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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Bodhidharma’s 2 Entries

Bodhidharma said there are two ways to enter the path.

Entry through conduct and entry through principle.

He outlined this in a teaching called the Two Entries and the Four Practices. In this teaching he outlines in a clear way what we must do to attain enlightenment.

Entry through conduct is associated with practices that need to be done. This applies to those aspects of our training that require effort, our spiritual cultivation.

Entry through principle is considered the essence of the Zen path. It applies to directly seeing our true nature, which is beyond words, descriptions and forms.

In the practice of the Dharma, both of these things need to be used. Entry through principle represents the cultivation of insight through meditation. Entry through conduct represents the cultivation of discipline.

Entry through conduct is the path of the Dharma as it’s explained in the sutras and commentaries. It is an approach that involves modifying behavior and spiritual cultivation, in which concentration is expanded through meditative practices. It also involves efforts at countering the three poisons: hatred, greed, and delusion.

Entry through conduct is practiced through four methods:

1) The practice of repaying wrongs.

2) The practice of adjusting to circumstance.

3) The practice of non-seeking or asking for anything.

4) The practice of upholding the Dharma.

Repaying wrongs represents understanding that our actions have consequences and trying to mitigate negative consequences that we have caused. This has been described as karma. Our karma has to be understood and improved.

Adjusting to circumstance means doing our best within our environment. Accepting our conditions instead of becoming attached to them is important. Attachment to our circumstances can be either positive or negative. We can enjoy our circumstances too much and be too excited by them. We can also hate our circumstances too much and view life in a very negative way. These are two sides of attachment.

Non-seeking means acting without attachment to personal gain either now or in the future. The self is a delusion, a label we put on our interaction with our environment. If we act in a way that is attached to receiving praise or blame, this is not helpful. In a way, this could be said to be an advanced practice.

Many people come to Buddhism with hope for a gain, for some kind of benefit from practice. But, eventually when one practices, self-centeredness does start to fall way. When we are concerned about our Enlightenment, it can be a barrier to our Enlightenment. Wanting to achieve some attainment can stop us from perceiving the Empty Mind Ground.

The Practice of Upholding the Dharma represents our attempt to perceive the emptiness and impermanence. Our practice allows us to reach the point of Entry through principle. Different branches of Buddhism have different methods of engaging this practice. In Zen the method involves meditation but also interaction with a Zen teacher.

Altering our behavior in this way is supposed to calm our minds and bring us to a point at which we can perceive the Empty Mind Ground.

Entry through principle is a different method that Bodhidharma taught. It represents an insight into our true nature. It is a method for touching the Empty Mind Ground right now and it is difficult for us to understand on an intellectual level.

Bodhidharma said:

When conveying the tradition of enlightenment, it is understood that all beings—whether enlightened or unenlightened—share exactly the same true nature. However, the Buddha-nature is obscured by a layer of dust which prevents the ‘real’ from manifesting. Give-up delusion and return to the real by concentrating (and stilling) the mind so that it is broad, and all inclusive. Then there is no self or other, and there is no difference between a sage and an ordinary person. Firm and unmoving, there is no falling into the written teachings. This deep realization is in accord with the principle. There is no discrimination, and all is silent and non-active.

This is the most important principle of Zen, as it was taught by Bodhidharma. The enlightened state is our true nature. We have delusions that are preventing us from realizing that, but if we can get past those, then we can enter the Empty Mind Ground. This means leaving behind our delusions and our discrimination between self and other.

Bodhidharma’s message is the message of many of the Mahayana sutras, that nirvana and samsara, enlightenment and worldliness, are really one and the same. This is, in a way, a rebellion against the Theravada ideal that preceded it.

Theravada Buddhism promoted the notion that nirvana is something we are trying to attain, some special dimension of reality that we are trying to reach.

Bodhidharma’s teaching challenges Theravada Buddhism, because it takes away the idea that Enlightenment is only available to an elite few accomplished monks, and declares that it’s available to everyone, in this very moment.

As samsara and nirvana share the same essence, there is no difference. As the entry through insight and the entry through conduct share the same essence, there is no difference between them either.

Enlightenment is available to all of us, right this moment.

These two entries are the foundation of the Zen School in China.


Zen Master Huang Po

Huang Po was a Zen Master in China in the 800s.

He taught that mind cannot be sought by the mind. One of his most important sayings was “mind is the Buddha.” He said:

“All the Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and other beings.”

He also said:

“To awaken suddenly to the fact that your own Mind is the Buddha, that there is nothing to be attained or a single action to be performed—this is the Supreme Way.“

He also firmly rejected all dualism, especially between the “ordinary” and “enlightened” states:

”If you would only rid yourselves of the concepts of ordinary and Enlightened, you would find that there is no other Buddha than the Buddha in your own Mind. The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking. If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as ‘ordinary’ and ‘Enlightened,’ illusion will cease of itself.“

Since all is Buddha-mind, all actions reflect the Buddha, are actions of a Buddha. Huang Po’s teaching on this reflected the Indian concept of the tathatagarbha, the idea that within all beings is the nature of the Buddha. Therefore, Huang Po taught that seeking the Buddha was futile as the Buddha is within us already:

“If you know positively that all sentient beings already one with Bodhi (enlightenment), you will cease thinking of Bodhi as something to be attained”

Huang Po was adamant that any form of “seeking” was not only useless, but obstructed clarity:

“Sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood. By their very seeking they lose it”.

Furthermore, he claimed that

‘Studying the Way’ is just a figure of speech […] In fact, the Way is not something which can be studied. You must not allow this name to lead you into forming a mental concept of a road.“

What Huang Po knew was that students of Zen often became attached to “seeking” enlightenment and he constantly warned against this (and all attachment) as an obstruction to enlightenment

“If you students of the Way wish to become Buddhas, you need study no doctrines whatever, but learn only how to avoid seeking for and attaching yourselves to anything.“

Huang Po often railed against traditional Buddhist textual practices, pointing to the necessity of direct experience over sutra study. If the truth is within us already, why would we need to study sutras?


The Samurai Who Became A Monk

The Fierce Zen of Suzuki Shosan.

The Samurai who became a monk.

“To learn to be always in a state of meditation means never to let your vital energy wane. You would never allow it to do so if it were certain that you were to die tomorrow.” ~ Suzuki Shosan

In Japan in the 1600s, a well known samurai retired at the age of 40 because he wanted to learn Zen.

He served under Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu and it wasn’t until right after a decisive victory that he asked to be released from his samurai duties.

The Shogun allowed it.

He decided to live the life of a wandering monk. He traveled around Japan studying under different Zen masters. He spent a lot of time studying Zen history and he was really inspired by the stories about a certain iconoclastic Zen teacher from a couple centuries earlier named Ikkyu.

Although he spent a great deal of time studying with a teacher named Daigu Sochiko, he never received Dharma Transmission.

Suzuki Shosan declared himself Enlightened. And he didn’t even change his name to a Buddhist name.

Now, this might sounds scandalous: self-declared Enlightenment? Surely that couldn’t happen then or now!

Well, it did. It actually wasn’t all that rare at that time. Here in the West we sometimes think of Dharma Transmission as something really special. And it is, or it’s supposed to be.

But during Suzuki Shosan’s time the Zen community was very political. There was a thing going on that is sometimes called “Temple Transmission.”

That’s when someone is given Dharma Transmission, declared an Enlightened Master, for political or expedient reasons. It was one of the things that Shosan’s hero Ikkyu had condemned in the Zen establishment.

Example: Zen Master X needs someone to head a certain temple because the previous head of the temple has died or left. Zen Master X wants the head of the temple to have Dharma Transmission. So, he gives a student Dharma Transmission. Zen Master X didn’t wait until a student was Enlightened, he waited until he needed a student with Dharma Transmission around.

Not only that, but some temples were known to give Dharma Transmission for money, the same way diploma mills sell PhD s today. We don’t like to admit it, but this kind of thing happened. And it still happens.

The Dharma Transmission system is great. It has served us very well. But it’s not perfect. Because nothing that involves human beings can be perfect.

Not only that, but most Zen temples were, to a greater or lesser degree, connected to the Japanese government, which could be good sometimes and bad at other times.

Sometimes it seems like Zen history has two tracks.

Temple Zen is full of monks that live in monasteries and chant and meditate and memorize sutras all day.

Renegade Zen is full of people that challenged the establishment, that thought of things in new ways, that weren’t afraid to innovate.

The renegades: Dogen, Rinzai, Ikkyu, Huineng…these are the ones that we remember. There is an iconoclastic current at work here.

Anyway, Suzuki Shosan declared his own Enlightenment because he didn’t want to deal with politics.

At this time in Japan this happened sometimes. He was not unique. Although he didn’t bother with the temple system for certifying his Enlightenment, he also didn’t go around criticizing the temple system. I think that’s an important point.

Anyway, even though he wasn’t a “good” Zen Master, I still think his teaching can be useful to us.

He taught something that he called Nio Zen.

The Nio are those scary looking figures that stand outside of some Zen temples in Japan.


They are supposed to be these demon guardians that protect the Dharma.

Shosan told his students to visualize the Nio in meditation, to help them channel energy and vitality. He believed that the fierceness of the Nio could help us conquer the three poisons.

He also told his students to be ready for death at any moment, as a way to strengthen present moment awareness. This, it is thought, was inspired by his career as a samurai.

But this is why I really like him:

There was a pretty popular view in Shosan’s time that to attain Enlightenment, one had to separate from the world. If not actually become a monk, at least spend a lot of time alone. Shosan didn’t believe that. He thought that the message of Enlightenment could and should be brought to everyone at all levels of society. If Buddha nature is our true nature, then anyone should be able to attain Enlightenment, from the most high level monk down to the lowly criminal. Although he lived the life of a monk, he specifically told people that they didn’t need to, that Enlightenment was already available right here in this moment.

Suzuki Shosan built 32 Zen temples, which is in itself and incredible achievement.

He was 76 years old when he died.

He left behind a book of teachings called “Parting the Grasses at the Foot of the Mountain.”

He wasn’t a ‘good’ Zen Master, but I like him. He was more worthy of the title than many people who receive it in the official way.


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