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…”

Buddha Buzz Weekly: Mt. Everest Deaths Spur New Climbing Rules 

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week. 

New Rules for Everest Climbers After Deadly Season

You can no longer pay your way to the top of the world’s tallest mountain. After 11 climbers were killed or went missing in May of this year, a high-level commission for the Nepalese government ruled that anyone seeking a permit to climb Mt. Everest must demonstrate high-altitude mountaineering experience and training, replacing the policy of granting a climbing permit to anyone who could pay an $11,000 fee. The Guardian reports that the Nepalese commission found that the Everest deaths were primarily caused by the inexperience of the climbers and crowding near the 29,035 ft (8,850 m) summit. Now, anyone who has the desire to summit the mountain must have previously climbed another Nepalese peak of more than 21,325 ft (6,500 m), must submit a certification of good health, and must be accompanied by a trained Nepalese guide—an effort to discourage overzealous climbers from tackling the treacherous peak on their own. It is unclear what percentage of these compulsory guides will be Sherpas, a small ethnic group based in the villages below Everest. Culturally similar to Tibetans, most Sherpas are adherents of the Nyingma school, the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism founded by the legendary figure Padmasambhava. They also believe that the deity Miyolangsangma, or the Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving, lives at the top of Mt. Everest. 

Related: The First Bilateral Amputee Who Climbed Mount Everest and The First (and Only) Woman to Summit Everest Seven Times

Tibetan Nuns Complete Rigorous Geshema Exams

Over 50 Tibetan Buddhist nuns recently completed the prestigious geshema exams at Jangchup Choeling Nunnery in southern India, according to the nonprofit Tibetan Nuns Project. From August 1 through August 12, 51 nuns took various levels of the exams, which included both written tests and traditional Tibetan Buddhist debate. The geshema degree (known as geshe for monks) is the highest degree in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, equivalent to a PhD in Buddhist studies. Women were unable to pursue the geshema course until His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama opened the doors to nuns with his official blessing in 1995. Yet it wasn’t until 2016 that 20 women were actually granted the degree, a historic first in Tibetan Buddhism’s 1,200-year history. Nuns must complete 17 years of study to qualify for the four years of geshema exams, which are followed by two years of tantric study. 

In China, stressed-out workers are finding refuge in studying Sanskrit 

Hangzhou is one of China’s major financial hubs, but in the “city of entrepreneurs,” some people are electing to de-stress by learning an ancient language, the Washington Post reports. At the Buddhist Academy at Lingyin Temple, monks offer classes in Sanskrit, the ancient language of many Buddhist sutras. Similar to learning Latin, Sanskrit study has limited practical application in today’s time outside of academic or religious settings. Yet many people are enrolling in the courses as a way to separate themselves from the relentless pace of society and from a workaholic culture that glorifies a 12 hour workday. Student Jenny Li, who works in international trade, told the Washington Post that the Sanskrit classes allow her to “slow down and find a deeper meaning, reflect on what is important.” She enrolled in the classes partly because she is Buddhist and wants to read religious texts. But many of the Sanskrit students are “not necessarily Buddhists,” says Lingyin Temple’s deputy abbot Jun Heng. “There are a lot of people who come here because they’re looking for inner peace.They might be addicted to technology or stuck in the rat race or depressed by life. They are living with a lot of stress, so when they are up here with the Buddhist monks, they can find quiet.” Despite the fact that Sanskrit has little chance of enhancing one’s earning potential or social status, the courses are exceedingly popular—fewer than half the 380 applicants could be admitted to the first class (although only 50 students made it to the end of the semester, and 20 enrolled for a second class). And while the Chinese government is generally hostile toward organized religion, the Lingyin Temple has retained its right to train Buddhist monks, and also functions as a successful tourist destination. With three genders and a complicated script, Sanskrit is a difficult language to learn, but students say they don’t stress over it. “Sometimes you need to do things for your inner needs,” Li said. “For us in the millennial generation, we don’t need food or money as much as we need more spiritual sustenance.” 

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Thai King Bestows High Honor on Western Buddhists

Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn (Rama X) recently invited four senior Western monks in the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism to receive royal titles in honor of their contribution to Buddhism in Thailand and around the world. While the event was part of a long-standing tradition, it also marked a new development for Buddhism in the country.

Thai forest monks historically have disregarded social status and systems authority, preferring to focus on meditation practices in remote forests and caves, as the Buddha and his disciples once did. Yet despite its often-secluded practices, the Thai forest tradition has had a tremendous impact since its beginnings at the turn of the 20th century. The school’s dedication to meditation, commitment to renunciation, and lack of emphasis on ritual and ceremony held great appeal for Buddhists in the West, where disciples have established hundreds of Thai forest monasteries.

In honor of the Western teachers’ contributions to the proliferation of Thai culture, the king invited the monks to receive the royal titles on July 28 as part of his birthday celebration. The invitees were Ajahn Sumedho, the retired abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in southeastern England (Sumedho was not able to attend); Ajahn Amaro, the current abbot of Amaravati; Ajahn Jayasaro, an author and teacher who lives in a hermitage near Khao Yai Mountain, about two hours outside Bangkok; and Ajahn Pasanno, former abbot and guiding elder of Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery in Redwood Valley, California.

To better understand the significance of this event, Tricycle spoke with Ajahn Pasanno about the title he received, Chao Khun, its history, and what it means for his tradition in Thailand and the West.

How would you describe the Chao Khun title in Thai Buddhism?

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An El Paso Buddhist Center on Violence and the Seeds of Hate

On Saturday, August 3, after posting a 2,300-word anti-immigrant manifesto online, a young man used a semi-automatic rifle to open fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 people and wounding more than two dozen others. Just 13 hours later, another lone gunman killed nine people and wounded at least 27 in a separate attack in Dayton, Ohio. While the two men were united in a desire to harm others, the El Paso shooter was motivated specifically by racial hatred. 

In the days after the attack, Tricycle spoke with Helga Carrion, president of the Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center in El Paso, about how her sangha responded to a mass shooting in their community and the importance of cultivating awareness and compassion in the wake of extreme violence. 

How have members of your center responded to the shooting? Have you met as a sangha since it happened?

That Saturday morning [of the El Paso shooting] our sangha was meeting for our introduction to Buddhism class, and so we didn’t find out until after class what had happened. The next day we came together for our usual Sunday meditation and talked about how we can move through this and help others move through this. Our teacher, Losang Samten, always says that we should do a Chenrezig practice [a meditation on the bodhisattva of compassion, also known as Avalokiteshvara, which often begins with lighting a candle or butter lamp]. In preparation, I brought three candles [instead of one]. Three is symbolic for many reasons, but in this case, it represented the victims, their families, and the perpetrators.

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Buddha Buzz Weekly: Looking Forward, Looking Back

Nothing is permanent, so everything is precious. Here’s a selection of some happenings—fleeting or otherwise—in the Buddhist world this week. 

Ladakh Celebrates Split from Kashmir

This past week India passed a bill that officially revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status as an autonomous region, dividing the territory into two states: Ladakh, and Jammu and Kashmir. Despite outcry from citizens in Kashmir and bordering Pakistan, the decision to repeal what was known as Article 370 in the Indian constitution was met with celebration by some officials in the primarily Buddhist region of Ladakh, who have long claimed that the special status was Kashmir-centric. According to Reuters, the bill transforms Ladakh into a distinct district with its own administration, effectively granting the region a “fresh identity” as India’s first Buddhist-majority territory. “We are very happy that we are separated from Kashmir. Now we can be the owners of our own destiny,” said Tsering Samphel, a politician from the Congress party in Ladakh. He indicated that the region could finally step out of the shadow of Kashmir, a majority Muslim area. Citizens in Ladakh hope that the change will spur tourism and help the Indian government counter China’s influence in parts of the western Himalayas. While Ladakh’s economy has traditionally depended on agriculture, in recent years the number of tourists visiting the area’s ancient monasteries has increased. (Tricycle hosts an annual pilgrimage to Ladakh.) Bordering Tibet, Ladakh is a highly mountainous area that spans about 59,146 square kilometers. 

Billionaire Says Dalai Lama Inspired $100M Donation for Compassion Research Lab

Saying that he was inspired by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donated $100 million to the University of California San Diego to create a program to research the neurology behind empathy and compassion, according to a press release. Sanford said he came to the decision after meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2017, when the Tibetan leader gave a commencement speech at the school. “I have been inspired by the work and teachings of the Dalai Lama, whose interest in the intersection where science and faith meet is deep and profound,” Sanford said. “I have had the opportunity to see how grace, humanity and kindness can change people and the world. This gift extends that vision.” The founder of First Premier Bank in South Dakota, Sanford has said he wants to “die broke” and vowed to give away all of his money before he dies. He had already donated more than $1 billion as of 2018 but still had enough left over to appear that year’s Forbes billionaires list, his net worth increasing to $2.6 billion from $2.2 billion in 2017. 

Rare 2,000-year-old Buddhist Scroll Images Now Public

The Library of Congress recently made public a rare 2,000-year-old scroll from the ancient Buddhist kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to CNN, the manuscript retains nearly 80 percent of the original text and has been in the hands of the Library of Congress since 2003, when it was purchased from a private collector. One of the most fragile pieces that the Library of Congress has ever worked on, it took specialists several years to devise a treatment strategy. (They even practiced unrolling techniques on dried-up cigars.) Yet the treatment of the text would not have been possible without the unique means by which ancient Buddhists preserved and worshipped the text in the first place. Gandharan scrolls like this one “were typically buried in terra cotta jars and interred in a stupa, a dome-shaped structure often containing Buddhist texts or relics,” said Jonathan Loar, reference librarian in the Asian Division at the Library of Congress. “Another reason is that the relatively high, arid climate of the Gandharan region helps preserve materials like manuscripts on birch bark.” The scroll offers a glimpse in early Buddhist history. Told from the perspective of Shakyamuni Buddha, the text offers short biographies of the 13 buddhas who came before him, information about his own birth and transformation into Shakyamuni, and a prediction of the future buddha Maitreya. The biographies contain details about the buddhas’ lifespans, the eons in which they lived, the social class they were born into, and some description of their assemblies of disciples and the duration of their teachings. Since the scroll’s fragility renders it unfit for public display, the Library of Congress has shared images of manuscript online

Submerged Thai Temple Reappears During Record Drought

A Thai Buddhist temple has resurfaced after being submerged when a nearby dam was erected 20 years ago, Reuters reports. A drought has dried up the reservoir in Lopburi, Thailand, where the Wat Nong Bua Yai temple is, and now monks and other tourists are flocking to the site to catch a glimpse before it ends up underwater again. A Reuters video (below) shows visitors exploring the ruins, placing flowers, and offering prayers. However, the temple’s resurfacing comes at a high cost. Thai meteorological authorities say that this is the country’s worst drought in a decade, and for the most hard-hit regions, the worst in 50 years, according to Live Science. Wat Nong Bua Yai also reappeared during a drought in 2015, but this year’s drought is more severe, with the reservoir at only 3 percent capacity. Farmers have been struggling as a result. Rice in particular has taken a hit as rainfall in the main growing regions was 12 percent below average this year. Thailand is the second largest exporter of rice, and industry officials, who have already lowered their yield estimates, believe they will need to further adjust their projections, according to the Japanese newspaper Nikkei

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Sole Searching: What’s a Mindful Pedicure?

As rose petals swirl around my feet, a voice instructs me to focus on the “tip of the right big toe, tip of the right second toe . . .”  My aesthetician, Alex, has made sure to get all conversation out of the way (“Round or square?” “Cut the cuticles or push them back?”) so I can close my eyes and spend the next half hour immersed in meditation. By my side is a mug of tea and peppermint oil to sniff if I need to re-center. Alex massages a sugar scrub into my heel while I try to both tune out and tune in: to be mindful of the sensations of the pedicure while focusing on “a wave of relaxation moving in through the soles of the feet, up through the body, and out the top of the head.” I’m trying to connect body and mind and wondering: Is this McMindfulness run amok, or is a guided meditation pedicure a legitimate path to the present moment?

Sundays Hudson Yards is one of a trio of Manhattan nail salons where clients are encouraged to view nail care as self-care. As part of this mission, sundays (styled with a lowercase “s”) offers a $5 guided meditation add-on to any service (the signature pedicure is $45, the signature manicure is $25). The six pre-recorded teachings, provided via an MP3 player and headphones, were designed and recorded for sundays by founder Amy Ling and MNDFL meditation teacher and native New Yorker Valerie Oula. “Meditating during a manicure and/or pedicure is unique in itself,” said Oula, whose own meditation practice is rooted in Kundalini yoga and influenced more informally by her work as a Reiki master teacher. “When Amy first mentioned the idea to me, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. You have a captive audience sitting still already. What an opportune moment to introduce a mindfulness practice.” Each of the sessions focuses on one of the salon’s values: clarity, focus, gratitude, grounding, letting go, and relaxation.

Photograph by Jeenah Moon

These are secular meditations targeted at beginners: the idea is that meditation doesn’t have to be intimidating. Longtime practitioners and Buddhists might find the instructions a bit hackneyed (“taking in light on the inhale”; “whatever feels right for you”; “tuning in to heart space”; “letting go of what no longer serves you”), though, of course, there’s nothing trite about following the breath. At either 12 or 17 minutes long, the meditations are brief enough that you can listen to two or three during your visit—especially because sundays does not offer machines to accelerate polish drying. For $28 you can purchase them on a wooden thumb drive designed for everyday use. In fact, nails are referred to only in the final mantra: “Now that you’ve taken a small step into wellness, you can begin to build upon it in the days and weeks to come. And maybe every time you notice your lovely nails, you can also feel good about that.” 

During a typical pedicure, there’s a vast distance between my feet and my mind—and I suspect this is true for many New Yorkers. Walk into almost any nail salon and you’ll find people multitasking. As nail techs bend over their hands and feet, they catch up on emails, read tips on fuss-free dinners, even flip open laptops or make business calls. Manicures imprison the hands—but that doesn’t stop some from texting with tinfoil claws or flipping through magazines with their elbows (or teeth!). I’ve been known to edit manuscripts as a coat of Unrepentantly Red is swiped across my nails.

Photograph by Jeenah Moon.

Sundays Hudson Yards’ Scandinavian-inspired space is designed to create a “hygge experience,” a Danish term for a feeling of coziness and contentment. The aesthetic is blond wood, rattan, pastels, and houseplants. Instead of Cosmopolitan, there’s a communal gratitude journal and a station for writing love letters—to yourself. Instead of water in a Dixie cup, there’s a “mindful tea bar.” Instead of remote-control massage chairs, there are armchairs with low-slung seats and throw pillows. The room smells of essential oil rather than acetone, the light is pink rather than fluorescent, and French jazz unspools from the speakers instead of Miley Cyrus. And in place of crusty OPI and Essie bottles, there is a battalion of nontoxic polishes created by the salon’s founder, Amy Ling Lin.

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