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    The Calligrapher’s Apprentice Paid Member

    My ordination master, Songnian, was renowned for his calligraphy and considered a National Living Treasure in Singapore.   We Chinese say the way you write tells a lot about who you are. Of Songnian, the man who shaved my head, they used to say, “His writing is without fire.” As a young novice I wondered at the cool, flowing quality of his characters; Songnian relentlessly pelted me with fiery insults and rebukes. I had to assume that his art was a window into a facet of his personality that I never saw.   Songnian had come from an aristocratic Chinese family and had been forced to flee the mainland when the Communists seized power in 1949. More »
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    In the End Paid Member

    This article is the third in a four-part series on what in Buddhism is called the “four sights” or “divine messengers.” Some traditional biographies describe these sights—an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic—as what compel the Buddha-to-be to lead a spiritual life. The first part, “Taken Away and Given: Encounters in Old Age,” can be found in the Fall 2015 issue; the second, “The Body as Battleground: Encounters with Sickness,” can be found in the Winter 2015 issue. More »
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    Buddhism’s Higher Power Paid Member

    The most revered place in Sri Lanka is a temple believed to hold one of the Buddha’s left canine teeth, said to have been rescued from the Buddha’s funeral pyre by one of his close female disciples and smuggled into the country eight centuries later in the long, dark hair of a princess. During my first trip to Sri Lanka, I visited the Temple of the Tooth (Sri Dalada Maligawa) just as chanting began at dusk, blasting through loudspeakers throughout the city. On the lawn outside the temple, people of all ages perambulated stupas, made water offerings, and did prostrations. Using my backpack as a cushion, I sat down cross-legged next to a tree blooming with tiny yellow flowers, intending to meditate. A local couple strolling past paused and introduced themselves, apparently intrigued by the devout tourist. More »
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    Does Mindfulness Belong in Public Schools? Paid Member

    Unless you’ve been in silent retreat for the past several years, you know that the “mindfulness revolution” sweeping the country is now playing out in the public sphere. The schools are no exception, and not everyone is happy about it: Is mindfulness an educational tool, teaching skills that make kids more attentive and emotionally balanced? Or is it a religious practice—Buddhism in secular clothing—violating the Constitution’s separation of church and state? Is it a universally beneficial practice, or are its proponents introducing a cultural bias when they bring the practice to underserved schools? Weighing in are Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, and Dr. More »
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    Eddies in the Roaring Stream Paid Member

    This past spring I fell into the lovely habit of sitting on my fire escape at dawn with a pot of black coffee and The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader, an anthology published in 1996, edited by Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker. Each chapter in the book introduces a famous master from China or Japan and provides excerpts from his most significant writings and lectures. I began jotting down poems in response to the lines, images, and metaphors that I encountered—one poem per chapter, one chapter per morning. It was an enjoyable, aimless exercise, and it was exciting to see what my own mind did when allowed to build upon the wisdom of the ancients, using scraps of their language as a foundation. (Of course, I am neither ancient nor wise, only caffeinated.)   As the spring progressed and I worked my way deeper into the history of Zen, I settled on the idea of making a poem for each of the 46 profiled masters. More »
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    We Are Not One Paid Member

    Twenty-five years ago, one of my teachers, Ajaan Suwat, led a meditation retreat in Massachusetts for which I served as translator. During a group interview session one afternoon, a retreatant new to Buddhism quipped, “You guys would have a good religion here if only you had a God. That way people would have some sense of support in their practice when things aren’t going well.”   Ajaan Suwat’s gentle reply has stayed with me ever since: “If there were a god who could arrange that by my taking a mouthful of food all the beings in the world would become full, I’d bow down to that god. But I haven’t found anyone like that yet.”   There are two main reasons these words have continued to resonate with me. More »