Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Book Review -- Footprints in the Snow: The Autobiography of a Chinese Buddhist Monk

The book is available at Amazon here .

I could not keep the book down once I started reading it. Chan master Sheng Yen gives a very open and honest account of his journey and that is what I liked most about this book. The chapters are not too long and flow smoothly.

He talks about his successes as well as challenges, how things looked very promising at one point and how they turned out to be nothing. It is very inspiring to read about how he stayed focused on the path in face of challenges and was eventually able to overcome various difficulties and went on to spread Chan knowledge in US. This book also allows reader to get an idea about course of Buddhism after the cultural revolution in China, we read and hear a lot about modern history of Buddhism in Japan but not so much in China.

Master Sheng Yen, also known as Shifu, was born in a poor farmer's family and for a long time, he did not show any signs of much intelligence. His family thought he would be a slow learner. He did end up going to school and learning to read and write. He was taken to Wolf Mountain Monastery by a family friend when he was in his teens and he ended up getting trained as monk. His situations led him to become a soldier in Nationalist Army and he believes it was his faith in Bodhisattva GuanYin that enabled him to leave army and reenter monkhood. He trained in a solitary retreat for 6 years at one point in his life. Since there were not many opportunities for Buddhist studies in China, he ended up going to Japan and got a PhD in Buddhist Studies.

He eventually travelled to US and after going through several challenges including the language barrier, was able to establish a flourishing Chan center here. He describes in the book as to how he was homeless and had nothing at one point and yet he was happy and satisfied, he called himself a wandering monk at that time.

It is a great book, specially if you are interested in life of dhamma teachers. The book does not contain any miracle stories, just the facts of life from a monk├é¿s viewpoint and that is what I liked the most.

Monday, February 16, 2009

How free are we?

Have been thinking about it for sometime and here it is now in ink. We talk about being free and freedom is basically considered as a right to do what one wants to do - of course in the limits of social and judicial laws. You are not free to steal or to commit murder. I have had the good fortune of living my life in a free country so far. I was raised in India where social taboos are stronger, still you are free to a great extent and now I am in US - the ultimate free country. I believed in this definition of freedom for a long time and thanked my good fortune. Whenever, I heard about countries where there were military dictatorship or some other kind of oppression, I felt sorry for its inhabitants.

And then somewhere down the line, I started sitting and as I say, peeling of the onion began. How free I am, if all day I follow my desires and my attachments? How free I am, if my happiness and sorrows are controlled by external factors? Like a programmed robot - give me something that I want (I don't know always the "why" behind the want) and I will be happy, take it away from me and I am sad. Sing my praises and I am happy, criticize me and see how hurt I can get.

Dictionary defines freedom as - "the power to determine action without restraint". So we do not have external restraints, but what about internal ones? What drives us to do certain things and not others - why some of us after fame, some after power, money or beauty? What is the fuel that keeps us going - day after day, year after year, life after life? Where does it come from and how justified is it?

Regarding desires, I found that for some of them, I do not even understand the origin and I just act upon them. Sitting meditation allowed me to look at this process and question my never satisfying chase after desires. If I look carefully, a few of desires are result of conditioning, things that I was programmed to run after either by family or by society or by peer pressure. I feel a few of my desires are a result of my past karma, I need to pay certain debts and hence I am motivated to work in that direction. Because I live in US, I have certain desires and when I go back home to India, I see a whole another set of desires that emerge based upon socioeconomic conditions that prevail there. I have to admit, for some of desires and attachments, I can never find any reason and I just honor their presence.

So, how free we are? Are we in control of our happiness and satisfaction or not?

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Zen and perspective

I saw Jordan's post about being right or wrong ( and my mind has been musing on perspective for sometime now, so here I am blogging about perspective.

For a long long time, when I had no idea that there could be such a concept as "no-self", I used to believe very strongly in myself, my ideas, my stories etc etc. I starting sitting on cushion and slowly the peeling of onion process began and whoa!! - I was in for some shock. This whole story of mine that I believe so strongly in is just my perspective - at any given time depends on my state of mind and clarity of my thoughts, which is not even fixed, it changes constantly!!! So many arguments that I got into, just because, I believed in something and just could not get it as to why the other person does not see the same thing? Well, it is alright to believe and it is alright to argue BUT it is important to know that what you are seeing is just a perspective and the other person has his or her perspective based upon his state of mind and his conditions. It is like the blind men touching the elephant, we all might be seeing the same thing, the same sequence of events but we have a fixed set of X and Y coordinates in space-time where we stand at a given moment and we see only from that position. Our position is unique, no one else can be in those coordinates, we cannot be in any one else's coordinates. We can get close but cannot stand in someone else's position. Might we respect coordinates of others and their right to it?

For the first time, I realized that there is no black and white, there is no absolute definition of right or wrong, there is no way to pass a judgement without being biased by your own mind. How can we get so passionate about ourselves, give ourselves supreme importance and barge into other's homes and lives as if they do not have a right to perspective? Nonetheless we do, I know I am going to do it as soon as I walk off that cushion. However, I am deeply thankful for the practice, which has enabled me to watch this process. It helps at least once in ten times..:)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What do enlightened people do?

Well..someone asked this question and it is not leaving my mind. What do you guys think..:)? BTW, I do believe that there are enlightened people amongst us and I also believe that enlightenment does not happen overnight but comes in little bits and pieces and we posses varying degrees of "enlightenment".

Sunday, February 1, 2009

What is Suffering? - The First Noble Truth

The first noble truth is - Life is suffering. Does it mean Buddha was preaching pessimism and telling every one life is not worth living because it is full of suffering?!? In my experience - nope - that is not what he was saying at all. What he is asking us to do is to analyze what is the so called happiness after which we run so vehemently? We chase happiness so fervently without ever stopping and thinking about its definition and characteristics.

We think of suffering as mental, physical, emotional or financial suffering - times when we are crying out of pain. Other times are either happy times because our ego is getting what it needs to feel good or they are neutral times - times when we don' care. And to us - life is a mixture of these three kinds of experience. However, the suffering when we are crying out of pain is the extreme form of suffering, one we cannot avoid. We endure the unhappy and sad times in hopes that good times will come again and that is what keeps us going.

Now, lets see what Buddha said about suffering --

"Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, decay is suffering, death is suffering, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and discontent are suffering, being joined with any disliked is suffering, being separated from any liked is suffering, not getting what one wants is suffering, & getting what one not wants is suffering.." (

Lets analyze this a bit - see the pattern - anything we "don't" want is suffering. This is also the reason why your suffering is different from my suffering because our wants are different. It is not just anything we don't want, it is also the feeling that comes when we want something, get it and then we are bored of it!!! Now, we want something else. In effect, the happiness that you get by getting something leads to suffering again because either eventually you get bored of it or the thing gets destroyed for one or the other reason. This constant dissatisfaction is what is suffering. It is a subtle form of suffering, not so extreme and obvious which will make us cry, but it is always there, pricking like a thorn, like never quenching thirst - no matter how much water you drink.

When you sit zazen, you become witness to this dissatisfaction. You see for the first time if suffering is driving you or you are driving it. You see how your happiness almost always depends on gaining something, achieving wealth, fame, power, recognition, approval from others etc. Sitting zazen does not give you any magic pill to convert suffering to happiness nor does it result into some kind of "high" that makes you immune to pain. What it does is that it gives you a tool to analyze your definition of happiness and suffering. Hopefully, sooner or later, your definition will change, chase will stop and it will bring peace and contentment which results in true happiness (as per my definition of happiness, yours might be different..:)). It allows you to see the futility of running after impermanent things and renounce both extremes - getting and loosing.