Category Archives: Dharma Talks

Includes both transcriptions and recordings (podcasts) of Dharma talks given by Nomon Tim Burnett, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, and students and visiting guests of Red Cedar Zen Center.

Bodhisattva at the Gas Station: Studying the Ways of the Bodhisattva


Nomon Tim Burnett talks about our ongoing intention to study what it is to be a bodhisattva throughout 2015 and tells a humorous story of a lapse in attention he experienced, it’s consequences, and the support he received from a bodhisattva.

The book mentioned by Nomon as a study guide to the 6 Paramita (Perfection) practices of the Bodhisattva is

The Six Perfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character
by Dale Wright []


Posted in Dharma Talks | Leave a comment

March 2015 Sesshin Talks

All four Dharma Talks from the 2015 March Sesshin to close the practice period. See also the individual listings for Tim’s talks which include his notes and poems used. Click on the title link for more details on each talk.

Morning of March 6th – Zokestu Norman Fischer on Relative and Absolute Compassion

Afternoon of March 6th – Nomon Tim Burnett on Anger and Patience

Morning of March 7th – Zoketsu Norman Fischer on The Prajna Paramita Teachings

Afternoon of March 7th – Nomon Tim Burnett on Bodhisattvas are Everywhere


Posted in Dharma Talks, Practice Period 2015 | Leave a comment

Bodhisattvas Are Everywhere


[appreciating precision, the precision that allows 36 people to live in one room for a weekend with some degree of harmony: Ewan lighting the charcoal, Dave hitting the bells just right even when I left early from the mat (I felt so cared for), Bob & Chris and the others getting the food just right just in time, the servers arranging the trays precisely right for us to pass everything down in the right order, the tricky correography of doing dishes in our tiny kitchen, the organizational precision by which John and Kate figured out who would be here when, how Connie figured out exactly which tasks and who should do them, how Jeff and Lee are figuring out who to bring to dokusan when. ]

[appreciating openness, people coming to dokusan and sharing their stories, I’d forgotten how much that helps me to learn about the dharma, and appreciating those who chose not to come to dokusan, that when we say you can pass is actually true and by taking that option you make sure that it is really true – you can be in various situations where it’s supposed to be okay to pass but actually…it’s not. So thank you for coming or not coming to dokusan both]

My theme today is “Bodhisattvas are everything.”

Jeff McKenna who joined us this morning told me a story about bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are everywhere he said and then he told me on of the reasons why he knows this to be true. Jeff runs a suicide prevention task force, an extension of his years of social service and counseling work, and they have been running suicide prevention workshops lately that are open to everyone. He was talking after the training to one woman, maybe mid-thirities, who attended with her mom. He was firstly amazed by the loving connection between this woman and her mom. An adult child and parent attending this training together. The woman shared that she doesn’t know about this kind of stuff very much, “I just work in retail” she said and that’s what she’d always done. Her mom turned to her with loving eyes and “well I think your pretty special” and they held a moment of love and connection for a moment. This was remarkable enough. And then she spoke about her work. “I’ve learned over the year that my job isn’t to tell anybody anything” – this made Jeff wonder, she works in retail and her job isn’t to sell anyone anything? But she went on, “my job is to understand what they need – it doesn’t matter if it’s something we sell in the store or not, I really want to know who they are and what they need. Then if it is something we sell her they’ll probably buy it, or maybe they’ll buy it somewhere else. That’s okay, but I want to know what they need.”

And then she said that recently a young woman had come into the store. And she found herself disliking this young woman. The way her hair was done, her tatoos, the way she was moving nervously around the store. And she realized, she said, that she had to do something about her own mind. She made a kind of flittery gesture up and down the sides of her head representing this thinking. “I knew I woud never be able to find out what she needs with all this going on.” And that she had to clear that out, waving her hands smoothly down again. In other words she knew that the afflictive judgmental thinking in her mind was going to prevent connection. And she needed to connect. So she had to work with her inner life first.

Only she’d done that she felt ready to approach this young woman. “Hi, can I help you?”

And it’s interesting I think to reflect on that overused phrase, “can I help you?” – that can mean a lot of things. In this case she’d done what she needed to do for that to actually mean “can I help you?”

The young woman said something like “I was thinking of writing something, do you have anything for that?”

And our retail bodhisattva realized they had wonderful hard-made diaries in the store. She said the leather was so soft you couldn’t believe if was leather. That just touching it made you feel something. So nice to touch. So she walked the young woman over to the diary display and handed her one. “Maybe you could write in this diary.”

And the woman stood there, feeling the diary, feeling the kindness of our bodhisattva store clerk, and opened up. She talked for half and hour. A flood of word. How depressed she’s been, how isolated, no one to talk to. That she’d had the idea of write down her last thoughts and messages before she ended it all. And well, maybe now she could just write, write her thoughts in this diary, maybe that would be enough.

Bodhisattvas are everywhere. And Bodhisattvas are willing to appear in whatever shape and size and culture that they need in order to serve.

I don’t know about you but I’m a little resistant to the idea of working in retail. I have the story that this would be below me, and dubious ethically – just a way of facilitating the materialistic consumer culture. Helping the Man.

I hope one day I can be as willing to be a bodhisattva in every circumstance as this woman is. The great way has no difficulty, just set aside picking and choosing the great Zen poem goes. Or maybe we could re-write that: the great way has no difficulty just choose love, just choose connection. And stop being so damned picky..

Norman has been suggesting that the nature of this empty universe is love. Is compassion. Could this really be true. Could it be true giving some of the spectaular examples of evil behavior we see in the media. We all know about IRIS and their televised beheadings. And I pay attention also to a Somali group called Boko Haram because they’ve been performing attached on non-muslims in Kenya and our honorary daughter Mercy Ukumu is there in Kenya. She graduated from university by the way and is working for a non-profit that provides literacy education to rural populations, with an emphasis on economic and financial literacy and empowerful. She’s also going to night school to start towards her Master’s degree. An incredible, motivated, smart beautiful young woman. Boko Haram recently pulled into an isolated rock quarry. In Africa it’s pretty common for workers to live on the site where they work, so they attacked in the middle of the night. Lined up everyone whom they thought weren’t muslim and killed them. Horrible. That greed, hate, and delusion in the mind can manifest in such a way that such a thing makes sense. Because of course people only do what makes sense to them.

Could this be a world of love and compassion co-exist with IRIS and Boko Haram? We’ve also seen plenty of sociology and crime statistics data coming out that says actually the world is the most safe and most prosperous in history. One statistic is that the most common cause of violent death by far is homicide, and also that homicide is most often committed by someone you know well, and homicide is down, by a lot, pretty much everywhere in the world. And standard of living is higher in many many places.

But, the mind goes “but” so quickly, doesn’t it? We also have the largest world wide extinction event in the hisotry of the planet going on, we also have global warming, we also have IRIS and Boko Haram. What do we make of this world?

One time the Zen monk Dizang in Tang China was out working the fields below the monastery. A visiting monk came walking up the road in his monk’s travelling clothes. Dizang popped the Zen question that Norman mentioned yesterday: “Where do you come from?” Xiushan replies “From the south.” Dizang digs further with his shovel and his words, “How is Buddhism in the south these days?” Xuisan says, “There’s extensive discussion.” Dizang is not impressed, “How can that compare to me here planting the fields and growing rice to eat?” Xiushan: “What can you do about the world?” Dizang answers “What do you call the world?”

What do you call the world? We take in various bits of information, we tell various stories and have conversations with ourself and others, we collaborate to call the world into existence. We see images in the media. We participate in the continuation of the internet which makes YouTube possible, which allows IRIS to have a free world wide TV channel of their own to show us what makes sense to them. And we bow to each other here. We sit, we smile, we breathe, we scowl, we love, we feel anger arising, we practice patience, we feel connection, we touch the soft leather cover of the hand-made diary, we notice the flittery thoughts in the mind, we are calling the world. The world is calling us.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

When we make the world are we making ISIS or retail bodhisattvas. Do we have any way of knowing which way the balance tips? Can we hold in our mind the billions of people simply living their lives, practicing kindness. There are bodhisattvas everwhere, we may need to remind ourselves that we aren’t the special ones who are learning about this special teaching and that makes us the bodhisattvas. Maybe we’re just the ones who needed the remedial education and many many other beings are already active and wise bodhisattvas without all of this.

Bodhisattvas are willing to go anywhere to serve, including into hell. The 6 worlds that come up in our chants are the 6 levels of existence that you can get born into. We heard a little about the heavenly realms this morning. Pleasant but a little stupifying, in Buddhism the gods are to be pittied a little. They live long lives full of pleasure but they’re a little dumb and they have the frustration of being interested in practice but not able to understand it. Some of may need to be reborn there to keep directing their attention to practice so that once they finally die and leave the heavenly realms they’ll be reborn as humans who can practice.

And there are the hell realms. Sometimes these get mentioned with a bit of an ironic smile, kind a cute part of Buddhist mythology, these wild hell realms. But maybe there’s more to it than that which might be useful to us as bodhisattvas in training.

I’ve been studying a book by Jeffrey Hopkins who’s a scholar-practitioner who works closely with HH Dalai Lama and from him I learned about the nice practice of visualizing someone you know and dedicating your practice to them which we did yesterday. I didn’t specify which kind of person to pick and I bet most of us picked someone we’re close to and care about. Did you? That’s just the beginning of that practice, you continue to visualize mulitple different people and as you get comfortable with it you visualize people who aren’t so close to or even have trouble with. Similar to the progression one does in loving kindness. Our first stab probably pretty pleasant, and even widening the field in that practice still mostly pleasant.

Professor Hopkins also relates that visualizing people stuck in the hell realms is also a way to cultivate compassion. Compassion requires three elements. First to be willing to notice that someone is suffering, you don’t even notice that you can’t do much; second to actually feel something of their suffering so that there is an empathetic, felt connection; third to be willing to do something about it. To be willing to help. And sometimes 4th to actually do something.

The contemplation of hells is designed to help us with the willingness to feel pain deeply. This is not so fun. And traditionally if you took the mythology of Buddhism literally these hells were probably really powerful images: there are the first 2 of the 8 hot hells. There are 8 hot hells and 8 cold hells in this system.

• Sañjīva, the “reviving” Naraka, has ground made of hot iron heated by an immense fire. Beings in this Naraka appear fully grown, already in a state of fear and misery. As soon as the being begins to fear being harmed by others, their fellows appear and attack each other with iron claws and hell guards appear and attack the being with fiery weapons. As soon as the being experiences an unconsciousness like death, they are suddenly restored to full health and the attacks begin again. Other tortures experienced in this Naraka include having molten metal dropped upon them, being sliced into pieces, and suffering from the heat of the iron ground.[3] Life in this Naraka is 1.62×1012 years long.[4] It is said to be 1000 yojanas beneath Jambudvīpa and 10,000 yojanas in each direction (a yojana being 7 miles, or 11 kilometres).[5]
• Kālasūtra, the “black thread” Naraka, includes the torments of Sañjīva. In addition, black lines are drawn upon the body, which hell guards use as guides to cut the beings with fiery saws and sharp axes.[3][5] Life in this Naraka is 1.296×1013 years long.[4]

This idea is to mentally switch places with someone stuck in one of these hells. tO really visualize and feel what that would be like. To use the strong concentration we develop in meditation and direct it to this. To fully commit to feeling the pain of being in hell.

What I realized though is that these hells aren’t so real for us. But the horror of ISIS or Boki Haram is plenty real. So we can do thise practice by imaginging ourself as one of their victims. And we can even imagine ourself as one of the perpetrators. I won’t have us do this, but it’s worth considering really allowing yourself to turn toward these horrors. Deliberately, as a meditation. Ideally with some guidance and support. Our full humanity involves heaven, hell, bodhisattvas, delusion, greed, generosity, hate, kindness, patience, all of it. The idea with bodhisattva practice is not to become perfect and clean ourselves up perfectly. It’s to be radically and fully human and able to move through all of the worlds to help beings.

Someone asking me, how do you feel oneness? How to you take the backward step. How do we touch emptiness? How can we find out for ourselves whether this compassion-empty-interconnectedness is really the nature of things? How do we touch the emptiness that isn’t a thing?

I don’t know if I have a good answer. There’s a feeling to it, at least that’s my experience, sometimes I’m in contact with some version of that fluid and changing feeling in a conscious way, other times not. I’m sure it arrises in different ways for each person, and could it even be an it if we really listen to the emptienss teachings – no thing has essential nature. There’s only flow and connection and relationship. But all kinds of energy can emerge from connection and relationship right? Love can arrive. It can arrive over a candle lit dinner, or it can arrive over the diary display at the department store. But so can hate and anger, so can desire and greed, so can confusion and misunderstanding. What governs it, what gives us at least a chance of glimping what Abraham Lincoln called “The better angels of our nature.”?

Maybe a little more on emptiness as a teaching is helpful. Wisdom is seen as the wisdom root of compassion.
[Lewis Richmond, Emptiness: the most misunderstood word in Buddhism]

I got to do a study retreat on the Heart Sutra in Mexico last summer. A real treat for me. And talking about his fluid, interpenetrating nature of things I learned my favorite Spanish word: “fluido” – fluid, basically the same but somehow if I say to myself fluido I hear it better, the feeling of the word is the feeling of emptiness to me. Fluido. I recommend that as a word to return to or breath with when you find that you’re believing the opposite – that your believing reality is not fluid, that it’s STUCK. What’s the feeling of stuck?

Another Zen story about compassion. Perhaps some of you had the privilege of sitting with Michael a few weeks ago when he led a retreat all about this story and Dogen’s take on it

Yunyan asked Daowu: “How does the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion [Kannon] use so many hands and eyes?”
Daowu said: “It’s just like a person in the middle of the night reaching back in search of a pillow.”
Yunyan said: “I understand.”
Daowu said: “How do you understand it?”
Yunyan said: “All over the body are hands and eyes.”
Daowu said: “What you said is all right, but it’s only eighty percent of it.”
Yunyan said: “I’m like this, senior brother. How do you understand it?”
Daowu said: “Throughout the body are hands and eyes.”

These two are brothers, my favorite Zen worthies from the cannon, Yunyan is referring to the depiction of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitsevara or Kannon, when she’s shown having a thousand arms so that she can help people. Sometimes a different tool in each hand. And she has a lot of eyes because she has 8 or 9 faces, each face with a different expression to meet beings. How can we be that compassionate? How can we really use all of our hands and eyes, everything we’ve got, to help beings.

Brother Daowu’s answer is so beautiful. It’s natural. It’s not something you try to do. It’s like reaching for your pillow in the middle of the night. Instinct. Comfort. Warmth.

Practically speaking to be a bodhisattva we do have to try. There is effort involved. That the relative compassion side. But there’s also naturalness, there’s also fullness, there’s os just being-ness. The absolute compassion side starts to flavor the relative over time. One way this shows up is we learn there are times to do less. Times to just bear witness and be with. Times to see that we’re creating a the problem in the mind, that circumstances are just circumstances. Sometimes we can just be with what is without bother it or letting it bother us. This is equanimity practice and it requires a conversation between the relative and the absolute.

When a distracted person who doesn’t look like you and is acting funny appears how will you respond?

I’m teaching classes right now to King County employees in Seattle. It’s skillful for me to take the bus down if I can which means arriving some hours early and staying a few hours after my class the next morning. So I have a little time on my hands in downtown Seattle and I walk a lot. Looking around, doing an errand, I got a membership to the Y, I can go there. Anyway I run into a lot of panhandlers. Sometimes I give them a dollar, sometimes not, I always try to make eye contact, turn towards them at least a little, acknowledge their humanity whether I’m supporting the panhandling or not. This one guy came up though, he was asking for an odd amount, 87 cents or something, I said no. And he walked with me, he kept asking, I kept saying now, I could feel myself shrinking in, feeling threatened, a desire to lash out and yell at him and set him straight arose in me. Stuck in the relative I didn’t respond well. I ask Daowu know, “How does Kannon greet the aggressive panhandler?” What does he answer?

And sometimes we do respond skillfully. En route to Seattle this last time on my beloved BoltBus and…

I’ve been promoting the BoltBus as a great way to do Bellingham Seattle. Affordable, on time, comfortable, as fast as driving.
Today cruising south en route to teach for King County. Relaxed, working a little, time to think, reading Alan Wallace on mindfulness (he has some interesting interpretations of the main Buddhist sutra that’s quoted) then this beep-beep-beep alarm started up, kept happening. Soon our driver is changing lane to the right. Eventually beep-beep-beep we are on the shoulder. Water system leak this bus isn’t going anywhere. Side of the road a little south of Everett.
And I teach tonight – ut oh, trouble?
Nope, no trouble. The driver gets on the phone with Greyhound which also has a southbound bus running. We wait about 45 minutes, the Greyhound shows up and whisks us away. The drivers even haul all of our gear (including my bike) from one bus to the next. Interesting moment walking along the edge of I-5 with the traffice roaring by.
Given that I usually hit Seattle two hours before class starts I’m just fine. Didn’t particularly increase the blood pressure. Just cruising along. The broken bus in our wake not my concern. Greyhound even has wifi now.
Nice job, Steve from Bolt getting us down the road. I asked him if a bus breakdown is a right of passage for drivers and he says “oh that was nothing, last time was in the middle of Montana. In the snow.”
And then a little while later I hear this moaning, sobbing sound. I look back and see a man, skinny kind of odd expression, late 60’s or so. He looks at me but with that kind of look where you aren’t sure he sees you. Was it him? I could feel that pulling in you do in a public situation like a Greyhound bus when there’s a hint of mental illness going on. We often hunker down to ignore whatever’s going on. Engaging might make it worse we tell ourselves. Not our business. And sometimes that’s true. But we don’t check it out.
A little further down the road more moaning, definitely seems to be from this fellow.
Then we pull off the highway en route not to the Greyhound terminal but to where the BoltBus drops people off. Different exit than usual for the Greyhound. And how our friend is talking and I can pretty much make it out. “We’re not going to the terminal! OH NO! We’re not going! This is all wrong! All wrong!” I look more carefully and he has a cell phone to his ear, maybe talking to a friend picking him up? Maybe just holding a cell phone. And I realize he’s just not understanding what’s happening. That he looks like any of us, able to speak English, wearing clothing, sitting in his seat, but his mind couldn’t process what had happened and he was scared. Really scared, a big problem was happening for him. The bus was going to the wrong place and he was helpless.
Finally I mustered the bodhicitta I needed and got up and stood right in front of him leaning over the seat in front of him. Looked him in the eyes and said as clearly as I could “The bus will go to the terminal. Just a stop first. The bus will go to the terminal. It’s okay the bus will go to the terminal.” He seemed reassured but didn’t say anything to me. So many ways we can misunderstand, be misunderstood. This is ignorance in it’s basic sense, misunderstanding reality. Here misunderstanding a detail in the relative world, but our bigger misunderstanding is believing in the reality of the relative world. Giving it a solidity it doesn’t have. A permanence. Hanging it out in front of ourselves like a lure – if only I could share this reality in the right way I’d be happy, but it doesn’t quite work.
The poem I read at the end yesterday seems like it landed well. I mentioned the poet Mary Oliver when I presented it but actually the poem was by Naomi Shihab Nye. Here’s a story-poem from her that fits our topic:

Gate A-4

Naomi Shihab Nye, 1952

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well–one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,”
said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to
her–Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies–little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts–out of her bag–and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo–we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend–
by now we were holding hands–had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate–once the crying of confusion stopped–seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other
women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

Posted in Dharma Talks, Practice Period 2015 | Leave a comment

Anger and Patience


We’ve been enjoying studying the great 9th century sage Shantideva’s long poem on how to be a bodhisattva during this practice period. Shantideva’s verses talk about nurturing the deep wish for the happiness and joy of all beings. That we not just kind of hope that might happen sometime but that we root our lives in that wish – called bodhicitta – the thought of awakening. A famous passage is often chanted and we’ve been chanting it at the openings of our study meetings:

Class Opening Verse (from chapter 3)
May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road;
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.

May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed;
For all who need a servant, may I be a slave. Continue reading

Posted in Dharma Talks, Practice Period 2015 | Leave a comment