Posts Tagged ‘selflessness’

7 ways to make Thanksgiving mindful

November 20th, 2017    -    4 Comments

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Of course you want it to be good. You’d like the mashed potatoes to keep warm, the stuffing to stay moist and the gravy to taste homemade. You’re hoping the pies turn out, the guests turn up and the TV gets turned off. You’ll be grateful to have it over with, but can you take a week of hectic cooking and turn it into a mindfulness practice?

The sages did, and still do.

Mindfulness practice is exactly like preparing a holiday dinner. In fact, one of the most profound and practical texts in Zen, “Instructions for the Cook,” was written nearly 800 years ago for the monastery kitchen staff. That ancient teaching inspires these 7 ways to prepare your Thanksgiving meal more mindfully. read more

the work of matriarchs

October 21st, 2017    -    20 Comments

Georgia O’Keeffe

Making

God told me that if I painted that mountain enough I could have it.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Mending

I’d like to be remembered as someone who helped repair tears in her society, to make things a little better.

Frances McDormand

Sharing

I’m not an actor because I want my picture taken. I’m an actor because I want to be part of the human exchange.

Jeong Kwan

Feeding

I am not a chef. I am a monk. I make food as a meditation. I am living my life as a monk with a blissful mind and freedom.

Jane Goodall

Seeing

No words of mine can even describe the powerful, almost mystical knowledge of beauty and eternity that come, suddenly, and all unexpected.

Toni Morrison

Loving

At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough.

no shoes

May 19th, 2017    -    1 Comment

I met plenty of powerful people in interesting situations before I began my practice.

I met the heads of some of the world’s largest companies.

I met the founder of Enron before his titanic collapse.

I stayed too long having cocktails with the Governor of Texas and missed my flight home.

I saw a President of the United States having a club sandwich on a sun deck outside a hotel.

I met Frank Sinatra when he was still doing it his way.

I met a Super Bowl quarterback, a Hall of Fame pitcher, and the general manager of the New York Yankees.

I met three Heisman Trophy winners, including one who would be acquitted of the crime of the century.

I met a half-dozen television anchors, two big-city mayors, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

None of this was because of me, but because when you are a young woman in business, certain doors open to you.

What I remember about all of these fellows is that they were well-dressed. (Except for the writer.) And by that I mean they wore fine shoes: expensive and polished to a mirror shine. Because when it comes right down to it, shoes really do make the man.

And then I met the most powerful human being I’ve ever encountered, in the most uninteresting situation imaginable, and he wore no shoes.

He wore no shoes.

***

Everyone you ever meet is holding up a mirror to you. If you like what you see, it’s because it validates or elevates your self-image. If you don’t like it, it’s because you’ve seen some aspect of yourself that you’d rather hide or run away from.

A teacher is a mirror. A good teacher is a mirror without any distortion, which is to say, no judgment. From time to time, my teacher will say something that completely offends my ego. He will say, “I don’t care what you think about yourself.” This is actually the deepest and most compassionate form of caring. It means that what I think about myself is never true. This can be a shock, but it can also be a profound relief, like kicking off the shoes that are killing you.

Seeing yourself clearly seems like it would be the simplest thing in the world. Just look! But to see what’s here we have to slowly, painstakingly wipe away all the ideas, images and narratives sticking to us. We have to drop the costume that got us inside the door in the first place. This can be painful, but there is fresh-faced innocence on the other side of the mask.

The world’s largest companies don’t stay that way forever. Eventually they collapse, merge, shrink, or disappear in the churn of commerce.

The founder of Enron died in disgrace and exile. Some think it was suicide.

The governor lost re-election because he signed a law making high schoolers pass classes before playing sports.

The president lost too, for raising taxes when they needed to be raised.

Sinatra got old, got sick and died. What people remember are his early years.

The famous athletes, except for the murderer, retired to the oblivion of a record book.

Paper is dust; TV is yesterday; stars go dark.

But the Dharma never dies.

Never dies.

***

You might want to think about coming to a retreat.

cake recipe

January 26th, 2017    -    8 Comments

I was 5 or 6 years old when my sister and I would play a certain game. Whenever we got a bowl of ice cream for dessert we would mash and stir it into the consistency of batter before we ate it. We called the game “Making a Cake for President Kennedy.”

This game was not the measure of our innocent imagination. It was a sign of how much we adored our president. Alas, we didn’t get to play for long. Adoration, ice cream, childhood—and noble presidents—disappear too quickly.

After the euphoria of the marches on Saturday, the reality of our national wound dawned fresh and ugly. What can be said about an affliction so huge, an ignorance so insistent, a menace so malevolent? A lot, it turns out; but then again, not much.

A few days ago I heard from a friend and favorite author, Katrina Kenison, who writes with depth and heart about everything. She has been quiet of late. Quiet since the election. What do we say about the unspeakable? What do we do about the undoable? She wondered if she would ever feel moved to share a cake recipe on her blog again.

Yes, she will. We will all share recipes. We will shop, chop, blend and stir. Preheat the oven, oil the pan. We will set the table, pour the wine. Dress the salad, butter the bread, slice the cake and scoop the ice cream. We will invite people into our homes and feed them, you see, because that’s what the resistance does, in so many words: care.

Small things loom large in times of unfathomable crisis. Small things are how we serve.

Here is one of Katrina’s cakes.

And here is a helpful article with self-care tips for those who care. I’m passing it around for seconds.

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pledge of allegiance

December 19th, 2016    -    13 Comments

Today I stood in line behind nineteen other patrons served by a diminished staff of two underpaid postal workers, packages stacked cattywumpus in bins and on counters, the holiday stamps sold out, the customers impatient but still peaceable, because what else are you going to do, the wait stretching ever longer behind me as if to the end of time, or at least out the front door, and I thought to myself: this is what this country needs, indeed this is what this country is. Neighbors assembling in democratic fashion, first-come first-served, inconvenienced, to do something selfless for someone else, using an old-fashioned and unglamorous system that still ably conveys their tidings across inconceivable distance and indecipherable zip codes with a high degree of reliability, affordability, and yes, even speed.

Perhaps some of us have overlooked what is already great about this country.

Anyone with the proper perspective can tell you that greatness is not stitched on cherry red gimme caps or emblazoned in ten-foot-tall letters atop the penthouse floor, but found in inconspicuously small things. Small things have filled my time since I leapt off social media and invited people to save their Facebook likes and send me mail instead. Since then I have spent a little bit of every afternoon writing to folks who gamely wrote to me first, people in California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Nevada, Wisconsin, Missouri, Virginia, Oklahoma, and Iowa, states I name here so you can know that you made my day.

Your mail has saved me. Saved me from self-obsession, that is. From my own fear, angst, and despair. Because before I respond to a letter I read it several times, entering your life by quieting my own. This is nothing new, just something to be rediscovered: a key, I think, to civil society and noble friendship, the ability to interrupt for a moment the nonstop stream of self-absorption that otherwise engulfs and destroys us.

What I’ve shared with most folks is the vital necessity to take the long view right now, much like a postal customer, and to do small things with great love, as Mother Teresa taught. To be sure, there will be shameful waste and ruin, thievery, greed, lies, crimes and disruption on a grand scale, but our independent spirits can still rise. In these treasonous times, I pledge allegiance to the United States Postal Service, and to the flag of a Forever stamp. If you’d like my address, just send me a message through this Contact form and I will promptly respond because it is the single greatest thing I can do.

the girl on the train

June 8th, 2016    -    17 Comments

wallpaper-railway-photo-05

When I was little I took a train trip halfway across the country. It was at Christmastime. I remember it as a luxury, a measure of how modestly my family lived otherwise. The train seats were upholstered. I had a bag of brand-new puzzle books and snacks. The porter brought around pillows in creased pillowcases. They cost a dollar apiece to rent. It took three days to get from Union Station in Los Angeles to Austin, Texas.

The train traveled through the empty desert and mountains, across days and nights. We stopped at unfamiliar places in the dark and snow, at old depots in dying towns. People got on and off.

I was only six years old then, in 1962. I was not afraid. My sisters were with me, and my mother was across the aisle.

We got off the train on the third night and were met by the grandparents I hardly knew. My mother’s whole family was waiting to see us. They missed her so much and she lived so far away. Only lately have I realized how hard it was for my mother to miss her mother every day for so long.

I’ve been remembering this since last night when I heard the first woman to become the presidential nominee of a major party saying she wished her mother could be with her right now, a mother who taught her that she could grow up to be anything.

You may not like this particular girl. It doesn’t matter. Some of my own friends call her corrupt, a piece of shit, a snake, things that shock and horrify me, and not because she is a girl—no, not that. They always assure me it’s not because she’s a girl.

This morning I read an article about this girl’s mother, the one who inspired in her daughter such determination and courage. Her mother, you see, was once a girl on a train. Abandoned by her parents at age 8, traveling with her sister to live with people who didn’t want her. By 14 she was on her own again, cleaning houses for strangers during the Depression.

And so today I ask myself this: what do I inspire in my daughter? Do I believe she can go anywhere and do anything? Do I trust, admire, and uplift her? Do I console and encourage her? Am I good company on her long trip to a destination I will never see? Have I taken every opportunity to give my daughter the reassurance my mother still gives me?

Because, you see, a mother may disappear, but a mother never leaves. She is at your side, just across the aisle, for a billion miles across the empty sands. She buys you snacks and books and a fresh pillow. She stays awake through the long night hoping that you will rest. She weeps in humility at how little she can do, and infinite pride at who you have become.

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leave no meaning

May 3rd, 2016    -    16 Comments

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Water birds
going and coming
their traces disappear
but they never
forget their path.

— Dogen, “On Nondependence of Mind”

For a week I’ve had a thought every so often to write a blog post entitled “Leave No Trace.” Then the thought would disappear and I wouldn’t do it. When I sat down just now to write, I realized that I had not visited this site for twenty-eight days or written anything new for thirty-nine days. In the meantime, my site meter had stopped working. The traffic stats for this website thus appear as a vast empty stretch of tracelessness, as if a flock of birds could fly right through it. Something probably happened over the interval — a few visits here, a few there, two thousand spam comments — but nothing was recorded so I don’t know or even care. While I was so nobly intending to hold forth on the Dharma wisdom of “Leave No Trace,” the Dharma was expounding itself without me.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Your site meter can stop and it doesn’t mean you are dead. You can do nothing and everything still happens. You can leave no trace and you won’t fall into a void of extinction. But you might notice that you are a little less self-obsessed, a little less devoted to fame and popularity, less dependent on recognition and praise, less inclined to argue and blame. This is the subtle and profound wisdom of Zen instruction. You don’t lose anything when you leave no trace but the notion of your own ever-loving importance.

The Dharma is always expounded in the absence of self.

When I first began to attend Zen retreats, or sesshins, I’d see the short admonition posted throughout the retreat grounds. Leave No Trace was taped to the corner of the bathroom mirror, propped by the coffee pot, and hanging above the kitchen sink. It secretly pleased me because I thought it validated my own tendency toward obsessive-compulsive tidiness. Wipe your feet! Clean up after yourself! Rinse your own cup! It does quite literally mean those things. But it also means much more. Leaving no trace is a practice that goes on well after you clean your shoes, brush your teeth, and wash a lifetime of coffee cups. No trace is aimed at getting rid of all the petty offenses, inconveniences, and problems in your life: namely, you. Or should I say, me.

Do I have a problem with you? That’s me.

Am I irritated? That’s me.

Do I feel unappreciated? That’s me.

Distracted? That’s me.

Disrespected or misunderstood? That’s me.

Do I feel the need to explain my personal history and point of view so that you can validate my experience? That’s me.

Am I angry at you? That’s me.

Am I struggling with things around me? That’s me.

Do I feel vulnerable, ashamed, defensive, unworthy, or victimized? That’s me.

Uninspired, resistant, and unsure? That’s me.

Do I feel like I leave a big blot of ugly trouble wherever I go? Every day.

Water birds are not dependent on a particular place. When they are on the ground, they function on the ground. On the water, they function on the water. In the sky, they function in the sky. They function perfectly and intuitively wherever they are, moving from one place to another by spontaneous instinct, never lost and never leaving a trace of where they’ve been.

What does it mean to “leave no trace?” It means leave no meaning.

This post was originally published as “The problem with you is me” on April 27, 2015, but then it disappeared. Isn’t that wonderful?

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sharing the road home

April 6th, 2016    -    11 Comments

 

Cajon_Pass,_wide_angle

We were about 300 miles from home in stop-and-go traffic in the middle of the Mohave Desert just inside the state line when the dashboard lit up.

Brake Malfunction!
Stop the vehicle immediately and contact dealer.

It’s trouble enough to be in stop-and-go traffic in the middle of nowhere 300 miles from LA, but the slow homestretch of a Spring Break road trip had just turned from hypnotic boredom into naked terror.

To the touch, the brakes seemed fine, but the failures were spreading. A new light screamed Check ABS/VSC! (Like we knew what that meant.) I flipped through the 400-page owner’s manual for clues. It didn’t tell us anything. We pulled off on the shoulder and checked the emergency brake. Not it. And the brake fluid. Not it. There was nowhere else to get help. So we flowed back onto the crowded road, dash warnings blinking, up the high pass through the San Bernardino mountains and down the steep grades of the San Gabriel mountains, through thicker and faster traffic until we pulled into the driveway and exhaled.

We are lucky to have an honest mechanic in our town, and I stopped by his place the next day. I was surprised he wasn’t there. It had me more worried when no one answered the phone all afternoon, but he answered when I rang in the morning.

Is everything OK? I asked because I knew it wasn’t.

It’s really not.  Last month he was working on a car while the engine was running, and he put his hand where he shouldn’t have, nearly cutting off a finger. Since then he’d been at doctors and hospitals, desperate to save an otherwise useless finger that he thought would cost him his work, his business, his home, and the future. He talked for 30 minutes, and I wanted him to. I wanted to listen and let him be afraid and angry and unsure. I wanted to be more than a customer. I wanted to be a decent human being like him. That’s really what his job is, just being decent, so he said, go ahead and bring the car down and I’ll check it while you wait.

Turns out there was nothing wrong. Maybe a low battery charge in the hybrid engine while we were stalled in traffic caused a bad sensor reading or something that I didn’t really catch the gist of. He wouldn’t let me pay him, but he let me listen while he told me about the hassle of scheduling a blood test before the next surgery, how upset and distracted he felt, and how unfair and impossible things were looking for him today. I believed him.

Let’s just see how it goes, he said then, and it caught my ear. He meant I should drive the car around town and see if the warnings came on but he was pretty sure everything was fine. I said I’d be back to check on him. It didn’t sound like much, but it’s all that decent human beings can do for each other when life is spinning out of control: share the road home.

not the story you wrote

September 27th, 2015    -    61 Comments

lista

A couple of weeks ago I saw one of those charity appeals scroll past on my Facebook feed. Someone was sick and needed help. I let it pass at first, and then it came back again. So I clicked on the link. It was for this fellow I’d never met, who lived across town, a Facebook friend who was always kind and—get this—encouraging. He’d been hit with a triple whammy on the health front: lymphoma, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. I hesitated before I signed up. My choices were to give money, make a meal, or ignore it altogether. His location wasn’t exactly convenient, so maybe money would suffice. Or I could drive a meal over. In the end, I decided that if I couldn’t do that little, my friendship wasn’t worth that much. So I put my name next to a date, cooked that morning, and showed up on his doorstep.

I apologized when I got there, because the food I brought didn’t even taste good. There were dietary restrictions to follow, and anything cooked without salt ends up tasting like wet cardboard. But it turned out we had a lot in common and had a nice visit. The meal I brought, and the meal he needed, wasn’t my tasteless stuff in the plastic containers. The meal was the company we shared. I told him I could drop by and hang out anytime, and I meant it.

The next day he learned that his lymphoma had progressed even further throughout his body. He was devastated.

This isn’t the ending you’d like for this story, is it? And yet, it’s the ending we all share.

There’s a New Age mantra that tells us if we own our story and reframe the story we can rewrite the story. We can turn down into up, failure to success, pain into promise, and fear into courage just by changing the way we talk to ourselves. It’s true up to a point, and it’s not a bad way to spend a few days if you find yourself in a career or lifestyle funk. But the suffering I see all around me is too real for that.

The other night I flipped open a Buddhist magazine and saw what are called the Buddha’s Five Remembrances. These are the remembrances that we spend our whole life trying to forget.

  1. I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.
  2. I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.
  3. I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.
  4. I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.
  5. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

With every true thing staring me in the face, I stopped flipping through the pages.

***

The response American crowds gave to Pope Francis last week was not surprising. We are drawn to his being because we suffer deep ills that cannot be fixed by ego’s clever devices, wounds that cannot be healed by the shallow salve of American self-help. We need a real priest for real times. The times we’re in.

So here’s the purpose of this post: I’ve been handed two beautiful books that I’m going to give away to folks who are ready to read them. If you’re interested in winning either one or both, leave a comment on this post by this Saturday, Oct. 3. Let me tell you what you’re in for.

410mchq-dOL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Taste of Silence: How I Came To Be at Home With Myself  by Bieke Vandekerckhove. This is the most profoundly brilliant book I’ve read in a long time, and it took me completely by surprise. When she was 19 and in college, the Belgian author was diagnosed with ALS and quickly became paralyzed from the pelvis up. Facing the certainty of approaching death, she took refuge in the silence of a Benedictine monastery and Zen practice. Remarkably, she experienced an unheard-of remission, and from her extreme forbearance came this small book of shining teachings. A week after I read this long-awaited English translation, I learned that Bieke had died after 27 years with the disease.

41HyRSSg4xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness by Toni Bernhard. Fourteen years ago, Toni was traveling in Paris when she fell ill with an acute virus. She never got better. She is still sick. Toni is no longer a law professor or college dean. She is instead a tireless author of books about the unavoidable presence of pain and the power of sickness. Her work is wonderfully honest, practical and wise, proof that living ill can be living well. From the midst of suffering, Toni is generous and clear. This book is a bountiful gift to caregivers too, so they can keep giving when they’ve given just about everything.

A taste of hard wisdom offered with love and delivered to your doorstep. If you could use the company, just tell me so.

moving toward love

July 28th, 2015    -    9 Comments

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I was two days home from three weeks in silence when the calls and emails came. The fall, the break, the orphaned kids, she was only sick twelve days, the surgery, the setback, the job loss, nothing on the horizon, the unexpected and unimaginable, he’s on morphine now, with no warning, no hope, and no answers, the mountainous pain made immediate and real, and my doubt disappears, the shroud of my self-concern, the scrim of my small personal failure, and I know what there is to do.

Do for others, do for others, do for others.

When? When they appear. How? Without self.

May all beings be peaceful.
May all beings be happy.
May all beings be well.
May all beings be safe.
May all beings be free from suffering.

The world, you see, does not end in a fire or flood. Not with war or pestilence. The world ends with the self. May we mind our devotions, and enter the vast and empty eternity of love.

Photo by Pierre Carreau

getting along fine without me

May 17th, 2015    -    14 Comments

381069_10150447692416247_262842176246_8779182_1129924044_nBuddhists don’t try to cause trouble, but one thing that troubles people about Buddhism is the concept of non-attachment. That’s because we think attachment means love, and we think love means I can’t live without you. We are always hung up on our own self-serving notions—what I need, what I want, what I like, what I think, what is best, what is right—and that’s the cause of suffering. We attach to those ideas as though they were life itself. The truth is never the phony thing we attach to in our heads. The truth is as it is.

Buddha taught what he called the Four Noble Truths. He taught truth as it is, complete and universal. He called it noble because there’s nothing more true than what is. You don’t have to believe this is true because you experience it every time things don’t go your way.

1. Life is suffering. Things change.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment. It hurts when things change.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. Accept that things change.
4. There is a way out of suffering. By changing yourself.

When we try to imagine what it means to overcome our attachments, we picture cruel and unfeeling indifference. But that is never the outcome of overcoming attachments. That is never the outcome of accepting what happens. That is never the outcome of allowing people and things to be as they are. The outcome of non-attachment is love.

I don’t have to preach this. You know it yourself by waking up to life as it is. Your children grow up and grow distant. They might upset, alarm and even despise you, but your eyes still flicker at the sight of them. Your parents grow old, enfeebled and afraid, dependent and encumbering, but you care for them. Sickness comes, disaster strikes, and seasons change. Everything falls apart no matter how hard you’ve tried: all that forethought, planning and prevention! This life of ours is strewn with faded blooms. You didn’t sign up for the hard part, but this is the way it is. How will you love what you don’t even like? There’s only one way: selflessly.

When you act with compassion, all your doing is undoing—undoing ignorance, suffering, fear, anger, exploitation, alienation, injury, blame, you name it—simply by undoing the stingy hold you keep on yourself. Thinking poor me impoverishes your entire world.

When she was about six years old, someone asked my daughter what it was like to have a mom who was a Zen priest.

“She screams a lot,” she said. It wasn’t the answer they were expecting. There were polite chuckles all around.

I can comfort myself with the fact that children only remember when their parents scream, not when their parents don’t scream. Silence, after all, is a non-event. No matter what I was hollering about, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to let it go. I wish I’d dropped my rage, fear, frustration, resentment, or despair: whatever illusory part of me I was cherishing at the time. I wish love could be my legacy instead, the way a camellia launches its blossoms into the oblivion of time without causing a quiver of pain. No one ever notices when a flower has fulfilled its purpose in life, just as no one ever regrets a moment lost to love.

***

Excerpted from  Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

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how do you become a Zen priest?

September 17th, 2014    -    10 Comments

scan0034This question has been posed to me a lot lately, in radio interviews and podcasts you can listen to all day long on this page of my website, and in personal conversations. It seems to me that when I answer it, the listener is at least mildly disappointed.

They might expect me to say that I spent five years in theological study. That I’d heard a voice or seen a vision. That as a small child playing with a stick in the dirt outside my family’s mud hut, three strangers approached and told me I was a reincarnated monk. Or that I’d always known deep in my heart that I had been placed on Earth to save the souls of sinners.

The question is laden with expectation, but the answer is not. Because that’s not how you become a Zen Buddhist priest. Zen is entirely one’s own doing, motivated by one’s own aspiration, deepened by one’s own practice of zazen. Ordaining as a priest is simply an expression of personal commitment. In my lineage at least, there are no prerequisites to accomplish and no prescribed pastoral, professional, or organizational tasks to perform. No tests or credentials. I don’t write sermons every week, and I have no congregation. My calendar isn’t booked with couples counseling, parochial education, baptisms, weddings or funerals.

“That sounds kind of laid back,” said the interviewer in one conversation.

“So it isn’t a job,” said another.

“There must be a story behind that,” many have said, and there is. Just not the story you think.

This is the story of how I became a Zen priest. One day I sat down in a place I’d never been before and recognized the scent of something I’d never smelled before: sandalwood incense, burning on an altar. How do you recognize what you’ve never smelled before? Heck if I know. I liked the place, and I stuck around.

Everything came after that: subtle shifts and colossal changes. Denial and avoidance. False certainty. Sudden leaps and setbacks. Vanity, fear, doubt, surrender, and finally, love and devotion. One day I knew what I would do. I would take the vows that would commit myself to the selfless service of others forever.

Is it laid back? It is a matter of life and death.

Is it a job? Never-ending.

Is there a congregation? Everyone and everything I meet.

Is there a story behind it? Not anymore.

Read more about Tokudo, priest ordination, at the Hazy Moon Zen Center.

Watch this short video, “Vows” about monastic discipline in Chinese Buddhism.

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if you want, give

December 5th, 2013    -    8 Comments

51wgzXg3BgL._SY300_If you want time, give away your preoccupations.
If you want faith, give away your reasons.
If you want peace, give away your ideas.
If you want love, give away your fear.
If you want rest, give away your worry.
If you want a better future, give away your past.
If you want a home, give away your walls.
If you want fame, give away your contentment.
If you want money, give away your happiness.
If you want more, give yourself less.
If you want fulfillment, give everything away. (You’ll never run out.)

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