ChiSing: I'm going to start off by saying something about the
altar. For those who grew up in a Jewish, or Christian or Muslim
heritage or background— especially for those from Jewish and
Christian backgrounds, bowing and prostrating is very foreign.
Now for Muslims, it's not as foreign to them because they do the
prostration practice (if they are very, very orthodox— five
times a day, during the prayer times; and, they bow toward Mecca).
For those of us who practice here. Whether Buddhists or just very
"Buddhist-friendly", for me at least, when I look at the altar and I
light incense and light candles, offer flowers, bow and
prostrate—for me, it's not about worshipping idols, that's
farthest from my mind, it's not even close to the reality.
It's a feeling of gratitude of being reminded of the truth. So I
consider the altar to be like a "3D mirror". When I look at the altar,
I am reminded of the truth of my own true nature; and of the truth of
everyone's true nature; and of the truth of the whole universe's true
So it's a way for me to just be grateful to those who have awakened to
this truth; and it's a way to affirm my dedication to awaken to that
truth, and also [affirms] my solidarity with all beings as we awaken
together to this truth of our true nature. So that's what it means
for me. It may mean more things for others as well, but that's what it
primarily means for me.
There are many different elements on an altar. You know, [there are]
candles, incense, water, flowers, etcetera; and they all have
different meanings. For me, when I light the candle on the altar, I
make a vow to be a light in the world. When I offer incense on the
altar, I make a vow to become "fragrant"— to be a fragrant
person in the world. When I bless the altar, or myself, or others with
the water, I vow to become the kind of person that can quench the
thirst of those who are truly thirsty for happiness and true joy.
And when I offer flowers on the altar, I make the vow to be beautiful
and fresh. To keep beautifying my practice, and [to] keep "freshening"
my practice, so that my practice doesn't become rigid, stale, or just
dry—but to be fresh, and alive.
Tashi: Prostrations. I think this actually addresses, also, the
old term prostration, the many other things, and images. In the
Tibetan tradition, we approach every spiritual practice with
three elements or components in mind: Clarity, Purity, and
Certainty. It can be the recitation of mantras; it can be offering
incense [or] anything that we do, or a more involved ritual.
What does clarity mean? That we are actually fully aware of what we
are doing, and we are doing that. We are not going through the
motions. We are paying attention.
What does purity mean? Purity means that we have a clear intention for
the practice, and we hold that intention during the practice.
And what does certainty mean? And this is where I think that perhaps
there is the greatest dissonance with some Western
traditions. Certainty is the understanding that we are not invoking
some external power; that we are not calling someone who is far; that
we are invoking our own Buddha Nature; that we are calling on our own,
essential, natural perfection to be manifested fully.
So that is why we call it certainty because no ritual [or] practice is
effective unless there is a base for it, right? You cannot go into the
kitchen and turn on the burners, and put on a pot, and expect to have
some food if you haven't put anything in the pot, right? [Audience:
Laughs] I mean, you will have a burnt pot, right?
So there has to be something to start with. So in order for there to
be enlightenment, there has to be a root, a basis of
enlightenment—that is Buddha Nature. Otherwise, no matter what
you did, nothing would come of it. So that is what we're invoking.
Now, when we are in the stage of ordinary beings, we need external
reminders. But like Brother ChiSing said, it's like a mirror. This is
my Buddha Nature, and right now I can't see it in myself—so I
see it outside, but it's just as skillful means. We are not calling on
someone who is far away. The Buddha is not separated from us by time,
by distance, or by quality. We are Buddhas now—not necessarily
manifesting it completely, but full Buddhas nevertheless.
So when we prostrate, what are we doing? Again we are doing it with
clarity, with purity, and with certainty. What is the clarity that we
actually perform: Our chosen method of prostration, right? That's
even a safety issue, right? You don't want to just bang your head on
the floor. [Audience: Laughter] So you must be aware of what
you are doing.
But what is the purity, what is the intention? The intention is to
surrender your false view of yourself, to your true nature. You are
lowering the false self. You are lowering the greedy, selfish,
troubled, suffering person that you think you are—you are
bringing that being to the ground, so that your own Buddha Nature
stands up, when you get up. That is the purpose of
prostration—you're putting down. I had a teacher who said that
you are "putting down the beast and allowing the Buddha to stand".
That is what you're doing. So you are not prostrating to an external
Buddha, you are prostrating to the Buddha that you are.
ChiSing: Well, in our tradition, the bell is a very beautiful
part of our practice. Especially during Zen silent retreats: it's nice
to have bells because then you don't need to use human words to call
people to stand, to sit, to come to the meditation hall, to
bow—because each kind of bell and kind of sequence of sounds of
the bell, have a certain meaning. And this way, the silence can stay
When I say "silence" I don't necessarily just mean external silence,
but also silence of needing to think with human words and to speak
with human words, and rather to go into the listening to things as
they are—beyond human language. The way animals are, when they
listen and they speak without human language.
So, in our tradition, internally we may be bowing to the bell before
inviting it to sound—and we don't say "strike the bell" in our
tradition, we say "invite the bell to sound". So it's a very gentle
relationship with the bell, and we honor the bell as a manifestation
in the universe just like we are a manifestation, so it becomes
personal in a way.
And then, we mindfully pick up the inviter.
There's different ways to do this. I've adapted the way we do it
because it's so confusing, since as the facilitator and the bell
person—and since I am facing you, if I bow to the bell you might
think its time to bow back to me. So I don't do that, I just "bow
inside my heart". [Laughter] And then, instead of placing my
hand at my heart (because that can also confuse some people) I just
put my thumb and forefinger together on my lap and the same thing with
the inviter on my lap and take a deep breath, in and out.
And in our tradition we have little "Gathas", or short poems, that we
say in our mind, for every activity— including inviting the
sound of the bell. One Gatha might be something like this: "May the
sound of this bell&helips;awaken its hearers&helips;so that all beings
may realize their true nature". So something like that.
So then, instead of inviting the bell right away—we do a "wake"
sound—to just basically ask the permission of the bell to "sound
it"; but also more practically, to alert everyone in the meditation
hall that the bell is about to be sounded.
This is useful, especially during silent meditation because if you're
meditating and then—"BONG!" And you're like OW! [Audience:
Laughter] And it just shocks you, and may disturb your
consciousness, well after it's been so gently (you know), just very,
and very still. So we just gently [Muffled tap of the bell]
wake the bell just a little bit, so that everyone knows to expect the
sound. [Bell rings fully]
So we usually do it three times at the beginning and two times at the
end of meditation. And, it's said that we are "manifesting three
Buddhas when we have three bells" and we allow the bell to manifest
its Buddha Nature [Laughs] — and just resonate.
And so, when the oneness of the person, and of the bell, and of the
inviter, and of the sound, and of the hearers—there's a oneness
there. So it's important for the person inviting the sound of the bell
to be truly, deeply present. Because they are transmitting that energy
through the bell into the atmosphere, and you as the hearers can feel
that energy. I've definitely felt that reality at certain temples
where the monk, or nun, was so present at inviting the sound and it
was so beautiful, it just resonated within me; such a beauty.
And I've also seen some people [Laughs] invite the sound, and
I'm like "Ouch!" you know, I just feel icky inside. [Audience:
It just takes practice to be one with the bell, and to allow the bell
too truly sound from a place of love and mindfulness.
The big bell usually signifies being still, and the little bell
usually signifies a movement of some sort [rings small
bell]. Bowing, standing, sitting, etcetera, or a ritual [is the
small bell]. So, stillness and movement. And this also applies to our
practice. We have stillness practices and movement practices, because
mindfulness is important in both stillness and movement; because
really, our life is made of stillness and movement.
I'd like to invite Tashi now to finish speaking on one more question.
Tashi: Just very briefly you may notice, every practitioner of
Vajrayana, which is the Swift Path, actually must own a bell, and a
dojre (or a vajira). Don't worry, you won't have one and I'll show
you. We actually use them in many of our practices, literally just
hold them or actually use them, and you will see during the ceremony
we will use it for purifying and blessing.
The dojre stands for skillful means and for compassion. And the bell
always stands for wisdom. Just think about it, what do you also see
the bell with? With waking up, with alertness, etcetera—so it is
a sound of wisdom. We humans, in particular, we learn through
hearing. So the bell signifies wisdom. So I see you all have one,
We have these mudras. It's not easy to see, perhaps, but the
middle finger is sort of like, well, the middle finger, but all the
others go around the first joint so that the first joint of the middle
finger is out. That is your dojre, right? The dojre is a
thunderbolt, you see?
And with the other hand, bring all the fingers together, and then put
the middle finger inside as if it where the—what do you call it?
The "clapper"? So here you have your dojre and your bell, right?
The right hand is always the dojre hand, and the left hand is always
the bell hand. Wisdom is always closer to the heart.
In the Tibetan tradition, also, wisdom is associated with the feminine
aspect, and compassion with the male aspect. [Female
laughs]. Interesting huh? [Audience: Yes] Yes.
ChiSing: Did you want to just say something briefly about Saga Dawa?
Tashi: Oh! Very, very briefly yes. Saga means million. Dawa
means moon. This month is called Saga Dawa—the "million moon
month", and it refers to the fact that because Saga Dawa includes the
three greatest events in the life of the Shakyamuni Buddha—all
meritorious activities that are performed, this year in particular
from the 20th of May to the 19th of June, are multiplied a million
fold. A million fold.
So if you say one mantra, you have said a million mantras. You say 108
mantras; you have said 108 million mantras. That is true for all these
days from the 20th of May to the 19th of June—except for
tomorrow. Tomorrow is Saga Dawa Duchen—Duchen means "the
highlight", the celebration. Tomorrow is actually the day, where we
observe—he's so kind, right? By his kindness, the Buddha saw fit
to have his birth, his enlightenment, and his disappearance on the
same day! [Audience: Laughter] So we don't have to remember
three dates. So he's thinking of us. [Audience: Laughter]
On that day it's not a million fold. Tomorrow, everything
is 10 million fold. So, we strive, in our tradition—we
strive to do three things. The "ultimate teaching of the Buddha", when
he was asked to summarize his entire teachings: he said, "Avoid harm,
do good, and purify the mind".
So we take one item from "avoid harm". Reduce or eliminate something
harmful in your life, just for 24 hours—is that so difficult?
Then, the second one: "do good". Right? And we usually choose: "[to]
do a generous act". Generosity is this easiest thing to
perform—that is measurable. Because, you could say "I'll
meditate better"—and who knows? [Audience: Laughter] But you
either give, or you don't give— right? [Laughs]
And the third one: "purify the mind". We, usually, on Saga Dawa
Duchen—we recite mantra. We make a commitment to say a whole
mala of a mantra. In the Tibetan tradition it is usually "Om Mani
Padme Hum" but it can be—anything, right?
By the way, if you are Christian, or you are Jewish, or you are
Muslim—there are mantras in your tradition too. And Jesus,
Mohammed, or anybody else, or Moses—are not going to get angry
if you honor the Buddha tomorrow. Right? I can guarantee
it. [Audience: Laughter]
They are actually quite pleased. Right? In the same way that the
Buddhas are pleased when you honor the Lord Jesus, or Mohammed, or
Moses, or any other prophets, of every great tradition.