On the Passing of Teachers (2022)

“It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community-a community practicing understanding and loving kindness, a community practicing mindful living. This may be the most important thing we can do for the survival of the earth” .

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away at the age of 95. He’s been in poor health for many many years and this is no surprise. But it’s still incredibly sad.

He was an amazing Buddhist teacher and a big inspiration to me. Two of my teachers died in 2021, Lama Chuck Stanford and Zen Master Wonji Dharma. Both of those deaths hit me hard. And now at the beginning of 2022 Thich Nhat Hanh has passed away. Three deaths in rapid succession. The world is changing. All things are impermanent.

I’m reminded a little of when my parents died, over 20 years ago now. 3 years apart and both from different cancers. This isn’t the same as losing a parent (or two), not even close. But it’s still…. something.

I never met him and I’ve never practiced in his community, but Thich Nhat Hanh has been a big inspiration to me. The first book I read on the subject of meditation was “The Miracle of Mindfulness” way back in 2000. And his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching” is still, in my opinion, the best introduction to Buddhism that there is.

He was one of the most well known Buddhist teachers in the world. He was born in Vietnam and he became a monk as a teenager, in the 1940s.

In 1966, he became a Zen Master.

He traveled the world as a peace activist throughout the 1960s, and in 1967, his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize saying, “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.” He wasn’t given the award—it wasn’t given to anyone that year.

He was denied permission to return to his home country in the 1970s, so he moved to France.

He founded an organization called “The Order of Interbeing,” and spent his life spreading Buddhist teachings and advocating for a peaceful world.

There’s a story that gets told about the death of the Buddha. It’s said that his cousin Ananda was at his side and had time to ask two final questions.

Ananda asked, “Do we have to follow all the rules that you set out?”
And the Buddha replied, “Just follow the important ones. Don’t worry much about the minor ones.”

(Ananda forgot to ask which rules were the minor ones)

Then Ananda asked, “Who is going to lead us when you’re gone?”

And the Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”

It was up to his followers to figure out how to go on. And when our teachers pass it’s up to us to figure out how to go on too. We can get through losses like this. And we will go on.

I think he was aware of just how much people put him on a pedestal. He was almost worshiped. The fact that there even are celebrity Buddhist teachers is a strange thing. Sometimes it feels like a bit much and I wonder if it felt like a bit much to him.

He wrote over 100 books and he taught many many students. There is little doubt that he had a large impact on modern Buddhism.

Thich Nhat Hanh stated that the way forward is to strengthen our bonds of community. We need each other just as much as we need teachers, maybe more. I believe he would like that to be part of his legacy, although of course I don’t claim to speak for him.

Teachers arise and pass away. It’s up to communities to (hopefully) carry on.

Don’t be sad he’s gone. Be happy he was here. We’re all better off because this great teacher existed.

Suhita Dharma, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Karuna Dharma.
All three deceased now. Suhita Dharma was one of the teachers of Wonji Dharma (who was one of my teachers) who passed recently as well.

On The Passing of Teachers

Zen Master Wonji Dharma (left), Lama Chuck Stanford (right)

In the last few months of 2021 two of my Buddhist teachers died. They were both over the age of 60, but they certainly could have had a few more decades in this world. Their deaths have affected me more than I imagined they would. I am mourning their passing. It was a shock that their deaths were so close in time.

Lama Chuck Stanford taught me in the Tibetan Rime tradition.

Venerable Wonji Dharma taught me in the Korean Zen tradition.

The Rime Center Buddhist Community is left to figure out how to go on without Chuck Stanford in this world.

The Five Mountain Zen Order is left to figure out how to go on without Wonji Dharma in this world.

And they will go on. Both these teachers had already retired and trusted their legacies to others. Buddhism outlives teachers, even great ones that touch a lot of lives. We have to go on. I’m hopeful that seeing the ends of these lives that were so dedicated to spreading the Dharma can help us motivate ourselves. We can’t waste our lives. Our spiritual journey is important and needs to be something we focus on.

There’s a story that gets told about the death of the Buddha. It’s said that his cousin Ananda was at his side and had time to ask two final questions.

Ananda asked, “Do we have to follow all the rules that you set out?”
And the Buddha replied, “Just follow the important ones. Don’t worry much about the minor ones.”

(Ananda forgot to ask which rules were the minor ones)

Then Ananda asked, “Who is going to lead us when you’re gone?”

And the Buddha said, “Be lamps unto yourselves.”

It was up to his followers to figure out how to go on. And when our teachers pass it’s up to us to figure out how to go on too. We can get through losses like this. And we will go on.

As Aaron Burr says in ‘Hamilton’, ”Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes.”

Since the passing of these great teachers I’ve started doing a daily recitation practice along with my meditation each morning. (I used to do a much shorter recitation)

Both of these teachers manifested great compassion, so a compassion prayer seems appropriate. If you feel so inclined, you can do this daily practice as well.

I used to really see myself as a secular Buddhist, so prayers like this felt off limits and unapproachable to me. That has all changed in the last couple of years. I’ve grown more and more comfortable with Buddhist devotional practices after going through the isolation of the pandemic and the passing of these teachers.

I’ve been focusing more and more on practices to open my heart and I’ve been studying more diverse teachings and practices.

Loss is tragic, but it can also inspire us.

How can I serve others? How can I help you?

These are big important questions.

Buddhism teaches us that loss is the nature of things. Many of us know that very deeply.

Loss is still hard. It’s up to us to figure out how to go on and to try to carry on the legacies of our teachers. They can still motivate and inspire us.

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Concern For This Life

Separated from each and every long-awaited companion,

Leaving behind hard-earned wealth and possessions,

Guest-like consciousness abandons its guesthouse, the body;

To give up concern for this life is the practice of the bodhisattvas.”

  • the 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva. Verse 4.*

No matter what it is, no matter how much you want it, no matter how long you have it…you can’t take it with you.

There’s a Hebrew proverb that I like that says “There are no pockets in burial shrouds.” That’s the same message. You can’t take it with you.

We know that, of course. We learned this long ago. The breaking down of things has been a part of all of our lives from the beginning. Death is part of that too. We grow up exposed to it. We see it again and again. But it’s still a challenge for us. We carry around with us a sort of deluded thinking. We cling to things as though they are permanent.

Impermanence is a concept in Buddhism. It’s just this obvious and clear idea that all things arise and pass away. This applies to things you own, like your car. It applies to your loved ones. It applies to little things like the negative feelings you have when you have a bad day, or the negative thoughts that flow into your mind that you just feel like you’ll never shake. It applies to really old things like trees and mountains.

And it applies to you. The older we get, of course the more obvious it is.

What’s the point? Why should we reflect on this? It’s depressing.

Atisha said, “Be without attachment toward anything.”

This is the point.

I don’t want to say we shouldn’t love other people or things because they will pass away. I can imagine some people would suggest that but not me. I believe these teachings can be part of our ordinary lives as people with jobs and families.

What then?

What I want to learn to let go of is that obsession with accumulating things. We can get obsessed. We can get stressed out about not getting the things we want. We can be unhappy when someone else has something we want.

And when that happens we can remind ourselves, this too will pass. The bad news is all the good things in our life will disappear. The good news is all the bad things will too.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — –

  • all quotations are from “Illuminating the Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva by Chokyi Dragpa

The Things We Carry

I think we’re all carrying weight based on our life experiences.

I carry some weight around the subject of death.

Back when I was in college in my early 20s it was unusual that my parents aren’t around. Now I’m in my 40s and it’s much less unusual. Lots of people my age don’t have parents anymore. Some people say college was the best part of their lives. I was grieving the whole time. It wasn’t the best part of my life. Now is.

My father died at the age of 56 and my mother died at the age of 58. I was born when they were in their 40s, so they’ve been gone since I was a teenager. Sometimes I call myself an orphan and that’s not really accurate because I was 19 when I was on my own. Technically I was an adult, but if you’ve ever met a 19 year old you probably know we should be saying “adult”.

And, at that time, I knew it was a tragedy when dad got cancer and died and three years later mom got cancer and died. Of course it was a tragedy. They left behind me. But I didn’t realize the simple fact that they were so young. My parents had gray hair and were older than any of the other parents that were around with kids my age, so I didn’t have that awareness that 56 and 58 are YOUNG.

In total honesty, I didn’t get a vasectomy because I was certain I didn’t want any more kids. I got a vasectomy because I knew I really didn’t want to have any in my 40s…just in case.

Now, what I want to say is: these cancers were not the scary hereditary kinds. At least that’s what my doctor tells me. So at least there’s that. And my rational mind is fully aware of that. But, you know what?

There’s that other part of my mind that isn’t rational. So the baggage of “i could get sick and die” is still with me and probably always will be. I don’t need to carry that baggage, I don’t need to think about that.

But at the same time, does it help me appreciate life? Maybe. It definitely helps me appreciate time with my kids. And it helps me want to create value in this world. I want to do good things because tomorrow is not promised. Life is impermanent and the truth is we should all remember that.

Anyone can die at any time. So don’t waste your life. Love more, share more, be kinder. And bring all your energy and focus to the things that matter.

Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.

The Happiest Season

I was watching a wonderful movie called “The Happiest Season” with my wife on Thanksgiving. It’s a romantic comedy/drama that you can find on Hulu. In it Kristen Stewart plays an orphan. Her parents passed when she was 19. As a result she doesn’t really like holidays.

That sounds sillier than it is.

Her girlfriend convinces her to go meet her family for Christmas. But her girlfriend has not come out to her parents. Lots of crazy things happen.

Equal parts hilarity and heart. Five stars.


There’s a scene where the family is meeting her for the first time and they have this attitude of “I’m so sorry about your parents.” They pat her on the shoulder and they have incredible concern for her.

And she’s just like “Um…it was a long time ago…”


It’s sort of played for uncomfortable comedy. The family is a little over the top with their sympathy, saying things like, “You’re so brave. And you don’t need to be.”

I’m telling you all this for a reason.

I didn’t really know how to explain it until I saw it in the context of this movie. That’s exactly what it’s like.

I lost my parents when I was 19 too. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a clear presentation of what it’s like. I started thinking holidays were stupid after my parents died. I became a negative person. I’ve definitely made more than my share of mistakes.

And the sympathy is exactly what it was like for many years too. Now that I’m 40, a lot more people my age have lost their parents. It’s not nearly as unusual as it was. But through my 20s and even into my 30s I received plenty of “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

It wasn’t easy. I carried the weight of that loss for a long time. I guess I still do. For years I was just miserable. And I also I wasn’t really capable of letting people get close to me. I didn’t know how to show up for relationships like I needed to. I was just sort of broken and numb.

I still carry some baggage. I have real attachment issues and fears of abandonment. That’s gotten better but it will probably never totally go away.

The truth is we’re all carrying emotional baggage from childhood. We like to think we outgrow that stuff, but I don’t think we do. Whether your parents were mean, or didn’t show the kind of love you needed, or passed away too soon like mine…that’s manifesting in our relationships. It can take a lifetime to figure out how to put that baggage down.

I’m still working on it. Are you?

Interview with Sergio Moreno (podcast)

Sergio Moreno is a Buddhist and a Chaplain in Kansas City. We talked about his career in spiritual wellness and his life as a Buddhist influence each other. We also talked about Right Livelihood and being present for people that really need it. It was a great interview and I’m thankful he was generous with his time. This was recorded on 10/20/19.

Click below to listen:

Sergio Moreno: Buddhist Chaplain

 

 

 


Want to come meditate with me? I’m at HDKC Monday nights at 7pm. Meditation Practice, Support, and Encouragement. 4327 Troost, Kansas City, MO.

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If you’d like to support my work, please consider making a donation.

And go check out my Podcast Scharpening the Mind

The Passing of Michael Stone

Michael Stone was a pretty famous Buddhist teacher from Canada.
I’m not going to lie to you and say I was a fan, as people often do when celebrities die. I had heard his name, but I didn’t really know anything about him, to be quite honest. I know that he taught Buddhism and Yoga.
He was a non-traditional Buddhist teacher. He studied with Zen and Insight meditation teachers. He believed Buddhism didn’t have to be held back by tradition. He famously said on his website “I don’t wear robes.”
From his website:
“And I believe in depth without dogma. I’m interested in an ethics-based spirituality that is sophisticated and accessible for contemporary, urban people. The majority of people who study with me don’t consider themselves to be spiritual. They have likely read about meditative practices, but have never studied with a teacher. The thing they have in common is the desire to actively respond to personal, environmental, and economic challenges. They’re also interested in learning how to work with their minds rather than adopting a new belief system.”
He was passionate about taking Buddhism out into the world. He believed in engagement, and actively trying to make the world a better place. He was a true Bodhisattva.
It was shocking when he went into a coma. It was shocking when he died. It was shocking when his family announced that he had bipolar disorder and that he had opioids in his system.
He was 42 years old and he left behind a family.
His story speaks to me for a couple of reasons. I’m a father, just like him, and I’m 37—only a few years younger than he was when he died. And, of course I think of myself as a non-traditional Buddhist teacher too, but I’m not nearly at his level.
And the nature of his death is important too.
After he passed his family released a statement that he had bipolar disorder and that he had opioids in his system at the time of his death. These are two things we don’t talk about as a society, very much.
The first is mental illness. People are afraid to talk about it. In some circles people still think of mental illness as a weakness, or something to get over. But, a lot of us have mental illnesses. They are everywhere and they are real, and having a mental illness certainly doesn’t make you weak. We can see very successful people who struggle with mental illness, just like Michael Stone did. Like so many others.
There’s a huge tendency to think that Buddhist teachers are better than us (especially really talented teachers like Michael Stone) or that they’re somehow beyond the problems that all human beings have. But they aren’t.
We’re all human and we all have these frailties.
And then there are the opioids. I don’t know if he was an addict or not. I think that word gets thrown around too often sometimes. But I do know that opioids are increasingly a problem and we aren’t talking about it much. What they found in his system was a drug called fentanyl, which is said to be 50 times more potent than morphine. That sentence blows my mind: 50 times more potent than morphine.
According to Canadian news sources, fentanyl overdoses are on the rise, and it’s on the rise here in America too. It’s something going on all over the place and we just aren’t talking about it much (or maybe not talking about it enough).
I don’t know if he was a drug addict or not, but I know that there’s a stigma around drug addiction and that’s something that we, as a society, have to figure out how to deal with. People are afraid to get help because they’re afraid of being judged or criticized.
We need to move beyond the belief that mental illnesses and drug addictions are weaknesses, or that the people having these experiences are losers. Michael Stone is not who you imagine when you think of someone dying from opioids—not by a long shot. He was a very successful spiritual teacher and the world is a worse place without him.
It just shows that this can happen to anyone, even those we least expect.
 
if you want to help Michael Stone’s family, you can donate here. It’s a good cause.
https://www.gofundme.com/carina-stone-family-fund

Lojong Point One: Train In The Preliminaries

POINT ONE: Train in the Preliminaries

1)Resolve to Begin

This involves everything that has led us to the path of the Bodhisattva. It’s hard to view our past as part of the path, especially when our past may have been particularly difficult. But the truth is everything that’s happened to us before now has led us to this training. In training in the preliminaries we take a good hard look at ourselves and the things that have led us to who we are and what we are doing. When we look at our lives honestly we can see all sorts of things we may not have noticed. We have to see that the path we have been on isn’t serving us or others as well as it could and we have to strive to be on a better path.

Cultivating a regular meditation practice is another way we train in the preliminaries. It’s very important to have time on the cushion and we have to always keep that in mind. Meditation is foundational and it’s importance can’t be overestimated. Meditate regularly.

It’s said that we should keep four things in mind, which are called The Four Reminders. We need to reflect on these reminders over and over. They are taken as our inspiration on the path.

These are:

  1. The preciousness and rarity of human life, being born in a time and place where we are lucky enough to study the dharma. There have been plenty of times and places throughout history (and there still are some today) where the dharma was not available at all. Today we not only have access to the dharma but also to a great wealth of teachings.
  2. The reality of death, that life is temporary and can end at any moment. Every day we are getting older and drawing closer to our end. This means we should put a great focus on what’s important to us.
  3. The power of karma, the way whatever we do puts us further in the chain of cause and effect. Everything we do has far reaching consequences.
  4. The inevitability of suffering for ourselves and  all other beings. Everyone suffers, just like we do. We need to keep that in mind when we’re dealing with others. we’re all struggling.

 

This slogan sets the tone for the whole thing. It establishes the difference between the realm of suffering, which is pain, neurosis, and egotism, and the other shore, which is openness, gentleness, and freedom. This is where we set our intention to recognize the importance of the spiritual path.

My Friend Krishna

Krishna was a nice old Indian man. He was always in a good mood and very pleasant to be around. He was very nice.

He sat next to me at work for two years and he talked to me every single day.

I think a lot of the time we don’t really think of the people we work with as having a big part in our lives.

I’m not sure it’s right to call us close or even friends, really. But he passed away and I am feeling the loss. Now that desk to my left at work is empty.

I remember the first time we talked. Two years ago he asked me if I was a Buddhist. Everyone knows that I am. I’m as “out of the meditation closet” as you can be. I have Buddhist tattoos. Everyone knows I’m a Buddhist and that it’s a big part of my life.

I told him that I am a Buddhist. He asked if I have a temple that I go to and I told him about the Rime Center.  He told me that he attends the Hindu temple in Shawnee, which I had actually visited that same year.

He told me he was  Hindu. He had been raised in Hinduism and he was really interested in talking about spirituality with me. He didn’t know much about Buddhism, but he really like discussing where our beliefs intersected.

There was one other thing.

He asked me about the Dalai Lama’s health. Really he asked if the Dalai Lama’s health was a big concern, something people were worried about.

I said, “Well, I know he’s been having health problems for years now. I don’t know if he will die soon, but he is in his late 70s…so, you know…” (the Dalai Lama is 81 at the time of this writing. )

Krishna just laughed and said, “I’m in my late 70s. What do you mean?”

So, that was embarrassing. But, luckily he was such a positive thinking person that he didn’t get offended at all.

I was clueless. I have trouble realizing how old people are sometimes.

It was a rude thing to say anyway, but I believe in being completely open and honest here. I hope the Dalai Lama lives for many more years.

Anyway, I sat by Krishna for 2 years. We talked about spirituality a lot.

Some of you reading this may not be aware that Hinduism and Buddhism have the same roots and they have a lot of similarities. He thought talking to me was interesting.

Earlier this year he asked me to tell him how to meditate. This was surreal. He had been raised as a Hindu. He had been practicing Hinduism for much longer than I had even been alive. And Hinduism is a meditative religion, just like Buddhism is.

There something we don’t always realize here in the west. There are plenty of people who were raised in Hinduism and Buddhism that don’t meditate, that don’t even know how.

That sounds weird, until we think about how many people raised in Christianity don’t pray or study the Bible. Plenty of them, right?

Anyway, I taught him how to practice breathing meditation. I guess at the temple he went to there was a lot of chanting and bowing, but not all that much meditation instruction.

Last week he told me he wanted to learn more about Buddhism. He asked me to bring a book in, something he could read and get through pretty fast, something simple. A lot of people ask me to recommend books. This is not a big deal.

I did bring in a book for him. I brought it in last week. But I never had the opportunity to give it to him. He never came to work again. And he passed away over the weekend.

He lived a full life and he died surrounded by his loved ones. His death was not a big surprise. He had been struggling with his health for a while.

It occurred to me that if my own father hadn’t passed away 21 years ago, he’d be the same age as Krishna.

Krishna was a wonderful man and my heart is with his family today.