Our Daily Practice

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January 1

Cultivation is like rowing a boat upriver:
unless we keep rowing steadily, we’ll end up adrift.

Sporadic cultivation does not provide as much benefit as cultivating daily. Few of us would disagree with that. But trying to squeeze one more task into our already hectic week is, at the very least, daunting. Plus, the time we make for chanting would be so brief. How could it benefit us? And so, we decide to set aside time to chant and study on weekends. But even if we manage to follow our weekend-only schedule, the benefits will not prove as significant as those from daily learning and practice. First, we would not have the calming affects that chanting regularly brings, or the empowerment to gradually master our thoughts, rather than be enslaved by them. Second, cultivation includes applying the teachings in everything we do, not just while sitting in meditation or reading. Regular teachings—even brief ones—help us remain focused. Thus, by cultivating daily, instead of finding ourselves continually adrift, we will steadily progress.

January 2

Ordinary beings view things dualistically:
as two, not one.
Awakened beings understand
all phenomena are one, not two.

Sporadic cultivation does not provide as much benefit as cultivating daily. Few of us would disagree with that. But trying to squeeze one more task into our already hectic week is, at the very least, daunting. Plus, the time we make for chanting would be so brief. How could it benefit us? And so, we decide to set aside time to chant and study on weekends. But even if we manage to follow our weekend-only schedule, the benefits will not prove as significant as those from daily learning and practice. First, we would not have the calming affects that chanting regularly brings, or the empowerment to gradually master our thoughts, rather than be enslaved by them. Second, cultivation includes applying the teachings in everything we do, not just while sitting in meditation or reading. Regular teachings—even brief ones—help us remain focused. Thus, by cultivating daily, instead of finding ourselves continually adrift, we will steadily progress.

January 3

Instead of automatically reacting with sarcasm or trying to be clever, think again.
Will our wit ridicule another?
Will our sarcasm harm the listener?

For varied reasons, ranging from wanting to make others laugh to being considered witty, or because of being simply frustrated at a situation, we can find ourselves using sarcasm. But what is sarcasm? Yet another manifestation of anger. We may view ourselves as amusing, but we’re heedlessly belittling another person or some situation. There’s a valid reason why the Greeks defined sarcasm as “tearing flesh.” Before glibly tossing out another sarcastic quip, we need to figure out why we feel inclined to do so. So that others will laugh? So that they think us sophisticated with our rapier wit? Surely, we can manage to make others laugh without resorting to disrespect and ridicule. We also need to remind ourselves that our sharp remarks nurture tension in others on a subtle level as well as plant seeds for our own future belittlement.

January 4

When weeding, we need to pull out the roots,
or the weeds will grow back.
Eradicating bad habits is the same;
remove the root, or the habit will reappear.

A person unskilled at weeding will often begin by removing the stems and the leaves, that which lies above the soil. But seemingly overnight, the weeds start growing back. And so the novice gardener learns a valuable lesson: removing just the visible parts of the plant won’t eliminate it. The roots need to located, uncovered, and dug out. In a similar manner, we often try to shed bad habits just by curtailing visible behaviors. But this fails to remove underlying causes. Not surprisingly, as soon as we relax our guard, the bad habits return, as rampant as those weeds. To permanently eradicate bad habits, we need to destroy their roots. How? First, we need to determine the habits’ underlying causes. Maybe selfishness? Maybe apathy or a lack of integrity? By figuring out our bad habits’ causes, we can eliminate them. Forever.

January 5

Bodhisattvas fear causes;
sentient beings fear results.

Understanding that every cause will have a consequence, bodhisattvas strive to avoid creating evil causes while generating those that are good. This two-pronged approach allows these awakened beings to have the right conditions to continue along the path to enlightenment. Unawakened beings, on the other hand, are like children who commit a misdeed but hope not to get caught. When their bad conduct is discovered, they may blame others. Or they may become defensive. They do not realize that such reactions are yet more causes, causes that will incur yet more painful results and more suffering. To stop fearing results, we need to live wisely in the present instead of figuring out ways to escape the past. How? By being continuously alert to what we do—to the causes we are creating. Without a cause, adverse consequences will not occur, and we will have saved ourselves from their associated suffering.

January 6

We should mind our own business
and not the business of others.

This advice from Great Master Yinguang speaks to us of gossiping, a habit we all indulge in far too often. Consider what you talk about. A project you’re working on, or your co-workers? The book you just read, or what you heard someone did at the party last night? When we gossip, we indulge in speculation and we spread rumors. But even if what we say is true, is it our business to talk about it? Would we be uncomfortable if the person overheard what we said? We can tell ourselves that that person will never know. But the one we told knows. Perhaps this person will think less of us for gossiping. Most likely, we will have planted negative thoughts in the mind of our listener. How? Rarely is gossip about wonderful things. Ultimately, gossip spreads perceived wrongdoings. Instead of talking about what others have done, we need to focus on our own behavior and correct our faults before others have cause to gossip about us.

January 7

Before teaching others,
we should first cultivate ourselves.
Having some success with cultivation,
our behavior will precede our words.

Having discovered something new and intriguing, we usually can’t wait to tell others about it. Take for example, newly hearing about Buddhism. Wanting to share what we just learned is understandable. But if we cannot yet do something, how can we explain it? Take anger. If we do not yet find a lessening of our anger and a sense of calmness through our practice, how can we teach an irritated person to be more patient? Or take worries. If we speak of letting go of worry and fear but are often anxious ourselves, how can we convince others that Buddhist practice will help them? When we try to teach something before we can do it, others will resist us. Understandably so. When we progress in our cultivation, our behavior will reflect our growth. When others view us as experienced and trustworthy, we will be qualified to teach.

January 8

Whatever the situation,
adverse or favorable, remain balanced
in your buddha-name chanting:
unwavering and determined.

Lurching first in one direction and then another, our mind, jolted from its clear and natural state, becomes distracted and troubled. This lamentable state is where we spend much, if not all, of our time. Rather, the mental state we should seek is for us to remain steadfast and undisturbed. When praised, we do not become proud or disdainful. Hearing that others are criticizing us, we do not feel offended or defensive. Finding things working out as hoped for, we do not attach or feel arrogant. Encountering situations not planned for, we do not worry or doubt the teachings. How can we attain such balance? Every time we notice a distraction—good or bad—we return to the buddha-name. This returning is our practice. As in sports or music, in fact all things, practice makes perfect. Including chanting the Buddha’s name.


January 9

Not having wandering thoughts
does not mean not thinking.
Having focused on our task, we do not dwell on it, lingering over failures or successes.

Hearing that we should desist from wandering thoughts might sound like we should avoid all thinking. Not so. Wandering thoughts refers to incorrect thoughts, not all thoughts. Having a task, we need to consider how best to accomplish it. And so we have correct thoughts. If others criticize how we do the task, we need to weigh the criticism. Is it valid? Or irrelevant? These are more correct thoughts. But what if we keep replaying the criticism as if it were a favorite movie? We’re right back at trivial, wandering thoughts. Why? Reminiscing about successes depletes our good fortune. Recalling failures plants the wrong kind of seeds. Embarrassment, guilt, anger. Either way, we end up not paying attention to our current tasks. So, do not linger on the past. Learn from it. Then move on so you can focus increasingly on correct thoughts.


January 10

Strive to detect thoughts the instant
they arise, before speaking or acting.

Our thoughts occur with incredible speed and utmost subtlety, not to mention in staggering numbers. As we first notice them, it seems they amble through one after another. Peering more closely, we notice that they’re not merely scooting through in single file. No! They’re more like thousands of first-graders in an auditorium jostling and shouting “Me! Me!” Just like their dazed teacher who turns to the loudest student, we also go with the most noticeable thought. Without thinking, we act on it and sow a karmic seed. At the same time, our other thoughts are also planting future seeds. Incredibly slight, but seeds nonetheless. Our thoughts, undetectable by us, are vibrations. As such, they will have consequences. Just as that teacher might calm her students by having them focus, momentarily at least, on their favorite ice cream, we too can gain control over our actions and results by focusing on “Amituofo.” Hopefully, all the time.

January 11

Buddhism is like an immense mountain
with 84,000 paths leading to the peak.
Choose—and remain on—one path.

To attain the summit of a mountain in the most effective and enjoyable manner, climbers choose one route. Depending on their abilities, some will prefer a more cautious approach, others a more challenging one. Having chosen their route, they do not deviate from it. The climbers do not keep trying different ones, or they will end up wandering around the mountain instead of climbing it, thus wasting time and energy. Our practice is the same. With the summit of enlightenment as our goal, we choose the path that best suits our conditions and abilities. Like the climbers, we also want to stick to our chosen route. Should we take our eyes off our goal, we can become enthralled by other paths. This one looks easier! That one looks more challenging! I’ll try it! Enamored with exploring myriad options, we will end up circling the mountain. And our goal to climb it and reach enlightenment? Lost.


January 12

To no longer be attached is to be free of
self-centered thoughts and expectations.

Non-attachment falls between two extremes. At one end lies detachment, the state of being emotionally uninvolved. A detached person, however, is often perceived as aloof, as uncaring. Clearly, this state is not our goal. At the other end lies attachment, being emotionally entangled as we focus on a person, object, or idea. Not our goal either! Our objective is non-attachment, which lies purposefully and unselfishly in the middle. There is no emotional entanglement, but we still care. Very much so. And therefore we do our best in everything we undertake. But we do not get caught up in egoistic thoughts. Facing a task, we can ask “What is the best way to do this” rather than insist “I want to do it this way.” Having thus reined in our ego, we stop expecting a desired outcome. Then when things do not go our way, as it invariably happens, we will not fall prey to obstinacy and regrets. Finally, no longer attached or entangled, we will be free.

January 13

Just as time is needed
for a perfume bottle’s fragrance to fade away,
time is also needed
for the scent of our habits to wane.

An empty bottle of perfume, even after washing, will still exude its original fragrance. Although the perfume is long since gone, its scent or “habit energy” remains and will need considerable time to dissipate. In a similar manner, our bad habits also need time to be eliminated. Even after we curtail an action, its habit energy, like the scent of perfume, remains. Lured by the habit energy’s lingering presence, we find it difficult to break the energy’s hold. And so, we are unable to cease the action. Consider the countless lifetimes we have spent perpetuating and reinforcing our habits, committing misdeed after misdeed. The time the perfume stays in its bottle is minuscule compared to our time committing misdeeds in samsara. And so, our habit energy will take a long time of diligent hard work to dispel, to finally be extinguished.


January 14

Upon seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting,
and touching, discriminatory thoughts arise,
habits solidify, control lessens,
and suffering increases.

Through our senses, we perceive our world. Feelings arise, ideas form. Opinions become set. Liking this, we want more; disliking that, we want it to go away. Such impressions accumulate in our store consciousness. And from these we form our habits. Habits like acting from assumptions rather than from facts, and acting emotionally rather than with understanding. Reacting from habits, we do not stop to formulate the wisest course of action. We respond automatically, unaware that any control we have over our thoughts and behavior is waning. The more we fail to exercise control and the more careless we become, the more mistakes we make. Since we act negligently and harm others, our resultant sufferings will multiply. What can we do? Observe clearly, but do not attach, do not discriminate. Act from understanding, not from emotions.

January 15

View hatred as an unwanted caller.

Most of us are painfully familiar with the emotional upheavals of a once warm relationship that stalled and mutated into an acrimonious one. Initially, in the downward spiral, we excuse the other's behavior. Then we begin to justify our feelings. One day, we suddenly realize our emotions are starting to feel like a ricocheting ball in a pinball machine. Ping! It’s their stubbornness. Ping! But our reasonableness. Their wrongdoing. Our innocence. Suddenly, our smoldering emotions erupt, and we fly into a rage. And as surely as the pinball will end up in the drain, our hatred will also be for naught. Nothing positive will come of it. Hatred will overcome us and hardened in our heart, an uninvited guest who intends to stay a while. We were wrong to succumb to it. Instead of ending our suffering, we have increased it. Rather than helping all beings, we have injured them. Before this happens, we need to recognize hatred for what it is and gently, but firmly, send it on its way.

January 16

Forgiveness does not mean we do not care
or that the other person is pardoned.

Our forgiving others does not mean they will escape their karmic consequences. We can forgive because we understand and care about what happened. But we cannot pardon, for it is not up to us. Understand that all actions will unfailingly have consequences. Understand the potency of karmic forces amassed over uncountable lifetimes. And so, a wrongdoer’s just retribution will occur naturally. Do not waste energy on vengeful thoughts; let them go. Do not be judge, jury, and executioner. By forgiving, we also ease our pain. We understand the gravity of embracing a desire for retaliation. And also it’s futility. We also understand that to hold the grudge will pull us down into a spiral of anger, reprisal, and more suffering. As the Buddha cautioned, being angry is like holding onto a piece of hot fiery coal. Before our intention to throw it at another is carried out, we ourselves get burned. Now, and for lifetimes to come.


January 17

Do not spend time wondering about
another’s karmic consequences.

Musing over others’ intentions and resultant karmic results may seem intriguing, and perhaps even worthwhile. But how much do we know about this person? And do we really need to find out more? About their comings and goings? About their intentions? We have difficulty in figuring out our own intentions, so how can we unearth those of others? Besides, and more importantly—it is none of our business. A much wiser use of time would be to look within: examine our own actions. We investigate, then reflect, again and again. It is much like peeling an onion, layer by layer. Do I detect some resentment, which obstructed my helpfulness? Were my actions half-hearted because I was indifferent? Were they selfish? Did I mean to help but negligently made mistakes? Since we will have to live with our karmic results, learning why we act the way we do—and how to change for the better—is what matters to an awakening person.


January 18

The sincere mind
has no wandering thoughts.

For us Pure Land practitioners, sincerity means having no doubts, no intermingling, and no interruptions. With doubt eliminated, we are confident that Amitabha Buddha created the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss for the benefit of all beings and that Sakyamuni Buddha taught about that land despite encountering significant obstacles. We remain confident that our true nature is the same as a Buddha’s, and by practicing the teachings we too will become a Buddha. With intermingling eliminated and knowing that our sincere chanting is the cause that will result in our birth in the Pure Land, we resist any temptation to chant the buddha-name today and something else tomorrow. We practice one method, study one sutra, and learn from one teacher. With interruptions eliminated, we restrain our wandering thoughts, even the thought “I am sincerely chanting,” and strive to constantly dwell on the single pure thought of “Amituofo.”

January 19

When chanting “Amituofo”
and a wandering thought arises,
which remains in the front of your mind
and which recedes to the back?

Initially, wandering thoughts will continually derail our chanting. As our chanting becomes established, wandering thoughts will arise less often and retreat more quickly. As we chant with patience and diligence, wandering thoughts will cease, slowly. Since few of us have reached this last level, it will be helpful to determine if we’re at least progressing. As a wandering thought arises, observe which recedes. “Amituofo”? Or the wandering thought? Next, determine how soon we notice what just happened. A few seconds? A minute? Longer? Thoughts, good ones or bad ones, seem to arise from nowhere. One moment “Amituofo” is at the front of our mind, and the next, wandering thoughts can take over and “Amituofo” is gone. Identify what just happened, then quickly return to the safety—and joy—of “Amituofo.”


January 20

Letting go is more than
giving away possessions.
It is also relinquishing
opinions and preferences.

For the best example of letting go, we need only reflect on Prince Siddhartha’s renouncements. Leaving behind his pleasure-filled life, his attachments to personal views, and eventually even his concept of self, he lived as a penniless, wandering seeker—a seeker who later attained ultimate liberation. We need to, like the Buddha, stop clinging to personal desires and egoistic opinions. Our attachments constrain us and trap us in the cycle of rebirth. And they have done so since time without beginning. Accept that it is just a matter of time when once again we leave all that we have behind. And so, the wisdom in choosing to let go now rather than having everything torn from us later is blindingly apparent. No longer a trapped sentient being, we will be content with, and appreciative of, all that we encounter. And we will do so as a liberated being.

January 21

Based on previous experiences,
expectations prevent us from opening up
to what may be truly wonderful.

Expectations, by their very nature, bind us to the familiar and to the past. Expectations prevent us from imagining something new and, quite possibly, more rewarding. They color everything we set out to achieve. Upon hearing of the lotuses and ponds in the Western Pure Land, we diminish these by likening them to what we now see every day. Being told of the learning environment, we remember what school was like and conclude learning in the Pure Land will be more of the same. Reading that we can visit other Buddhas without leaving the Pure Land, we envisage it to holding a meeting via the Internet. All these ideas and expectations hold us back! Letting go of expectations, we free ourselves of remembered images and begin feeling—begin sensing—the wonder of things beyond our imagination. And we throw open the door to the new and truly wondrous.


January 22

Do not seek the measure of your actions’ worth
in the eyes of others.
Seek it within yourself.

Long ago, when the Buddha was in our world, an old woman wished to make an offering to the perfectly enlightened being. But all she had were two coins from her day’s begging. Undeterred, she used them to buy some oil for a lamp. Setting out her offering of a lamp, she vowed to help all beings end their suffering. After leaving the lamp, exhausted and hungry, she died. The same night, the king also offered lamps, rows upon rows of them. The next day, amazingly, not only was one of the lamps still burning, its flame shone more brightly than the night before. When asked how this could be, the Buddha said the lamp was the old woman’s. It continued to burn due to her compassionate vow. The woman did not have to wonder if her meager offering was enough; she did what she knew to be right. Her gratitude was immeasurable, her own needs inconsequential, her vow unwavering.


January 23

Although others may cause us pain,
we can control our suffering
by how we react to our pain.

The Buddha explained pain and suffering as two darts. Pain, the first dart, can be either physical or emotional. Suffering, the second dart, is what we inflict on ourselves. It is an impulsive reaction to the pain, a reaction due to our ignorance. Let’s say you rush into a room and, in your haste, walk into a chair. A painful first dart. The second dart ensues as you scold yourself for being clumsy and careless, that you never learn! At other times, we inflict the second dart when there is no first. For instance, we take a coworker’s remark the wrong way. Not bothering to check to see if this first dart even existed, we subsequently stab ourselves with a second dart of anger or distress. The solution? We can’t always avoid first darts. But we can control the second ones. We create the suffering, so we can stop it. As soon as you sense you are raising a second dart, recognize it. And drop it for the worthless thing it is.


January 24

When disagreeable thoughts
of others arise,
convert them to amiable ones.

For our own sake, as well as that of others, we need to replace our belligerent mental chatter with “Amituofo.” While returning to the buddha-name we can seize the opportunity to quickly transform our offensive thoughts into caring ones. The last impressions of the person thus embedded in our store consciousness will then be favorable ones. Accomplishing this, when we next see the individual, the first feelings to bubble up to the surface of our consciousness will hopefully come from those congenial impressions rather than the earlier derogatory ones. Failing to accomplish this, we will feel our indignation surge upward the next time we meet. We will resume thinking—and acting on—those harsh untransformed thoughts, regardless of how the other person acts towards us. The person may well smile at or say something polite to us, but we will bristle at them. And we will have spawned yet another enmity.


January 25

Before attempting to fix the issues around us,
we need to fix those inside us.

Our underlying aspiration is to help all beings end their suffering. A noble goal. But before we can even attempt to fix small problems in the world, we need to fix the problems within ourselves. How can we tell others to resolve their conflicts when anger still smolders within us? How can we end discrimination when we view everything in terms of like and dislike, smiling at some while ignoring others? How can we resolve ecological issues when we squander natural resources and treat Earth like a garbage dump? How can we correct government corruption and deceit when we are not truthful with our family and coworkers. Until we clean our own house, people will not listen to us when we tell them how to clean theirs. And why should they? We influence others through our behavior. Yes, words are important, but they need to be supported by actions. And if our actions are benevolent and pervasive, words can become unnecessary.


January 26

As a fissure can split a stone,
doubt cripples one’s confidence.

Fissures in a rock can stress it to a point where it cracks. Over time the rock will crumble away. Even with the hardest of rocks. Similarly, and with equally disastrous results, doubt can eat into and eventually decimate our fragile confidence. This is why our belief needs to be as imperishable as a diamond. We need to believe in ourselves, secure in the knowledge that we have the same nature as all Buddhas. Having this same buddha-nature, we too can awaken and become a Buddha. We also need to believe in the Buddhas and their teachings. We must guard against doubting what the Buddhas and accomplished masters have taught, guard against questioning our ability to awaken. Failing to do so, our skepticism will, like a fissure, split and shatter our resolve. With unwavering belief in ourselves and in the Buddhas, we will eliminate doubt and burnish our confidence until it shines as brilliantly as a diamond.


January 27

It is not the amount of teachings that matters,
but how we practice those that we have.

Our goal is not to become a “night table Buddhist,” but a focused practitioner. The former consumes teachings: reading one book, moving it to the read pile, and picking up a new one. This is in contrast to the practitioner who reads one book, gets to the last page, turns the book over, and begins reading the book again. And again. And yet again. A book reviewer once complained that a master’s books kept repeating the same things. Someone replied that it was because we still weren’t doing what the master had instructed in the earlier books. In other words, until we internalize and practice a book’s teachings, we’re not ready for more. There is no need for a bookshelf of books. We need to just practice what we have. In Pure Land Buddhism, we do not have dozens of books to pile onto our nightstand. And that’s okay because the ones we have provide abundant teachings. We just need to clear away the clutter on our night table for our one book.


January 28

When inclined to take the easy way out,
determine whether you can
live with the consequences.

When confronted with an unappealing job, we often resist. Not because we question whether it is appropriate to do, whether we lack the necessary skills, or other reasons, all valid. The chore is something we just don’t feel like doing. So, day after day a discomfort stirs inside us. It reminds us of the task, looming large, still uncompleted. And, once again, our response is delay. Aversion. Laziness. Resistance. Procrastination. Call it what you will, we’re like little children stamping our feet and yelling “I don’t want to!” Sounds silly, when we think about it. But our resisting could prove grave. What might happen if we don’t finish our task? A relationship turns sour? An even more dreaded task looms? Good fortune wanes? We need to consider the logical outcomes and ask ourselves, “Will the consequence of an unaccomplished task be more painful than the job itself?”


January 29

Those who do not understand,
ask “Why?”
Those who do, struggle,
but move on.

When faced suddenly with a tragic loss of life, an initial response is often the grief-stricken moan, “Why?” But as heartrending as the loss is, even more terrible is remaining stuck, stuck in forever searching for an answer. Never understanding how such a tragedy could happen. Never moving forward. As Buddhist practitioners, such loss still leaves us with a wrenching sorrow, but thankfully we have learned the answer to “Why?” Everyone, including the young and innocent, has planted the seeds for what happens to them in this lifetime. Our minds are not yet clear enough for us to know the karmic cause of an unexpected death. But we can at least grasp that a cause existed for such a result. The loss is tragic, but not unfair. Such understanding does not magically erase our pain. It does, however, enable us to move on and figure out how to exist with our grim new reality.


January 30

Not only should we do what is right,
we need to do so correctly.

What are some incorrect ways? One is to envisage a desirable outcome. Of course, this invariably sets us up for disappointment since things rarely turn out as we anticipate. Another is to act egoistically. Perhaps we dream of succeeding where others have failed. And possibly of being hoisted up on a pedestal, with loudspeakers proclaiming our name and everyone congratulating us. How can we avoid such pitfalls? Just like a horse with blinders on his bridle focuses only on what lies ahead, we too need to put on blinders. Thus focused, our aspiration to do what is right becomes free of expectations, free of ego. We seek to do something for one reason: it’s the right thing to do. Personal views, fame, success, etc., do not matter. We do our best in the hope that conditions will provide fertile ground in which the seeds of our aspirations can take root. And maybe, just maybe, even grow a little.


January 31

Not liking what we see,
we can always stop looking.

The distractions we encounter seem endless. Short-lived products crammed floor to ceiling on superstore shelves. Waiting-room magazines discussing everything from gossip to sports to politics scattered on tables and stacked in wall displays. Ceiling-hung news-harping TVs everywhere we turn in airports and restaurants. A proliferation of painfully audible mobile devices. All are shouting “Look at me!” All are seeking to stimulate us and grab our attention. All seeking to get us to spend more. What’s a person to do! Instead of stewing over poorly made junk, the latest political squabbles, the news headlines that we cannot do anything about, just look away. Averting our attention, we block the visual and audio noise while protecting our pure mind. How? We change our focus by replacing all the raucous external stimuli demanding our attention to something calming and familiar. To the soothing, inspiring sound of “Amituofo.”