Ajahn Buddhadasa

Buddhism does not depend on or assume any external authority whatsoever. It is neither exclusive nor possessive. Being Buddhist is a matter of living a sublime way of life, the brahmacariya, wherein one explores the law of nature and lives in harmony with it. It is not a matter of external identity or affiliation. Therefore, you need not convert or register yourself as a Buddhist in order to study and practice Buddhism. You can follow whatever religion pleases you or follow no religion at all, and still study and practice Buddhism. It is simply a matter of how you live your life. Any who are willing to approach, learn, investigate, practice, and live according to natural truth can experience this. Buddhism is available to everyone and is not exclusive in any way.

From Under the Bodhi Tree: Buddha’s Original Vision of Dependent Co-Arising, by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu © 2017. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications. Ajahn Buddhadasa (1906–93) was one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in the history of Thailand and founder of the first modern forest monastery there.

David Michie

The qualities of a student have been long established in Buddhism. They include the checklist you might expect—concentration, application, respect for your teacher and the dharma. But they also include the quality of having a questioning attitude, specifically an attitude ensuring that the teachings you receive are in accordance with the established dharma.

One of the most common criticisms of Buddhism I come across is the idea that in following a particular teacher, practitioners are somehow allowing themselves to become brainwashed. From the outside, it’s easy to see why people might think that practitioners fall under the spell of their guru, given their efforts to carry out instructions.

But as this teaching shows, there is no room for passivity on the part of a student. This is not a one-way process, like watching TV. Students are, instead, engaged in a dynamic activity in which we are constantly assessing and questioning the teachings, thinking about how they apply to our lives. In following a teacher, dharma students are not abdicating responsibility for their future to someone else. Quite the opposite. Just as the occupants of a prisoner-of-war camp might value the advice of a tunnel engineer, or a group of lost explorers would have much to learn from a navigation expert, the actual business of escaping from samsara is something we need to do for ourselves—and, of course, for others.

From Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in a Hurried World, by David Michie © 2017. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications. David Michie is a corporate communications consultant, public speaker, novelist, and Buddhist practitioner.

Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger

There’s a difference between meditating to achieve an immediate goal, like becoming a healthier or a better person, and committing yourself to a lifetime of zazen practice with no tangible goal at all. The 20th-century Japanese Zen master Yasutani Hakuun Roshi once described the two kinds of people who come to the practice as those seeking a temporary cure for suffering and those seeking to unearth the root of suffering altogether. Although he didn’t brush aside the former, he pointed out that this instrumental attitude wasn’t enough to sustain a long-term relationship with Zen, one that goes beyond simply adding another “technique” to our first aid kit.

Looking to Zen for self-improvement isn’t an American invention. It has a long tradition in Japan that goes back to its ancient warrior society. Most samurai used Zen, in fact, to become more skilled at making war and dying. They practiced zazen in order to develop strong “mind power” (joriki) so they would be better swordsmen and less fearful in facing an enemy. Today Japanese businesspeople use it to become more concentrated competitors. The impulse of the businesspeople does not differ much from that of the samurai. The motivation for self-improvement takes many forms.

The second group of people who come to Zen, those whom Yasutani Hakuun Roshi described as seeking to unearth the root of suffering altogether, aren’t any less troubled or pained than the first. Often, in the course of training, those seeking self-­improvement develop into committed Zen practitioners while the so-called spiritual seekers disappear. The issue is not so much the reasons for coming as what happens once you actually sit down and start to meditate. You might come wanting to improve yourself and leave after six sessions because you feel you aren’t getting anywhere. Likewise, you can be driven by a profound, burning lifelong existential question, and also leave after those same six sessions for the same reason. The important thing is to stick to the practice no matter what. You’ve got to develop the love of sitting for its own sake—and an appreciation for the paradox, because the point of Zen is seeing that there isn’t any static self to improve or realize.

From Grassroots Zen: Community and Practice in the Twenty-First Century, by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger © 2017. Reprinted with permission of Monkfish Book Publishing Company. Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger are married university professors and authors. Founders of the Princeton Area Zen group in New Jersey, they have been teaching Zen for more than 25 years.

Illustration by Melanie Lambrick

Konchog Lhadrepa and Charlotte Davis

If faith is strong and pure, then wisdom will develop easily into enlightenment. But if we lack faith and devotion, then even if the Buddha were standing in front of us, he could not bring any benefit. Being without faith is said to be like trying to make a stone float or trying to steer a boat without a rudder; it is like an armless man in front of treasure, like trying to grow a plant from a burnt seed, or like a blind man trying to find his way in a temple.

From The Art of Awakening: A User’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhist Art and Practice, by Konchog Lhadrepa and Charlotte Davis © 2017. Reprinted with permission of Snow Lion, an imprint of Shambhala Publications. Konchog Lhadrepa is a holder of the Karma Gadri lineage of painting and has been the principal of the Tsering Art School since its founding in 1996. Charlotte Davis is a thangka painter who was among the first group of graduates to complete their studies at Tsering Art School.

Thich Nhat Hanh

There is a story of a king who, upon listening to a musician playing a 16-string sitar, was moved to the depths of his soul. The music touched him so deeply that he wanted to discover exactly where it was coming from. When the musician departed, he left his sitar with the king, and the king ordered his servant to chop the instrument into small pieces. No matter how hard they tried, though, they could not find the source of the beautiful sound, the essence of the music. Just like the king looking into the sitar, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara looked deeply into his own five skandhas [impermanent “heaps,” made of matter, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, and self-consciousness] and discovered that they were empty of a self. No matter how wonderful something is, when we look deeply into it, we see that there is nothing in it we can identify as a separate self. 

From The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries, by Thich Nhat Hanh © 2017. Reprinted with permission of Parallax Press. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most revered Zen teachers in the world today.

Illustration by Melanie Lambrick

Solala Towler

A student came to Master Bankei and said that he had an uncontrollable temper, which he felt was obstructing his cultivation practice. What, he asked, could he do about it?

“Okay,” said Master Bankei. “Show it to me.”

“I cannot show it to you right now,” answered the student.

“Well,” asked Master Bankei, “when can you show it to me?” 

“It comes on me all of a sudden,” said the student.

“Ah,” said the master. “Then it cannot be a part of your true nature. If that were so you would be able to show it to me any time.”

The student went away and meditated on this and from that day his temper was gone.

From The Spirit of Zen: Teaching Stories on the Way to Enlightenment, by Solala Towler © 2017. Reprinted with permission of Watkins Publishing. Solala Towler is a Taoist meditation and qigong instructor. He is the editor of The Empty Vessel, a journal of Taoist philosophy and practice.

Phillip Moffitt

Buddhist teachings suggest that there are certain characteristics called paramis, or perfections, that you must develop before you can ever achieve liberation. One of these qualities, right resolve, has to do with developing the will to live by your intentions. Through practicing right resolve, you learn to set your mind to maintaining your values and priorities, and to resist the temptation to sacrifice your values for material or ego gain. You gain the ability to consistently hold your intentions, no matter what arises.

Right intention is like muscle—you develop it over time by exercising it. When you lose it, you just start over again. There’s no need to judge yourself or quit when you fail to live by your intentions. You are developing the habit of right intention so that it becomes an unconscious way of living—an automatic response to all situations. Right intention is organic; it thrives when cultivated and wilts when neglected.

From “The Heart’s Intention,” a blog post by Phillip Moffitt. Published on dharmawisdom.org. Phillip Moffitt is a writer, insight meditation teacher, and the founder of the Life Balance Institute.