Articles Newsletter June 2022

Excess Sensitivity

By Rev. Master Seikai

Buddhist doctrine holds that a human being is composed of five main components, which in the original Pali are known as skhandas. The word skhanda is sometimes translated as bundles, which suggests strands of something like fibers which are bound together into a cord. And if you then take five such cords and bind them together you get a whole rope, which in this metaphor suggests a human being.

            Our five skhandas are: form, sensation, perception, mental activity and consciousness. These are the five main components of a human being; if you take away any one of them, you’ve got serious problems. People who are said to be “brain dead”—i.e. they have no apparent mental activity going on and are comatose, are in a real limbo state. Should they live or die? Similarly, if you couldn’t feel anything, where would you be? I read an article a while ago about a very rare condition in which a person doesn’t really feel pain. Such people can do absolutely fearless stuff that most people wouldn’t attempt because even if things go wrong they seemingly don’t experience the consequences in the form of pain. The downside of this is that such people tend not to live very long because sooner or later they do something which proves to be too much for the human body, and the pain which normally prevents us from hurting ourselves isn’t there.

            It’s interesting that of the five skhandas, the only one that we can see with our eyes—form—is the human body. Sensation exists because we have a nervous system which feels and then sends signals to the brain, which the brain then interprets into something we think we can recognize. The human body and the brain cannot be separated (I will leave phenomena such as out-of-the-body experiences out of the picture), and the nervous system along with its gathering of sensations not only cannot be separated from the brain, it is an extension of the brain. What the brain does with sensations is what takes us to the perception skhanda. We know that we feel, and we know that we react to feelings, and we know that we think about all of it (mental activity), and we all have some level of self-awareness about it (consciousness).

            Perceptions take place in the blink of an eye because, the older we get, the more we give names to things and experiences, and we develop pathways in our thinking that we follow out of sheer habit. A baby, on the other hand, feels sensations but doesn’t take them beyond that into perceptions. A baby will cry if it experiences discomfort and laugh if it experiences pleasure. A baby is a human being which has form and sensation, and is in the process of developing perceptions, thinking and consciousness. And, broadly speaking, we know that as those skhandas are developing there are two primary influences which come to bear on their formation: one is the adults around a child and the environment they are in; the other is innate propensities that the child has seemingly brought with them into this life, which gradually show themselves as the child grows up. The former we understand pretty well, and the latter is still a pretty big mystery to most people.

            We perceive some things as being agents of pain, and thus to be avoided; we perceive other things as being agents of pleasure; and we experience a wide variety of things as being essentially neutral: they pose neither a threat nor a possibility for enjoyment. We give names to all the people, things, and experiences in our lives, get used to those names, and we get used to thinking in particular ways about them. In other words, the brain develops these pathways of perceiving and thinking that we grow accustomed to, and then they happen in a split second. As we age, we tend to accumulate layers of conditioned thinking not unlike trees which add a concentric ring of wood fiber every growing season.

In Buddhist teaching, people sometimes describe a pure, lucid, uncontaminated mind which perceives things just as they are without any additional naming and thinking about them. This is said to be an aspect of our innate Buddha Nature, of a pure, non-judgmental mind. How we get to the point where, as adults, we can take a break from our conditioned thinking even for a moment is not an easy thing to explain. But it really depends on whether any given person has a strong enough aspiration to work with their own mind and to make even a little bit of progress in training it. We all have awareness. We all have consciousness. We already have everything we need in order to rediscover for ourselves what we knew as children: a mind that looks at things afresh without conditioned thinking.

            When I was a child people told me that I was insensitive. Like most boys I had a streak of mischievousness and misbehavior, a temper, and I could be very negative and critical of others. I believed the story about my being insensitive, and it came as a huge revelation when, in junior high school, a teacher wrote a comment on a short essay I’d written about environmental pollution to the effect that I was sensitive to what was going on in the world. It was the first time anyone suggested I was sensitive about anything. Oversensitivity, on the other hand, was a word that was employed to suggest that you reacted too strongly to slights, criticism, put-downs, or any suggestion that you were not good enough and needed shaping up. Oversensitivity meant that you were too defensive of yourself.

            Why do we defend ourselves? Because we do not want to experience pain. We try to shield ourselves from the psychic pain inflicted upon us by the people around us as we are growing up and developing our set of skhandas. Those reactions become habitual and thus reinforced, and usually they carry anger energy with them. When we are threatened by some random force, mental or physical, our initial reaction is usually fear, but often very quickly anger jumps into the fray. Welcome to the human realm: this is what we call having a self. A whole set of habitual reactions to things we fear, or don’t like, or feel are demeaning to our self-esteem, or threaten our set of values—which we have accumulated as children and now are armed with to navigate the adult world.

            As a young adult I could see from my own experience that having an injured “self” was not serving me particularly well. In particular, self-pity clearly was self-defeating. Notice that the term self-defeating is putting a different interpretation on the word self: in this case, broadly speaking, a self that I wished to cultivate, as opposed to a self that was a problem. An injured self, internal pain, internal demons, led me to meditation practice. Meditation practice led me to ordaining as a monk, and as a monk I cleared away the coarser forms of self—the word that is used in Buddhism is vasanas: mental imprints or karmic hindrances—within a few years.

            Meanwhile there was a turn of phrase in the monastery that had currency: “The size of the hurt is in ratio to the size of the self.” This was instructive in illustrating that much of the pain we feel internally comes about as a direct result of clinging to a false idea of ourselves, or of clinging to a self that is better or more right than the people around us. But I sensed that there was something else going on which would cast a different light on that particular turn of phrase. It took me a few years to figure out what it was.

            What happened was that in the course of purifying the coarser layers of self—the karmic hindrances, the painful grasping after a fulfilled self, the futility of trying to be somebody—I became a much more sensitive human being. And this was on top of already being sensitive by the standards of humankind, at least in the society in which we all live. I was a good example of someone with excess sensitivity: you feel things more intensely than most people do, and that includes your own suffering, however it manifests. You feel the suffering of the world, you feel how utterly lost the human species is in its own self-created ignorance, its unrestrained greed, its constant struggles, fighting and wars. I have often felt that although it is better to be sensitive to the plight of the world than to be ignorant, it comes at a fairly high price.

            So now, is the size of your hurt in ratio to the size of your “self”—a word which sums up our craving, grasping, ego-attachments and aversions—or is the size of your hurt the result of excess sensitivity? Or maybe it could be an inextricable mixture of the two. Whatever the case, we might be able to gain a little bit of clarity by saying that there are two kinds of hurt: pain which comes about as the result of ignorance and pain which comes about as the result of having a really sensitive nervous system, and of seeing clearly the immense depth of greed, anger, fear and delusion present in the world.

            Another turn of phrase which has been in circulation among Buddhist teachers and about which I had reservations is: “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.” This saying is also useful as far as it goes, at which point it might be confusing. It’s true that we all experience pain, physical, mental and emotional, and that it is simply part of the human experience. The word dukkha, from Sanskrit, is usually translated as suffering, and the saying suggests that this is something we can do away with; however, my understanding of the original meaning of the word dukkha is that it refers in general to life’s pains and miseries, which are unavoidable. The Buddha taught that the existence of dukkha is the First Noble Truth, and the starting point of Buddhist practice. In looking at the causes of suffering (the Second Noble Truth) and the cessation of suffering (the Third Noble Truth), he was pointing to not being reborn again as a human being, to getting off the wheel of becoming. Was he saying that whilst still alive in this human body and mind we can eliminate suffering from our lives altogether? That would potentially be true if we could eliminate getting sick and growing old before we actually die. I don’t know anyone who, if they live long enough, hasn’t gotten sick and hasn’t grown old. Needless to say, people try valiantly to avoid these things, but they generally fail. They are simply part of life, and the Buddha was teaching that we should accept them fully.

            What people who use this saying are intending to say is that, yes, the pains we experience as human beings are inevitable, but we don’t need to take pain any further than it being a set of painful sensations, because if we do then we will almost certainly be struggling against our pain, and the struggle itself is suffering added on top of the pain. Although in a general sense this is true, I’ve always asked myself, “gosh, don’t these people ever experience truly acute human suffering like depression, or having everything you are trying to do go completely wrong?” Aren’t there types of pain, misfortune, and illness that anybody with all five skhandas intact are going to find pretty unbearable? I would think so. Does it mean that because a person is suffering in this way that they aren’t training themselves deeply enough? Or could it mean that they are simply oversensitive?

            The problem might be mostly semantic, and that we need to clarify exactly what we mean by suffering, and how the experience of suffering differs from the sensation of pain. If the point of the saying, that suffering is optional, is referring to the struggles we have in opposition to experiencing pain, like stubbing your toe, or relatively common situations such as domestic strife, being in a car wreck, the fierce competitiveness of the world, or miscommunication then, yes, there is something we can do to lessen that kind of suffering. We can accept deeply, learn to be still in the midst of such situations and not get swept up in the passion of the moment, or not go along with a worldly frame of reference in which winning is all-important.   

            In my life suffering is a constant, and I harbor no illusions that it is optional. When I use the word suffering I mean dis-ease, those innumerable moments when I have a sense of frustration that things are not going as I wish they would, or that I’m not good enough, even if no one besides me thinks it’s true. But, on the other hand, suffering serves as my motivation to practice and so it is not all bad. I don’t really want to live in a heaven realm where there is no suffering at all, and thus no motivation; this life, as it already is, is plenty good. There is a huge break-through point in Buddhist training in which you realize that you have everything that you actually need, and that to wish for things to be better is not only fairly pointless, but is, in itself, a kind of dis-ease.

            Life is an endless series of waves which roll through and hit us with whatever force they have. Sometimes they knock us off our feet and we flounder in the surf for a while until we can regain our footing. To the extent that we see ourselves as individuals who are having to endure the rough seas of life and fight against them just to survive, we will experience suffering of one kind or another. But there is another huge break-through point when we look at the waves not as a force to be opposed, but as simply the energy of the universe. When you stand on the beach and watch waves roll in, you are literally watching the energy of the universe as it is expressed on the surface of the ocean; your own life is no different. You are an expression of the energy of the universe, and your own individuality is a temporary reflection of that energy. It is changing constantly, meaning that to cling to an individual self that is firmly in control is doomed to failure.

            Learning to embrace the waves as they roll through is one way to talk about liberation from suffering. We have no power to stop the waves, but we can adjust our reaction to them and move in the direction of becoming more and more in tune with their energy. When I was a young monk I heard this practice described and decided that this is how I wanted to live. I started bowing to my own sense of dis-ease and visualized myself offering a stick of incense to it. At first that dis-ease became greater than it had been when I started, because what I’d done was open the door to an ocean of waves that were lying in wait for me to experience their energy and, ultimately, embrace. But dealing with that flood of waves, large and small, and their energy was essentially what my understanding, or kensho, was. In the years since, life hasn’t changed in the sense that waves continue to roll through and I have the opportunity to embrace them as simply the way things are—the energy of life and the universe. Occasionally I get knocked off my feet, but so what? That is what human life is composed of.

            Even after years of practice it is still easy to take yourself too seriously and forget that you really amount to nothing. Emptiness, as Buddhism points out, is the true nature of everything. Everything is empty of any real substantiality; everything is in motion; everything is changing. To just be a part of emptiness is a perfectly good way to be and experience life. It may not be very glamorous or exciting as the world measures things, but, again, so what? Even if you are too sensitive as the world measures these things, and have really vivid experiences, or get really exhausted, that, too, is okay: it is the way things are for you.

            The consciousness skhanda is that part of us which contains our spiritual lives, our connection to the energy of the universe. By means of having a human body and mind, and the abilities of feeling and perception, we can exercise our capacity for mental activity and make choices about how we’re going to live. Those choices accumulate and create the consciousness skhanda. We all have the capacity to move in the direction of greater understanding, beginning wherever we happen to be right at this moment; that capacity has to be set in motion by intention and volition. This process repeats itself hundreds of thousands of times throughout our lives. As I explained above, my own understanding involved seeing that I could bow to and embrace every wave that rolled through my being, which meant that, in its real essence, my life was a continuous spiritual experience.

            If this way to live seems impossibly remote, here are a couple of ways to actually experience it. The first is listening. No matter where you happen to be, if you stop other activities and sit down, and decide to let go of actively thinking about stuff for a few minutes, it’s possible to just sit and listen. I usually sit in my comfortable reclining chair. I leave the outside door a bit open and listen to the sounds of Santa Paula—the mockingbirds and jays, children screaming, small aircraft flying around, sirens, the breeze in the trees. Sound is nothing but vibrations, constantly changing. Whatever we think about them is extra; just to sit and listen is to sit in the sensation skhanda without involving yourself in perceptions and mental activities.

            The other is breathing. Most of the time we breathe without being conscious of it, and usually we breathe shallowly. What I try to do every day is, again, sit comfortably and just breathe. I wouldn’t say this is a kind of formal meditation that you would do sitting on a cushion, and it doesn’t matter if your brain is busy on its hamster wheel of thinking. But in the midst of that you can still take one really deep breath and then relax your body. If you can breathe in and out and few times and relax your body, often times the mind will get the picture and follow suit. Breathing, like sound, is fundamental to our existence as human beings. In classical Buddhist teaching, meditation on the breath, or focusing on breathing, is one of the traditional bases of mindfulness. But I suspect that for most people it would help not to think of it as a kind of meditation, but rather as a component of being alive that we need to be at least a little bit aware of. It can and will lead to deeper levels of awareness if you practice it on a daily basis.

            It has always seemed intuitively apparent, if not obvious, that a great many people who look to Buddhism to inform their lives do so because they are sensitive people who are well aware of their own suffering. In America, Buddhism is not the common religion of the wider culture as it is in many parts of Asia. American Buddhists are not interested in the safety of being part of the wider culture, but are looking for answers to their problems in life. For better or for worse, here we are, and it is helpful to everyone to share their knowledge about how to live in this tumultuous world without adding anything to the dis-ease that we all feel.


The Roots of Conflict

Rev. Master Seikai

This article was originally published in the November—December 2004 issue of this newsletter, and that article was based on a Dharma talk given at the monastery of Shasta Abbey in 2000.  I have deleted the first few paragraphs of that article, which addressed the situation in the world at that moment in time and rewritten them for the current moment.

            On September 11, 2001, members of an Islamic fundamentalist movement managed to hijack four airliners and crash three of them into their intended targets, including the World Trade Center towers in New York, and the Pentagon in Virginia. Not long after that, America launched a war into Afghanistan in retaliation for these acts of terrorism. A short time later, that war was broadened to include Iraq, a military campaign that was justified by “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein, strongman leader of Iraq, was overthrown; America became mired now in two Asian civil conflicts. Two decades later, history tells us that neither of these conflicts had a very satisfactory resolution. The Taliban Islamic fundamentalist faction has taken control of Afghanistan, and Iraq is still mired in its own internal dysfunction. Tens of thousands of American military personnel have returned from Asia traumatized and suffering from PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

            Now, in 2022, Russia has decided that it is in its best interests to invade its neighbor The Ukraine. Exactly why Vladimir Putin and his inner circle have found this new military adventure to be good or necessary is hard for Western people to understand, but on the face of it it has a lot to do with the existence of NATO: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Russia views as a threat to its continued existence and wellbeing. The irony, of course, is that NATO was formed in the first place in response to the threat of Russian invasion of European nations to its west. The Soviet Union had, after all, incorporated The Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and other territories, European nations which were once its neighbors, into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Further, it extended its grip to include East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. The Iron Curtain came down and the divide between Eastern and Western Europe was the background for the so-called Cold War.

            This can be viewed as a classic case of victim-perpetrator karma. Russia, a vast nation-state in the north of the Euro-Asian continent, has been invaded repeatedly over the centuries by armies from an array of different civilizations including, most recently, France in the 19th century, and Germany in the 20th century. Russia has taken a beating at the hands of Japan in 1905, and Germany in World Wars I and II—regardless of how those conflicts were ultimately resolved. This point of view is not an attempt to exonerate Russia from its current military adventure in The Ukraine, but it does cast light on why this victim-perpetrator situation exists, and why Russia has launched such adventures in neighboring territories such as Afghanistan, Georgia, Chechnya, and now The Ukraine. She is an insecure empire, fearful of who might be the next aggressor to launch an invasion into her vast heartland.

To be sure, Russia may have ulterior motives beyond insecurity for pushing into Ukraine. Those might include a desire to be in control of the abundant natural resources—oil and gas among them—which lie within her borders. People have been predicting for a long time that wars in the future will be fought over energy as much as for land and principles of domination and control. We may be seeing the beginnings of that.

In the modern world, you can watch a war on television or your internet news feed as if it were a soccer or football match. You can get totally caught up in the latest offensive or defensive movement, who is playing by the “rules” and who is cheating. One advantage to this new world of instant information about every nook and cranny in the world is that if the whole world knows that someone is trying to launch an invasion, or get away with some form of aggression, there is an immediate outcry and response—which might well put a check on how far the aggressor thinks they can go with their campaign. A month into it, this might be happening in The Ukraine. The downside of this information glut is that we take on the rest of the world’s problems as our own. We have outrage and sympathy for the victims of the world, and we want vengeance and retribution meted out on the perpetrators. But getting swept up into yet another whole emotional drama—this one being played out on the big stage of the whole world—just adds to our already full slate of worries and dramas. And unless we are very careful, it can easily add to the victim-perpetrator dynamic which set it in motion in the first place.

We can decide to focus either on the external world and what is going on there, or on our own internal world and what is going on inside our own minds. These two faces of the same coin, the internal and the external, have always existed and always will, and they are of course woven together. What Buddhism offers the world is this perspective: If you want to do something about the external state of the world, why wars happen and why we continue to make the same mistakes over and over, you need to look inwards at your own consciousness—at the roots of conflict. The Buddha taught that everything proceeds from consciousness and conditions of the mind, so for me as a Buddhist monk I need to look at why individual people suffer, why I suffer, and why the accumulated mass of suffering among many people can lead to conflict. One of the great Japanese Zen Masters of the 20th Century, Sawaki Kodo, made the following statement about this: “Since the dawn of history, human beings have constantly fought with each other. No matter how big or small the war is, the root cause is our minds, which have a tendency to make us growl at each other.” *

            In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought:  it is founded on our thoughts; it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the wagon….If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.”* These two great teachers make it very clear that we have to assume responsibility for our own mental state, and that outer peace follows from inner peace. On the deepest level of human being, it is that simple.

            I recently was invited to represent Buddhism at an interfaith symposium held in Bakersfield, the theme of which was “Living Together in Oneness.” The topic was chosen to celebrate the 135th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, another of the great teachers—by his example of non-violence—of the 20th Century. There were six religions represented. We all had ten minutes to give a short talk on our religion and answer four questions pertaining to how our religion can help or hinder the cause of living together in oneness. All the other five speakers spoke about God, and what God has shown or decreed to be how people should live. But I chose to focus on Buddhism as a religion of practice, and how actual religious practice shows us the things in ourselves that we can identify as the roots of suffering or the roots of conflict, and use our practice to change ourselves for the better, and be easier people to live with. This process of doing something about ourselves makes it possible for individual people to find inner peace and, by extension, for groups of people to live together peacefully.

            If we do not take personal responsibility for our own mental state and for our own state of happiness or misery, then in all likelihood we will be looking outside of ourselves at other people, the president, the state of the nation or the world, as the reasons why we are unhappy or upset. We will forever be blaming external circumstances. Will external circumstances ever come around to being so nice that they show us some sort of special favor in which we can be forever happy? Just in asking such a question we can see that it is ridiculous to hope for such a thing, and yet it is, in essence, what people habitually do. Or people think that God will somehow make it all better for them. But will He?

            One of the speakers at the symposium had a deeply pessimistic view of humankind, saying that people cannot really do anything to help themselves out of their misery and fighting. He indicated that training is useless and that the only way out is to believe in the right things with respect to God. Such an attitude is, to me, one of despair in the higher nature of human beings; we are in such a fallen state that all we can do is appeal to a god for salvation from it. Buddhism addresses human misery from the diametrically opposite vantage point: people have a pure, unstained nature, which is one with and indistinguishable from Buddha Nature. But when we think and act with evil thoughts, as the Buddha said, the result is a karmic wake—unhappiness, pain, a feeling of separation—and we lose sight of that purity. Thus the Law of Karma gives us every opportunity to connect together causes and effects, and to learn from our mistakes.

            It is we who cause our own misery, and only we ourselves who can transform misery into peace and contentedness by thinking and acting with pure intentions. Do we need an idea of God for this to happen?

            The Buddha taught that there is an “Unborn, Undying, Uncreated and Unchanging.” He left it at that. He was pointing people beyond the struggles of human life with things that are created, subject to change, aging and death, and because he found that there is indeed Something far greater than changing, conditioned things, we can find a cure for suffering. If there was nothing more sublime or enduring within external things that change, age, constantly slip away and die, then there would be reason to be pessimistic, but that is not the nature of the universe. There is every reason to be hopeful, every reason to admire the beauty within human beings—but it does not come automatically or easily. We have to train ourselves, and that is the hard part. But for that matter I have always asked myself: ‘what choice do I really have, given that not to train is to despair and willingly remain a miserable human being?’ So, I train myself and I know that it works and that I have found very deep contentment and will continue to do so. In Buddhism we recognize that we need to learn to sit still within ourselves and keep a basic set of moral precepts—then God helps us. Up until that point we are pretty much just spinning our wheels.

            In a nutshell, it is ignorance, together with the desire and the anger born out of them, that take hold of people and propel them into conflict. The most basic ignorance is not to be aware that we have a pure nature and that by learning to sit still within ourselves we can come to know it. If humanity as a whole knew that happiness is to be found within, and understood the means to find it, there would be less bloodshed; but as it is, most religions do not help much with this problem. They talk instead about an external God to whom we must submit, or believe in the existence of, or that we should believe in any one of hundreds of different variations of doctrines about God.

            There is a very dangerous pitfall in all this, which is that people with power and authority tend to use belief systems to control and manipulate. Pretty soon people are subjugated to ideologies, for their own good since that is how God has ordained things. Then ends justify means and so killing people who stand in the way becomes necessary, and by now all the conditions necessary for a war are in place. Many tiny little acts of ignorance, hatred, and violence accumulate into a force of considerable inertia—a karmic force of action and consequence. It requires individuals, acting on their own, to stop the otherwise endless course of cause and effect playing out as victims and perpetrators striking and retaliating.

            In the Constitution of the United States, what is enshrined as the core of what humans aspire to is “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Our founding fathers probably had no idea of the incredible wealth that a country could amass and perhaps they had no idea of the level of greed that their words would ultimately inspire. But the misguided pursuit of happiness lies exactly at the heart of uneasiness in Americans, who genuinely think that wealth, things, money and security can buy happiness. Two and a half centuries after the nation was founded, we have accumulated vast material wealth but have we eliminated unhappiness, violence or discontentment? There is just as much of those human things as ever. There is a saying that “money can’t buy happiness”, but generally speaking, few people really know what does bring about happiness.

            Now that the old paradigm seems to be slowly crumbling, we have to ask ourselves, where did it lead? If we look with positive eyes, we can see that it leads us towards the truth. If selfishness is a dead-end, we need to be unselfish and learn to give instead. And we have to recognize that we need to develop spiritually, that spiritual maturity is necessary to actually be at peace.

            The Buddha also gave the following teaching: “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’—in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.  ‘He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me,’—in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease. For never does hatred cease by hatred here below:  hatred ceases by love; this is an eternal law.”*

            Anyone who sits down and honestly, carefully examines their own thoughts through meditation, will see this kind of thinking going on.  And, taking the Buddha’s words to heart, we can replace the complaining mind, the mind of blaming external circumstances and other people for our problems, with a mind which loves. We can accept in stillness and gentle, loving equanimity our own inner conflictedness and learn to have love for it. This is how it is transformed from negative thinking into positive thinking. It is necessary to work at this steadily, every day, because the complaining, angry mind is never far away. It comes back again and again and needs constant training. There is, as my master used to put it, no way out, around, or under this. And so daily spiritual practice is indispensable, absolutely necessary—we cannot change ourselves without it. How can we realistically hope to change the world by any other means? Individual people doing their own practice to the best of their ability change the world. It is what we have to offer, the greatest act of giving that we can make.

            True Peace lies in quietude, a quiet which lies within the human heart and not somewhere outside of it. We must look for and sit still within the quiet center of our inner selves every day, otherwise there is never an end to wanting things, and this wanting is itself suffering. The boundless love, the great compassion for human beings that we find in the center of our being is the answer to all questions and the source of all true peace and contentment.


The Zen Teaching of “Homeless” Koda; Kosho Uchiyama, Kyoto Zen Center, Japan, 1990

The Dhammapada, verses 1 through 5, translated by Irving Babbit; New Directions Books, New York, 1965. Originally published in 1936.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat–Continued

Rev. Master Seikai

The article Row, Row, Row Your Boat first appeared in the January-February, 2008 issue of this newsletter. Thirteen years later it is just as relevant, if not more so, given the striving nature of American society. I am adding some thoughts to the end of the article in light of the passage of time.

            Often I have a vivid mental image, while in meditation, of rowing a canoe or a kayak.  It is a peaceful image, one that conveys the quiet effort of stroking the water with a paddle, first on one side of the boat and then on the other side.  In pure meditation practice, there is a harmonization of the effort to sit still—and not allow all the distractions that the mind comes up with to pull me away from being awake and mindful—with the effort to have an open heart and embrace thoughts that present themselves with an accompanying feeling of anger, sadness, or dis-ease of any kind.

            Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream

            Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

            Life is but a dream.

            About ten years ago, I printed out this poem and put it up on the wall next to the door of my room in the monastery for a period of time.  It was a constant reminder to relax in the midst of tension.  Probably every child easily learns this little song, and then as we age into adults, we just as easily forget it.  But it has very great meaning in its few short lines; it is a very Buddhist rhyme.  I particularly like the word ‘gently,’ which is a reminder and a pointer away from pushing it too hard, or having the attitude of expending energy in a heroic manner in order to achieve something eminently desirable.

            America is a nation that epitomizes the Asura realm.  In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Mandala painting, there are typically six worlds, arranged in a circle as slices of pie in a dish, around a small inner circle with images of three animals—a pig, representing desire; a snake, representing anger; and a cock, representing the delusion of a separate self, an ego to be glorified.  One of those six pie slices is the world of the asuras, said to be titans or giants who are usually depicted attempting to storm their way into the heaven realm.  The army of heaven is shown repulsing the attack.

            Asuras do not have it bad.  They have a comfortable existence.  And yet, they are not content with it and so, because of their ambition, they feel it is necessary to have it even better and thus they are compelled to find a way into heaven.  Many, many people suffer from this condition, and I use the term suffer in the Buddhist sense of: this is suffering.  All of us can look at our lives and see some past event or some current attitude in which we fall for this condition of mind. 

            What the asuras lack is gentleness of mind.  They are slaves to aggression, ambition, comparing themselves with others—the lack of contentment.  They are literally trying to climb a ladder into what they imagine to be a better world, the heavenly realm where, presumably, they will be eternally happy.

            Even if asuras were to succeed in gaining access to heaven, they would eventually stumble into an immutable law of the universe: There is no eternal happiness of the kind that they seek.  What is more, the realm that they had already occupied, the asura realm, is a perfectly good realm to begin with, and all the effort to escape it has been in essence for nothing.  It has all been a big lie.  And so it is with Americans who try so mightily to amass wealth, to gain power, money, status and eternal security against all the forces arrayed to erode away their imagined happiness.

            The experience of the asura realm—ambition for life to be bigger, better, more secure and happier—is one way to find out for oneself the truth that the Buddha taught:  The root cause of suffering is ignorance, i.e. simply not knowing that we are already sufficiently endowed with what we truly need to be happy and content, and that desire follows upon that ignorance with the swiftness of a flash of lightning.  Desire, no matter how subtle, will forever be a cause for a deep inner feeling of lack or want, which we often give the name of inadequacy.  Inadequacy and its marriage partner pride are the foundation for all the delusions of a separate, inadequate self.

            Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.  Obviously, the stream is a metaphor for human life.  Rowing is the effort we make on a moment-to-moment basis to pay attention, be still and open; rowing gently is to be content with life, and not demand more from it than we really need—a totally un-American attitude of mind.  Thus it can seem that to ignore the current of what most people are doing is to seemingly be committed to rowing upstream against the current.  The Buddha is said to have put his begging bowl in the current of a river and watched it float upstream against the flow of the water.  It was a small miracle to indicate that what he was doing was on the right track, and that it is possible to flow gently in the current, even if it is against the current of the world.

            People often ask me how it can be that if desire is the cause of suffering, you can still have a motivation to train yourself—a positive desire to find peace in your life, or some level of spiritual attainment.  The answer is, as Rev. Master Jiyu often said, that it is necessary to “start out on the me side of things”, which is to say that the motivation to find peace of heart, or to look for an end to ones suffering, is a good motivation.  What tends to happen, however, is that our human tendency to have a self-driven orientation can get in the way of the purer orientation of just giving up our selfishness.  After all, “What’s in it for me?”  We want good stuff that we can definitely say we have found, that we know, that has made us better people.  What’s in it me for works for a while, but then life will beckon us to find a deeper source of motivation, to look for a deeper meaning to our inner lives. 

            So we are left in an ongoing situation of having to slowly purify our motivation and let go of the clinging that is in it.  This is inherently not easy to do; even in the helping professions, areas of life in which people are trying very hard to give of themselves, make a difference, work for the welfare of others, it is still very easy for self to get into it.  “Look what I have done to help people; look what I have done to save the world!”  It’s good as far as it goes, but if there is still clinging to what a self can do, there will still be suffering.

            Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.  This line gives us a new perspective on things:  if life is a dream, what is there that is truly solid or lasting that we can hold onto and say, “this is mine—I did this”?  In Buddhism, the teaching of selflessness and impermanence point us to this basic orientation.  There isn’t anything really permanent or lasting to call a self or label as an accomplishment of me.  There is a endless flow of change, an endless coming into being of phenomenon, endless change and endless dying, passing back into nothingness.  It is simply the way things are.

            When I was young, young people—having read some sort of Hindu philosophy or something—would sometimes say, “It’s all just a big illusion—maya.”  That was a way to duck out of taking responsibility for ones actions, or of just saying ‘to hell with it’.  There is a deeper way, a Middle Way, which is to care deeply for living beings, including oneself, and to make consistent efforts to help beings.  Life is a dream and yet it is still good to do something positive and to practice wholeheartedly.  It is possible to put great effort into practice and not get too caught up in the results, or look upon the results, or the lack of results, and think that you are either a really good person or a real chump.

            It took me many years to see the value of being merry, or at least of being a basically positive person who was happy with himself and with life.  It took a lot of Buddhist training and a lot of effort to get there.  But it was worth it.  I wouldn’t look back and want it to be different.  Being negative, cynical, disparaging, or saying ‘to hell with it’ is a basically self-indulgent attitude, mired in suffering.  If we train well, we can start to see clearly that to nurture such an attitude is in itself suffering.  It is so much better for oneself and the world to put it down.  And it should not be underestimated that doing so helps the entire world.  Life is but a dream, which is worth living, which can be “the playground of the Bodhisattva.”

Continued, June, 2021

            Because continuous change is a law of the universe, I am a different person now than I was thirteen years ago, and the world has also changed in various ways. We tend to put a value judgment on whether the changes of the past few years, or past few decades, have been changes for the “better” or have been changes for the “worse.” For myself, I would prefer not to make any such judgment, either for my own life or for the world at large. Rather, it seems better to just look at life in as unbiased a way as possible, and leave the judgments for later.

            Within the flow of constant change, some things appear not to change, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the superficial aspects of things change but the essence does not. For instance, what I wrote about regarding the image of paddling quietly down a river, one stroke at a time, is an image that is still with me. That gentle effort of being still and balanced is right at the heart of my meditation. The distractions, the negative energy that seems to be awash in the world right now—those things are temporary phenomena. They flow in waves and they arise and disappear quickly.

            As we move through our lives, we cherish the desire for things to be a certain way, or that our deepest wishes will be fulfilled. That longing or desire gives most people something to live for, a reason to get up in the morning and pursue the activities of a day. Without such a desire, or when the desire is crushed by the vicissitudes of life, most people are left without a clear-cut reason for living. As long as the goal of life is of an external nature, then we leave ourselves vulnerable to misfortune—which is actually very common in this topsy-turvy world. It isn’t easy to look beyond all the external sources of motivation and shift your baseline motivation towards learning, on a spiritual level, to be content with little. Or, if you have a higher aspiration which partakes of a desire to relieve the sufferings of other beings, human and animal, then the problem becomes our tendency to cling to a particular outcome for our efforts. Then, for such people, the thing which needs to be learned is to let go of our insistence upon a good outcome. That might be even harder than learning to just be content with little.

            It takes a profound humility to live without insisting on anything, to accept things as they are, but still work for the good of all living things. I believe that this more subtle motivation must include oneself, meaning that we need to have an awareness of our own suffering and a longing to be liberated from it. Being someone who has had an acute awareness of my own suffering from a very young age, it amazes me that, on the whole, this is a state of being that people can’t quite bring themselves to acknowledge. It is like having a really serious illness that goes undiagnosed for years. But for myself I’ve found that the spiritual path, i.e. meditation practice, the practices of compassion, tolerance and kindness, are in and of themselves liberation from suffering, and also confirmation of a nobler aspiration in life.

            I ran across this quote attributed to Marcus Aurelius (121—180 A.D.) who was Roman Emperor from 161-180: “Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life?”  Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.

            Marcus Aurelius, besides being emperor, was a Stoic philosopher. Today it would be improbable to the point of impossible that a statesman would be able to weave a profound philosophy of life into his political speeches and actions. There is far too much cynicism and negative energy in the world for that. But we can appreciate that, at least at one time in Western history, this actually happened. The following short quotes have a very Buddhist flavor: “You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength”; “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts”; “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

            It is fascinating that a Roman emperor who lived 1800 years ago would have had things to say that are spot on for our own time and yet, like the Buddha 700 years before him, he was speaking to a reality which is beyond the superficial aspects of human life. Truth of that nature is timeless and takes us beyond the things that are constantly changing and over which we have little or no control. Truths that go to the heart of the matter. To say that we have the power to, at any moment, revoke how we have previously viewed our failures, successes, fortunate moments, misfortunes, struggles and achievements is a really powerful statement. It is what rowing your boat gently down the stream is really saying: life is like a dream, not to be taken too seriously. We can decide how we are going to view and react to things, but it takes integrity and strength of character to do so.

            The asura realm is dependent on competitiveness and the concepts of winning and losing. Without them, we humans would be much more inclined to love each other, take care of each other, and take care of this planet, our home. As it is, competitiveness and striving create blindness which makes it difficult to even imagine how we could potentially live in harmony. When I look at the worlds of politics, big business, athletics and even religion, I see there is usually a gaining motive. When immersed in the gain/loss paradigm, winning becomes all-important, and the logical next step is that the end justifies the means, and that opens the door to all the cruelty that goes on in this world. This is the basic conflict which is played out again and again in the human realm, affecting almost every aspect of our lives. In order to be first, winning, or to make a big pile of money, gaining, people resort to anything and everything, however immoral.

            The only way it can change is for individual people to recognize that there is cause and effect: we suffer because we set in motion the causes of suffering. Those causes include all of the most common forms of misconduct: lying, cheating, and stealing. They are so ubiquitous that as a society we now pretty much shrug and accept that many, if not most, people are dishonest. People assume that if they can get away with something illegal or immoral, they’re off the hook; there are no consequences. But the law of karma has no statute of limitations with regards to time. Stories come out all the time of people whose past catches up to them many years, often decades, later; and we can be paying in this lifetime for the misdeeds of people long dead whose karmic storehouse has been passed on to us. From my own experience I know how true this basic teaching of the Buddha truly is.

            Having spent this lifetime cleaning up the nightmarish karma left behind by misguided people in the past, this purification process has brought me to a deeper mind, a deeper reality. To just row my boat gently down the stream of life is enough, and it is possible to reach a place where just doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice is all that we really need to do in this world. There is no need to gain anything, be widely admired and respected or be a hero. Just being, and making full use of this opportunity of having a human body and mind to learn and explore the truth is all you can hope for and it is all that you will take with you when it’s time to leave.


Mangala Sutta  ~  The Highest Blessings

A Scripture Spoken by the Buddha

By Rev. Master Seikai

The scripture has been translated into English as follows:

Thus have I heard that the Blessed One

Was staying at Savatthi,

Residing at the Jeta’s Grove

In Anathapindika’s Park.

Then in the dark of the night, a radiant deva

Illuminated all Jeta’s Grove

She bowed down low before the Blessed One,

Then standing to one side she said:

“Devas are concerned for happiness

And ever long for peace;

The same is true for humankind.

What, then, are the highest blessings?”

“Avoiding those of foolish ways,

Associating with the wise,

And honoring those worthy of honor;

These are the highest blessings.

Living in places of suitable kinds,

With the fruits of past good deeds,

And guided by the rightful way;

These are the highest blessings.

Accomplished in learning and craftsman’s skills,

With discipline – highly trained –

And speech that is true and pleasant to hear;

These are the highest blessings.

Providing for mother and father’s support,

And cherishing family,

And ways of work that harm no being;

These are the highest blessings.

Giving with Dharma in the heart,

Offering help to relatives and kin,

And acting in ways that leave no blame;

These are the highest blessings.

Steadfast in restraint, and shunning evil ways,

Avoiding intoxicants that dull the mind,

And heedfulness in all things that arise;

These are the highest blessings.

Respectful of humble ways,

Contentment and gratitude,

And hearing the Dharma frequently taught;

These are the highest blessings.

Patience and willingness to accept ones faults,

Seeing venerated seekers of the truth,

And sharing often the words of the Dharma;

These are the highest blessings.

The Holy Life lived with ardent effort,

Seeing for oneself the Noble Truths,

And the realization of Nirvana;

These are the highest blessings.

Although involved in worldly ways,

Unshaken the mind remains,

And beyond all sorrow, spotless, secure;

These are the highest blessings.

They who live by following this path

Know victory wherever they go,

And every place for them is safe;

These are the highest blessings.”

            In accounts of the Buddha’s life and teaching, it is taken for granted that he had contact with and taught celestial beings, in this case “a radiant deva”.  A deva can be defined as the resident of another realm of existence, in which life is extraordinarily pleasant by the standards of human existence. We use the term ‘heaven’ in Western religious writing, but I prefer to avoid that word owing to its connotation to the Bible and biblical meanings.

            Despite the pleasantness of their realm, devas often came to the Buddha for teaching.  It is said that they would do so during the middle of the night, when there were few, if any, humans about and it was very still and quiet.  The Buddha is said to have reserved the middle watch of the night for giving teaching to celestial beings; devas are extremely sensitive beings and avoid the usual human noise and activity.  In the Mangala Sutta, however, the Buddha could easily be speaking to a human audience.  His advice is universal in nature.  He is outlining how to live an unusually pure life, one that is focused on peace and contentment, one that lifts humans up from their customary lack of awareness.

            There is also an aspect of the Buddha’s reply to the deva’s question being spelled out in a graduated form, from more accessible ways of cultivating peace, towards a higher level of refinement.  Avoiding the foolish, living in suitable places, honoring ones parents, cherishing family, etc. while not necessarily easy, are things we can do is we are so motivated. Then the Buddha moves on to more refined aspects, including abstaining from intoxicants, heedfulness, and listening to the Dharma – things that are not commonly practiced in the human realm.

            Being patient and accepting ones faults are attributes of the well developed personality, signs that a person has really done some work on themselves. Seeing the (Four) Noble Truths takes us to another level of understanding of this human realm: we can see how our lives are imbued with existential struggles, and that to be truly happy is difficult; we can see that there are causes to our struggles and unhappiness – usually unfulfilled cravings and desires that drive us to do things we regret; we can see that it is possible to bring these desire and addiction cycles to an end; and we have been given a priceless treasure – the Eightfold Path – which is a set of tools for ending these sorrows and living a contented, peaceful existence.

            Experiencing relief from the existential struggle for happiness is to experience Nirvana – the cooling down of desires, and the calming down of the wind.  In Buddhism, this is regarded as the highest of blessings, the fulfillment of practice.  Meditation practice shows us that we simultaneously try to build up our own ego whilst ridiculing and criticizing others in our thoughts.  To let go of this futile effort, and be willing to just be, to just accept ourselves and others as we are, is the highest blessing.

            To experience the highest blessings, we don’t have to become great or famous people.  We don’t have to become rich; we will be rich people on the spiritual level, on the level that really matters, if we take to heart the Buddha’s words, give up what is unattainable and learn to appreciate the beauty, joy, fulfillment and peace that we already have.


Rev Phoebe,  

            I was thinking about “Preserving the Dharma and Expressing It” after reading your email. I volunteer at The Portland Rescue Mission serving the huge homeless population in downtown Portland. You could call this the “Skid Row“ of Portland. Sometimes before I leave I bow to Buddha on my altar. There is tremendous suffering you see down in this part of Portland. I pass out food to hundreds of hungry and cold, frustrated people living on the street. Many tell me, “God Bless you” and I respond, “God Bless you too”.

            Some people are very grateful and kind and there are others who are indifferent. I have learned to serve and not have expectations. There are all different characters that stand in front of my face and most don’t wear masks. I can see their facial expressions but they can’t see mine, I wonder if they can sense that I am trying my best to smile. We have a lady named Nancy that kicks and hits the door yelling “I want my food right now!” She takes off her clothes and walks in the middle of the road. She calls me an asshole because breakfast isn’t passed out early. I explain to her in a calm way, “You have two minutes and it will be ready”.  There is a guy named Devin who talks in the third person and demands more trays and flips me off.  He cuts in front of the line and people start yelling, screaming and threatening him with physical violence. 

            Sometimes I get frustrated and feel like walking away, but I tell myself that these people are suffering and that they too want to be happy and free from suffering. Breakfast is served until 8:00 am. When I leave I feel good. Even when I’m there and they do the group prayers I feel it. It’s moving. I’m not a Christian person but this organization is faith based. What’s cool though is that religion never gets brought up or discussed. We are busy serving those who need to be served. We are meeting people where they are at. “Come as you are”. This is an expression I like. 

            You hear a lot about “What would Jesus do?”, which can be a helpful question.  Should we also ask, ‘What would Buddha do?’ Buddha would tell us, “Realize self and others as one”. This person who is making it difficult and is hard to have sympathy for—this person is just like me and deserves compassion. They deserve understanding and to be treated equally. This person is not invisible and has not been forgotten. Buddha would say “Give generously and do not be withholding”. Wish the best for the guest, actualize good to others.  

            I think Buddha’s fundamental teaching that “life is suffering” is very important. Maybe realizing that no matter what—yes, we shall suffer—but nothing feels as good as helping a person you don’t know. Being aware and mindful of each scoop of oatmeal or pancakes I put in their to-go tray, it’s feeding a living being and we don’t need to be homeless to understand to the value of food. When I make up the tray I try to remain mindful, although maybe not in a slow, deliberate fashion, because people need to eat.

            So I have learned even if you are active and overwhelmed, you can still be mindful.  If it wasn’t for Buddha being born I would not be here. I would have never questioned the true nature of reality, and I would be wandering aimlessly through suffering. Yes, I still feel hopeless at times, but I realize that this too shall pass. “Everybody wants to be happy and free from suffering”—this is my new mantra that I repeat to myself. I cannot end homelessness, but I can say “good morning” and even “God bless you too”. These people are on the streets, living in tent cities, suffering from horrendous mental health issues. Some I can relate to because I was on the streets as a young teenager. If I just keep on keeping on with my mantra, “Everybody wants to be happy and free from suffering”, then after that all I can do is my best.  

            Even if I don’t believe in an interventionist God, I still say “God Bless You”. Thank you for reading this and I’m sorry for the inconvenience of two emails.