Restoring Meaning to Our Lives in the Pandemic

(This article was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Chan Magazine. It is based on a talk give in May 2020 which was included in the book Allow Joy into Our Hearts: Chan Practice in Uncertain Times.)

In the early days of the current pandemic, we were focused on managing the sudden disruptions to our daily routine.  There was a lot of fear and deep sadness owing to the staggering number of deaths and loss of livelihood for many.  With the fragility of life and impermanence of our seemingly orderly world on full display, it has been a great opportunity to practice.  During the lockdown, I came across an interview with Joanna Macy conducted by Tricycle Magazine.  She spoke about the great turning of life-sustaining culture in the choices we make moment-to-moment as the old way of life unravels.  While she was referring to the unraveling brought about by climate change, the world as we knew it is also unraveling during the pandemic and much more visibly so.  We may find ourselves wanting to return to our old life.  As many of us have discovered, however, the world to which we have reopened is not the one we left behind when the lockdown took effect.  Whether we accept it or not, rapid changes are under way.  How do we contribute to co-creating a culture in which we can better nourish ourselves and support each other?  Joanna Macy spoke about four Rs which I find very helpful for contemplation and reflection on mental shifts we can make to build a more meaningful life lived in accordance with wisdom and compassion.  The four Rs are resilience, relinquishment, restoration, and reconciliation.  

The first R is what she calls resilience.  What she meant by resilience is the practice of identifying values we want to keep.  The lockdown has taken away external distractions that filled our life and given many of us more time to be with ourselves and the opportunity to really reflect on what is important.  It is important to identify what is truly dear to our heart so that we can direct our moment-to-moment thoughts and actions to keeping these values.  During the pandemic, the inequality and injustice in our society has been deeply disturbing, reminding us that equality and justice are among the values we want to keep.  The pandemic forces us to face our shared vulnerability as human beings. Compassion is another value we want to keep and try to actualize.  Compassion, informed by wisdom, has to do with refraining from causing harm and committing to bringing benefit to all sentient beings.  Joanna Macy talked about this compassion as the opening of our heart.  It starts with practicing the cultivation of compassion and kindness towards those close around us, such as our family members.  She cited this poem that resonated with me greatly.  The poem Widening Circles by Rainer Maria Rilke, which she translated from the original German, articulated this practice beautifully.  The first two lines of the poem read: “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world.  I may not complete this last one but I give myself to it.”  We do our best to contribute to the actualization of values such as equality, justice and compassion.  Knowing that we may not get to the end, we give it our best effort.  

What would this effort involve?  It is part of the practice of cultivating compassion.  It involves not turning away from suffering, which we are so tempted to do because it is so much more pleasant to turn away.  One example is the inadequate supply of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, many of whom were working without them and living in fear of getting infected and infecting their loved ones.  We can forget about it or not read about it and not care about it because it is too aggravating. Or we can remember to practice not turning away. When we do not turn away we are more likely to notice the opportunity for us to do something to help.  Compassionate action involves maintaining and cultivating this awareness toward all kinds of suffering.  

While we focus on the pandemic, other forms of suffering are still going on.  Here are a few examples.  Vaccination programs in some countries are halted because of the pandemic, and as a result there could be 80 million children who die from preventable diseases. The oppression of marginalized people in the United States and across the world is still going on.  The Rohingyas are still forced to leave their homeland.  Black Americans continue to live with racism that is lethal at times.  Authoritarian regimes violate the human rights to which their citizens should be entitled, resulting in political persecutions.  I also read about the victims of war in Yemen whose healthcare system collapsed because of the war, and about a nurse in Brooklyn whose family mostly lived in Trinidad and she kept going to work and died from the coronavirus alone, without any of her family with her.  It is tempting not think about them because we feel so helpless and overwhelmed by all the suffering.

It is difficult not to turn away from all the sufferings out there and difficulty to remember the humanity of everyone involved.  It is very difficult because of our urge to give rise to hatred of those who we believe to be the bad people, those who are inflicting suffering on others.  The cultivation of clear awareness is to recognize and notice these very strong urges to succumb to the entrenched habit of giving rise to hatred.  Instead of giving rise to hatred and turning away, we can bear witness to the suffering and to the many outrageous actions happening in the world to strengthen our resolve and to help us act effectively.  Hence, it is not a passive, feel good practice that we are engaging in.  

When I started attending seven-day intensive retreats in the 1990s with Master Sheng Yen, he often spoke of giving rise to angry determination.  He was not talking about anger and hatred.  What is this angry determination? Determination to commit to the practice so that we can have this stable, clear mind of compassion to be part of the solution of reducing all kinds of suffering and atrocities happening around the world.  In this way, we can resist the temptation to turn away.  We can remember to uphold the value of compassion.  This resolve is strengthened through our commitment to bearing witness, to keep paying attention and staying engaged. Sometimes there may not be very much we can do besides paying attention, but paying attention is a lot.  By paying attention, we are not ignoring it and turning away.  We can understand what is actually happening so we know what it is that we may be able to do.  We can then initiate useful actions if we have the skills and means.  Staying engaged allows us to recognize when others come up with a constructive idea that we can support, instead of ignoring it.  In this way, we do not lose heart and become hopeless or cynical. 

Part of our practice is to commit to cultivating this clear awareness of all forms of the dehumanizing actions that are occurring, as it is very easy to participate in them ourselves unknowingly.  When we identify someone as the “bad” people, we start developing these dehumanizing thoughts about them. The practice allows us to remember that our world is changed for the better by our compassionate thoughts and actions collectively, not just by a change of leadership.  Have you ever had thoughts like, “if only this problematic person would disappear, then everything will be fine”?  I invite you to reflect on whether it is true that everything will be perfect after that person goes away.  Upon reflection, you will probably realize, and maybe you have experienced, that it is unlikely to be the case.  Because our world is co-created by all of us, if our thoughts and actions do not change, what we perceived to be problems would just show up in other ways.

In fact, what we think of as the problematic actions of some “bad” people are enabled by a system supported by many people. Their actions are merely manifestations of many, many causes and conditions. We are in one way or the other part of it.  We may not know how we are taking part but we have all co-created this moment with our past actions.  In the practice of cultivating this resolve, we also commit to remembering that the perpetrators of cruel actions, too, are suffering. They are suffering from their craving, hatred and delusion. When we notice how people suffer, we will also notice how their suffering causes suffering in others.  It is important to remember that the powerful who use their authority to inflict suffering in others, too, are suffering.  They deserve our pity, not hatred.  Practicing this way, as we recognize the harmful and destructive actions committed by others, we do not end up giving rise to hatred in our heart and contribute ourselves to suffering in the world.  It does not mean that we agree with these people and condone or support their actions or ideas.  Compassionate action would mean that we do what we can to reduce or limit their ability to continue to do more harm.  Practitioners commit to reflecting on what we can do that is in accordance with wisdom and compassion and not be driven by our compulsive feelings.  It may mean calling out what they are doing instead of remaining silent.  

It is easy to think “What is the point? They have so much power. What will my saying something do?”  This kind of thinking breeds cynicism and hopelessness as well as the erroneous view that power has an independent existence as an entity possessed by the powerful.  In reality, when people call out an inappropriate action, the power holders’ authority will be eroded as their authority is based on our collective recognition of the legitimacy of their authority.  For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a democracy, maybe we can vote such people out.  Sometimes it will involve the wisdom of staying out of harm’s way so that we are limiting the ability of these people to do harm, including to ourselves.  We can see that even with perpetrators of unjust and cruel actions, we can use our wisdom to cultivate compassion in our actions of trying to limit and reduce their ability to do harm. Such actions are not driven by hatred, but by compassion. That is the resolve that I am talking about. It is very difficult because our culture pushes us in the opposite direction.  That is why it is crucial to cultivate this clear awareness moment after moment – so we do not fall into the unhelpful habits of vexatious reactivity.

The second R that Joanna Macy talked about is what she calls relinquishment.  Relinquishment is to reflect on and identify what it is useful to let go of.  With the stay-at-home order, we had to stay away from many distractions offered to us by our consumerist society that compel us to run around, do this and that, eat at the new restaurants, go shopping to stay fashionable or keep up with the Joneses, drive or fly around for vacations – all to keep us from looking inward.  With shopping malls and entertainment facilities closed and restaurants offering takeout only, most of these distractions were no longer available.  During the first few weeks of the lockdown, we were reminded of which services are essential and that justifies their remaining open and which services are nonessential that justifies their being closed.  It became obvious that the list of essential services includes mainly places that sustain our physical survival and safety such as grocery stores, home repair, and emergency medical care.  

A big shopping mall near my home has remained closed since the beginning of the outbreak. Many of us probably always knew that the stores in our shopping malls are mostly not essential. It does not mean that there is anything wrong with working at or patronizing these businesses.  It is just that in this pandemic, it has been publicly announced that they are indeed not essential.  There has never been such clarity in our consumerist culture as to what is essential and what is non-essential.  We should feel very blessed by the clarity made available by this extraordinary situation.  This clarity allows us to reflect on many unhealthy habits that we have developed by living in a consumerist culture which we can let go of.  Being encouraged by this consumerist culture and conditioned by our society, we may have allowed these habits to be perpetuated, and even to grow, over the years.  We can use this opportunity to reflect on these unhealthy habits and identify ones that we would like to relinquish and go of.

You may have your own list. Here I offer some possible candidates based on some of the things I have been reading.  One of the unhelpful habits we can let go is mindless consumption. Retail stores are designed to make us go in and buy things that we did not know we needed.  That is how we often ended up purchasing things and did not know why we bought them after spending time in shopping malls.  Reflecting on what is essential and nonessential can help us unlearn the habit of mindless consumption. Another unhelpful habit is being wasteful.  Before this pandemic, most of us have never needed to worry about whether there is toilet paper or milk or flour in the store.  During the early weeks of the pandemic, we all had to learn to pay a little more attention to whether we had enough food in our pantry.  When purchasing limits were placed on certain items in the store, we realized that perhaps we should not throw away that glass of juice or milk that is almost full because many grocery stores only allowed us to buy two cartons of milk per shopping trip.  Hence, we should be grateful for that period of scarcity to help us learn not to be so mindlessly wasteful.

With budget airlines and discounts for hotels and car rentals, our consumerist culture has promoted, for many people, the habit of mindless vacationing.  Some people would take a long road trip or flight every time there is a short break.  These travels often left us more tired, defeating the purpose of breaks.  But we kept doing that because we have been conditioned to “get away” by the travel industry.  Meanwhile, we generated a lot of carbon emissions contributing to climate change.  There is nothing wrong with traveling.  It is however worth reflecting on whether we are taking a trip just because we are conditioned to do so.  The drastically reduced flight schedule and travel restrictions during the pandemic have given us an opportunity to reflect on our travel habits to identify ways which we may have been traveling mindlessly.  I recently read an article talking about how, for those of us who have a backyard, we can set up a tent to camp in our backyard.  With a shift in perspective, it can feel like we have taken a break from our routine without generating any carbon emissions. I am not campaigning against traveling for vacations, but we can reflect on our habit of mindless vacationing and begin to unlearn this unhelpful habit. 

For many of us, the period of having to work from home also provided us with an opportunity to recognize our habit of mindless workaholism.  Before the lockdown, many of us have highly compartmentalized work and family life.  We would commute into the office and work like crazy all day and maybe into the evening at times trying to meet the endless deadlines.  We gave others the job of looking after things at home.  We may outsource the cooking to restaurants and childcare to daycare centers and all sort of sports and enhancement activities for the kids.  These arrangements were, or are, no longer possible during the lockdown.  As we spend more time at home with our loved ones, we may discover things about them that we never had the time to notice before.  This experience of spending so much time together at home may allow us to recognize how this unhelpful habit of over-striving and mindless workaholism has been perpetuated at the expense of really getting to know our loved ones.  We are not talking about quitting our job and just staying home but we can reflect on our attitude towards our job and see if there are traces of mindless workaholism.  We may be able to begin to unlearn this habit and recognize that the habitual thought pattern of wanting to get one more thing done before going home can be the manifestation of the craving mind.  For some, mindless workaholism is related to the mindless pursuit of status.  Surely we need to fulfill our responsibilities at work.  As part of our practice, we can also look deeply into our mind to examine our motivation in the moments when we feel compelled to stay at work longer.  If the motivation involves suffering, such as greed, jealousy or resentment, we can use it as an opportunity to unlearn these unhelpful habits by not acting on that compulsion.  We are not talking about quitting our job or changing career.  As we cultivate clear awareness of the moment to moment activities of our mind, we would realize that it mainly involves adjustments in our mindset by recognizing that we have these unhelpful habits that can be unlearned.  

The third R Joanna Macy talked about is restoration.  It is about reflecting on what to bring back from the past. We can think about things that we have forgotten to do, perhaps because of new technologies, that are quite wonderful.  For those of us old enough to remember life before texting, we may notice that we have forgotten we can talk to our loved ones on the phone.  In fact, talking on the phone made a comeback during the lockdown as we looked to connect and reconnect with people important to us in our life.  I recently read that research has shown that talking on the phone allows for deeper emotional connection than other mediated means of communication.  We are not advocating talking on the phone all the time but we can restore this means of communication as a way we connect with our friends and loved ones.  Many families and friend groups started having regular videoconference calls during the lockdown.  Frequent gatherings among family and friends were commonplace in the past but our highly individualized life enabled by personalized devices had pushed these gatherings down our list of priorities in life.  For many people who suffer from loneliness and social isolation, restoring communication by actually talking can be helpful.  

During the lockdown, some people have discovered or rediscovered their neighbors.  As we spent time at home, talking with our neighbors while following social distancing protocols fulfilled our emotional need through social interactions.  I have read many articles on how having face-to-face interaction with someone even just for fifteen minutes can lift our mood.  Talking to our neighbors also used to be commonplace and is another thing we have forgotten in our culture that is worth restoring for many of us.  As we stay home with our loved ones, we can also restore the practice of spending time with each other over meals during which we can share our experiences of the day.  It provides us with the opportunity to connect with and support each other.  Due to our busy work life, overscheduled children, and personalized entertainment and communications viewed on our own devices, the percentage of American families eating dinner together has been declining.  Sharing our day over dinner used to be a daily family ritual that has largely been forgotten in our culture.  We can also consider how this practice can be restored in our life to nourish our family life.  Our life circumstances may not allow us to share dinner daily, but the key is to prioritize setting aside time to connect with our loved ones.  

During the lockdown, we may have also rediscovered forgotten hobbies or practices that we used to have that brought us joy or allowed us to conserve our resources.  I read about people repurposing old clothes and toys at home for craft projects.  Others recalled how their grandmother soaked the green onion to keep it fresh.  Many rediscovered the joy of planting a vegetable garden.  We may also rediscover hobbies and practices such playing music, painting, or reading great works of literature such as that volume of War and Peace that has been sitting on the bookshelf gathering dust.  Some of us reconnected with the chanting practice.  I read that singing stimulates the part of our brain that lifts our mood, which could be very helpful when we are kept physically away from our loved ones due to travel restrictions.  

The travel restrictions also afford us the opportunity to reconnect with the natural world around us.  My husband and I discovered a few small ponds in the local natural preserve.  We took walks there and paid regular visits to watch the tadpoles hatch and grow every few days.  Simple activities like that bring a lot of joy and do not cost anything.  We can also reconnect with people in our life that we kept telling ourselves we do not have time to email or call, especially when the fragility of life is in full display during the outbreak.  As we cultivate clarity of our mind, we can look deeply into our heart to identify things that we would like to restore in our life.  We are not talking about turning our life upside down.  These will be subtle adjustments in how we spend a few minutes here and there.  Instead of turning on the television as we usually do, for instance, we can play the piano or check in with our loved ones.  Living life more intentionally allows us to integrate how we would like our life to be and how we spend our time.  This reduces a major source of internal conflict, rendering our life more fulfilling and meaningful.  As we are more content and at peace, we are also more available to our loved ones and capable of bringing benefits to other sentient beings.

The fourth R is reconciliation. With whom do we want to make peace? This is very important. During this period of lockdown, we have gone through a lot and we are able to witness how easy it is to inflict harm on our loved ones when we are stressed out and irritated.  Perhaps we can make peace with our past self who has done things to hurt someone we loved because we were suffering.  When we are able to make peace with this past self, we are also committing not to repeat the same mistake of inflicting pain on our loved ones when we ourselves are hurting and we do so by remembering to practice.  With more clarity as we practice, we fall into the habit of suffering less often which in turn allows us to inflict less harm on others.   

We can also make peace with other people who have hurt us in the past.  As we spent a lot of time at home with our loved ones during the lockdown, we can see more clearly that when we are under stress and suffer, we do unwise things and say unkind words that hurt other people.  When we can see how we do that, we can also see how other people can be unkind and unwise when they are under stress and how they can hurt us.  We do not pretend that they did not do what they did and that we were not hurt, but we make peace with that person because we know they made the mistake because they were suffering.  We may have experienced resentment or hatred or we may even blame ourselves for what that person did, wishing to change the past.  Wishing to change the past, which is impossible, causes agitation in the mind and that is why we experience no peace.  We can make peace with what has happened and the person who hurt us.  It does not necessarily mean that we become best friend with that person.  We may not even have a relationship with that person anymore.  The person with whom we have the non-peaceful relationship is actually our own idea of the person who hurt us.  By recognizing this, we can choose to make peace with it and reconcile with our past.

The pandemic has been devastating in many ways.  For many of us, it has also provided us with the opportunity to reflect on our life.  Joanna Macy’s four Rs–resilience, relinquishment, restoration and reconciliation–provide useful guidance for our reflection.  As long as it is here, we can make good use of this period of social distancing and learn from our reflection as part of our practice.  In this way, regardless of what happens to our job, the economy and other aspects of our world, we can live a more meaningful life where our actions and values are integrated as we practice to make moment-to-moment choices that are in accordance with wisdom and compassion.   

Buddhadharma: Ask the Teachers—Rebecca Li (August 2017)

How can one “take on the suffering of the world” or practice “for the sake of all beings” without also inflating their own sense of self-importance?  As profound as these practices are, they also seem like fodder for the ego. 

As an antidote to the sense of arrogance that may arise when we think “I am doing something so selfless, aren’t I great?”, we can practice giving rise to gratitude for the opportunity to serve.  In particular, we are grateful for all the causes and conditions that make it possible for us to practice and to help other beings through our practice.  Some of these causes and conditions include the fact that our health, family and financial situations are not so desperate that we cannot think of anyone else, the opportunity to study with good teachers who inspire us to practice for the sake of all beings, and the direct and indirect supports we get from so many other people who make our own study and practice possible.  In this way, we realize that we can practice for the sake of all beings not because we are inherently better than others, but rather because numerous causes and conditions have come together to make it possible for us to practice this way.  Part of our practice is remembering to be grateful for this and to understand that practicing for all beings is merely a way to repay everyone who supports and loves us in their own ways.

We can also remind ourselves that while we attempt to help others to alleviate their suffering, whether or not we are successful, in that moment we alleviate our own suffering as we cease to obsess over our own difficulties.  Instead of thinking that we are such great people to be helping others or taking on their suffering, we should thank all beings for allowing us to attempt to play this role.  Just because we want to help does not mean that others have to allow us to help them. The fact that our friends, loved ones and strangers allow us to be there for them, retreatants show up for retreats and practice under our guidance, and practitioners attend our talks or seek our advice should be appreciated as their generosity to let us into their lives and their wisdom to recognize the value of the Dharma.  Without other beings who are willing to open their hearts to receive what we can offer, we would not have the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the Dharma by offering ourselves.  With this attitude, we are less likely to give rise to a sense of ego-feeding self-importance.

It is gratifying to see people’s sufferings lessened in part because of our effort.  We may experience good feelings that can be encouraging and inspiring and these are useful for sustaining our practice on the Path.  If we maintain a clear awareness of what arises in our mind moment after moment, with patience and diligence, we are likely to catch the moments when these good feelings start to turn into a sense of self-importance.  In these moments, if we practice remembering to be grateful for the opportunity to serve and for all the causes and conditions that make it possible for us to practice in this capacity, the sense of self-importance will dissolve on its own.  But, we are only human, so patience/endurance is important, as it can be enticing to let those pleasant sensations associated with thoughts like “I am so selfless” to grow into a full-blown belief of self-importance.  We need forbearance to let go of this self-aggrandizing chain of thoughts.  Diligence is also important.  Just because thoughts of self-importance did not arise in the last moment, it does not mean that we no longer need to be vigilant this moment, or the next.

Why Do We (Buddhist Dharma Practitioners) March?

Why Do We (Buddhist Dharma Practitioners) March? (Chan Magazine, Spring 2018)

by Rebecca Li

Rebecca Li attended her first intensive retreat with Chan Master Sheng Yen in 1996 and began serving as his interpreter in 1998. She started her teacher’s training with Master Sheng Yen in 1999 and started teaching as Dharma and meditation instructor in 2002. Later on, she trained to lead intensive retreats with John Crook and then Simon Child, both Dharma heirs of Master Sheng Yen, and received full Dharma transmission from Simon Child in 2016. Currently, she teaches meditation and Dharma classes, gives public lectures and leads retreats at Dharma Drum centers, university meditation groups and Dharma practice groups mostly in northeastern United States. Some of her talks and writings can be found at Rebecca is also a professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at The College of New Jersey.

On February 3, 2018, I participated in the first New York area gathering of the Buddhist Actions Coalition. Bhikkhu Bodhi started the project and brought together a group of engaged Buddhists to organize the gathering. Greg Snyder, co-founder of Brooklyn Zen Center, asked me if I would give one of the opening addresses to the gathering. As I prepared the talk, I identified a few questions that have been on my mind regarding Dharma practice and being socially engaged. I thought it would be useful to share them. Here is the bulk of what I said that morning:

“Here we are, joining this gathering to find ways to be more engaged. We are putting our moral conviction into action. We may find that we are also putting our practice and faith in the Dharma to the test.

I find myself wondering: how do we engage politically without being sucked into the culture of divisive speech, the mental habit of demonizing those with whom we disagree, and developing rigid views that stop us listening to each other – unfortunate practices that are pervasive in the realm of politics nowadays?

Also, how do we get into the fray of supporting one policy position over another while still being able to empathize with and appreciate the humanity of those of us who may hold different positions?

What do we do when, upon a closer look, we find disagreement between the Buddhist teachings and our existing political position? Are we going to compartmentalize the two, telling ourselves that is where the Dharma no longer applies?

I wonder if it is fear that our current beliefs about ourselves and the Dharma will be challenged if we get more involved that is keeping us from being more engaged.

I have no answer to any of these questions.

We can talk about and analyze them using Dharma concepts, but still we have no idea how any of this is going to unfold in practice. We will just have to find out for ourselves, and the only way to find out is by rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty as we dig into the mess.

If you have been wanting to do more but have been hesitant and wondering about some of these questions, you are not alone. I am with you. Working on this talk has helped me articulate these thoughts.

The question is: do I trust the Dharma practice to get me through the mistakes I will make and find the way to resolve these questions? Absolutely. I have no doubt about that.”

Two weeks after our gathering, seventeen people were killed in a school shooting in Parkland, Florida. We were presented with the opportunity to find out how we can be more engaged while maintaining our commitment to Dharma practice. Surviving students refused to let this be just another school shooting and organized March For Our Lives (MFOL) on March 24 in Washington D.C. and many cities across the country, including New York City, had sister marches. The Buddhist Actions Coalition decided to join the march as a form of Buddhist action. Discussions ensued on organizing various sangha groups and the question of why we would march came up.

I thought about the question, treating it as a huatou, to investigate why I felt it appropriate and important for us Dharma practitioners to march. The following lines came up:

“We march because it is a natural response of our concern for our fellow human beings who have suffered unnecessarily due to the rampant presence of highly potent weapons among civilians. We march because we have been paying attention to the development of this phenomenon over the years and can see that something is seriously wrong, that our society has chosen to prioritize the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries. We march because we realize that it is not enough to pray or dedicate our chanting or meditation, in private or within our centers or temples, to those suffering from losing their loved ones to gun violence and living in fear of gun violence in schools and other public spaces. We march out of appreciation that someone is willing to devote the time and energy to organize collective actions to try to push for sensible legislative changes and we show our gratitude and support by showing up and participating.”

I shared these lines with Greg Snyder who urged me to share them in a public forum. After some thoughts, I decided to explain my thoughts behind these lines in an article for the Chan Magazine.

“We march because it is a natural response of our concern for our fellow human beings who have suffered unnecessarily due to the rampant presence of highly potent weapons among civilians.”

As we engage in the practice, stabilizing the mind and cultivating clear awareness of our body and mind and the world around us, the sense that we are isolated individuals begins to dissolve. Instead, we feel increasingly connected with all sentient beings and cannot help but feel their suffering. This does not mean that we break down sobbing every time we hear in the news about someone having been killed. When we do hear about these incidents in the news, we allow the sadness and sorrow that are natural responses to such human tragedies to arise and be felt. In these moments, we are experiencing our full humanity as we allow our heart to be touched by the suffering of our fellow human beings. Regardless of their nationality, religion, race or whatever categorizations invented by human beings that can be used to create a sense of separation between us and them, we are all capable of feeling the pain and anguish suffered by another sentient being.

As we allow our practice to help us let go of attachment to, and identification with, these categories that distort our view of reality, the interconnectedness among all beings becomes increasingly clear. Our opened and softened heart can feel touched by the deep sorrow of someone who has just lost their parents, siblings, children or friends. The practice allows us to keep our heart open and soft, as opposed to the cultural conditioning of a hardened and closed heart. We may be tempted by the illusory sense of safety or comfort afforded by turning away, telling ourselves that “life is hard” and “the world is a mess” and “people just have to deal with it.” Regardless of whether that is true or not, as practitioners we need to ask ourselves what motivates us to turn away. Are we afraid of feeling and being overwhelmed by others’ suffering? If so, are we allowing this fear to deprive us of the opportunity to connect with the compassion that arises in our heart when we allow ourselves to be touched by the anguish and sorrow of suffering beings? We may think that we are keeping ourselves safe and comfortable by turning away and holding onto this sensation of separateness, yet we are unaware of the great price we are paying – being disconnected from the unconditional love made possible by an open and gentle heart. With practice and cultivation of clear awareness, the price we pay by engaging in these seemingly self-protecting mechanisms becomes increasingly clear. As we let go of the habit of hardening and closing our heart, concerns about the suffering of fellow human beings arise naturally. It is not contrived. It is not out of the obligation of being a “good Buddhist.” We experience it as a natural part of being human.

As the first noble truth describes, “there is suffering.” One may use this as a reason to support this thinking: “that’s the way the world is, that’s what human beings do – suffer, and there is nothing I can do.” But the Buddha also taught us that suffering is not inevitable. The world of samsara (suffering prompts us to hurt others which generates more suffering for ourselves and others) is co-created by sentient beings. We can co-create a world of less suffering as well. History has shown us that human beings are fully capable of organizing ourselves and living together in a way that makes life on this earth less difficult and challenging. We found ways to cooperate in food production so that we could avoid living constantly on the verge of starvation, thus reducing the anxiety related to feeding this human body. Similarly, many societies have found ways to regulate and restrict the ownership and use of deadly weapons to reduce the unnecessary harm caused by the use of these weapons. The stark contrast in premature deaths caused by gun violence between the U.S. and other countries paints a clear picture. It makes the suffering caused by gun violence in the U.S. all the more painful. While death is unavoidable for human beings, most countries have managed to effectively protect their citizens from unnecessary gun-related violence by keeping deadly weapons such as high capacity semi-automatic rifles out of the civilian population. As many clear-eyed students from Parkland, FL have pointed out, an emotionally disturbed person with a knife could not have killed many. Similarly, a child playing with a knife, instead of an unsecured gun, is less likely to be killed or kill someone with it. The needless deaths and suffering from losing our loved ones adds to the sorrow in our heart. The understanding that we need not live like this fuels the resolve to act to reduce the unnecessary suffering.

“We march because we have been paying attention to the development of this phenomenon over the years and can see that something is seriously wrong, that our society has chosen to prioritize the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries.”

Many people misunderstand the practice as focusing only on what is happening in the mind in a way that isolates us from the world around us. Retreats are set up to isolate us from the world in order to provide us with a simplified environment to focus on learning how to practice. It does not mean that we should isolate ourselves from the world in daily life lived outside of retreat. When we try to isolate ourselves from the world, we perpetuate the erroneous view that we are independent of and separated from others instead of uprooting it. As we engage in the practice of silent illumination, we cultivate total awareness of everything. When we are sitting on our cushion, we are clearly aware of the moment to moment changes of bodily sensations, mental activities and happenings in our surrounding environment. When we are living in our daily life at home or at work, we are clearly aware of how others around us are acting and feeling, how our responses are manifested in our body and mind.

Living in the society that we co-create with others; do we pay attention to what has been happening? We do not need to become experts on every issue. If we pay attention, we will notice that every mass shooting was followed by articles by and/or public radio interviews of people who have been studying and following the phenomenon to help us understand the issues. Do we bother to pay attention even when so many people worked so hard to make the information accessible to us? If we don’t, we are setting ourselves up to feel blindsided by events, leaving us feeling shocked, confused, betrayed, disappointed or powerless. If we pay attention, we can see more clearly that these events are the coming together of many causes and conditions, not merely the doing of any isolated individuals.

Among these causes and conditions are: our allowing gun manufacturers to lobby politicians and to control the agenda of organizations such as the NRA, our allowing politicians to become so heavily dependent on private campaign funding as campaigns became more expensive, our allowing mental health care to be neglected, our allowing violence to be glorified instead of promoting nonviolence and kindness in our culture over the past decades, and so on. As we look at the list, beware of our habit of pointing fingers at others. Doing so tends to take us down the road of feeling powerless as we let these “others” be in control of the situation. We can instead reflect on and acknowledge our part in the whole situation. When we do, we may realize that our not paying attention and thus allowing those with vested financial interest in shaping policies and culture in their favor to do so unrestrained may have contributed to these causes and conditions. When we see that our past actions or inactions were part of the causes and conditions that brought about the current state of affairs, in that moment, we can choose to change our actions or stop our habit of inaction and apathy. By taking responsibility without being paralyzed by guilt, we empower ourselves to contribute constructively.

Some practitioners worry about engaging in dualistic thinking and avoid identifying anything as “wrong.” Citing teachings on emptiness, some may argue that everything is empty and thus there is no good, no bad, and no one really dies anyway as death is an illusion. That is the perspective from absolute reality. As ordinary beings, we function in relative reality where we feel the pain of losing loved ones and find devaluing human life in pursuit of profit or power immoral. I find Master Xu Yun’s (Empty Cloud) teaching particularly useful here. In response to people who cited Master Hui Neng’s saying “when the mind is still there is no need to bother upholding the precepts,” the master asked us to reflect on whether our mind is indeed still. By still, he meant the mind “being utterly unmoved when being embraced by someone attractive and naked, not giving rise to a hint of anger or resentment when someone insults or beats us without any reason whatsoever, not discriminating at all between those close to our heart as opposed to strangers.” Only when we can do all of this completely is our mind genuinely still. Until then, we uphold the precepts and practice to discern what is wholesome and what is unwholesome. That is, we do our best to live as ordinary beings using the Dharma as our guide.

As ordinary human beings who engage in Dharma practice, we cultivate wisdom and compassion. With wisdom, we recognize what is beneficial to sentient beings and what is harmful and causes suffering. With compassion, we try our best to bring benefits and avoid causing harm to others and ourselves. In this way, as we cultivate the path toward Buddhahood, we can at least be decent human beings and responsible members of our family, community and society. As we recognize that prioritizing the rights of corporations to profit from selling guns over everyone’s longing to live without fear of unnecessary gun deaths and injuries is causing fear and suffering, we do our part as citizens in a democracy to reduce the suffering. At the same time, we practice to not give rise to hatred and delusion as these vexations obscure our wisdom and compassion.

“We march because we realize that it is not enough to pray or dedicate our chanting or meditation, in private or within our centers or temples, to those suffering from losing their loved ones to gun violence and living in fear of gun violence in schools and other public spaces.”

When we hear news of people being killed and hurt by guns, our heart aches. Our heart goes out to everyone who lost their lives, who had to experience those terrifying moments of violence and endure the trauma in the months and years to come, who are heartbroken by the loss of their loved one, and who find their sense of safety shattered and become anxious and fearful. We express our solidarity and support by praying and dedicating our practice to everyone who suffers. This shows that we are human and that we can empathize with other people’s suffering.

Praying calms our mind as we struggle to make sense of what has happened. The increased level and intensity of anxiety triggered by news of gun violence can be quite overwhelming and unsettling. Practices of praying, chanting or meditating in private or with fellow practitioners in our temples can be very helpful in these challenging times.

While we are praying or chanting or meditating, we need to pay attention to thoughts and feelings that arise under these circumstances. When we pray or chant or meditate for peace and alleviation of suffering, we may notice nagging questions such as: How is the peace we are praying for supposed to come about? Who is going to do the work to bring about peace? When we ask these questions, do we picture that someone else will do the work necessary to bring about the changes for which we are praying? Who is this “someone else” supposed to be? Why aren’t we one of these people? Are we waiting for someone to miraculously make everything better for us?

One of the most inspiring quotes I have seen is “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” Instead of helplessly waiting for the perfect person to show up to save us, we can do something in this very moment. We can take responsibility for co-creating the world we would like to live in. While there is no absolute safety in the world, we know that it is possible to co-create a world where we do not need to live in fear of gun violence while attending school (or while our loved ones are at school), watching a movie, attending a concert, spending some leisure time in a shopping mall, or gathering with others in a house of worship. We know it is possible because we have seen a world without rampant gun violence. We have seen other countries experience drastic declines in deaths from gun violence when they treat gun ownership as a right that comes with responsibility, and limit such right only to those unlikely to harm themselves or others with their guns.

Why is praying and dedicating our chanting or meditation not enough? It may be enough if all we want is to feel better ourselves. If we are serious about benefiting sentient beings and care about the well-being of our fellow human beings, we need to contribute to changing aspects of our system that allow gun violence to proliferate. Many countries passed and implemented laws to restrict access to deadly weapons after experiencing mass shootings, and saw deaths caused by gun violence drop precipitously. What needs to be done in our system is not a mystery. As long as those profiting from the current system can continue to do so unabated, they will. Hoping that corporations will stop maximizing profits permitted by the law is wishful thinking, a form of delusion, and not seeing reality clearly as it is. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has said, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” Praying for what we hope for is not enough; we also need to take part in the work of change-making.

When we pray and show our solidarity and support privately or within our centers or temples, we are not aware of how widely shared the sentiment is that something is seriously wrong and how deep the suffering is. When responding in isolation only, we are prone to underestimate the severity of the situation. When we join others and learn about how others feel, we allow the gravity of the situation to sink in and touch the core of our being. Reading the signs made by other participants at the march put a human face on all the abstract ideas that I have read about regarding the issue of gun violence. Some of the most haunting sights at the march were seeing a man hold up a sign saying “I was a kid when my mother killed herself with a gun that she should never have been allowed to get” and an elementary school child wearing a sign over his chest saying “Am I next?” Connecting with other humans in our response makes things real and keeps us from turning away or falling back into the habit of thinking that it is just another news story.

Bringing structural change is hard work and takes perseverance. The suffering expressed by these fellow human beings will motivate us to keep trying, doing what we can to contribute to the causes and conditions needed to bring about change. We may not live to see the legislative changes needed but we vow to keep doing our part. As my late teacher Master Sheng Yen said, “empty space may have limit, my vow is limitless.” In this spirit, we vow to contribute to the betterment of this world as part of our bodhisattva vow.

“We march out of appreciation that someone is willing to devote the time and energy to organize collective actions to try to push for sensible legislative changes and we show our gratitude and support by showing up and participating.”

The students of Parkland, Florida put time and energy into organizing March For Our Lives to bring change after witnessing years of inaction. They could have been doing fun things to amuse themselves as teenagers, but they chose to do something for all of us. The least we could do was to do our best to show up and encourage others to do the same. If no one participated, we would be telling these young people that we really did not care and therefore breed more cynicism. We would also be killing their enthusiasm and hope for a better future by not showing our support. These are examples of how inaction creates unwholesome karma. Many years ago, I learned from a volunteer at the Chan Meditation Center who encouraged everyone to show up for an event as a form of offering. Indeed! There would be no event if only the speaker showed up. Similarly, the students were doing the heavy lifting of organizing the march, all we needed to do was to show up. They gave us an opportunity to cultivate the paramita of generosity, by offering our embodied presence to a worthwhile cause.

It was also an opportunity to cultivate gratitude to those who are willing to lead and act, despite having to endure criticism and sometimes personal danger by speaking out and organizing for change. One way to express our gratitude is to show up and participate to repay such a generous offering of courage and fearlessness that gives us hope and empowers us and keep us from falling into despair.

Some people may think that it was a waste of time as nothing would change even if hundreds of thousands of people joined the march. It was not a waste of time because everyone who participated was changed, and everyone around them were changed indirectly through their participation. It may not be visible, at least at first, these inspiring moments are like seeds that germinate in our heart. An event like this inspires those who were there and those who weren’t, but there would be no event if no one participated. Our participation is a very concrete way to co-create the world we would like to live in by co-creating these moments that become seeds in our heart. Some of the organizers and participants may become our future political leaders, civic leaders, corporate executives, pastors, teachers who will continue to spread these seeds that were planted in their hearts. If we remember the teachings of the law of cause and effect and the law of causes and conditions, we will know that it is an erroneous view to believe that nothing would change with so many people showing up and being inspired by each other. In fact, the country’s mood regarding the issue of guns has already shifted since the march.

Joining the march was not the only way to act. Many people donated money to support the students’ organizing efforts. Some helped with publicity and encouraging others to march even though they could not participate. At the march in Manhattan, some people bought food and water and handed them out to participants along the route and cheered us on. I was deeply moved. Every little thing each of us does serves to encourage everyone to remain involved and persevere, as structural change will take decades if not longer to materialize. In response to my invitation to join me at the march, many people sent encouraging words and support even though they were not able to join me. Their support, in turn, encouraged me to remain engaged as it would have become all too easy to let other things in my life to push this aside.

We need to be careful not to put ourselves above others when we engage socially as Buddhists. I was grateful that causes and conditions allowed me to join the march. Many people were not able to join for many reasons. Some had to work. Some were too exhausted from work. Some were not physically well enough to march. Some had responsibilities they could not get out of. It was a miracle that the march was scheduled on a Saturday when I was available, as weekends tend to be very busy for me. I was grateful that my schedule worked out and my life circumstances allowed me to join. Many people told me that they wanted to join but could not because of various reasons that kept them from participating. I was grateful that I could be there and marched with them in spirit. That means the millions of people who showed up at March For Our Lives across the U.S. and around the world represented only a fraction of us who cared and wanted to engage. May we remember this to keep our heart nourished, especially for the moments when we feel loneliness, cynicism and despair are about to take over our heart. May we all have the good fortune of finding the causes that move us to engage as we tread the bodhisattva path together.


Click here for the PDF of the published article

Chan Practice and Contemplation about Race

This article is a reflection of my participation in the Third Buddhism and Race conference at Harvard Divinity School in March 2017 published in the Spring 2017 issue of Chan Magazine.

Chan Practice and Contemplation about Race: Reflection on the Third Buddhism and Race conference in March 2017

By Rebecca Li

When I was invited to return to the Buddhism and Race conference in 2017, I had no idea what I was expected to talk about.  I agreed to go because I learned a lot from participating on the panels the year before and the experience transformed my Dharma practice and teaching.  While I felt honored to be invited back and excited to see my friends, I was not sure what I would contribute to the conference this time.  I wondered if I was being invited to speak on behalf of Asian American Buddhists who remain relatively invisible despite their important contributions to Buddhism in the United States.  Whatever the case, I told myself that I would make good use of the opportunity to contemplate this important issue and would not be too worried about what was expected of me.

Serendipitously, prior to the conference, I was invited to participate in a documentary project in which Asian American Dharma practitioners and teachers shared their experience.  My experience during filming allowed me to explore my experience as an “Asian American,” and to examine why I had hesitated to engage in discussions of race even though I knew, at least intellectually, that race issues are central to much of everyday life here in the U.S.

At the opening panel of the conference, titled “What is the Conversation?”, I mentioned that I had shied away from discussions of race because I felt unqualified since I did not grow up in this racialized society.  But I also came to realize that my experience growing up in Hong Kong, a relatively unracialized society, and of having my perspectives shaped unconsciously by living here allows me to appreciate how powerful the social forces revolving around race in America has been in shaping my being and the way I relate to others.   I recounted the recent experience of filming for the above-mentioned documentary on Asian American Buddhists.  To begin the filming of my segment, I was asked to say “I am Asian American, and my people are …”.  What the director assumed to be a straightforward process ended up taking much longer because I had trouble saying that phrase.  I felt like I was asked to introduce myself with someone else’s words.  It was important to me for my sharing on that video to be heart-felt, and I thought it necessary to voice my objection to introducing myself that way.  Struggling with identifying myself this way in the presence of others helped me to investigate my feelings about this subject matter more deeply.

I asked myself if I was ashamed of being Asian American.  After all, I have read accounts of Asian American children who grew up here feeling that way due to internalized racism.  I didn’t believe that was causing my reluctance to introduce myself as “Asian American,” but instead felt my reluctance was resistance to having an artificial label imposed upon me.  The category “Asian American” is the result of an effort to categorize individuals with Asian ancestry as neither black nor white.  I often told my sociology students that I became “Asian” when I came to this country, referring to the point that before I moved to this country, I was not seen through preconceived notions of how “Asian” or “Chinese” are supposed to be.  People related to me as a student, drama enthusiast, so-so tennis player, etc.  In other words, I was treated as a person with my own idiosyncrasies, passions, and flaws.  Here I have often been seen only as Asian or Chinese and was forced to identify myself almost exclusively with my ancestry and to be judged accordingly.

One of my first interactions in graduate school was someone commenting on how I did not act like a Chinese.  When I asked her how many Chinese she has met, she was unable to think of one.  Here I was, being forced to defend my self-worth based on pure imaginations she had in her mind about how “Chinese” are supposed to behave.  I was disheartened by the fact that I was seen only as part of this category called “Chinese.”  I am ethnically Chinese, yes; but that is not the only thing I am.  The experience left an impression because it left a rather deep wound.  Since then, many times, I was either “too Chinese” or “not Chinese enough.”  The question of whether my being Chinese will become an issue in an interaction always lurks in the background.  I could be having a fun casual conversation with someone, and out of the blue, my individuality would be erased entirely by a passing remark where I am thrown into a pile of faceless “Chinese.” This makes fully trusting someone difficult, as I never knew when this might happen.  When it does, I feel completely alone, since no one acknowledges that this is, or even might be, hurtful.  This is what living in a racialized society does.  In those moments of my resisting saying I am Asian American on camera, I realized that I have experienced this label as a form of violence, of being thrown into a box that does not capture who I really am, and feeling the pain of isolation that accompanied that experience.

Investigating my mind through Chan helped me become more clearly aware of the subtle mental processes created by being seen only as a category.  Despite the absence of outright discrimination or bigotry by and large, and very often with people really trying to be nice, I came to understand the pain I experienced from these instances over the years as that of not being seen as a full human being.  For the nice people who insisted on seeing me through their abstract category of “Chinese,” the parts of me that do not fit into “being Chinese” were either disallowed or ignored.  As painful as this has been, I have also learned not to allow myself to recognize the experience in racial terms.  Looking back, I realized that I picked up the racial vibe very soon after moving to this country, and realized that thinking and talking about race makes people uncomfortable.  In my effort to survive in this country without a single family member or close friend at that time, it did not feel safe to do anything to make other people uncomfortable.  So my instinct compelled me, without my being aware of it, to steer clear of recognizing my experience as an issue of race, even though there was no shortage of such experiences.

On the panel, I also shared when I started to have an inkling of my unwillingness to recognize the role played by race in my life.  Years ago when I was still working out my difficulties with Simon Child, my current teacher and one of Master Sheng Yen’s Dharma heirs, in intensive retreats, as I penetrated layers and layers of conditioning and vexations, I felt I was blocked by an invisible wall in my mind.  Looking back, it was not so much that it was invisible as I was reluctant to face it.  At the time, I wondered if my sense of alienation and feeling undeserving, which became more acute after I moved to the U.S., had to do with racism and I remember wanting to explore it but feeling a very strong resistance to pursuing it.  Even though I fully trusted my teacher, the instinct against bringing up race was so strong that I held back over and over again.  At that time I noticed that the resistance was so strong that I shied away from the inquiry when I asked myself why I hesitated to bring up the issue in interviews.  Now that I recognize my resistance, the inner work I did preparing for the conference illumines the emotional dynamic underlying the resistance.

While I would not wish it upon anyone, I am glad that I went through this process of hurt and alienation and the inner struggle to recognize my resistance and pain.  I now have a better sense of how difficult it is to cut through the layers of self-views and beliefs that obscure us from clearly seeing the power of cultural conditioning and social control.  They are so ubiquitous that it is difficult to notice them operating in the mind.  This process of self-exploration also helped me explain the question “how is the discussion of race connected to Chan practice?”

Intellectually I understand that race is an important social force in American society and any engaged citizen should try to understand the issues and be part of the solution.  Hence, it is a topic that an engaged Buddhist practitioner ought to be familiar with.  I have been wondering, however, whether it, and if so how it, is important for every Dharma practitioner to make a serious effort to investigate the role race plays in their being?  I came to the conference wanting to work on this question.  Throughout the conference discussions, I kept discovering very important things about myself and the practice.  Even though it was a conference, it felt more like an intensive Chan retreat for me, and by the end of the conference, the connection became clear and I was fully convinced that looking at race needs to be part of Chan practice in American society.  I look at race as a starting point, which will help us learn to examine other mental categories that may separate us from other human beings, such as gender, sexual orientation, social class, lay/monastic, political orientation, or religious affiliation.  Practicing this way will deepen our understanding of our mind and its myriad conditionings by the social world so that, if we want, it is possible to be free from them.  Looking at race highlights the fact that understanding ourselves only at the psychological level is not enough.  We need to also understand ourselves as social beings who interact and act out beliefs and worldviews promoted by various social institutions that are often unbeknownst to us, or unacknowledged.  Cultivating a clear awareness of how social structure and cultural beliefs about race shape our mind and actions is crucial to reducing suffering to self and others and achieving liberation at the individual and collective levels.

The practice of Chan is to cultivate clarity of what is actually going on.  Our sense of reality is often distorted by filters we apply in our mind, leading us to view reality in ways that confirm our existing beliefs and worldviews while ignoring the inconvenient facets of reality that contradict them.  This is the main mechanism through which we maintain a sense of self with a coherent narrative.  We come to understand ourselves as a fixed entity rather than recognizing that it is, like everything in the universe, a conditioned process.  This is the fundamental ignorance of the true nature of self that Sakyamuni Buddha talked about.  The cultivation of total awareness and the questioning of entrenched beliefs and self-views in Chan practice cuts through layer upon layer of conditioning or self-attachment.  The moments we remember to practice, we can see everything, including ourselves and other human beings, in their totality.  In these moments, we cannot help but feel deeply connected with everyone, allowing unconditional love to arise naturally.  With that understanding we are inevitably compelled to refrain from causing suffering, and strive to bring joy to self and others.

As I investigated race in my own experience, the fact that race is socially constructed became more than a theoretical concept taught in sociology.  It helped me make sense of my experience.  While we want to believe that race is biologically-based, scientists have found that people from different racial groups can be more similar genetically than some of those put in the same racial group.  Furthermore, how racial groups are defined changes over time and varies across societies.  In other words, racial categories are not independently, inherently existing entities.  They are empty!  These categories are made up by humans according to the historical and cultural contexts in our society.   Race is an idea we have created to put people into different categories which are often ordered hierarchically.  Though empty, the idea of race is, nevertheless, very powerful and sticky.  People believe in and identify with race very strongly, often without being aware of all the ways it impacts their thinking and actions.  While racial categories are socially constructed, being put into these categories, and putting others into them, has real consequences.

As I observed how the idea of race affects my experience of reality, this is what I discovered: when I see another person through these categories, I am seeing the ideas associated with that person’s race fed to me by society–through my parents, teachers, friends, and the media–rather than seeing the person in front of me.  I see issues that I have read to be associated with that racial category coming through my mind.  All of this shapes my assumption about this person, creating the impression or illusion that I already know who s/he is.  With this thought in my mind, the next thought is “there is no need to talk to or pay attention to what s/he is saying.”  I then respond to my idea of this person based on these assumptions instead of the reality of the person.  When this happens, we are mistaking the thoughts and ideas that flow through our mind for the person right in front of us.  Not being aware of this confusion is fundamental ignorance (literally “no clarity” in Chinese).  That is how we can blurt out things that define an individual entirely based on his/her race without even knowing it.  When the hierarchical order of racial categories is also in operation and if the person belongs to an “inferior” category, we may not even hear what this person has said because we are so habituated to tuning people of that race out.  Yet we are offended or confused when we are called out on our actions because we are completely unaware of the operation of these ideas in our mind.

We have essentially dehumanized another person, reducing him/her into certain preconceived notion, rather than recognizing his/her full humanity.  Because we are convinced that these preconceived notions are the person, we cannot see the person as someone with a story to which we can relate with an open heart.  We have reduced this living, breathing human being into a lifeless object, a racial category, and this can lead us to not thinking twice about diminishing, dismissing or even demonizing the person.  When we are not aware of such tendencies in our mind, we respond in ways that cause suffering for self and others.  The experience of not being seen and feeling invisible, not to mention any unfair treatment one may receive, is very painful and contributes to one’s feeling undeserving of love and respect as a full human being.  Hence, every time we treat someone as a category instead of really seeing them for who they are, we are causing great suffering.

Sadly, we also cause suffering to ourselves since we are often unaware of how we ourselves are dehumanized in the process.  Since racial categories are defined relative to each other (eg. black vs white, white vs non-white, etc.), when we only see someone as white/black/Chinese and therefore as different, we can only see ourselves as not-white/black/Chinese in that moment.  We lose touch with the rest of ourselves.  Hence, when we see others through, and relate to someone only as, a racial category, we reduce ourselves to a category as well and cease to see ourselves as full human beings.  We deny ourselves the full range of our experience as a human that can happen only when we allow ourselves to connect fully with others as fellow human beings.

When we become aware of how the social structure of racial hierarchy is superimposed on our thinking, we begin to realize how our being and our ways of relating to others have been conditioned by this structure.  Hopefully through practice we can also discover that we need not choose to see people through the lens of these categories.  The habit is so entrenched that it may not feel like we have any choice.  But we do.  Each moment, we can choose to follow our habits that cause suffering for self and others, or we can choose not to repeat those habits even though they are familiar and give us the illusion of comfort.  We can choose to see all others as fellow human beings like ourselves, free from such categories.  I am not talking about ignoring the difference in our experiences, backgrounds, worldviews, beliefs, or the fact that this person may not even like me.  We can be keenly aware of all these differences but still choose to listen to and feel for others as fellow human beings trying to cope in this world of suffering.  When we do, we connect with ourselves and others more fully, and we are more able to empathize even though we may disagree.

Powerful conditioning may compel us to hold onto the categories and the hierarchical order of the categories, especially when we occupy a position of privilege.  Voluntarily deciding to share power and privilege that humans have spent a lifetime accumulating and/or protecting is no easy task.  We should commend anyone, including ourselves, for even considering doing so.  We may find ourselves not yet ready to tackle every category.  One may be more ready to give up one’s privilege that comes with one’s race but not with one’s gender, for instance.  Nevertheless, we accept that this is where we are right now.  The practice will afford us the clarity to recognize that we are, in this moment, choosing to retain our privilege.  At least we know where we are and are clear about the work that is still ahead of us.  Practicing in this way, perhaps we can limit the harm done to ourselves and others in the meantime.

Paying attention to how race conditions our being and our relations to others is only a starting point.  There are many other hierarchies and categorizations in our social structure based on gender, sexual orientation, social class, age, political orientation, religious affiliation, body shape, to name a few, that can be used to generate and perpetuate a sense of separateness from others.  We also have a tendency to use these categories to put others down in order to elevate ourselves as a way to cope with our suffering.  As a practitioner, when we feel inferior to others or see others as less deserving of love and respect than ourselves, we can check to see if we are seeing others through one or a combination of these categories, and how they are embedded in hierarchies. We can practice seeing how we are overlooking aspects of their humanity.  No less importantly, we practice remembering that we always have a choice and we do not have to go down the path that causes suffering.

Chan practice is precisely about investigating our mind’s very entrenched habits.  Diligent practice allows us to see more clearly how social forces condition and perpetuate views of our place in social structure and how they compel us to relate to others based on these categories.  The practice is about seeing clearly how the structure works in shaping ours and others’ views and actions so that we know whether the thoughts and actions we choose every moment are perpetuating this structure or dismantling it to free ourselves from the bondage of unhelpful and harmful thoughts and beliefs.  As we practice this way, our mental, emotional and behavioral responses begin to change and we can better contribute to the liberation of all people from the bondage of the unjust structures that live and operate in the mind.

I love the way Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams reminded us that we gain our humanity when we are able to let go of our privilege and leave others’ humanity intact.  She also insisted that we must engage in this conversation out of love for everyone involved.  If we cannot do it out of love, perhaps this particular group or moment is not the right one.  I also appreciate Lama Rod’s emphasis on the need for healing from the pain we have inflicted on each other, intentionally or unintentionally, as a result of living in this racialized society.  I am grateful to Jan Willis who brought up Shantideva’s teaching of “do no harm, practice good” repeatedly throughout the conference.  It sounded simple, but diligently checking to see if we are indeed practicing good instead of doing harm will bring profound transformations to our heart and our actions, rendering us a contributor to this project of collective liberation.


An Interview with Rebecca Li

George Marsh, editor of New Chan Forum, interviewed Rebecca Li in January 2017 about her story leading to becoming Simon Child’s second Dharma heir.  This article authored by George Marsh and Rebecca Li was published in New Chan Forum, issue 54, summer 2017.  

An Interview with Rebecca Li (by George Marsh and Rebecca Li)

Was there religion in your childhood?  Was there any sign of transcendence or vision?  How about influences from Chinese culture?

I grew up in Hong Kong, which is a very Westernised place, and went to an English school, so I never searched for Buddhism. In fact, I almost became a Catholic in secondary school.  The most memorable early experiences that might have primed me to be open to Buddhism were two.  When I was about seven I was in my father’s hardware store in Hong Kong, and while alone I had the strong feeling that I was in the wrong place in the wrong body, like I didn’t belong there.  It was a very strong and shocking feeling.  “Why am I here?” I wondered. At that moment it felt like I belonged somewhere else. That memory and feeling stuck with me, and while I didn’t have any ideas beyond the feeling of awe at that strange feeling at the time, because it did stick with me so vividly I suspect it helped open me to the idea of past lives when I was eventually exposed to Buddhism.  That said, I am not sure for one to practice Chan that it is necessary to believe in rebirth, but I definitely don’t close my mind to that possibility.

Later, when I was about eight, in Elementary School, I heard Hui Neng’s four-line verse (“There is no Bodhi-tree/ Nor stand of a mirror bright/ Since all is void/ Where can the dust alight?”) on a TV show.  I asked my mom, who was also watching, what it meant and she just said it was something Buddhist.  I didn’t experience any realization or anything like that but I did find it intriguing, and thought that maybe Buddhism, whatever that was, would be interesting.  My family was not religious nor was my mother Buddhist, but I did think at that time “If I ever have a religion it might be Buddhism.”  So even though I never pursued it, or sought it out, that openness to Buddhism remained, so when I finally was exposed to it I had an open mind.

In addition to my family not being religious, we were also not brought up “traditionally”.  The Confucian values of family, filial piety, duty and obedience are very strong for the Chinese.  It is much more so in Taiwan and China than in Hong Kong, but it is still a common set of values in Hong Kong as well.  However, my father was considered something of an eccentric because he taught us not to blindly respect someone just because s/he is an elder or an authority figure but we should think for ourselves whether that person’s views and actions are sensible, so I became very independent in judgement.  This later affected how I related to Buddhism and Buddhist teachers.  But more on that later.

How did you come to Chan?  Tell me about your first meeting with Master Sheng Yen.

It was not until I was a graduate student in California that I encountered Buddhism and began to feel its pull. I was going through a period of deep sadness after losing a friendship which had been very important to me at that time.  A number of people treated me as someone who could help them with their problems, but in fact I had real problems of my own that I was not sure how deal with.  I thought I must do something different, to try a new approach so I joined an Aikido class, feeling the need to connect my mind and body.  It was an attempt to break my mode of living at that time which was very cerebral and focused on abstract ideas. I became interested in meditation after reading Eric Fromm’s Escape from Freedom in which he said reading, something I was doing a lot of, was a form of escape and perhaps we should try meditation.  Even though I had no idea what meditation was, I was intrigued by the idea. I also met David at that time, now my husband, who was taking Qi Gong and Chan meditation classes.

David told me about the meditation classes he was attending with Gilbert Gutierrez, a student of Master Sheng Yen who later became one of Master Sheng Yen’s Dharma heirs. Hearing about that, I found myself reading a few of Master Sheng Yen’s books. They were a revelation to me. They explained so much, and many things started to make sense, in particular my friendship difficulty.  It made sense that changes in causes and conditions lead to the coming into being and the passing away of impermanent feelings and connections, unfortunately even including friendship. But this helped me understand that what I was suffering over was a natural process, and that even though it was painful it was how things work.

My very first class with Gilbert Gutierrez was on Yogacara. I knew nothing at all about it conceptually, but did feel that it made sense somehow.  One person in the class also reported on a seven-day retreat that he just attended with Master Sheng Yen in Queens, NY. For some reason that sounded like something I definitely wanted to do, and the sooner the better!  In addition, Gilbert’s wife Ellen was Taiwanese and she had practiced for a long time, including under Master Sheng Yen.  She had a lot of compassion and wisdom and influenced me deeply. One thing she told me at the time was “Don’t go to any random teacher.  You need to be careful who you follow.  It is important to follow someone with clear lineage so that you will not be led astray.”  Growing up in Hong Kong where we were taught to be sceptical about self-proclaimed masters of all kinds, such as those claiming the ability to turn copper into gold, I took her advice to heart.  Based on what I read and his background, I felt that Master Sheng Yen would be a good teacher for me to follow.  Years later when I worked on Shifu’s autobiography, I found that he practiced with new religious groups in Japan and it helped me become more open-minded about teachers from all backgrounds.  As I met teachers from different traditions, it has become clear to me that it is an individual’s practice and conduct that makes one a worthwhile teacher.

Around that time, Shifu (Master Sheng Yen) was due to make his first visit to California and I was absolutely sure I wanted to take refuge with him.  As his visit approached I got very sick all of a sudden, and I remember this thought arising in my mind, “maybe I will be too sick to travel to the refuge ceremony.”  I was shocked to see that thought and said to myself, “Even if I have to crawl, I’ll go.”  It was a taste of the practice of angry determination that Shifu would often talk about in retreat, and I knew that it was essential for keeping us on the path.

I have to say that I felt a strong connection to Master Sheng Yen from the beginning. I had not met him in person until that refuge ceremony and I did not know much about him other than a few of his books I have read (it was before the time of Google), yet I was sure that I wanted to follow him on my spiritual journey.  Later on, I met many people who have studied with many different teachers in their search.  For some reason, I felt that I had found my teacher when I met Shifu; there was no need to look anywhere else.

There are four lines that emphasize how rare it is to be born with a human body, what an opportunity it is, and how rare it is to meet the Buddhadharma and have access to liberation. These lines made a very deep impression on me.  Master Sheng Yen started his journey along this line, feeling that Buddhadharma is so wonderful and it was such a pity that so few people knew about it.  This was why he devoted his life to sharing the Dharma and I felt a similar calling to do so.  Following Master Sheng Yen has thus always felt like accepting his invitation to everyone to join him to share the Dharma.

In the mid-1990s, Shifu’s intensive retreats were held in the Chan Meditation Center with enough space for only thirty participants.  It was very difficult to get accepted to a retreat.  I was so happy, after one failed attempt, to finally have the opportunity to attend a seven-day intensive retreat even though that involved flying across the county all by myself. In that retreat, like the next few, I was mostly dealing with drowsiness from jetlag and a drastically different daily schedule than my usual night owl life.  When it was my turn for an interview with Shifu, I didn’t really have any questions for him.  For some reason, I would just start crying as soon as I sat in front of him and could not stop.  I remember feeling, “thank goodness, I finally found you again!” Recalling this now still tears me up. It was as if I was with him a long time ago and got separated, like a child who got separated from her parents in a crowded market, and the joy I felt was like being reunited with my loved ones.  At the end of my first retreat we had a sharing.  Because my Mandarin was not good, I shared my experience in English.  After I finished, Shifu looked me in the eyes and said, “You are going to help a lot of people.”  It was a vivid memory because I was puzzled.  I did not say anything extraordinary.  I was barely able to stay awake during my meditation.  “How on earth am I supposed to help a lot of people?” I thought to myself.  Perhaps that comment helped put me on my path as I would use that to remind myself to make myself useful for others as I engage in the practice.  It was that mentality that guided me as I served as Shifu’s interpreter, board member of Dharma Drum Retreat Center, Dharma teacher, and as a retreat leader.

How did you learn the specialist Buddhist vocabulary to translate for Master Sheng Yen?  Please share some of your stories traveling with him.

I did not speak much Mandarin when I first met Shifu at the retreat in New York.  I only had one course in college and my listening comprehension was still quite poor.  I had to rely on Ming Yee’s translation to understand Shifu’s Dharma talks.  When I was invited to be trained as Shifu’s translator I tried much harder to learn Mandarin. One difficulty was that he spoke with a strong accent which I could not follow at first. I learned to understand Shifu’s accent by listening to his recorded talks again and again, and listening to the translations of his previous translator (Ming Yee) to get to know the technical vocabulary.  To learn the Buddhist terms I bought a Buddhist specialist dictionary and collected all kinds of glossaries that listed Buddhist terms in Chinese, Sanskrit and English and memorized them.  As I gained more confidence in my translations, I moved away from trying to find the perfect translation for a specific term. I teach sociological theory which also has a lot of specialised language, and I have found it much more helpful when I explain these concepts to my students in layman’s terms and minimize the use of jargons.  The goal is to understand the idea and the word used to communicate the idea is merely an approximation, so what is important is to work out what the idea really means.  So I would ask Shifu to explain the concept to me and then construct my own English equivalent.  I guess I did alright since from time to time Shifu would comment that the English explanation was clearer than the one in Chinese!

In this way I got to know Shifu well. We travelled together quite a bit, mostly for religious leaders meetings and also for a retreat in Switzerland.  Since we shared hotel breakfasts together and worked together I had a different point of view from those who treated him as a god. I did not just see him as someone up on the stage or pedestal. I saw him as human, as a monk, and as a practitioner like the rest of us. Because my dad told me a person has to earn your respect I judged Shifu as I found him, not based on others’ notions, or mystical beliefs.  Shifu most definitely earned my respect.  He did so by being a serious practitioner, and by adhering to the Buddha’s teachings sincerely and treating each person with genuine respect.

Shifu had a very weak stomach, so he always travelled with an attendant who cooked his food for him and often with a secretary and other helpers as well. After 9/11 in New York he was invited with other religious leaders to the World Economic Forum, held in New York in 2002 to show solidarity (it is usually held in Davos, Switzerland). Entourages were severely restricted. Only a single translator was allowed, so I had to be his food attendant, secretary, liaison with Taiwan as well as translator, but he happily pitched in.  So between us we did the faxing, secretarial work, reporting to Taiwan and so on. I did my best serving him food, knowing that I was probably breaking all kinds of protocol as attendant since I did not really what they were.  It was totally not a problem for him that things were not done the usual proper way or in the correct sequence. And he was willing to chip in and do whatever needed to be done. He was capable of not being the VIP, and did not have a self-important ego.

When I had the responsibility for running the retreat centre in upstate New York he was able to play the role of President without always being in charge. If people tried to lobby him for changes at the retreat center, he would refer them to me. He did not have to exercise his power. When I read about abuses of power in some other Zen communities Shifu’s example stuck with me. It is important for the teacher to be aware that just because others let you be the power, you do not have to.

When we were working on his autobiographical book Footprints in the Snow he used to completely forget about his Master’s “dignity” and he would act out scenes from his childhood and youth to me. I remember him down on the floor demonstrating the push-ups he did in army training, a wonderfully informal man reliving it all for the book.

On a trip to Jerusalem for another meeting of religious leaders I saw how quickly he absorbed large quantities of information and could understand why he was so successful. I gave him a briefing, using the information I read, on the history of various sites we visited and the city itself.  A film crew from Taiwan was traveling with us for a documentary of Shifu.  When I saw Shifu’s interview on this trip, he repeated everything I told him about the history of the sites.  It was really impressive what a fast learner he was, especially when he did this amidst a busy meeting schedule for the religious leaders. Also on that trip I saw him forego his special meal, out of a delicate concern for others who could not eat at the same time, knowing that he would suffer for it later.  To this day, I still draw on things I learned by watching Shifu’s responses to situations during our travels when I try to figure out how to handle difficult situations I encounter.

Could you share with me some of your retreat experiences?

When I started attending retreats with Shifu, they were not divided between huatou and Silent Illumination.  I mainly learned how to use the breath method and it seemed some participants were practicing with a huatou.  Those were very important retreats as they laid the foundation of establishing right views and proper attitudes toward the practice for me.

In my early years serving as Shifu’s translator on retreats, I attended several huatou retreats mostly because they were the ones that fit into my schedule. I was a slow learner and it took me a while to appreciate how powerful huatou practice was.  Then in 2004 when I travelled with Shifu to Switzerland to translate for him at the Silent Illumination retreat I told Shifu that the huatou still came up on its own. He said, “That’s okay. In the depths of silence there’s the question anyway.” It helped me understand that the separation of the two styles is somewhat arbitrary. They are different doors to enter the same room.

My first Western Zen Retreat with John Crook in 2001, however, transformed my practice.  The combination of communication exercises and intensely personal interviews helped pushed me deeper into my practice.  Because of that, I consider John my second teacher besides Shifu.  I believe his approach is an important innovation in Chan to meet the needs of practitioner living in the modern era.  I was able to see through many of my vexations in the retreats with John, which were often co-led by Simon Child and Hilary Richards.  After Shifu stopped traveling to the U.S. for retreats, John and Simon became my main teachers.  Besides participating in their retreats, I began my training with them first as guest master and then with Simon to conduct retreat interviews.  I started training exclusively with Simon after John passed away in 2011.  The training was a very important part of my practice in those years.  They helped me work through a lot of deeply entrenched habitual tendencies.  Learning how to conduct retreat interviews and lead the Western Zen Retreat was one of the most difficult things I have undertaken.  I wondered many times if I could ever get it.  Learning how to persevere through it all was one of the many great gifts I received from Simon for which I am forever grateful.  In a retreat I sat with Simon in 2010, causes and conditions came together and Simon informed me that I had seen the nature and I wrote about it in a retreat report.  I can’t help but feel that I am the most fortunate person on earth.  Meeting and practicing with a great master like Master Sheng Yen is already a great blessing.  I was also able to meet and study with two other great masters, John Crook and Simon Child, along with others who have taught me on the Path.  The only way I know to repaid their kindness is to share the Dharma using what I have learned from them.

Now that you have received Dharma transmission, what do you want to do with it?  Will you lead retreats in Britain? Will you start your own Sangha?  Will you teach in a traditional Chinese or modern Westernized style, or reform the teaching in some way?

As you can see, I came to Chan like many westerners or “convert Buddhists” did.  The way Shifu taught in the West appealed to those of us with more scientific minds like John Crook, Simon Child and myself, people who are not prone to swallow beliefs based simply on authority. John adapted the teaching to incorporate a learning style more common among the western-educated.  This is the style I can relate to the most and I find helpful to practitioners in my retreats and classes.

As for whether I will lead retreats in Britain, we will see how causes and conditions unfold.  Fiona Nuttall is my dear Dharma sister and I will support her in whatever way she needs me. I co-led a Western Zen Retreat with Hilary Richards in 2015 at Maenllwyd and had a wonderful experience.  It was a lot of fun and we received a lot of retreat reports from the retreatants.  I think they could sense the joy Hilary and I were feeling as we shared the space.  I have made many friends with the Western Chan Fellowship sangha over the years and would cherish the opportunity to practice with them again, on whichever side of the pond that may be.

As a Dharma heir my most important responsibility is to carry on the lineage and identify someone with the Great Vow to commit to carrying it on as well, while continuing my practice and teaching. It has struck me how much there is to do.  Besides my full-time job as a sociology professor, balancing my responsibilities for Dharma teaching, retreat center business, family and civic life will be a lifelong practice.  As for any specific plan, I have not yet made any major decisions yet.  I have been doing a lot of thinking, considering my abilities and limitations as well as feeling out the shifting causes and conditions.  I am giving it some space to allow things to take shape.  I have been thinking a lot about teacher training, knowing full well how long it took to train me when I had such dedicated teachers.  I still remember how many people started when Shifu began training us to be Dharma Lecturers in 1999 and how few finished the training, and fewer yet stayed on as teachers.  It reminds me again of the importance of Great Vow, as Shifu often emphasized.  So I have also been thinking, “what can do I to instil that Vow in students?”

Rebecca Li was talking to George Marsh on 24th January 2017.


Chan Practice and Making Wise Decisions

(This article is based on a talk given at the Chan Meditation Center in December 2016.)

We face life choices throughout our lives.  Not just when we are young, making decisions about which school to attend, which major to take, and which career to pursue, but also when we are older.  Life choices do not end with having our first job out of school.  After we start our first job, we may have to decide whether to stay in this job, whether to seek a promotion, and how to balance work demand and other responsibilities and things we want to pursue in our life.

We also need to decide whether we want to have a love relationship, maintain certain friendships, all amidst the need to think about how much time we would like to devote to our birth family.  If we marry, we need to decide whether to have children, and if so, how many and how intensively we would like to raise them and how involved we want to be in their lives.

When we approach mid-life, we may find ourselves wondering if we should change the direction of our life and when we would like to retire.  We review various aspects of our life–career/job, friendship, family, and time for our personal interests–to see if we are maintaining a balance that reflect our values and priorities.  We then decide whether we need to make any adjustments, and if so, how.

All these choices affect whether we live an authentic life and feel fulfilled or get lost in life and feel unsatisfactory and unfulfilled.

One of things I often hear when people are wrestling with decisions shaping the direction of their life is “I want to make a difference.” What is not uttered is often “but I also need to make a living…”  What seems to be underlying this dilemma is the common yet mistaken belief that only a certain kind of job allows you to make a difference.  In fact, every job, every role, has its functions.  If we do it conscientiously with the intention to bring benefit to others while making a living, we are making a difference.  Very often, we think of careers like doctors, social workers and advocates for important causes as jobs that make a difference.  Yet, I have met many people who are making a difference by doing a good job and fulfilling their responsibilities in what we might consider a normal, “ordinary” career.

Recently, I met a contractor who remodels bathrooms.  He is honest, does a good job, finishes everything nicely and meticulously, and charges for his service fairly. When he was recommended to my brother, he was a huge help as renovating one’s home can be very stressful and can result in conflict in the family if things do not go well.  Being a good contractor allows homeowners to feel reassured that they can count on someone honest to do the work right and to help guide them through difficult decisions.  It’s a great help in their lives.  When we work this way, we are helping others.  And this contractor has no shortage of business.

Hence, we can make a difference regardless of what we do for a living as long as it is something that is right for us in skill level, temperament, and life circumstances, so that we can devote ourselves to doing a good job.  In this way, we can fulfill the functions for which our position is meant and contribute to the society.

A question we need to ask is: what is important in my life?  I do not mean “what should be important in my life” but “what is actually important in my life” and we need to be honest with ourselves.  Is it material comfort?  To be part of a community?  To be prominent in our profession?  To innovate?  To devote to our family?

It is really important to emphasize that we need to ask ourselves, not other people.  We may seek out advice from important people in our lives, such as our parents, mentors, or close friends, and their advice can serve as a reference.  But we need to be true to our values and priorities, which may be very different from those who advise us.  We may respect and love them very much, but it is ultimately our life, and we need to take responsibility for it.

Another question is: are we ready to take responsibility for the consequences of our choices?  Or are we seeking and listening to others’ advice to avoid taking responsibility for our life?  A number of years ago, someone who has been married for years shared with me that he was having difficulties in his marriage and asked me if he should get a divorce.  I told him that he needed to figure it out himself so that he could take responsibility for his decision.  Otherwise, he could tell himself that it was not really him that decided to get a divorce and thus it would be someone else’s fault if he was not happy with the outcome.  The practice of Chan can help us see into our mind more deeply so that we can understand our real motivation in asking for others’ advice and check if we are ready to take full responsibility for any choices we may make.

When we ask ourselves what is important in our life, it is often not so straightforward.  We need to really know ourselves in an honest way so that we know clearly what will make us feel miserable based on our personality and temperament, what an ideal situation would be, and since ideal situations seldom occur what is acceptable if we don’t get what we are shooting for.  All these questions can only be answered when we have a clear sense of our own values and priorities as well as our habits, strengths and limitations.

For example, we might say that we are not materialistic and don’t need to make a lot of money.  Well, maybe we meant we don’t need to live in a mansion and be chauffeured around, but even an ordinary middle-class life-style, with a nice home, good health care for the family, and annual vacations, is a materially rich life by many people’s standards.  And we may have to put a lot of time and effort into education and training in order to obtain that.

Years ago, when I was getting ready for the job market, I looked into various kinds of higher education institutions.  When I saw that a research university position would require me to spend most of my waking hours working on my research and trying to get published in addition to teaching, I knew that was not for me even though I really loved doing research and these positions are often seen as more prestigious.  I like more balance between research and teaching which is afforded to me at an undergraduate institution.  Being able to devote time to the Dharma was also very important for me and I knew that my physical condition could not handle trying to fit everything into my waking hours if I worked at a research university.  Engaging in meditative and contemplative practices that allow us to gain more insights into our priorities, habits and tendencies can help us take a more honest look at ourselves.

Such practices also help us cultivate clarity, to see clearly the consequences of our choices, and that there are trade-offs however much we would like to have it all.  We can have both career and family, but decisions we make every day to devote our time to achieve more in our career will mean foregoing opportunities to spend time with family (perhaps missing family gatherings, shorter family vacations, more interruptions in our time at home, etc.).  Are we clearly aware of the ramifications of our decisions?  Very often, they may not be obvious, especially if we do not allow ourselves to pay attention.  If we reduce the amount of time spent with family members, our relationships with them will not be as close as if we spent more time with them.  It is also not just the amount of time but the quality of it.  Are we distracted by our work when we are spending time with our family members?  I know some kids who feel closer to their uncle who spent quality time with them than to their father who was usually looking at his phone when “spending time” with his kids.  We may also be secretly wishing that members of our family would still feel really close to us even though we never have time for them.  Are we aware that we may be entertaining these thoughts, secretly hoping that we can be exempt from the law of cause and effect?  Reminding ourselves to investigate our thoughts and feelings helps shed light on them, and if we are honest with ourselves, it will become clear that we need to re-examine our priorities, values and choices.

Of course, it goes the other way around as well.  When we decide to devote more time to the family, less time goes to our work.  We can work more efficiently, have better time management, sleep less, but we may still find that we are slower in generating the same result compared to our colleagues who put more time into their work.  Can we accept the fact that our decision may mean putting our career on a slower track, which perhaps also means that our house or cars or vacations will not be as fancy as the ones our more career-oriented friends/siblings have?  Without clarity about what we are actually choosing and the consequences, we may accumulate resentment, disappointment and frustration in our heart without even knowing it.  One can end up feeling very angry, bitter or regretful in later life without knowing why.

Accepting the ramifications of our choices is not as easy as it may sound.  It is easy to fantasize about the best case scenario or to have an unrealistic estimate of our ability to achieve the impossible, especially if we read a lot about the life stories of highly unusual people–eg. people who only need to sleep three hours and achieve great things plus have a full family life, people who are so devoted to their calling that they can work nonstop but they fail to mention that they were biologically unusual with excessive energy that allowed them to do so much with very little sleep, etc.  We need to recognize the appeal of these messages in our culture–that “everything is possible if we put our mind to it.”  While it is true theoretically, each person should reassess what is possible based on their unique circumstances.  This requires understanding and fully accepting our own limitations as well as recognizing our strengths.

Are we able to accept that we are ordinary people, not super human?  Accepting our ordinariness is no ordinary task and is recognized as an important achievement in Chan practice.  After an honest reflection of our values and priorities, strengths and limitations, we will have a clearer sense of the general direction of our life.   This clarity can guide us through life, as we adapt to changing circumstances and take advantage of emerging opportunities and still stay true to ourselves without losing our way.

It is, therefore, important to have time to ourselves so that we can have the opportunity to see into our mind.  In these periods of self-reflection, we take an honest look at what we are actually doing and ask ourselves if we know what we are choosing.  We ask if we are making the right choices for ourselves, amidst the unfolding causes and conditions, rather than merely fulfilling other people’s wishes.  This takes courage.  Being true to ourselves is not being disrespectful to or dismissive of others, but thinking hard and long about our choices and taking full responsibilities for the consequences of our decisions.  When we live authentically, we make a difference just by being ourselves whatever we do.

What’s so special about the present moment?

(This is an article published in the summer 2016 issue of Chan Magazine.  It was transcribed by Buffe Laffey from a Dharma talk given in the Beginner’s Mind Retreat at Dharma Drum Retreat Center in 2013.)

This is the time of the retreat that was set aside for a Dharma talk. First I want to ask whether anyone has a question about the practice, about what we are doing here? [No one asks a question.] Perhaps there is a question but everyone is too polite to ask. This question may have arisen in your mind in one form or the other but maybe you feel “I shouldn’t ask that; maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t know.” The question will be something like this: Why is it so important to stay in the present moment? What is so special? You keep talking about it over and over again, why is it so imperative?” We ask ourselves, if we truly believe and accept that being in the present moment is important, why is it so hard? Why do we keep dwelling on the past or fantasizing about the future? Have you asked yourself this question? We would do anything but be in the present. Interesting, huh?

Continue reading “What’s so special about the present moment?”

Buddhism and Race Conference at Harvard Divinity School

In April 2016, I participated in two panel discussions in the Buddhism and Race conference at the Harvard Divinity School. Preparing for and participating in the panel discussions have been a transformative experience for me.  I am still processing and hope to write more about it.  Here is a reflection on the conference I have written for the Humanity Magazine published in Taiwan in Chinese (translated from my original piece written in English as posted here).

Continue reading “Buddhism and Race Conference at Harvard Divinity School”

Cultivating the Bodhisattva Path at Work

This article was based on a public talk given at the Chan Meditation Center and published in the Chan Magazine, summer 2013 issue.

Cultivating the Bodhisattva Path at Work

By Rebecca Li

Most of us have to work to make a living, yet many people dread going to work for many reasons, such as boredom, interpersonal conflict, stress and competition. In our attempt to feel better in our work life most of us try to change the external conditions. Some may keep changing jobs. Others may find distractions outside of work to deal with the stress and pressure. As practitioners, we might explore ways we can apply the practice while at work, since running away does not really get to the root of the problem. For those who keep changing jobs, they may find that they get dissatisfied not long after starting the new job. For those who try to forget the problems at work by devoting themselves to other things—family, volunteer work, or hobbies—they may find the same problems still staring them in the eyes every time they go to work. Observing this, one may realize that perhaps the problem is not external. Dharma practice allows us to turn inward to reflect on how sufferings arise. The bodhisattva path provides us with guidance on how to free ourselves from suffering. In this article, I would like to examine how one can engage in the bodhisattva practice at work.

First of all, I would like to clarify what we mean by cultivating the bodhisattva path—It is an approach to practice which focuses on bringing benefits to others without being concerned with one’s own gain and loss. Personal benefit results from such practice; this sounds paradoxical, but not so if we keep in mind that the goal of practice is to lessen self-centered attachment, which is the source of our suffering. As long as we put ourselves before others, see our needs as more important than other people’s needs, this self-centered attachment will only strengthen. If, instead, we stop being so concerned with our own desires, comfort, worries and suffering, and turn our focus to bringing happiness to others, we will find that we end up being happier and the worries that were haunting us disappear.

Many of us have probably experienced this in one way or the other. For example, on some days, we wake up feeling pretty lousy because we did not sleep well. Very often, we attach the self to the notion that “I am not feeling well and I am not going to put up with any garbage today.” So we set our mind to put our desires and suffering first, expecting others to yield to us, and perhaps feeling totally justified in being mean and nasty. In this way, the self-fulfilling prophecy begins. We are going to have a lousy day not because we woke up feeling lousy, but because we made the decision to focus on our discomfort at the expense of our concern for others. When we are inconsiderate, others respond in kind, and thus more unpleasant experiences are generated. Or, we can take a different path—the bodhisattva path: We are aware of the headache, but we focus on smiling, being considerate and helpful to others. Then we will find that either the headache disappears by itself, or we stop noticing it; our suffering disappears when we do not dwell on it.

If we are only concerned with bringing benefits to others, we will be motivated to improve ourselves. We will find ways to calm our minds, maintain emotional stability, learn new skills, and try to understand others’ points of view, so that we can be more effective in helping others. As a result, without thinking about what benefit we may yield, we are the ones who benefit most from our selfless concern for others. This is how the bodhisattva path works.

How do we go about cultivating the bodhisattva path? The content of the bodhisattva precepts provides some guidance. The three cumulative pure precepts include: refrain from causing harm to others, engage in all virtuous acts, and vow to help all sentient beings. I will go over these precepts one by one in the context of our work life.

Refrain From Causing Harm to Others

The first of the three cumulative pure precepts is to refrain from causing harm to others. This involves, for the laity, upholding the five precepts: not killing, not stealing, not lying, not engaging in sexual misconduct, and not using intoxicants. We avoid getting intoxicated to prevent acting with poor judgment which often results in hurting others. The teachings on right livelihood (part of the eightfold noble path) as explained by both Master Yin Shun and Master Sheng Yen, talk about making a living while upholding the five precepts. Hence, in choosing our profession (an important step in our work life) besides making sure it is legal, the precepts also provide some guidance on what kind of professions practitioners would like to avoid. While perfectly legal, for instance, running a slaughter house would be a profession a practitioner might like to avoid because slaughtering animals breaks the precept of killing. This is an obvious example; there are some more subtle ones. Some jobs appear on the surface to be perfectly in accordance with the precepts until we start working there. For instance, in some jobs that involve selling and promoting products or services, some companies push the salespeople to deceive customers in order to increase sales and profit. Discovering this, a practitioner might like to consider a different job.

This is often a difficult issue to discuss. For one thing, these precepts seem to put practitioners at a disadvantage in our already challenging world. One may complain, “It’s not easy to find a well-paying job to support my family. It is simply not practical to narrow my choices to comply with the precepts. Perhaps only some people are fortunate to have such options if they do not have huge student loans to repay or they come from a wealthy family.”

This is a fair comment and warrants clarification. Precepts are not rules to restrict our behaviors, the disobedience of which leaves us condemned. Rather, precepts are tools that help us free ourselves from suffering. They provide guidance on how we would like to live our lives so as to refrain from causing harm to others and ourselves. For instance, if our job asks us to convince people to pay for products we know are not good, how would it make us feel inside? We may make a decent amount of money doing so, but deep down, we probably don’t feel so proud of ourselves. Such turmoil gnaws at us and may surface as resentment, irrational anger, low self-esteem or insecurity—emotional afflictions that cause us unease or suffering. Our personal happiness is not the only victim. Our performance and effectiveness can also be adversely affected. Consider this: feeling lousy because of this internal turmoil may cause us to treat others poorly and we can feel quite helpless about it. We may get grumpy or snap at our boss, colleagues or clients, who may in turn evaluate us poorly which can cost us our next promotion or even our job. Knowing this, what would be the wise thing to do? It may be a good idea to stop working at this job that involves breaking the precept of lying and look for a job that allows us to sleep well at night.

Observing and upholding the precepts helps us attain peace of mind; breaking it knowingly causes us suffering. The choice is ours. As long as we are willing to suffer the emotional turmoil caused by our actions that cause harm to others, we can choose not to uphold these precepts. There are no precept police out there enforcing these precepts. We are responsible for ourselves. In fact, the practice of upholding precepts is a perfect illustration of how the bodhisattva practice works—the intention appears to be for the benefit of others, yet ultimately, we ourselves benefit the most in the form of inner peace and happiness.

Before we move on, for those of you unfamiliar with the teaching of precepts, I would like to clarify one more thing. The upholding of precepts is our own business, and thus we set the standard to which we are able and willing to adhere and practice accordingly. They are not standards we use to judge and evaluate other people. This is very important. If we do not understand this point, we may misuse the teachings of right livelihood and pass judgments on and discriminate against people in some professions. This is not the purpose of the precepts. Doing so will only generate more vexations and suffering for ourselves.

Engage in All Virtuous Actions

The second of the three cumulative pure precepts is to engage in all virtuous acts. In our practice, it is not enough just to refrain from harmful actions, we also aspire to bring joy and happiness to others. Hence, in our speech, in addition to refraining from lying, using harsh words, engaging in divisive and frivolous speech, we also say things in ways that bring comfort and happiness to others.

I heard a story about a person who teaches the Dharma. When he learned that one of his students had just been diagnosed with cancer, he thought he would help the student understand the impermanence of life by saying to her, “you are going to die.” The student was very hurt. In this case, the teacher was certainly not lying, but what he said did not bring comfort to the student.

This point may seem trivial to some of you, but it is a crucial part of our practice. Master Sheng Yen often reminded us that we should pay equal attention to wisdom and compassion in our practice. If we emphasize wisdom at the expense of compassion, we can become arrogant thinking that we know the truth and become callous in our relations with others, as illustrated in the example just mentioned. If we cultivate compassion without wisdom, we are likely to do things we think are helping others, but because such actions are based on ignorance rather than wisdom, we often end up causing harm and vexations to self and others. An example may help illustrate this point: I used to work with someone who thought of himself as a nice, compassionate person. When students went to him for help because they neglected to fulfill certain requirements, he would bend every rule in the book to make exceptions for them. He believed that he was helping them, but because he was violating policies and procedures, his actions caused everyone else loads of problem. Students became very confused about the policies. While some students who were exempted from some requirements thought he was a great guy, others felt cheated. So, in this case, trying to be compassionate without wisdom caused others a great deal of trouble.

When we cultivate the bodhisattva path by engaging in virtuous actions that bring comfort and happiness to others, we practice putting others’ needs and concerns before ours. Wisdom helps us understand what is happening and what needs to be done, compassion reminds us to do the right thing based not on what we think is right (which is a self-centered attitude) but on what others need most.

When I was department chair about ten years ago, it happened to be an incredibly busy time because the university was restructuring its entire curriculum, and I was often quite overwhelmed. There were a few times when students came to me to ask for help because they had to spend an extra semester as they neglected to take their courses in the correct sequence. I told them that there was nothing I could do and it was their responsibility. Later on, I found out that these students were quite hurt by my refusal to help them. I felt very badly when I heard that. While it was true that their situation was the result of their own negligence and it would be unfair if I gave them any exemptions, I could have expressed more kindness and understanding even though they would still need to stay an extra semester. At that time, I was too concerned about defending my decision to enforce the department’s policy. As a result, I neglected how these students felt; they must be deeply worried about the implication of having to graduate late. I certainly could have been more mindful of their agony and expressed my empathy more. It was a good lesson for me; it taught me that being too concerned about myself and my beliefs (in defending how right the department policies are and how I should enforce these policies equally to be fair to all students) had caused me to lose sight of taking care of the feelings of these students whom I cared about. I worked very hard to make the curriculum restructuring go smoothly for them. Yet, I neglected to be kind when I was interacting with them, and very often those moments really matter.

We may take our work so seriously that we become very attached to our way of doing things, believing firmly that we are working for the benefit of the organization. This belief is actually a form of self-centered attachment. It is relatively easy to spot that we are being self-centered when all we care about is making more money or getting the next promotion. Yet, this other form of self-centered attachment—where we believe strongly that we are doing the right thing for everyone—is more subtle and difficult to recognize. Various forms of practice, such as sitting meditation, that help us settle and clear our mind are useful in self-reflection that sheds light on these more subtle forms of self-centered attachment. While we can remind ourselves to engage in virtuous actions, maintaining a calm and clear mind puts us in a state of being where these virtuous actions come naturally. Hence, if we want to be better at being kind and generous to others at work, practicing some form of meditation to calm the mind is important. When our mind is calm and clear, we are the first to benefit from this peace. If we approach our relationship with people at work in this way, putting their comfort and happiness ahead of our self-centered concerns, many of the interpersonal problems can be resolved.

Let me share another personal example to illustrate this point. There was a period when I was having some difficulty getting along with a colleague of mine. We both care about the department very much but we have different ideas about how to make things better. Things were quite tense between us for a while. One day after a meditation session, it suddenly became clear to me that it must be very stressful for her to be dealing with these departmental problems. I knew it because I had to deal with them in the past. For me to constantly voice very different opinions must have made things even more difficult. I thought to myself, “she too wants to make things better, it’s just that we have very different ideas.” So I bought a nice plant in a pot in her favorite color as a gift to show her my goodwill and told her that she was doing an excellent job. It made her very happy and the tension in our relationship disappeared. Do we still have disagreements? Of course, we do. But we can now disagree in an amiable way, and it makes life at work so much more pleasant for both of us.

Upholding this precept does not mean that we give up our principle, or pander to everyone, or never disagree with anyone at work, or let our subordinates slack off, or let people walk all over us. It merely means that we interact with them in a way that brings them joy and comfort rather than hurtful feelings, even when we are firing someone or giving someone an order or disagreeing with someone in a meeting. Also, when we keep our mind calm and clear, we can listen better which helps us understand the real issues. We are then more likely to be able to find a solution that is satisfactory to all parties. On the other hand, when we are consumed with anger—often righteous anger—at others, it is difficult to see the situation clearly and come up with a satisfactory solution for all.

By this time, some readers are probably thinking, “What she is saying is nice but a bit naïve. Maybe it works in places where things are not so competitive. But there is no way I can be kind and generous and rejoice in others’ success in my ultra-competitive, cut-throat corporate world. This bodhisattva practice can never work in my job.” This is an important criticism. It is a common perception that Buddhist practice is only compatible with life in a relatively low-stress, non-competitive environment such as a monastery, and it is not realistic to try to apply these principles of bodhisattva practice in a highly competitive environment. If this is true, then the buddhadharma will become irrelevant soon as our world is only getting more fast paced and competitive with increasing globalization. Since work takes up a significant chunk of our time each day, if the Dharma is not applicable at work, it is not really relevant in our modern world. But is this true?

Master Sheng Yen talked about competing against others versus competing against ourselves. Very often, when we think about competition, especially at work, we are competing against others. It goes along the line of, “I want to have better sales performance than everyone else,” or “I want to be the most popular teacher,” or “I want to outperform everyone else in front of our boss,” so on and so forth. This approach to competition may motivate us to work harder and improve ourselves, but it also causes a lot of stress and suffering. By thinking of competition as me against others, we reinforce in our mind the notion that there is a “me” who is permanent and separate from others. This is an erroneous understanding of the true nature of self, which is actually the result of the coming together of causes and conditions that are constantly changing.

When we think of ourselves as separate from others, it is easy to feel isolated. If we add the idea that we are in a “me against others” situation, it becomes very difficult for us to see how we are actually living in an interconnected world, where other people’s efforts contribute to our existence. Think about it, if none of our co-workers did their work, there would be no company to provide us with our livelihood, and we would not be able to pay bills and support our family. Yet, we do not see ourselves as interdependent with others. We, instead, see it as a zero-sum game. If someone else is praised by the boss, I am automatically devalued. If someone else is popular with students or customer, I am by default the less popular one. If someone else makes better sales number, I am automatically the loser. Therefore, we want to beat down others to be the best, and this attitude causes the workplace to be quite competitive.

When we think of competition this way, we allow ourselves and our aspirations to be defined by someone else’s performance. If Joe, a colleague, makes $100,000 more in sales commission than we do, we can get very jealous. It is almost impossible to rejoice in his accomplishments. We would want to do whatever it takes to make more than he does. While this desire to be better than our competitor can be a motivator that propels us forward, if we fail to outdo them, we can become resentful, thinking that the world is unfair. When we are so focused on outdoing our competitor, we may become blind to the causes and conditions that made their success possible and thus fail to assess whether these causes and conditions are present for us. For example, perhaps Joe is so successful because he is extremely outgoing and can make friends easily, thus allowing him to get many new clients. Do we ask ourselves if we have the same capability? I know someone who only needs to sleep three hours a day. This gives him many more hours to work and be productive. Without the same biological disposition, should I try to compare my level of productivity with his? Because everyone has very different causes and conditions, comparing ourselves with others often brings unnecessary sufferings.

One might ask, “wouldn’t it mean that to avoid suffering, we should forget all about competition and just let ourselves fall behind and become obsolete?” The answer is “no”; if that were the case, then the Dharma would indeed be teaching passivity and complacency and would not be a contributing force to the society. According to Master Sheng Yen, it is not competition per se that is problematic—it is how we approach it. Instead of competing against others, we should be competing with ourselves. When we compete with ourselves, we are constantly trying to improve ourselves, even when we are in a non-competitive environment. When our focus shifts to competing with ourselves, we will not see others as competitors but instead as the source of help to improve ourselves. For instance, I work in a congenial and friendly department and it is a relatively non-competitive environment. It can easily breed complacency, thinking that doing a decent job is good enough. Using Shifu’s teaching, I understand that even though I am getting good reviews for my teaching, there is always room for improvement. I find out how my colleagues approach various aspects of their teaching and learn from them in order to improve my teaching. In the process, I enjoy my work more and experience growth and development.

This approach works in a competitive environment as well. When our focus is on improving ourselves rather than defeating someone else, we are much more open to information that helps us make adjustments to improve our performance. This openness helps us appreciate the ability of those around us, who might otherwise have been identified as our “competitors.” Hence, competing with ourselves motivates us to improve ourselves and avoid complacency without pitting us against others in our workplace. In fact, it helps us learn from each other more effectively, resulting in our being a more valuable asset to our workplace, thus increasing our chances for advancement. More importantly, we do not need to suffer through the sense of isolation, resentment and jealousy that results from competing against others.

I want to share one more thing I find important in Master Sheng Yen’s teachings related to this topic. It is common for practitioners to mistake complacency for contentment. Very often, instead of being overly competitive and ambitious, some practitioners become satisfied with their current level of performance. They see this as “not being greedy” and think that they are practicing well. Shifu warned that this is complacency. Even though we do not seek promotion because it is not important for us, it does not mean that we should be satisfied with what we can do now and just hum along on auto-pilot mode at work. It would be a mistake to think of that as contentment or a high level of practice. It is actually complacency and laziness. Whatever job we have, we can always find ways to do it better.

Regardless of the kind of job we have and whether there is a boss breathing down our neck, we should continue to improve our performance. This is the attitude of competing with ourselves. In fact, that was how Shifu approached his teaching. Even though everyone always said that his retreat talks were wonderful and perfect, he continued to improve his retreat teaching over the years by experimenting with different things so that he could help more people. Here is another illustration of the bodhisattva path: If our focus is on doing a better job so that those we serve and work with can benefit, we will find ways to improve ourselves, and in the end, we are the one who benefits most from the learning process. Bodhisattva practice is about benefiting oneself while bringing benefits to others.

Vow to Help All Sentient Beings

The third of the three cumulative pure precepts is to vow to help all sentient beings. This part of the bodhisattva precept motivates us to be diligent. Since we have vowed to help all sentient beings, we make use of every opportunity to help others, not just when we feel like it or when it is someone we like. This point is particularly useful for cultivating the bodhisattva path at work. Very often we may not like some of the people we deal with at work. This is one of the most common complaints I hear from people about their work life: “My boss drives me crazy,” or “I can’t stand the people I work with,” or “I hate dealing with the customers.” If we remind ourselves of our vow to help all sentient beings, when we complain about someone at work, we are more likely to ask ourselves, “why am I not helping this sentient being?” This thought often is enough to stop the chain of frustrated and angry thoughts and provide us with the space to give rise to empathy, understanding and kindness, and to find ways to get along with these people and help them.

I know someone who told me that she could not stand her secretary; she would complain about her non-stop. But after a while, she saw that her complaining was destructive. She realized that when she complained about her secretary’s incompetence, she was reinforcing her own sense of pride while suppressing thoughts of empathy and understanding. Not only did she not feel good, these negative feelings came through in her interactions with her secretary, making it more difficult for them to work together. Being a practitioner, she realized that she was clearly not applying the practice when it came to her secretary. This thought got her to stop the frustration and instead see the situation more clearly. She saw that her secretary was being asked to perform tasks that she was not equipped to do, and it was a situation that they just had to work with. Being aware of that, she learned to give her secretary tasks within her capability and to give her more detailed instructions to help her. More importantly, because she no longer thinks negatively of her secretary, she can treat her with more kindness and appreciate better what she does. As a result, they now have a much better work relationship.

Some people may think of this vow to help all sentient beings as a burden. If we look at it from the perspective of cultivating the bodhisattva path, every person we encounter is an opportunity to practice. In this way, we ought to be grateful for all the difficult people we have to work with because learning to work with them deepens our patience and compassion, and definitely improves our interpersonal skills. Practicing this way, we come to see everyone we encounter at work as bodhisattvas who help us with our practice. When we see that our workplace is filled with bodhisattvas, then our workplace becomes no different from the pure land. When that happens, we will no longer dread going to work.