Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly - spring 2011

Thanks to Gene Smith

Gene Smith dedicated his life to preserving Tibet’s literary heritage, and played a key role in its survival. In December he passed away, at the age of 74. Janet Gyatso remembers the man and his historic contribution.
Gene Smith was an academic maverick and preeminent pioneer of Tibetan Studies who singlehandedly preserved for posterity the vast heritage of Tibet’s texts on philosophy, history, and culture. For decades, he had been recognized by scholars around the world as the de facto dean of Tibetan Studies and held in the highest regard due to his extraordinary accomplishments in protecting and sharing Tibet’s imperiled literary treasures and his dedication to making Tibetan literature universally accessible. Smith had extensive knowledge of Tibetan religious history, and provided generous assistance to scholars worldwide for more than forty years.

Lighten Up

By Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
In traditional Buddhist countries, people are quite realistic and laid back concerning dharma practice. Although they have deep faith and devotion, they understand that we are all flawed human beings. So they tend to be less critical both of themselves and others.
Western students, on the other hand, often try to become the perfect practitioner, to transform themselves into a Japanese or Tibetan, assuming not only the outer etiquette, but the inner attitudes of one’s adopted dharma country. Usually, however, this approach merely accentuates one’s low self-esteem and lack of confidence. To walk the path with confidence, we need to accept and befriend ourselves, to feel at ease in our own skin.
Most Buddhist teachers have encountered the tendency of Western practitioners to take themselves and the dharma very seriously. Perhaps it is a leftover from the students’ traditional religious backgrounds, but there is sometimes a humorless quality to the intensity and focus on achievement. Solemnity and earnestness often prevail in Western dharma circles.

Inside Art, with Kay Larson

Grain of Emptiness
An exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art
In its timely wisdom, the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan is asking interesting questions about the soft landing being achieved as the Buddha sets a gentle foot in Western culture. The traditional imprint of his teachings, as we know, is an emptiness (a footprint) given form by the stone that contains and defines it. Grain of Emptiness, the first exhibition of internationally renowned contemporary artists at a museum usually vibrating with brilliant thangkas, plays with that image. What is the form, what is the emptiness, in the transmission of the buddhadharma into the minds and lives of artists?
All but one of these five—Sanford Biggers, Theaster Gates, Atta Kim, Wolfgang Laib, and Charmion von Wiegand—say they don’t adhere to formal Buddhist practices. (Von Wiegand, the only one no longer alive, studied with a Tibetan teacher and did regard herself as a practicing Buddhist.) Yet most of them speak of a wordless affinity, a heartfelt longing—something “always believed in,” as black Chicago-born Theaster Gates says to writer Mary Jane Jacob in the catalogue. None of them uses traditional Buddhist art forms. All of them sense the subtle heart of emptiness in “the inner world of things,” to use Atta Kim’s phrase.

The Worst Place in the World

By Roberta Werdinger
In May of 1995, I found myself standing with my father, a Polish Jew who had lost his entire birth family in the Holocaust, at the threshold of the worst place in the world. We had travelled to northern Austria, along with thousands of others, for the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp, a place he knew only too well. A chartered bus had let us off in what once was a quarry. Prisoners—starving, brutalized, and freezing—had been made to carry rocks up this path, the very path we were walking. If they failed, they were made to run to the camp fence and summarily shot.
At the top of the quarry path, an old man wearing a prisoner’s uniform that was half a century old wept openly as prayers for the dead were recited in Hebrew. We looked into a barracks where Jewish prisoners had been crammed into bunk beds—two to a narrow mattress. We walked through an exhibit of Nazi camp records with lists of prisoners classified as Jewish, Gypsy, homosexual, criminal, or prisoner-of-war. We passed fresh flowers that had been placed on barbed wire as memorials to the dead.

Ask the Teachers

Question: I am a Zen Buddhist practitioner, and I live many states away from the order with which I practice, so most of the time I practice alone, even though there is a large community of Tibetan Buddhists and teachers nearby. I feel an affinity with Zen Buddhism, and I wonder about that attachment. Am I missing something by not opening myself to the teachings of those where I live?
Narayan Liebenson Grady: I don’t think it’s a question of missing something, unless you feel it would be beneficial to have a community to practice with that’s geographically closer so you are not so alone. I see this more as an affinity based on one’s karma, and the inclination to practice in one tradition over another to be an alignment with a particular vocabulary, set of rituals, and atmosphere. Often it is our connection to a teacher that draws us into a particular tradition.
Your affinity with the Zen tradition may not be an attachment, but rather a family feeling that should be respected. When we go to certain centers we feel at home, and if this feeling is strong, it feels like our long lost home. This helps us find home within ourselves. When we go to other centers and traditions, we may appreciate and respect what we see happening there, but we may not feel as comfortable and at ease.

Zazen That Amounts to Nothing  

True zazen is not for the sake of seeing positive results, says Kosho Uchiyama.
You can’t practice true zazen if your practice is for the sake of seeing positive results. There are many who say, “I once practiced zazen and felt clear-headed and I want to experience that feeling again,” or, “After my first Zen retreat, the landscape completely changed—everything sparkled. However, I’ve never experienced a similar feeling since then.”
True zazen is not about problems revolving around your little self. Whether you feel good or bad, you just sit, throwing out discriminating thoughts about the little self. That is the zazen of jijuuyuu zanmai, or “samadhi of the self,” taught by Zen master Dogen.

Book Briefs

The Caves of Dunhuang (Dunhuang Academy and London Editions 2010) by Fan Jinshi is a rare glimpse into one of the great artistic achievements of human history. With spectacular photographs that reveal the caves’ murals and sculptures in magnificent detail, this is a book to get lost in. The art and architecture of the Dunhuang caves, which were excavated by hand between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries, contains a dazzling array of styles and subject matter, from Daoist-inspired early Chan topics to multi-armed tantric deities dancing in sexual union. The author, a Chinese scholar who has been leading research at Dunhuang for decades, packs the book with short essays describing the history, architecture, sculpture, styles and content of the murals, and includes also a chapter on conservation and on the library cave, which was discovered sealed in 1900 and yielded tens of thousands of texts that changed the way we understand Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism.

The Upside of Money Troubles

Carolyn Rose Gimian reminds us that our difficulties with money are valuable opportunities for working with our mind and strengthening our practice.
Working with money is a challenging and somewhat inescapable practice. Do you have enough to live on? Do you need more to buy a new (fill in the blank)? Should you give some money to charity? We all grapple with such questions in everyday life, whether we’re living a frugal existence or a lavish one. Relating with money is also a powerful source of emotional upheavals. Money or lack thereof can quickly put you in touch with desire, aggression, envy, jealousy, anxiety and fear—and many other juicy feelings.
In the seventies, Chögyam Trungpa coined the phrase “Lords of Materialism” to describe the acquisitive attitude that rules the modern world. In a society like ours, where materialism is indeed often king, we may link our happiness to our ability to buy the things we want. If we can’t afford an iPad, we feel depressed. If we can buy the biggest HDTV in our apartment building, we feel proud. A struggling medical student dreams of what she’ll buy when she’s a successful doctor. If you’re already fairly affluent, you dream of what you’ll buy when you’re more successful. If you’re very successful, you worry about losing what you have. In that situation, friendly overtures make you suspicious that people want something from you. If someone asks you for a loan, or puts a hand out on the street, you may be sympathetic, but you’re just as likely to be put off. Your best friend gets a promotion. Secretly, you’re envious. Why wasn’t it you? In essence, these are all money problems.

Practicing Financial Awareness

Laura Jomon Martin suggests ways to identify our habitual patterns and attitudes around money and to foster a more generous outlook.
There is neither virtue in what is meager; nor evil in what is bountiful. Regardless of wealth or poverty, when the mind of greed arises people lose their beautiful minds. The buddha mind is the mind that knows what is sufficient.
—Eihei Dogen
Lay Buddhist practice affords us a wide latitude in which to practice and learn what is sufficient. In householder life, we can cut our expenses to the bone and throw all our belongings in a river, or we can live in some other extreme, spending money for things and experiences that cause more problems in our lives or the lives of others. Regardless of how we express our lives financially, observing our behavior with money reveals how we approach everything—shining a light on our assumptions, habits, relationships.

Happiness in Every Breath

When we stop feeding our cravings, says Thich Nhat Hanh, we discover that we already have everything we need to be happy.
The human mind is always searching for possessions and never feels fulfilled. This causes impure actions ever to increase. Bodhisattvas, however, always remember the principle of having few desires. They live a simple life in peace in order to practice the Way and consider the realization of perfect understanding as their only career.
                                       —The Sutra on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings
The Buddha said that craving is like holding a torch against the wind; the fire will burn you. When someone is thirsty and drinks only salty water, the more he drinks, the thirstier he becomes. If we run after money, for example, we think that a certain amount of money will make us happy. But once we have that amount, it’s not enough; we think we need more. There are people who have a lot of money, but they are not happy at all. The Buddha said that the object of our craving is like a bone without flesh. A dog can chew and chew on that bone and never feel satisfied.