Content On Vulture’s Peak

Here is a poem from around 250BC, attributed to one of the Buddhist Elders of the Third Council.

He grew up as a Prince, younger brother of one of India’s greatest Emperors; King Ashoka. However, he was inspired one day, by seeing an admirable monk, and decided to abandon his royal duties to become a monk himself. He was given the name Tissa Kumara, which translates to ‘The Elder Who Lives Alone’.

I love the beautiful imagery in this poem, and I think you can really sense the joy he takes in peaceful solitude out there in the forest.

I hope you enjoy it too:

If nobody is to be found,
In front of one or behind one,
That is exceedingly pleasant
For the lonely forest dweller.

So be it! I will go alone
To the forest, praised by Buddha;
For the self-resolute bhikkhu,
Dwelling alone, it is pleasant.

Pleasing, and joyful to sages,
Haunted by rutting elephants,
Seeking my goal alone, quickly
Will I go to the wild forest.

In the well-flowered Cool Garden,
In a soothing mountain grotto,
Having anointed all my limbs,
I will walk back and forth, alone.

When indeed shall I come to dwell
All alone, without companion
In the great forest, so pleasing!
My task accomplished, without taint?

While the gentle breezes flutter,
Soothing and laden with fragrance,
I’ll burst asunder ignorance
While seated on the mountain top.

In a grove covered with flowers,
Or maybe on a cool hillside,
Gladdened by the joy of release,
I’ll be content on Vulture’s Peak

The translation was done by Andrew Olendzki.

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Buddhaghosa

I’ve quoted Buddhaghosa very recently, about anger. 

It occurred to me that many of you may be interested to know more about Buddhaghosa himself.

Buddhaghosa lived about 1000 years after the Buddha, in the 5th Century AD.  His name means “Voice of the Buddha” in Pali. He was called this because he completed many respected written works on Buddhism. 

We don’t know a lot about his life, but it’s likely he was born into a Brahmin family (a priestly caste) in either East or South India. 

It’s said that he was a Vedic Master who travelled around ancient India debating spiritual topics with others. He was a debating superstar, with a flawless record of victories.  That was until the day he came across a Buddhist monk named Revata.

Buddhaghosa and Revata first debated a Vedic teaching, and afterwards they debated a teaching from the Buddhist texts. Revata triumphed in both debates and Buddhaghosa was so impressed he decided he would become a Buddhist monk. 
Buddhaghosa, with his academic leanings, soon became a knowledgeable scholar of the Buddhist texts. One day he came across evidence of a missing text, long lost in Indian records. 

Obviously not being one to simply accept this knowledge gap, he began a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka where it was said a preserved version still existed. Whilst there he discovered many other preserved texts that were missing from the Indian collection. As a result he approached the Buddhist Elders for permission to compile a joint collection written in Pali.

Legend has it that the Elders and even deities forced him to undergo several tests before he was granted permission, but the eventual result was a systemised collection of Theravada Teachings and the Visuddhamagga – a comprehensive summary of the teachings of the Buddha, organised into a manual of sorts. 

He went on to write several other commentaries on the Pali cannon of texts and his words became respected interpretations of the scriptures.

It’s said that after he finished his work in Sri Lanka he returned to India and pilgrimaged to the Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. 

Nothing is known about the rest of his life, or how he died. His commentaries live on and are still respected and studied to this day. 

To round off the post, here’s a lovely Visuddhamagga sample I wanted to share; about compassion:

“When there is suffering in others it causes good people’s hearts to be moved, thus it is compassion. 

Or alternatively, it combats others’ suffering, attacks and demolishes it, thus it is compassion.

Or alternatively, it is scattered upon those who suffer, it is extended to them by pervasion, thus it is compassion.”

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It Will Pass

In Buddhism we often talk about impermanence; ‘anicca’ in Pali. We sometimes joke that it’s both the good news and the bad news.

There’s a story that really encapsulates this sentiment for me. It’s an old Zen story, I believe, and it goes a little something like this:

A student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”

“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.

A week later, the student came back to his teacher, and said, “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!”

“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.

It’s a funny little story, but the Teacher is absolutely correct, and not just about meditation. 

Impermanence – the bad news:

Everything you love and hold dear will be gone eventually, and the only things we truly own are our deeds (kamma). 

We don’t like to think about losing the people and objects we love, but to think we will have them forever is folly and will lead to greater shock and suffering when the loss comes. 

In my experience, remembering impermanence helps loosen our grip on our attachments. This is the silver lining around the bad news – we can learn ways to accept this truth, and this can be a step towards happiness. It can also lead us to avoid taking the people and things we love for granted, and love them for them not for us – to nurture them and not stifle them. 

Impermanence – the good news:

The good news is that the same applies to the things you dislike. A lot of stress comes from aversion to things we do not like – feeling ill, going for a job interview. But those things pass. 

Equally, states of mind that come from craving are just temporary, but subtly the mind can think these things are permanent. It sounds silly, but if you watch the mind you can see it works this way sometimes – like an infant. 

For example you want a second slice of cake, but you know you shouldn’t have more cake. The craving for the cake is subtle suffering but it will pass. So if it will pass what’s the big deal? Wait it out. But the mind doesn’t operate this way without mindful intervention. It’s in turmoil about the cake and as far as it is concerned the turmoil will never end unless it gets the cake!

Remembering impermanence helps us to accept that the negative states of mind will pass, and we don’t have to act unskilfully in order feel at ease again. Do it enough times and the mind realises this too. That, in turn, helps to keep the mind from the habit of holding onto aversion and turning it into attachment. At least, that’s what I’ve found over the years!

So it’s a quaint little story at first glance, but it’s pointing out a deep truth. Accepting that things change, sometimes not in the way we want, is an important part of operating a mature state of mind and helping the ‘infant’ grow up. 

Take care!

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Pointing finger

There is an old Chan and Zen story that goes like this:

The Zen teacher’s dog loved his evening romp with his master. The dog would bound ahead to fetch a stick, then run back, wag his tail, and wait for the next game. On this particular evening, the teacher invited one of his brightest students to join him – a boy so intelligent that he became troubled by the contradictions in Buddhist doctrine.

“You must understand,” said the teacher, “that words are only guideposts. Never let the words or symbols get in the way of truth. Here, I’ll show you.”

With that the teacher called his happy dog.

“Fetch me the moon,” he said to his dog and pointed to the full moon.

“Where is my dog looking?” asked the teacher of the bright pupil.

“He’s looking at your finger.”

“Exactly. Don’t be like my dog. Don’t confuse the pointing finger with the thing that is being pointed at. All our Buddhist words are only guideposts. Every man fights his way through other men’s words to find his own truth.”

The story is based on teachings given by the Buddha to Mahamati, recorded in the Lankavatara Sutta – a Mahayanan text.

In the sutta he tells Mahamati to look beyond the words, beyond the “pointing finger” to the real meaning. I love this teaching because it can be applied to so many aspects of life, including the texts of other religions such as the Bible or Quran which contain so many wonderful teachings on love, generosity, and kindness. 

The Buddha sometimes spoke of the “84,000 dhamma gates” which was a metaphor for the innumerable ways to enlightenment. The teaching represents the Buddha’s tolerance for other religions at the time, and an acceptance that Buddhism doesn’t have some sort of monopoly on enlightenment. It’s a reminder that we should be tolerant in this modern age too. If a person is striving towards a religion’s goal and they are a good, moral, and upright person, then this is superb!

I think that people of all religious paths can learn a lot from each other. We are all teachers and all students!

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Image of moon courtesy of NASA. 

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The True Sound of Truth

A devoted meditator, after years concentrating on a particular mantra, had attained enough insight to begin teaching. The student’s humility was far from perfect, but the teachers at the monastery were not worried.

A few years of successful teaching left the meditator with no thoughts about learning from anyone; but upon hearing about a famous hermit living nearby, the opportunity was too exciting to be passed up.

The hermit lived alone on an island at the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row across to the island. The meditator was very respectful of the old hermit. As they shared some tea made with herbs the meditator asked him about his spiritual practice. The old man said he had no spiritual practice, except for a mantra which he repeated all the time to himself. The meditator was pleased: the hermit was using the same mantra he used himself — but when the hermit spoke the mantra aloud, the meditator was horrified! 

“What’s wrong?” asked the hermit. 

“I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!”

“Oh, Dear! That is terrible. How should I say it?”

The meditator gave the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful, asking to be left alone so he could get started right away. On the way back across the lake the meditator, now confirmed as an accomplished teacher, was pondering the sad fate of the hermit.

“It’s so fortunate that I came along. At least he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies.” Just then, the meditator noticed that the boatman was looking quite shocked, and turned to see the hermit standing respectfully on the water, next to the boat.

“Excuse me, please. I hate to bother you, but I’ve forgotten the correct pronunciation again. Would you please repeat it for me?” 

“You obviously don’t need it,” stammered the meditator; but the old man persisted in his polite request until the meditator relented and told him again the way he thought the mantra should be pronounced. 

The old hermit was saying the mantra very carefully, slowly, over and over, as he walked across the surface of the water back to the island. 

– Old Tibetan story. 

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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.”

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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