The Buddha, Shakyamuni, lived more than 2,500 years ago in India. He was a human being who possessed the same spiritual potential that is within us all. He realized enlightenment and spent His life helping others find what He had found. Enlightenment is the direct experience of one’s Buddha Nature, i.e. the realization of one’s true nature and the nature of all existence. This reveals not only the cause of human suffering or dissatisfaction, but the means by which we can bring our own suffering to an end. It engenders profound compassion for all living things.
Soto Zen or The Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition
Since the time of the Buddha, many traditions of Buddhism have developed. The aim of each has been to express the essence of the Buddha’s teaching in a manner appropriate to the time and culture. They emerged due to the character of different teachers and the cultures through which the teaching passed. The form of Mahayana Buddhism that is known as Zen emerged as a distinct school in China in about the 8th century. The school of Soto Zen (Serene Reflection Meditation) was introduced to Japan in the 13th century by great master Dogen. Within the Soto Zen tradition there are many teaching lines and each has its own particular flavor.
The Serene Reflection Meditation Tradition embodies:
- The practice of meditation.
- Keeping the moral Precepts of Buddhism, both in our outward behavior and in service to others, as well as in the inner practice of cleansing our own hearts.
- The teaching that all beings have the Buddha Nature. All are fundamentally pure, but out of ignorance we create suffering, thereby obscuring our real nature.
- Awakening the heart of compassion and expressing it through selfless activity.
Zen literally means meditation, and zazen or seated meditation is the heart of the practice. All beings already have the same enlightened nature as the Buddha but we obscure it by believing that we are separate, isolated beings. This makes us very needy and we spend our lives trying to get what we believe we lack, through acquiring possessions, power or relationships. It is as though we are trying to fill a void inside, but however much we get, the void always seems to remain. From the Buddhist viewpoint this happens because we misunderstand our own nature.
To practice meditation is to learn how to see beyond one’s thoughts and feelings and realize this true nature. There is a deep sufficiency in all of us and we all have a great capacity to give. These virtues and all the fruits of enlightenment are already within us but they can only be manifested when we see through our mistaken perceptions. This is a matter of discovering what we already possess rather than seeking what we believe we lack. This approach is both affirming and challenging, requiring us to look intently at the reality of the present moment — excluding nothing and grasping nothing. We need the willingness to see ourselves as we are. Rather than judging what we find, we can develop the capacity to neither indulge nor suppress emotions, thereby freeing ourselves from the forces that drive us to act unwisely. Compassion, both for ourselves and all beings, is at the heart of this process.
Through meditation we can discover the Truth directly for ourselves. It is to sit still with an open, alert and bright mind, neither suppressing nor indulging the thoughts and feelings that arise. In meditation, we learn how to accept ourselves and the world as it is. Profound transformation becomes possible once we know things as they are.
If we believe we are separate from everyone and everything else, then we act selfishly to get what we want. When we discover, through spiritual training, that within apparent diversity, nothing is really separate, then we already have all we need—for we are One with all things. Meditation enables us to know the real nature of our own being.
The Buddhist Precepts
The Precepts are the abiding foundation of Serene Reflection Meditation. For both the newest and the most experienced trainee, the Precepts continue to guide one’s efforts and guard against self-deception.
The Three Refuges
- I take refuge in the Buddha (the Source of the Teaching).
- I take refuge in the Dharma (the Buddha’s Teaching or Path).
- I take refuge in the Sangha (those who practice the Teaching).
The Three Pure Precepts
- Cease from evil.
- Do only good.
- Do good for others.
The Ten Great Precepts—I will do my best to live in such a way so that I:
- Refrain from killing.
- Refrain from stealing.
- Refrain from coveting and sexual misconduct.
- Refrain from lying.
- Refrain from encouraging intoxication of any kind, for myself or others, including delusive thinking.
- Refrain from speaking against others.
- Refrain from being proud of myself and belittling others, or vice versa.
- Refrain from holding back in giving either Dharma (Teaching) or wealth.
- Refrain from indulging in any anger that arises.
- Refrain from defaming or belittling The Three Refuges. (I will not deny the Buddha, or what the Buddha realized, within myself or others.)
We take refuge in the Buddha by trusting the wisdom born of the compassionate heart, and we also develop the humility to check our understanding with the Buddha’s Teaching (the Scriptures) and with the Sangha (the living community of those who follow the Buddha’s Way). We are all human and even the greatest teacher can make a mistake; however when the Precepts are taken seriously, they provide necessary safeguards and guidance.
All beings have the Buddha Nature
We can all learn to meditate because we all have the Buddha Nature, even though it may be, as yet, unseen. All beings are Buddhas and should be respected as such, whatever manner of life they may be in.
Awakening the Heart of Gratitude and Compassion
Compassion is aroused when we experience our unity with all life. When we realize that all things teach, we can accept them with gratitude. Meditation embraces both the good and the bad without judgment or indulgence. When we are touched by the infinite compassion that is the foundation of all existence, the desire to help all beings arises naturally. By understanding and embracing both the egocentric side of ourselves and the purity which lies beneath, we come to realize that the Precepts are our life blood, and that to go against them causes suffering and dissatisfaction for ourselves and others.
Buddhism is noted for its respect for other faiths. Our hope is to make the Buddha’s Teaching available to all, but never to try and impose it upon others. Buddhism does not claim an exclusive Truth; it is a way that has led many to the deepest fulfillment.