Berkeley Buddhist Priory Newsletter
March – May 2015
Still, Flowing Water
by Rev. Kinrei Bassis
(This article is an edited version of a lecture given at Shasta Abbey on July 11, 2010.)
I will talk about the most famous image of Buddhist training, the Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree on the night of his enlightenment. During that night, the Buddha described being attacked by the forces of Mara. In Buddhism, Mara represents all our unwholesome impulses. The Buddha experienced the feeling of being attacked by all his deepest fears and his fiercest desires. Instead of reacting to all these strong feelings, the Buddha did what is the essence of Buddhist meditation, he sat still. That meant that he did not react and allow himself to be moved by his strong feelings of fear and desire. The Buddha just allowed everything to arise and everything to pass away. The imagery used in Buddhism is that the swords and arrows that seemed to be threatening the Buddha were all transformed into the flowers of the Dharma.
To be a Buddhist means that we are trying to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha, and each of us needs to do, in our own way, what the Buddha did as he meditated under the Bodhi tree. This does not mean we need to sit under a tree but rather we all need to learn how to sit still and not be moved by the arising of powerful karma. This is the essential activity of Buddhist training, converting all our fears and desires, all our difficulties and pain, into the flowers of enlightenment; into the liberating life of the Buddha. This is the real meaning of meditation in daily life, sitting still and not getting caught up in our reaction to all the ups and downs of our life. In meditation, when a thought or feeling arises, the instructions are very simple. Try not to get caught up in your reaction. Just let it arise and let it pass. In daily life, we are trying to do the same thing. Whatever we encounter, we are trying to be still and recognize everything is just arising and passing away. We cleanse and free our hearts by just doing what the Buddha did under the Bodhi tree, which is to open our heart to whatever we are experiencing; to allow ourselves to feel whatever arises in our hearts, to be willing to see whatever thoughts are moving through our minds, and to allow everything to appear and then disappear. Not being caught up in all life’s ups and downs goes against much of our human conditioning. To sit still with our karma is very difficult and it requires deep faith. The Dharma keeps pointing us to this deep truth, that no matter what happens to us and no matter happens in the world, nothing is fundamentally being gained or lost.
The Buddha taught that all suffering comes from facing the wrong way. Suffering means we are either clinging to what we are experiencing with desire or pushing away what we are experiencing with aversion and fear. Desire and fear just mean we are facing the wrong way and not looking for our real Treasure which can only be found within the stillness of an open heart and mind. The real core of the spiritual life is to open our hearts and minds so we let everything just flow through us. Suffering comes from not letting something just flow through us and thinking that we can’t let it go or we can’t put up with something. Our fears and desires cloud our perception of the world and drives us to close our hearts to many aspects of our life and to close our hearts to many of the difficult feelings that we are within us. Fear, despair, confusion, greed and anger, they all can cause us to narrow our focus and close our hearts and minds. In life, we all experience being overwhelmed by strong desires or fears. When this happens, we narrow our vision and then cannot see beyond the confines of the situation. We lose touch with the open mind that allows us to see beyond the opposites. Buddhist training is learning to trust that there’s nothing that we fundamentally need and nothing that can truly hurt or damage us. When we are dealing with difficult karma, we need to be mindful and offer ourselves the appropriate Dharma teaching. It is not uncommon for people to encounter something that they will tell me they never thought they could put up with and to their great surprise, when it happened, it proved not to be so overwhelming or dreadful. I think everybody has experienced this, having what you deeply fear happen and then realizing that you did put up with it, you did learn something, and it did prove not to be a fundamental problem in a deeper sense.
We all would like to attain full liberation as the Buddha did under the Bodhi tree. But the path of Buddhist training is to take each bit of difficult karma, each fear, each desire, each difficult feeling, each painful memory, and do the hard work of liberating each piece of our karma. We liberate each piece of our karma as the Buddha did under the Bodhi tree, by letting all the karma flow through us without clinging or aversion. We do this by realizing neither our suffering or happiness, our joy or our distress, is something we possess. It is something arising and then passing through us. One of the fundamental ways we delude ourselves is by making something, anything, our possession.
Suffering arises when we cling to our past or when we cling to our possible future. Both are like clinging to a dream and they are just flowing through our lives like the weather. Everyone, everywhere, is just in the midst of this flow of karma from birth to death. This is an obvious truth but notice how hard it is to take that truth into our heart and realize that we cannot cling to anything; that there is nothing solid anywhere. In Buddhism, this flow from birth to death is called samsara. People look at a young baby and think of all the wonderful possibilities but they do not extend their view so that they are also seeing the inevitable old age, disease and death that the baby will have to experience. Every person in the senior nursing facility, every grave in the cemetery was once a baby, full of possibilities. What the Buddha’s Enlightenment meant is that he found that which is Eternal, the Unborn that which does not arise and pass, that which is the true ground and heart of all existence.
One of my favorite lines of teaching is from Trust in the Heart by the third Zen Ancestor in China, Kanchi Sosan, “The Supreme Way is not difficult if only you do not pick and choose.”1 Suffering is very simple. I suffer whenever I fight and resist whatever is flowing through my life. I want this and I do not want that. Living in the Bay area, I use traffic as a symbol of how we fight rather than accept our karmic conditions. It is the normal for people to find it difficult when they are stuck in traffic and hardly moving. Yet, when you let go of the desire to be somewhere else, you are actually in reasonable comfort in a car that is not moving. Where is this suffering coming from?
I have been around people who have an incapacitating illness and are in considerable physical pain, yet, sometimes, despite their very difficult conditions, they are doing amazingly well, full of peace and joy. This indicates that they have found that spiritual place that frees them to know that they do not possess their pain and they are not being bound by these difficult conditions. Yet, the world is full of people who are doing very poorly, full of suffering, when nothing is really going wrong with their life. People often find emptiness in their lives, a seeming lack of the positive feelings they desire; a lack of love, of intimacy, of self worth. This seeming emptiness in our life is not a real emptiness. It just means we have been looking in the wrong direction. Buddhism points us to how we can find a deep meaning and purpose in whatever we encounter. Everything we deal with in our life can be embraced with positivity as our next step in our journey to Buddhahood.
Right view in Buddhism includes realizing were are not in the driver’s seat. We have very limited control over what’s going to happen to us. I like the image of my life as a dwelling place with an endless flow of uninvited guests like worry, anxiety, fear and greed. I never wake up in the morning telling myself, today, I want to be filled with worry or anxiety, but if I look at my life, these uninvited guests such as worry and anxiety keep arriving and how I deal with this unwanted karma goes to the heart of Buddhist training. I need to be willing to be a welcoming host to whatever shows up in my life. Naturally, I would like to have a life in which everyone likes me, but what do I do with the uninvited guest of someone who dislikes me. I want the highway to allow me to drive unimpeded and let me effortlessly drive across the Bay Bridge but what do I do with the unwanted karma of being stuck in traffic. When someone tells me they don’t have trouble letting go of stuff that they have been lugging around for their whole life, it usually means that they have not even begun to understand what actual spiritual letting go involves.
To let go of our desires and fears means we first have the insight into how much stuff we are lugging around. Usually whenever someone first recognizes the enormity of their own personal karmic load, they find it overwhelming. The image often used in Buddhism is a mountain of karma. If you just look at many people, their faces are often etched with all the worries and fears that they are weighed down with. Unfortunately, most people cannot see themselves with Right View; they have no idea that there is an alternative to being weighed down with this heavy load. It is why we need to have compassion for all the suffering in the world since people do not know that they can let go of this load. And we all need to have compassion for ourselves, since there are very good reasons why we have such difficulty in letting things go. Letting go of what we are grasping in our life, is an awe inspiring task and if we are really willing to do it, we need the Dharma to go deeply into our heart. We need to fully feel the right and wrong of our thoughts and actions with our whole being. We can have a deep intellectual understanding with our brains of what needs to be done but for true transformation, the teaching needs to penetrate our hearts in order for us to wholeheartedly change how we relate to everything in our life. I remember a fellow monk telling me about how he gave one of his first Dharma talks on anger. The talk went very well, with many people telling him how helpful his talk was on dealing with anger. He felt wonderful as he walked away and then he saw somebody doing something that was not what he had asked them to do, and he lost his temper. Everyone who has attended a Dharma talk has had the experience of hearing something that deeply made sense but then had no real impact on how they related to normal situations in their daily life.
The Thai Buddhist Master, Ajahn Chah, gave the following teaching.
Have you ever seen flowing water?… Have you ever seen still water?… If your mind is peaceful it will be just like still, flowing water. Have you ever seen still, flowing water? There! You’ve only ever seen flowing water and still water, haven’t you? But you’ve never seen still, flowing water. Right there, right where your thinking cannot take you, even though it’s peaceful you can develop wisdom. Your mind will be like flowing water, and yet it’s still. It’s almost as if it were still, and yet it’s flowing. So I call it ‘’still, flowing water.’’ Wisdom can arise here.2
The Buddha as he meditated under the Bodhi tree, let all of his thoughts and feelings flow through him, just like water flowing. Yet he sat still, just like still water. The difficult task of Buddhist training is life will always keep flowing. Good and bad, pleasure and pain, success and failure, birth and death, will keep flowing through us. We cannot ignore this flow as it is necessary and spiritually essential for us to try to help all this karma flowing through us so that everything can have as good an outcome as is possible. Yet we can be inwardly still and realize we do not have to be moved with this flow of karma. We can sit still as the Buddha did. Yet we are also part of this flow of karma and we need to do what actions will bring forth good so that we help all these karmic conditions and offer whatever help we can to all sentient beings. This is the purpose of Buddhism: to free ourselves so we are at peace no matter what karmic conditions are flowing through our lives but still being willing to make the right choices so that our lives are benefiting all sentient beings including ourselves.
1 Faith in the Mind by Seng Ts’an, The Poetry of Enlightenment by Chan Master Sheng-Yen (Shambala 2006) p.25
2 Ajahn Chah Food for the Heart (Wisdom Publications 2002) p.370-371
Much of the exterior of the Priory received a very much needed painting this January. The lower wall of the Priory are stucco that did not need painting but all the wood siding and trim were painted. These were mostly very high places and the building looks much better with the fresh paint of brown paint.
One of the original members of our Berkeley Sangha, Lawrence Donovan, died at the age of 87, on December 20. Larry was one of the original members of the Berkeley Sangha. The Sangha meditated at his house in 1973, before they found the property in Oakland that became the Berkeley Buddhist Priory. Larry’s health had been deteriorating for the past few years and he had a heart attack a few weeks before his passing. He stayed alert and was very bright and positive and provided a very good example of willingness and faith. Larry was very ecumenical and both made good use of both his Catholic faith and his Buddhist faith as he approached death. He was very generous and Larry provided accomodation to many Sangha members over the years who needed a place to stay, often not charging them if they were having financial difficulty.
Members of the Priory Sangha went to Larry’s cremation on January 2. We held a brief service at the crematorium and then meditated while the body was cremated. On January 10, we held a large memorial for Larry at the Priory and it was good to have so many of his family, friends and Sangha friends at the Priory to offer him merit and to share their memories of him.
The Priory has held a number of other memorials during the past few months: Sally Schmidt’s parents, Harold Schmidt and Bertha Hamilton, had a memorial at the Priory on January 16. On January 18, we had a memorial for Jennifer Chinlund’s son, Ketan who had died six years before when he was only 22 years old. Helmut Schatz had a memorial for his wife Linda, who had died a year ago, on February 1. Rose Tomiko had a memorial for her parents, Rose Tokiko Eya and Shigeaki Edward Eya on February 7.
Charity is one of the four wisdoms and demonstrates the Bodhisattva’s aspiration. Deep appreciation and gratitude is offered to all those who contribute their spiritual practice, money, time, energy, and various gifts to the Priory. The generosity of the entire Priory Sangha is what makes it possible for the Priory to exist and for the Dharma to be freely offered to whomever is interested.
In recent months, we have been given many generous gifts, a Buddha statue, a Buddhist scroll, books and cleaning supplies.
Providing monks with food is the traditional offering given when coming to a Buddhist temple, and we appreciate all the generous food offerings we have been given, which provide most of the food for the Priory. During the past few months we have been given food donations of various vegetables and fruit, soy milk, eggs, tofu, vegetarian burgers, vegetarian meats, peanut butter, cheese, beans, soups, salads, vegetable oil, oats, muffins, bagels, bread, herbal and black teas, granola, salsa, fruit juice, crackers, pasta, nuts, chips, dried fruit, fruit preserves, chocolates, cookies, candy, pies, and cakes. You are always welcome to check with the Priory on what foods are currently needed.
Helping the Priory and Work Days
Buddhist training is based not just on receiving the spiritual benefits that Dharma practice provides, but also our own willingness to cultivate gratitude and find ways to make offerings. Giving our valuable time to help with the work of the Priory is very much needed if the Priory is to flourish. During the past few months, Sangha members came by the Priory and helped with many different tasks such as painting, yard work, gardening, cleaning, cooking, construction, computer work and bookkeeping. Please contact the Priory if you wish to help; we always have plenty of work that needs doing. In addition, the Priory has been having regular work days which have been a great help with fixing up and maintaining the Priory and its grounds. You are welcome to come to the Priory whenever you can and offer your help. The next work days are scheduled for Saturday, March 28 and May 30, from 9:30 to 3:00, but we welcome everyone to help for whatever part of the day they can come.
Priory Meditation Retreats
March 14 April 11 May 9 June 13
Retreats are an excellent way to deepen our meditation and training. The retreat begins at 8am and the day is a mixture of meditation, Dharma talks and Buddhist services. The retreat is over at 5pm. Please register in advance for all the retreats.
Introductory Workshop April 25 (10 am—1 pm)
This workshop is designed to be a follow-up to the basic meditation instruction that we offer every Thursday evening. It will include a talk on meditation practice, periods of meditation and then another talk on bringing mindfulness and compassion into our daily lives. There is no charge for the workshop but we ask that people register in advance.
Wesak Celebration–Sunday, May 17
On Wesak, Buddhists throughout the world commemorate the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is the most spiritually significant day of the Buddhist calendar, and it is helpful for Buddhists to join together as a Sangha and express their gratitude and joy for the existence and transmission of the Three Treasures.
On Sunday, May 17, we will have the usual 9:30 am meditation, followed by the Wesak ceremony at 10 am. The Wesak ceremony is a particularly joyous service. The altar is covered with silk flowers, and a statue of the Buddha as a baby stands on the front altar. During the ceremony we pour water over the head of the baby Buddha, representing the water of compassion abundantly flowing over all beings.
After the ceremony, there will be a Dharma talk. At around 12:15 pm, we will have a vegetarian potluck lunch. All family and friends of our Sangha are welcome to come to Wesak or just the potluck and share in our celebration of the birth of the Buddha.
Shasta Abbey Retreats
Attending a retreat at Shasta Abbey is an excellent way to deepen one’s Buddhist life by living and practicing together with a large community of monastic and lay members of the Sangha. The introductory retreats are the recommended first step in practicing at the Abbey. For more information, you can go to their website at http://www.shastaabbey.org or contact the Guestmaster at (530) 926-4208 or email@example.com.
Introductory Retreat : April 10–12 June 26–28
Keeping of the Ten Precepts Retreat March 22–29
Rev. Kinrei is available to discuss your spiritual practice and to help you to better apply the Dharma to your life. Taking refuge in a senior member of the Sangha is an important aid in gaining a better perspective and deeper insight into our spiritual life. It is also helpful in learning to cultivate openness and trust. You are welcome to contact the Priory and arrange a time to meet.
Meditation instruction and an orientation to the practice at the Priory are offered each Thursday at 6:45 pm. Please arrive a few minutes early so that we can begin promptly at 6:45. The instruction is followed by a 7:30-8:05 pm meditation period. We ask all people new to our practice to attend this instruction. The meditation instruction is free, as are all the activities at the Priory. If your schedule will not allow you to come on Thursday evening, you are welcome to call the Priory to try to arrange a different time for the instruction.
Priory Support and Membership
The word dana is an ancient Buddhist term meaning generosity—giving and receiving, from heart to heart. The Buddha highly recommended this as one of the most important Buddhist virtues, because it truly benefits the giver as well as the receiver. It is through simple acts of giving that we can begin to build a foundation for our religious training. Whether we live the life of monks or the life of a lay person, generosity makes the heart grow brighter. It helps us to overcome selfishness and attachment, and to open our hearts. It is a necessary element in the growth of kindness and compassion, which, in turn, are necessary for real peace of mind, as well as for deepening any religious practice.
The Buddha established a practice of mutual dependence between the monastic and lay Sangha. To oversimplify, the monks offer the Dharma, to all who ask, and the lay people offer material support to the monks. This helps all involved in Buddhist training, whether monastic or lay, to experience the benefits of dana for ourselves and thus grow our faith and trust in the Buddha-Dharma.
In an act of faith and in keeping with the monastic part of this commitment, the Priory is willingly dependent for its existence on the generosity of our friends and congregation. We receive no support from any other source, there are no fees of any kind for instruction or participation in Priory activities. Your gifts of support, whether financial, material, labor, or of any other kind, are deeply appreciated, and they assist the Priory in continuing to offer the Dharma. Your greatest support is simply your continued presence and practice.
One of the best ways to help the Priory is to make the commitment to be a Priory Member. What this involves is making a pledge to contribute a certain amount of money to the Priory each month. There is no set or recommended amount as we leave it up to each individual to offer what he or she feels is appropriate. This commitment is a tremendous help to the Priory because it gives us a stable financial base. More importantly, deciding to become a member has deep spiritual significance. It means you are choosing to help take responsibility for the continued existence of the Priory. Some of you may only be able to pledge a few dollars a month and think it is not worth making such an insignificant commitment. Yet it is important to offer whatever you can and be willing to make a formal commitment to be part of the Priory. The most important help members bring to the Priory and the Sangha is not their donations but their Buddhist training. By being willing to come to the Priory and train with others, we help make the Priory a true refuge of the Sangha.
However, we are not suggesting that everyone who occasionally attends the Priory or gives us donations should become a member. For many people, it is not appropriate to make such a commitment, and we welcome them to join us whenever they wish, to help us in the manner they feel appropriate, and to be valued friends of the Priory.