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Author of this essay:

Abbot John
(January 14, 2007)

by Abbot John

It was upon me again. The annual clock's hands clicked into the gesture of prayer, signaling that it was time for me to recall things I had hoped a merciful providence had consigned to oblivion. It was also time to make heartfelt but otherwise empty promises and, most confounding of all, to write the Abbot's annual State of the Order message.

Many of us who have come to be called Western Buddhists have several things in common. Most of us who have attempted this spiritual journey know what is like to be lost in the swamp of time. We all have known how hard it is to go on living without the dream of experiencing the extraordinary. At some point the search began, usually not out of hope but out of desperation.

As with most people who converted from one religion to another, we burned very bright in our initial stages. We consumed everything we could get our hands on as we encountered the Buddha's wild ideas. We were confident that attaining extraordinary bliss was not only a real possibility but was actually imminent - as opposed to a promise of knowing it in another lifetime. It was one of the most exciting differences between our old views and new. It was in our hands... because of this, that; because of that, this. Head first we plunged into our meditation regimens. We discovered that the Buddha did not lie. It was and is fascinating, but, disciplines mature. Our bright lights dimmed to a softer glow and some may have gone out altogether. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.

It's my guess that most Westerners who came to the Buddha's teachings pored over many phony books about Zen before they found a few genuine texts. Those of us who were very lucky found a good meditation teacher who had no agenda other than helping us in the journey of discovery. What we found were days of pure excitement. Those were the hot days, the days of fire. Then we began to notice that the greater our success, the more difficult it was to explain to non-adventurers what it was we had attained. How do you explain the attainment of that which cannot be attained? The fault was deliriously ours. The higher we got, the less rational we were.

It was during the week between Christmas and New Years that I came up with a new term for describing the curious way in which the wisdom of the Buddha is conveyed. That the wisdom was not acquired in an accumulative manner was a certainty: one plus one plus one too often equaled one. When we did understand, we did so by means of attitudinal receptivity. An event during that week led me inescapably to this insightful term.

My good wife, as is her custom, invited a couple of new neighbors to the house for what she jokingly calls a "home-cooked meal," (i.e.), Chinese takeout. I knew it was a trap, but what could I do? Being the only Buddhist on the block gives me a kind of cachet... somewhere between a lawn gnome and a plastic flamingo. The early show of neighborly hospitality is my wife's pre-emptive strike. Lest people get the right idea, my wife makes sure they know she's in possession of a rarity. Over Moo Goo Gai Pan I get put in a museum's display case.

The dinner began as they always do…

My Wife: "Did you know my husband is a Buddhist?"

The Other Woman: "Oh... that's so nice. I love those fat Chinese - what are they? Gods? That’s who you pray to, right?”

The Other Man: "For Pete's sake! Don't be rude. It's the Buddha! And they don't believe in gods. (to me) Do you?"

TOW: "Well, you see those... persons... everywhere in oriental gift shops...those fat Buddhas."

MW: "Tell them, John."

John: "It's complicated. Let's just eat."

MW: "Don't be like that. Tell them. They want to know. (to them) Don't you want to know?"

TOW: "Yes. Absolutely. (to me) You don't go to church, do you?"

J: "Uh, no, not exactly... but..."

MW: "He doesn't go to any specific church but he goes. And he only goes when nobody else is in the church. He goes to empty churches."

TOM: "You go to church when nobody else is there? Why do you do that?"

J: "It's not that I go to empty churches just to go to empty churches. It's the ambiance. I find it pleasant to meditate in big cathedral spaces. It's almost as if the sanctity of space becomes a symbol of the mind. Even the sounds you hear drift like those in the internal spaciousness of the mind and--"

MW: "Oh, God, Here we go again... Don't get him started!"

If anyone would congratulate her at this point, saying, "Mission Accomplished!" - anyone would be wrong. Mortally wounded isn't enough. My wife has to supply the coup de grace.

MW: "I know why he's a Buddhist. He says it's a different way of thinking, and that's why he meditates, in empty churches or elsewhere... so he can understand things you can't understand if all you do is think about them, and then he explains - it's really very interesting - that the reason most people can't understand things that they think about is that they think about them - but you can't think about them if you want to understand them. Most people have a problem with this...this... what is it? It must have a name."

J: "Improper attitudinal receptivity," I said with unreasonable emphasis.

The subject died a violent death. My wife squinted her eyes and squeezed out a dirty look. Then she set the chopsticks flying like Edward Scissorhands until the table began to resemble a set piece from a Quenton Tarantino movie. I began thinking of those days of fire and the finality of the phrase "attitudinal receptivity" - the reason for this reflection.

I must admit that I like to play with words and at times can father a term and then cast it out into the world as an orphan. It is especially true when trying to discuss mystical experiences - because of their intrinsic indescribable nature. Maintaining attitudinal receptivity is not one of those orphans. It is a spiritual responsibility. Especially for those of us who have paid some of our dues, sitting cross-legged, counting breaths, performing a variety of spiritual disciplines, and thereby succeeding in the quest to gain that fiery intensity. But often, after that great bliss descended, conditions began to change. Maya does not long wait, and her minions seek the unguarded gates. A certain malaise may encroach, displacing the excitement. We have been warned about this spiritual dead zone. Books and teachers all mention the possibility. Some teachers, such as the Venerable Fo Yuan, retired Abbot of Yun Men Monastery who had been given the title of Thirteenth Patriarch of the Yun Men lineage by Hsu Yun, (and who is Ming Zhen's master) advocated a thorough reading of the Hua Yen or Avatamsaka Sutra, known to us as the Flower Ornament Sutra.

I had discovered this panacea for spiritual afflictions on my own but was grateful to learn that I was in such good company. The Avatamsaka is the most wondrous mother lode of scripture in the Buddhist Canon. I concede that the book has a daunting size. As opposed to the One Book motif of the Abrahamic religions, it takes some effort to discover the natural key in which to read some of its contents; but once the effort is made, the music is undeniably marvelous.

This year, if, when you consider the state of your Zen practice, you suspect that your "conditions" have changed, I recommend that you try to read the Avatamsaka. But here is a suggestion: try to read this elegant scripture with attitudinal receptivity. I have found that it is best to read it after a period of meditation. Something as easy as performing a set of Healing breaths followed by the simple chanting of Om two or three times tends align the synapses properly. Another suggestion is to keep it by your bedside and read as much of it as you want while you relax. Many of our sangha members used to read Krishnamurti's essays as they retired for the evening, and those members who gravitated to the Avatamsaka read this treasured work in the same way. It is just as well since these writings give great comfort in their expansiveness, a kind of spiritual massage. As my wife mentioned at dinner, do not attempt to understand it. Attempt to experience it. As with all mystical experiences I have ever had, the understanding is the experience or the experience is the understanding.

The Sutra is not written as a treatise or a mathematical theory. It is highly entertaining in its absorbing richness. I have found that as you enter the minds of those who wrote it you are best able to experience its magnificence; and it becomes a meditation in itself. The images it evokes become magical, even when merely giving the various names of the Buddha, and the love of those who wrote this work evidences itself as a high love, expressed in the most tranquil state of mind as any man has ever enjoyed.

When your knees ache and the world has gone wrong, reading even a few lines of this sutra can reset the hands of time in a most fortuitous manner.

Happy New Year everybody... and pass the MSG.

Addendum: Below are some of the names of the Buddhas that appear in the Flower Ornament Sutra. I include them here just to whet the appetite.

Diamond Light with Infinite Energy
Elixir Sound
Sound of Light
Thunder Clouds of the Castles of Truth
Subduer of Attached Minds
Deep Wonderful Sound
Web of Light of Great Mystical Displays
Mine of Wonderful Sounds
Energetic Sun of Liberation
Wisdom Universally Aware of the Body of Reality
Sound of the Cosmos of Boundless Knowledge
Clouds of Flames from a Spotless Sun
Most Independent of Humans
Spacelike Mind of Universal Awareness
Not Appearing in Vain
Auspicious Sound Delighting the Mind
Light of the Sea of Nonregressive Virtue
Expanding Mind Observing the Cosmos
All-Illumining Aromatic Light
Any Form in Any Place
Supreme Sound that Lights the World
Producer of Joy and Bliss.

Abbott John

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