"Living in Community With Others"

Rev. Kusala

After the service, Rev. Minoura, Peter Hata, Rev. Ama, Rev. Kusala and
WCBT's own Rev. Kawawata pose in the main hall.
         Rev. Kusala Speaks at WCBT's Ohigan Service:
         West Covina Buddhist Temple's well-attended Spring Ohigan Service 
on March 19, 2000 was, in one sense at least, an historic event. It was the first
time our Ohigan speaker was not also from the Shin tradition. However, the
outgoing and engaging Rev. Kusala treated members who came to a very special
and meaningful talk.
Rev. Kusala is an American-born monk ordained in the Vietnamese Zen
Tradition. He lives and works at the International Buddhist Meditation
Center in Los Angeles. But if you think this means he spends all his time in
passive meditation, think again. Rev. Kusala is dynamic, energetic and
extremely involved in Buddhistic outreach and service in the Southland. A
partial list of his activities includes giving presentations on Buddhism and
social action at local schools, colleges and churches, being a member of the
Buddhist-Roman Catholic Dialogue, the Buddhist Sangha Council of So.
California, webmaster of several Buddhist websites (his own is at
www.kusala.org), Buddhist Chaplain for the University Religious Conference
at U.C.L.A and director of the University Buddhist Association. In addition,
Rev. Kusala gives presentations at the LA County Central Juvenile Hall on
Buddhism and meditation and teaches blues harmonica at a juvenile probation
camp in Malibu, CA. In December of 1998, the LA County Probation Department
gave him the "Good Samaritan of the Year" award for his work at juvenile
For our Ohigan Service, Rev. Kusala announced that he would talk on the
subject of the "Six Perfections," positive qualities or states of mind which
can result in our attaining Enlightenment, in our reaching the "other shore"
(ohigan). The Six Perfections are generosity, morality, patience, effort,
concentration and wisdom. He specifically addressed the issue of their
practice. "How can we practice the Perfections?," he asked.
Speaking first about generosity, he said "Generosity balances greed, but the
generosity or giving must be unconditional. We usually attach conditions
when we give." As an example, Rev. Kusala told us that when he buys his
water from the local vending machine, there is a small amount of change that
results from the transaction. Rev. Kusala just leaves it in the machine,
without regard to who gets it, or what they do with it. "So, I give money
because I'm practicing, not because I'm 'good' or 'generous.'"
"I can also 'give' Dharma," he continued. "I can share the Dharma, but of
course I can't 'change' anyone. What can I do? I can simply try to accept
everyone." For Rev. Kusala, this acceptance arises out of his understanding
that it is only an illusion that we each have a separate reality and
separate identity. "We're actually all interconnected and interrelated."
About the perfection of morality, Rev. Kusala told of his attempts to help
the youths that he works with at the LA County Juvenile Hall. The important
point he made here is that he hasn't "given up" on these kids, even though
they are generally in Juvenile Hall because they've stolen something or
perhaps even taken a life. "Juvenile Hall is for retraining," he said.
Regarding morality, "Buddha said that taking life and stealing is wrong."
However, Rev. Kusala pointed out that to a Buddhist, moral behavior does not
arise out of a desire to be a good person; moral behavior arises out of a
deep understanding of "living in community with others." To study the
Buddha's teachings is to understand not only that he was wise and
compassionate, but also that wisdom and compassion manifested itself in the
Buddha as the highest level of sincere morality. "The Buddha was the perfect
human being, a truly moral human being," said Rev. Kusala.
Regarding practicing the perfection of "patience," Rev. Kusala pointed out
that "Patience balances anger. One way I practice patience is by going to
the grocery store and deliberately finding the longest checkout line to
stand in." Of course, this often leads to Rev. Kusala becoming impatient and
angry. The crucial point, and what distinguishes this activity from being
simply masochistic, is that Rev. Kusala is able to gain insight into his own
shortcomings. "Seeing my anger arise is good practice for me. Sometimes,
though I may not find increased patience, I do find I am better able to
accept the situation calmly."
Rev. Kusala also briefly touched the practice of right effort. Basically,
the ideal of right effort is to "encourage a wholesome state of mind," he
said. And this state of mind revolves around the concepts of generosity,
compassion and wisdom. Such states of consciousness are regarded as
"karmically wholesome"; favorable karma which can result in a happy destiny
or "rebirth" with the goal being the abandoning of evil.
Next, Rev. Kusala spoke on the perfection of concentration, which he defined
as "Deep states of tranquility." One way to practice this is to become aware
of one's own breathing. This leads to many different positive benefits. A
peaceful calmness arises which can, Rev. Kusala stated, ultimately lead to
"rapture and bliss." The goal is to simply be in the present moment. "This
is the same present moment the Buddha lived in…the same present moment that
Jesus Christ lived in…your whole life really is in the present moment. The
idea of our 'future' or 'past' is really only an illusion of our mind," he
Rev. Kusala next spoke about the perfection of wisdom. Wisdom leads to
Nirvana (the cessation of suffering) or to Enlightenment, which he termed
the "wisdom of emptiness." Regarding the latter, Rev. Kusala said "We are
empty of independent existence…this is the path of the Bodhisattva, which
naturally arises from our direct experience of emptiness." What stands in
our way of this experience is of course, our ego. But if we can come to see
that the ego is actually only an illusion, if we can be empty of ego, we can
be deeply and fully alive. Rev. Kusala expressed the deepest compassion when
he said, "I can't turn away from this world because I am this world."
Before concluding his lecture with a soulful blues harmonica performance, he
stated, "In Buddhism, we're trying to 'wake up'; to accept the illusion of
the ego and be fully involved in our world. Ultimately, when we directly
experience emptiness, we no longer have to 'practice' the Six Perfections;
at that point, we are the Six Perfections."
After his talk, Rev. Kusala graciously took time to answer questions from
the audience. Judging by the number of questions, the audience was deeply
moved by Rev. Kusala and found his talk meaningful and relevant. It might
not be an overstatement to say that Rev. Kusala received the most
enthusiastic response of any guest speaker at WCBT.
One member asked him if he himself had experienced enlightenment. Rev.
Kusala replied that we should try not to be concerned with that and should
not have any "need" ourselves to become enlightened. "The point is, whether
I become enlightened or not, I'm still going to practice." In answering
another question about the direction of American Buddhism, Rev. Kusala
stated he sees a very positive future for it. He, being an American himself
and like an increasing number of Americans, simply finds that "Buddhism
makes sense." Interestingly, while he predicted that in the future there
would likely be far fewer monks and more priests in Buddhism (who most
likely will be married and have jobs), he also predicted that there would be
more gender equality. "The Buddha said that women can achieve Enlightenment
also. I think that in America, women will play an increasingly important
role in Buddhism."
In answer to the question, "What is the most important thing for being a
Buddhist?," Rev. Kusala said, "Well, what I can tell you is what is the
hardest thing. In my opinion, it is right speech. I try to monitor my
speech, but it's so difficult…I find so often that before I know it, I've
said something I shouldn't have. The ideal is to follow the Buddhist concept
of maintaining a 'noble silence'; if you don't have anything good to say,
say nothing."
When asked his views about the cause of the problems we see in many of our
youth today, Rev. Kusala pointed out that "The problem is really our fault
as adults. We haven't set good examples." Whether parents like it or not,
they must realize that their kids are watching them and will naturally also
adopt their attitudes towards life. Of course, while it is true that a
troubled youth often comes from a broken home and/or a parent who was also
involved in crime; that there is a "vicious cycle" of crime... Rev. Kusala
clarified that this does not also let such youth "off the hook." In his work
with the youths in the Juvenile Hall, he has had success in getting them to
see that, if they want their life to become better, if they want to change,
then at some point they must accept responsibility for their life. His
message to teens is that yes, "We're born, we get old and then we die." This
is the teaching of the First Noble Truth, that life is impermanent. In a
nutshell, "Life sucks," he said. But his message to the youth is not
negative because they, using the Buddha's teaching, can also end their
suffering. "Buddhism works because it is practical. And the key to working
with youth, from a Buddhist perspective, is to educate them with the truth."
When asked about dealing with the fear of one's own death, Rev. Kusala
simply stated, "The way to deal with the fear of death is to live life fully
in the present moment. Fear comes because our mind has gone into the future.
Be in the present moment…and remember that the goal is not to get rid of
consciousness or ego completely, but to use it as a tool to help us attain
In conclusion, WCBT's Spring Ohigan proved to be a meaningful and rewarding
event. We thank all those who contributed their effort to this success,
including Toban C for the delicious dinner, WCBT's own Rev. Kawawata and
Reverands Minoura and Ama from the North American District office. Rev. Ama
also gave a Japanese sermon to Howakai members. Finally, we sincerely thank
our Dharma friend Rev. Kusala for demonstrating in a concrete way, the deep
meaning and positive benefit of "living in community with others."