Leave No Traces

A short talk given at the New Zealand Buddhist Council AGM by Ven. Amala Wrightson, Auckland Zen Centre on 15th May, 2021.

We were posed this question: What skillful strategies from the Buddhist tradition are sometimes overlooked but could be used more widely to address the challenges of modern times? What immediately sprung to mind as a teaching to address the challenges of mass extinction and climate crisis was the Zen motto, “leave no traces.”

In Zen training centres and temples we first meet this teaching in the zendo, where we are instructed to smooth and plump up our cushion at the end of a sitting, so they are ready for the next person. In sesshin formal meals we are encouraged to take only what we need and to eat all that we take, leaving our plate bare, and we chant that “our meal is the labour of countless beings”, reminding ourselves that we are kept alive and healthy because of the labour of others. Our Ancestral Line chant reminds us of the precious gift of the Dharma we have received, like relay runners, from our Dharma forebears, and which we must hand on in good shape to the next generation. The ten precepts guide us in creating less “karmic residue” by thinking, speaking and acting in ways that don’t cause harm. And our sitting cultivates a state of absorption in which nothing is left over, nothing left out, no trace of self remaining. “Leave no traces” is a both an invitation to care, to include in our present moment those who come before us and after us, and an expression of boundless Buddha Nature. There’s a Zen story about this:

Two senior Zen students were refining their spiritual understanding by travelling throughout the country to train with respected teachers. They heard that there was a master living with a few disciples deep in the forest near the headwaters of a river. One morning, after weeks of travel, they were eagerly approaching the hermitage when they saw in the stream that flowed down the mountain, a cabbage leaf floating by. Disappointed, they immediately turned to leave, but as they did so they saw the old master, her sleeves flapping, running along the stream and scooping up the stray cabbage leaf. The two pilgrims smiled at each other and resumed their climb towards the monastery, sure now that they had come to the right place.

So “leave no traces” is about much more than frugality or gratitude or not wasting precious resources, though it encompasses all of these. It is an attitude of reverence and tender care towards all animate and inanimate things. It is a widely neglected practice in our consumer society, but it can be cultivated.  Here’s how nature writer Robert McFarlane puts it:

… to see ourselves as a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epoch and beings that will follow us.

마음은 동요하기 쉽고, 혼란하기 쉬우며, 지키기 힘들고, 억제하기 힘들다.
또한 마음은 잡기도 어려울 뿐만 아니라 가볍게 흔들리며, 탐하는 대로 달아난다. 단지 지혜있는 사람만이 이를 바로잡는다.
마음은 보기 어렵고 미묘하나, 지혜 있는 사람은 이 같은 마음을 잘 다스린다. 마음을 잘 다스리는 사람이 곧 안락을 얻는다.  

The mind is easy to influence, easy to confuse,  It’s hard to keep steady, hard to hold down. Also, not only is the mind difficult to grasp, it can be shaken up if lightly disturbed and one can flee from desires only if one can control their thoughts. Only a wise person can correct this.  The mind is hard to be conscious of, A wise person is good controlling their mind in a subtle way. A person who is well-controlled soon gains real comfort and peace of mind.

– contributed by Jong-Gun Sunim, Myosim-sa Buddhist Temple

꽃은 바람을 거슬러서 향기를 낼 수 없지만, 선하고 어진 사람이 풍기는 향기는 바람을 거슬러 사방으로 퍼진다.

The scent of flowers cannot go against the wind and neither can that of sandalwood, rhododendron or jasmine. Only the reputation of virtuous people can go against the wind. The reputation of the virtuous is wafted in all directions.

There are the scents of sandalwood, rhododendron, lotus and jasmine, but the scent of virtue surpasses all scents.

– Dhammapada Verse 54 & 55

contributed by Jong-Gun Sunim, Myosim-sa Buddhist Temple

Waking Up to Our Deep Interconnectedness

Back around the beginning of March, when the early economic effects of the new coronavirus shutdown in Wuhan were becoming apparent in New Zealand, an old Zen/Chan saying came to mind:

When the cows of Huaizhou eat grain,
The stomachs of the horses in Yizhou get fat.

Or, we could say, “When a person in Wuhan sneezes, a forestry worker in Gisborne loses her job”. Six weeks on, millions of people around the world are now caught up in the Covid-19 pandemic. Amid all the suffering and uncertainty there is the possibility that we humans, forced to slow down and stay quietly at home, will wake up to our deep interconnectedness and shared vulnerability, and perhaps question what is of most value in our lives. We may come to appreciate the words of the great lay practitioner Vimalakirti: “I am sick because sentient beings are sick.”

-Amala Wrightson Sensei,  Auckland Zen Centre

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– Ajahn Chandako, Vimutti Buddhist Monastery, New Zealand