Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey.....

”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

What’s New (and What’s Ancient) with Your Mala?

For thousands of years, Buddhist practitioners have used the strings of beads called malas to keep track of their practice. The origin of Buddhist malas––which is the Sanskrit word for “garland”––is attributed to the Mokugenji Sutra, in which King Virudhaka asks the Buddha to help ease his suffering. The Buddha recommends that the king recite the three jewels––the buddha, dharma, and sangha––using a mala made of the seeds of a soapnut tree. Since then, across Asia malas have been made of simple, organic materials, such as wood, stone, or bone. More lavish materials such as gemstones are not used, because the mala is considered a meditation tool, not a piece of jewelry. 

Buddhist monks in many traditions are prohibited from wearing jewelry, and serious lay practitioners sometimes follow this rule as well. But the modern popularity of malas––as accessories, meditation tools, and otherwise––has led to the manufacture of a wider variety of options, including malas of colorful polished stone beads. 

To try to understand how American Buddhists are using their malas, I spoke with a handful of practitioners in the Pacific Northwest about the new and sometimes surprising ways they use these beads to enhance their practice. As I reached out and documented the responses, I was fascinated by the array of perspectives these Buddhists bring to their mala use.

River Sangha; Salem, Oregon: Vietnamese Zen 

When I contacted Jerry Braza, facilitator of the River Sangha in Salem, Oregon, he mentioned he was ordering a couple of hundred malas from Catholic nuns in Vietnam. 

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Meditating on Money

How do you feel about money?

If you’re like many of us, you might not even know the answer to that question. Like water to a fish, our relationship with money can easily become unconscious—just another part of the ocean we’re swimming in.

Dharma teachers seldom talk about money in an open way, perhaps because some of their students were drawn to Buddhism for its promise of transcendence and they are not always interested in hearing about the worldly aspects of the path. This omission often (unintentionally) leads to the creation of shadowy dynamics around pecuniary matters in Buddhist centers. So how do we make the unconscious, conscious? How do we contemplate money matters?

In my mentoring work with dharma students, I have found that we can use meditation to wake up to our latent financial habits—and that when we do, it empowers us to make conscious choices about what matters to us.

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Meditating on Suffering

Meditating is supposed to help you live in the moment, but I never thought that was a problem for me. I lived so much in the moment that I tried to make adulthood into something unknowable. Concepts of aging and time were stagnant in my mind. It wasn’t until I began meditating on the Buddhist truth of suffering that I came to know and accept my own pain.

For much of my life, the thought of living past my twenties was imponderable. From ages 12 to 19, I suffered from severe depression and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Completing college and starting a career in the sciences were the false goals that I repeated to others when asked about my career path. I had no real intention of doing any of these things. I rejected contemplating about my future.

There was a deep fear within me. I was caught in the idea that youth is the embodiment of success. I saw that beauty and charisma trumped any deeper respectable ethical values; this was reflected in nearly every piece of media that I consumed. My personal outlook began to mirror society’s, and I found myself grasping at all the things that I thought resembled youthful exuberance.

You only live once, I told myself. And I was “lucky” to have an iron stomach. At my worst, I could down two bottles of wine a night, and still adamantly claim––albeit with slurred speech––“I’m good.” Then ill health moved from my mind to my body, and I began to suffer the physical symptoms of alcohol addiction. One day I noticed my hands shaking. It was about four in the afternoon, and I had only been awake for a few hours. I realized I had the “shakes,” which happens when the body is not getting its anticipated supply of alcohol. Even through my cloudy, hungover brain, I realized that, for a 21-year-old, this was not normal, and I decided to stop drinking.

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It’s 2020. What’s Happening with Bhikkhuni Ordination? 

The ordination debate is not new, and it’s not going away. While some believe that efforts to reinstate full bhikkhuni ordination for women monastics into the Theravada tradition represents a departure from the vinaya—a monastic code of conduct attributed to the Buddha—others argue that its return marks the actualization in the present day of the fourfold assembly, the four-part sangha of ordained men, ordained women, lay women, and lay men.

Some monastics are now trying to realize this assembly in their own backyard. Ven. Canda is an ordained bhikkhuni who has practiced in the vipassana tradition as taught by S.N. Goenka and in the Thai Forest tradition with Ajahn Brahmavamso Mahathera, better known as Ajahn Brahm. After studying in Burma for several years with Sayadaw U Pannyajota, Ven. Canda joined Dhammasara monastery in Perth, Australia, undergoing full bhikkhuni ordination in April 2014, with Theravada nun Ayya Santini as preceptor. She’s also head of the Anukampa Bhikkhuni Project, an organization working to establish a monastery for bhikkhunis in the UK.

Ven. Canda has been a nun for over ten years, but it wasn’t until she left her monastery in Burma that she realized how important full ordination is for the well being of women monastics. She recently spoke with Tricycle about the questions and biases that continue to surround ordination and how to work toward equality without burning out. 

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Why is it so important for bhikkhunis to have their own space to live and practice? I actually think the most important thing is the ordination in itself, even over and above having space. Until women are given equity in terms of their ordination platform, they won’t receive the same support as monks. Right now, many nuns don’t have the independence to live separately from monks because they depend on monks to provide food and the environment for practice. 

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Karma: Not Just Action

One of the strongest impulses we all have is our desire to experience transcendence. When we tap into transcendence we rise above all of our concerns. We are no longer dominated by fear and we are no longer caught up in the web of worldly affairs, which come with anxiety and worry. That’s why transcendence is desirable. Now and then we have moments when we rise above all of our personal issues and the worldly affairs that concern us. We have a larger, more expanded view. Everything is fine when we become one with a bigger reality.

We cannot deny what is happening in the world: war, violence, and a great deal of suffering from many causes. Even though we have amazing moments when we rise above everything and transcend reality, in the end we always have to come back to whatever is happening in our personal lives as well as in the world at large.

Many of us feel transcendence during meditation or prayer. It’s wonderful and inspiring to experience. It’s a break that we all need. Yet we cannot live forever in that realm. We have to come back. We cannot deny reality even though it can sometimes be very unpleas­ant. We might try to understand it and why it is happening.

One of the best ways to understand reality is to look at the theory of karma. It’s not really a theory or a doctrine. Rather it is a living wisdom that applies to issues on personal, societal, and world levels.

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