MA student report on the DRBU Self-Cultivation Class Series: August 26, 2018

The DRBU Self-Cultivation Program is an extracurricular initiative that aspires to help students make their entire DRBU experience an opportunity for self-transformation. A key component to this is developing an inner stability that can be used as the ground for observing and mastering emotions, thoughts, and habits. In order to support this, this program provides regular practice periods, check-ins, informal gatherings, and daylong practice sessions.

This program also hopes to provide a deeper understanding of what self-cultivation is, what it entails, and how it can be integrated into daily life. The first talk on August 26, 2018 was presented by DRBU Dean of Academics, Dr. Martin Verhoeven, who goes by Marty, who authored much of the DRBU mission and program description. He met Master Hua in 1976 and was a Buddhist monk for eighteen years. As a layman, he continues to practice and teach Buddhism.

The following report is writen by a DRBU MA student from their perspective as a participant in the class.

This is the first class in the series and focuses on trusting the Dharma river, addressing doubts within oneself, and learning what it means to cultivate.   

Students, staff, and faculty settled into the DRBU Chan Hall, just as the sun was slowly setting. Meditating silently on their cushions, they awaited Marty’s arrival.

Marty entered and settled into his spot under the lamp that bathed the room in a comforting yellow light. After setting up his laptop and notes, he good-naturedly scanned the room with a smile spreading across his face. Subsequently, he admitted that there were a lot of new students in the room that he was unfamiliar with, as he unfortunately missed Orientation. Each person in the room briefly introduced themselves to him. Content, he launched by saying that he really wanted to know how the new students chose to attend DRBU, as the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB) is difficult to find.

He began to explain that, whether they knew it or not, the reason why everyone was there was because they had been cultivating on their own and sought to return to a place where they could find their essential nature. Marty used the analogy of a Dharma river—his way of describing fate in a deeper, Buddhist context—to describe how everyone was able to be there together. Essentially, everyone in the room had somehow been carried in the Dharma river, a “force that is propelling people to be together to get here.” He encouraged everyone to use the years ahead to really “seize every moment and to transform and cultivate yourself.”

By sharing a series of personal stories of his life in the 1960s, Marty revealed what lies at the heart of cultivation: letting go of things that do not make sense. By letting go of habits, he found that he was able to find freedom in the truest sense. He mentioned, ”of course there was an anxiety that arose” from his deviation from societal norms, but he eventually recognized that “everyone who stepped into the dao went through this stress and anxiety of leaving the norm.” He recalls a lesson he learned from Shi Fu (Master Hua), who once told him, “What’s so great about being normal? You were normal before, and how great did you think that was?” Master Hua instructed Marty to trust in himself and to leave “normal” behind as a step towards deeper cultivation. What should be prized is one’s essential nature, “the vital stuff that feeds the heart and soul.”

Marty elaborated that the Dharma river—the current that leads one toward this essential nature—is extremely strong: “Once the dao is working within you, you’ll keep coming back.”

This led a student to raise the question: “What if I’m just really dysfunctional in society?”

Marty responded:

How do you not know? It is what you are listening to that tells you. One should be aware of feelings and emotions and not repress them. You all got here by listening to something, and that something acts like a meter that gives you feedback. Emerson once wrote that ‘Imitating others and ignoring yourself is suicide.’ Mindfulness and cultivation are listening and knowing what’s false and what’s true and learning to trust that voice. Society has conditioned us to fit in, yet when we reject these conditions, we don’t know what to do. It has become Pavlovian. To the person that is awakened, all places are the same because they have aligned their compass on trusting themselves. Our natural impulse is to stay attuned to our original nature. Listen to yourself and let go of what is on the outside. Meditation is how you attain this proper reception. You’re essentially tuning yourself. You are naturally inclined to trust your cultivated and refined self. Tuning in and trusting ourselves liberates us from our afflictions and desires. Mindfulness is actually really innate, yet it is covered up by habits. Mindfulness gives us every tool we need to answer the questions we have about ourselves.

Jin Chuan Shi, one of the DRBU chaplains, asked Marty to define self-cultivation.

Marty explained:

Well, self-cultivation is a horticultural metaphor, with the use of the word ‘cultivation’. The premise behind this is that all beings have the buddha nature and can become a Buddha. We have everything we need to be a complete person, but most of us aren’t there yet. To get there, we need to cultivate that ground that removes the blockage in our heads and find the essential nature of our own beings. This isn’t always pleasant. You can think of cultivation as a garden—weed out what’s false and wrong, nourish ourselves with moisture, and allow ourselves to have some sunlight.

We are returning to a fullness of ourselves. Self-cultivation is essentially listening to yourself. Shi Fu described this as the untying of knots. The knots are tied up bodhi that you cannot cut yourself free from, for you’ll only end up losing a part of yourselves. These knots require you to untie them. Self-cultivation is the act of rubbing and refining our true selves and taking out the weeds. This is how we work toward our essential nature.

The most important thing is being aware of your day-to-day cause and effect. How would the way you think, move, and feel affect another person? Is the thought that arises centered, liberating, or full? If it is not, let it go. This requires you to be open and soft, to recognize your faults and afflictions…

Being hard on yourself, however, is not self-cultivation. This can be seen as a form of escape instead of as a form of cultivation. You start to immobilize yourself, which is not a healthy way of thinking. Recognize your faults and move on. Actually, building up your faults and being overwhelmed is not cultivation; it is an attachment in itself.

Professor Ernie Waugh also shared a memory of Master Hua. People were having negative thoughts about themselves, and Master Hua said, “Thinking that you are bad or no good is just the flip side of thinking that you are really good. It is equally unuseful.”  

Marty continued: “Here at DRBU we read therapeutic texts as a manual for self-cultivation. At DRBU, we read these texts in a different light and start thinking: ‘How can I be different?’ It then becomes the universal medical manual of liberation.”

Marty emphasized “keeping a balance in every kind of manner.” He ended by saying, “Even meditation without balance can be destructive. If you meditate as an escape and meditate into oblivion, can you still say that you are cultivating? Absolutely not.”

Following this, the whole room burst into laughter and the talk concluded.