Enlightening Activity class 1


Enlightening Activity” or the Bodhisattva in the Middle of It / Session 1

Vairochana Buddha, pure dharmakaya,
Lochana Buddha, complete sambokakaya,
Shakyamuni Buddha, myriad nirmanakaya,
Manjushri bodhisattva, great wisdom,
Samantabhadra bodhisattva, great activity,
Avalokiteshvara bodhisattva, great compassion,
wisdom beyond wisdom heart sutra.

Good morning, how are you? Thank you for coming to this class. I am very happy to be back from my travels and to catch up with all of you. Between my contract in Santa Cruz and the stay at Tassajara Mountain Zen Monastery, two years have passed. I thank you all for the thoughts, the letters, the kindness, and the welcome back. It means a lot to me.

Please allow me to say some things up front. First, I want to thank Tim for inviting me to be shuso and thereby to teach this class. I also want to thank my teacher Norman Fischer for his support and all the teachers who have contributed to the way.

While at Tassajara, abbess Kiku Christina Lehnherr, often prefaced dharma talks and classes with the statement that we should consider this teaching as tentative. Please consider this statement during my classes. Dogen said in the Genjokoan 800 years ago “as far as the eye of practice may see.” This is my eye of practice today. if I mislead you the fault and the misunderstandings are all mine. If I can say something of value I thank my teachers and the ancestors transmit this teaching through me.

Last June, during dokusan, I asked Norman about Samantabhadra bodhisattva. Norman asked me to investigate the question on my own. My search was way more interesting than I would have imagined. During this journey I encountered the following:

  • We are absolutely alone and we are radically interconnected.
  • Bodhisattvas as archetypes
  • Coupling meditation and action. 
  • Action coming from the same place as zazen. 
  • The hurdle of what I think, others expect versus authentic action.
  • The trap of looking good and doing the right thing.
  • Being unreasonable more often :-)

The subject of enlightening activity must have interested you too, otherwise you probably would not be here. It would be great if we could go around the room – I would like to find out two things: If you could share your expectations for this class, and two an example of enlightened or enlightening activity. During these classes I will use enlightening and enlightened activity interchangeably.


(Take up to 30 minutes / write down what comes up as enlightening activity)


For this class series I used several books and talks as resources. I hopefully integrated the materials in a way that hopefully makes sense. If the presentation becomes unclear or confusing during the classes, please let me know right away. At the end of each session, I would like us to take some time for Q&A and comments. So, if you have general questions or comments, it would be great if we could handle those at the end of the class. I encourage you to have pen and paper handy to note questions.

Let us think for a moment how we usually engage in a new project, especially when it is near and dear to our heart, when we try to fix something, when we are out to save the world. I am speaking for myself here: I need to pay great attention at this point because I have noticed a habitual pattern. This is Chris on auto-pilot, this is how my conditioning shows up, In Landmark they would say this is my strong suit. Sometime early on in my life this method must have worked and given me a desired result. This is my default pattern:

  1. I have a sense of urgency.
  2. I fixate on one specific outcome.
  3. My focus narrows.
  4. I work harder.
  5. When the project does not move in the direction I desire, I go back to step one. I have a greater sense of urgency, I strive harder to achieve my goal, my focus narrows more to what I perceive as problems, and I work even harder.

However, I have become more and more aware of my automatic response. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the response itself, the issue is the autopilot part. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Then, a couple of years ago I happened across another way of looking at this issue which blew me away. This is from the book “Trying to be Human” by Cherie Huber:

“… the desire to deal with a problem does not have to be connected to feeling upset about it. That is an important awareness in spiritual practice.

Let’s imagine a world in which a group of people who decide they are going to “save the world” – not because we should, not even because there is anything wrong with the world, but simply because we want to….

Now in taking this on as our project, there are a couple of rules we will adopt: one, we cannot blame anybody else, and two, we cannot involve anybody else. In other words we have to take complete responsibility.”

This is pretty radical, isn’t it? No upset, not fixing something because it is wrong, no blaming. This aware approach is definitely a shock to the normal way the world goes about things. But wait, there is more:

“… we are engaged in this project only because we want to be, not because we are angry and not because there is something wrong that we can correct. If we are angry about something, we can work around the clock, sending telegrams, making phone calls, organizing rallies, all that kind of thing. But if we are not upset, the momentum has to come from another source. It has to come from willingness…. We are no longer in that out-of-control state where activity just happens, we have to draw upon a deeper place within ourselves.”

This way of engaging with the world requests something radical, it requires transformation. WHAT IS TRANSFORMATION?

It speaks of action from willingness and abundance, not lack, anger or blame. Cherie Huber continues:

It does not seem to me that we are here to fix the world. It is only an assumption that another world is possible; we have no experience of it ever being any different from the way it is.”

This was my first hint of bodhisattva activity: transformed activity equaling transforming activity. How do we get there, to this place where our activity is intentional and not driven by outcome or destination? Where effort is sincere and not manipulated by ego, our need to right, to win, to look good? Where I dedicated to undertake my quest and the quest is the journey? Where not reaching the outcome does not mean failure?

I sat a lot with these questions. One possible answer to these questions was to find a greater platform and a different perspective or motivation. Well, the platform I landed on was occupied by the bodhisattva ideal. I became more curious about the bodhisattva archetypes. Who or what is a bodhisattva? The word bodhisattva comes from the Sanskrit. The word Bodhi means “awakening” or “enlightenment.” Sattva meaning “sentient being.” The roots of sattva also include “intention to awaken,” “courage,” and “heroism.”

The bodhisattva ideal which is summarized in the great vow of bodhisattvas:


Beings are numberless, I vow to save them,
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them,
Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them,
Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.”

Taigen Dan Leighton in his book “Faces of Compassion” translates bodhisattva as “enlightening being.” They may be mythical or based on actual historical persons. Unlike the gods and goddesses of Greece or Rome, they mostly do not have a great body of mythological tales. There is one factor they have in common: they are archetypes. Each bodhisattva represents enlightened and enlightening beings in general and one or several aspects in particular. Each one has strengths and symbolizes a certain model for awakening. Around this aspect or theme, lore has accumulated. As practitioners we may find that we are drawn to or resonate with a certain bodhisattva.

Manjushri bodhisattva great wisdom
Samantabhadra great activity
Avalokiteshvara great compassion

So, how can I call on a bodhisattva? How does this work? How can a mythical being help us? I am again speaking for my personal practice. I do call on bodhisattvas. However, I have the choice – I can look for this bodhisattva outside myself or internally. Let us look at Manjushri. He represents wisdom and insight; he teaches the fundamental emptiness or true nature of all things. I can call on Manjushri who uses his sword to cut two into one. By calling on the bodhisattva I bring forth Manjushri by reminding myself of emptiness and insight, Manjushri who is part of me, the part that can rest in emptiness. By bringing up the image I am choosing to strengthen that aspect. By their existence as symbols the archetypes can help.

Avalokiteshvara, also known as Kwan Yin in China, or Kannon in Japan is one of the most beloved bodhisattvas. Avalokiteshvara symbolizes and crystallizes ultimate compassion; she reflects the pattern and potential of compassion without limits. And by calling on Avalokiteshvara I can bring forth, strengthen, and understand this aspect of myself. In my personal practice, I call on a bodhisattva, not to seek this bodhisattva outside myself, not seeking an external appearance. By calling on Manjushri or Avalokiteshvara I wish to bring forth the aspect that exists inside of me, the aspect which is part of me, the aspect dedicated to compassion, or wisdom, or renunciation.

The next bodhisattva, Samantabhadra, is hard to encounter directly, often hidden, he represents enlightened/enlightening activity. He is the bodhisattva of enlightening activity in this world. Manjushri’s wisdom and Avalokiteshvara’s compassion express themselves in Samantabhadra’s activity. His name means “Universal Virtue” or “Universally Good.” Samantabhadra appears in the Lotus Sutra and the Flower Ornament Scripture. He represents the vision of interconnectedness of all beings. He is not a naïve do-gooder throwing himself into being busy, he is the “shining practice bodhisattva” and stands for “great activity.”

How can I reconsider my actions to align with this image? When I respond with knee-jerk busyness, goal-oriented determination, focus on my goal and chaaarge! I will get something, but probably the something is NOT enlightening activity.

Let us loop back to Cherie Huber’ approach. She wrote – start quote “not because we should, not even because there is anything wrong with the world, … we are engaged in this project only because we want to be, not because we are angry and not because there is something wrong that we can correct.” End quote. But how can we find this place where we can stand for action without the action ending up in the driver’s seat?

In the Flower Ornament Scripture (Chapter 11) Manjushri recommends a series of contemplations. They are known as gathas. In the Flower Ornament they are all linked and I wanted to be able to use them as stand-alones. I took the liberty to reformat them so we can read them and practice with individual ones. If you look in your folder you will find a selection of them. You could of course also write your own that speak to your practice and your day. Write one that moves your heart like Robert Aitken has done this in his book “The Dragon Never Sleeps.”. If you teach you might say “Entering the classroom, I wish for and with all beings, that all those who long for knowledge find wise teachers.” One key element is the phrase for all beings, in this phrase we find a grounding that differs from ego-related wanting.


I was thinking that you could look through the gathas and pick a few. Please consider working with them for the practice period. Grab a piece of tape and stick one on the dashboard of your car. Driving on a road, going to meditation sitting upright, … or going to the bathroom or the kitchen. Write your own gatha. Have some fun with it. Really. Tape a picture of Buddha or a bodhisattva on your bathroom door with the gatha which you would recite whenever you enter. Paste the hand-washing gatha over the sink. Or:

Seeing flowing water
They should whish that all beings
Develop wholesome will
And wash away the stains of illusion.

Also, strongly consider taking up or continuing a home practice and to start sitting zazen at home. Make it a gift to the universe. In the binder you have in front of you is a tracker. If you do not like trackers, there is no need to use it, I personally find such things helpful. It lists several items. Did you do the activity? Yes/no. Then follows a check – Bringing up that I did or did not do the activity such as sitting or working with the gathas I ask the following questions:

  • How does this feel in the body?
  • In the mind? In my feelings?
  • What is my self-talk?

So if you realize that the homework is not happening on a day, don’t guilt trip and don’t come up with a story. Just note how the not-doing expresses itself, note the physical and mental aspects just like you would note how the doing expresses itself.



Enlightening beings at home
Should wish that all beings
Realize the nature of “home is empty
And escape its pressures.

Serving parents
I wish that all beings
Serve the Buddha
Protecting and nourishing everyone.

While with spouses and children
I wish that all beings
Be impartial toward everyone
and forever give up attachment.

When attaining desires
I wish that all beings
Pull out the arrow of lust
And realize ultimate peace.

On festive occasions
I wish that all beings
Enjoy themselves with truth
and realize amusement is not real.

If in palace rooms
I wish that all beings
Enter the sanctified state
Forever rid of defiled craving.

When putting on adornments
I wish that all beings
Give up phony decoration
And reach the abode of truth..

When giving something
I wish that all beings
Be able to relinquish all
With hearts free of clinging.
If in danger and difficulty
I wish that all beings
Be free,
Unhindered wherever they go.

When shaving off my hair,
I wish that all beings
Forever divorce all afflictions
and pass on ultimate tranquility.

When entering a hall
I wish that all beings
Ascend to the unexcelled sanctuary
And rest there secure, unshakable.

When setting out a seat
I wish that all beings
Cause good principles to bloom
And see their true character.

Sitting up straight
I wish that all beings
Sit on the seat of enlightenment
Their minds without attachment.

Sitting cross-legged,
I wish that all beings
Have firm and strong roots of goodness
And attain the state of immovability.

When practicing contemplation
I wish that all beings
See truth as it is
And be free of opposition and contention.

When uncrossing the legs,
I wish that all beings
Observe that all acts and all things
Return to dispersal and extinction.
Taking a toothbrush in hand
I wish that all beings
Attain the ultimate teaching
And be ultimately pure.

When using the toothbrush
I wish that all beings
Be harmonious and pure in mind,
Biting through all afflictions.

When going to the toilet
I wish that all beings
Reject greed, hatred, and folly,
and clean away sinful things.

When washing the hands with water,
I wish that all beings
Have pure clean hands
To receive and hold the Buddha’s teaching.

When washing the face with water
I wish that all beings
Attain the pure teaching
And be forever free from defilement.

When on the road,
I wish that all beings
tread the pure realm of reality,
their minds without obstruction.

Seeing a straight road,
I wish that all beings
Be straight and true in mind,
Without flattery or deceit.

Seeing a dust-free road.
I wish that all beings
Always practice great compassion,
Their hearts refreshing and nourishing.
Seeing fruits
I wish that all beings
Attain the supreme teaching
And realize the way of enlightenment.

Seeing a big river
I wish that all beings
Gain entry into the stream of truth
And enter the ocean of Buddha-knowledge.

Seeing a bridge
I wish that all beings
Carry all across to freedom
Like a bridge.

Seeing flowing water,
I wish that all beings
Develop wholesome will
And wash away the stains of delusion.

Seeing a garden cultivated
I wish that all beings
In the garden of sense desires
Clear away the weeds of craving.

Seeing people attached to pleasure
I wish that all beings
Delight themselves with truth,
Not abandoning love for it.

Seeing people suffer,
I wish that all beings
Attain fundamental knowledge
And eliminate all misery.

Seeing grateful people,
I wish that all beings
Be able to know the blessings
Of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
Seeing ungrateful people
I wish that all beings
Not increase the punishment
of those who are bad.

Coming to someone’s door,
I wish that all beings
Enter into all
Doors of Buddha’s teaching.

Having entered a house,
I wish that all beings
Might enter the vehicle of buddhahood
Which is equal at all times.

Seeing someone who does not give,
I wish that all beings
Never give up
Supremely virtuous ways.

If they see an empty bowl,
I wish that all beings
Be pure of heart
And empty of afflictions.

If they see a full bowl,
I wish that all beings
Completely fulfill
All virtuous ways.

Receiving respect,
I wish that all beings
Respectfully practice
All the Buddhas teachings.

I wish that all beings
Feed on the joy of meditation
And be sated by delight in truth.
Explaining the teachings
I wish that all beings
Attain inexhaustible eloquence
& expound the essentials of the teaching.

Leaving a place
I wish that all beings
Deeply enter enlightened knowledge,
forever leaving the triple world.

Entering a bath
I wish that all beings
Enter omniscient knowledge Knowing that past present and future are equal.

Washing their bodies
I wish that all beings
Be undefiled in body and mind,
Radiantly pure inside and out.

Reverently gazing at a shrine,
I wish that all beings
Be looked up to by all
Celestials and humans.

Washing their feet
I wish that all beings
Fulfill the bases of spiritual powers,
Unhindered wherever they go.

When going to sleep at night
I wish that all beings
Attain physical ease
And undisturbed minds.

Awakening from sleep,
I wish that all beings
Awaken omniscience,
Perceiving in all directions.
Waking up in the morning
I vow with all beings
to be ready for sparks of the Dharma
from flowers or children or birds.

Watching the sky before dawn
I vow with all beings
to open those flawless eyes
that welcomed the morning star.

Preparing to enter the shower
I vow with all beings
to wash off the last residue
of thoughts of being pure.

Turning to use the toilet
I vow with all beings
to honor the body’s knowledge
of what to retain and discard.

When I am tempted to judge
I vow with all beings
to remember we both have two nostrils
and the same implacable fate.

Turning for refuge in Sangha
I vow with all beings
to open myself to the geckos
and the strange behavior of friends.

When I enter the zendo and bow
I vow with all beings
to dance the dream of the Buddha
with my friends once again.

When people show anger and malice
I vow with all beings
to listen for truth in the message
ignoring the way it is said.

When the children get cranky and whiny
I vow with all beings
to stop what I’m doing and cuddle
and show them I know times are tough.

When I turn into somebody nasty
I vow with all beings
to reflect on how it happened
and uncover my long-hidden tail.

When I’m moved to complain about others
I vow with all beings
to remember that karma is endless
and it’s loving that leads to love.

When beset by personal problems
I vow with all beings
to settle myself in zazen
and trust the path to become clear.

When things fall apart on the job
I vow with all beings
to use this regretful energy
and pick up the pieces with care.

When thoughts form an endless procession
I vow with all beings
to notice the spaces between themselves
and give the thrushes a chance.

When anger threatens my reason
I vow with all beings
to wail while the storm runs its course
before poking my nose outside.

When fear seems overwhelming
I vow with all beings
to face this last great barrier:
it’s terror of death I feel.

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