it all bodes for bodhi day


Tomorrow we commemorate the enlightenment of the historic Buddha.  I would have loved to have been at Rohatsu this year because it is one way to deepen my practice and share in the power of community.  But that wasn’t to be and, in many ways, it turned out for the best.  I had the good fortune to spend last week at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) on a week-long retreat on the Abhidhamma taught by Buddhist scholar Andrew Olendzki.  While there I also had the terrific opportunity to meet resident scholar Mu Soeng whose book, The Heart of the Universe: Exploring the Heart Sutra, is a worthwhile read for its interesting translation of the Prajnaparamitta.

There were many things to love about BCBS as a venue.  Private rooms are definitely a plus.  There aren’t many but for a small retreat (about 20 people) there were ample.  The farmhouse and surrounding forest evoke the deep silence that fosters deep practice.  Of course, it’s a study center so we can be forgiven for the occasional wildness; I think someone had two servings of the carrot cake!

View as I exit the dorm

View as I exit the dorm

The course itself was a challenge for me and not just because I haven’t actually dug into the Abhidhamma in any detail.  My classmates were an astonishing lot.  A sales manager, a health fund manager, a teacher, an executive of an IT firm, a couple of mindfulness program teachers, and a few folks from areas of Buddhist practice that intimidate me.  Never mind.  They all intimidated me.  And they filled me with envy for their facility with Pali, the suttas, and all manner of questioning the structure and form of the canon.  It made me wonder if my years in Zen has been a total waste with regard to actually understanding anything about Buddhism.

As I wandered the book-ladened rooms of BCBS, I reflected on the seeming inaccessibility of the Mahayana sutras and equally seeming accessibility of the Pali Canon.  In part, it may be the way in which each is conveyed and taught; in part it may be that my own experience of Zen is one of unrelenting practice with little to ground it beyond studying the Heart Sutra and dharma talks on Dogen.  There’s no question that the current love affair with Neuro-Buddhism has put a definite cramp in actually learning and practicing Buddhism but that’s a matter for a different post.

The next day it snowed

The next day it snowed

Waking up to the real nature of one’s own practice is important.  After all, that is the intent of all those hours cultivating the mindfulness muscle.  Reflecting on my own path, it seems I’ve delightfully flowed with traditions whose teachers (authors) and sanghas were welcoming and able to convey the ways of practice that were helpful at the time of contact.  That’s quite typical.  We gravitate to the sources of warmth and comfort which take away – or promise to take away – our suffering.  And to be honest, I’ve rarely resonated with teachers outside the Zen tradition.

Then I met jhana teacher Leigh Brasington who was at the same retreat and in our chats about the different yanas and what they demand of us, he called himself a “suttayana-ist.”  I liked that.  It pretty much sums up the totality of Buddhism.  Then again, when you read (yes, you must) Bhikkhu Sujato’s History of Mindfulness, you may wonder which sutta are we yana-ing after!

Well, I have no answers.  Not for me and definitively not for you.  I do know that I am hungry for a bit of scholarship that, like my defunct septic bed, is not buried in collapsed layers of impenetrable metaphors.  It’s hard not to feel that way immersed in rooms like these.  But that may just be another delusion that will set back my potential for enlightenment.  But that should not stop you.  Have a rousing awakening tomorrow!

Library off the classroom

Library off the classroom

Main library

Main library

Sat in left chair after breakfast each morning

Sat in left chair after breakfast each morning

My view at every morning's sitting

My view at every morning’s sitting

Dhamma Hall

Dhamma Hall

BCBS_books3 BCBS_books2 BCBS_books1

8 thoughts on “it all bodes for bodhi day

  1. Making/finding time to delve into Buddhist scholarship is not completely off my To Do list, but it’s pretty close to the bottom, mainly because of the daunting collapsed layers of impenetrable metaphors (you didn’t happen to come across a copy of Impenetrable Buddhist Metaphors for Dummies in that library, did you?) I pick away at it from time to time – lately with Red Pine’s Lankavatara Sutra – but it’s slow pickin’s. More (tofu) cheesecake needed….

  2. Genju:
    Please don’t believe the thought that tells you that the yearning to awaken as expressed through clear study of the Buddha’s words is an impediment: for some of us, the scholarly route is necessary to burn up the impetus to learn more, to strive to “know” our self into awakening.

    How to know there isn’t more to know ? Sounds & feels very familiar. Many of the great teachers of the past studied scriptures extensively (Nagarjuna, Atisha, Padmasambava, Gompopa, Je Tsongkapa). Zen’s emphasis on practice is a beautiful, finely honed nonconceptual knife. But it would not have helped me until I had exhausted other avenues of practice and study, due to a very studious disposition.
    Thanks for all your sharing !


  3. Thanks, David & Dominic!
    David, I smell a book in the making! A Dummies Guide to Daunting Dhamma – Taking the Heh? out of your Hinayana. How is Red Pine? I love his style of inquiry and just haven’t got to the Lankavatara yet. Too many other less impenetrable books to get through. 😀

    Dom, so true. I have this hunger to study as deep as the hunger to serve. And often the two are one and the same. Thank you for the support. It really helps to know there are others who work with this part of Practice.

  4. It’s pretty slow wading. The much needed footnotes are thankfully not in fine print or buried at the end of the book. “To state the proposition ‘whatever exist does not arise’ contradicts itself because the proposition would arise in relation to something, and also because a proposition concerning the non-arising of things would be among those things, and because its cessation would not arise.” This is evidently an example of the use of the five-part syllogism. Red Pine helpfully points out that “Buddhist texts list thirty-three errors in the use of such syllogisms.” *sigh*

  5. P.S. Get your septic tank pumped every 3 to 5 years – it’s the most important thing you can do to extend the life of your bed. Also, clean your bathroom & toilet with simple baking soda, vinegar, cola, shampoo or a capful of bleach. Collect all grease and oil carefully and throw in the trash. Keep bones and garbage out of the tank. ANd take a two week vacation every year. Really. 😉

    • Hey Dominic! Wow, this post is a blast from the past. And I just got back from BCBS following a jhana retreat. We actually did replace the septic bed with a peat moss system. So far it’s all going well!

      • The peat moss lasts for 7 years ( or whatever the Operation & Maintenance Agreement with the company says) after which they will open it up & replace the peat moss. Peat moss systems work really well – glad to hear you have one. Oh, yes, and I have enjoyed reading your blog for going on 6 years. Thanks for the all the great writing ! – d

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