Articles Newsletter July 2021

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. 

***