Ryonen and the Hot Iron

There is a Zen story which I think people find hard to digest now. I think you will see why. It goes like this:

There was a young woman born in 1797 who would one day become the nun known as Ryonen. She was a grand daughter of the famous Japanese warrior Shingen. This status, her poety skills, and her alluring beauty made it possible for her to become one of the Empress’s Ladies of the Court at the young age of 17. She expected to lead a life of great fame. 

One day, the beloved Empress died suddenly and Ryonen’s hopeful dreams vanished. She became acutely aware of the impermanency of life in this world. It was then that she made new plans to become a nun and study Zen. 

Her relatives disagreed with her new plans and forced her into marriage instead, with a promise that she could become a nun after she had borne three children.

Before she was twenty-five she had accomplished this. Her husband and relatives kept their promise and allowed her become a nun. She shaved her head, took the name of Ryonen, which means ‘to realize clearly’, and started on her pilgrimage to find a teacher. 

After some time she came to the city of Edo and asked Tetsugya to accept her as a disciple. At one glance the master rejected her because she was too beautiful. 

Ryonen went to another master, Hakuo. Hakuo refused her for the same reason, saying that her beauty would only make trouble within the temple. 

Ryonen made a decision. 

Now at that time it was the custom for Japanese women to use hot irons to straighten their long hair.  Ryonen obtained such a hot iron and placed it against her face. In a few moments her beauty had vanished forever.

Hakuo then accepted her as a disciple. 

Ryonen wrote a short poem afterwards:

“In the service of my Empress I burned incense to perfume my exquisite clothes,

Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.”

There are two reasons I can see this story sticking in people’s throats.

Firstly, that someone would disfigure themselves, destroy their beauty. We live in an age where people worship beauty, obsess over it in many cases. The thought that someone would renounce it in such a permanent manner will seem extreme to many. But we must remember that Buddhism teaches there are many things more important than physical beauty. Ryonen did what she needed to do, and she knew she was more than just her looks. 

The second reason modern people might find this story unpalatable is Hakuo’s insinuation that her beauty may cause trouble within the temple. I imagine what he meant by this was that some of the monks may be tempted by her. And this is the one that I find difficult to reconcile, especially in this age of renewed gender equality activism.

It brings to mind stories of teenage girls being asked to cover themselves up at school, or being sent home, rather than the teenage boys being taught not to oversexualise shoulders and legs. And this feels the wrong way round. 

Should the monks not have embraced the situation as an extra challenge in their practice? Should Ryonen have had to resort to covering her beauty to be allowed into the temple?

The bottom line is that, in a Temple, practice comes first and anything making it more difficult should be overcome if possible to allow everyone the best chance to achieve their spiritual goals. Ryonen seemed to appreciate this and took it upon herself to renounce her beauty in order to embrace the spiritual life fully. And that she did. 

When Ryonen was close to dying she wrote another short poem which really showed, when compared with her earlier poem, how far she had come in her practice:

“Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scenes of autumn.

I have said enough about moonlight, and still waters reflections.

Ask no more.

Only listen to the quiet voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.”

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dharma archive!

Chocolate Cake

“When you were a child you loved and craved chocolate and cake, and you thought, “When I’m old like my parents, I’ll have all the chocolate and cake I want, and then I’ll be happy.” Now you have so much chocolate and cake, but you’re bored. So you decide that since this doesn’t make you happy you’ll get a car, a house, a television, a husband or wife – then you’ll be happy. So now you have everything, but there are more problems: The car is a problem, the house is a problem, the husband or wife is a problem, the children are a problem. You realize, Oh, this is not satisfaction.”

“Lord Buddha is saying that you only have to know what you are, how you exist; that’s all. Just understand your mind: how it works, how attachment and desire arise, how ignorance arises, where emotions come from. It is sufficient to know the nature of all that; just that gives so much happiness and peace. Your life changes completely; everything gets turned upside down; what you interpreted as horrible becomes beautiful.

“How to check the mind? Just watch how your mind perceives or interprets any object that it contacts; what feeling – comfortable or uncomfortable – arises. Then you check: When I perceive this kind of view, this feeling arises, that emotion comes, I discriminate in such a way. This is how to check the mind; that’s all. It’s very simple.”

– Lama Yeshe, Gelug Tradition, Tibetan Buddhism

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dharma archive!

Love is a practice

‘Love is the capacity to take care, to protect, to nourish. If you are not capable of generating that kind of energy toward yourself- if you are not capable of taking care of yourself, of nourishing yourself, of protecting yourself- it is very difficult to take care of another person. In the Buddhist teaching, it’s clear that to love oneself is the foundation of the love of other people. Love is a practice. Love is truly a practice.’

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Linji School, Thiền Buddhism

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dharma archive!

How To Give, For The Person Who Has Nothing

One day, back in the Buddha’s time, a destitute person came to the Jeta Grove where the Buddha and his monastic community were practicing. Seeing one of the monks, the man prostrated himself and asked the monk if it might be possible for him to see the Buddha.

“Is something the matter?” the monk asked him.

“Yes, there is a grave matter I need to see the Buddha about. It is a life or death issue.” This was serious indeed, so the monk quickly helped arrange a meeting.

When this destitute man was brought to the Buddha, he prostrated himself and said, “Buddha, I’m in so much suffering.”

With compassion, the Buddha asked him, “What is the suffering that you experience?”

The man replied, “I have been poor my entire life. I was born into a poor family and have known only hardship and deprivation all my life. I see people making offerings to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. They say that in order to reap blessings, we need to sow blessings, and that if we wish to become rich, we need to plant the seeds by practicing giving. But, I am destitute and have nothing. How am I to practice giving?”

The Buddha smiled compassionately at the man and told him, “You don’t need to be rich to give. Giving doesn’t require money. Even in poverty, with no material possessions to your name, you can still give.”

“How is this possible? What is considered ‘giving’ then?” the man asked.

“Let me teach you seven ways you can give without needing any money at all,” the Buddha replied.

“The first way you can give is to smile. When you see people, be amiable and smile. Don’t bemoan your fate and wail about being poor and miserable. Life is hard for you, but when you complain, you are negative and bitter, and people will keep away from you because your attitude makes you unpleasant to be around. So, don’t do that. When you see people, be friendly, warm, and amiable. That is the first way you can give.”

“Secondly, when you see people, always say nice things to them. No matter what they say to you, don’t say anything unkind. Always say good things about others, both in front of them and when they are not around to hear you. Speaking kindly and positively is another way you can give.”

“Thirdly, keep a good, kind, and charitable heart. Don’t think negatively of the people you encounter. Instead, you should see everyone as a good, decent person who is nice and approachable. Also remember that you are a good, decent person too, so be friendly in reaching out to other people. That is another way you can give.”

“Fourthly, you can give with your sight. If you encounter people who have poor eyesight, you can help point out the way to them and guide them in the right direction. With your healthy eyes, you can be of help to people who cannot see well.”

“Fifthly, you can give your labor and physical strength. There are some people who are not so healthy and strong, so they cannot take on physically taxing work. When you see them needing help, be it moving something heavy or doing physically demanding work, you can go and help them or even do it for them. That is a kind of giving also.”

“The next way you can give is to show people respect. We need to have respect towards all people. The elderly deserve our respect, but we should also treat people of other ages respectfully and courteously. This is the giving of respect.”

“Lastly, you can give by offering people your love and care, such as by supporting and helping children and people who are poor or physically impaired. Living in this world, we should have love toward all people, and even toward all living creatures.”

“These are all ways you can give, without needing to have any money or possessions,” the Buddha told him. 

“Giving is that simple? These all count as giving?” the man responded.

“Yes, these all count as giving. It’s very simple, but will you do it?” the Buddha asked him.

“It is so easy, of course I’ll do it. These are ways I can do good without needing any money at all. I think this is probably what I failed to do in my past lives, and what you’ve said has made me see my failings in this life. I’ve always complained about my lot, so I didn’t care about other people or respect them in my heart. I don’t think I’ve ever done a good thing for others or said a kind word either. Now I see why that is wrong and what I should do. I will practice the seven ways of giving that you have shown me,” the man answered the Buddha.

Having compassion for him, the Buddha opened the man’s eyes to the fact that though poor, he can still give and sow the seeds of blessings. All he has to do is follow the Buddha’s teaching, and he can give and make his life rich. 

Also, after giving the man this teaching, the Buddha specifically asked him, “It’s very simple, but will you do it?” Each of the seven ways the Buddha described is so doable; the key is whether he decides to follow them through. 

It is the same for us—the practice is very easy to carry out; it just depends on whether we’ve made up our mind to do it. As the Buddha showed the destitute man, there are many ways we can give, and they are all things we can do in our daily life. We don’t need money, and anyone can do them. Most importantly, in giving, our lives become rich. It is possible for all of us to create a rich life, if we just do these simple things.

– Dharma Master Cheng Yen, Chinese Mahayana Tradition

Blogger Recognition Award

This morning I was kindly nominated for the Blogger Recognition Award by the author of https://purelandsutras.wordpress.com/

I feel flattered to have been appreciated by a fellow dhamma blogger, especially one who is so generous with their mind and works. I greatly recommend you visit purelandsutras.wordpress.com to enjoy the sutra translations. 

The Rules of the Award are as Follows:

  1. Thank the blog who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  2. Write a post to show the award.
  3. Share the experience that prompted you to start blogging.
  4. Give a piece of advice to new bloggers.
  5. Nominate 15 other blogs and personally inform them of their nomination.

How bite-size dhamma was born:

For many years I would search out Buddhist parables, sayings, and stories on the internet. I very much enjoyed reading them and considering their meanings.  I know many people enjoy this too so my blog was born out of the one simple thought:

“Why don’t I start collecting my favourites all in one place for everyone to benefit from?”

So I did, and I’m still at it. 

Advice to New Bloggers:

Blog about something that genuinely interests you. Don’t worry too much about followers and likes in the early days, just enjoy blogging and try to spread a good message 

I Nominate:

A few of the above are very new and could use some love. 🙂

Happy New Year

Its New Year in the western calendar today. For a lot of people New year is a time of reflection, new beginnings, and resolutions. 

Giving yourself a chance to start anew is a powerful thing. Its allows you to put aside the things holding you back, and greet the present moment with whatever intentions you want.

But we should remember that we don’t need to wait for New Years Day or any other day to allow ourselves a fresh start. Each moment is a fresh start. Each moment we can re-resolve failed resolutions, forgive ourselves for mistakes, and re-dedicate ourselves to the path.

As Nyanaponika Thera said, we live in “a world where only the courage to start anew, again and again, promises success”.

So this New Year, if you find yourself failing a resolution (as we all do sometimes) don’t give up! Simply put that incident aside, learn from it, and re-resolve! That way, failure is impossible!

Happy New Year everyone!

Thich Nhat Hanh Talks About Veganism

Thich Nhat Hanh was asked “Why vegan rather than just vegetarian?”

He answered:

“We don’t want to eat eggs, and drink cow’s milk, and eat cheese anymore because raising cows and raising chickens creates a lot of suffering.

If you have seen the suffering of the chicken, the suffering of the cows, you would not like to eat chicken, eat eggs, drink milk, or eat cheese anymore. It seems the system has been contaminated.

So to be vegan is not perfect but it helps to reduce the suffering of animals.

There are films made about the suffering of animals. If you have watched these films you will see. We should eat and drink in such a way that preserves compassion in our heat. We should consume in a way that helps to reduce the suffering of living beings and that way we can preserve compassion in our heart.

A person who does not have much compassion in his heart cannot be a happy person anymore. And that is why I think everyone has to learn how to reduce the eating of meat and the drinking of alcohol. “

Full Listing

Hi everyone. I hope you’re well and happy!

It’s nearing the end of the year and it seemed like a good time to do a review of old posts. The result was a new “Full Listing” page which makes easy work of looking through old posts. 
As you probably know, I collect old and new Buddhist stories, sayings, similies, quotes etc. A lot of them are real treasures!

So, if you’re interested in having a browse through the items in the listing, please click HERE.

Aware in time

When Luang Pu was undergoing treatment at Chulalongkorn Hospital in Bangkok, large numbers of people came to pay their respects and listen to his Dhamma. Mr. Bamrungsak Kongsuk was among those who were interested in the practice of meditation. He was a student of Ajaan Sanawng of Wat Sanghadana in Nonthaburi province, one of the strict meditation centers of our day and time.

He broached the topic of the practice of the Dhamma by asking, “Luang Pu, how does one cut off anger?”

Luang Pu answered,

“There’s nobody who cuts it off. There’s only being aware of it in time. When you’re aware of it in time, it disappears on its own.”

Jesus Christ

Happy Christmas everyone. I hope you and those you love are having a happy day. 

Since it is Christmas it seemed appropirate to post this small speech by Ajahn Candasiri about Jesus through Buddhist eyes.

“Having tried with sincerity to approach my Christian journey in a way that was meaningful within the context of everyday life, I had reached a point of deep weariness and despair. I was weary with the apparent complexity of it all; despair had arisen because I was not able to find any way of working with the less helpful states that would creep, unbidden, into the mind: the worry, jealousy, grumpiness, and so on. And even positive states could turn around and transform themselves into pride or conceit, which were of course equally unwanted.

Eventually, I met Ajahn Sumedho, an American-born Buddhist monk, who had just arrived in England after training for ten years in Thailand. His teacher was Ajahn Chah, a Thai monk of the Forest Tradition who, in spite of little formal education, won the hearts of many thousands of people, including a significant number of Westerners. I attended a ten-day retreat at Oakenholt Buddhist Centre, near Oxford, and sat in agony on a mat on the floor of the draughty meditation hall, along with about 40 other retreatants of different shapes and sizes. In front of us was Ajahn Sumedho, who presented the teachings and guided us in meditation, with three other monks.

This was a turning point for me. Although the whole experience was extremely tough – both physically and emotionally – I felt hugely encouraged. The teachings were presented in a wonderfully accessible style, and just seemed like ordinary common sense. It didn’t occur to me that it was ‘Buddhism’. Also, they were immensely practical and as if to prove it, we had, directly in front of us, the professionals – people who had made a commitment to living them out, twenty-four hours a day. I was totally fascinated by those monks: by their robes and shaven heads, and by what I heard of their renunciant lifestyle, with its 227 rules of training. I also saw that they were relaxed and happy – perhaps that was the most remarkable, and indeed slightly puzzling, thing about them.

I felt deeply drawn by the teachings, and by the Truth they were pointing to: the acknowledgement that, yes, this life is inherently unsatisfactory, we experience suffering or dis-ease – but there is a Way that can lead us to the ending of this suffering. Also, although the idea was quite shocking to me, I saw within the awakening of interest in being part of a monastic community.

So now, after more than twenty years as a Buddhist nun, what do I find as I encounter Jesus in the gospel stories?

Well, I have to say that he comes across as being much more human than I remember. Although there is much said about him being the son of God, somehow that doesn’t seem nearly as significant to me as the fact that he is a person – a man of great presence, enormous energy and compassion, and significant psychic abilities.

He also has a great gift for conveying spiritual truth in the form of images, using the most everyday things to illustrate points he wishes to make: bread, fields, corn, salt, children, trees. People don’t always understand at once, but are left with an image to ponder. Also he has a mission – to re-open the Way to eternal life; and he’s quite uncompromising in his commitment to, as he puts it, “carrying out his Father’s will”.

His ministry is short but eventful. Reading through Mark’s account, I feel tired as I imagine the relentless demands on his time and energy. It’s a relief to find the occasional reference to him having time alone or with his immediate disciples, and to read how, like us, he at times needs to rest.

A story I like very much is of how, after a strenuous day of giving teachings to a vast crowd, he is sound asleep in the boat that is taking them across the sea. His calm in response to the violent storm that arises as he is sleeping I find most helpful when things are turbulent in my own life.

I feel very caught up in the drama of it all; there is one thing after another. People listen to him, love what he has to say (or in some cases are disturbed or angered by it) and are healed. They can’t have enough of what he has to share with them. I’m touched by his response to the 4000 people who, having spent three days with him in the desert listening to his teaching, are tired and hungry. Realising this, he uses his gifts to manifest bread and fish for them all to eat.

Jesus dies as a young man. His ministry begins when he is thirty (I would be interested to know more of the spiritual training he undoubtedly received before then), and ends abruptly when he is only thirty-three. Fortunately, before the crucifixion he is able to instruct his immediate disciples in a simple ritual whereby they can re-affirm their link with him and each other (I refer, of course, to the last supper) – thereby providing a central focus of devotion and renewal for his followers, right up to the present time.

I have the impression that he is not particularly interested in converting people to his way of thinking. Rather it’s a case of teaching those who are ready; interestingly, often the people who seek him out come from quite depraved or lowly backgrounds. It is quite clear to Jesus that purity is a quality of the heart, not something that comes from unquestioning adherence to a set of rules.

His response to the Pharisees when they criticise his disciples for failing to observe the rules of purity around eating expresses this perfectly: “There is nothing from outside that can defile a man” – and to his disciples he is quite explicit in what happens to food once it has been consumed. “Rather, it is from within the heart that defilements arise.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t at this point go on to explain what to do about these.

What we hear of his last hours: the trial, the taunting, the agony and humiliation of being stripped naked and nailed to a cross to die – is an extraordinary account of patient endurance, of willingness to bear the unbearable without any sense of blame or ill will. It reminds me of a simile used by the Buddha to demonstrate the quality of metta, or kindliness, he expected of his disciples: “Even if robbers were to attack you and saw off your limbs one by one, should you give way to anger, you would not be following my advice.” A tall order, but one that clearly Jesus fulfills to perfection: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

– Ajahn Candasiri, Thai Forest Tradition.