Passing of Jetsun-ma

It is with love that we share the news that our beloved founder of Friends of the Heart, Lama Catherine Jetsun-Yeshe, took her last breath around 5pm on Sunday February 22, 2015.  She was peaceful and surrounded by love from her family and other meditators.  We did our best to help her transition which we believe is underway as she hoped.  Her meditation practice was strong throughout this lifetime which will take her through to carry out her vow to help all beings.  Please continue to meditate on compassion and help other beings on her behalf. May her Dharma activity flourish.  

Should you wish, kindly make donations to any of the following:

1) The FOH fund that will support the publishing of Catherine's planned books. 

A cheque can be made out to Friends of the Heart. Please put Book Fund in the memo section. 

FOH is at Suite 324, 2510 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON, M4P 2H7.  

Include your name and full address if you wish to receive a charitable receipt.

And/or the following charities:




Friends of the Heart

Update on Jetsun-ma (Feb 21st)

Catherine is resting quietly for the most part though her breathing struggles occasionally with fluid build up. She is unlikely to rally from this, as she so often has in this five month journey with cancer.  Earlier this week the chemo process was delayed in hopes her blood counts could recover on their own.  However the complex issues she has been dealing with so strongly since September cannot be resolved.

Her family has gathered and is watching over her throughout the day and night. There are brief moments of response as we read to her aspects of the Buddhist way of going on from here.

As most of you know she has been following and then imparting those teachings for decades and is the author of two books in the field. Several more that she wrote over the years are being prepared by friends and will appear over the next months.

She knows her friends follow many beliefs and often said how much she appreciated your prayers, thoughts and warm wishes expressed so often over this time.



Update on Jetsun-ma (Feb 15th)

Catherine continues to hold her ground though there was a decline after the blood transfusion...but that decline has halted.  She can carry conversations for quite long periods and then takes rests.  She is eating well and the bowels have started to work...which adds energy on its own.

She and Lucy are talking quite specific detail on meditation exercises as I write and Marlene has had similar periods in the morning and evening.

Still physically weak when she stands but we've used those opportunities when Elijah is supporting her to regain control of the bed sores which had ceased to be a priority over the last five days.

That's what we see for now as we roll through this three day holiday weekend.



Update on Jetsun-ma (Feb 10)

A number of issues started arising over the weekend which have lead to Catherine returning to hospital this time in Kingston.  She was here last Wednesday for the radiation consultation which she participated in fully.  When we brought her in for the second radiation treatment on the left neck and clavicle she had become short of breath and was developing an infection on her life leg where fluid had been leaking.  Dr. Best also found her leg strength had dropped off in a week as well which we could see as she needed more support getting to a standing position.  She had an MRI which ruled out a reoccurrence of the cancer on the spine and a chest Xray to look at fluid on the lungs...part of the edema profile.  At any rate, Dr. Best felt a few days in hospital would allow them to chase possible diagnoses and address the edema while monitoring blood pressure.

She is still eating well but the fatigue from the last chemo is now joined by that from the accumulating radiation as well as the shortness of breath. So it requires someone like Elijah to lift and support her while moving from bed to chair or commode. We're hoping that as lung function improves with edema fluid reduction she'll return to more activity.

Being back in a hospital setting means we are pursuing air mattress options so we don't lose ground on the bed sores but, on the positive her room mates are more copacetic than those in the past.

If she's still here Friday she would be moved to Belleville General following the fifth radiation treatment.  Obviously we'd prefer a full discharge back to home but we'll see how the next few days progress.


Jon and Elijah

Upadate on Jetsun-ma (Jan 29th)

News on chemo change

When we arrived at oncology on Monday we found the marker they test from blood prior to chemo...CA15-3..had gone from 70 to 200 in 2 weeks.  This indicates that the cancer is active and possibly Taxol was losing its effect.  We thought this might be the case based on a lymph node on her collar bone which had grown red and sore over the last week.

A bit of a shock to find the start-up chemo not working so soon.

It is important to note that the Taxol here in Belleville has been 50 percent the last two times it was used.  The Monday plan was full strength Taxol along with Herceptin and Pertusimab.

Dr. Kinkesan said the two treatment routes from the new blood data were: 1. Go with full dose Taxol this week and next and evaluate in 3weeks time. 2. Change to an engineered drug related to Herceptin called T-DM1 or Kadcyla or trastuzumab emtansine. Apparently the Herceptin carries the chemo emtansine into the cancer cells.

So Catherine opted for Option 2. Our decision was assisted by discussions with Elijah who dug up a recent Harvard study calling Kadcyla the new standard of care for metastasized breast cancer.  Cancer Care Ontario approved it for use in her case while we were there so it was infused Monday afternoon.

With this switch she cannot go back to Taxol and we will not know if the new drug is effective either for several weeks. But, with the blood marker almost tripling in the two weeks (70 to 200) since the last Taxol (@50%) it was our best guess that full strength Taxol was still not the best choice. Now it is Thursday we can see the node at the collarbone has receded and the pains on the sides of her neck have been reduced.

There's also the possibility of radiation along the collarbone and the node to stun the cancer.  She'll need to go to Kingston to first be evaluated.

Now she is starting this course of Chemo with Kadcyla they will do another CT scan this Friday which they and the radiation docs can evaluate to decide on any course of radiation as well as the disease's progress.  The Dec 12 CT scan had shown possible issues at the chest and collarbone but still unclear while at the same time showing reduced markers on her liver.

Side effects are pretty much the same as with the previous treatments so she's working with fatigue but still has surges of alert attention which she's devoting to her books.

She remains grateful for the prayers and light sent in her direction and can feel the effects for which she thanks you.

Love Jon

Update on Jetsun-ma (Jan 25/15)

Sorry to not have written since December 15 when Catherine came home but days are full full full.

Catherine is in the chemo cycle now the new year has arrived without a holiday every time you turned around.  It's two weeks on and one week off.  She gets Taxol, herceptin and pertusimab week one, a Taxol week two and then a rest week.  She's just finishing the last feeling quite strong, working on her books with friends, walking some every day and a decent appetite.  On Monday were back into T, H and P and though they take a toll, she's done well on them before but the fatigue will probably return. A CT scan taken late in December showed encouraging results when compared with the one taken in September..the spots on the liver had diminished. The bed sores are closing slowly and continue to impress those who have not seen them for a while. The post nasal drip is largely gone.  As the home care goes on we develop questions but sadly our Friday home appointment with her doctor was cancelled due to the doctor being ill.

The house routine has been very engaging with every minute full of her needs and dealing with the many services of personal care workers, nurses, OTs, blood labs and now the agencies providing the overnight coverage from Monday to Friday plus reports for her insurance company which is covering about 20% of the overnight costs.

We developed the routines while Elijah and Jess were here over Christmas swapping the many and varied tasks.  Since they had to go back to New York we've been blessed with huge and caring blocks of time from Amy, my brother David, and Marlene and weekends with Karina and Marc and David Liang. Peter Outridge will show up this week and soon after that Lucy Warner is trying to get here from Colorado.

CCAC has found an extra 3 hours of respite time for me which really just means shopping and Hospice Quinte found us Ann who donates 4 hours on Fridays as a companion. I actually got my hair cut this last Friday after dropping off the blood. They need her blood weekly so her counts are available Monday at Oncology. The daily single hours with the personal care worker are giving me a chance to walk up the hill for some exercise.  Our little walkie talkies can actually communicate from the farthest points I walk to...tho I'm not sure I could run back anyway.

Catherine is planning four books: poetry with pictures underway as of yesterday with the brilliant help of Anne Toffalo Philpot, two text only books on Buddhist-Christian dialogue and Meditations for Daily Living, a compilation of her columns for the e-zine Parvati with pictures taken on by the super busy Kyra Aylesworth.  Waiting in the wings is a book that follows the alphabet with humourous and serious passages from her life called Hunting for Truffles.

Catherine has truly been touched by your messages and offers of help.  She often remarks about sensing the energy in your Prayers and sending of Light.

Love from here to you all.

Update on Jetsun-ma (Dec 16th)

Jetsun-ma continued to get stronger last week.  Physio and nursing staff and we are impressed.

We were able to hold to the plan to get her home so she arrived at about 12:30 with E picking her up and J scurrying around getting her bed assembled and made as it arrived at 11. CCAC not as well coordinated as we could have wished so we have rented stuff again...including the bed and table.

She greeted the house again with some emotion and since then it has been a whirlwind  of pills and support activities. Nurse arrived only an hour after she got here and gathered her history as the agency has changed.

Platelets dropped last week so chemo was restricted to Herceptin and Pertuzumab on Thursday.  Not much side effects.  This week she'll get diluted Taxol and then there's a hole in the weekly schedule due to Christmas.  We don't know the work around yet.

Elijah is waiting to greet the lovely Jesse who flies in today and festivities can begin with the acquisition of a tree.

Update on Jetsun-ma (Dec 8th)

Catherine is getting out of bed regularly now,mostly for bathroom breaks on her walker and commode but also for rides on her RoHo cushioned wheelchair.

Haemoglobin has been boosted with a transfusion as the count stabilized lower than desired.  The chemo date is still this Thursday with the high possibility that Taxol will be given with the Herceptin and Pertuzumab.  The taxol will be be diluted and given more frequently if her counts hold up.  Her clotting factors have continued climbing at every test so the anti clotting agent continues to be given daily. The oncologists are telling her to keep doing what she's doing. They'll be watching her for the weekend for any untoward events.  Barring those, they hope to discharge her to home around Dec 15. Of course, the bed sores are still an issue but progress is being made there too.

The on-floor hairdresser dropped by on Friday and she had her now sparse hair  washed and the neck trimmed.  She really enjoyed the personal care. Today she got a new Christmas themed cotton cap for day wear and retains her Roots tuque for the night.

She seeing a few more visitors (all from Friends of the Heart so far) but the duration of :45 to an hour is about all she can handle without a nap.  On Sunday her sister Beth flew in for three days of visiting. We're hoping to expand the circle though that's more likely to be at the house on Flying Club once we're settled in there.

Update on Jetsun-ma (Nov 29th)

Catherine moved yesterday to a ward where the emphasis is on care and rehabilitation.  The view of the doctors is that she has improved enough to not need daily medical intervention.  Of note is the ongoing healing of the bed sores and her blood counts coming back up on their own after the treatment 10 days ago with Herceptin and Pertuzumab.  They are cautiously optimistic that the Dec 11 chemo may include Taxol even at half strength.  Catherine is so pleased to be moving against the disease.

The blood and urine infections are apparently cleared though swabs are being done less frequently.  She is still considered a contact risk for other patients so she's happily on her own though all nurses and guests must gown and glove before being with her and divest upon leaving.

The other thing we are hoping is that there will be more physio visits here.  She got back into constipation mid week so more activity is warranted.  Elijah and Jon are doing in bed exercises on the feet, legs, arms and core several times a day.  



Update on Jetsun-ma (Nov 22nd)

So this morning Catherine phoned from her hospital bed.  A new first for her.  Sounding quite awake and hearty.

On Thursday she got the Herceptin and Pertuzumab in sequence and then we watched for side effects.  So far, it has just been the fatigue aided and abetted by the renewal of Ondansetron and the steroid.

Some external medical issues remain but are getting better but it is not a rapid process.  The swabs for her blood/ecoli bacteria are coming back negative so they will culture her blood once more to see if it is really gone. They will redo an ultrasound to see what is happening with a blood clot next to her PICC on Monday and her blood levels drop slowly after the transfusions so there's more of that in the near future.

The next Hercep and P are three weeks away.  Taxol will not be resumed until there's more evidence of the marrow contributing to blood it is a waiting game for that one.  They have a patient who is doing well on only H and P.

We are edging to getting her home but no exact timing on that yet.

Update Jetsun-ma (Nov 17th)

This weekend finds Catherine making considerable progress against the four debilitating factors that have been her companions for several weeks.  The wound care specialist and the nurses are making real progress on the bed sores which are now shrinking back from the margins. Her appetite is improving as well as her bowels.

Blood counts are generally stable but low and they have been successful in combatting the bacteria in the blood.  A late Thursday ultrasound finally determined where the clot at the top of her left arm is so the blood thiner is continuing.

She got an echocardiogram Thursday to match the one from North York General and showed strong heart function. This in preparation for Herceptin and Pertuzumab targeted for early next week. Though there are side effect risks attendant on those, after a family discussion on Saturday Catherine remains determined to enter that regime.  Taxol will not be involved in the first treatment due to the effect on the immune system.

Elijah has introduced in bed arm and leg exercises which she undertakes with enthusiasm three times a day.  Occupational Therapy came by three days this last week and she gamely sat up, edged to the side of the bed, stood and rotated to her wheelchair and then reversed that.  Pleasing progress compared with a week ago. She's still knocked out by some of the drugs she's taking so there are some quiet periods.

Outpatient status still eludes us as she doesn't have the strength to be ambulatory and the care she needs for the bed sores is still substantial. The doctor also says that it is best she stay under observation so they can monitor her for side effects from the Herceptin and Pertuzumab.

Update on Jetsun-ma (Nov 12th)

Jetsun-ma has re entered hospital to deal with a quartet of problems prior to a planned resumption of chemo on Nov 20.  On all four fronts (bacteria in her blood, constipation, raising her blood counts and bed sores)  there has been progress, though slower than she would like.

She is very appreciative of the messages coming in on Gmail and Facebook which we read to her.  She is often moved by your words and grateful for the meditations and prayers you often speak of.

She remains determined to get to the next stages of treatment to bring the cancer to a standstill.

Update on Jetsun-ma (Nov 2nd)

Catherine had her second chemo on Thursday Oct 30 followed by both platelets and a transfusion as her marrow has not kicked in yet.  Dr. Glenns thinks it will be a couple of chemo cycles before that happens.  Again the target this week was getting her to out-patient status. As the upcoming week was to be the no-chemo week for Catherine she started on a seven day immune booster.  Though her energy is low she is still giving thumbs up for the way things are proceeding.


When we got to Friday moving her to Stirling was again on the horizon.  Energy was pretty good but blood counts were not so the date was shifted one day and on Saturday she was again assisted by transfusions so that we left at 18:30.  The drive was was perfect for traffic. Catherine sat entranced beside me acknowledging the signs that meant she was nearing home.


Catherine and Jon's wonderful neighbours Yvonne and Marg had prepared the fridge and Karina supplemented it with a trip to her farmers' market so Catherine was welcomed as were we with a cooked dinner.  C was lifted and rolled to the table from the car on the wheelchair Yvonne had obtained and C sat smiling for an hour before we got her into the domestic hospital bed that Karina got installed last week.


On Sunday she showed the wear and tear of the previous day, not having much energy but still Elijah gently guided food and drink into her so the day got progressively better.  The bed sores are still a great concern and we hope to get more guidance from the visiting nurse group who have wound specialists plus we're going to see if we can get it looked into tomorrow at the 13:00 appointment with the Belleville oncologist, Dr. Jana Kankesan.  They have a specialist, Laura Rogers, and at the end of her appointment it is possible we will see her.


We have a nurse visit for an hour a day and a personal support worker as well.  That's working out very well but they need a lot of interaction by Karina and Elijah as they are different people the last two days.


Update on Jetsun-ma (Oct 29th)

Catherine has had a good week with more tests to help her new oncologist be certain of the next steps.  The side effects of the radiation have ameliorated and drugs are lessened so she has an ever clearer mind.  There's a nagging problem in her left arm keeping it swollen and her blood counts showed a continuing decline.  That said, Dr. Glenns (who replaced Dr. Yu who is now on maternity leave) felt that the counts dictated moving forward so she had a full strength Taxol treatment on Thursday. On Friday she was still sailing along so they are in pursuit of a treatment for the arm edema.

She has had both platelets and transfusions in the last two days as the target remains getting her to outpatient status so the Herceptin and Pertuzumab  can be added to the chemo.

Elijah has done a lot of overnights to maintain a contact for her with the treatment team and Karina,who has just come off a gruelling production,had recovered from her cold enough on Friday to take the lead in getting the house at Flying Club cleaned and equipped for her arrival which we remain hopeful will be next week.

Update on Jetsun-ma

The next few days will be quite intense for Catherine as we strive to reach outpatient status.  Odd as it may sound, she has asked that people who are "conflicted about her" not meditate on her behalf but instead meditate for their own growth and needs.

Aspiration to resolve difficulty is essential but she asks you do it outside and away from prayers for her life.  The energy of White Tara and its prolongation of life for the purpose of knowledge transmission for compassionate ends is what is important now.

She writes:  May Tara always guide our footsteps!

David Liang

Notification about Jetsun-ma

Dear FOH Friends, Sangha and Community

We are sorry to tell you that Catherine Jetsun Yeshe has had her cancer return.  She is already undergoing radiation for the cancer in some of her bones while diagnostic tests continue to determine the best treatment for the cancer on her liver and some nodes. New tests were performed Tuesday which should refine the next steps in the process.  It is only fair to say that any treatments will be to prolong her life as it cannot be cured at its present stage of development.

She is resting well with appropriate pain medications and participating actively in the discussions surrounding her illness.  At this time she is seeing few visitors, retaining her energy for the various medical interventions. Jon, Karina and Jesse have been on hand throughout the process with Elijah due to join them shortly.

Some more information will be forthcoming when the treatment plan becomes more clear.

If you wish to send a message to Jetsun-ma, please mail it to the FOH address below and I will make sure she receives it.

Friends of the Heart

2510 Yonge Street Suite 324

Toronto, Ontario M4R 1G8

"May the Lama live long, May her good health increase, May her Dharma activity flourish!"


David Liang (on behalf of the FOH Board)

A Letter to Members on the Occasion of the 2014 AGM

Dear Friends of the Heart,

I am sorry that I am unable to be with you for the AGM this year.  I shall miss the kinship of fellow practitioners who care about the path of truth, ethical conduct and compassion and are working to have the centre continue.

Some years ago, an FOH administrator, Franca Leeson, talked about FOH being a 3 legged stool. The legs were described as 1) service 2) attendance at teachings and 3) meditation practice.  All three are necessary to create, uphold and strengthen a meditation centre.

Meditation practice is becoming popular in our culture primarily in the form of stress reduction or pure mindfulness and insight.  On their own, they can be very helpful in a culture that is over-stressed, over extended and terribly distracted by ‘busyness’. But something is left out, and that is the heart for the work and the heart work that is at the core of the Buddhist, Christian and Sufi way of living.

Attendance at teachings at FOH supports the centre by making its energy space vibrant, singing a song of welcome and kindness that is often commented on by visitors to the open houses.  During the last 2 years, David and I have been working on curriculum development that will, hopefully, enable people to learn progressively the deepening aspects of the Buddhist teaching as it shifts from Theravada to Mahayana to Vajrayana studies.  As understanding of the depth of these teachings arises, interest in periodic retreats can arise.  Seeing into the nature of the self/reality and learning new directions for life pathways takes time and training and quiet periods of retreat are ideal for this purpose.  Our present culture rarely permits or endorses such retreat periods and my hope would be that the people who have attended these retreats will inspire others to do so as well.  During a period of retreat, with sangha support, we become able to face our ‘demons’, aspire to build our awakened nature, and discover ways to engage with the years ahead. Like a cup that has fewer holes in it, we return with the elixir of new energy to our everyday lives.

The aspect of service is often considered by Buddhist groups to be the first and most important of all activities for those new to spiritual work.  Because it engages us in ‘dana’ or the practice of generosity, it slowly begins to loosen the grip of self-referencing and engages us in opening to others and to the world.  Traditionally, in Vajrayana and yogic circles, emphasis has been placed on service to the teacher.  Devotion to the guru forms a prominent place in bhakti yoga as well as Tibetan practice.  In the West, this has sometimes caused considerable problems as elements of martyrdom and projection muddy the waters of faith.  Mostly, we are not faith beings here in the west. Faith comes later and that is after we have tried out the practices and seen for ourselves that there is benefit to us and to our lives.

So, under my direction, Friends of the Heart has placed an emphasis on service to the centre as the important third leg of the stool of the Dharma.  Without the help of an administrative board, it is impossible for a teacher to focus enough time on his/her practice and the development of classes.

He or she has family obligations, other paid or unpaid work to be attended to and all the usual complications of living the lay life in the 21st century. People can be forgiven for saying that they do not have the time for this, or they just want to meditate, or they have given enough now.

Any one of these ‘reasonable’ thoughts can ignore the karmic effects of the act of service.  When we offer our time and energy to help a place like FOH keep its doors open and welcome new people in, we are increasing our ability to actually alter our own lives for the better. Occasionally, I have taught a student who seems to attend classes regularly, engage in the meditation practices dutifully, but over time makes no inner progress.  When I have looked deeply, what I see is lack of merit, the invisible ‘tiger in the tank’ that gives us the ability to change negative patterns into positive ones and the strength to emerge from suffering into joy.

So, if you are thinking any of those ‘reasonable thoughts’, I hope you will think again.  Friends of the Heart is indeed a rare creature, offering classes in depth thought, retreats with experienced teachers and a place where those who yearn for truth, wisdom and compassion to shine can find support and encouragement.  Without a public face, this would be lost.

My heartfelt thanks go to David for taking on the herculean task of continuing FOH upon my departure from Toronto.  He is a shining example of what a bodhisattva heart can accomplish.  My deep thanks go also to the present board for handling the difficult transition so well and to Alex for his able leadership as president.

I remain committed to serve as best I can to help FOH and all beings emerge from suffering into a state of clarity and compassion. As I have had to step away from day to day workings of FOH, I send my prayers of support always in your direction.  Though the task of building, establishing and continuing a lay centre such as ours may seem daunting and nearly impossible at times, I know it is worth doing. I have seen how much it has helped those who have passed through its doors.  May they continue their way in the world with compassion as their guide and awareness as their watchword.  May their wisdom shine forth to help others.

With love always flowing in your direction,






When we lose someone we love, it is as if a searing hole has been torn

in our breast  Grief is at first sharp and jagged, an overwhelm of our

system that tears at our throat like a tiger. Later it is a hollow

that forms in our middle, an ache that persists and persists., the

hollow often filled with regrets and 'might have beens' or 'should

have saids'. And finally it is a gentle presence, filled with warmth

and gratitude for the connection, the opportunities, the tenderness of

moments together that can co-exist with the darkness, like clouds of

different types and colours rolling through the sky.  Lastly, as we

watch the sun the sun sink, oh so rapidly, down behind the horizon, we

are reminded that we are short lived beings on a finite planet, the

time short but oh so precious, together, alone.

- Catherine Jetsun-Yeshe Rathbun

Overview of Development of Mahayana


Mahayana arose in the first to second century of our Common Era.  It is called the Second Turning of the Wheel and counts as the next major unfoldment of Buddhist thought.  From a Western scholastic perspective, which is historical/critical, this second turning could be taken to mean either a different religion, a rogue variation or even a heresy.  All these opinions have been espoused at different times, both in the West as well as in the East.

It has also been equated to the Reformation, equivalent to Martin Luther tacking a declaration up on the cathedral doors of Wittenberg.

All these views are incorrect, though it has been politically expedient at times for parts of the Theravadin community to announce that they are the ‘only true Buddhists’ as they work from the earliest texts.  To this argument, some Mahayanists reply that Theravada is a Lesser Vehicle or Hinayana and that Mahayana is The Greater Vehicle.  This kind of sectarian one ‘upmanship’ has little to do with the development of the Buddhist philosophy and much to do with the politics of religion.  A topic not exclusive to Buddhism, for sure!

Let us instead examine the Mahayana philosophy as a further unfoldment of the Buddhist teachings begun by Gautama or Siddhartha Buddha and slowly evolving through time to meet the needs and aptitudes of different and increasingly sophisticated audiences. (Just as, the teachings of Saint John, the Apostle might be viewed as a more sophisticated presentation of the teachings of Jesus than the Gospel According to Saint Matthew or Mark)

The author Mu Soeng (The Diamond Sutra, p. 14 ) calls early Buddhist teaching “Psychological Buddhism” and Mahayana teachings “Visionary Buddhism”.  Early Buddhist training focused on the eradication of the psychological components that prevent an individual from becoming an arahat. Mahayanist philosophy enlarged that vision to include a wider, deeper world, full of Buddhas, bodhisattvas and magical beings.

Over the years since the death of Gautama, Buddhism had changed from bands of wandering ascetics to monastic communities.  As the meditation techniques of the early Buddhist world require much time and energy to perfect, they had become almost the sole purview of the monks (and a few nuns).  In fairness, there was a comfortable exchange going on as monks settled into monasteries in towns and villages.  In return for the support of the laity (food, clothing, housing) the monks became the wise counsellors, healers and teachers for the region in which they lived. This situation continues to the present day in some areas of the world.

During this ‘settling in’ period,  the ‘ third basket of teaching’, called ‘Abhidharma’ developed.  It is a highly codified set of observable ‘rules’ or ‘dharmas’ that were catalogued and hotly debated.  Buddhist teaching became a rather dry, intellectual, rational procession of scholarly debate.

Though lost in the mists of time, it seems clear that many practitioners must have realized that the teaching of the Buddhist philosophy had become too narrow and was not being offered to all people as a way out of suffering. The cracks began as early as the Second Buddhist Council, 100 years after the Buddha’s death.  These cracks were later to become the Mahayana, not as a codified rebellion but rather as a shift of view and a different emphasis on the teachings begun by the historic figure.

Perhaps Mahayana was also a response to a need to move back into a more poetic, heart centred and embracive philosophy. Certainly, texts of a different nature began to arise from all over the Buddhist world.  This transformational approach took place over a creative period of approximately 500 years.  Mahayana tradition says that this was teaching the Buddha had given to a few people who were capable of hearing it and preserved for a time when people were ready. There is a fundamental logic to this, which any parent can recognize.  We teach our children about life in varying degrees, according to their ability to comprehend and assimilate new and increasingly sophisticated information.

Many of the Mahayana texts come under the heading of ‘revealed teachings’. This idea can be hard for many in the West to conceive as legitimate, even though our own traditions have included ‘divine sourcing’ called divine revelation or even channeling to use the present day vernacular.

This developing body of text became part of a fundamental change in the view of the Buddha, from an historic figure to Buddha Nature, omnipresent and imminent.  ‘Buddha’ became transformed into a transcendent figure, a principle of Enlightened Energy, rather than just an historic figure. 

If a mystic could receive teaching through personal revelation, then Buddha Mind was available to all. Through the development of a cosmology of worlds upon worlds, many Buddhas could have appeared throughout time. The idea of the Three Bodies of Buddha came into being: Nirmanakaya, Sambhoghakaya, Dharmakaya. The historic Buddha had spoken of these things but they had largely been ignored in the development of early (Nikaya) Buddhist teaching. Perhaps these ideas also offered ways to explain the validity of the texts, which were now being written down.  The early oral tradition began to recede as written language came to the fore. What is intriguing about this mystery is that so many texts of similar type seem to have sprung up all within the same period of time.

Whatever the source, whether human or divine, the truth probably includes many points of origin, as Buddhism contains within it the ability, even the necessity, to morph its form according to the needs of a particular culture and a particular time.  It is this ability that causes consternation in the West, which wants to refer to Buddhism as a religion, rather than as a set of teachings, always being changed and altered as time, energy, creativity and circumstance require.

The new texts of the rising schools of Mahayana made two other important shifts in Buddhist philosophy, an emphasis on the role of the Bodhisattva and on the teachings of Sunyata. Both had been part of Theravadin oral tradition but not particularly emphasized.  In Theravadin terms, a person was destined to live many, many years as a Bodhisattva before developing enough merit to become a Buddha.  The Jataka Tales are the stories of these different lives of the Buddha, prior to his awakening.  Sunyata (Emptiness, insubstantiality, or transparency) was more closely defined in early Buddhist teaching to relate to the constituents of personhood, and a close examination of the skandhas would be the study that would lead to this understanding.

In Mahayana, these two ideas of the Bodhisattva ideal and Sunyata took on much more importance. The idea that the Buddha spoke of:  that all beings could awaken, began to take on more emphasis.  At their core, every being was seen to have Buddha Nature; that nature is obscured by a fundamental ignorance that we are separate and discrete entities.

The alchemical idea that one cannot know what is completely unknown helps us to understand this concept. As the hindrances drop away, a person comes not only to see him/herself truly as a transitory set of assumptions and molecules (the skandhas) but also to see how deeply things are interpenetrated with other things, thoughts, ideas, etc. By removing greed, hatred and ignorance, the person’s true nature or Buddha nature begins to shine forth.  Love and compassion are seen as intrinsic to this nature.


By discovering how fluid and essentially un-fixed the ‘self’ is, a meditator begins to understand that s/he is continuously interacting with others and with the world.  The chain of cause and effect is continuous and so the truth that we are all interblended with each other and with the world dawns upon us.  In short, we ‘inter-are’ as Thich Nhat Hanh points out.  Not only are we continuously affected by other people and the environment but we are responsible for the on-going effect of all our thoughts, words and actions. Modern scientists who speak about global responsibility and physicists who speak about quantum theory offer their confirming perspective to this theory.

A meditator can, however, have a direct experience of this interaction between themselves and nature’s workings.  Though it involves what we might call ‘magical sight’ it is an experience that fundamentally changes the way a person views herself and her relationship to the world.

By direct perception, then, a person can come to recognize that it is impossible to awaken without working to benefit others and thus the Bodhisattva as the proclaimed ideal is born.  In this important shift, a person takes a vow to continue to return to form (usually taken as human, though not necessarily so) lifetime after lifetime, until all beings have awakened.  As this idea of ‘beings’ includes all animals, birds, reptiles and anything else deemed as sentient, the scope of this vow is nearly overwhelming.

Perhaps to counter this overwhelming task, the teachings of the Paramitas came to prominence with their emphasis on a way of living that teaches this important path of connectedness yet allows a person to commence immediately.  It is interesting to note that within the Mahayana literature, laypeople come more to the fore with offerings of tremendous wisdom, the Vimalakirti Sutra being one of them.



Another major area of ‘difference’ or development in Mahayana is the shift to emphasize Sunyata.  The idea that there is no discrete, permanent self and the vivid, living understanding of that is the goal of the Theravadin view.  The result is a deep letting go of attachment to the things and goals of this world. Non-attachment to all that is human results, in Theravadin teachings  in full extinction at death. “Never again to arise into human form” is a phrase seen in the early Buddhist literature.  

A bodhisattva, by contrast, vows to continue to return until “all of Samsara is emptied.” He/she sees all things as having the same insubstantiality as his/her personhood.  Sunyata can be directly experienced in meditation but, upon return from such exalted states of meditation, a change in the person takes place.  The result is a transparency of view, feeling and presentation of self and other that is fluid, creative and ever evolving. 

By “not attaching to anything whatsoever.” (Atisha) a feeling of freedom from greed, hatred and ignorance arises.  The devotee becomes a renunciate of a different sort, i.e. he/she renounces fixed view and can walk in the world without fear or favour. However, she/he always walks with the understanding of full connectedness to all creation, people, animals, birds, plants, trees, etc. The responsibility to always try to help others out of suffering actually increases.

How this is done is the work of the bodhisattva, under the discipline of right view, right understanding and right effort as well as fully developing the Paramitas.  To operate without self-regard becomes the most important undertaking for such a person. Once he/she lets go of the drive to awaken self, and sees awakening as an interactive event, the world becomes the precious ground on which we walk, hand in hand with others.

In this second turning of the wheel, it matters less whether or not a person is a monk or a lay person but rather whether they have put in the work to experience the way in which reality is seen to actually work. Enlightenment becomes less important than living according to the precepts and the development of sila (wholesome moral conduct) and samadhi (extensive development of meditation, through both tranquillity and insight practices) which lead us to panna. The path of the Paramitas becomes the way of walking and the Lojong training elucidated by Geshe Chekawa (1102-1176) a way of reminding us day by day how to life an awakened life.



A Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life – by Shantideva

The Seven points of Mind Training – by Geshe Chekawa

The Diamond Sutra, “Transforming the Way we Perceive the World” by Mu Soeng

Entering the Stream, “An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings”, ed. Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn

The Vision of Buddhism, Roger J. Corless