Living the Life of Samantabhadra



Please let me say some things up front. I want to thank Nomon Tim Burnett for the invitation to be shuso, thereby giving me the opportunity to give this talk. I thank the sangha for supporting me so wonderfully. But foremost, I want to thank Zoketsu Norman Fischer for allowing me to be his student. I appreciate that when I ask him a question, he does respond. It is not always something I would call an answer, but he responds. Maybe the response is “why don’t you find out.” And this is the response I received when I asked about Samantabhadra’s great activity. And thus the theme of the Winter 2014 practice period, enlightening activity, was born.

Together, during this practice period, we explored ourselves, our activities, our thought streams, the Avatamsaka Sutra and Samantabhadra. His name means “Universal Virtue” or “Universally Good.” We found that Samantabhadra is hard to encounter directly, his enlightened and enlightening activity often hidden. Nevertheless, he is the bodhisattva of enlightening activity in this world. Manjushri’s wisdom and Avalokiteshvara’s compassion express themselves through Samantabhadra’s activity.

We explored Samantabhadra’s great vows.

1. To pay homage and respect to all Buddhas.
2. To praise the Thus Come One.
3. To make abundant offerings.
4. To repent misdeeds and evil karmas.
5. To rejoice in others’ merits and virtues.
6. To request the Buddhas to continue teaching.
7. To request the Buddhas to remain in the world.
8. To follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times.
9. To accommodate and benefit all living beings.
10. To transfer all merits and virtues to benefit all beings.

What do Sanmatabhadra’s vows and great activity have to do with our lives?

So – why bother? Why don’t we just get up and go to a nice restaurant and talk about world news, our hobbies, our investments, our vacation plans? Hey as long as I got mine … Advertising hammers us and intrudes into our lives whenever we are out and about, when we are on the internet. Glossy pages promise us happiness if we look young, drive the right car, own the right house, have the right partner. Movies with happy endings show us that doing the socially acceptable thing will lead to us having the right family, the right bank account, in the right neighborhood. Heck looking good will lead to the right love and we will survive the almost-end of the world. The more outrageous the claim of the product, the more likely appears its success.

You can find the most outrageous claims. There is an expensive French perfume with the name samsara. If I may remind you what Samsara means? Here are a couple of definitions of the nature of samsara:

Repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings’ grasping and fixating on a self and experiences
Wandering from life to life with no particular direction or purpose. Samsara arises out of ignorance and is characterized by suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction.

I do not have to go to search out an expensive French perfume. In fact, you can find outrageous advertising claims at your local general store. Yes, forget Buddhism all tat sitting, aching legs, and long retreats. With one purchase, Yes, you too can shape your own destiny. You can be in control. You will rock worlds. This product has it all. Here you go, here is the women’s underwear that promises to do all that!

I did omit the line “Sculpts thighs, lifts rear,” but hey, I would consider that a bonus. So go buy Bali Comfortshape panties. We are what we think. So, if we spend our life immersed in world of advertising, we will try to fill this hole inside us with product, with merchandise. Only to find that Bali Comfortshape did NOT give me control over anything, least of all my body. And it did not rock worlds. I’ve been walking around with it, carrying it in this bag and nothing happened.

Sooner or later we might find that these promises don’t come through. And we may look for another, different image of the universe not governed by these external things, a universe where we are seen as we truly are, not a universe where our posessions rule. Allan Watts offered a glimpse of that universe: “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”

This is Samantabhadra and his practice, being willing to remain upright and still in the middle of the soaring flames of life, our garbled karma and conditioning and interconnection with all sentient beings. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. Realizing that we are absolutely alone we can let go of the many ideas of self. We can completely accept our connection with everybody and everything that is. We can stop the war with reality. Universally Good describes beings who enter fully into his practice like this (pp959):

In a single atom
they see all worlds;
If sentient beings should hear of this
They’d go mad in confusion.

As in in one atom
So in all atoms;
All worlds enter therein –
So inconceivable is it.

In every single atom
Are all things of all places and times;
The states and lands innumerable,
The enlightening discern and know.

For me, forgetting this interconnection, forgetting the vows, forgetting all this and running away, does not appear to be an option. I think I tried that a couple of times; it did not work. Grandiose declarations or deeds isn’t it, either. Yes, often I have feelings of guilt and unworthiness or I am in need of personal healing. In spite of or maybe because of our mixed emotions and the voices in our head, I also have to respond. I can. Each of us continuously makes decisions and takes action. And Samantabhadra’s vows are at the base, the very foundation of our Mahayana Buddhism.

What can WE do in the face of poverty, disease, war, injustice, and environmental devastation, in the face of our very own life which we often perceive as deficient, our twisted family and relationship karma? With the torrent of world news it is easy to despair, to become cynical or numb.

Maybe we can begin with this: Because we are human, we tend to treat everything, including world news as personal problems. However, they are not personal. Nevertheless we are affected by these things and need to find a way to work with them.

And maybe we can also pay attention. Our Zen approach is to never turn away and to turn towards it, whatever it is. Genuine happiness and meaning will not appear through purchasing power. It does not matter, what media and advertising tell us. However, it can come through radical presence, being present with “what is”, tending to the suffering, tending to dukkha, through not turning away.

And maybe we can sample the taste of freedom in this Dharma, the practice of generosity and moral discipline, in acts of devotion and piety, in conduct governed by reverence, courtesy, and loving-kindness, in the knowledge and deliverance realized by the bodhisattva. “Just as in the great ocean there is but one taste — the taste of salt — so in this this teaching there is but one taste — the taste of freedom”: with these words the Buddha vouches for the emancipating quality of His doctrine.

How can I fulfill these vows, how can I save all beings, enter all dharma gates, end all delusions, become Buddhas way? How can I aim myself at the everyday mind which is the way? Dainin Katagiri Roshi offers one response in his poem


Being told that is impossible
One believes, in despair, “Is that so?”
Being told it is possible,
One believes, in excitement, “That’s right.”
But, whichever is chosen,
It does not fit one’s heart neatly.
Being asked, “What is unfitting?”
I don’t know what it is.
But my heart knows somehow.
I feel an irresistible desire to know.
What a mystery “human” is.
As to this mystery:
Knowing how to live,
Knowing how to walk with people,
Demonstrating and teaching,
This is the Buddha.
From my human eyes,
I feel it’s really impossible to become a Buddha.
But this “I,” regarding what the Buddha does,
Vows to practice,
To aspire,
To be resolute,
And tells myself, “Yes I will.”
Just practice right here now,
And achieve continuity,
Endlessly, forever.
This is living in vow.
Herein is one’s peaceful life found.

So here is a Suzuki Roshi story about where he finds the peaceful life. For him enlightenment was expressed by being just where you are. A woman told Suzuki Roshi: “I feel I am trying to climb a ladder, but for every step upward I slip backward two steps.” “Forget the ladder. When you awaken, everything is right here on the ground. When you realize the truth that everything changes and find your composure in it, there you find yourself in nirvana.” The desire to gain anything means you miss the reality of the present. Asked further about enlightenment, Suzuki Roshi said, “Strictly speaking there are no enlightened beings; there is only enlightened activity.”


I am left with many questions, many thoughts

So what can I do?
How can I do it?
And how can I do it without meddling?
How can I hold this: “Let’s not think that something is wrong with the world. Let us start with not-blaming. Let us start with taking responsibility. Let us take action because we want to, not because we are angry. Maybe there is nothing wrong that we need to correct.
How do I find the energy to move forward without upset, but from willingness…

I don’t have any answers, but as always we can look to our ancestor Eihei Dogen to point us into the right direction. So I will end talking about two of his quotes. The first from a talk given in spring of 12471.

Entering the water without avoiding deep-sea dragons is the courage of a fisherman. Traveling the earth without avoiding tigers is the courage of a hunter. Facing the drawn sword before you, and seeing death just like life, is the courage of a general. What is the courage of patch-robed monks?

After a pause Dōgen said: Spread out your bedding and sleep; set out your bowls and eat rice; exhale through your nostrils; radiate light from your eyes. Do you know there is something that goes beyond? With vitality, eat lots of rice and then use the toilet. Transcend the personal prediction of your future buddhahood by the Buddha.2

Dogen encourages his monks. He cites their daily monastic rituals at Eiheiji, including sleeping, meditating, and taking meals. For Dōgen enlightenment is not something to await or hope for in the future, but is implicit and presently available in all daily, in everyday activities. Dōgen is telling his monks to forget hopes for the future, and that they are responsible to fully engage what is in front of them in their everyday lives. He again brings forth his teaching of the oneness of practice and enlightenment, practice-enlightenment.

This last quote is from a fascicle called Continuous Practice in the year 1242: “On the great road of buddha ancestors there is always unsurpassable practice, continuous and sustained. It forms the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way. This being so, continuous practice is undivided, not forced by you or others. The power of this continuous practice confirms you as well as others. It means your practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky in the ten directions. Although not noticed by others or by yourself, it is so.”

This is so beautiful it just about breaks my heart. “It forms the circle of the way and is never cut off. Between aspiration, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana, there is not a moment’s gap; continuous practice is the circle of the way.”

This is the way we go alone, together-alone. This is where we are the dew drops on the spider’s web. In this place where there is not a moment’s gap, continuous and sustained, we do find Samantabhadra and Samantabhadra’s practice. This is the place to practice: right here. And this is the time to practice: right now. Continuous and sustained practice is the circle of the way, practice with the body and mind we have right here and now. If I wait for the perfect time, when all the conditions are right, I will never practice, it won’t happen. Knowing this, there is only one perfect time and place: here and now.

During this practice period you have given so much. You shared your stories, your pain, and your wisdom. Now I want to ask you: please let us continue on this path together, in continuous practice that is undivided. Our practice affects the entire earth and the entire sky. Although not noticed by others or by yourself, it is so.

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