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…”

For the Second Year in a Row, the White House Celebrates Vesak

Leaders from the three Buddhist traditions gathered for prayers and candle-lighting.

By Alison SpiegelMay 17, 2022

Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff lights a candle at the White House Vesak Ceremony, May 15, 2022 | Courtesy The International Buddhist Association of America

On Wednesday, May 16, the White House held its second-ever Vesak ceremony, celebrating the day that commemorates the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment. Last year marked a historic first when representatives from the three major Buddhist traditions gathered for prayers and candle lighting. This year carried on the momentum in an important moment for Buddhists everywhere.

Once again, Wangmo Dixey, President of the The International Buddhist Association of America, organized the event, and Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff presided over the ceremony, attended by leaders of all three Buddhist traditions. Ajahn Thanat Inthisan of Washington D.C.’s Wat Thai represented the Theravada tradition. Venerable Dr. Jinwol Lee of Gosung Monastery in Livermore, California and Venerable Wol of the Bub Hwa Buddhist Temple in Annandale, Virginia represented the Mahayana school. Venerable Khenpo Tsultrim Tenzin of the Tibetan Meditation Center in Frederick, Maryland represented the Vajrayana tradition. Venerable Wol was the first Bhikkhuni to take part in this ceremony.

Prayers at the White House Vesak Ceremony on May 16, 2022 | Photo courtesy The International Buddhist Association of America

On Twitter and Instagram, Emhoff shared photos from the occasion and acknowledged the role of faith in difficult times. 

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Some Reflections on Human Life: “Nothing Short of a Miracle”

These leisures and endowments, which are so difficult to obtain, have been acquired, and they bring about the welfare of all. If one fails to take this favorable opportunity into consideration, how could this occasion occur again?

Just as lightning illuminates the darkness of a cloudy night for an instant, in the same way, by the power of the Buddhas, occasionally people’s minds are momentarily inclined toward merit.” — From A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life (Bodhicaryavatara) by Shantideva.

The imagery of Shantideva is always captivating. His analogy of lightning in the second shloka [or verse] is something that we can all relate to from our own experience. He’s evoking the image of a pitch-black, stormy night, so dark that there is no way of finding your path, no way of even seeing your palm in front of your eyes. And then suddenly, a flash of lightning illuminates this dark night, and just for a fraction of a second you can see your surroundings as clearly as if it were a bright day.

Shantideva uses this analogy here to describe the tiny moments of virtuous, meritorious notions that come up in our mind, and he portrays them as being extremely rare and hard to come by. Why? Well, there are so many distractions in our lives; so many seemingly important things, occurring day after day, moment after moment, and, along with them, disturbing emotions constantly arise.

Due to this endless agitation, there is hardly any instant where there is space in our mind for even the tiniest glimpse of a virtuous thought to arise; the chances of such a moment occurring are one in a million! But if, against all odds, such a moment does occur, Shantideva tells us that this is due to the aspirations, the kindness, and the blessings of the Buddhas.

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Best of the Haiku Challenge (April 2022)

The history of modern haiku forms a circle, not a line. Those poets who believed that haiku should lead to advances in the realm of human affairs have come around to the idea that haiku is, most fundamentally, a form of animism—the belief that a distinct “spiritual essence” infuses everything in Nature, including animals, plants, rocks, and even the weather.

The winning and honorable mention haiku for last month’s challenge captured the essential spirit of Nature’s most ubiquitous spring flower.

Nancy Winkler traces the taproot of a dandelion to a place of calm in the face of intractable modern problems.Tamar Enoch sees worlds ending and beginning everywhere as “dandelion puff” is set adrift on the spring air.Alex Lubman imagines a kingdom where silence intensifies the color of dandelions, giving them a “deeper gold.”

Congratulations to all! To read additional poems of merit from recent months, visit our Tricycle Haiku Challenge group on Facebook.

You can submit a haiku for the May challenge here.


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Mind as Mirror 

A cherished, ancient image of the mind in zazen is a clear mirror—boundless, extending everywhere. This mirror holds within and displays whatever comes, accepting all without preference or rejection: both the beautiful and the ugly, the welcome and unwelcome, scenes of war and peace, friends and enemies, moments of life and death, the whole world all embraced and enveloped by the mirror without resistance or judgment, in thorough peace and equanimity. The mirror does not prefer sweet over sour, sunshine over rain, here instead of there. Even our stormy emotions are shown in the mirror as just passing images: moments of fear and sadness, loss and longing. 

Some may think that the mirror only shines when all such distress and despair is removed from it, when the mirror is wiped perfectly clean. But the mirror never distresses or despairs. It neither pulls the pleasing in, nor pushes the displeasing away. Its light and clarity holds and reflects the shapes of whatever comes, both the light and the dark, which are somehow—all—the mirror’s very illumination. Mysteriously, by this very acceptance, even the darkness somehow contains a light. Mysteriously, all life’s broken pieces are known to be whole.

In other words, the mirror does not need to be made free of the ugly, shielded from the hard-to-witness, our problems and worries, the times of a broken heart, tears and terrors that we may be feeling. Rather, even those may sometimes appear in the mirror, and they shall be welcomed and embraced as just more passing scenes. So powerful is this peace and equanimity that the glass embraces all the smooth and broken things in life just the same. Scenes of lightness are the mirror’s light, but scenes of storms and darkness are the mirror’s light, too. 

Not only while sitting zazen, but also when we go back out into the world, our eyes can be mirrors, as we see all the world’s struggle and chaos. We will sometimes be blind to the fact, but the endless separate things and scenes of this world are all, always, the mirror. 

Of course, we should try to make this world better, turning the ugly into the beautiful as best we can, cleaning the rivers and seas, planting flowers, trying to end the wars, searching for cures to diseases, comforting the lonely and afraid. We should not ignore suffering, tolerate the earth’s filth, or stir up or wallow in the mud of our own mind. We should put down our own greed, anger, jealousy, and the like. As best we can, we should try to bring lovely images to the mirror, polishing away the dirt and dust. We should not be complacent. Master Dogen said that the very act of polishing is itself the mirror—Buddha polishing Buddha, enlightenment polishing enlightenment. 

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12 Steps for a DIY At-Home Retreat 

Ever since Lord Buddha instituted the annual three-month “rains retreat,” an intense period of practice for monastics taking shelter from monsoons, every great master has deemed retreat an essential part of a committed dharma practitioner’s life. But what is a retreat exactly? To go on retreat means to withdraw to a quiet or secluded place for a period of time and dedicate oneself to prayer and meditation. A retreat can be of any length, but traditionally it is for at least a few days. This withdrawal from worldly life and embrace of solitude and quiet is seen as essential to spiritual deepening, especially the opening of the heart to joy, love, compassion, and evenness. 

It is in times of crisis and hardship that we feel the need for retreat more acutely, such as this current time of pandemic and strife. The more the world is consumed by trouble and noise, the more our true hearts yearn for peace and quiet. 

Unfortunately, not everyone has the favorable conditions necessary to do long-term retreats or the financial means to travel to isolated retreat centers, if travel is even possible given COVID restrictions or conflict. The good news is we don’t have to travel to the Himalayas to find solitude and we can benefit greatly from shorter periods of retreat, even as little as one day a month. We don’t have to go anywhere; we can find the quiet we need wherever we are, right now. In fact, COVID lockdowns and restrictions are a great opportunity to turn an adverse situation to our benefit. 

What follows is a 12-point guide to using our homes as retreat locations and making the most of what little time we have to achieve a level of tranquillity and peace that will greatly enrich our lives. 

1. Set a retreat boundary. 

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