Peace of Mind
By Rev. Master Seikai
Earlier this month I was one of seven people on a backpacking trip in the highest part of the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the area around Mt. Whitney. People naturally want to know something about each other when they are part of a cohesive unit for a week or more, so I am inevitably asked why I became a monk. People are amazed that I started at such a young age and have stuck with it for 42 years.
One fellow in particular took more than a passing interest in knowing the hows and whys of a person taking ordination as a Buddhist monk: the question being, what would motivate you to do such a drastic thing in the first place? Although on a backpacking trip I prefer not to talk while walking—I view walking as a form of meditation and most of the time I don’t have enough breath to both talk and walk—sometimes I relent.
I said that I knew from an early age that the normal world wasn’t for me: the nine-to-five job; having a family and a career; trying to make a lot of money so that, at the end of it all, you can retire and live off the accumulated wealth of your working life. The whole prospect seemed empty and pointless to me because what I really wanted was to follow a spiritual path, and what really motivated me to do that was that I suffered and wanted to find peace of mind.
I was always amazed as a young person that most of my peers seemed to enjoy life. We were often told that being young were the best years of your life, and to enjoy them while you had the chance. I would inwardly groan—I was unhappy. I had internal demons to deal with and, through some sort of merit accrued from previous existences, had sufficient insight to know that if I was in fact going to find peace of mind it would come from training my mind. Peace of mind wasn’t going to come from any external measure of success, but rather from effort applied to an internal process of transformation. The idea of enlightenment or awakening had great appeal.
This is what I told my backpacking friend. And so I became a vegetarian and started meditating at the age of 18. At that age it is not easy to say to the world that you simply don’t care what your family and most adults think will be a fulfilling life. But, stubborn mule that I am, that’s what I did, and I started meditating and dropped out of college and a “normal life.” (On the first day of our trek, while hiking on one of the main trails in the area, a mule came galloping along, having busted loose from its pack team or corral. I thought, “that’s me”.)
From an early age I followed my heart, which took me out of the Midwest to the wide open spaces of the West. One thing led to another and, as part of that internal process of transformation, I asked to join Shasta Abbey, a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. But throughout all these changes the underlying motivation was to find peace of mind, and to be happy and content within myself. Becoming was monk didn’t seem to me to be a huge act of renunciation, because I didn’t really have anything to renounce other than deep, internal pain.
Most people, like my hiking friend, if they ever arrive at a place in life where they think like I did as a young adult, don’t usually reach that place until later in life. The mid-life crisis is a term given to the upheaval that many people experience when they realize that everything they’ve worked so hard to achieve in life for the past twenty years or more just isn’t very fulfilling. Is this all there is? There’s got to be something more to life, but what is it? That kind of questioning, painful and difficult though it may be, is a prerequisite to setting forth on a spiritual path.
Peace of mind is hard to arrive at in this topsy-turvy, crazy, misguided world. People chase after things; they pursue their dreams; they chase the opposite sex (or whatever sex); they look just about everywhere except deep within themselves. Meditation, after all, is hard to do. Most people with whom I sit down to teach and talk about meditation tell me that they can’t meditate because their mind is wild and crazy. They can’t really concentrate or drive the endless thoughts out of their head. Given that the human mind is restless and pulled in many directions, it’s an easy mistake to make to think that the opposite of this—to sit serenely with a totally blank mind, free of nasty, distracting thoughts—is what meditation is.
My response to this, as I told a few of my backpacking friends at the end of our trek, is that if you can sit down long enough to watch yourself breath in and out one time, you can meditate. Nothing is more natural than breathing, and we all have the capacity to simply observe ourselves for a moment doing so. And if you can do that one time, most likely you can do it ten times, and if you can do it ten times, you can do it a hundred times. By this logical progression, you can work your way up to a million or more times of paying attention for one breath.
Just observing natural breathing and natural thought. It’s almost too simple for the brain to comprehend. What? I don’t have to achieve anything? There’s nothing to chase after or chase out of my head? Just sitting there, breathing in and out, having stray thoughts come and go—letting them go as opposed to getting involved in them—is, in and of itself, peace of mind. The great Zen Master Dogen, the patriarch of the Soto Zen school, said: This type of meditation is not something that is done in stages; it is simply the lawful gateway to carefree peace.
We are so conditioned to want things, to think that we lacking in some fundamental way, it comes as a shock to discover that in fact you’ve never lacked anything you actually need in order to have peace of mind. But, on the other hand, what you do have is the force of habit that has accrued your whole life of thinking that something is lacking. Or like me, some internal demons, or anxiety, which have been set in motion by traumatic events somewhere in the distant past combined with that sense of lack.
For me, this process of awakening to the simplicity of how peace of mind is actually cultivated occurred more than 40 years ago. As I told my friend, I had a series of spiritual awakenings which clarified for me the causes of my own suffering, how to convert my demons, and how to be at peace in a world which back then was already plenty crazy and misguided, and has only become moreso in the years since. Humankind has the collective delusion that the answers to problems lie “out there, somewhere”, and what people put forth as the real solution to life’s many ills has gotten increasingly delusional.
For someone in my shoes, the political struggles of the modern world, the culture and ideology wars, are a reflection of inner disharmony that exists within the human mind in seven billion people. If we are ever going to solve our collective problems, such as human overpopulation, environmental degradation, climate change, global warming, wealth disparity, poverty, deaths of despair or by gunshot wounds, a revolution in consciousness would have to come first before any effective answers present themselves.
The world we have created is a perfect reflection of the struggles that go on within the human mind: the lack of peace, the inability to sit still and be content within the human mind. We have created thousands, millions, of distractions to entertain the mind, to take it off its many ills and pretend that they don’t exist, or that we can blot them out for however long we choose. The end result is that now we live in a stressed-out world. People are, collectively, at the end of their rope and becoming increasingly desperate for an answer, something, anything to make life better.
It’s a cliché to say it but it’s nevertheless true: changing the world for the better starts with one human being changing their own mind. One human being training their own mind. It may be the most difficult job in the world to train the mind but, as the Buddha pointed out 2,500 years ago, there is no shortcut. My master, on many occasions, would say that “the secret of life is will—words are its key.” Things don’t change by magic; they change by getting to the root of the problem and doing something positive to change it.
My backpacking friend told me that when he started to pray and practice gratitude for what he had, his life changed. Just that one small shift had a profound impact: being grateful for what you already have, and recognizing that you are already blessed in many ways, as opposed to thinking about what you lack and want. It’s one of the ways in which we can start to train our minds.
The essence of Zen is to give up the self. Being generous and practicing gratitude are often the door into giving up the self; it feels good to give of what you have to other people less fortunate than yourself, or to give even just for the sake of giving.
People who stick with their meditation practice and arrive at an awareness of their own internal thought processes can begin to see that there are areas of the mind that are flat-out ugly. Or so we think. What we are becoming aware of is that by our own thinking we lose peace of mind because many of our thoughts are self-centered. Self-centeredness or selfish thinking is, in and of itself, a kind of suffering. We generate our own suffering by means of conditioned thinking, thinking which puts “me” at the center of things and lists all the innumerable wrongs that we have had to suffer, and all of our many achievements, most of which go unnoticed.
When I became fully aware of how this kind of thinking worked in my own mind, I decided, ‘you know what? This is a whole lot of hooey and nonsense. It’s a whole load of self- pity and self-praise, and I’m just not buying it anymore. I’m ready to let it go.’ First you have to decide that you’ve had enough of the suffering—the immediate, evident lack of peace of mind—that plagues your own mind, and are going to do something about it. You have to stop affixing the blame for it on anyone or anything else. Real meditation is to go into that place in yourself where suffering is generated and learn to sit still.
I found this passage in Sierra Magazine, which sums up the current predicament in America:
Now, the United States is in another dark hour. America is, once again, a house divided—the nation as wounded and separated against itself as it has been at any time in the past 150 years. Our ideological divisions are mapped onto the land itself, as the young and the progressive are clustered in ethnically diverse cities while conservative whites are increasingly isolated in rural redoubts. We inhabit not just distinct geographies but also seemingly different worlds; we can’t even agree on the basic facts of the biology of the human body or the chemistry of the atmosphere. Ideological polarization is at an all-time high. Social trust is at an all-time low. Some of the most sober political commentators have warned that we could be on the verge of another civil war.1
In other words, everyone is blaming everyone else for the many problems which exist right now. There is total polarization. The article from which the quote was drawn was about the possibility that public lands, the existence of which a huge majority of people support, and would like to see maintained, might serve as a commonality around which people on opposite ends of the political spectrum can join together, thus bridging the huge ideological chasm that exists. This might well be true on one level—I would certainly be happy to see it happen. But I can’t help but go to the next deeper level, that of the human mind and why people behave as they do, and suggest that the real problem is here, not out there. Selfishness; the need to be right about things, the need to be in control of everything, the long list of demands made by an insecure, frightened, restless self.
That’s the culture that we have created. Spoiled, insistent, impatient, afraid, with a grossly inflated view of itself: the culture of selfishness. I don’t know how whole societies turn around, if that is even possible. It could be that only time, which eventually grinds everything down into dust, can accomplish that. But even if true, in the meantime, if there were a growing movement of people who recognized that what we really need to do is address our collective selfishness, things would start to change for the better.
On a personal level, there is always something you can do about yourself. Right now, many people that I talk to express anxiety about the situation in America and the world, and openly worry about it. Certainly there is plenty to worry about on one level, but if you stop long enough to reflect on the net effect which being plugged into mainstream news media has on the human mind, you can begin to see that by being plugged in you are giving away peace of mind.
Personally, peace of mind is my choice. When I notice my mind starting to ramble on about politics, human ignorance and stupidity, what a fix we’re in, etc., etc., I say to myself “enough, already.” I go back to that place I mentioned above in which I decide that the superficial world is not for me; it cannot possibly make me happy or content or bring peace of mind. Even if things were to go “my way” for a couple weeks or months, they will then surely flip over and go against me for an equal amount of time. In the Zen tradition, many people call this moment of reckoning “going back to the meditation cushion.”
Rev. Phoebe recently wrote the following via email to those who support or regularly visit the temple and, eloquent and insightful as it is, bears repeating now:
Good morning friends, from a smoky and windy mountain, where we count our blessings and offer thoughts of loving kindness and patience to all those who are more deeply affected by the recent fires and sickness.
This past week I have been meditating outside and watched the sunlight creep down from the mountain tops in the mornings, and the shadows creep up from the valley floor in the evenings. As a friend once observed: “darkness does not fall, it rises.” So true.
What impresses me most during these times of watching is how fast the earth is moving and conditions change. You can actually see it happening, even though we do not feel it. So true.
People have been saying they have difficulty maintaining a balanced mental state; circumstances are so volatile their emotions and moods fluctuate wildly, too. One day years ago when I made that complaint to one of my teachers, he laughed and said: “every time you swing from one extreme to the other, you hit the Middle—briefly.” Sometimes the swings are more violent, at other times we barely notice them; it is just a gentle swaying.
The Middle Way we all so wish to find is not a fixed state; balance is maintained by our willingness to make adjustments in one direction or the other, as needed. When the sun comes up, we start the day and do what needs to be done, finding shade when it gets too hot. When the night comes, we slow down and rest, or turn on a light to find our way. One is not better than the other, and one solution does not fit every occasion.
Please continue to hold on to your practice, and thank you for staying in touch and helping us take care of the temple and all those who come here.
At the end of my backpacking trip, the smoke from nearby forest fires became so bad that we decided to cut a day off the trip; meanwhile the National Parks (we were in Sequoia NP) and the National Forests were being evacuated. There were a couple of long, hard days of walking but we made it out without any difficulties. I drove back to the temple the evening of the day we exited the forest. There was everything to be grateful for.
I wrote the following in an email: “I believe the world we all grew up in and lived in as adults is pretty well gone. So, now the task is to learn to adapt and live with the changes as they appear. A world full of life-threatening dangers is just the reality of today; you might get Covid -19 and be very ill or die from it, and a wildfire might burn you out of house and home. One way to look at it is to think that we were fortunate enough to live for most of our lives during relatively peaceful, stable times, enjoying a high standard of living and not having to struggle to survive or make a living. But there’s nothing in the Earth Rulebook which requires that things be this way.”
Lest we forget, it is a good exercise to remind ourselves of the basic rules governing human existence. First there is the law of constant change, anicca; everything is in motion, including things which appear to be at rest. Second, there is the law of unsatisfactoriness, dukkha; we humans long for happiness, but it is fleeting, in large part because things are constantly changing, and not always in the ways we want them to. Third, there is the law of selflessness, anatta; what I think of as ‘me’ is also in a state of constant change; I am impermanent. Further, if we are able to give up selfishness, which lies at the root of dukkha, we can experience nirvana, which is the transcendence of self, or of suffering, in this present human body and mind.
Since I do actually have a choice in the matter, I choose the cessation of suffering, nirvana. It has to be cultivated on a day-to-day basis, like a garden, but that too is a rule of human existence. The Buddha said: “Peace is the highest happiness”; peace of mind is the fruit of the tree of practice.
Mark, Jason; Across the Great Divide (Can America’s public lands help heal a wounded country?); Sierra Magazine, July/August 2020; vol. 105, no.4. p. 28.
A Focus for Being Mindful
As frenetic and distracting as the world is, having a small shrine in your home helps enormously to focus the mind. Lighting the altar candle and offering incense help one quiet down in the midst of a busy day and allow one to focus the mind before meditation. The Buddha on the altar is a reminder of the stillness and compassion to be found within meditation. Making the altar beautiful and joyful with flowers and incense is an encouragement to “look up” within the concerns of everyday life. Thus, your altar can be as elaborate or as simple as is appropriate to your circumstances.
The elements of an altar are: a statue, picture or scroll of a Buddha or Bodhisattva; artificial flowers or a plant; a candle or light, a water offering cup and an incense bowl. The flowers are usually arranged to show aspects of the Dharma: a single flower to show unity of all beings; three flowers to represent the Three Treasures; four to represent the Four Noble Truths, and so on. Flowers represent the offering of our training and may reflect the season as a reminder of impermanence. The candle is placed on the Buddha’s left side (the right-hand side facing the altar). This represents the light of the Buddha’s Teaching which comes from the Compassionate Heart of Buddha. The water offering cup placed in front of the Buddha symbolizes the cleansing power of meditation that converts greed, anger and delusion into compassion, love and wisdom. The cup is always kept full, symbolizing that the water of the spirit is always there. The incense bowl stands in front of the water cup. This bowl should be filled with ash or sand and should be deep enough that lit sticks of incense inserted into it can stand upright. Incense is lit and offered before a meditation period, or as an offering to ground yourself during a busy day. The incense stick can also be used to time your meditation period. A five to six inch stick takes about 30 minutes to burn down. The perfume of the incense permeates all corners of the room and thus symbolizes the power of the Teaching to reach and convert all forms of greed, hate and delusion.
An Excerpt From Buddhism From Within
by Rev. Daizui MacPhillamy
Chapter 3: Radical Sobriety; Aspect Two: Clear Thinking
While thought alone is not sufficient to bring about deep understanding, its role is nonetheless important. It can work powerfully either for or against the process of enlightenment. For this reason, the second facet of the [Eightfold] path is ‘right thought.’ Now, it is fairly obvious that thought can work against liberation because many of the intoxicants mentioned in the previous chapter are types of misguided thinking: constant inner chatter, paranoid views, fixed notions that one is incompetent, and the obsession with collecting knowledge are just a few examples. The opposite is equally true: thoughts which help a person to set aside their attachments and intoxications will be useful to people in strengthening their commitment and in guiding them in their practice of the Way.
How does Buddhism recommend setting aside intoxicating and misleading thoughts and undertaking helpful one? There are several ways, but before describing them it might be good to mention one way which is not recommended. That way is to brainwash oneself: to forcibly replace one way of thinking about the world with another. No matter how foolish the first way may be, nor how wise its replacement may be, the act of forcing oneself is itself unwise and doomed to failure. Some schools of Buddhism (including my own) would say that this is because there is within each of us something which deeply loves truth and is already attuned to it. This ‘something,’ which is variously called ‘Buddha Nature,’ ‘bodhicitta,’ or ‘the Mind that seeks the Way,’ may not be accessible to our conscious mind, but it is there nonetheless. It is what guides a person onwards in his or her religious training, even without knowing that it is there. And its nature is fundamentally different from the harsh, judgmental, and superficially certain mind with which one attempts to brainwash oneself. Indeed, Buddha Nature cannot be brainwashed, and it will resist any attempt to do so, even one which is well intentioned. Therefore, the attempt to forcibly replace one way of thinking with another will ultimately run afoul of this deep inner sense of truth, and the results of such a misguided effort will be unstable.
One of the truly useful ways for individuals to change their type of thinking is simply through study. People find it helpful to read the classic texts and commentaries that form the core teachings of their brand of the religion. Some do this because they find that these teachings simply make sense, and this good sense acts to dispel their habitual views. Others do it because reading the teachings, known collectively as ‘Dharma,’ seems to cause something to ‘sink in’ in an indefinable way, a way which, over time, results in new types of thinking about the world. Dharma study, because there is no forcing involved, helps rather than hinders the work of that inner Buddha Nature.
Another way is to honestly question things we tell ourselves. There is a place in Buddhist training for constructive doubt. Another one of the unusual aspects of Buddhism as a religion is its willingness, even its insistence, upon allowing questions to arise about everything, including what it teaches. This honest questioning is so much a part of some forms of Buddhist practice that there is a saying in the Zen school, “Great doubt—great understanding; little doubt—little understanding.” Constructive doubt is questioning with a mind which seeks nothing more than truth and is open to all possibilities, simply posing the question, “Is this true?” That is quite different from the destructive form of doubt which actually does not take the form of a question at all. It says, in effect, “I don’t believe it; prove it!”
The process of asking constructive questions, of being inwardly honest about the truth of our ideas, is helped along by two of the other aspects of the path, mindfulness and meditation…. These aspects are relevant here, though, because they also interact with the thought aspect in another way: they undermine our dependence upon thinking as our sole way of knowing. Unhelpful, intoxicating thoughts tend to have a large effect on us because we generally rely upon our ideas to act as a road map for how to live our lives. But it turns out that these maps are not as accurate as we might wish, even when the thoughts are well tested for truth, much less when they are not. Fortunately, there are other ways of knowing truth besides thinking, and the Path aspects of mindfulness and meditation help to develop those alternative means. When there is no need to rely solely upon thinking to make ones way through life, one can afford to do less of it. Doing less of it means that there is less chance for distracting and inaccurate thoughts to get up to mischief. And that is a large part of right thought.
Many Buddhists find that when they stop filling their minds with their habitual distracting and delusive thoughts, an interesting thing happens. Other thoughts, which have always been there but have rarely had a chance to be heard over the constant “ka-chunk, ka-chunk’ of the hamster wheel, come to the forefront: thoughts involving selfless generosity, compassion, love, and empathy. Some forms of Buddhism simply allow this process to happen naturally; other forms encourage it with formal practices in which this direction of thought is gently developed and extended in a regular and systematic manner. Whichever way these thoughts arise, they are regarded as aspects of enlightenment itself. And that, to a Buddhist, is important.