. Mara flashes images of the Buddha as a great leader, as a huge success in business with mountains of money, surrounded by beautiful women. He shows the Buddha that he can make India great again if he would just give up his quest to awaken, and get up and do something. The Buddha will not move.

When temptation doesn’t work, Mara tries fear, conjuring visions of terrible armies howling for his blood. These armies are external and also internal, legions of anxieties and fears. But the Buddha does not flinch. Slowly, he reaches down and touches the earth. The classical explanation is that he is asking the Earth itself to bear witness to his many life times of effort. Not his blinding brilliance or his unique talent, mind you, but his effort, his perseverance, his willingness to show up no matter what. His willingness to fail and fail again. “Ever tried. Ever failed,” writes Beckett. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The Buddha understood what the Christian author G.K. Chesterton meant when he wrote, “Everything worth doing is worth doing badly.“

Touching the Earth symbolizes humility, coming down out of our thoughts, out of the busy hive of ego, to join the rest of life. The Latin word humus, the rich living earth, is related to the word humility. When difficulty arises, it creates a clearing in the deadening trance of habit. We remember that what really matters is not the list of worries and desires we spend so much time thinking about every day. What matters is much more essential. Being alive, for example. Taking part in life, having a chance to give and receive in the most elemental ways, taking in the beauty of the world and giving back where we can.

At moments when the ground gives way beneath our feet, it’s good to remember the power of touching the earth, descending from our racing thoughts and fears to an awareness of the present moment. When words fail, we can sometimes discover a new voice and a new kind of determination. We can rise up rooted, like trees.

Moving Forward and Letting Anger Go

Posted on November 16, 2016


When Buddha described the evolution of samsara…..the cycle of constantly recurring problems in which we are presently trapped, he said that its origin was ignorance. This is a specific type of ignorance, one that misunderstands the nature of existence. Whereas things are dependent on other factors and are constantly in flux, ignorance apprehends them in a very concrete fashion.
The great Indian sage Shantideva advised us, “If you have a problem and you can do something about it, there is no need to get anxious about it because you can actively do something to solve it. On the other hand, if there is nothing you can do to solve it, getting anxious about it is useless…..it won’t fix the problem.” So either way you look at it, whether the problem is solvable or unsolvable, there is no sense in getting anxious or upset about it.
The Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn taught people to take good care of their anger, not to push it away but to hold it with kindness, as we would a wounded child. In addition to anger, I would encourage us all to also hold our fear and pain and everything else that arises. When it gets right down to it, this is our practice: we offer ourselves the gift of nonjudgmental awareness. This awareness is much more spacious and warm than our thinking, which (sticking to “I” statements here) is very repetitive and limited.

The other day in teachings, I told the story of meeting Thich Nhat Hahn for the first time. We sat together in a small room in Manhattan soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The great teacher had just finished a protest fast and sat looking very still and small and grave on the floor before me. He had just published his book Anger, and I was there with my dear Teacher Sudharma and other monastics to ask him about that particular emotion. But like everyone else I knew in New York and Connecticut, I was alternately cold and feverish with fear and sadness and uncertainty about what would come. I asked him again and again how we could live with fear. He spoke a bit about holding anger. About the rest, he was still.
Next to the great Zen teacher sat the diplomat and pastor Andrew Young, who was a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. (King nominated Thich Nhat Hahn for the Nobel Peace Prize). I circled round and round about fear.  Finally, Young asked Thich Nhat Hahn if he might say something to me. It could have been projection on my part, but I detected an almost imperceptible smile of relief on the great monk’s face.
Young told me that he marched with King. He told me that his friend Martin knew that he might die.  Yet he reached a point where he laughed at dying. He made jokes about it.  He would say things like, “Andrew, I think they’re going to kill you today.  But don’t worry. I’ll preach a most wonderful eulogy at your funeral.”
How did this great man reach this state of fearlessness? “He knew what was important, and he made sure he did it every day,” Young told me. Young sat forward as he told me this, emphasizing that he was talking about a living reality, not just a nice thought. Martin Luther King, Jr. sought to live in the light of the truth.  He walked with it.
“Martin knew that death could never destroy who he really was,” Young said to me.  “Death can never destroy who you really are.  Suffering can never destroy who you really are.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that we are more than we think we are. He knew truth is more than we think it is at any given moment.
After that encounter, I was so deeply moved that I read the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. Here is one snippet from a sermon in 1968: “You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid.”
These words toll like deep bells for us today because we hear them as a foreshadowing of what would happen to this great man.  But the truth remains that Martin Luther King, Jr. understood fear. You might say he held in the light of a greater awareness, a truth beyond thought.
One of my dear teachers often defines “peace” in this way: “if you can walk down the street with all the angry beings…if you can drive in traffic with the bitter souls….if you can find ease in what your government is doing….and if you can live your life honestly and quietly……if you can do all of these with compassion, love and mindfulness…..that is when you know what peace is.”
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.”  He would know those words by heart. Yet in every tradition, including Buddhism, there are beings who accompany us in the dark places and times of unknowing. And what if we brought them down to the scale of a moment…..the scale of the next breath?  What if today and in the days to come, we give the gift of nonjudgmental, caring attention to ourselves and the people around us? What if we aspire to give ourselves to a greater truth? We can take it breath by breath, step by step.  Love, peace, faith….will always, always, always….trump hate.

Ven. Upasanti
Venerable Guruji Upasanti Durgānanda
अर्हत् गुरु उपशान्ति दुर्ग
Chuang Yen Monastery – 莊嚴寺
Mobile 203.524.4052