Being ‘Good’ For Others (Merit Post)

December 28th 2020. I’m deeply involved with running the online New Years Retreat. So here is a post to ponder on.

This was first published in 2012 (and again in November last year)and again today. Originally it was written with a chap in mind who had a heart attack this afternoon.  And for his family and extended family in the North West of England and Scotland.

Part of an email with my responses, published with permission.

Dear Reverend Mugo,
I was interested in your writing that sitting still is enough to do great good for oneself and others. (See this post.)

After I wrote the post where I say ‘sitting still is enough’ I realized that saying just that without further explanation can be seriously misunderstood. There can, for example, be an implication that practice is about passivity. Nothing could be further from the truth of it. People sit still for all sorts of reasons but it isn’t necessarily the fully intentional ‘sitting still’ that I am referring to. And the intention of the #still4amo is to keep the Precepts in body, speech and mind, and being reflective about what one does. So, yes great good emanates from living a Preceptual life. That’s doing as little harm as possible, doing the ‘good’ beyond the opposites of good/bad, right/wrong. All of this is assumed as being understood when one talks about or refers to ‘sitting still’.

My understanding of zen practice has boiled down to being in each moment as it occurs and I have been wandering for a while how this relates to the Bodhisattva vows.

Well, I’d say I am not consciously aware of ‘being in each moment’. In other words, I’ve not got the thought of ‘being in the moment’ or of that being a conscious ‘action’. I’ll talk about a term I can relate to better than the ‘in the moment’ term. Fully present (Uh! coin a term and it becomes a heavy log weighing itself down, no good for anybody)! Anyway, we’re just talking about ideas here – trying to get our heads straight on the subject. In actual practice fully present means fully present with. That’s not the ‘fully present’ when one’s system is on high alert ready to fight, run or freeze. Which unfortunately is, for some people, a hair-trigger response to circumstances which don’t warrant such a response. (That’s worth a blog post in itself). Going through a field with a Beware of The Bull sign would have me proceeding with caution and I’d certainly be fully present. It would not however be the everyday-fully-present a meditator enjoys as she walks down the road or gets on with sweeping the floor and the like.

The Bodhisattva Vows are about engagement with what’s coming at you, both external to oneself and internally. The vows are a strong intention (making a Vow in the presence of others helps one to ‘put one’s money where one’s mouth is’.) to keep the Buddhist Precepts in relationship with… Books have been written on the subject of the Boddhisattva Vows. This is an answer but not a comprehensive one to your question about the Bodhisatva Vows. Study is good in this regard, but not good to overdo that and have life pass one by in the process of study. Our practice, as you well know, emphasizes the ‘hands-on’, ‘active’ approach while study is part of what we do, too.

If I am walking down the street being fully present how am I helping others?

Actually I’ve not a clue! Faith definitely underpins the ‘walking’. Not a faith IN anything – no ‘articles’ of faith in my Buddhist understanding of that term. Faith is, you could say, just simply walking on and ‘not knowing’ (remember the book ‘The Cloud Of Unknowing’?) and not being spooked by not knowing!

I have been reading Katagiri’s book ‘Each Moment is the Universe’ and from what I can understand in some profound way (my words not his) being fully present in the moment is doing good for others.

My mentioning the word faith can in itself spook people because of associations with ‘blind faith’, past religious associations and a whole lot of assumptions and teachings around what faith means in religious practice. As well as our common understanding of faith. ‘I have faith that you will decide to do the right thing’. Says a father to his daughter. He is most likely hoping she will do the right thing, with a tinge of…’and I am expecting you to do the right thing’! And perhaps the most important message (if that is the truth) I have faith that you actually ‘know’ what the right thing to do, is. Perhaps Katagiri Roshi was talking about his understanding of faith.

During the eighties (yes back then!) I was very involved in the Protest movement and things seemed quite simple; I was on the good side, trying to change the world for the better. But all the conflict got to me and it wasn’t long after I started a regular meditation/Buddhist practice.

Ah yes. It was the Beatles song Revolution which spoke to me at the time. ‘You tell me it’s the institution. Well, you know. You better free your mind instead’. There was a lot of hate and righteous anger at the time, and they’re still is. One can still change the world for the better by taking part in political action, however taking care of what’s going on in one’s mind and heart is crucial Preceptually. It is reasonable to have anger come up in the face of injustice and the like, giving vent to it that does harm either to oneself or to others or both, is not a good plan. The Noble Eightfold Path is detailed teaching on keeping the Precepts in body and mind.

However now I’ve taken to asking myself how my life is benefiting others. I mentioned to some friends that I don’t ever remember taking the Bodhisattva vows and they laughed. Was it like how people used to be conscripted for the army; being plied with drink and waking up the next day; “Oh no what have I done!”?

People, including devout Buddhists, layer a lot onto the meaning of the Bodhisattva Vows and the taking of them. They can become a koan (spiritual question) in themselves. As you ponder below if being present is enough why have vows? That is the same level of question Zen Master Dogen took to China and came back with the answer embedded in his Universal Recommendations For Zazen (Rules For Mediation). I think the answer is simply that we are human and some of us can do with all the help we can find. Making vows can help us keep on track when we’d rather not. But vows are not magic, we have to follow through. And find compassion when we don’t.

And if being present in each moment is enough; why have the Bodhisattva vows? Not sure if I’m wanting an answer to all this but the blog resonated with where I’m “at” with Buddhist practice.

You might ask ‘Why get involved with a faith tradition, formally or informally?’ Lots of people don’t and live happy, ethically sound and fulfilled lives. And others of us find ourselves adopting practices such as formal meditation, we might not have, we might drop them in the future. Who knows how life would have turned out or will turn out. Which reminds me…I missed my #still4amo at 5.00 pm today – I forgot! I remembered later though and now I am going to be still for quite a few moments. Always good to talk to you.
And all the best,

Here is an introduction to the Bodhisattva Vows, an overview really. But I’d not take what is written in this Wikipedia article as ‘gospel’.

Why Is Life Inherently Special?

This post was first published in February 2010
I thought this short correspondence would be of interest to others. Published with permission. There is the question that is asked and the question that is behind the question. And then there is the question one doesn’t even know is there. I attempted to answer the third level question.

Dear Rev. Mugo
Why is life inherently special? If nothing permanent exists, and everything exists only relative to other things, what’s the difference between a person and a rock?

Dear Friend,
In response to your email:
At the heart of Buddhist practice is Compassion. One can understand that word as unconditional acceptance of what is this – here and now. This is not a theory. Compassion is known (and understood) to be the fundamental nature of existence. And so the answer to your question is Compassion. And the only person who can really and truly appreciate, and fully understand this is you, in your depths. Compassion by the way starts with deep acceptance of oneself, with all that one is and has been. It is here that formal meditation comes into it’s own. Sitting still, within compassion, is the heart of it

Living calls forth a response from us and in our lives there is an imperative to act, appropriately and with honour and integrity. So, living within the heart of compassion means one is more likely to take action that honours and respects the conditions that are constantly presenting themselves.

I know this is not a direct answer your question. Perhaps it might spark some recognition in yourself of the bases of your question.

Dear Rev. Mugo
I think I understand your answer. Compassion is acceptance of what is. Living creatures are as they are, so living compassionately means you accept them as they are, and wouldn’t wish to do anything to hurt them. I guess in this same way, you also would not want to dynamite a mountainside, even though it wouldn’t be violence against a living creature?

You said that Compassion is the nature of existence. Does that go back to the principle of non-duality? There is no real subject or object, meaning everything just is, and if you understand that, there is no reason not to be compassionate, since, by hurting something else, you are just hurting yourself. Let me know if I’m on the right track.

Being Prepared!

Rev. Master Jiyu’s Guide badges.

‘Be Prepared’ our motto went! Early training as a Girl Guide stands me and so many other ‘Guides’ in good stead. Perhaps especially at this time of year with festive meals, well let’s say multiple days of festive cooking. But there is a shadow side to being prepared. That’s being over prepared; with anxiety-driven days of to-do lists and recipes to ponder on. I have got a policy of not bringing recipe books out of the kitchen office however, deep breath, there is internet searching isn’t there!  And once a recipe has been found  the ingredients need to be multiplied, but by how many times? I see the ‘meal count’ at the moment stands at 23 and that should hold true for weeks to come. No coming and goings as is the case usually as we segway into January.

Ah, January 2020! Memories of so many people here to cook for the community. So many arrivals and departures. Keeping track of the meal count was a real challenge at times. And yes people were serially dropping like flies with a heavy cold/flu. Many now think, on reflection, that we had the virus Covid, early but I have my doubts.

Back to being prepared since this is very much to the fore at the moment. Yesterday, perhaps later than was good I realized, with cold clarity, repeating a mental laundry list of the multiple projects I need to be prepared for is NOT HELPING! Not helping me to actually get stuck in and prepare in an orderly way (another early-learning Girl Guide thing). So one last time and for the record there is; meal planning for six days from the 22nd, talk preparation for the New Year Retreat 28th – 1st January, ceremonial preparation for the Secular New Year Ceremony.  And then prepare for the ceremony on the 1st remembering Rev. Master Jiyu.  (January first being her day of birth, making her 90 years old this year. Had she lived on). See her Guide badges above, she was in the Heather Patrol and that’s her second class badge along with her GG badge, shamefully unpolished!

Having paused, reflected, taken refuge by writing here, having decided NOT TO vacuum my carpet! I’ll get stuck in. Activities such as dusting, taking a walk, sorting out cupboards, cleaning, while ‘good’ to do, need to be recognized for what they sometimes are.  Displacement activities! If reading this has assured or comforted you to know others can become drowned in details it has been worth writing. A post was well overdue and one of the ‘must do’s’ on my project list.

Merit to all cooks and cooking activities everywhere these holidays. It is a joy to nurture friends and family and to create beautiful meals. BTW I volunteered to cook next week. What a privilege, what a joy.

Happy Bodhi Day

Citrus medica var. sarcodactylis

Bodhi Day, or Rohatsu which means the eighth day of the twelfth month, is this very day. Traditionally in Mahayana Buddhism Rohatsu is the day we celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment and in Zen, we generally end the week-long Rohatsu Sesshin (intensive retreat) at midnight on the 8th. For a number of reasons our retreat here at Throssel ends on the 15th December and starts on the 10th.

A happy and joyous Buddha’s Enlightenment Day to all who come here and read, have read and will read this blog, now 15 years old. To think, it was just an experiment! The photograph was taken three years ago at the Monterey Market in Berkeley, Northern California.

The Buddha lacks for nothing but needs something. Our hands!

This is a day late yet non the less heart felt.



Almost everything will work again
if you unplug it for a
few minutes – including you.
Anne Lamott

So true, so very true. Sometimes it is just good to spend time with oneself, to unfurl. Perhaps to read a book – rare for me. Go for a walk – every day in my case. Sit or recline and nap – that’s a yes for me, now and then.

However, should you make this part of your ‘practice’ you’ll most likely curl right up again!

Many thanks to Mark for the photograph and to Julius for the book, titled Keep Going by Austin Kleon which I’m nearly halfway through at just one sitting.