Category Archives: Spiritual

Good Karma Is Still Karma

candlelight 2I formally became the disciple of Zen Master Pu Yu of Bubble Spring Temple on Drum Mountain in Fujian Province, China, right after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970’s. At that time, the temple had few monks and hardly any visitors. After the private ceremony, Master Pu Yu gave me a pep talk that has guided my life since. He talked about Zen tradition, the temple’s history, and also spoke more informally and personally to me.

“Shantung,” he said, “I can see by looking at your big earlobes that you will be financially successful, so I know you will do much to support Buddhism and spiritual teachings.” He said this with a teasing smile. When I smiled in response, his expression became more serious. He then said something that surprised me and that has stuck with me ever since.

“Shantung, do no evil, and also do not do good.”

I was very surprised. “Do no evil: do good” is one of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. Master Hui Neng, the Sixth Zen Patriarch, always stressed this teaching to his disciples. How could the master ask me not to do good?

Master Pu Yu looked at my puzzled expression, smiled, and added, “I know you must be wondering, why not do good?” After a pause, he continued.

“You know when you do bad things you create bad karma, and that is not good. When you do good deeds, you create good karma. But good karma is still karma, and karma is what we need to be free from. “ I became very quiet and attentive. The master continued.

“Why isn’t it good to do good deeds and accumulate good karma? Because when you do good deeds, something incomplete or unsatisfied lingers. For example, let’s say you’re a rich person who supports a young man by helping to provide a living and education for many years until he graduates from college and enters society. You do this with a good heart, selflessly, without any expectation in return. Later on, when the young man becomes successful and well known, and people mention that he received a lot of help when he was younger, he denies that he ever received any help from you, and even goes so far as to bad-mouth you. At that point, you will think, ‘But I have given you so much, without expecting any return, why on the contrary you bad-mouth me!’ You will inevitably be upset.

Or, as another example, you might contribute much to people in your village – food, clothing, and so on. People love you and praise your generosity. But one day another rich person moves to the village. He builds bridges and roads, establishes a hospital, and does good deeds on a much larger scale. You will inevitably compare yourself to him, and feel that your good deeds don’t measure up to his.

Do you see? This is what I mean when I say that good deeds are somehow incomplete or unsatisfied.”

I was puzzled. I was about to ask, “So, Master, what should I do?”

Before I could speak it, Master Pu Yu continued.

“Do not try to do good deeds. Just work on yourself. Be a candle. A lit candle can illuminate a small space.  Continue to work on yourself; expand the light, so that the candle becomes a torch. A torch can illuminate a larger space. Then make yourself into a bonfire that can illuminate an even bigger space. A candle, torch, or bonfire, each gives out light naturally, according to its size. There is no trying; there is no effort involved. If you are a candle, you can’t choose to illuminate a larger space; if you are a bonfire, you can’t limit yourself to a smaller space.

“Just focus your work on yourself. Knowledge comes from outside, but wisdom comes from a tranquil mind. As you work on yourself, the capacity of your heart will increase to embrace more and more space and time, on an ever-larger scale. This is the change from candle to torch to bonfire. As this happens, whatever you think or do is naturally good and beneficial to people, society, and all living beings; but it is so natural that there is no effort toward “good deeds”. When you live your life this way, and you are not thinking about whether what you do is good or great, then there is no good karma, and you are set free from karma.”

This is in line with Taoist teaching about being in tune with nature. Nature does not need to make any effort, but everything still happens. So work silently on yourself. People on a spiritual path usually do not draw public attention to being on spiritual path. Spiritual people are not aware that they are spiritual. They cultivate themselves, and everything is done in accord with nature, as revealed through self-cultivation.

A Memory of Tea with Master Pu Yu

master pu yu smallPu Yu (普雨法師) was the 133rd head master of Yungquan (“Bubbling Spring”) Temple on Gu Shan (“Drum Mountain”) in Fuzhou, China. Established in the Tang dynasty, this monastery has over 1,200 years of history. I formally became his disciple in the late 1970s, just a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. At that time, due to the long suppression of religion in China, the temple had few monks and hardly any visitors. As a result, I was able to enjoy quite a bit of time with Master Pu Yu during my stay.

Once I visited him in his private room while he was making tea, and he handed me a cup of steaming brew. The cups in the monastery were bigger than the tea cups usually seen in homes. It was a Song dynasty design, with a soft celadon glaze. I bowed, accepted it with both hands, and carefully took the first sip.

This was a special oolong tea known as “rock tea,” which has a bittersweet taste but a robust aroma with a hint of smoke in its flavor. While we had tea, I asked, “Master, what exactly is Zen mind?”

He smiled, but went on talking about tea.

After a while, when I had nearly finished my cup, I was about to repeat my question. He looked at my nearly empty cup, looked at me directly, and said very quietly, “So, do you remember?”

I was puzzled.

After a short moment, I asked, “Remember? Remember what?”

“Didn’t you just ask me about Zen mind?” he replied.

I tried to figure out what he meant, but was still confused.

“Do you remember the very moment you took the first sip?” he asked, looking right into my eyes.

After pausing briefly, he continued, “Do you remember that moment? Before you could tell whether the tea was hot or warm? Before you could differentiate smell from taste? Before you could tell what kind of tea it was? Do you remember that moment?”

As soon as I heard Master Pu Yu’s words, I understood: that moment is the state of Zen mind.

I looked at him and smiled in silence. He nodded and smiled back. It was but a brief moment; yet I have retained this memory for decades.

The foundation of Zen teaching is this: no matter where we are or what we are doing, we must fully live at that moment.

So, do you remember?

On Following a Spiritual Path

莲花 lotus (1)We often hear people say that they want to be on a spiritual path. Often they are people who have achieved worldly success but do not feel fulfilled. Or they may be people who are struggling, and hope to escape from the burdens and frustration of ordinary life.

This commonly involves following a spiritual or religious teaching, studying, meditating, praying, attending various “spiritual “retreats, practicing yoga, qigong ,or energy healing, turning vegetarian and so on.

Such practices do help to provide some peace of mind. But people who follow them are often not clear about the fundamental reason for their dissatisfaction, pain and suffering. But without understanding the cause, it is often hard to find a complete cure.

From the point of view of yin-yang theory, the problem stems from the lack of yin-yang balance in one’s life. According to yin yang theory, the ideal state of living is yin yang balance.  Looking outward is yang, looking inward is yin.

Most people follow an outward-looking path, pursuing knowledge, wealth, fame, physical pleasure, something tangible and visible.  It is much less common to turn inward toward things that are less tangible:  a life of reflection, tranquility, warm-heartedness, and compassion.

The core of any spiritual path is turning inward to create yin-yang balance. In other words, turning away from looking for answers from the “outer” world, the world of things, of possessions, of social recognition and attainment.

We are frustrated by life to the extent that we expect the world of outer attachments to be completely satisfactory, to be the only thing we need for happiness. It doesn’t matter whether we are hoping to find happiness in pleasure, in ownership, in control, or in recognition from others: hidden underneath this expectation is the idea that only what is part of the outer world can make our lives worth living. In addition, it means that we are often depending on other people’s approval.

To be on a spiritual path is to turn inward, regardless of the specific practice. It is not a matter of doing something out of the ordinary.  Many regard being on the spiritual path as following some particular lama, guru or spiritual leader and making spirituality as part of their public image, without actually turning inward for reflection, as so many celebrities do. This is spiritual vanity. This is still a pursuit of turning outward.  A spiritual path is not a matter of running away from the outer world.  The key is to pursue inward search to balance outward pursuits.  The key is to balance the yang and yin attitudes.

Human life is human life: it is always necessary to deal in some ways with all its inevitable features. There is no way for people to live without being human. In the Diamond Sutra, Buddha tells his disciples that there is nothing to attain, that all methods of trying to reach Buddhahood are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, and a shadow.

When a Buddhist follower asked a Zen master, “What can we do, since we still need eat and sleep?” The master’s answer was, “When it’s time to eat, eat; when it’s time to sleep, sleep.” There is no other way of living.

Taoist teaching tells people to “follow nature”.  The Tao Te Ching says, “Mankind follows Earth, Earth follows Heaven, Heaven follows the Tao, and the Tao follows Nature. The term “Nature” means “the way thing are” on any level of existence.  Reflected in the physical world, the characteristics of nature are easy, simple, and economical.  When we live in an easy, simple, and economical way, we are walking on a spiritual path. To be on a spiritual path is to turn away from leading lives that are complicated, difficult and wasteful in body, energy, and mind.

While we are living in this human world, we play roles; we serve functions, as parents, children, brothers and sisters, friends, teachers, doctors, workers, businessmen, engineers and so on. What we do is the path we are on.

To be on a spiritual path is to do these things in a spiritual way: in other words, in a way that connects inward, rather than just grasps outward.  We are always on a path.  To walk with attention that deepens into the heart and wisdom is what makes that path spiritual.  When we do this, the path becomes easy, simple, and economical.  That is what it means to be on a spiritual path.




More on Fasting

On my birthday, I began my routine fasting, following the method I posted on my previous blog “The Secret of Successful Fasting”.  After a couple days, I did not have any hungry feeling what-so-ever.  However, eating is an important part of living.  Without food you are missing a lot of fun in life.  Though not hungry, I felt bored.  So, I decided to ask for help.  Right before I slept, I lay in bed and talked to my body: “fasting should not be boring, please help”.  And magically, the following day I felt happy and lively, the boredom and any desire for food had simply gone.  I was able do my writing throughout most of the whole day as well as fit in a one and half hour walk.

If we see a human being as a Taiji, based on the holographic theory, the external features, internal organs, and single cells are the same Taiji but are on different levels.  From a Taoist perspective, by communicating to micro levels; there is a more intimate connection. In mobilizing the support of the WHOLE body, the resonance brings forth empowerment to manifest what you are asking for.

Try to talk to your body on all levels. You might be surprised to find out that indeed, it listens and works.

The Secret of Successful Fasting

No riceTwo years ago, I used fasting to cleanse my body as a way to celebrate my birthday.  The fasting resulted in more energy, better mental clarity, and boosted spirits—as well as weight loss. I felt so good during the fast and hoped to continue as long as I could. However an important consulting mission in the Ukraine ended the fasting on the 24th day. Today, I still maintain the weight I achieved at the end of fasting.

Most people find that one day without food is their limit. People who are able to fast for 1-2 weeks often find that days 3 and 4 of the fast are the most difficult period to overcome.  However, in my case, I did not experience any physical or emotional uneasiness from the first day onwards.  My fasting experience was simple, easy, and even enjoyable. Yes, there is a secret! The secret to fasting is to bring the full body on board.

When the president of a country wants to implement a policy for the good of country, not only will he need the support of all of his cabinet members, he will also need the support of all the citizens.  He needs to clearly explain to the citizens the necessity and benefit of implementing a particular policy. With the majority of citizens voting in support, the policy could then be successfully implemented.  This is the same way with fasting.  Deciding to fast with only your head, the president, is not good enough; we must lobby for and obtain support from all of the body’s  cabinet members—the  12 major organs—and all of the citizens, or cells.

Here is how to do it: the night before fasting, lie on the bed with your body relaxed and your mind clear. Then visualize all of your organs and talk to each one, explaining the necessity and benefits of fasting. These benefits could include cleansing the body, rejuvenating the metabolism, removing a block for better energy flow, and/or your own personal reasons. Once you have explained these benefits, feel all of your organs happily agreeing and move on to the cells. Visualize all of your body’s cells, from toe to head, and talk to each of them. Explain to the millions of cells how this fast will benefit the whole body.  As your cells agree, you will feel the body relax and warm a bit. Give thanks to your organs and cells, and then use abdominal breathing to go to sleep.

When you wake up the following day, follow the fasting routine you have chosen. You will not experience any hunger or emotional disturbance. I base my fast loosely on the lemon-juice method, and I also drink tea. You do not need to make life too complicated by strictly following any one system to fine detail.  As long as you have the support of your whole body, you will find the fasting is simple and easy.

Remember, the natural way is the simple and easy way.  Fasting should not require “suffering”. Simply follow the method above for a good surprise.

Happy fasting!

Natural Law Perspectives on Vegetarianism as a Spiritual Path

image by:  marioanima
Vegetarianism has been a popular topic among nutritionists and spiritual seekers, as well as in political circles. About 400 million people, roughly 6% of the world population, claim to be vegetarian. Their reasons are varied, from seeking better health to adhering to cultural and religious codes, to respecting sentient life. One question I often hear is, “How important is vegetarianism on the spiritual path?”

There is no shortage of arguments on this question. It has been split between vegetarianism vs. non-vegetarianism for those on a spiritual path.  Both sides of the issue have solid logic, but neither side’s arguments are all-encompassing. To blur the matter even more, among vegetarianism there are several categories, including ovo-vegetarian, lacto vegetarian; ovo-lacto vegetarian, vegan vegetarian, fruitarian, etc.

How do we view this from a natural principle perspective? Natural principle is universally applicable; it should be simple, easy and economical without effort. Any rule that is not universal or is overly complicated, is not in alignment with natural principles. Therefore, neither argument on the matter aligns with natural principles.  To address this issue, we must expand the scope of the argument. We need to move to a higher dimension, to see things from different perspective.

Nature does not force things to happen in a particular way. Vegetarianism, even with its good supporting reasons, does not apply to all. To force someone to be one way is not proper on any path. So to answer this question, I would say: It is important to be a vegetarian only if it is one’s path. To adopt a value or another person’s belief because it seem beneficial to that person, does not mean that it will be beneficial to you.
There are those for whom vegetarianism represents respect for life, which shows a sensitive understanding of nature and a beautiful balance. However, there are others for whom the service they need to offer to this planet and the work they need to do requires healthy nourishment and for this reason, they are able to eat meat. Both paths are spiritual, depending on the person who would walk them.

There are many vegetarians who live with hatred in their hearts, making them apart even from their own brother. Though they do not kill for food, living with hatred in their hearts is, in its own way, a kind of killing. Conversely, there are highly spiritual people who because of climate, have literally no access to fruits and vegetables, and subsist only on meat they kill. So vegetarianism on its own does not constitute a spiritual path, nor does eating meat exclude one from a spiritual life. When an individual is true to the practices of his own heart and follows nature, that determines what is the right path for him. Neither eating meat nor not eating meat is spiritual in and of itself; yet both can be spiritual depending on the person. Rules should be made to guide people, not to limit people.

Above all, follow natural law to determine what diet you need. If you are in a climate that is warm, you may not need meat. However, if you are living in a very cold region, where more strength is required just to subsist, eat whatever and all that is there. Look for natural food. If there is a bird, or a fish, or an animal that is plentiful in the region and is easy for you to obtain and you feel the need for this meat, then eat it.

Yet you must always take whatever it is that nourishes you—whether that is fruit, vegetable, animal or grain—with great respect for the life that was given up to sustain your own. For we are all here to support each other and it is right that they should be your food. All you need to do in order to replenish and to restore this, is to be thankful and grateful. You must be conscious of what you are partaking and to know that another plant or another animal has given their life for you, in order to sustain you so that you may, in turn, give life to others. This is a natural cycle. It is love and as it should be. In this way, no killing is taking place.

For if there is respect for all life then there is the understanding that it does not need to be in any particular form so it cannot be ended, not with killing, not with the taking. Life, or energy, is never lost; all energy transforms from one state to another. In accord with this way of being, we can walk in balance with the earth. And in this way we are true to our path, which can be spiritual no matter what we would label it.

Indeed, many find it beneficial to be a vegetarian on their spiritual path. However, the spiritual path does not exclude those who chose to eat meat.
Enjoy living and be thankful; you are on a spiritual path.

The Beauty of Imperfection

A good old friend, an architect, came to visit from out of town.  He brought along a few house models to discuss the design from a feng shui perspective.  My friend is a Black Feet American Indian, who is tall, handsome and a gentlemen.  In contrast to his commanding physical presence he creates intricate and beautiful beadwork.

There is a special bead-ring he designed showing five different color figures:  white, black, yellow, red and brown.  Each color represents the different colors of people in the world.  The design of these five people, hand in hand, symbolizes world peace.  He had shown a similar bead-ring to me a long time ago and I always remembered it because it impressed me so.  During lunch, he showed me another bead-ring that he recently made.  While I was admiring it, putting it on my finger, he said, “I do not want to give it to you because there is some flaw”.  I smiled, put the ring back on my finger and said “it is mine now”.

People are always looking for perfection, appreciate perfection and have difficulty accepting imperfection.  If a beautiful blue and white, Ming dynasty vase has a small chip or has a fine hairline crack, the commercial value will drop dramatically. This is true for many objects.   Why is it, that a vase with a small chip, no longer looks beautiful to us anymore? Why can’t we enjoy something with flaws, even though we are aware the world is full of imperfections?

Navaho and Hopi Indian tribes, purposely leave some flaws and mistakes in their work when weaving carpets or straw baskets.   It is their belief that only God can make perfect things.  This is an attitude of humbleness, the wisdom of learning to accept and enjoy imperfection.

We tend to focus too much on small flaws, and lose sight of the whole picture.  This habit can be seen in our daily lives through our actions toward others, material things and events in our life.  For example, we may think, “this is a beautiful piece of pottery, too bad it has a chip at the bottom” or “he is a nice boy, unfortunately he does not have much patience” or “the party was just perfect, except the soup wasn’t hot enough”.  We always pay more attention to small mistakes, and lose sight of the whole picture.  Such thoughts add to the stress and unhappiness of our lives.

It is inevitable that in life, we will always encounter some flaws, mistakes and imperfections.  If we can learn to accept small flaws, learn to appreciate the beauty of imperfection, we will be a person with more tolerance and compassion and at the same time be more loving.  In turn, it will make us more relaxed and happy. So give yourself and others a break from time to time, as only God can make things perfect!

From a spiritual perspective, how important is it to be vegetarian?

It is important to be vegetarian only if it is your path.  To force oneself to be in one way is not proper on any path. To adopt a value or another person’s belief because it seems beneficial to that person does not mean that it will be beneficial to you. It is true that some are vegetarians out of respect for life.  And this is a very beautiful understanding of nature and a very beautiful balance.  There are others for whom the service they need to offer to this planet and the work that they need to do require that they be nourished in a strong and healthy way and it is for this reason they are able to eat meat.  Both paths are spiritual depending on the person who would walk them. There are many vegetarians who live with hatred in their heart by being apart from their own brother.  This is not killing but in its own way is responding to the lower self and is akin to meat eating.  It is for this reason neither one is considered spiritual in itself. But for the individual to be true to the practice of his/her own heart and to follow his/her own nature should be the one to determine what the right path is.  Both can be spiritual and yet neither is in itself spiritual and so there are no rules.
You must follow what you need.