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Tools of Our Practice
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Tools of Our Practice (21 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing and Ven. Tashi Nyima
June 3, 2012 - Dallas, Texas

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 nature.

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.

Thank you.

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 there.

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: Laughs]

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, right?

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.

Transcribed by Mark Edwards

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