THOUGHTS FROM 2007
Today I am going to present a very intriguing riddle that I hope you find as mentally stimulating as I
did. The riddle is one I learned from reading Ludwig Wittgenstein, the renowned German
philosopher. The Riddle was one of his favorites, and one he used frequently to demonstrate to his
students that although we may correctly picture something in our mind, we may still arrive at the
wrong conclusion. It is not a trick question, and unless you answer honestly, you will likely miss the
point. Of course, calculating it would also miss the point. The following is a mental exercise. It is
simple and goes like this:
Picture yourself standing upon a perfect sphere the size of the earth. Imagine cord wrapped around
the equator (where you happen to be standing, as well,) and stretched so that it fits snugly around
the earth-size sphere. Now imagine adding one yard to the cord's length that is circumferencing the
earth-size sphere and evenly distributed, so that the cord is equal distance from the sphere's
surface throughout the circumference of the sphere. The question is: Looking down at the cord
would you be able to see a visible gap between the surface and the cord?
Almost all of Wittgenstein's student's said there would be no apparent gap (because the yard
added to approximately twenty-five thousand miles of cord is insignificant.) But, this is not correct.
The gap would be approximately six inches around the ENTIRE sphere. The temptation for many
would be to say blindly yes (sensing a trick question.) But,Wittgenstein's students knew their
teacher would demand an explanation, which if they were unable, would evoke his wrath.
2) THE RUDDER OF MEDITATION
Just as a boat’s rudder directs the course of a boat; so too does the meditation topic direct the
course of our lives. And, just as the use of a rudder on a boat does not mean we will avoid stormy
seas, so too, the practice of meditation will invariably bring us into conflict with ourselves. When we
set to sea we have a goal in mind, and whatever reaching that goal entails, we accept as part of the
journey. Similarly, when we meditate the goal is peace; but we must accept that reaching it will
entail confronting many obstacles.
3) THE PHILOSOPHY OF TOTALITY
Yesterday I talked about "relative" and "absolute" truth. Let's build on that a bit more by discussing
the relationship between the part and the whole. Many parts compose a house. There are windows,
doors, rafters, roof tiles, walls, sockets, plumbing, and many other parts that make up what we call
a house. Does a house exist apart from the parts that create it? If we remove all the parts, most of
us would agree that there is no house. If, however, only one small part is removed from the house,
is it still a house? Most of us would say it is. But, let us suppose that one tile is removed every day
from the roof until gradually there is no roof. Is it still a house? Well, yes, we may think, a roofless
house, but still a house. Now that the roof is gone, we notice workers dismantling the windows, one
a day, until the house no longer has windows. Is it still a house? Yes, we may say, it is a partial
house, but still a house. As the days pass, we notice construction workers removing beams, doors,
and so forth until there is just an empty lot.
If we were to get out of our car and walk about the lot reminiscing about the house that was once
there, we might by chance find a nail or a tile, or a small piece of similar debris. We may pick up the
tile and think for a moment of the house that it was once a part. When we picture that house, we
picture a complete house, not a partial house. And, we know that the ceramic that we hold in our
hand is a tile because it belonged to the house we picture in our mind. Without the individual parts,
the whole could not exist, and the parts could not exist without the whole. We cannot conceive of
the tile without conceiving of a house, nor can we conceive of a house without a roof. They depend
on one another.
In the view of Hua Yen, there is no such thing as a partial house; it is either a perfect house, with all
its parts, or not a house. This view entails that each and every part cannot be what they are without
being part of a complete house. In other words, there is no house that is not a complete house.
Isn't this instinctively very different from the way we think and feel. Who would think that the
absence of a doorknob on a house negates the house? I think most of us would agree that it doesn’
t. So, what do these Hua Yen masters have in mind when they say that it, the house, does not exist
independent of all its parts?
The vision of the great Hua Yen masters is an object of my faith, but not my understanding, so I
cannot hope to explain it. All I can do is offer a few words that may encourage others to look a little
deeper than the common understanding of the matter that we all share. Unless we think that the
Hua Yen masters were crazy, it behooves us to ask ourselves what it is that they see so undeniable
in their vision as to allow them to deny the common consensus. How can they be serious in saying
that either a thing exists in its entirety or not at all? But that is what they seem to be saying, and a
philosophical school that grew out of this view has endured for many centuries. remove only one
small part, would it cease being a house?
Let us take a little break from the above thread on inquiry, and consider for a moment the
consequences of the Hau Yen view, if true. The first thing we might notice is that the Hua Yen vision
of reality equalizes everything and everyone. Since the whole cannot exist independent of a single
part, the smallest insect is no less important than the mightiest king. Who, holding such a view,
would not alter his path to sidestep an insect? In India and Nepal, I have often watched Buddhists,
Tibetan in particular, take a moment to pick up an insect on the road and with care and place it out
of harms way. Jains wear bells on their feet to warn insects that they might not see, and they have
established a hospital for rats in Bombay.
Treasuring life is a fine thread running through all religions. Although these examples are
extream, it must be admitted that one who is kind to bugs will indeed avoid harming their fellow
human beings. Whereas, one who thinks nothing of killing a thousand ants with one swish of poison
spray would be far more likely to be harsh to others.
Take a look at a stone, and from the Hua Yen perspective, you are looking at no less than the
entire world. Is this not wonderful? This view is of great importance to environmental protection.
The person who sees the smallest particle as a mirror of the universe embraces everything
lovingly. Such a person is careful in his actions and protective.
There are many ways to create a positive outlook, but none surpasses the Hua Yen view of
Totality. When we reverse the habituation to individuality and habituate our thought to unity
instead, we not only change ourselves in a positive way, but we change the whole world, as well.
We see that by adopting Hua Yen philosophy, we bring significant advantages to our happiness
and peace of mind, but to others welfare, as well. Now let us return to the main topic of this
discussion, the Hua Yen view itself.
The idea of a house no longer being a house when a single member we discussed already. We
discussed the lack of intuitiveness in this view. Is our natural view wrong and unbeneficial? I hate to
say this but it is both wrong and unbeneficial. It is wrong because it does not accord with the way
things are. Through reason and analyses, we can confirm for ourselves the impossibility of a world
existing in a way we have habitually conceived it. That a thousand mouths say something true,
does make it right. A single mouth that accords with simple reason can easily prove all other wrong
(or more precisely, “outside the proper view.) What is more logical to proclaim, a united vision of
the world, or a pluralistic view of the world? It is upon reflection that the latter will overrule the
majority, and hopefully undermine their false assumptions. How could a single individual exist other
than part of the whole, rather than independent from it; how could a single pebble exist by itself,
independent of the world?
We can see in Asian art depictions of unity stands in stark contrast to the Western idea of
individuality. As an example, consider how Asian nature painting often illustrates towering visual
landscapes with seeming insignificant and tiny individuals walking a path or crossing a bridge
between amongst these towering mountains, and so forth. In most Western art you would have a
towering man on a mountain peak, overlooking the valley below him, and so forth. How different our
perspectives are! In the West, man lords over nature, while in the East he is embraced by it. How
different our perspectives!
The Hua Yen philosophy fosters a humble attitude. In it, we are embraced and nurtured by nature.
We are subject to disease and death and have no reason to think we are lords over anything
according to Hua Yen philosophy. We naturally respect nature and try our best to blend with her
and gain knowledge of her secrets.
The Western attitude is very different from the above. We overlook nature as our dominion and
seek to harness her energy, rather than be embraced by it. We arrogantly try to manipulate nature,
often our so-called success yielding dire consequences. Worst of all we don’t feel loved and
welcomed and supported by nature; how could we as her manipulators?
4) The Buddha said: "Hatred only hurts the hater." Another saying goes: "A hundred days of wood
gathering can go up in a single blaze." Anger and hatred quickly burn up the merit we have gained,
and we should always guard our thoughts with vigilance, ever mindful that negative emotions such
as the don't cause us to fall victim to their negative consequences.
If you practice generosity, you will always have the resources for that practice. If you are stingy, you
will not enjoy the resources that you have.
MEDITATION AND ACTIVITY
5)Meditation is not confined to full lotus or any other posture. It is true that seated meditation is
useful for familiarizing oneself with the topic of meditation, but as one becomes more and more
familiar with a meditation topic, one should learn to carry it throughout the day.
Distraction, while engaged in activities, makes it almost impossible to maintain a thread of
meditation. If we wish to maintain a thread of meditative awareness after we arise from our
meditation cushion, we must remain focused on our daily activities and stay in context of what we
are doing. In other words, if we are shopping for groceries, we just do that and don't get
sidetracked by some other whim that blows through our mind.
When seated meditation time finally arrives at the end of the day, we will find our mind undistracted
by idle thoughts and readily given to meditation.
RELEASE THE DOER
6) There is a saying by the Taoist Master Chuang Tse that says: "I don't know about doing things, I
just know about leaving things alone." This is an excellent attitude to have towards meditation.
Meditation requires a lot of learning how to stay out of the way and allow it to happen. This is why
some Buddhist paths, Mahamudra, for example, refer to themselves as the "effortless" path.
NO MATERIALIST YOGIS
7) My Teacher, Master Hsuan Hua, in a public lecture in an Asian capital, well known for its
materialistic pursuits, severely criticized and joked about Milarepa, one of Tibet's greatest yogis. At
the time there was a Milarepa fever in the island nation and many people became furious that my
Teacher would dare insult him. He even received a call to his hotel room after the lecture from a
Tibetan Master ordering him to leave the island. Few understood my Teacher's message, but it no
doubt benefited his audience nonetheless (by getting them to think about their blind devotion.)
What good does it do to idolize a great yogi ascetic while striving to fulfill one's every material
hankering? Is there anything amiss about one of the most materialistic cultures on the planet
idolizing a yogi known for his asceticism, and yet doing nothing to embody even a portion of that
asceticism? Being a cheerleader is not championing the yogi. My view is that my Teacher just
wanted to wake these people up. He was actually saying: Stop insulting this great yogi by endless
chatter about him, and honor him with a little more practice, a little more austerity, and a bit more
YOURSELF, THE REAL BUDDHA
8) The Buddha walked the dusty plains of Bihar, India for much of the 49 years he taught. Once
while walking through a farmer's field, he was asked by the farmer, "What is the difference between
you and me?" The Buddha replied, " I have realized that I am the Buddha, but you have yet to
The sutras teach us that "all living beings have the Buddha-nature, and it is only because of false
thinking and attachments that they fail to realize it." It is important to understand what this is
saying, because if we don't, we will view enlightenment as a sort of add-on that we create, rather
than something fundamental to our nature.
Thought for the day: June 18, 2007
BELIEF CAN BENEFIT OR HARM
9) Sometimes Buddhist will make statements about not "believing" in God or any form of creator. I
cannot help but wonder what the benefits of not believing in God. A person who lives righteously in
love and devotion to God is certainly better off than an arrogant Buddhist denying God without a
deep understanding of Buddhism's very intricate philosophical arguments refuting it. And then,
even at such an advanced level, belief in God is respected as level as a stepping stone to higher
views, and by no means belittled.
10) Tantra is one of the most misunderstood schools of Buddhism and Hinduism. There is nothing
at all "sexy" about Tantra. Although the New Age thinks otherwise, Tantra, with few exceptions, is
practiced without a partner. While kings contributed to the current delusion by founding temples full
of art depicting deities in union, it is important to bear in mind that they were using their wealth to
give expression to their personal erotic fantasies (often carried out in the royal court.)There is
absolutely no scriptural basis for any of it. Those who busy themselves with Tantric seminars often
site these bogi (false yogy) depictions to give credence to their lustful ambitions, while deluded
followers seeking justification to cloak their sexual appetites in religious garb are all too eager to
As mere human beings not yet free of carnal desires, to imitate the Gods and Goddesses in union,
as often depicted in Tantric art, is delusional and distructive. A cursory study of the ancient Tantric
texts, makes it clear that such depictions are merely symbolic representations of the union of
positive and negative energies complete within each one of us. The practice of Tantra, sans
partner, is more likely to balance these male and female energies.
FAITH WITH EYES
11) Buddhism teaches us to examine our beliefs. The Buddha himself taught his followers to study
and think out his teachings and to have a clear understanding of his teachings before deciding
whether to accept them or not. There is little room for blind faith in Buddhism.
If we watch how we use the word "belief" or "believe" in our daily lives, we will notice that we often
say the word without having examined the source of the belief we are expressing. If we do this, we
will likely uncover many false beliefs, often based on wrong assumptions. And, on a positive note,
we may correctly place beliefs on a firmer foundation.
As long as we are in a human body, food will be a necessity and consideration should be given
towards what constitutes the best diet for a practitioner. Many will say that a vegetarian diet is best
for dharma practitioners, but there is much more to consider. Both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures
advocate not killing living creatures. It is advocates to take food as medicine and not for
entertainment. Greed for delicate flavors and excessive eating afflicts vegetarians as much as meat
eaters and creates the same obstructions. Too much thought about food reflects a mind that is not
doing the work it should be doing, whether the thoughts are about an excellent steak or a mango.
THE REAL VEGETARIAN
12) There are more reasons for being a vegetarian than adhering to harmlessness. Aside from not
killing, a vegetarian diet is more conducive to the meditative and compassionate frame of mind.
Hinduism breaks down food into three categories, satvic, rajasic, and tamasic; (broadly meaning,)
pure, agitating, and heavy. Rajasic food agitates the mind, and tamasic food makes it sluggish.
is both. Satvic food is pure and does not contribute to heaviness or disturbing emotions.
In addition to eating right, one also must eat with proper mindfulness and a sense of gratitude. A
vegetarian who is a guest of someone who offers him a non-vegetarian dish should either not eat
or eat with gratitude. Whatever was offered to the Buddha as he went on his begging rounds, he
ate, and he encouraged his disciples to do the same. Also, monks are instructed to eat with
mindfulness, either reciting mantras or considering all the aspects of the food they are eating---the
work that goes into growing it, transporting it, preparing it, medicinal value, etc. Eating with a
scattered mind greatly diminishes the value of our food and it behooves us to adopt an attitude
similar to monks while taking our meals. Eat healthily, think healthy, and always be a little hungry.
13) Set a time for practice every day. If you miss a day here and there, your practice will suffer. If
you miss a week here and there, it will die. If you practice every day, you will gradually not be able
to do without it.
Our busy modern lives provide many excuses "why" we cannot practice. We should be ready to
reschedule our practice just like we would reschedule any other appointment, and not miss a day
because "something came up."
Practice is "built" over time. Even though we may be practicing correctly, it takes time to identify with
it. Often it can take years until the gears mesh, and you feel engaged with your practice. Therefore,
be patient with yourself. Grass will not grow faster by pulling it
14 I once visited a yogi in a cave in Nepal and arrived just as he was preparing his meal. It
consisted of three small potatoes. He dropped the first two in the pot without hesitation, but
agonized over the third for some time before releasing it with the words, "not too much." As he later
sat dipping them in chilly powder and salt and slowly eating them, his deep appreciation and
thanksgiving were evident with every mouthful. This attitude probably nourished him as much as
the food he ate. Always aim for eating less as this will allow you to appreciate your food more.
15 Genuine compassion is hard to realize. Even after we have studied and meditated deeply and
understood the benefits of having compassion for others; it is tough to internalize as an
uncontrived aspect of our being. In fact, it is this uncontrived aspect of compassion that separates
great teachers from ordinary ones.
Most of us have compassion that is contrived. We will think nothing of giving rise to angry thoughts
to an unjust ruler, never thinking for a moment the part we played. We don't immediately consider
that we may out of our greed for wealth supplied his weapons, for example. A great teacher, on the
other hand, will naturally take such things into consideration without a moment's reflection. He will
also see the consequences of that world leader's destructive actions, both for himself and others
and seeing how much suffering he is bringing to himself and others, feel genuine pity for that
person. His attitude is entirely different from ours. There is an absence of uncontrolled anger.
Meditation combined with deep contemplation is the means to bridge the gap between what we
intellectually understand and the way we truly think. We cannot take a teaching as our own until we
can fully embody it. Embracing Buddhism in a contrived way based on study and intellectual
understanding is a good first step, but not the goal. To achieve the goal we should seek out those
who have achieved it, from a good teacher who inspires us.