Thursday, June 29, 2006

How To Do A Meditation Retreat

In the Buddhist cultures of Southeast Asia, the faithful traditionally mark the days of the full moon, half moon, and new moon by visiting temples, meditating, making offerings, and observing the precepts. In the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, observing the Sabbath can be a profound weekly practice of letting go of work and ordinary concerns and turning hearts and minds toward spiritual matters.  In a kind of extended Sabbath or “holy day,” retreats are times for dedicating oneself to spiritual life, and their roots are ancient. Some Christians look for inspiration to Jesus’ desert retreat in enacting their own retreat of prayer, contemplation, and renewal. Each year, the monks of Southeast Asia remain in retreat for the rainy season, as monastics have traditionally done, going back to the time of the Buddha.

Retreat is not only for the professionals, though. Anyone can undertake a retreat and reap its healing and transforming benefits. Think of it as a learning, growthful experience, or as a service to your highest, deepest, wise spiritual self. It is a gift to yourself and a gift to your loved ones, your colleagues, and all whom you encounter, who will benefit from your increase in focus, energy, physical and spiritual health, and productivity.

I went on my first retreat one weekend in 1968, while a freshman at the University of Buffalo. I had read some books about meditation, and I had heard about the teacher, Philip Kapleau Roshi, and about Zen in some Gestalt workshops I had attended that year, and was favorably impressed by the depth and clarity of the teachings, and by Kapleau Roshi’s wisdom and serene presence. But after the weekend was over, I was not able to keep up the practice on my own.

I only learned how to meditate on a daily basis a few years later, by going to several ten-day Vipassana (insight) meditation courses in India during the early Seventies. The master U Goenka was the teacher, and he stressed the continuity and simplicity of practice. At the beginning, it was tough going. The retreats were silent, austere, and physically and psychologically demanding. We slept on mats, and there were no flush toilets, no hot water, no diversions, no news from the outside world, no meals after noon in accordance with the tradition of monastics at the time of the Buddha. The day began at 4 am, and we meditated for twelve one-hour periods, in which we determined to sit without movement and follow the breath. This was interrupted only occasionally with some chanting or an interview or a dharma talk or a meal.

For the first five or six days, I struggled with the discomfort and pain of trying to sit still and relax in the midst of mosquitoes and extreme heat, but then something mysteriously happened, and I began to experience peace, relaxation and even bliss. My mind was sharply focused as a laser beam, and my awareness seemed incandescent, as never before. When I later told my teacher that, he laughed and said, "Beginner's luck! Don't get too excited, just keep meditating."

Without this valuable experience of actually doing meditation in a protected environment under the guidance of an experienced teacher, I doubt I would have been able to continue with daily practice and month in and month out, through whatever doubts, difficulties, challenges and distractions came along the way.  Going to occasional refresher retreats with Goenka-ji and other Vipassana teachers during that decade kept me going. Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield were very helpful in leading retreats in America in the late Seventies that I could really enjoy.

I recommend spiritual retreat both to enter a particular practice path, and also as a way to recharge the inner battery, remain motivated, and overcome the inevitable hindrances and obstacles to going deeper on your spiritual path.  Undertaking a personal retreat can benefit one on so many levels. If you want to experience an authentic Buddhist meditation retreat, try one of the Vipassana retreats, Zen sesshins, or Dzogchen retreats that you can participate in at a low cost throughout the country, for a period of time of between a weekend and three months in duration. There are also excellent hermitages where one can practice spiritually in solitude and nature, but I recommend that you experience group retreat and learn from a teacher before going off for too long on your own.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a tradition for committed practitioners to make a three-year, three-month, three-day "Great Retreat" once in a lifetime. In the Eighties, I twice completed this Great Retreat at the Dzogchen monastery and hermitage of my teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. The group of dharma students retreating there, most of whom were Westerners, did nothing but meditate, pray, chant, study, and practice Tibetan yoga and "noble silence," which includes periods with no eye-contact, no reading, no writing. The beauty of "noble silence" is that it greatly deepens one's sense of solitude and facility for contemplation. We were ordained as monks or nuns for that period, during which time we took vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience to our teachers, shaved our heads, and wore maroon and yellow Tibetan Buddhist monastic robes. We lived under the direct guidance of Khyentse Rinpoche and his colleague, the beloved teacher Dudjom Rinpoche.
Our lives were ordered by a precise schedule, which broke the typical day into two- or three-hour periods, beginning with our 4 am wake-up gong, during which I, along with the other students, meditated and practiced alone in our five-by-nine foot cells sparsely furnished with only a bed, an altar, and a storage trunk. Some years our bed was actually a meditation seat -- historically known in Tibet as "the Box” -- in which we sat up all night doing Tibetan dream yoga and clear light practice. For some periods of time, we concentrated on Tibetan tantric yoga exercises to awaken the energy body, develop inner heat (so-called "mystic incandescence"), and purify karma. During this time, we sat outside in the garden daily for two hours before dawn, dressed only in shorts, even in the winter. There was also a short work period every day after the lunch hour, during which some of us gardened, cleaned, and did household chores in the cloister, while others worked on translations, and copied scriptures and study materials.

We had no weekends, days off, or vacations. But we did celebrate Buddhist holidays, visits by grand lamas, initiations and empowerments, and auspicious full moon days, with various and extensive rituals, tantric feasts, round-the-clock chanting, and elaborate offering ceremonies.

As severe as all the regulation and structure may sound, retreats are set up this way for a reason, and offer great benefit to the retreatant: life becomes much simpler when pared down to the most basic routines, such as waking up to a gong, living according to a schedule marked by bells throughout the day, and wearing the same clothes and hairdo year in and year out -- not to mention remaining entirely cloistered and focused solely on one's spiritual life.

While such retreats are logistically difficult for most people to manage, there are many opportunities at Buddhist centers today to enter deeply into the same practices I learned while on retreat. American practice centers offer an abundance of weekend, weeklong, and ten-day meditation retreats. Even one-day "retreats" are available. I myself lead two dozen retreatseach year, through my Dzogchen Center. And I continue to spend at least two or three weeks every year in personal meditation retreat. The seclusion helps me reconnect more deeply with myself, my prayer life, and spiritual practice, and keeps me in touch with my teachers and lineage. And just as important, it integrates my spirituality into the path of everyday life throughout the rest of the year.

There are many kinds of retreat. There are meditation retreats, yoga retreats, wilderness and travel retreats; prayer retreats, writing retreats; solitary retreats and group retreats, men’s retreats and women’s retreats and young people’s retreats; activists’ retreats, business people’s retreats, artists’ retreats, parents’ retreats, and family retreats; there are silent retreats, there are seminar-like studious retreats; there are prayer vigil retreats and healing retreats and vision quest retreats; there are fasting retreats, there are special-diet retreats (vegetarian, kosher, fruitarian, etc.); there are retreats centered on specific subjects or practices.

Retreats can be undertaken according to different kinds of guidelines. They can be done by time, such as a one-day or weekend retreat, a weeklong retreat, a month retreat, a 100-day retreat, a one year or three year retreat, etc. They can be undertaken according to place, limits, subject matter, activity, etc. Some retreats provide tightly structured schedules, while others leave retreatants with a lot of free time.

In order to choose a retreat, you could ask your spiritual friends for suggestions and recommendations, or your spiritual director if you have one. Or ask yourself questions like: What are my aspirations for doing retreat, what are my spiritual interests and experience, and what environment would best facilitate their actualization? What are my limitations, physical, mental, financial, time-wise, etc.? Do I want to be silent and solitary, or am I looking for new like-minded friends? Some retreats are silent, with minimal (overt) interaction with other retreatants, while others facilitate group sharing through discussions, group practices, evening activities, etc.

For how long should I retreat? This will depend a lot upon your prior retreat experience. For some people, it may be best to start small with a half-day, daylong, or weekend retreat rather than jumping into a week or ten days of silence and/or solitude. What kind of structure would suit me: many scheduled activities, or lots of open time for my own established practices and interests? What kind of surroundings would be most conducive? (Workshop center or retreat center? Urban or rural? Basic or luxurious accommodations?) Do I need to conduct other activities while on retreat, or can I sequester myself entirely from the world during that period of time? What specific practices might I like to engage in? Do I want and need lots or little teaching? How much personal guidance or time with teachers and mentors?

There are various kinds of Buddhist retreats; each stress different kinds of practices, different schedules and practices. In our quarterly Dzogchen Center intensive retreats, we structure our time, place and activity and attitude according to the what I call the Ten S’s.

 The Ten S’s:

1.        Silence
2.        Solitude, seclusion
3.        Self-discipline, morality
4.        Slowing down/stillness
5.        Softness, gentleness
6.        Sati (mindfulness)
7.        Self-inquiry
8.        Satya (truth)
9.        Selflessness, unselfishness
10.      Sacred Outlook

The first three are mostly outer; the second four internal; and the last three are innermost guidelines. Using this structure, you can really do a retreat almost anytime you choose, and structure it according to what is most conducive to accomplishing your goals during the period of time you can set aside for this worthwhile pursuit. One could even do this at home, by freeing oneself from all obligations, commitments, and responsibilities; turning off the phone, email, radio, and doing a news fast; and simply turning inwards for some period of time.

Solitude and loneliness are not necessarily synonymous. The great Tibetan master of old Marpa sang: “When I am alone in the mountains, I am never alone. All the Buddha and gurus accompany me. I feel blessed and delighted!”

I love to go on retreat. I think it is one of the greatest spurs to spiritual growth and realization. The secret of spiritual life is actually doing it; this means practice, not mere theory, belief, or membership. Take the opportunity to try it for yourself. I think you’ll love it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Walking Meditation

On-line Instruction with Charles MacInerney

Walking Meditation is a wonderful initiation for beginners into the art of Meditation. It is easy to practice, and enhances both physical, mental and spiritual well-being. It is especially effective for those who find it difficult to sit still for long periods of time. Some people enjoy practicing in a beautiful outdoor setting, like a park. Others prefer to practice indoors, due to poor weather, or desire for privacy.

Walking Meditation should generally be practiced for between 15 minutes to 1 hour. A 20 minute walking meditation can also be used as a break between two 20 minute sitting meditations, allowing 1 hour of meditation without placing undue demands on the practitioner.

You can practice indoors by walking around the perimeter of your largest room. If you practice outdoors choose a scenic and quiet setting. Walk without a destination. Wander aimlessly without arriving, being somewhere rather than going somewhere.

Start out walking a little faster than normal, and gradually slow down to a normal walking speed, and then continue to slow down until you start to feel artificial or off balance. Speed up just enough to feel comfortable, physically and psychologically. At first you may need to walk fairly fast to feel smooth in your gait, but with practice, as your balance improves, you should be able to walk more slowly.

Be mindful of your breathing, without trying to control it. Allow the breath to become diaphragmatic if possible, but always make sure your breathing feels natural, not artificial. Allow the breath to become circular, and fluid.

Walk with 'soft vision' allowing the eyes to relax and focus upon nothing, while aware of everything. Smile softly with your eyes (see Mirror Exercise in Vision Chapter for details). Gradually allow the smile to spread from your eyes to your face and throughout your body. This is called an "organic smile" or a "thalamus smile". Imagine every cell of your body smiling softly. Let all worry and sadness fall away from you as you walk.

Walk in silence, both internal and external.

Be mindful of your walking, make each step a gesture, so that you move in a state of grace, and each footprint is an impression of the peace and love you feel for the universe. Walk with slow, small, deliberate, balanced, graceful foot steps.

After a while, when both the breath and the walking have slipped into a regular pattern of their own accord, become aware of the number of footsteps per breath. Make no effort to change the breath, rather lengthen or shorten the rhythm of your step just enough so that you have 2, 3 or 4 steps per inhalation and 2, 3 or 4 steps per exhalation. Once you have discovered your natural rhythm, lock into it, so that the rhythm of the walking sets the rhythm for the breath like a metronome.

After several weeks of regular practice you may experiment with the ratios adding a foot step to your exhalation and later to your inhalation as well. Whatever ratio of steps-to-breath that you settle on, it should feel comfortable, and you should be able to maintain it for the duration of the meditation comfortably. After several months you may find your lung capacity improving. If you are comfortable, lengthen your breath an extra step but avoid trying to slow the breath too much or you will do more harm than good.

Notice the beauty of your surroundings, both externally and internally. Smile with every cell in your body.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Essence of Buddhism

What is the essence of the Buddha's teachings?

Simply speaking, it is to avoid harming others and to help them as much as possible. Another way of expressing this is the oft-quoted verse:

Abandon negative action;
Create perfect virtue;
Subdue your own mind.
This is the teaching of the Buddha.

By abandoning negative actions, such as hurting others, and destructive motivations, such as anger, attachment, and closed-mindedness, we stop harming ourselves and others. By creating perfect virtue, we develop beneficial attitudes, such as equanimity, love, compassion, and joy, and act constructively. By subduing our minds and understanding reality, we leave behind all false projections, thus making ourselves calm and peaceful.

We can also speak of the essence of the Buddha's teachings as they are explained in the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and its causes, and the path to that cessation. When Buddha spoke about suffering, he meant that we have unsatisfactory experiences. Even the happiness we have does not last forever, and that situation is unsatisfactory. The causes of our problems lie not in the external environment and those inhabiting it, but in our own mind. The disturbing attitudes and negative emotions, such as clinging attachment, anger, and ignorance are the real source of our unhappiness. Since these are based on misconceptions about the nature of reality, they can be removed from our mindstream. We then abide in the blissful state of nirvana, which is the absence of all unsatisfactory experiences and their causes. A path exists to realize reality and increase our good qualities. The Buddha described this path, and we have the ability to actualize it.

The path is often described by the Three Higher Trainings: Ethical Discipline, Meditative Stabilization, and Wisdom. First, we must become a good human being who functions well in society and lives harmoniously with others. The Higher Training of Ethical Discipline enables us to do this. Because our actions and speech are now calmer, we can proceed to tame the mind by developing single-pointed concentration or the Higher Training of Meditative Stabilization. This leads us to cut the root of suffering, the ignorance grasping at inherent existence, and for this we develop the Higher Training in Wisdom, so that we can perceive reality as it is.

The Three Higher Trainings can be subdivided into the Noble Eight-fold Path. Ethical Discipline includes: 1) right speech: true, kind, and appropriate speech; 2) right activity: actions which do not harm others; and 3) right livelihood: obtaining our subsistence -- food, clothing, and so forth -- by non-harmful and honest means. The Higher Training of Meditative Stabilization includes: 4) right effort: effort to counteract the disturbing attitudes and negative emotions by meditating on the path; 5) right mindfulness: counteracting laxity and excitement in our meditation; and 6) right samadhi: the mind that can remain fixed one-pointedly upon virtuous objects. The Higher Training of Wisdom includes: 7) right view: the wisdom realizing emptiness, and 8) right thought: the mind that can explain the path clearly to others and is motivated by the wish for them to be free from suffering.

The essence of the Buddhist path is also contained in the three principal aspects of the path: the determination to be free, the altruistic intention (bodhicitta), and the wisdom realizing reality. Initially, we must have the determination to be free from the confusion of our problems and their causes. Then, seeing that other people also have problems, with love and compassion we will develop an altruistic intention to become a Buddha so that we will be capable of helping others most effectively. To do this, we must develop the wisdom that understands the true nature of ourselves and other phenomena and thus eliminates all false projections.

What is the goal of the Buddhist path?

The Buddhist path leads us to discover a state of lasting happiness for both ourselves and others by freeing ourselves from cyclic existence, the cycle of constantly recurring problems that we experience at present. We are born and die under the influence of ignorance, disturbing attitudes, and contaminated actions (karma). Although all of us want to be happy, and we try hard to get the things that will make us happy, no one is totally satisfied with his or her life. And although we all want to be free from difficulties, problems come our way without our even trying. People may have many good things going for them in their lives, but when we talk with them for more than five minutes, they start telling us their problems. Those of us who are in this situation, who are not yet Buddhas, are called "sentient beings."

The root cause of cyclic existence is ignorance: we do not understand who we are, how we exist or how other phenomena exist. Unaware of our own ignorance, we project fantasized ways of existing onto ourselves and others, thinking that everyone and everything has some inherent nature and exists independently, in and of itself. This gives rise to attachment, an attitude that exaggerates the good qualities of people and things or superimposes good qualities that are not there and then clings to those people or things, thinking they will bring us real happiness. When things do not work out as we expected or wished they would, or when something interferes with our happiness, we become angry. These three basic disturbing attitudes -- ignorance, attachment, and anger -- give rise to a host of other ones, such as jealousy, pride, and resentment. These attitudes then motivate us to act, speak, or think. Such actions leave imprints on our mindstreams, and these imprints then influence what we will experience in the future.

We are liberated from the cycle of rebirth by generating the wisdom realizing emptiness or selflessness. This wisdom is a profound realization of the lack of a solid, independent essence in ourselves, others, and everything that exists. It eliminates all ignorance, wrong conceptions, disturbing attitudes, and negative emotions, thus putting a stop to all misinformed or contaminated actions. The state of being liberated is called nirvana or liberation. All beings have the potential to attain liberation, a state of lasting happiness.

What are the Three Jewels? How do we relate to them? What does it mean to take refuge in the Three Jewels?

The Three Jewels are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. A Buddha is one who has purified all the defilements of the mind -- the disturbing attitudes, negative emotions and their seeds, the imprints of the actions motivated by them, and the stains of these disturbing attitudes and negative emotions. A Buddha has also developed all good qualities, such as impartial love and compassion, profound wisdom, and skillful means of guiding others. The Dharma is the preventive measures that keep us from problems and suffering. This includes the teachings of the Buddha and the beneficial mental states that practicing the teachings leads to. The Sangha are those beings who have direct nonconceptual understanding of reality. Sangha can also refer to the community of ordained people who practice Buddha's teachings, but this sangha is the conventional representation of the Sangha Jewel, and is not the one we take refuge in.

Our relationship to the Three Jewels is analogous to a sick person who seeks help from a doctor, medicine, and nurses. We suffer from various unsatisfactory circumstances in our lives. The Buddha is like a doctor who correctly diagnoses the cause of our problems and prescribes the appropriate medicine. The Dharma is our real refuge, the medicine that cures our problems and their causes. By helping us along the path, the Sangha is like the nurse who assists us in taking the medicine.

Taking refuge means relying wholeheartedly on the Three Jewels to inspire and guide us toward a constructive and beneficial direction in our lives. Taking refuge does not mean passively hiding under the protection of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Rather, it is an active process of moving in the direction that they show us and thus improving the quality of our life.

When people take refuge, they clarify to themselves what direction they are taking in life, who is guiding them, and who their companions are on the path. This eliminates the indecision and confusion arising from uncertainty about their spiritual path. Some people window-shop for spirituality: Monday they use crystals, Tuesday they do channeling, Wednesday they do Hindu meditation, Thursday they do Hatha Yoga, Friday they have holistic healing, Saturday they do Buddhist meditation, and Sunday they use Tarot cards. They learn a lot about many things, but their attachment, anger, and closed-mindedness don't change much. Taking refuge is making a clear decision about what our principal path is. Nevertheless, it is possible to practice the Buddha's teachings and to benefit from them without taking refuge or becoming a Buddhist.

Must we be a Buddhist to practice what the Buddha taught?

No. The Buddha gave a wide variety of instructions, and if some of them help us live to better, to solve our problems and become kinder, then we are free to practice them. There is no need to call ourselves Buddhists. The purpose of the Buddha's teachings is to benefit us, and if putting some of them into practice helps us live more peacefully with ourselves and others, that is what's important.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Not Far From Buddhahood

A university student while visiting Gasan asked him: "Have you even read the Christian Bible?"

"No, read it to me," said Gasan.

The student opened the Bible and read from St. Matthew: "And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these...Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."

Gasan said: "Whoever uttered those words I consider and enlightened man."

The student continued reading: "Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, is shall be opened."

Gasan remarked: "That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood."

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Can thai buddhism be saved from superstition?

Mayura Wilainum-chokchai remembers having little interest in the extensive TV news coverage of the funeral of the Venerable Buddhadasa Bhikku 13 years ago. She had never heard of the monk before and simply assumed Buddhadasa was one of many famous Luang pu, senior monks with sacred powers.

Now 26, Mayura sees things very differently. She recently left her job as a graphic designer with a Japanese company in order to pursue graduate studies in the United States. Upon her return to Thailand, she plans to enter the teaching profession, starting a new life spreading Buddhadasa's dharma to the younger generation.

"I want to bring Buddhism to the attention of young people," she says. "I was almost too old when I learnt that Buddhist teachings can benefit someone like myself who never believed in superstitious stories or particularly liked going to temples full of ornate buildings and monks watching big-screen TVs with [Sony] Playstations".

Last night Mayura and some of her like-minded friends made the trip by train to Suan Mokkh or the "Garden of Liberation" founded by Buddhadasa 74 years ago, to join today's commemoration of the centenary of Thailand's most famous Buddhist scholar and reformer of Theravada Buddhism.

Mayura exemplifies a growing trend among young people, a trend which many Buddhist scholars hope will be able to save Thai Buddhism from a potentially shaky future.

"More than 80 per cent of people report that they are Buddhists, but I doubt that many of them really know about the essence of the Buddha's teaching," challenges Bancha Chalermchaikit, the owner of Sukapap Jai publishing house, which has printed Buddhadasa's books for more than two decades.

"Some 2,000 copies of Buddhadasa's books might stay on the shelves for four or five years while those about monks and nuns with supernatural powers can sell 100,000 copies in a few months."

Even worse, adds Phra Dussadee Methangul, a famous disciple of Buddhadasa, is that most of the nation's 300,000 Buddhist monks are not doing their job of helping people rid their minds of the ignorance that the Buddha taught is the root cause of delusion and suffering.

"The monks themselves may even be encouraging this delusion," explains Phra Dussadee. "They hand out lottery numbers and amulets and sprinkle holy water because they know that these are easy ways to draw people to their temples, and more visitors means more donations."

As Buddhadasa emphasised, such activities are far from what was at the essence of the Buddha's teachings, and as a result, critics charge, they are contributing to the religion's decline at a time when it may be needed more than ever.

An advocate of Buddhism, Dr Tienchai Wongchaisuwan observes that temples taking advantage of people's fears and hopes for a better life are acting little differently from corporations. "Multinational corporations exploit our ignorance surrounding how the craving for material possessions works and are systematically packaging it as 'modern culture'," he argues.

Other scholars agree. As consumerism becomes more sophisticated, it sells not only products but lifestyles and culture too. Ritualistic Buddhism benefits from that same approach: "It's about getting people to feel better about themselves", notes Dr Suwanna Satha-anand, a lecturer in philosophy at Chulalongkorn University.

"Commercial Buddhism is also selling something more abstract, such as meditation training that can make people feel momentary happiness," she notes.

"We have to admit that Buddhism [such as Buddhadasa taught] is a very difficult and demanding religion. It is a religion based on wisdom, not faith. To gain this wisdom, you have to not only intellectually understand the teaching but also practice it. It demands you rely on yourself, not gods."

But Phra Paisal Visalo, a well-known disciple of Buddhadasa, is not discouraged. He says the fact that an increasing numbers of people in the West are becoming interested in Buddhism and its logical explanation of life and suffering is an illustration of people failing to find the answer to life through material success.

He sees Thailand as no different and cites young people like Mayura as an example of the beginning of a similar trend. "This growth in material consumption does have a positive side. It allows religion an opportunity to present alternatives once people emerge from the myth that materialism leads to happiness," he says. "Moreover, advances like information technology can also help us monks to understand the outside world better and be more responsive to people's needs."

Phra Dussadee concurs, adding that maybe it is time for Buddhadasa's followers to become more aggressive in their networking to spread his teaching to wider groups in society. As Buddhadasa hoped, more laypersons are now beginning to teach dharma to fellow laypersons through books and lectures, as Mayura herself plans to do.

"Monks certainly face a tough challenge if they are still to be relevant in the future of Buddhism," advises Phra Dussadee. "We may lose relevance if they don't adjust to become more committed to learning and practising deeper dharma to fit our role as religious practitioners."

Ultimately, none of this may really matter if we follow the basic Buddhist teaching of impermanence, says Dr Suwanna. "Buddhadasa's teaching could eventually fade away, but as the monk himself stressed, Buddhism is a fundamental law of nature and will always be there for people to discover."

The first instalment in this three-part story appeared on Wednesday, and the second was printed yesterday.

Nantiya Tangwisutijit

The Nation

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Joyful Nun

by Loke Poh Lin, New Straits Times, June 15, 2006

If anyone’s life has taken a complete 180-degree turn as a resultof a book, it is the Venerable Tenzin Palmo’s. From her first brush with Buddhism to her setting up of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in 2000, hers is a fascinating tale of self-discovery, compassion and joy. LOKE POH LIN has the story.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Meeting the Venerable Tenzin Palmo is like breathing clean, fresh mountain air. It’s calming and exhilarating at the same time. Robed in saffron and red, she spoke with a gentle voice, a smile ever ready on her radiant face.

Tenzin Palmo was in Kuala Lumpur to speak at the upcoming International Conference on Buddhist Women from Saturday to June 21, and we took the opportunity to have a chat with her.

Amazingly, her spiritual journey started in London when she was 18, after reading a book.

“Up to that time I was searching for a spiritual path. Then I joined a Buddhist society in London. Mind you, that was in the early 60s, before the hippie movement and general interest in Eastern religions.

“I got involved in the Sri Lankan Society as I was interested in Theravada Buddhism. Then I read a book dealing with an overview of Buddhism and while reading about Tibetan Buddhism and its four traditions: Nyingma, Sakyapa, Kargyupa, Gelugpa, a voice said ’You’re a Gelugpa’.

“The last thing I wanted to be involved in was Tibetan Buddhism! But this voice inside said ‘You are a Gelugpa’. I went to see a woman about this and she advised me to read The Life of Milarepa, about a great yogi of the 11th century. It was one of the few translated books at that time. When I read that book, I realised that this is my path.

“I started to learn Tibetan. And when I was 20 I went to India to look for a teacher.”

In 1964, she met her Tibetan guru, His Eminence the 8th Khamtrul Rinpoche, and became one of the first Westerners to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

She studied under him for six years, after which she was sent to Lahaul for more intensive practice.

For a further six years, she practised in the monastery there and remained in isolation during the long winter months.

Eventually, Tenzin Palmo sought more seclusion and found a nearby cave where she stayed 12 years in solitary retreat. This became the subject of a book by Vicki Mackenzie, Cave in the Snow.

The cheerful Tenzin Palmo’s main focus now is the Dongyu Gatsal Ling (DGL) Nunnery she founded in 2000.

“The lamas of my monastery (Khampagar, at Tashi Jong) requested that since there was nothing at that time, we should start a nunnery. For the last 13 years we have been raising funds for the nunnery. We have 38 nuns now but we are building for 100. Every year, we take in 20 more. They study Buddhist philosophy, meditation, language.”

Teachers are senior lamas and nuns who have had the opportunity of an education.

A browse through Tenzin Palmo’s website ( shows that the nuns receive accounting and budgeting lessons too — so that they will be able to run the nunnery well in the future.

The DGL Nunnery offers young women from Tibet and the Himalayan border regions of India, Bhutan and Nepal an opportunity to develop their intellectual and spiritual potential.

Tenzin Palmo adds, “In the past, nuns were regarded as girls who couldn’t get married. In the last 10 years this has changed. They have met nuns from Korea and Taiwan and seen how confident they are, how respected and empowered. And it inspires them.

“Tibetans should introduce higher ordination for nuns. Nuns should have the opportunity to become more educated, same as the monks, but this has been denied women. The lamas themselves are most keen to help teach the nuns. Certainly the ones who have taught our nuns love teaching our girls. And have been apologetic that they have not thought about this in the past.

“Historically, the trend among women to not appreciate their own gender has not served aspiring nuns well. Their needs were not expressed. It is changing now, with a gentle, quiet revolution. Hopefully they will progress to advanced degrees. Now our concern is for higher ordination for nuns.

“We have discussed the introduction of higher ordination for nuns in the Tibetan tradition. Things are moving along. Now young scholars are also researching the bikkshunis (ordained nuns) and how ordination has come about.”

At present nuns in the Tibetan tradition can only receive the vows of a novice. The lamas were supportive while raising some points which would need to be addressed before the full ordination can be bestowed within their tradition.

When asked why there has been a lack of interest in training nuns and integrating them into the mainstream of Buddhist clergy, she answered: “It has been pointed out that if they had introduced ordination of nuns 20 years ago, it would not have been successful. The nuns were not educated. It would not have worked. Now it’s different. Nuns are more confident and have more self esteem.

“The nuns always had more difficulty in surviving. The nunneries rely on the generosity of lay patrons. When resources are scarce, the monks would get the vote. Women are not supportive of their own gender. Somehow the monks seem more meritorious. So generally there’s much less devotion towards nuns.

“Even now, with nuns coming into their own, their nunneries are rundown and struggling. Each monastery has a head, but the nuns have no one to represent them. It’s always a struggle to keep going. So through the ages, there has been fewer and fewer nuns.There weren’t enough good teachers to teach. Now, it’s different. Our professors really love our nuns and are proud of the fact that they teach them. The Dalai Lama is very supportive of the nuns also. He himself says that the future of the Dharma is in the hands of the women.”

The world lives in fear, intolerance and distrust. I asked Tenzin for advice on how to help us cope.

She said, “Buddhism is a path which leads to peace and lovingkindness and compassion. The world is full of violence and greed because it’s inhabited by minds which are working by themselves. Many disasters are brought about by the humans. We are unbelievably destructive. We have to change our minds, and purify our minds and cleanse ourselves.

“Greed, anger, arrogance, jealousy – all the negative energies would be gone if we can control our minds. Greed goes closely with anger and frustration. Materialism is nothing to do with levels of happiness. Buddha said greed is like salty water. You can swallow the whole ocean and never satisfy your thirst.

Tenzin Palmo and a host of international speakers will be sharing their insights at the 9th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women in Kuala Lumpur from Saturday to June 21, 2006. For more details, log on to

Friday, June 16, 2006

Former convicts make a new life for themselves through Buddhism

Taiwan Headlines, June 15, 2006

Taipei, Taiwan -- No on paid much attention to Chen Yung-chuan after he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed. Chen initially wanted to kill himself. In Chen's greatest hour of need, Master Chan Kung brought Chen to a Buddhist compassion organization where people there took care of him.

At the center, Wu Tung-hsing, who used to work in the underground sex trade and displayed quite an unpredictable temper, volunteered to take Chen under his wing and care for him. He not only cleaned up after Chen after he went to the bathroom, but also provided assistance in his physical rehabilitation. In what amounted to a miraculous recovery, Wu nurtured Chen back to health in just a few short months. Even doctors expressed surprise at Chen's recovery.

Master Chan Kung was originally a gangster involved in a crime syndicate. Ten years ago, he established a Buddhist compassion center, the Ta-chueh Tung-hsin-hui, to provide shelter to people and help them in starting a new life.

Countless criminals have spent time at the facility, which has helped them change their lifestyles and become more charitable, even becoming devout Buddhists. About a half a year ago, the Taiwan After-care Association and the Tainan Detention Center sent the center someone who was primed to start a new life. The work involved in getting Chen on the right path, however, was much more difficult than for many others who had come through the center's doors. The reason for this was that the person sent to the center was completely paralyzed and had no means of speaking.

Master Chan Kung said Chen had been imprisoned after being convicted of theft. When Chen had his stroke, he was sent to a hospital for treatment. Despite his serious condition, no one made any inquiries about Chen. Master Chan Kung said, "Many people are not even willing to throw away a rotten banana. Instead, what they do is cut off the rotten part and then eat the rest." He said that one should not abandon life and at the worst times. It was in this spirit that he decided to claim Chen and take him back to the center where he could be taken care of.

Initially, Chen had no control of his bodily functions and would urinate and defecate at will. He would soil his clothes and the bed to which he was confined. None of the people who were residing at the facility wanted to have anything to do with cleaning up after Chen. Wu Tung-hsing, however, decided to take on the task without even having to be asked. Given Chen's long battle with illness, he no longer wanted to continue on with life and wanted to die. Wu Tung-hsing has to constantly be on the look out in case Chen tried to commit suicide.

Even though taking care of Chen was quite a task, Wu Tung-hsing's studies in Buddhism served him well; he looked upon the job with a sense of compassion. While he was taking care of Chen, he would constantly pray to Buddha to give Chen life. After giving the utmost attention to Chen over a period of time, Chen gradually began to get better. Chen, who originally was not able to speak, one day all of a sudden uttered a six syllable Buddhist couplet Om Ma Ne Pad Me Hom. Both Master Chan Kung and Wu Tung-hsing were both surprised and delighted that Chen said the words. They both attributed Chen's remarkable progress to the power of Buddhism.

Chen presently is still in the stage of rehabilitation. Nonetheless, he has decided to commit himself to the study of Buddhism. In order to reduce the burden that he presents to others, he each day takes it upon himself to struggle up and down the stairs in order to rehabilitate his legs. He hopes one day to be totally rehabilitated, both mentally and physically, and to be able to accompany Master Chan Kung to prisons throughout Taiwan so that he can tell his story.

Wu Tung-hsing said that in his younger years, he got on the wrong track, and before long found himself addicted to drugs and alcohol. In addition, at the time he had even opened the largest house of ill repute in Tainan. In 1978, the establishment was raided, and the move attracted quite a bit of attention at the time. He was tried and ultimately sent to jail on drug offenses as well as offenses against morals. In the days after that, his wife and children left him, and he went through a very tough time. This forced him to consider his past, however, and it was at this time that he decided to repent.

Wu said that in those early years, he wanted to kick the drug habit, but every time he would start to go through withdrawal, he would lose all rationality. The only thing that occupied his mind was to get the quick thrill of inhaling drugs and how to obtain the drugs he needed. He said that every day of his life was a battle between his will and his drug addiction. In order to once and for all kick drugs, he moved to someplace where he knew no one and worked as a bundler. The work was hard and he would perspire profusely. He became so preoccupied with the work, however, that this enabled him to forget about drugs.

Over 10 years ago, he first came into contact with Buddhist doctrine and began reading a lot of Buddhist scripture. While Wu spent a lot of time trying to understand this new knowledge to him, he really was not yet able to internalize it. Then he met Master Chan Kung, he helped to unravel the mysteries for him. Wu finally understood that blindly reading and reciting the texts in the past really were of no meaning. He needed to realize the meaning through doing good and charitable deeds. Wu said that these days, no matter how hard or dirty the task, even cleaning up after someone who has lost continence, he looks upon this work as a means to provide more training for himself in practicing the meaning of Buddhism.

Wu stressed that after he had his epiphany, he decided to give up his business in injection machinery. He also resigned from his job as a manager at a security company. His main goal in life was to work with Master Chan Kung and live a life of Buddhist compassion. He often makes trips to correctional facilities throughout Taiwan where he tells his story how he finally kicked his drug addiction. Wu said he believes that his life as it is now carries more meaning than anything he's done in the past.

Source:Liberty Times (2006/06/13)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Buddhism With a New Mind-Set

by James Estrin, The New York Times, June 13, 2006

New York, USA -- Western spiritual seekers who have focused on meditation have fueled a remarkable growth in Buddhist practice in the United States. So what to do if you are part of an ancient Buddhist tradition that is huge in Asia but has failed to catch on in the United States, in part because it has no real place for meditation?

Mediation is part of the service at the New York Buddhist Church.
The practice is now embraced by more Buddhist groups.
By MICHAEL LUO, New York Times, June 13, 2006

Change the tradition.

That is what the Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki of the New York Buddhist Church and other leaders of the Buddhist Churches of America, one of the oldest and most established Buddhist movements in the country, are doing.

The 65 temples across the country that make up the church network are part of a school of Buddhism known as Pure Land that is one of the most widespread in the world and was once a thriving part of the Japanese-American community. Over the last few decades, however, the movement has lost two-thirds of its United States members as a result of assimilation and the diminishing numbers of Japanese coming to this country.

Spurred by a new reform-minded bishop, Koshin Ogui, a growing number of the movement's temples have abandoned their traditional lack of interest in meditation and are offering the practice as a way to survive by reaching out to non-Japanese adherents.

<< The Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki says he wants to bring Buddhism to Americans - by James Estrin/The New York Times

In some ways, the story line is familiar. Religious traditions have long adapted to fit changing cultural circumstances. Consider how Hanukkah, a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish religious calendar, has leaped in importance among many Jews in the face of the crush of attention surrounding Christmas in this country. But while Zen and Tibetan Buddhism — the Buddhist forms that have largely driven the religion's surge among Western practitioners — focus on meditative practices as a way to achieve enlightenment, Shin Buddhism, the Pure Land school that the Buddhist Churches of America embraces, teaches that meditation is ultimately useless because of the inherent human limitations.

But the Rev. Marvin Harada, of the Orange County Buddhist Church in Anaheim, Calif., who started a Sunday meditation service several years ago, sees an interim use — to calm the mind so it can receive Buddhist teaching.

"It's really something that's needed in our modern lifestyle," he said, because that lifestyle "is so hectic, so fast-paced, we have a shorter attention span." Only by renouncing all self-effort in attaining enlightenment and trusting in what Shin Buddhists call "Other Power," embodied in the form of the Amida Buddha, revered by Shin adherents, can a believer attain birth in the transcendent realm of Pure Land. That is a place — similar to the Christian concept of heaven — where nirvana can be achieved.

"Shin Buddhism defines itself as a form of Buddhism that does not rely on meditation," said Matthew Weiner, a Buddhism analyst for the Interfaith Center of New York. "It's not just a stylistic difference. That's why this is so kind of radical, in a sense."

The growing incorporation of meditation into Shin Buddhism also offers an intriguing study of how white converts, who are actually outnumbered by their Asian immigrant counterparts in the United States but have driven the rising profile of Buddhism here, are reshaping Buddhist practice.

As a minister in Cleveland and Chicago, Bishop Ogui said he began offering meditation several years ago because 60 percent of the people who called his temple were asking about it. Any venture that turns away that many potential customers, he said, is bound to close.

Clergy members "are supposed to respond to the needs of the people," Bishop Ogui said. "Any program, including meditation, tai chi, yoga, anything which makes people feel comfortable, or willing to step into the temple, should be offered."

At the New York Buddhist Church, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Mr. Nakagaki has been leading meditation classes and incorporating the practice into his Sunday services for years. On a recent Wednesday evening, for example, Mr. Nakagaki, seated on a mat, led a small group of followers, most of them non-Asian practitioners, in an extended period of sitting quietly and concentrating on breathing.

It is a familiar scene to those accustomed to the Buddhism that has come into vogue among white spiritual seekers, many of whom have jettisoned Buddhism's other tenets to focus exclusively on meditation.

Colin Anderson, 47, a regular participant in New York Buddhist Church's class, drops in on meditation centers all over the city.

"I don't see it as a religion," he said. "I see it as more of a science of the mind."

The concept that is taught at many meditation centers — that controlling one's mind can lead to better controlling one's actions — which might lead to being reborn into a better life, makes sense to him.

"You're in control of your own life with your own karma," he said.

But that idea directly contradicts what Shinran, the founder of Shin Buddhism, taught some 800 years ago. Shinran came to Pure Land after growing frustrated with meditation and other practices taught by other Buddhist schools. He advocated that believers not pursue any specific practice but instead trust in the Amida Buddha's infinite wisdom and compassion for liberation from the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth.

"Shin is based on entrusting, entrusting in the idea that we as human beings are limited, and we're incapable of cultivating ourselves," said the Rev. Fumiaki Usuki of the West Los Angeles Buddhist Church, who described himself as wary of the growing use of meditation among his fellow Buddhist Churches of America ministers.

"Just because we have meditation doesn't mean these people are going to stay," he said. "They're driven by this Hollywood aura of meditation. They're supermarket shopping."

Nevertheless, on Sundays at the New York Buddhist Church, which is now about 70 percent non-Japanese, Mr. Nakagaki begins services with five to seven minutes of meditation.

The meditative practices are a bridge to usher the curious into a Buddhist tradition that can be difficult to grasp, Mr. Nakagaki said.

"My way of thinking, it is a form of kindness, a form of compassion to help them understand Pure Land Buddhism better," he said.

The growing use of meditation has sparked a debate within the Buddhist Churches of America about whether its priests are going too far in catering to the whims of an audience that many Asian Buddhists see as dabblers.

"I am maybe more conservative than some," said the Rev. Gregory Gibbs of the Oregon Buddhist Temple, who came to Shin Buddhism after years of Zen practice. "We don't want to obscure our fundamental teaching."

The debate has also highlighted fissures among Asian practitioners, who tend to be more traditional, and Western spiritual seekers.

"There's a split between converts and so-called ethnic Buddhists," said Jeff Wilson, a contributing editor to Tricycle, a Buddhist magazine, who is working on a doctorate on Buddhism in America at the University of North Carolina and has followed the debate over meditation in Shin Buddhist circles closely. "The people in the so-called ethnic component tend to think of the converts as very elitist, that they're taking over Buddhism and changing it."

Shin Buddhist leaders in Japan, worried about doctrinal purity, have also questioned the changes Bishop Ogui is encouraging.

"Whatever people worry about in Japan does not make sense most of the time here," Bishop Ogui said. "In America, we have to understand the American culture, and we have to go along with these unique differences."

In some ways, Pure Land Buddhism has always been at a disadvantage in this country because its teachings about the Amida Buddha make it appear similar to Christianity. During World War II, Shin Buddhist practitioners also started calling their temples "churches" and holding regular Sunday services as a way to appear more Christian in the face of anti-Japanese discrimination. Many Westerners looking for the exotic, or an alternative from their Judeo-Christian upbringing, have gone elsewhere. Now Shin Buddhist leaders are hoping to lure them back.

At the New York Buddhist Church, the meditation classes, along with other changes that Mr. Nakagaki has incorporated, including shaving his head and wearing a robe to look more like monks from other Buddhist branches, appear to have had some effect.

Mr. Nakagaki's congregation has grown to about 50 people on Sundays from fewer than 20 when he first started, a little over a decade ago. But attendance is not his primary concern, he said. He merely wants to bring Buddhism to the American people.

Gandhi proclaimed himself a Buddhist

by PK Balachandran, The Hindustan, June 12, 2006

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi proclaimed himself a Buddhist, saying that Buddhism was rooted in Hinduism and represented its essence. During his visit to Sri Lanka in 1927, Gandhi had no hesitation in declaring that he was a "Buddhist" because he saw Buddhism as cleansed Hinduism.

<< Mahatma Gandhi

In his book Gandhiji in Ceylon (S Ganesan, Publisher, Triplicane, Madras 1928) his Secretary and chronicler Mahadev Desai quotes Gandhi as saying that the Buddha was a "Hindu of Hindus".

In a speech at the Young Men's Buddhist Association, Gandhi said: "He (Gautama) was saturated with the spirit of Hinduism, with the Vedic spirit."

"And so far as I am aware, he never rejected Hinduism or the message of the Vedas."

What the Buddha did was to introduce a "living reformation in the petrified faith that surrounded him," Gandhi said. In a speech delivered at the renowned Buddhist college, Vidyodaya, in Colombo, Gandhi said that it was his "deliberate opinion" that the essential parts of the teachings of the Buddha formed an "integral part of Hinduism."

"By his immense sacrifice, by his great renunciation and the immaculate purity of his life, he left behind an indelible impress upon Hinduism," Gandhi said of the Buddha.

"And Hinduism owes an eternal gratitude to that great teacher," he added.

"It is my fixed opinion that Buddhism or rather the teachings of the Buddha found its full fruition in India, and it could not be otherwise, for Gautama was himself a Hindu of Hindus."

"He was saturated with the best that was in Hinduism, and he gave life to some of the teachings that were buried in the Vedas and which were overgrown with weeds."

"His great Hindu spirit cut its way through the forest of words, meaningless words, which had overlaid the golden truth that was in the Vedas."

"He made some of the words in the Vedas yield a meaning to which the men of his generation were strangers."

"And he found in India, the most congenial soil," Gandhi asserted.

"Buddha never rejected Hinduism but broadened its base. He gave it a new life and a new interpretation," the Father of the Indian Nation said.

He then went to the extent of saying that what Hinduism did not take from Buddhism, was not  important.

"I would venture to tell you that what Hinduism did not assimilate of what passes for Buddhism today, was not an essential part of Buddha's life and teachings."

The Buddha's teaching was, like his heart, "all expanding and all embracing", which made it survive his own body and sweep across the face of the earth.

"I claim that this achievement is a triumph of Hinduism," Gandhi declared.

Lankans urged to study Hinduism

At the Young Men's Buddhist Association, Gandhi told Sri Lankan Buddhists to study Hinduism too. "I venture to suggest to you that your study of Buddhism will be incomplete unless you study the original sources from which the Master derived his inspiration, that is, unless you study Sanskrit and Sanskrit scriptures," he said.

Buddhism deep-rooted in India

Gandhi said that India might lack the external trappings of Buddhism today, but the Buddhist ideology had deep roots in India, and was pervasive in its influence.

"What passes under the name of Buddhism now may have been driven out of India, but  the life of the Buddha and his teachings are by no means driven out of India," he said.

And it was "impossible" for Hindu India to retrace its steps and reject the Buddhistic elements in it, he asserted.

Given his belief that Buddhism was but a cleansed form of Hinduism and the very essence of Hinduism, Gandhi said he was a Buddhist.

He told the students of Vidyodaya that his eldest son accused him of  being a Buddhist. Some other Indians accused him of spreading Buddhism under the guise of "Sanatana Hinduism".

But he pleaded guilty to the charge.

"I sympathise with my son's accusations and the accusations of my Hindu friends. And sometimes I  feel even proud of being accused of being a follower  of the Buddha, and I have no hesitation in declaring in the presence of this audience that I owe a great deal to the inspiration that I have derived from the life of the Enlightened One," he said.

That was what he said to modern Sri Lanka's foremost Buddhist revivalist, Anagarika Dharmapala, at a function to open a Buddhist temple in Calcutta.

Calls for reform of present-day Buddhism

However, Gandhi strongly felt that Buddhism, as practiced in his time, needed reform. At Vidyodaya, he said though Buddhists outside had taken in a large measure the teachings of the Buddha, an examination of their lives, whether in Sri Lanka, Burma, China or Tibet, showed that there were inconsistencies between Buddhism as he understood it, and Buddhism as practiced by people in these countries.

Elaborating this theme, Gandhi said that there was a mistaken notion that Buddhism rejected the concept of God and that the Buddha did not believe in God.

"In my humble opinion such a belief contradicts the very central fact of Buddha's teaching," he said.

"It seems to me the confusion has arisen over his rejection of all the base things that passed in his generation under the name of God ."

"His  whole soul rose in mighty indignation against the belief that a being called God required for his satisfaction the living blood of animals in order that he might be pleased -- animals which were his own creation."

"He therefore reinstated God in the right place and dethroned the usurper who for the time being seemed to occupy that White Throne.'

"He emphasised and re-declared the eternal and unalterable existence of the moral government of this universe. He unhesitatingly said that the Law was God himself."

"God's laws are eternal and unalterable and not separable from God himself. It is an indispensable condition of his very protection," Gandhi said. The confusion over God had blurred the true meaning of the term Nirvana he said.

"Nirvana is not utter extinction after death."

"Nirvana is the utter extinction of all that is base in us, all that is vicious in us. Nirvana is not like the black, dead peace of the grave, but the living peace, the living happiness of a soul which is conscious of itself and conscious of having found its own abode in the heart of the Eternal," Gandhi said.

Need to respect sanctity of life

Gandhi was very much disturbed by the lack of respect for the sanctity of life in Buddhist countries as well as India where Buddha lived and preached.

Buddha's greatest attribute was the "exacting regard" he gave to all forms life, including the lowliest, he said. The Buddha considered the lives of even the smallest creature on earth to be as precious as his own.

"It is an arrogant assumption to say that human beings are lords and masters of the lower creations. On the contrary, being endowed with the greater things in life, they are trustees of the lower animal kingdom."

"And the greatest sage lived that truth in his own life," Gandhi said as he went on to relate how the Buddha clutched a lamb and would not give it to a set of "arrogant and ignorant Brahmins" who were planning to perform a sacrifice with it.

Plea to adopt vegetarianism

Gandhi said that he did not know what the position in Sri Lanka was, but he knew that in Burma, the Burmese Buddhists would not themselves kill animals, but did not mind others killing the animals for the table.

He used the strong word "carcasses" for meat at the table.

He decried the pervasive drinking habit in  Sri Lanka, especially among the poor, and said that it was opposed to the spirit of all religions, "most decidedly" Buddhism. In a speech in Badulla on November 19, 1927, Gandhi said that he was "pained" to hear that even some Buddhists observed the "curse of untouchability" and that untouchable women were forbidden to wear upper garments.

"If you believe in untouchability you totally deny the teaching of the Buddha," he said.

Communalism is a "blight"

In a talk at the premier nationalistic organization, the Ceylon National Congress on June 22, 1927, Gandhi deplored the way communalism was being promoted in Sri Lanka, and described the phenomenon as a "blight".

"I read casually only today, something in praise of communalism. In India also we have this blight -- we call it a blight, we don't praise it."

"In India we have to deal with 300 million people. But you have to deal with such a small mass of men and women that it is a matter of pain and surprise for me to find a defence -- an energetic defence -- of this communalism."

Communalism, he cautioned, was "totally opposed to nationalism."

Gandhi said that Sri Lanka would never get genuine self government unless all the communities speak with one voice and not merely as Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sinhalese, Tamils and Malays.

Westernisation as a divider

Gandhi was disturbed by the deep rooted Westernisation that he saw in Sri Lanka, and said that it should be eschewed because it created divisions among the people.

Rebuking Sri Lankans who were going in for "all kinds of fashions and styles," Gandhi said: " Do not for the sake of your country ape the manners and   customs of others which can only do harm to you, and for heaven's sake, do not wish to be what everyone of the people of Ceylon cannot be."

Sri Lanka was called Ceylon prior to 1972.

Gandhi hailed the movement to teach Sri Lankan children through their mother tongue. In a speech at Mahinda Collge at Galle in the deep south of the island, he said: " I am certain that the children of the nation who receive instruction in a tongue other than their own commit suicide. It robs them of their birth right."

"A foreign medium means an undue strain upon the youngsters and isolates them from their home. I regard therefore such a thing as a national tragedy of first importance."

But Gandhi urged the learning of Sanskrit in Sri Lanka, since the Buddha himself,  who he described as the "Indian of Indians" had "derived his inspiration from Sanskrit writings."

Wanted Lanka to set an example to India

Gandhi described Sri Lanka as a "fragrant pearl dropped  from the nose ring of India."

In a speech delivered at a meeting of Indians  in Jaffna on November 27, he said that he wished Sri Lanka would be an improved version of India, which had fallen on bad times. Sri Lanka should be the model for India, its "glorious edition" as he put it.

"Why should not the people of Lanka who have inherited and adopted the teachings of the great Master do better than the children of the motherland?" Gandhi asked.

Friday, June 09, 2006

One hundred years of Buddhism in Hamburg

by Michael den Hoet, The Buddhist Channel,

Hamburg, Germany -- Buddhism in the West – just a fashionable trend? Not at all! As early as the 19th century people in Germany began to develop an interest in Buddhism. The most prominent of all was the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 - 1860) who called himself a "Buddhaist" 150 year ago.

The first Buddhist Group was established in Hamburg one hundred years ago, in 1906. The members of this group were not Asian immigrants nostalgically striving to keep up their native traditions but Germans looking to expand their horizons.

As a city traditionally active in international trade, Hamburg developed an interest in foreign cultures very early. Intellectuals were especially interested in Buddha's teachings. In 1914 a professorship for Indian studies was established at the “Colonial Institute”, later at the university (founded in 1919), and Buddhism was on the curriculum.

Two Buddhist groups were very active in Hamburg during the 1920s, but the intellectual narrowness of the Nazi dictatorship brought them both to a halt. After World War II people interested in Buddhism got together again. 1954 saw the founding of the “Buddhistische Gesellschaft Hamburg” (BGH), which brought together various small groups of differing styles.

Hamburg Buddhists founded the “Haus der Stille” in Roseburg in 1962, which was the first meeting and retreat place in the countryside. By the end of the Sixties the first Zen groups had appeared, and by the middle of the Seventies the first Tibetan Buddhist centres were founded in H  amburg.

Today, about 40 Buddhist centres and groups are active in Hamburg, representing the whole range of Buddhism from the more traditional Asian style to the modern western style – there are groups practising Theravada, Zen and the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Today several thousand citizens of Hamburg practice Buddhism in one of those groups and centres. At the university courses are offered in Buddhism as well as Tibetan philology.

Buddhism Lives!

Although Buddhism is generally regarded with sympathy in the West, it is not generally seen in public. Buddhism has however been present in Hamburg for more than a hundred years. Today there is a lively Buddhist scene in and around Hamburg. You can get in touch with these groups on Sunday, 11th June 2006. In a beautiful, family friendly, open-air setting these Buddhist groups will celebrate Vesakh, one of the most important Buddhist holidays of the Buddhist cultures of Asia. This year’s festivities also serve to celebrate 100 years of Hamburg Buddhism, the first Buddhist group having been established in 1906.

The Vesakh event will take place at the "Gro├če Wallanlagen" in "Planten un Blomen" near Millerntor (not to be confused with the main entrance of the Congress Centre, located 1,5 km away). From 11.30 am until 8 pm Hamburg Buddhist groups invite you (free of charge) to enjoy events such as introductory talks, meditation, ceremonies and Zen archery as well as an enticing music program, in various tents around the meadow and in a small amphitheatre.

We are very proud to present a Special Guest from Nepal: The famous singing nun Ani Choying will perform Tibetan songs. Ani Choying is well-known through concert tours in Asia, Norterhn America and Europe.

The Vesakh celebration is organised by a team of 17 different Buddhist centres and groups in Hamburg.

What is Vesakh?

Vesakh is the world's most important Buddhist celebration.

It is the day of the birth, enlightenment and death of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni who lived nearly 2500 years ago. For most of the Buddhist countries in Asia Vesakh is a national holiday, celebrated at the full moon in May or in early June. Some years ago the United Nations (UNO) recognized Vesakh as an official worldwide holiday.

In Germany Buddhists of different traditions also celebrate Vesakh together. In major German cities such as Munich and Berlin, public celebrations of Vesakh are a regular part of the cultural calendar.

In recent years Buddhists began to celebrate Vesakh in Hamburg. The most successful celebration to date was in 2005, when more than 5000 visitors enjoyed Hamburg’s first open-air Vesakh celebration and beautiful weather.

Website in German:

 June 7, 2006

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Prisoner denied access to book on Zen Buddhism

Prisoner denied access to book on Zen Buddhism by Gowanda Correctional Facility, Gowanda, New York USA by Kooi Fong Lim, The Buddhist Channel, June 5, 2006

Zen teacher Venerable Kobutsu Malone engages in persistent and peaceful means to reverse ban order

Gowanda, New York (USA) -- A prisoner at the Gowanda Correctional Facility in New York State; William "Red" Graham has been denied access to a basic introductory text on Zen Buddhism entitled "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" authored by Venerable Kobutsu Malone.

The facility's "Media Review Committee" will not allow William to receive a copy of the book due to a non-existent regulation which it lists as "Depicts/describes procedures to be implemented solely by Administration.

According to Ven. Kobutsu, the ban covers from pages 1-74, and since the book text is 74 pages in length - the prison authorities are objecting to the entire volume, except for the cover and the preliminary pages.

The primary objective of Ven. Kobutsu's recently published book is to provide valid information to prisoners, correctional and judicial professionals about the practices of Zen Buddhism in prisons and jails. The information presented is primarily about Zen and serves to illustrate, in a general sense, Buddhist practice in prison. The examples of liturgy and descriptions of monastic practices provided are representative of the Rinzai Zen Buddhist sect.

I'm astonished, said a perplexed Ven. Kobutsu, that the prison authorities have objected to basic Buddhist teachings such as the 'Heart Sutra', and other fundamental Buddhist principles such as 'The Three Marks of Existence', 'The Four Noble Truths' and 'The Ten Precepts' contained within the 74 pages saying that these are 'procedures to be implemented' by a functionary of the state.

What specific procedures implemented solely by Administration found in "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" are being objected to?

According to the State of New York Department of Correctional Services (NYSDOCS) Directive # 4572 Media Review (Last updated 10/02/2000), it states in section II (Standards) a list of guidelines (A. through H) by which literature for prisoners is evaluated.

A comprehensive review of the directive's guidelines reveals nothing that substantiates a justification for the ban, as none of the content in the book contradicts in any way whatsoever what the State lists as standards for media evaluation.

To date, only Gowanda Correctional Facility in New York has objected to the book. No other correctional facilities within New York State, The Federal Bureau of Prisons, or prisons and jails in any other state have taken similar action.

"It appears to be an arbitrary and discriminatory decision," said Ven. Kobutsu. "The prison officials do not seem to be adhering to their own regulations. Their action is totally bogus and constitute an egregious violation of Red's (William's) rights.

The prisoner in question has retained legal representation by a Buddhist attorney who has actually read "Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism" from cover to cover. Currently he is seeking an official definition of any specifically objectionable material that is present in the volume.

William is seeking an indication how a copy of Prison Chaplaincy Guidelines for Zen Buddhism could be interpreted as a bona fide threat to security or of compelling peneological interest so as to justify denial of his access to religious material.

Note from the Editor

Ven Kobutsu Malone trained in zazen (zen meditation) with William "Red" Graham in Sing Sing Prison for seven years on a weekly basis. They have maintained contact for almost 15 years and have had numerous correspondences over the years.

We perceive that William should have his basic rights respected and accorded unobstructed access to Dharma literature. By walking on the path of the awakened state of mind, he has taken upon himself to cultivate a sense of self worth and to embrace each moment as it comes. This is the actualization of the Zen path.

We strongly perceive that by cultivating his zazen practice and Dharma studies, William is doing far more than conventional correctional procedures can allow, a move which we feel should be most welcomed by correctional facility authorities if they are really concerned with "constructive individual development.

As such, we welcome anyone who is concerned with the treatment that Willaim "Red" Graham has been receiving at the Gowanda Correctional Facility, to please write to any one (or all) of the following New York State Department of Correctional Services State Supervisory personnel and insist that they follow their own regulations and that the book ban be reversed:

Mr. Glen S. Goord, Commissioner
New York State Department of Correctional Services
Harriman State Campus, Building #2
1220 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12226

Mr. Anthony J. Annucci, Deputy Commissioner & Counsel
New York State Department of Correctional Services
Harriman State Campus, Building #2
1220 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12226

Mr. Al Coombs, Director, Media Review
New York State Department of Correctional Services
Harriman State Campus, Building #2
1220 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12226

Mr. Mark Leonard, Director, Ministerial and Family Services
New York State Department of Correctional Services
Harriman State Campus, Building #2
1220 Washington Avenue
Albany, NY 12226

If you wish to express your support for William, please write to him directly:

Mr. William Graham # 84 A 6009
Gowanda Correctional Facility
Post Office Box 311
Gowanda, New York 14070-0311 USA

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Thich Nhat Hanh

Interview by BOB ABERNETHY

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: In the U.S. and Europe, the other best-known Buddhist leader, besides the Dalai Lama, is the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. He, too, has been on a U.S. tour, ended this past week -- speaking, leading retreats, and promoting his latest of more than 75 books, Creating True Peace.

Many people may find Nhat Hanh's teachings Utopian, but he is convinced they are practical and proven. He has opposed violence for more than 50 years. Martin Luther King, Junior nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Nhat Hanh insists he is a monk, not a politician. But as he toured the U.S. he spoke not only of Buddhist practices but also -- often and critically -- of American policies in the Middle East.

Photo of Hanh and monks We caught up with Thich Nhat Hanh during late afternoon rush hour on Capitol Hill, in Washington. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he practiced his customary attentive, so-called mindful walking -- to the Library of Congress to talk to Members of Congress, and others, about peace in a world of terrorism. He said since 9-11 the level of hate and violence has gone up. He blamed America's use of force.

THICH NHAT HANH: Using violence to suppress violence is not the correct way. America has to wake up to that reality.

ABERNETHY: That's not a sentiment you hear everyday at the Capitol. Nor is Nhat Hanh's recommendation to this bitterly divided Congress that its members practice what he calls deep listening (to each other) and gentle speech.

Photo of Buddha Nhat Hanh became a Zen Buddhist monk when he was 16. His title "Thich" means, symbolically, in Vietnamese, that he is a member of the Buddha's extended family.

During the Vietnam War, Nhat Hanh actively opposed the fighting, offending all sides. He developed what he called Engaged Buddhism: going beyond meditation to campaign for peace, care for refugees and help rebuild bombed villages.

NHAT HANH: If you hear the bombs falling, you know, you know that you have to go out and help.

ABERNETHY: Because of his anti-war activities, Nhat Hanh had to leave Vietnam. In the 1980s, he founded a Buddhist community in France and has spent most of the years since teaching, leading retreats and writing. In all, he has written more than 75 books.

Nhat Hanh's message emphasizes simple practices. Concentration on every activity -- walking, breathing, eating, everything. He says this mindfulness leads to understanding the roots of suffering, which encourages compassion that can dissolve anger.

On this year's U.S. visit, he led private retreats for several members of Congress in Washington, and for police officers in Wisconsin.

I asked him what Buddhism has to say to people of other religions.

NHAT HANH: I think if Buddhism can help, it is the concrete methods of practice. We have the same kind of teaching, but in Buddhism there are more concrete tools.

There are ways to transform and to reduce the amount of suffering in our families, in our schools. We, as practitioners of transformation and healing, we know how to do it, how to reduce the level of violence.

ABERNETHY: Are there times when it is right to use violence in order to protect yourself, or your family, or nation?

NHAT HANH: If you see someone who is trying to shoot, to destroy, you have to do your best in order to prevent him or her to do so. You must. But you must do it out of your compassion, of your willingness to protect, and not out of anger. That is the key.

ABERNETHY: Can a person be both a Buddhist and a Christian?

Photo of THICH NHAT HANH NHAT HANH: Sure. There are many, many Christians who practice Buddhism and they become better and better Christians all the time.

ABERNETHY: Nhat Hanh thinks violence in America has increased in recent years. He says one reason is too much production and consumption of the wrong kinds of things -- movies and television, for instance, that stimulate craving and violence.

NHAT HANH: I think we have the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. But in the name of freedom, people have done a lot of damage. I think we have to build a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast in order to counterbalance. Because liberty without responsibility is not true liberty. We are not free to destroy.

ABERNETHY: The continuing struggle in Iraq triggered questions for Nhat Hanh everywhere he went.

Photo of soldier in Iraq NHAT HANH: I think America is now caught in Iraq, like in Vietnam not very long ago. And you believed that search and destroy is the right path. But the more you continued that kind of operation, the more Communists you created, and finally you had to withdraw. I am afraid that you are doing exactly the same thing in Iraq.

The only way for Americans to get emancipated from this situation is to help build the United Nations into a real body of peace so that the United Nations would take over the problem of Iraq and the Middle East. America is powerful enough to do that.

ABERNETHY: At the Washington Hebrew Congregation, and elsewhere, Nhat Hanh made the same appeal for more UN authority. He also urged Americans to lobby their elected officials.

NHAT HANH: We have to offer them our insight, our compassion. We cannot just afford for them to be surrounded by advisers who do not have that insight, that compassion.

Photo of people with books ABERNETHY: There was no way to tell how many people here agreed with Nhat Hanh, but there was no doubt about their interest in what he had to say.

Thich Nhat Hanh has scheduled a retreat for Israelis and Palestinians next month in France. He has done this before, and he says -- for those attending -- it always brings reconciliation.

Source :

Monday, June 05, 2006

Riding through the ruins

By Anu Nathan, The Star, May 20, 2006

All the troubles of Sri Lanka disappear the moment you step into Polonnaruwa. Despite being smaller than its more illustrious counterpart Anuradhapura, the ruins here are better preserved and exude peace, writes ANU NATHAN.

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- SRI LANKA, the teardrop-shaped isle just south of India is a land of conundrums. Much of what we hear of the land once called Serendip and Ceylon is negative – from the long-running civil war that seems no where near an end and the devastation wrought by the Dec 26 tsunami in 2004. But as I was to discover, it is a land of such exquisite beauty that you feel like never ending your holiday.

It was with some trepidation that I booked my tickets to Sri Lanka, the land of my forefathers, amid news reports that the island was on the brink of an all-out war again with an attack on the Sri Lanka navy, said to have been mounted by the Tamil Tigers.

<< Gal Vihara

Nonetheless I quelled my fears and made plans to explore an ancient city. I baulked at the one that carried my name – Anuradhapura – and opted for the smaller but no less deserving gem in Sri Lanka’s cultural map, Polonnaruwa.

The town itself is nothing to write home about – the only place worth mentioning here is the Rest House which is run by the tourism department and fills up quickly with geriatric tourists who want to relive the colonial times with a cuppa and cucumber sandwiches for tea.

Instead, you can choose to stay at any of the towns surrounding Polonnaruwa, so we chose Giritale – for its proximity to the Sigiriya rock fortress, the Dambulla caves, the forest reserve and, of course, the expansive ruins of King Parakramabahu I (1153-86).

A short bus ride from Giritale drops you off in front of some rent-a-bicycle shops. Before hopping on a bicycle though, make sure you have a Cultural Triangle ticket (everyone needs tickets, regardless of what the auto-rickshaw (a motorised three-wheeler) drivers say) to enter the ruin sites.

Vatadage  >>

The best bet is a Cultural Triangle ticket which covers Polonnaruwa, Anuradhapura, Sigiriya and Dambulla. It’s a steal at US$30 per person, compared to the single-entry charge of US$15. Tickets can be bought at the Museum in Polonnaruwa or your hotel can sometimes arrange for the tickets and a guide. 

The well-stocked museum also sells bronzes, statues, maps and relics. Being air-conditioned, it is a welcome respite from the afternoon heat.

Then take in a quick cuppa (yes, nothing like Ceylon tea) at the Rest House verandah while gazing at the lake and the plethora of migratory birds on a lay-over as they make their way to the reserve before you stroll back to town to rent a bike. 

While most tourists hop on either an auto-rickshaw or get into air-conditioned vans, opting for a bike allows you to see the ruins at your own pace, ditch the pack tourists and follow paths that are too narrow for vehicles. It would be advisable to invest in a guidebook – either Lonely Planet or Rough Guide – as there is scant information at the site. 

The ticket does not come with a guide either, but you can always hover on the periphery of a guided tour (although this is not the best option). So on bright fuchsia bikes, complete with plastic flowers on the basket, both my partner and I rode off for a tryst with some of the most amazing Buddha structures in the world.

To the right of the entrance is what’s left of King Parakramabahu’s palace. Opposite it are the royal baths – huge ponds where the king, his consorts and, I was told, the courtesans, bathed in shampoo made of sandalwood and scrubs made from turmeric paste. 

<< Dagobas, such as this one called Rankot Vihara, are believed to contain the remains of royals.

It was also here that we met with the downside to Polonarruwa – the incessant pedlars who wanted to sell little elephant carvings, books on Buddha and postcards. I didn’t see a single sale being made that day, and wondered why they persisted. 

Hopping back on our bikes, we pedalled fast, leaving the hawkers in the dust as we approached the Quadrangle – a large square of land blocked off by walls, to the left of the entrance gates. 

In the centre is the Vatadage, with four seated Buddhas. Entering this sanctuary, where priests used to gather to chant, was altogether a sublime experience, as I, ever the non-believer, suddenly felt calm and relaxed. Maybe it was the Buddha foursome – all were seated in the meditation pose, and looked extremely welcoming. 

Also in the Quadrangle is an image house, which once had multiple murals of Buddha, and many little shrines as well as the Hatadage which used to house the Buddha tooth relic, now in the safe confines of the Tooth Relic temple in Kandy. Next to the Hatadage is a 25-tonne stone slab, like our own Batu Bersurat found in Terengganu, documenting the going-ons at the court and extolling the virtues of one King Nissanka Malla. 

The Lotus Pond is in the northern quadrant of the Polonnaruwa ruins. >>

South of the Quadrangle is the first of many Shiva Devales (temple plots), which houses a Hindu temple, the source of some of the best bronze artifacts in the museum.

The primary attraction of Polonnaruwa lies in the North group – the Gal Vihara. From one large slab of granite, artisans carved four Buddhas (see graphics) – two sitting, one standing and one majestic 14m-long reclining Buddha. The facial expressions on both the standing and reclining Buddhas are almost too real – in fact, the most serene I have ever seen. 

Whilst visiting the dagobas (including an imposing 55m high structure), stupas and Buddha statues, it began to pour, drenching us cyclists. But I didn’t mind despite standing shivering under the sloping roof of a gardener’s hut. How unusual. Back in Kuala Lumpur I would have railed against the skies.

When it slowed to a drizzle, it was back on the bikes for the final leg past the huge lotus pond baths to see an almost effeminate Buddha with graceful hips at the Tivanka image house which was once adorned with fine, albeit sometimes titillating frescoes similar to those at Sigiriya. Of this, a few murals have survived. Despite having to adjust to the darkness, we were thrilled to see the shadows of what had once been amazing wall-to-ceiling decorations. 

We didn’t have time to see all of Polonnaruwa – that’s the price you pay for going on your own power, but we were not disappointed. What I had seen was enough for a lifetime of memories.

Pay these places a visit

Dambulla Caves

Dambulla is essentially a one horse town and the most striking feature on its landscape is the Golden Temple and the Dambulla Caves. This Unesco World Heritage site has been a sacred pilgrimage site for 22 centuries, and houses the largest, best-preserved cave-temple complex in Sri Lanka. Look out for the ceiling art of Sri Lankan Michaelangelos, as frescoes cover the breadth of the caves. A modern day giant standing Buddha welcomes you to the temple, but even that pales in comparison to the sublime art inside the caves. 

Sigiriya Rock Fortress

Mystery continues to surround this rock that rises out of the ground like Ayers Rock amid lush landscaped gardens which include fountains, tanks (lakes) and terraced water features.

Some say it was the palace of one King Kassapa, who, fearing invaders, built his palace at the top of the monolith. Others claim it was a Buddhist monastery. Nonetheless, there is much to see at Sigiriya from the titillating “cloud damsels” adorning the walls of a cave (accessible via a spiral metal staircase), the well manicured gardens and the rock itself, replete with a true-to-life carving of a lion’s head and paws on its rock face. 

A breathless climb leads to the palace at the pinnacle. Let your gaze wander as far as the eye can see and take in the undulating surrounding landscape of coconut palms and padi fields.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Lawyers Contemplate a New Practice: Meditation

James H. Johnston, Legal Times, June 2, 2006

Before attending his first meditation session, employment lawyer Robert Waldeck told himself, "If these people are into crystals and new age, I'm out of here." That was 11 years ago. Today, Waldeck, an associate at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of John Berry, meditates twice a week.

How do lawyers, who measure time in billable hours, adjust to an activity like meditation, which demands that they sit still and turn inward for, oh, hundreds of dollars' worth of time off the clock? Can something as intangible and elusive as meditation really work for those whose professional life centers on rules? Is the idea of a meditating lawyer a contradiction in terms?

Be still, skeptics. A fair number of lawyers and others connected to the legal world embrace meditation. They say it has several benefits: It relaxes them and reduces stress, induces a longer-term calming effect, gives them greater energy and improves their professional performance.


Meditation as a discipline for focusing the mind began in some of the rituals of the Eastern religions, but in the United States today its techniques are mainly taught for their own merit, divorced from religious overtones. Although there are many types, two forms of meditation commonly taught are Vipassana, or "insight" meditation, which concentrates on breathing, and transcendental meditation, or TM, which uses mantras -- the repetition of special words or sounds. Both forms aim to focus attention and clear the mind.

For the most part, meditation techniques are taught through group sessions. A typical session of insight meditation lasts 30 minutes. The leader directs participants to close their eyes and focus on their breathing. As the session progresses, the participants' inward focus is shifted to other physical sensations, such as sounds, or to emotional experiences and feelings, such as gratitude, before they are slowly returned to the outside world.

Lawyers are often drawn into meditation to learn to relax, says Linda Lazarus, a lawyer specializing in mediation. Because meditation sessions begin with exercises that quiet your mind and help you concentrate, you are bound to feel more relaxed after meditating, she says. Lazarus, who also teaches meditation, started the DC Area Contemplative Law Group, which consists of 40 or 50 lawyers who meet monthly, seeking "to balance the externally driven practice of law with contemplative practices."

Rebecca Romig, a clerk for Judge Lynn K. Stewart of Maryland's Circuit Court for Baltimore City, became interested in meditation as a route to relaxation. She began by listening to a CD, but eventually sought out personal instruction in Washington.

Lawyers and businesspeople complain of feeling stress and anxiety and want an alternative to medication, says Klia Bassing, Romig's instructor. Bassing, who previously worked at the World Bank, says, "Type A's often have the most dramatic results. I fall into that category. I could hardly sit still when I first tried meditation. It took as much energy for me to sit still as it did to sprint at top speed."

Besides the immediate benefit of relaxation, fans of meditation talk about a longer-term effect of calm in their everyday lives, or "toning down my internal critic," explains Waldeck, the employment lawyer.

"There is less distraction from anxiety, less chatter coming from yourself," he says. He notes that in the treatment of anxiety in cognitive therapy, a patient is sometimes given a mechanical counter to click whenever he thinks an anxiety-producing thought. This helps the patient recognize and suppress thoughts that bother him. Vipassana meditation, Waldeck says, does much the same thing.

For Susan Green, a lawyer and mediator who took up meditation eight years ago after an ankle injury interfered with her yoga, meditation lets her move through life more calmly and "act more purposefully towards" her objectives.

William Lazarus, an appellate lawyer at the Department of Justice (and no relation to Linda Lazarus), has practiced transcendental meditation since being introduced to it on a visit to London in 1969. He says meditation changed his life, although he feels the changes happened incrementally: "When you are talking about your own personality, it's hard to notice."

Meditators say the relaxation techniques actually give them more energy and improve their professional performance. "Everyone comments on my energy level," says Martha Zimmerman, a litigator with Chadwick, Washington, Moriarty, Elmore & Bunn in Falls Church, Va., who has practiced TM for more than 30 years. She says, "TM gives you more of an edge, making you more alert and more tuned in to what is going on."

Linda Lazarus explains: "You meditate because it makes you better. You change habitually negative behaviors. You stop negative habits and develop positive ones."

And Waldeck says meditation makes him more effective: "I am less likely to waste time with such things as surfing the Internet."

Green believes that the calming effect of meditation has special rewards in her work. She says a recent study showed that a "peaceful presence" on the part of the mediator contributes to a successful outcome in mediation. She thinks her own calmness is infectious and sets a relaxing tone in mediations.


Besides such individual endorsements, meditation as a tool for the legal profession is finally getting a little attention from the academic world. Leonard Riskin, a former Justice Department appellate lawyer and today a professor of law at the University of Missouri Law School, wrote an article titled "The Contemplative Lawyer" about the ways that "mindfulness meditation" can help students, lawyers and even clients. The article, published in the Harvard Negotiation Law Review in the spring of 2002, was one of the first on the subject in a major legal journal.

Even a few years ago, getting a law journal to accept an article on meditation wasn't easy, Riskin admits. The idea that the subject deserved scholarly attention was met with skepticism. But once published, it garnered Riskin numerous speaking engagements and requests for follow-up articles. He is now working on a book on meditation and the law.

Riskin, who's been meditating since 1974, tries to meditate twice a day and leads noontime sittings in the law school once a week for a small group. He also teaches a mindfulness-based stress-reduction class in the law school that meets two hours a week for six weeks.

Charles Halpern, scholar in residence at the Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley, recently introduced judges to the possibilities of meditation. Earlier this month he led a meditation workshop at the annual judicial conference of the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals. The two-hour workshop included both a meditation session and a discussion of the role of meditation in the exercise of judicial functions for about 50 judges and senior court administrators.

Meditation, says Halpern, can help judges achieve empathy and "hold difficult and painful material [that often comes out in court cases] without getting taken over by their own feelings." He says the message for lawyers is that meditation is not just good for them but that it will "enrich and deepen the practice of law."

Halpern, who gained fame as a public interest lawyer in Washington, D.C., today is chairman of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. The center's law program has become an official sponsor of the Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, which is intended to "explore the interface of contemporary negotiation theory and practice with alternative frameworks, including some drawn from perennial wisdom traditions."


Of course, any contemplative discipline, especially one associated with the law, is going to have its naysayers. When the Association of American Law Schools sponsored a workshop, "Search for Balance in the Whirlwind of Law School," at its annual conference in January, Riskin and Halpern touted meditation as a way of helping law students cope. But the AALS also brought in James White of the University of Michigan Law School, who cautioned that stress is de rigueur in the legal profession: "Until better data come forward, I will continue the traditional law teacher's reign of pillage and abuse. I am happy in the belief that my hectoring will leave my students better, if momentarily sicker, lawyers."

Be that as it may, besides the relaxation, the calm and the improvement in performance that some lawyers profess, meditation can also have some serendipitous results. Donna Newton, a law firm administrator monitoring client payments for her firm, practices transcendental meditation seriously enough to have recently attended a retreat at a monastery in India.

She recalls one lawyer in the firm telling her, "You've got to push" to collect the bills. Her response: "It's bliss that attracts." Indeed it may be. Newton once called a client to thank him for a payment but pointed out that he paid more than was due. "Yes, I know," he told her. "It just seems to make you happy." Even skeptics might meditate on that.

James H. Johnston is a Washington, D.C., lawyer.