The Contest

Check out Ellen Sandbeck's papercuts of the Buddha on the Facebook page "A Buddha A Day." Choose your favorite image, then send a wonderful piece of your writing, one page or less, on any topic, to You may win the original papercut of your choice!

Winning entries will be posted on this page.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Winning entry from Sarah Phoenix

How Buddhism Came to Me

I remember no religion until I started going to church with the black people in my neighborhood. considering the family that I came from, this isnot surprising. I lived in Watts and the “mamas” of the neighborhood were mothers to one and all. The fact that I was the lightest face in the neighborhood meant nothing.

What a joy those meetings were. Singing, dancing in the aisles, clapping and swaying, I loved it. It gave me the basis for music and community even if I had no idea of Jesus and God and everything else that came with it. All I knew was when the meeting was over there would be baked macaroni and cheese, greens, fried chicken and ham at a table where no one else looked like me.

A few years later, my mother married John. The Catholic. And the requirements of that situation were that I had to convert to Catholicism. It is a testament to that experience that the only thing I recall today of it is my slap for calling the priest a magician (he wore big black cloaks, spoke in magic language and could turn blood into wine) and the Act of Contrition. I became sincerely disillusioned upon learning that my friends weren’t going to get into heaven because they weren’t Catholic. My questioning of this and other tenets soon had me back into the world of no religion and no expectations.

Hippiedom became my “hood” after I reached the age of consent. That meant reading, moving outside of myself and into what else was out there…including “The Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda. Whoa! Karma became a reality. Now a lot of things made sense. But, without running off to join an ashram, my education into Hinduism was halted.

With my eyes open to other choices, and an obvious hole in my spiritual development, I started to read about religion. This eventually led to the study of Judaism. With my background, I was immediately drawn to the sufferings of the Tribe of Israel, and converted to Judaism. The God of the Old Testament was familiar. Very clear rules, a history of Diaspora and great food. I had learned that the better the food the closer the “feeling” of religion was to my heart.

Of course, all of this was just a step on the way to Buddhism discovering me. When I learned of the Buddha and the meaning of the teachings, I knew that there was an inevitable truth to it all. Of course, the nice thing about Buddhism is that the statement “People with opinions just go around bothering each other.” That took care of the exclusionary rule of other religions.
But wait, I had converted to Judaism and while not the greatest Jew in the world, there was much there that I was loth to abandon. I kept this running around in my head for quite a while: How could I accommodate my belief in Judaism with my belief in Buddha? The answer came to me in a way that made my life and my spirituality come together in the best way possible. I’m a Buddhist, but in this life, I am supposed to be a Jew.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

winning entry from Patrice Clark Koelsch

Taking Refuge in the Buddha

Buddham saranam gochami  -- “I take refuge in the Buddha.” This is the first of the three refuges traditionally invoked by Buddhist practitioners.  Refuge is taken sequentially in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha – the Triple Gem.  

What does it mean for this Western woman – a feminist schooled in the empiricist philosophy – to take refuge in the Buddha? It was easiest to first understand taking refuge in the sangha -- a community of others aspiring to live without harming themselves or the planet. And then understanding the deep wisdom of the dharma – of seeing things as they are – not as I want them to be – became another resting place for my heart and mind. But taking refuge in the Buddha – that was elusive.

First, there’s the story of the Buddha – a tale of a boy born into noble privilege and great expectation. It was said that he emerged from his mother’s side and that she died within the week. A sage predicted that he would either be a great king or a great spiritual leader, so the boy’s father made every effort to keep the young prince isolated and entertained by the pleasures of an aristocratic life. When he became a man, he was given a beautiful wife who bore him a son. Then, overcome by curiosity, he ventured outside and saw the ravages of old age in a crone, the suffering of disease in a sick man, the lamentations of grief around a corpse. Finally he encountered a mendicant with an untroubled visage and was determined to emulate him. Abandoning his wife and son and father, he cut off his hair and began the spiritual journey that would fulfill the prophecy at his birth.

This is of course just a story, an archetypal myth for a great religious leader. The prince’s quest was valorized, there was no acknowledgment of what this might have meant for his wife and child. Her perspective was irrelevant to the story, just as the death of the Buddha’a mother seemed a convenient way of minimizing any maternal influence. So in the early years of meditation practice, I simply drew a sort of spiritual parentheses around the Buddha and focused instead on the ethical and psychological insights of taking suffering as the primary reference point.

During this time, I was encouraged and supported by teachers who lived exemplary but unpretentious householder lives and by other practitioners who also struggled with jobs and domestic obligations and spiritual longing. So the sangha was my first place of refuge. Then, after I sat more and longer in formal daily and retreat practice, I began accompanying a long-time practitioner in leading simple self-awareness meditation groups in prisons. The practice was to use the breath  to stay with present-moment experience, to let go of the judging mind and the stories we continually tell ourselves. A decade of sitting in maximum security prisons, witnessing the transforming power of self-awareness, of seeing clearly how things are, broadened and deepened my understanding of the power of taking refuge in the Dharma.

Still, taking refuge in the Buddha, seemed the least tangible of the refuges. I would tell myself that taking refuge in the Buddha was simply taking refuge in the possibility of waking up in my life. But I would have nagging qualms about the historic Buddha. Especially since he was initially reluctant to admit women to the monastic life. As I read more deeply in the suttas, I found words that often spoke directly to my own spiritual confusion. But usually I felt the way I did reading Plato in graduate school. As a woman I was on the margin. This was a guy primarily speaking to other guys. At least that’s the way it seems in the tradition that was passed along from one generation of monks to another. The Buddha of the suttas is no laughing, all-embracing Dalai Lama

Then I the encountered the voices of the women who were the Buddha’s disciples in the Therigatha -- the poems of the early nuns. They were vivid, joyful expressions of spiritual freedom, nothing marginalized or second class about them. The work of Feminist scholar and Buddhist practitioner Rita Gross made a huge difference. She observes that the historical Buddha never held that women were less able to awaken than men and suggests that his reluctance to ordain women may simply have been pragmatic. The Buddha’s already radical community of caste-less renunciate men disrupted the traditional family and clan-based system of propriety and property, and admitting women ran the risk of putting a lighted match to kindling. The Buddha included famous courtesans among his followers and accepted their hospitality. Karen Armstrong, a scholar of religions but not a Buddhist herself, wrote about the tremendous social and political upheaval during the Buddha’s own lifetime. The Buddha had detractors and enemies outside and inside his community. There were even attempts on the Buddha’s life by renegade monks.
Most recently, Steven Batchelor undertook a geo-political exploration of the life of the Buddha. In Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Bachelor literally goes over the ground of the Buddha and his disciples, and tries to understand what the shifting constellation of political alliances, clan allegiances, social conditions and geographic constraints meant for the year by year situation of the Buddha. The kings who consulted the Buddha were victims of parricide, the Buddha’s cousin set out to usurp his leadership and caused a major schism in the sangha. The Buddha survived several assassination attempts, but eventually succumbed to food poisoning – which may have been intentional. Batchelor goes back again and again to the Pali canon – the suttas and the early commentaries – finding in them a wise and pragmatic human being dealing with difficult circumstances and great responsibility. The actual Buddha offered a down to earth path for meeting life’s vicissitudes, and, as a way of life, that path is liberating.

It’s this very humanizing of the Buddha that makes me able to finally, fully take refuge in the Buddha. To take refuge in the possibility of waking up and really paying attention in my life, but also to take refuge in the realization that, like the Buddha, I can only act from a sincere intention and then do the best I can in complex and confusing situations. I take refuge in the fact that the Buddha took his leadership responsibilities to heart and walked very delicately through political minefields. I can take refuge in the Buddha’s example of not succumbing to bitterness when demagogues seize power. I can take refuge in the Buddha’s acceptance of  the body’s deterioration with equanimity, and in the poignancy of the Buddha on his deathbed, mindfully experiencing not only the agony of his illness but the keen disappointment of those who had hoped he would have a more glorious demise in a better location. On a visceral level I can appreciate what a liberation it would be to be fully present without any ill-will in these circumstances. Thus I wholeheartedly take refuge in the Buddha.

                                                                        Patrice Clark Koelsch

Monday, September 13, 2010

Winning entry from Patricia Ohmans

This is from a record I kept of ten months spent in Cochabamba, Bolivia's third largest city. While it is not specifically about Buddhism or the Buddha, it is about paying this case, to smells.


A while ago, in a strange reaction to sinus medication, a friend of ours lost her sense of smell almost completely. Although Bonnie has since recovered, months of not being able to sense either fragrance or odor affected her deeply. She’s is a great cook and an avid gardener, but both of those pleasures shriveled along with her ability to—literally—stop and smell the roses.

Almost the inverse has happened to me, since moving to Cochabamba. Here, from dawn to dusk, one’s nose is alternately seduced, soothed, ambushed, intrigued or assaulted. 

In the morning, there are the smells of breakfast: fresh-ground Caranavi coffee beans; a whiff of peaches ripening in the fruit bowl (it’s peach season); my daughter Anna’s shower-clean hair; and through the open window, last night’s rain, already drying on the clay tile steps.

At the #3 micro-bus stop I smell: potatoes sauteeing in an oily pan (lunch for the drivers, cooked up outdoors under a plastic tarp, alongside the idling buses, which chuff exhaust); sweat, dirt and soapy water in the buckets wielded by the ragged, deaf-mute man who swabs the buses clean after each run; cologne from the slick-haired, diamond-earringed college boy climbing aboard ahead of me.

The Saturday market is overwhelming in its smells: wheels of stinky cheeses; bunches of lilac-y nardos (ubiquitous white flowers that people buy to offer up to church saint statues); dry seed hulls from the dusty, caged birds for sale: sticky blood glistening on piles of chicken, beef, and fish.

Of course, there’s always the jolt of urine, or even shit, if you breathe too deeply when you’re picking your way on a narrow sidewalk downtown.

But far more often, when I’m walking down a Cochabamba street inhaling dust and ozone, I’ve simply got to whip around, stop short, and breathe deep, and try to pinpoint which flowering tree or bush (behind which thick, stucco wall) is wafting that  elusive, siren scent.

Jasmîn? Gardenia? Eucalipto? Retamo? Something I cannot name in either Spanish or English, but am deeply grateful for, nonetheless?

Patricia Ohmans

Friday, September 10, 2010

Another winning entry from Linda Glaser

Hands of Buddha

Dancing hands
holding the next breath
of the Universe

Blossom fingers
lifting heart buds
of promise

Hands of grace
unfolding the gift
of now

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

A Winning Entry from Ian Graham Leask

Buddha Piece

We were a British family like many in the mid-fifties: parents who could barely believe WWII had ended a decade ago, “God, how time flies;” a four-year-old lad who considered himself the center of the universe, and whose much older half-siblings simultaneously adored and despised him; aunts and uncles of every degree, mostly war-torn, colonial rejects: one-eyed, one-armed, and pennilessly bourgeois.
I, of course, was the center of the universe, the baby king, the milk-scented miniature of my big bald, blond blue-eyed failed engineer of a father. Mother was a blonde too, a Betty Davis look alike with a pukka accent. When I was  a little older I saw the film version of Edward Albee’s play, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and I had to laugh; Burton & Taylor were my mom and dad to a T. They tore each other apart but they were in love.  My own progression towards an unsteady manhood was a punctuated by their vile acts of betrayal, violence and disrespect. One exceptionally memorable occasion involved the Buddha himself...

I  was conceived in Bombay during a particularly mad period in my parents’ lives, when they gambled and lost everything on an international business venture that failed.  In the midst of all the wining and dining; the shiny black cars;  the “Yes Sahib,” and “No Memsahib,”  and  “May we lick your arses clean, you rich white bastards?” and dinner jackets and pink gin; a man called Peter fell in love with my mother and tried to steal her away.  He paid for this Olympian violation with several broken ribs and a very puffy face one night at the dark end of Colaba.

Peter had given my mother a beautiful porcelain sitting Buddha: round bellied, smiling, saffron robed and bald. She had promised to leave this gift behind when my parents retreated from Bombay--or better still sell it, since they were broke--but she loved it and hid it in the portmanteaux that followed her by sea after they had flown  back to London, with tadpole me--somewhat dented from kicking spermatozoon butt all the way to the egg--gestating inside a drinking, smoking, madwoman.

Despite all the mayhem, I loved my little life with my two fabulous parents, hated it when they were not around, and closely observed everything they did. They called me Ian the Wean, Naughty Knave, and Lucky Laddie, and home was always filled with laughter, flowers in vases, and music playing.
Until one day when my mother, assuming my father would have forgotten Peter and his porcelain  Buddha, got the shining beauty out of storage and put it on the mantelpiece above the fire a few hours before the National Memorial party to commemorate the five year anniversary of V-Day,  which my dad was hosting.

I helped  my mother take the Buddha out of the tissue paper, which smelled strongly of something I liked but could not identify. When the shining creature emerged, she let me hold him in my arms: a four-year-old holding a god. He was the heaviest object I had ever held and she would not allow me to stand while holding it. “Can I have it, please?” I asked. “No, darling. He belongs to the family now. He’ll bring us luck.” 

I remember looking at his smiling face and feeling a lovely glow, knowing exactly why he would be lucky for us, and boy did we need a change of fortune. Mum had a proclivity for buying flowers instead of food. Apparently flowers were better for morale. I lived on Birdseye Fish Fingers. In the trunk with our Buddha was a big carved knife with a bejeweled handle, some weird looking clothes and lots of clunky shoes which reminded me of policewomen. I was perpetually hungry, and was also on the look- out for old toffees or boiled sweets, but no such luck.

I felt desolate when she removed the gleaming god from my protection and placed him carefully in the middle of the mantelpiece. She lit candles on either side of him, since this was late in the year and the Christmas tree had already been put up and decorated.

I felt elated and wanted Dad to come home and see the Buddha, whose broad back reflected in the big mirror. Dad came home rather late and smelling of the pub.  When he saw the Buddha, he dropped his briefcase and said:
“What the bloody fucking hell is that doing here?”

I sat in the huge chair by the fire and did not  run to him as usual, since he looked menacing, and besides I had my army men set out in battle formation across my lap and the arm of the chair. My mother had left some nice classical music on the radiogram--violins chunking along. I think it was “Clare de Lune,” and the room smelled of Pledge.

“Judy,” Dad yelled.
“Yes, darling,” we heard from the kitchen. “Coming!”

He stood in the doorway; twitching, neck bulging, eyes like Jehovah’s sky, and glancing  back and forth from me to the god on the mantelpiece.

I began disassembling the battle formation in my lap, but mother  entered the room before I could finish. She simultaneously pushed past  Dad and pulled him into the room by  the arm. She was happy. She picked up his nearly empty briefcaseand held it in front of her. 

He pointed, and said: “That.”
“Oh, I’d hoped you’d like it. The fellas’ll like it when they get here. It’ll remind them of India.”
“It reminds me of India.”
“Oh, darling, come on now, that was years ago.”
“Not to me.”
“Well you got your pound of flesh, didn’t you?”

She still looked happy, teasing him, her red mouth up to his. She said, “Where’s my kiss?” But she  held the briefcase in front of her.

Dad’s face  went pale and he looked old all of a sudden. He dodged her kiss, strode to the mantelpiece, swept the beautiful god onto the fireside carpet, and stomped on it with all his weight. It broke into three parts.
“Oh Henry. Please.”

He stomped it again. Then again and again, shouting: “Fat bellied bastard!” He stomped until there was nothing left but a pile of white dust crushed into the carpet. He was crying.

When I looked for my mother, she was gone. Then Dad went out. 

I don’t remember ever having any luck after that.

 Ian Graham Leask  April 26, 2010

Monday, June 28, 2010

Another winning entry from James Noah


Obaa-chan, your childless carriage pushed with a back bowed by a meager war diet and the weight of a post-industrial society that has moved from feudal to digital in your lifetime. Where have your children gone?
Was it a .50 caliber round through the chest on Mindanao? His youthful, pensive face staring back through the smoke of your prayer incense. Or perhaps it was a Bullet-Train out of town when she could no longer stand the smell of the farm?
Where have your children gone?
Maybe off to the Juku, or the sex club? Your knowing, patient hands still cooking meals for a generation no longer interested in waving the Rising Sun, dusting off pictures of the Emperor, or toasting victories in Canton.
Obaa-chan, I know you were once young, but do your grandchildren know that you had hair as shining and skin as soft and fair as any who now peddle their flesh in Ginza on a cell phone? Do they know that the takuwan pickles in their bento are from a recipe you learned as a girl at a time when you weren't allowed to speak in the presence of your father without permission?
Do they know you are day-care to a generation, and rain-swept, roadside grime and mud labor to a nation?
I know, but I could never have endured as you have through wars, famine, and now isolation. I know, because you once showed me your picture as a young girl in monpei, bidding your brother farewell at the train station. So handsome in his uniform; you bowed stoically as he headed to his grave in the Pacific.

But I will not bother you now for a story. You are too busy knocking the snow off rows of long, white radishes drying in the winter sun and setting up an offering of rice for your brother's long awaited return.

*When I first visited Japan almost 35 years ago, I often saw Obaa-chans (grandmothers) in the Japanese countryside with terribly bowed backs. Purportedly caused by a calcium poor war diet and long hours stooped rice fields. They would often be pushing a cart that looked something like a cross between a baby carriage and a shopping cart. It struck me that this nation would truly have been lost after the war had it not been for these stout, resolute women.

James Noah

Winning entry from James Noah

To the Green Sea

Author's note:
When I have written about my experiences as a Zen monk in Japan, I often receive feedback that my stories are not very Zen-like, or filled with soul-searching philosophy. I would agree, but I am not really sure what is meant by Zen-like.  So I gently tell them, “If you want reflective meditations on peace and harmony, don't go to Japan for Zen training.  If you want to know what one day was like?  Read below.” I'm not saying this is the only way, I'm just telling you how it was.
'nuff said?

It was one of the coldest and snowiest winters that anyone could remember. Even the old monks who came by on occasion remarked that it reminded them of the meager days after the war when the monasteries were one of the only places with food and young men became monks out of necessity. Those winters were cold they said. Blankets were scarce and discipline severe. I knew they were right. I counted seventy-five hand written names above the worn wooden shoe box in the entry hall.  Almost three times the number of training monks on hand now. It would have been hard to feed that crew on donated rice and roots pulled from under the snow.
It was my second winter at the training temple in the quiet port town of Onishi. January was the month of kangyo, the winter training. Regardless of weather we would march ten to fifteen kilometers through the nearby villages each day to collect alms in support of the temple. Normally we would take the same course in and around the town, but once each season we would walk through town, cross the river, and visit the remote fishing village of Nishimura. No one minded going out there in summer, but the winter trip was hard, and we would be exposed to a piercing, biting wind most of the way.
On the morning of the march into Nishimura, I woke to the coldest day so far that winter. I slept next to an old, ill-fitting window and the wind in the night had blown the snow in through the cracks to form small drifts on the top of my blankets and across the floor. Yet I'd learned that a few degrees below freezing were better than above for marching because the slush on the road would freeze hard keeping our feet dry a bit longer. Feet and hands suffered the worse.

Meditation started at five, chanting at six, and rice at seven. At seven forty-five the roll call began with a monk beating a steel plate which hung in the entrance to the temple. We rushed to get ready. The steel plate sounded out in a jagged, steadily rising clang as we assembled on the hardened dirt floor of the Entry Hall. The head monk shouted,
"Everyone going out today must stand at attention to receive the day's instruction and recite the chant." Our nickname for him was The Apache. He would not have looked out of place in a maximum security facility.
It was cold, yet it seemed that the tighter I bound my garments the warmer I felt. One man would pull the chin straps on his kasa so tightly there would be marks on his face for hours. We all had our little ways of keeping warm, but it wouldn't matter for an hour into the march warmth was something months away in a dream. In the Entry Hall we stood at sharp attention, heads up, looking strong. It was easy to look tough now, our feet were dry. The head monk spun towards us and barked,
We marched into Nishimura to a bitter cold wind rolling off the ocean like a giant wave, dashing against the corrugated metal houses and blowing the cold even deeper into our bones. At the moment I thought,
this is what it really is to be cold. Who cared if I couldn't feel anything from the knees down? Someone had to break a trail in the two-foot deep snow drifts. It was so cold I became euphoric. Without gloves in the cold we lost control of the muscles in our hands. It would start slowly with the little finger then move on to the next until the whole hand curled into a weak fist. It was a daily ritual watching men try to straighten out a frozen hand with the still good fingers from the other.
Each year important townsfolk in Nishimura held a formal meal for the monks at a local inn to commemorate our visit. After our morning march through the village we stopped at the appointed place-a spacious, seaside inn with very gracious people. But there would be a price to pay for indulgence in food and wine. The problem was that our frozen feet would swell from the indoor heat and when it came time for the return march, we could no longer get our now wet, stiff tabi socks on without great and painful effort. Some walked the 5 km back to the temple barefoot.
Dinner that night was instant Ramen-if anyone wanted it. Most recovered in their rooms huddled around small hibachi. Some of us sat quietly in the Meditation Hall. I would stuff a thin blanket under my robe to stay warm. Body heat would keep me reasonably comfortable in the still air-and my feet were dry. Not a bad day after all.

© James Noah 2008