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 Garden You Grow

Our intentions – noticed or unnoticed, gross or subtle – contribute either to our suffering or to our happiness

Intentions are sometimes called seeds.

The garden you grow depends on the seeds you plant and water. Long after a deed is done, the trace or momentum of the intention behind it remains as a seed, conditioning our future happiness or unhappiness.

– Gil Fronsdal, Vipassana Teacher.

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Buddha’s discourse on love

He or she who wants to attain peace should practice being upright, humble, and capable of using loving speech. He or she will know how to live simply and happily, with senses calmed, without being covetous and carried away by the emotions of the majority. Let him or her not do anything that will be disapproved of by the wise.

And this is what he or she contemplates: 

“May everyone be happy and safe, and may their hearts be filled with joy.”

“May all living beings live in security and in peace—beings who are frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, visible or not visible, near or faraway, already born, or yet to be born. May all of them dwell in perfect tranquility.”

“Let no one do harm to anyone. Let no one put the life of anyone in danger. Let no one, out of anger or ill will, wish anyone any harm.”

“Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. We should let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below, and across. Our love will know no obstacles. Our heart will be absolutely free from hatred and enmity. Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake, we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart. This is the noblest way of living.

“Free from wrong views, greed, and sensual desires, living in beauty and realizing Perfect Understanding, those who practice boundless love will certainly transcend birth and death.”

– Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata. 

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The Last Request of Anathapindika

There was a layperson in the time of the Buddha whose name was Sudatta, but was called Anathapindika. Anathapindika means “feeder of the orphans or helpless”. 

Anathapindika was a very wealthy man who was unmatched in his generosity. As an example, he once bought a beautiful park from a Prince and offered it to the Buddha to make a practice center. This was the famous Jeta Park or Jeta Grove, a location where Buddha gave many of his teachings.

When Anathapindika was close to death, the Buddha sent two beloved disciples – Sariputta and Ananda- to help him to die peacefully.

When they arrived, Sariputta asked; “How is your illness? Is it getting better or worse? Is the physical pain easing at all or is it getting greater?”

Anathapindika replied,”Venerable monks, it does not seem to be getting better. The pain is not easing. It is getting greater all the time.”

Sariputta said, “Friend Anathapindika, now is the time to practice the meditation on the Three Jewels – the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Meditating in this way, you can destroy the obstacles of wrong deeds and the afflictions. You can harvest a fruit that is as fresh and sweet as the balm of compassion. A woman or a man practicing an upright way of life who knows how to meditate on the Three Jewels will have no chance of falling into the three lower realms but will be reborn as a human or a god.”

After that, Sariputta gave him a guided meditation on the six sense bases: Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

“Breathing in, I know this body is not me. I am much more than this body.”

“Breathing in, I know that this mind is not me. I am much more than this mind.”

The purpose of the meditation is to help a person see that s/he is not limited to the six sense organs.

The meditation continues for:

  • the Six Sense Objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, mental objects),
  • the Six Sense Consciousnesses (visual consciousness, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental conciousness),
  • the Six Elements (earth, water, fire, air, space, consciousness)
  • the Five Aggregates (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness), and
  • the Three Times (past, present, future).

Once complete, Sariputta explained: “Anathapindika, everything that arises is due to causes and conditions. Everything that is has the nature not to be born and not to die, not to arrive and not to depart. When eyes arise, they arise, but they do not come from anywhere. When eyes cease to be, they cease to be, but they do not go anywhere. Eyes are neither nonexistent before they arise, nor are they existent after they arise. Everything that is comes to be because of a combination of causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions are sufficient, eyes are present. When the causes and conditions are not sufficient, eyes are absent. The same is true of ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind; form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought; sight, hearing, and the consciousnesses based on the nose, tongue, body, and mind; the Six Elements, the Five Aggregates, and the Three Times.

“In the Five Aggregates, there is nothing that we can call ‘I,’ a ‘person,’ or a ‘soul.’ Ignorance is the inability to see this truth. Because there is ignorance, there are mistaken impulses. Because there are mistaken impulses, there is mistaken consciousness. Because there is mistaken consciousness, there is the distinction between the perceiver and the perceived. Because there is the distinction between the perceiver and the perceived, there is the distinction between the six organs and the six objects of sense. Because there is the distinction between the six organs and the six objects of sense, there is contact. Because there is contact, there is feeling. Because there is feeling, there is thirst. Because there is thirst, there is grasping. Because there is grasping, there is being. Because there is becoming, there are birth, death, and the subsequent pain and grief.

“Friend Anathapindika, you have meditated that everything that arises is due to causes and conditions and does not have a separate self. That is called ‘the meditation on emptiness.’ It is the highest and the most profound meditation.”

When he had practiced to this point, Anathapindika began to cry.

Ananda asked him, “Friend, why are you crying? Has your meditation not been successful? Do you have some regret?”

Anathapindika replied, “Venerable Ananda, I do not regret anything. The meditation has been most successful. I am crying because I am so deeply moved. I have been fortunate to have been able to serve the Buddha and his community for many years, yet I have never heard a teaching so wonderful and precious as the teaching transmitted by the Venerable Sariputta today.”

Ananda said, “Do you not know, friend, that the Buddha often gives this teaching to monks and nuns?”

Anathapindika replied, “Venerable Ananda, please tell the Buddha that there are also laypeople with the capacity to listen, understand, and put into practice these deep and wonderful teachings.”

Venerable Ananda agreed to go home and tell the Buddha of Anathapindika’s request. 

That was the last request made by the layman Anathapindika. After that, he passed away peacefully and happily. Even to his last request he was generous, thinking of others. 

– Based on the Anathapindikovada Sutta: Instructions to Anathapindika, from the Pali Cannon (also present in the Chinese Cannon). 

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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

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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

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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