There was an article in Mindful called “The Gift of Reading Out Loud,” that reminded me about a concept my meditation teacher taught me a while back. It was about reading sutras aloud just enough so that you can hear yourself enough so that it activates this function within your or your brain (I forgot which) that can better digest and understand the material and connect with the audience. Something like that.
For those that learned speed reading that concept may be sort of taboo but I think it depends on the material itself. The Mindful article didn’t go that far into it, it only went as far as using storytelling as a connector. When I tried to memorize the Amitabha Sutra I had to read it to myself many, many times. Mantras I had to play by ear because mantras have a pronunciation factor to them, unless they’re longer mantras like the Surangama.
Sometimes when you start reading to yourself, this other part of you can barge in and distract you. That can be challenging if you don’t have a strong focus. It just takes practice. Acknowledge that you’ve tried, take a break, and try again.
As we have been on safer-at-home orders since March, it can be quite a challenge to lose that routine of being able to provide services at the temple on a weekly basis. I’m pretty sure those of you that make at least weekly visits to the temple feel the same.
Aesthetically speaking, unless your house is large enough to house big statues and have an open enough meditation space for everyone living in your house to sit, the common household Buddhist shrine is fairly small. That’s one of the things I miss about visiting the temple, the big open space. It’s also a reminder of how it takes a lot of merit to be able to have access to those kinds of facilities.
Almost all temples now have taken to social media to live-stream their services. Even I have created a online sangha to open a platform for temple members to gather virtually and I can answer questions or give teachings whenever necessary. I chose to do so not because I want to open up my own empire or anything, the last thing the SGV needs as this point is new empires. My reasoning is that not ALL temples have access to internet, and not all monastics have access to social media and know how to use social media to connect with their congregants. When I was invited to participate in a survey for the LA county Faith Based Organizations, it was already made clear to the leadership there that this is a trend and that these temples that have been open for over 40 years could face permanent closure. Temples do not qualify for PPP for the most part, but luckily the individual monastics may have already received stimulus aid, but again that is for the individual.
Everyone is asking what can be done while during these orders? I usually respond with something in the lines of it’s a reminder that we need to look within ourselves and not always outside ourselves. I’ve also responded with it’s the time to start applying everything we learned in a temple setting, from meditation techniques to recitations to readings all the way to our self-reflection and observation.
Have I been successful in that spectrum? Not really. I’ve been through the stages of being cooped up to craziness and hoarding for supplies that end up sitting in the pantry. Though I have been calling up older temple members to make sure they’re okay and have been bringing food to them from time to time. Same with those living alone. My baking skills have improved, still working on Chinese pies and breads though.
Will we ever be able to gather and read repentance texts again? I believe so, with adjustments to allow physical distancing, just not anytime soon. Though that does not mean we can’t take the opportunity to kneel in front of the Buddha sitting in the shrine at home and reflect on how our body, speech, and mind reacted unwholesomely at some point in our past if not currently.
I hope everyone is doing well. Recently due to COVID-19 I’ve created an online sangha called Universal Gate Online Sangha which you can find here. I’ll explain a little more about the group in another post, but you are more than welcome to join the group for some of my latest posts.
Recently I was invited to start a group recitation of the Mahacundi Mantra. Mahacundi, who most commonly refer to as a manifestation of Avalokitesvara, is actually a bodhisattva quite closely connected to our human realm. His mantra is commonly recited in most temples as part of their daily practice. Even many Zen masters recite this mantra as part of their own practice and/or enhancement to their training. Practicing Mahacundi doesn’t necessarily require an extensive empowerment process like most esoteric practices. For more details regarding the mantra, the form of Mahacundi you can look here.
I personally have been reciting this mantra for quite a while now, I’ve even received a little bit of help while reciting this mantra, one of them being I avoided what would have been a nasty car accident while I was trying to figure out the singing tunes for this mantra. My recitation also helped me out of what was a very toxic work environment over ten years ago.
Now during this pandemic, besides the recitations and meditations that I’ve done already, I was invited by a volunteer from Huayen-World to gather a few people together and collect recitations and accumulate 1 billion recitations in dedication to those affected by COVID-19 and for world peace.
I humbly invite you to join us in this effort. Comment below or send me a message if you’re interested! Mantra counts are collected every Sunday evening PST.
I know it has been a while. I miss you all too. Things have taken quite a turn since my last post. I now work at a job that has a schedule outside of the normal 9-6 which sort of turned my routine around in many ways, including the time I use to contemplate and create more content for you all. That and, last year my main computer died and I have yet to find a replacement suitable enough for my purposes (and within budget)
I’ll also admit I was feeling a little bit sad that my writing doesn’t seem to have enhanced my presence as much and it didn’t seem like my writing has gotten much attention. Well, part of that I blame myself for not advertising more.
But I wanted to come back and check in with everyone, especially in this time of crisis.
COVID-19. Everyone has different stories about it, but now, cities are on self-isolation, case numbers are rising, and people are panic buying like never before.
All this only gives rise to more fear, hatred, racism, ignorance, etc.
We need to apply our wisdom, compassion, and patience, and mindfully accept the fact that it’s happening, then be with it, and gradually overcome as a communal effort.
Instead of panic buying, how about helping to buy for the more vulnerable when they have no chance of fighting through long lines and tough crowds just to buy daily necessities?
Instead of singing Happy Birthday two times while washing your hands, how about reciting a short mantra 7-21 times and dedicating that such that all beings practice good hygiene and may all beings’ defilement be washed away with the soap of Dharma, leaving the aroma of awakening on our hands?
Instead of spreading fake warnings from social media, how about listening to official and balanced news reports and follow recommendations from public health officials?
Most temples in the SGV are already practicing social distancing and preventing large gatherings to avoid too much contact. Some temples have already initiated virtual sessions but some have also simply closed their doors until it is safe to reopen again.
I urge everyone to connect our hearts and practice as much as possible with dedication to those in suffering and to those that are working effortlessly to protect us from the worst.
I was hoping to write something short and quick but so much already came up in my mind as I made it here. Stay safe out there. More posts coming soon.
If there’s something you’d like me to write about or any questions, let me know.
The practice of patience is acknowledging that feelings take time to process; limiting time may not be the best option for every client. Lama Yeshe mentions three types of patience: patience when harmed by others when we are suffering, and keeping concentration. Lama Yeshe’s definition of patience when we are harmed by others includes being harmed physically and mentally but not reacting by getting angry or harming them in return. That immediately sparked in my mind when I had the situation with my tea group. At the time I did not know how to react so I chose not to react or respond at all. I did not necessarily realize that would have been a practice of my patience.
Practicing diligence is letting our relationships build on follow-up interactions, not just leaving them to grow like plants. One session does not always solve the issue, or else clients may think that we do not care about them. This is the same for our own individual practice. No matter how much we can care for others, we still need time to care for ourselves. I honestly felt different about self-care and did not realize its importance until I began to go deeper into chaplaincy work. I was at Tzu Chi working at a mega health fair where there were about 8,000 patients and over 3,000 volunteers in attendance. I was the volunteer coordinator so there was a lot of work before, during, and after the event in order to keep all the volunteers in order. My hours during the weeklong fair were literally to go in before the sun came up and to leave when the moon was up. I was already drowning in the pool of burn-out and I lost all motivation for life altogether. There were times that I would want to hide in a corner and let the tears roll off my eyes because I was that tired. I took a few days off after the fair and did absolutely nothing. I did not communicate with anyone at all. That did not feel good either, so I later picked up a sutra text and started reading it, after reading the text I got up and started to do things I liked like cooking, brewing tea, walking in the park. My mind was off work but it was doing more than letting me sit at home with a dead mind. When I came back to work I felt more energized and fully charged for the next task at hand. That was when I realized the importance of caring for myself.
Through the practice of meditation, I can build upon the self and care for others whether physically or remotely via contemplative practice. Venerable Master Hsing Yun in his book For All Living Beings talks about the Song dynasty poet Su Tung Po and his description on the stages of enlightenment in his poetry. The main theme of the poems is the mountains and rivers have not changed much; it is the mind’s view of the mountains and rivers that change. Just like we already have the ability to meet the same Buddha at the same frequency, our minds just cannot get ourselves to break through the ice and fog which is our ignorance. Even for myself, I have to reflect and think about how I interact with people, that is probably one of the most common subjects I meditate on, I also practice meditation through chanting, brewing tea, burning incense molds, and calligraphy. Through these methods of meditative concentration, I constantly reflect on what would be the best way to present my best self for the benefit of the client and for all beings.
When the practices of the entire aforementioned are in motion, then the practice of wisdom can be activated. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this perfection as the perfection of understanding. The perfection of understanding is not only the understanding that we are normally accustomed to, but a very deep understanding, the highest kind of understanding that is free from ordinary knowledge, concepts, ideas, and views. In Sanskrit, this is the Prajnaparamita. Thich Nhat Hanh used the example of loving someone and that if we can offer understanding to someone we care about, then that is true love. My take on that is when the client and I reach common ground, then we can grow together. This is when the ice has melted and the fog has disbursed, Cold Mountain appears after all. Like going through the tearful experience of peeling through the layers and layers of an onion, Buddha Nature is found.
In the end, whose ice am I trying to melt? Whose fog am I trying to disperse? Am I awakening the Buddha Nature in the client or in myself? Chaplaincy may look like a one-way street, but it is actually a development of both parties. With that, I would like to dedicate any merit generated from this practice to all suffering beings, may they find the Cold Mountain in themselves.
May palms be joined together in every world expressing kindness, compassion, joy, and giving.
May all beings find security in friendship, peace, and loving care.
May calm and mindful practice seed patience and deep equanimity.
May we give rise to spacious hearts and humble thoughts of gratitude.
In the role of the chaplain, we have to be able to find ways to meet the client at their own level so that the client will be in a comfortable enough state to continue to express their feelings. This reminds me of Vimalakirti—the way he helps people is by meeting them in their own environment. He would even meet his clients at the bars or at the brothels. I also remember watching The Gloria Tapes for one of my previous classes where the therapist would begin to smoke cigarettes with Gloria in order to be welcomed into Gloria’s comfort zone so she could express her feelings and thoughts. Just like in the poem, if my mind cannot match with the client’s mind, then the cold mountain is nowhere to be found. I think this concept is probably core to the role of the chaplain itself.
In Zen or Chan practice, the aim is to match our mind to the Buddha’s mind; or ignite our Buddha-Nature to have the same frequency as the Buddha. To reach that level of frequency requires melting ice and disbursing fog, which can be compared to our constant application of the six perfections. Thich Nhat Hanh in his text The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching calls these perfections the six steps to happiness because with this practice one can cross over, which is what the meaning of the Sanskrit word paramita means, to the state of liberation. These practices can most definitely be applied when interacting with others in chaplaincy work.
The practice of Dana includes the practice of giving time and effort to be present for the client. Throughout my time I have been reminded again and again to be present for others. I have also discovered that now that almost everyone I know carries some form of a smart phone or a similar communication’s device, everybody likes to look down on their phones and not want to communicate as much with the physical world. Everyone also likes to be productive and multi-task looking at their phone and doing other work at the same time, but if I am working with a client, I want to respect the client by giving him/her my full attention. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our true presence.” My understanding is that not only do we have to be physically present for the client but mentally present as well. I also learned that that kind of practice is a key element in practicing the ministry of presence in chaplaincy.
Precepts: We cannot advise and fix but we can guide them to their own answer; especially when looking at the Bodhisattva Precepts (which I also uphold), I have to benefit beings and help them give rise to Bodhicitta, but I cannot really put it all on a plate and expect them to take it, like what Venerable Master Sheng Yen of Dharma Drum Mountain mentioned before that it builds up later without having to be attached to the fact that you have to build on it. In close relation to Patience I understand it as not trying to rush everything to a result that everybody may not be happy with, just as I mentioned with the Cold Mountain piece, Buddha Nature does not have a speed limit. With that mindset I think the remaining perfections can fall into place.
 Thich, Nhat Hanh. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1998.
The biggest value to me and it is one of the precepts and practices I uphold the most is the practice of Bodhicitta. My interpretation of Bodhicitta is to benefit beings and not to give up on beings in as many ways possible. Before starting this program, the work that I have been doing involved mostly self-practice, group-practice, or performing chanting rituals dedicated to one of two purposes: for the ill or for the deceased. These practices are still on-going though—I will still sit in mindfulness in the morning for a few minutes, make my daily offerings, and then at the end of the day making a small offering to the preta or lower level beings with prayers of liberation. This form of practice was partially inspired by Venerable Hai Tao of the Life TV Foundation in Taiwan, who taught that besides benefiting the human beings around us, don’t forget to do something for the beings that we cannot see with our eyes because they are in just as much suffering as myself if not more, they just cannot find a way to express it. I feel that by practicing as so I have at least attempted to care for beings that we can and cannot see and kept my upholding of the practice of Bodhicitta. Whenever I do these practices, I am reminded of when my family first escaped Vietnam as refugees, they were trying to escape from warfare, had very limited resources, and were risking their own lives to make it here. According to what my mother would tell me, on the boat there was little to no water, little to no food and barely little room to walk around. My mother has even seen dead corpses being thrown off the boat, these were usually people that died of starvation and before they were thrown out they were searched for anything of value. The boat stopped at an island in Malaysia where they were given about small amounts of food and water as a form of relief and then took off again for Los Angeles. The whole process on the boat to me felt like the preta beings suffering in the lower realms with no food or water, so my aspiration in my offering practices is that these beings can receive the dharma and offerings and be liberated to a better place. Even now, on my way to the temple, there would be a beggar at the off-ramp and even under the baking sun he’s holding his hat out and whenever someone gave him something he would bow in gratitude. If it was safe, I would roll down my window and grab some change from the coin case for him, and whenever I can remember I would carry an extra bottle of water for him as well. Even when it is not safe or for whatever reason I forget, I would still pray that may he find fulfillment.
I am not a perfect person nor am I a perfect Buddhist, but with my practices of precept, meditation, and wisdom, I can be that much closer to a better self. With precepts whenever I do something that falls in a grey area and I ask myself if the Buddha would do such a thing, that can be a reflection or meditative thought and in the end, if it is an action that is unwholesome I would avoid it. Then I would learn the lesson from the action. If I was perfect, I would become the Buddha already, but in his human life, I look at the Buddha as my role model and I try to follow his teachings as close as possible through precept, meditation, and wisdom.
In chaplaincy work, you meet a client and making that connection with the client can sometimes be as challenging as melting ice or penetrating fog; but once I overcome all of that, I can meet the client where they are. I had this client, a little less than two years old; I could not get through to him much because he was crying, so I tried communicating with his parents. His parents seemed mentally adjusted that their son will not survive but just could not get themselves to move forward beyond those feelings. After the discussion, I discovered that their son would feel more comfortable listening to the recitation of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s name. I asked permission to chant for a few minutes, we chanted together, and their son slowly stopped crying. I was able to open the floor to talk to the parents more in-depth. I learned that the parents were very devout Buddhist practitioners and both parents had negative experiences from previous marriages. They have made various pilgrimages to different Buddhist holy sites in Asia and were really interested in connecting with a temple that practiced the recitation of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva. I told them there was a temple in the Los Angeles area that was named after one of the Buddhist holy sites in China and that sparked their interest almost immediately. I gave them the referral and they were so happy to be able to connect to a center even after their son eventually passed away a few months later. I still recall during the eulogy that the parents were still grateful for being able to find a center and find spiritual care for their son even in his last moments.
I saw a video recently about the Buddha asking if one of his disciples was willing to go to this country where everybody led very unwholesome lifestyles. The crime was high, families were broken, the government was corrupt, and the local king did not bother to care about the condition of his people. The goal would have been to convert them to citizens that practice the Dharma through kindness and compassion. None of the arahants were successful because they went in and gave their sermons in the traditional style of the high leveled seat and the audience at a lower level. The citizens were not accepting of what the arahants were saying, nor was the king and his government. The Buddha did not want to give up so he signaled Manjusri Bodhisattva to go. Manjusri upon his arrival went to praise the local king for his great work towards the people and then tried to connect with the locals, finding their strengths and positives and praising them for their positive works. The locals were moved and brought Manjusri lots of offerings. Then Manjusri thought it was the right time to introduce the people to the Buddha, and the Buddha finally achieved the goal of transforming the locals to become devout practitioners of the Dharma.
It took me until the second to last semester in the program for me to realize that lowering myself down is my learning curve. Whenever I talk to people I somehow have this mindset of having power-over before being able to gradually meet them at their level to continue the relationship. I noticed that happening a lot this semester even with my own cohort-mates. I feel like I let fog and ice buildup between my connections that even the summer heat cannot penetrate. I need to work on my approach, and that’s been something I think I have been working on for a long time. I sometimes let myself slide and forget that everyone’s Buddha nature grows at its own pace. Buddha nature does not have a speed limit; I just finished traffic school for the speeding ticket I received over a month ago. Sometimes I have to repent for that because I may have unintentionally offended someone.
For example, in my tea meditation class, we have a small group of old students that have been continuing with the class for over a year or even since the class first started, I recall being the class leader for the longest time because nobody else was willing to do the job. Eventually, people would comment on the way I manage the class or how I manage the new students in the class. Sometimes I am not too fond of some members of the group giving me that kind of criticism because they may have been the ones that left me behind to continue this leadership role. Recently our group is planning to go to a performance in Northern California but because I had to kindly deny the last person on the list to sign up because of over-capacity on the van, some other members of the groups are already spreading rumors that I am playing favoritism and only selecting people to go on this trip by my choice. This was actually confirmed when someone accidentally recorded a portion of the conversation and posted it in the instant messaging chat group. I reflected back on this situation and asked myself how am I going to react? Or should I react? In the end, I chose not to respond or react to the rumors or recording, because I felt that if I did make any sort of response, it would only cause more ice build and thicker fog to be slapped at me.
There was one time I was having an argument with one of my Dharma brothers because I accused him of stealing one of my dharma instruments. He would not admit to it and I still gave him the benefit of the doubt by trying to find it myself. By the time I gave up finding it, I still accused him of stealing it and demanding him to return it to me. I admit I have never been that angry about something like that before but that was one of those occasions where my whole precepts thing just flew out the window because I was so angry that someone I trusted would do that to me. The temple custodian later found the instrument and gave it back to me, I asked where it was and he said under the table near the main shrine, it must have rolled off the table and fell under without anyone noticing. At that moment I felt this big block of guilt on me, I took a few deep breaths after thanking the custodian and walked up to my dharma brother and humbly apologized to him and admitting that I wrongfully accused him of stealing and told him that I will be more careful before making such accusations. My dharma brother accepted my apology and he went on with his business. I on the other hand still decided to make three prostrations to the Buddha while contemplating back on the precepts and the Bodhisattva path before letting go of the incident. I did not break down or anything but I made a prayer to the Buddha and told the whole incident and the whole process and repented for what I did.
The above incident may have been a more extreme example of when I did not uphold the precepts. My Precept Master (Ven. Master Hsing Yun) gave a story about an Indian king returned to his palace from fighting a war and was unhappy with the meal he had so he ordered to have the royal chef executed. The Queen, who was upholding the precepts at the time, wanted to save the royal chef’s life, so she invited the king to have a drink and requested an appetizer that only the royal chef knew how to prepare. The king then realized that he just ordered for him to be executed and immediately ordered for him to be released, thus the queen successfully saved the royal chef’s life. The queen violated the precept of consuming an intoxicant but that was her application of skillful means to save a life. I think this is more like bending the precepts instead of breaking or defiling them because I feel like even though an unwholesome act was committed, the intention/mindset behind the action is more important so this may not necessarily mean that the precept is broken. One experience I constantly have is with insects around my house. Recently I found a wasp’s nest above my porch, there were still wasps swarming back and forth near my main entrance. I did not know how to get rid of them since I was afraid that if I got stung I could get skin complications, and for the sake of my mother and young nephews, I had to seek professional help. I called someone in and he sprayed some pesticide and at the same time in my mind, I was apologizing to the wasps. That evening after everything got cleaned up, I did a smoke offering puja and dedicated the merit to the wasps that were lost.