The Altar Sutra: On Repentance

The Patriarch gave the following teaching:

Let’s purify our minds at all times, walk the path by our diligent effort, Awaken to our true nature, realize Enlightenment in our minds, and deliver ourselves by observing moral teachings.

There are five kinds of incense in the teachings.
The first is Sila Incense, which means that our minds are free from the taints of misdeeds: jealousy, avarice, anger, and hatred.

The second is Samadhi Incense, whiche means our minds aren’t disturbed in circumstances, whether positive or negative.

The third is Prajna Incense, which means our minds are free of impediments, that we look within for our true nature and refrain from doing evil deeds. That we treat others with respect.

The fourth is the Incense of Liberation, which means that our minds are in a free state, that we cling to nothing and don’t concern ourselves with duality.

The fifth is the Incense of Knowledge, which means we have learned about the Attainment of Liberation. When our minds don’t cling to duality then we attain this knowledge.

We should broaden our knowledge so we know our own minds, thoroughly understand the teachings of Buddhism, be kind to others, let go of the idea of ‘self’ and that of ‘being’ and realize that our true nature is oneness.
This fivefold incense burns within us.

Repeat what I say here:

‘May we, students, be always free from ignorance and delusion. We repent for all of our misdeeds committed because of ignorance and delusion. May we never commit such misdeeds again.

May we be free from the taints of arrogance and dishonesty. We repent for all of our arrogant and dishonest behavior.

May we be free from the taints of envy and jealousy. We repent for all jealous and envious behavior.

This is what we call formless repentance.

Having repented of our sins we will take the following four All-embracing Vows:
Living beings are numberless, I vow to save them all.

Confusions are countless, I vow to cut them all.
The Buddha’s teachings are limitless, I vow to penetrate them all.

The Buddha’s way is highest, I vow to achieve it.

These are called the Four Bodhisattva Vows. They are considered the fundamental vows of the Zen Buddhist path, expressing our resolution to attain Enlightenment in order to help all beings. These are chanted daily in Zen temples and are often chanted at the closing of different kinds of ceremonies.

With the aid of Right Views and Prajna the barriers raised by delusion can be broken. Then we can deliver ourselves by our own efforts to Enlightenment.

Now that we have taken these Four All-embracing vows, let me teach you the ‘Formless Threefold Guidance’:
We take Enlightenment as our guide, because it is the culmination of virtue and wisdom. We take the Dharma as our guide because it is the best way to get rid of desire and delusion. We take Purity as our guide because it is the noblest quality of beings.

These represent the Three Jewels.

The Buddha stands for Enlightenment
The Dharma stands for Devotion to the teachings
The Sangha stands for Purity.

Taking refuge in Enlightenment is the culmination of virtue and wisdom.
Taking refuge in Devotion to the teachings helps us become free of wrong views.
Taking refuge in Purity means that in any circumstance we are not contaminated by delusion.
Practicing the Threefold Guidance in this way really leads to taking refuge in our own Buddha nature.

Taking refuge in the Buddha within yourself doesn’t entail taking refuge in something outside ourselves.
Let us each take refuge in the Three Gems within our minds.


Going for Refuge: Initiation in the Buddhist Tradition.

Going for Refuge is an initiation in which one officially becomes a Buddhist.

It’s a rite of passage ceremony that marks a formal commitment. We don’t have to make this official commitment, of course, but it serves to solidify our sense of purpose. We go for refuge because we are determined to overcome our suffering and help others overcome their suffering.

Like any other rite of passage, it indicates that we are undergoing a transformation.

We’ve almost lost rites of passage in the modern world, but they were really important in traditional societies. The only rite of passage I can think of that’s normal in modern society is getting married, or, put another way, marriage vows.

For this reason, Going for Refuge is sometimes referred to as Taking Refuge Vows. This terminology, I think, is just to remind us that this is a big deal. Unlike marriage vows, though, when we take refuge, we aren’t making a promise to someone else. We’re really only making a promise to ourselves.

When we take refuge we acknowledge—in a formal way—that our goal is Awakening. When we take refuge we become as one with all of the Buddhist lineage that came before us, we become the Buddha’s sons and daughters.

When we go for refuge, we are taking refuge in three things, which are referred to as the Three Jewels. They’re called jewels because we are supposed to think of them as precious and valuable.

These are: The Buddha, The Dharma, and The Sangha.

The Buddha refers to the historical being—Siddhartha Gautama—who found Awakening and who exists as our example to follow. Sometimes when people first hear about Buddhism they think the Buddha is a god. This is not correct. He is our teacher, the one who’s example we follow.

Going for refuge in the Buddha also represents the ideal of Buddhahood. We see the Buddha as our example and we committed to achieving Awakening, just as he did, for the sake of all beings. The Buddha transcended his delusion and engaged with his true nature. We seek to do the same by following his example.

The Dharma is the roadmap to Awakening that the Buddha gave us. It represents his effort, and the efforts of other great Buddhist teachers after him, to put the teachings into words.

He gave us a list of instructions that he summed up as: “Learn to do good, cease to do evil, purify your heart.” A list of simple goals, but certainly something we can spend a lifetime trying to do. Going for refuge in the Dharma means using these teachings and methods to try to increase our mindfulness and kindness as much as we can.

The Sangha is the spiritual community. The Buddha once said that spiritual friendship is the most important aspect of the path. Engaging the practice with others means something to us. This is important because Buddhism isn’t simply a philosophy or belief system. It’s something we do, like having a buddy to go work out with, and having a community on the path with us helps. It’s not that we can’t practice alone, of course we can, it’s just like an uphill battle.

In a narrow sense a Sangha is any spiritual community that we join. In a broader sense, Sangha represents all Buddhists. In a even broader sense, I like to think we can included all like minded spiritual seekers as well, so to me Sangha can easily include some Taoists, Shamans, or Pagans.

So, when we take refuge in the three jewels we begin to transform immediately. By making this commitment we resolve to practice Buddhism, rather than just studying it or thinking about it.

So, how do you do it?

If you want a formal ceremony, you’ll need to find a qualified person to perform it. Search for Buddhist teachers in your community. Most communities have a few.

Diamond Sutra, chapter 16

The Buddha then asked Subhuti, “Do I have human eyes?”

“Subhuti replied, “Yes, you have human eyes.”

“Does I have the eyes of Enlightenment?”


“Do I have the eyes of transcendent intelligence?”


“Do I have the eyes of spiritual intuition?”


“Do I have the eyes of love and compassion for all sentient beings?”

Subhuti said, “Yes, you love all sentient life.”

Here the Buddha is trying to understand Subhuti’s level of devotion. He wants to make sure Subhuti is worthy of this teaching, although I”m sure he already knows the truth. Subhuti makes clear with his answers that he has fully and completely accepted the Buddha as his Guru.

The Dharma of Jack Kerouac

I was reading Jack Kerouac’s book “Some of the Dharma” and I really like how he elucidated the core teachings of Buddhism. This book is a collection of notes that the beat writer took while he was studying the Dharma. It’s incredibly insightful and worth reading.

And I quote: 


1. All Life is Suffering  INDIVIDUALITY IS PAINFUL

                                      BIRTH DECAY DEATH ARE PAINFUL

2. The suffering is from ignorant craving.

                                   LUST OF FLESH       LUST OF LIFE

                                                  PRIDE OF LIFE

3. The suffering can be suppressed

                                DESTRUCTION OF CRAVING DESIRE



1. RIGHT VIEWS-that all life is sorrow and suffering and torment in spite of occasional appearance….correct doctrines, free from superstition or delusion.

2. RIGHT ASPIRATIONS-ambition to destroy suffering and ego, attain greatest happiness known to man as soon as possible-a clear perception of correct doctrines

3. RIGHT SPEECH-ask and answer necessary questions, speak to instruct, radiate mental peace and compassion in silence-inflexible veracity, kindly, open, truthful.

4. RIGHT CONDUCT-The 4 Precepts (don’t kill, steal, lust or deceive)-No sloth and intoxicants-Purity of conduct, peaceful, honest, pure.

5. RIGHT LIVELIHOOD-live in the open-bringing hurt or danger to no living thing-a sinless occupation

6. RIGHT ENDEAVOR-continual awareness loving all-energetic guard over progress-correct efforts-perseverance is duty-effort in self training and self control

7. RIGHT MINDFULNESS-avoid outgoing projecting multiplicity thoughts, anoint thee with incoming intuiting unified thoughts of Essence-Active watchful mind-Holy Meditation

8. RIGHT CONTEMPLATION-daily practice of dhyana for the attainment of Samadhi and Samapatti and attainment of Highest Perfect Enlightenment for the sake of all sentient life-earnest thoughts on the deep mysteries of life-mental tranquility



Dharma at the Gaea Retreat

Had a great experience bringing the Dharma to pagans at the Heartland Pagan Festival. I taught meditation to hippies and nudists and pagans and it was wonderful. They were fully engaged and asking questions and we meditated together amidst the drum circles and fire.


I started with the line “People say that when you’re nervous you should picture your audience naked. I’m having a really easy time doing that.” And I got a lot of laughs.

I am going to write something long about my experience. I just wanted to check in. 

It was a spiritually transformative experience. I’ve never been around so much nonjudgment and positivity.

I think I’ve brought some of it back with me. 




Today I visited a local Hindu Temple and it was a wonderful experience.  I love visiting sacred places.

I had a conversation with the temple priest about the oneness of all things and it was very moving. 


This weekend I’m going to an event called the Heartland Pagan Festival. I will be camping for four days and leading a meditation workshop. 


I will be spending time with hippies and radicals and weird people. People a lot less boring than me. I will engage in some of their rituals, getting my chakras cleansed and banishing obstacles. I will sit by a bonfire and dance in the moonlight. And I will meditate in the woods every morning. 

I expect to come back inspired.


There will be stories and there will be pictures upon my return. 

Kalama Sutra for Kids. Part Two

When I read my version of the Kalama Sutra to the children in Dharma School, they responded to it really well.

I said, “This is my favorite sutra. This is a teaching that, as far as I know, has never been given to children before.” 


The children took great meaning from it very easily. 

“When you yourselves can tell, ‘These things are not helpful. These things seem harmful,’ abandon them. Don’t accept teachings that don’t agree with your common sense.”

This is pretty straightforward and kids had no trouble understanding it. The Buddha is telling us to avoid spiritual teachings that seem to go against our reasonable logic. The truth is that we know the difference between right and wrong intuitively. Our moral compass doesn’t come from our spiritual path, if anything the opposite is true.


“Therefore, we know this. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, tradition, rumor, scripture, or another’s seeming ability.” 


This is equally straightforward. Question authority, don’t blindly follow it. It can be easy to put spiritual leaders on pedestals, to worship them as gods or think they’re better than us. The Buddha tells us that Buddha nature is within us, that we don’t need to worship our spiritual leaders. Elevating our spiritual leaders can be counterproductive on the path. 

The Buddha’s message, that we should challenge authority, is unique. The other spiritual leaders that the Kalamas encountered had very different messages. 

Kalama Sutra for kids part one.

I’ve written my own version of the Kalama sutra to teach to the children at Dharma school. This is part one of a two part series that will end in my commentary. 

1. The Buddha traveled to a town of people called the Kalamas. The Kalamas were excited about his visit. They had heard the tales of his Enlightenment and his great teachings.

2. The Kalamas went to where the Buddha was camping. Some of them bowed, some saluted, and some simply sat down before him.

3. One of the Kalamas said, “There are many teachers who have come to visit us. They tell us their teachings and they tell us that the teachings of others are bad. This happens over and over, with each new teacher telling us that the other teachings we’ve learned are bad. How do we know who is telling us the truth? How do we know if you are?

4. The Buddha said, “Doubting is good. Do not believe something just because you’ve heard it a lot, or because it’s an old teaching, or because it’s in a book, or because it’s what a seemingly wise person tells you. When you yourselves can tell, ‘These things are not helpful. These things seem harmful,’ abandon them. Don’t accept teachings that don’t agree with your common sense.

5. “Does greed cause harm?” the Buddha asked. The Kalamas said, “Yes.” “Greed can cause us to take life, steal, and tell lies. And to tell others to do the same. This is very harmful.”

6. “Does hate cause harm?” “Yes” “Being given to hate can cause us to take life, steal, tell lies, and cause others to do the same. This is harmful.

7. “Does delusion cause harm?” “Yes” “Being given to delusion can cause us to take life, steal, and tell lies, and to cause others to do the same. This is harmful.”

8. “Are these things bad?” “Yes.”

9. “There fore, we know this. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, tradition, rumor, scripture, or another’s seeming ability. The truth is that we know the difference between right and wrong. Someone doesn’t need to tell us. If any teaching leads to harm, you should abandon it.”

10. “When things are good, we know they are good.”