Monday, December 20, 2010

Are You Ready for the Truth?

One of the first things we were taught in the Intro to Zen Meditation class at the Zen Center was the two types of Zen meditation.  I've found "types" to not be a very accurate word to use, when we're letting whatever happens happen, the two can arise on their own, sometimes at the same time. I guess "effects" may be more appropriate, but I don't make the rules...

But anyway, these two types are insight and calming/relaxing.  The first involves the dissolution of delusions, allowing us to see reality for what it really is.  This may be about the interconnectedness of everything, the reality of the causes of suffering, or the impermanence of everything; which together are referred to as the Three Marks of Existence in Buddhism.

However, without a calm, relaxed mind we won't be to experience this insight.  Calmness and relaxation also allow us to remain upright physically, mentally and spiritually.

So these ideas hung around me for the better part of a year, occasionally surfacing with some meaning but usually not much impact.

A few months ago, I participated in a retreat and one of the themes that arose during the dharma talk was this twofold aspect of zazen and things clicked a little more for me.

If we don't relax, we may still experience the insight, but it can frighten or upset us.  The Truth can be cold and uncaring if we're not ready to see it even if it is for our own good.  I think that this potential is greatest observed in those who pursue spiritual awakening with psychotropic experimentation or any sort of short cut "enlightenment now" methods.  The same things are experienced but without the spiritual discipline provided by long training the event can be damaging.  The Truth can be heavy; you don't just walk into a gym and try to bench press the heaviest weight in the room with no training.  The Truth can crush you in the same way.

So in my head, this all made sense.  Even in experience some light was shone.  But only recently have I been able to observe how I've experienced how all of this ties together.

Our delusions are like toys, as Uchiyama Roshi put it.  They distract us from reality.  Practicing zazen allows us to loosen our grip on those toys so that when we see them for what they really are, we'll be comfortable letting go.  We invest a lot in our delusions, sometimes thinking them as the only things we really have.  Like babies, we hold on to them with all of our might.  Sometimes Life comes along and wrenches them out of our hands and we panic and cry out in fear.

Sometimes though, babies let go of their toys and they fall aside on their own either because something new comes along or they relax.  In the same way we deal with our delusions.  The best of the two options being when we relax and realize we don't need that particular delusion any more.  For me these usually happen in "ah-ha" moments.  Something clicks inside me and I realize the truth behind my thought.  Realizing the truth that a particular koan points to is a good example.  Everything just falls into place and makes sense.

Other times my reaction is more emotional than a eureka moment.  The realization can cause my heart to break a little and I tear up.  These experiences are on the border of readiness between overdue and completely comfortable, and being unprepared for such deep insight.

Staring into the dark, the light may shine on small truths we've already felt with our hands; knowing their identities before the light goes on.  Other times it shines on things that have brushed against our leg.  Our other senses have given us ideas about its identity, but still unsure, the sudden light frightens us.  The truly frightening is when all the lights go on to reveal to us things unimagined and thus thoroughly not understood staring us in the face with all its glory.

So with zazen, we feel around in the dark and our experiences are flashes of light illuminating the truth.  Sometimes we see and understand, sometimes we don't.  Other times it catches us off guard, but no matter what, if we're serious about finding the real Truth we must relax our grip and let go of our fantasies and delusions about what joys and horrors are out there so that we will acknowledge it when it shows itself.  It's always there just waiting for us to enter the endless Dharma gates.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Acceptance is More Than Just Unconditional Passivism

So I've heard the argument against Buddhism stated that we just accept the negative and look the other way.  This is usually said when others are being critical of a lack of social action or political action from Buddhists.

Personally, I am not yet at a place in my life where I have the resources for such work, but I can't speak for others.  Over the past several months there's been a lot of discussion over the appropriateness of "socially engaged" Buddhism.  While I don't see just being Buddhist as a reason to engage in organized societal change, I do agree that Buddhism does encourage us to be a positive influence in the world.

But that's not what this post is about.  Instead this is partially a response to that initial criticism, but mostly it's a clarification of what the concept of "acceptance" in Zen really means.

A lot of people hear "acceptance" and they think just sitting back and letting whatever happen happen.  This is not always a live-and-let-die attitude.  Sometimes acceptance is about dealing with a situation that presents itself.

Sometimes these situations are pleasant and easy to accept.  At those times we don't have to do anything.

But sometimes we're faced with a difficult struggle.  Critics would assume we just throw our hands up and accept the bad news.  And we can.  If that's all we want from life.

The appropriate action is to face the truth, question if we have the ability to affect change and make it happen if we can.

One way this has manifested in history is Zen's influence on the samurai class in feudal Japan and its legacy of bushido and martial arts.

The Rinzai Zen master Takuan Soho counseled two of the most famous swordsmen in Japanese history, Miyamoto Musashi and Yagyu Munenori.  Records of his teachings can be found in The Unfettered Mind, a collection of instructions Takuan sent as letters.  Zen teachings on how to be a better swordsman.

Sounds pretty contradictory, doesn't it?  Buddhism is portrayed as peace loving pacifism, but Zen at least is not so black and white.

If someone threatens your life, you have the right to defend yourself with up to and including lethal force.  Yes, there are repercussions for such actions and you may possibly go to prison, but if someone intends to kill you, they may have already killed or will kill others in the future so just letting them cut you down doesn't mean you're just giving your life out of "compassion" by not taking theirs.  It's doubtful they'll feel remorse and change their ways.  In the moment, you don't have time to make that decision though. The best you can do is avoid being presented with such situations.

He says that we don't even have a gap the width of a hair between intention and action, but other times our actions do not require such immediate action.

A good example that I'm faced with right now is that of finding a job.  You always turn in the application, they say they'll call you and then you wait.  Sometimes you feel like you're waiting too long.  You're faced with the dilemma of did you fall through the cracks or was their answer "no." 

You could just accept the latter, or you could accept the situation as a challenge and find out for sure.  In the moment, all you have is a simple decision: follow up or let it go.  There should be no worry or speculation, just find out.  The first is what others think acceptance means, the second is what it means in the context of Zen.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes concerning situations like this attributed to Shantideva, an 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar and author of Bodhicaryavatara, or Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life:
If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you cannot solve it, then what is the use of worrying?
 It's good advice. Just do it or don't, but either way let it go and move on.

Monday, December 13, 2010

"Are You Even Listening?!" usually a sign that communication is not going so well.  To communicate effectively you must keep your attention on the other party until the communication is over.

This is another one of those common sense things we should all know, but like a wonderful tool just lying out in the open for all to see, until it was pointed out by something I learned over the weekend with Ikeda Sensei, I hadn't noticed the power of its truth.

As I stated here, musubi is an Aikido concept that involves making a connection with your attacker.   In communication skills, it can represent making a personal connection like assimilating another's goals or ideas as your own to reach an amicable resolution.

In Aikido, we do this by connecting with our attacker.  Essentially we give back just enough force to combine our center of gravity with theirs so that we function as a single mass.  Ikeda Sensei referred to this as a "tightness."  It's not pushing with force and even calling it resistance is inappropriate, it stops just shy of that amount of energy.  Rather than absolute yielding or resistance, it's more of a "hi, there.. I am here, but don't mind me" feeling. He was able to demonstrate this by taking someone's balance with only a rubber band connecting the two of them. Too much energy and he would have broken the rubber band. Once this connection is made, our mass functions as one and we're able to move the mass of "ourself" like a tugboat pushing around a barge.

In my previous post, and in my practice itself, I hadn't realized how absolutely necessary it is to maintain that original connection throughout the entire technique.  Even to lose the initial connection and establish a second isn't correct.  The initial connection must be maintained all the way through.

I learned that the term musubi refers a knot tied in rope.  Two different things tied together; bonded to become one inseparable unit.  If you're mountain climbing, you can't untie the knot that's holding your weight and retie it.  You have to keep that knot tied the whole time or you'll fall.  The same is true with musubi and Aikido technique.

So when we're dealing with people in everyday life, we must maintain our attention while communicating.  You may be able to break and return in casual conversation, but the more serious it gets the more important it is to be constant.  Obviously, someone attacking you is serious, so attention must be absolute.  In Aikido we do this not only with our minds but, now I've learned, that it applies to our bodies as well.

That's all fine and dandy if everything continues in more or less the same direction, but also as I've stated before, one of the ways we move our opponents around is by changing direction to cause them to overcompensate.  So how do we maintain pressure when doing this?

Circles and waves.  Essentially they're the same thing, look at the relationship between what sine and cosine really represent and then how their function is graphed on a Cartesian plane.  The path of effort never reverses at a sharp point, but flows gradually into the reverse.  This is how we maintain pressure and it was a powerful eyeopener to feel it click physically rather than just floating around in my head as an intellectual idea.

As beginners the frequency (in a technical way) of the waves and, in the same way, the radius of our circles are large because we're clumsy.  Toys for toddlers are over sized in the same way because they lack the finer motor skills to manipulate fine objects.  Internalized practitioners like Ikeda Sensei have reduced these to such small distances, that they're no longer observable outside the system.  All it takes is the slightest wave of his center of gravity because he's trained his body to transfer that energy with an unbelievable efficiency.*

Likewise in more objective communication, we must lead each other around smoothly without great leaps in subject. This is what I've been trying to do here. I've been oscillating between the topics of personal and physical communication this whole time.  What decides the frequency of the waves or the radius of the circle of me coming back to one or the other is how close our shared understanding of the subject matter is.  As I progress I'm trying to make it closer and closer, bringing the two ideas together until the difference, while still there, is imperceptible.

*It really boils down to relaxing the body.  The body is the medium the wave travels through.  If we are too tense, the wave dissipates quickly so we must generate a wave with higher amplitude and a greater period to accomplish the same effect.  Most of us are more like molasses but Ikeda Sensei's body moves like water so he needs very little energy and physical movement.  It's an amazing sensation to experience firsthand but it really does look fake when you see it.  This is what esoteric texts refer to as using ki or ch'i that is so heavily criticized as imaginary by skeptics.  For this reason Ikeda Sensei avoids these terms because of the preconceived notions others have about them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

You Can Only Change Yourself

Day one of our 2nd (annual? with fingers crossed) seminar with Shihan Hiroshi Ikeda and this is one of the things I'm walking away with: "you can't change others, only yourself."

Ikeda Sensei's specialty is internal work and he's known for this even outside of Aikido circles.  Internal techniques involve externally unobservable changes made in the dynamic between two people and Aikido would not work without it.  In my experience, it has mostly to do with the power of the mind expressed through an intention, usually referred to esoterically as ki or ch'i.  From the outside it looks fake, but only after you've been on the receiving end yourself does the magic become real.  Many of us were lucky enough to be exposed to this last year but it was so new we had no idea what was really going on.  With a year's time to work with it, the things he says and demonstrates make more sense quicker.

Like everything else in Aikido, this message functions on many levels even if it was only presented as a guideline fundamental for physical technique.  In context, he was telling us when faced by a physically stronger opponent, we can't move them.  The only way to exert our will is for us to move ourselves, and if we're successful in making a connection, they will follow.

Out of the context of physical confrontation, taken into everyday life, this is a powerful lesson.  In Zen we see it pop up quite often.  We can only hope to control ourselves, if we're able to control anything.

My Aikido teacher reminds us often that the first step in self defense is defending us from ourselves, echoing the same idea.

In Zen, we accept that the world around us exists, but that it is devoid of meaning until we fill it up with our ideas.  Most of this is unconsciously done with pieces of our lifetime's worth of experiences fit together like a puzzle.  The purpose of Zen practice is to tame the unconscious so that we can choose how we define the world around us.  By changing our outlook, we change ourselves and thus the world not only for ourselves, but in a smaller way for everyone else who feels the consequences of our actions.

The Mahayana perspective is that of saving all sentient beings along with ourselves, but we have to straighten out our own mess first.  By doing this we make the world a better place, doing just what we can is all we can do.  In its outward form, Aikido is about fixing the mess of someone wanting to hurt us.  On a subtler level it's about resolving the conflict with another by acknowledging we are not the omniscient and omnipotent center of the universe; we must humble ourselves to get what we want.  In reality this manifests in both Zen and Aikido (as philosophy) in the fact that if we let the ego run untamed, we will always be in conflict with the universe.  To change the external, we must start with what have and change the internal.

And just as in both Aikido and Zen, the work is never done.  Every new situation will suggest excuses to us, "he told me this," "I got stuck in traffic," "I didn't know," "but she started it.." Changing the self requires constant effort because the self is not static, each moment is completely new.  Sure, we have habits and patterns, but that is all they are; there will always be anomalies.  And just like genetic mutations, if left unchecked, they will spiral out of control until we don't recognize our own behavior any more.

So instead of letting blame slide, don't let yourself be the victim.  Change what you can: yourself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Form and Emptiness of the Teacher/Student Relationship

According to tradition, the "proper" way to become a student of Zen after finding a teacher is to present him or her with a small gift and formally request to be his or her student (I guess "traditionally" it would have only been "him" and "his," but whatever).  Being a sucker for traditions, I couldn't allow myself to proceed any further in my studies, especially as I approach closer to receiving the Precepts, without doing this.  I don't know how far this practice will take me, but I don't want to break with tradition.

So I did this yesterday.

During dokusan, I presented my teacher a small memento of a powerful experience that I had had many years ago and asked to be her student.  I was of course accepted, since this is essentially a formality and I had already been her student for some time.

There is no way of me knowing how common this practice is in my sangha, let alone in the world today.  I consider this practice to be more a cultural thing; a holdover from different times when becoming a student was an absolute thing where the request was akin to signing a lease to live in a monastery.  In today's world people wear many hats and dropping in on a teacher every once in a while is more the accepted practice.  Here in the United States, as Zen is still finding its identity, our American practices do not expect such a formal request.  For many people, even just the need for a teacher isn't all that strong. I wouldn't have known about this formality if I hadn't read about it in some books.  It doesn't really matter to me whether any of my fellow students have done this at all, but I felt it was right for me.

So what's the big deal?  I was already a student, why make the request and present a gift?

The relationship between student and teacher is just as empty as anything else.  This doesn't mean that it doesn't matter, but that it's like a bucket labeled "teacher/student relationship."  It has no fundamental definition.  Until we put our own thoughts and feelings as to what it means to us, the bucket remains empty.  Until now, my bucket held the idea that here was a person dedicated to spreading the Dharma and saving all beings living a vow to help anyone asking for it.  We were fellow travelers on the road and I was being offered advice.

To me the gift represents the idea that this request is more than just a verbal thing.  It shows a higher level of commitment. Time and effort were spent pondering it and I am giving something of myself to this relationship.  The formal request is just as symbolic.  To surrender to the idea of needing help to walk the path is humbling.  To make this request to a teacher is to both admit your own humility but to also acknowledge your worthiness of pursuing the path.  Until we can do both things we will never quite arrive at our destination.

With this formal acceptance, my bucket holds some new ideas.  My actions signal my commitment to the path and that I don't intend to just wander off.  Because of this, a new intimacy exists.  While I still consider my teacher as a fellow traveler, I now fully acknowledge her as one who has "gone before"* and I will wholeheartedly follow her lead.  More than just pointing her finger to the truth for me to see, I have given her my hand so that she may point my own finger. 

Our origins are different so in places the route will be completely different.  Where it's the same, the road may have changed a little since she passed through. While my exact destination may differ, the direction is the same and I am one step closer to getting there.

*a rough translation of sensei

Monday, December 6, 2010

Incomparable Acceptance

As I wait for the lessons sown during last week's Rohatsu Sesshin to sprout and poke through in my mind, I'll visit an important lesson from a couple months ago: while they can have their purposes, comparisons are empty.

A good place this pops up is during warm up stretching for Aikido.  We all have different body types and flexibility so my teacher always reminds us to not compare ourselves with others; just focus on stretching.  It does no good to compare whether we can touch our hands to our toes, elbows to the floor or whatever.  Our effort is to stretch and that is its own benefit.

Usually she points out that if we push ourselves, that stretching that far will never be that painful again.  Each time it will just get easier.  Ideally this is true if we do it everyday, because our muscles will have stretched, resetting their maximum length.  I find this false though, it's not enough to not compare ourselves with others, we shouldn't even compare ourselves with ourselves.  Frequently I'll have days when I'm tighter than I have been before and I can't quite reach as far as I could last time.  If I get caught up in thinking I should be able to go further, I could hurt myself.

Applied to my Zen practice, this came up in dokusan.  I was mildly annoyed that after a wonderful progression of improvement in my sitting, I was having a spell of difficulty focusing during zazen.  Doing the natural thing, I questioned it and examined it to discover what this meant.  The obvious intellectual conclusion is that I just have to let the results be the results with acceptance and continue my effort.

In my mind, I "know" that the path is what matters and not the goal; that it's about the effort I expend not the results.  This situation made me realize the truth of this, but I have yet to actualize it.

It makes no sense to compare the practice of this moment with that of a past moment when each exists completely independently of each other.  There's no way to take two moments, set them side by side and critically compare them any more than its possible to take two persons' minds and compare their activities side by side.  Any former perception of past results is altered by time; it's no longer real like the present.

We practice zazen to cultivate many things.  The Six Paramitas do a good job of summing them up: generosity, ethics, patience, enthusiastic perseverance, concentration, and wisdom.  Acceptance and discipline are a couple more that fit in there, too.

We plant the various seeds with our daily life in the soil of our very being. Our practice is the sunlight and nourishment that encourages their growth.  We can't pull on the sprouts to make them grow faster.  Neither can we neglect one in favor of another.

When we struggle with our practice, these virtues are starving. The extra effort we put forth is needed to wring out the sustenance they need; it doesn't just pour easily from the watering can.

Sure we can kick back and take it easy, the virtues might grow on their own but they're just as likely to shrivel up and die.  Besides, what's the point of cultivating a harvest if we don't even care enough to make it is as bounteous as possible?

So accept life's ups and downs, do your best in the moment because that is all that matters.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ecstacy and the Mediocrity Principle

There is a principle in science that says that no place in the universe is any different than any other place.  This "Mediocrity Principle" has had powerful implications through the centuries.  Its weightiest application is that Earth is not special in giving rise to and sustaining life; that because the Earth isn't special life can exist elsewhere.

Furthermore this principle can be extended to the "Temporal Mediocrity Principle," stating that no time is any different than any other.  For those of us trying to live in the moment, this should be somewhat comforting; science backing up our beliefs.

Where this can get tricky is that the implication of each space or moment being no different is no more or less special than any other.  Any sort of special experiences such as enlightenment, satori, kensho, or even ecstasy exist in a moment and that moment, no matter how mind blowing it is, is still just a moment. So when something "special" happens we may get hung up on the circumstances of its causes or effects.

Since these experiences, being special, are not all the time happenings,what good does this serve us?  Why does it matter that every moment is the same as every other moment, and is it really even true?  Mediocrity isn't even all that cool.  It's mediocre.

Obviously we experience moments to be different, otherwise this would just be common sense.  So what makes this so, what's the variable?  We are what makes each moment different than others.  Each moment arrives waiting for us to assign values to it.  Not every moment is a blank canvas, sometimes life throws us some pretty tricky situations, but we still determine what it means to us.

Usually this process is unconscious.  Situations arise and our experiences tell us what to think about them.  Zen training helps us take control of that though.

We develop our minds to take charge over the unconscious mind.  We tame the unconscious so that it can no longer drag us and our emotions and thoughts all over.  Using the five skandhas as windows to examine the emptiness of each moment, we can use our conscious thoughts to fill them up with whatever emotions we want.  Left to its own devices, the unconscious will play the game according to the ego's rules.  Because the ego's deluded, this usually leads to suffering.  By taking control, we change the rules and the outcome.

A lot of times, people, especially spiritual gurus, harp on this.  The problem is that it has become buzz words that are left unexplained unless you pay whatever sum they ask to find out how.  But it's nothing special.  Buddhists have been spreading this idea for more than 2500 years.  The book I've been reading, Just Use This Mind, is built upon it with "change your mind, change your life" as its slogan.

As I prepare for Rohatsu Sesshin, I have an exciting and unbelievably boring adventure ahead of me.  I know it will be challenging, but in surrendering my freedom, I'm freeing myself to experience something special.  If I sit with escape on my mind, I'll miss out on what I can experience each moment.

There will be boredom, there may be powerful experiences.  I don't know, and won't know until each moment arrives.  All I have to do is keep these principles at hand.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Epic Fail

Now that I've got the posting of my interview taken care of, I've got a lot of catching up to do.  Last weekend we had guests from several places come to stay at the Zen Center for a priest ordination.  They had to eat, so I answered the call to prepare a few meals for guests and residents.

In the almost twenty years that I've been cooking, half of that professionally, I've never cut myself with knife anything more than a scratch.  So within fifteen minutes of prepping for breakfast I dragged my knife across the tip of my finger, cutting deep. Of all the places and times for it to happen, it happened at the Zen Center, where cooking is emphasized as mindful practice. I'm professionally trained in various knife skills and even I managed to cut myself just slicing apples.  I wouldn't necessarily call it hubris, I was still being careful, but my mind drifted.  This served as a painful reminder that it doesn't matter how experienced you are, you always have to pay attention to what you're doing.

I disrespected my knife by not giving it my full attention and it bit me.

Knowing that the painful lessons are the ones that we're most likely to remember, I think (hope) that I learned my lesson.  A few days later as I was watching it heal, I wondered if it would leave a scar.  I've never been one for battle scars from the kitchen as many line cooks are, but I thought a permanent mark might be fitting as a reminder to remain present while cooking.

The thought of scarred fingers took me a few digits over to a mark on my index finger about an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide with three pairs of dots along side.  This is an old scar from my childhood that resulted from some poorly thought out creativity.

I used to make all kinds of things from the cardboard that came in my dad's laundered work shirts.  On this occasion I was trying to poke a hole in a piece with one blade of a pair of scissors.  I was successful in making the hole, but on the other side was the gap between my index and middle finger.  The gap wasn't wide enough for the blade to miss slicing my finger.

At first I thought it was just a scratch... until I moved the cardboard away.  There was so much blood!  Before my mind could make sense of it, there was blood all over the desk where I was sitting.  I'm not sure if it actually hurt as much as I thought it did at the time, but seeing that much of my own blood incited panic.

This happened at the school where my mom was teaching at the time, on the day before school started.  I know that she was in a meeting, but I don't remember all of the details between seeing the blood and sitting in the trauma room at the ER other than the pain and terror.  By the time the doctors came in to stitch me up, it'd worn off.  I don't remember if it still hurt, but I'd calmed down and was hoping it wasn't going to require stitches.

The cut was deep.  When the bleeding slowed and they cleaned the wound I could see through the layers of skin into the meat.  The doctors decided to skip injecting the local anesthetic and just poured it right in, saving me the added trauma before the sutures. 

Without the pain as a distraction, it had become a learning experience for me.  How often do you get closer than front row seats to a finger getting stitched back together?  It was interesting and made for a great story on the first day of school back from summer vacation.  Plus, on the way home from the hospital all I could think about was the sight of some poor second grader showing up for the first day of class to a dried pool of blood on his desk and floor.  (I was told later that it had been cleaned up shortly after we'd left for the hospital.)

It's weird how life teaches us lessons.  We're always supposed to learn from our mistakes and sometimes we do, but other times the point just doesn't get driven home enough.  Sometime life uses erosion and slowly etches the lesson in over time, but other times it cuts right to the chase and splits us right open.

I'm not sure if my recent cut will leave a scar, so its lesson may come and go.  What I do know is that I've sure watched where my fingers are before poking a blade through an object over the last twenty some years. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Interview With a Zen Master, Part 2

Here is the second half of my interview with Venerable Master Miao Tsan.  I asked him some more specific questions about Zen but there are foot notes at the end.  I touched on some of the subjects briefly, some of them I've mentioned here before, but there is a wealth of information about them on the internet as well.

Before I get into the rest of the interview, I'd like to thank some of the people who helped make this happen.  The people at Bright Sky Press and their promoters: Lucy, Susan and Monica. The Golovines for hosting the Master and logistics for more than just my interview.  Richard whose presence during the interview was comforting and Kate for the heads up to us on the initial event.
But anyway, the rest of the interview:

I have been a scholar of Buddhism, mostly Zen, for nearly ten years.  Only in the last year have I begun sitting zazen and it has opened up more about me to my self than the previous ten.  What advice and reasoning do you have to give to those who study without practice to begin meditation or mind training? What benefits to have to offer for those that begin a spiritual practice?

I think at first we can deal with our negative habits.  In this world people think that this is negative habits, first people need to give that up. Then second we can try some meditation. Third if you can be able to be aware of your own thoughts, gradually you have control of your own thought and every single thought it is created by our selves.  If we don’t even know that we are creating the thought, it means unconsciously there are no thoughts leading us to nowhere. If you can be aware of your thought this is very important.  How can you make this happen? Meditation first and then quit the negative habits. Sometimes you can read some books. Probably, for my own idea, I am a Zen practitioner, so I can read some articles from the Zen Patriarchs. They guide you how to realize your own mind. They guide you to know how a practitioner can really practice in daily life. Quit negative habits and then be aware of your own thoughts, meditate and read some articles related to your practice.

I’ve often found that the meditation has allowed me to step back from the cycle of thoughts and so you don’t get caught up in the thoughts.  It’s a very useful tool in realizing your own habits and that you may not be able to change the habits immediately but as soon as you recognize them it becomes easier.

Yes, the moment when you can be aware of your own thought, you start to change that. You are not following the thought.  In everyday life whenever a thought pops up in our minds, most of the time we follow it. So when we are meditating, we focus on the method.  When the thought pop up we call it wandering thought because we don’t want that to happen. So we just ignore them.  Gradually they lose their power. So the more we generate the same thought, the more powerful the thought becomes.  So it is ourselves who gives the wandering thought power.  It’s become our habit.  So the moment we can be aware of the thought, the thought loses its own power a little bit.  So gradually our mind becomes more calm.

One of the first experiences I had with that was the pain in the legs when you sit...

*Laughs* Yes

... and acknowledging it as pain and that it’s not going anywhere until you go somewhere but that you’re not going to go somewhere yet.  That you just acknowledge it for what it is and then it has no strength.  After that realization a lot of other things in my life have become habits that have disappeared because I stopped giving them power over me.

Yes, yes, that’s right.

Monday night, you emphasized that the world that we live in is a product of our minds; that our minds control our experience of the world.  Many people are so conditioned to believe that the world exists in spite of them, that they have trouble seeing this.  You also emphasized that the mind has no form, which is a reference to the Heart Sutra1, a very Zen teaching that denies the fundamental independent nature of existence.  It is a paradox that emphasizes the non-duality of the universe that can't be truly understood intellectually.  I'm curious to know your personal experiences with the Heart Sutra and what it has taught you.  It seems to be an important touch stone for many Zen practitioners, would you mind sharing a little?

Heart sutra is more like the heart is 100 percent of what I call the mind.  That’s a translation idea.  You can call the Heart Sutra the “Mind Sutra.” They’re the same.  So actually the heart is 100 percent equal to the idea of the mind.  The Heart Sutra focuses on realizing the mind. Mind has no form.  Whenever existence is there, there is the mind. So existence and essence never can be separated.  Just like when you hear this sound: *clap*  The ability with which you can hear the sound can never separate it from this sound: *clap*.  But how can you show me the ability?  *clap* you can hear. This sound you can hear. You realize the knowing is there, the knowing comes from within.  It’s not coming from the ear or the brain; it’s coming from the ability of the mind.2 So if we can realize this, our mind has no form.   

Whenever the phenomena is there, the creation of the phenomena includes your thought, your physical body and the whole environment.  The whole relationship, they are one, they cannot be separated. If you can realize this then you realize where the mind is.  Thought is creation, it’s one little portion of our mind.  People can learn to realize this concept. So skillful means is to say “if you change your thought, you change your direction, you change your life” It’s skillful means to say this.  It’s because when your mind has different function, different way, or different direction, if you have your mind functioning in a different way you have a different thought, a different manifestation.  So whenever your thought is different, phenomena is different.  Thought itself is part of the phenomena; physical body is part of phenomena which is manifested by mind. So actually mind has no form, if you realize this you achieve enlightenment.  You can say “one is all”, non-duality, because your thought, physical body and environment are one, they are inseparable.  So I think the main part of the Heart Sutra is to tell us this.

The first [word of the Heart Sutra]: “Avalokiteshvara: [the Bodhisattva of Compassion], the Bodhisattva’s name already tells you everything.  If you realize the Bodhisattva’s name you realize the Heart Sutra because the Bodhisattva’s name is just like if I realize that my own existence in every single present moment is inseparable from everything.3  My mind manifests the oneness all the time, all the time it is inseparable.  Your thought, physical body, environment; they are together.  If you realize this, you are the Bodhisattva and you already are liberated from all the suffering.

I knew of three of the Four Great Bodhisattvas4: Avalokiteshvara or Kwan Yin, Ksitigarbha or Jizo, and Manjushri, but Samantabhadra [Bodhisattva of Great Action, representing the embodiment of Buddhist philosophy through the action of practice] was the one that I didn’t know.  Once I knew the purpose of Samantabhadra, what it represents of the Four Vows of the Bodhisattva5...  it was no longer something abstract. That to become the Buddha’s Way is to become the Buddha. In sitting in meditation, that’s what happens, you become no different than the Buddha.  That as soon as you realize this you are no longer separate.

To become a Buddha, I tell students this, self awareness makes you a Buddha not the meditation or ritual practice. Self awareness makes you a Buddha.  When someone can manifest the functions, the pure functions without distortion, without attachment, when someone’s mind can manifest the mind itself, its functions and abilities, the person becomes a Buddha.  We can divide the functions into four portions.  One we call compassion (Kwan Yin), one we call wisdom (Manjushri), one we call the vow of patience and learning (Jizo) and one we call the Magnificent Manifestation ability (Samantabhadra). Once the person can manifest his own purity in mind, the person becomes a Buddha, 100%.  So we are not pursuing to become a Buddha, the way to become a Buddha is the way to purify our minds; to get rid of all the pollutions of mind.

..Because the desire to become a Buddha gets in the way

It’s an outgoing thing, it’s not right.

The first of your two final comments Monday night was that you wanted people to remember that you wear black and that you are a monk.  To me this highlighted the nature of the answers you gave to the questions asked.

Yes *laughs again*

They fit the form that my mind has taken from my study of Zen so I understood them well. I have the tools to understand what you’re talking about.   I have a context in which to place them and am used to listening to the way monks speak.  I've learned to look to where the finger points rather than at the finger itself and I think that a lot of people there were stuck looking at the finger.

Yes, yes...

So I realized this and it caused me to want to try and see it from the beginning again. I found myself trying giving up that form, to listen with a "beginner's mind," as Suzuki Roshi puts it, to try and stop having preconceived notions,  to try and identify with the way others around me understood your words.

One of the metaphors that I like is that teachers can only point at the truth; we have to find it ourselves.  I came up with the metaphor of two people bird watching.  The teacher has spotted the bird and points while the student desperately tries to follow the teacher's guide to see it as well.  The difference of their perspective makes it difficult for the student to see it for themselves, even if they are looking right at it. Sometimes they don’t recognize it because they think that it’s supposed to look like something else.  A lot of that has to do with perspective.  With the difference of your perspective as a Chinese monastic, how do you think that affects your ability to teach those with such a different perspective, that of an everyday American?

First we need to realize the truth.  We can think, we have actions, then we have a result.  It doesn’t matter if the ability is coming from God, your Buddha nature or your mind it doesn’t matter. We’ll put this concept aside. You can think, this is the truth.  You have a physical body, this is truth.  You live in society, this is truth.  How can you make yourself become better a person?  How can you really live with happiness?  This is the real issue. So I think everyone should think about this, how can you make this happen?  It doesn’t matter if God gives you the ability or if intrinsically you have it. You already have it and this is the truth.  How can you use this ability to make your life better?  This is the issue.  In order to uplift life, in order to use the ability to make your life better, you should be able aware of your own ability.  What is the ability and how is the ability working for you?  We should realize this.  This is every single person’s job, not just a practitioner’s.  If you want to make your life better you should realize who you really are, what can you do? Where are you?  Go back into the original place, go back to the truth. Then you know where you can start or restart to find the happiness.  This is not only for a practitioner or monk.  A monk is a person who becomes a monk and tries to have the role to play to pursue his own happiness.  A monk is a human being. It’s not like people think, that monastic practice belongs to a monk or something.  No, every person has the ability to make their lives better.  How can you use that to make your life better?  I think this is the real issue; it has nothing to do with the monastic or mundane.

The title I chose for my blog is starting with what you have and your book is called Just Use This Mind.  You also mentioned that we are all masters of ourselves.  This is a common theme in Zen:  that you don't need to have or do anything special to benefit from Buddhism.  Enlightenment is right in front of us, we just need to open our eyes.  So, obviously your book isn't telling people that they have to run off and join a monastery to live a Buddhist life.  My experience of Zen is almost exclusively that of American flavored Japanese Soto Zen and in that community the line between monasticism and lay practice is becoming blurred but it still exists.  What role do you see monasticism playing in the future of Zen in America?

I think first we should deliver the message widely, the right message, the right teaching widely.  Normally if you are monk, nun, or practitioner you can get the message in order to practice it right.  Nowadays, many practitioners come from a lot of different schools of Buddhism and schools of spirituality.  But I think it is really difficult to really understand the true meaning of mind or spirituality.  So first I think, deliver the right message in order for people to get it.  No matter if you are monastic or lay, if you practice it wrong, if you have the wrong understanding, it has nothing to do with if you are monk or lay person.  So the right message is much more important than monastic affairs or lay people’s daily life.  Right message, right understanding can lead people to liberation, freedom and happiness.  So first we should deliver this idea widely.  And second, it’s just as you sow, and water, if you plant a seed.  Whenever they come up, you just take care of it. It doesn’t matter if it is monastic or lay people. Just like if you are a farmer. You can’t focus on this is the seed I want.  No, you plant all the seeds, and whatever comes up you take care of them, you take care of all of them.

I guess the traditional model is that the monks practice and that’s all that they do. And that their practice is to benefit all people.  A lot of lay practitioners say that monks have it easy because they don’t have to deal with daily lives, family and all of that.  But if the monks didn’t exist they couldn’t teach.  Just as in a school a teacher may not practice in the world, but that they teach others to do so from their experience and learning.  So monks still need to exist because it’s not an overnight thing to learn; it does take a lot of time and dedication.

Yes, you have to give people an option, a different road to a place.  It’s just like spirituality is a journey, life is a journey.  In life you can change your job. In spirituality you can change your role to play, but the journey is there.  You want to become a monk to finish your journey, or want stay a lay person.  That is your option, just like you want to walk here or walk over there.  Do not take this too seriously; it’s a role to play to finish your journey.

I really enjoyed talking to you.

Thank you!

One of the things that my practice has really benefited me in is that I used to procrastinate a lot and make excuses to not do things.  I wasn’t very assertive.  I’ve surprised myself in getting here, to making this interview with you happen.  I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my life together and this practice had really helped bring it all together, so I really appreciate all those who try to spread this.  Thank you very much.

1 – “The Heart Sutra” – or “Heart of Perfect Wisdom” is a comparatively short statement in the form of a lecture by Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit. Kwan Yin, Chinese. Kannon, Japanese) the Bodhisattva of Compassion, to a disciple of the historical Buddha, Shariputra.  It’s topic is the emptiness of phenomena, but it basically denies, one by one, the main tenants of Buddhism holding only the practice of prajna paramita, or meditation as necessary for liberation from suffering.  Within the statement, form and emptiness are both equated and differentiated in an attempt to use dualistic language to present the non-dual and interconnected existence of the universe that can only be reached through practice, not intellectualization.

2 – this is in reference to the five skandhas, aggregates or heaps, that make up the mind. Through these five processes, we experience the world around us. In the Heart Sutra, Avalokiteshvara tells Shariputra that he saw the skandhas as empty while meditating.  I wrote about these here in the context of experiencing color as a colorblind person.  The Master is using our experience of sound here to illustrate this.

3 – My take on this is that when reading or reciting the Heart Sutra, our only focus should be on doing that.  We don’t need to get all the way through it before we experience its benefits, just presently experiencing the word “Avalokiteshvara” puts us in the mindset of the Buddha.  Doing this, there is no room to think about what’s for dinner or the person that cut you off in traffic.  I’ve come to understand this as the purpose for chanting as a Zen form. Content is a bonus, but intention and presence of mind is the practice.

4 - These are four anthropomorphizations of the attributes of compassion, wisdom, patience, and praxis or the applied practice of principles.  By definition a bodhisattva is an awakened being who stays in this world to help alleviate the suffering of others.

5 – These are:  “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.  Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.  Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them. Buddha’s way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.”  These four vows urge us be compassionate, exercise wisdom, be patient and see every moment’s potential to show us the Truth, and to apply our knowledge in practice so that we may see the world as the Buddha did and free ourselves and others from suffering.  They are impossible to fulfill, but our constant effort to uphold them is what is important.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Interview With a Zen Master

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Venerable Master Miao Tsan, abbot of Vairocana Zen Monastary in Garden Grove, California.  He is also the author of Just Use This Mind, a best selling book in China and Taiwan.  The Ven. Master was in town to promote the English translation of his book published locally by Bright Sky Press.

The main idea of the book takes the root truth that lies at heart of Zen which potentially exists at the heart of all faiths and philosophies: our world is made up of our habitual unconscious views.  Through active effort, we can change those habitual views to find happiness.  Avoiding Buddhist terminology wherever possible, Master Miao Tsan speaks not as a Zen Master, but as just a spiritual guide pointing us to this universal truth that he has found himself.

Andy and I were invited to attend a panel discussion the Monday night before I spoke with Master Miao Tsan, where I was first introduced to his views.  Between his many other speaking engagements during the week, he spared some time to sit down and answer a few of my questions.  

Here is the first half of the interview:

Buddhism and Zen in particular are very misunderstood in the West.  Speaking in front of such a large group of people who may be depending on you to clarify this misunderstanding, do you feel pressure? 

I think the first thing is, In Zen every single person possesses the mind.  And the mind is somehow like the person’s creator.  Every single person’s mind create everything, manifests everything. The moment when the mind is creating is the moment the mind is manifesting the reality or the phenomena, I think somehow it’s difficult for a Westerner because mind has no form. People can not imagine how a formless mind can manifest, can have the creativity.  I think this is the biggest idea; it is a very important idea in Zen practice.  I think in the west, people think Buddha is more like a creator, but Buddha is a role model for a Buddhist.  For a Buddhist I think this is the correct answer. It’s hard to accept it, the concept that mind has no form, mind manifests everything and every single person possesses the mind. 

There is often an assumption that Westerners have difficulty grasping Buddhism because it is a product of the East.  Do you find this to be true, or does that difficulty exist in the East as well?  Do you find the separation of who gets it easily versus who has difficulty a personal issue, or cultural? 

I think somehow some label it as a cultural issue, somehow you can say the essence of Buddhism, the essence of teaching has been structuralized and people put all the culture together and people put all the essence together. So nowadays I think that many teachers in order to deliver the essence, the message, to people through their own systems through their own structures. 

So many practitioners they have their own ideas. They need to learn the form and structure first and then get at the essence. I think somehow this has created more burden for practitioners, eventually.  For my ideas, Zen concept, Buddhism, the essence of Buddhism taught focus on the mind, every single person possesses the mind.  If you drop all the form, in west, everyone still can practice.  If you can be aware of your own thought, your own mind, be aware of your own action, this is true practice.  You can use your own thoughts to purify your own mind, everyone can do this.  Without through the forms you can practice. But sometimes form is needed, but it depends, it depends.  I think this is a very big problem because people attach to forms, without the forms they don’t know how to practice many practitioners think this way.  That’s why the culture shock of the forms blocks them away from the truth.

When I started practicing Zen, I started just for the meditation and I started going to the Houston Zen Center. They do also practice the forms of chanting and rituals. And at first they made me feel uncomfortable and eventually I just kind of accepted it. There’s a reason they’re doing this so I figured I'd find out why they’re doing this. 
Practice is important to me especially as a cook. Dogen zenji, the founder of the Soto lineage, wrote Instructions to the Cook (Tenzo Kyokun).  It shows how cooking can be practice, and that everything can be practice as well; that it’s not just sitting and that different forms of chanting and ritual are just an extension of how we practice. The forms are empty but that because we practice it develops things inside of us.
Yes, chanting and ritual practicing are like tools. But all the tools, all the material like Buddhism, no matter what kind of Buddhism: Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, no matter what kind of schools, they offer you other materials, they offer you a lot of ritual practice but no matter what type of Buddhism no matter what kind of ritual practice, there is only one purpose: “How can the person use the tool to purify his mind?” This is the only purpose.  If you are not focusing on this purpose everything becomes attachment, everything becomes inventions. Everything becomes the practitioner’s burden. 

While I'm looking forward to it, unfortunately, I have not yet read your book.  How would you summarize it for someone not sure about wanting to read it?
I’m not trying to make everyone become a Buddhist or become Zen practitioners, here I am trying to help people to realize themselves. So just like I mentioned if you realize yourself, you realize your life, you realize you mind, you are a true practitioner.  So I am here to share my message through the e book to share my message to the audience to the public.  In order to use the material from the book and benefit from the book they can practice themselves because every single person possesses the mind. Of course we can grasp at new materials and use those new materials to redirect our lives in a new direction.  I think this is the purpose.  I’m not here to convince everyone here to become a Buddhist, this is unnecessary and impossible. 

According to my book it says, every single person has his own definitions which are coming from his habitual thinking pattern of mind.  And every single person’s definitions or thinking patterns is not the truth, but the truth is that every single person can build his own habitual thinking patterns up can establish his own thinking pattern. No matter who you are you can never escape from ideas.  You have a mind, I have a mind.  Your mind generates the thoughts, my mind generates the thoughts. 
Once you form your pattern in mind, you can only have your mind operating through those patterns.  This is the principle.  You can apply this principle through your daily lives and do some adjustment of your thinking patterns in mind in order to manifest a better manifestation because our mind actually has no form. Every single person, modern person’s mind is operating through ego. Ego is the thinking pattern.  The ego is a term but not a thing. Actually ego is the combination of your thinking patterns. Once attachment occurs, appears, we call it ego appears. So ego is terminology only, ego is not a thing you can hold or see. 

When someone through his formless mind can generate his own thought and generate his own actual thinking pattern.  When he attaches to his own thought or thinking pattern, ego is there.  Ego is not a thing, not something to grasp. It is invisible.  So I think this is the principle I have people try to realize. Fundamentally you’re free without attachment to your own thought; thought is your own creation.  Thoughts come and go. Body comes and goes.  Energy comes and goes.  Form comes and goes.  Only the formless mind, the functions and abilities of the mind are always there. Everyone wonders, but there is no exception. 
I try to show this idea to people, in order to give them some idea.  You can operate your mind from the purity of your mind in order to manifest better phenomena. If you still have your mind operating through the thinking patterns, habitual thinking patterns, your life has been tied up by that. You don’t have the freedom. I try to share this idea to people.

I’ll have the rest posted later this week.  I talk a little shop with the Ven. Master and we throw around some Buddhist terms and references that I’ll do my best to explain in footnotes.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Prendre Plaisir à la Pure et la Simple

the echoing of the clacking of tires over the joints in an overpass from below

the feeling in my chest of the sound of a passing train

the smell of the air after rain on hot pavement

the salty taste of tears bringing me back to the present

the curious look of a small child looking back at me

the thought that all these are empty and transitory and still finding joy in them

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Size Matters Not

little things easier everyday
when will size
cease to matter?
I wrote this almost a year ago when I first started to reap the benefits of my practice.  I've always had issues with procrastination and avoiding certain situations.  Excuses came so easily that I accepted them before even realizing it was possible to reject them.

At this point I was finding little things around the house to be easier, but the big things were still giving me trouble.  Writing these simple pseudo-haiku were my first attempts at examining these thought patterns: the first step in making changes to them. You can't admit you have a problem until you realize the truth of the problem.
a simple difficult intention
i do what i can
or do i?
By this point, I'd begun to question the effort that I was putting towards pushing through difficult situations.
aversion is today's vice
it must dissolve
Despite my awareness and effort, I still had setbacks.  I shied away from situations rather than push through them.
the nail on the head
fear of surrendering freedom
next step?
This was an incredible breakthrough.  Now I was aware of why I didn't want to do many of the things I really needed to do to progress in life.  In my last post I admitted to running away from things that ranged from uncomfortable down to inconvenient.  This was because to do them meant giving up freedom.  Once I was in the situation, I just went with it.  Getting into it was a different thing.  Now that I knew what the problem was, I had to figure out what to do about it.

Continued practice was the answer and it has made a difference.

So what makes me bring this up now?

Something wonderful actually.

Monday night, I had the pleasure of attending a discussion at Rice University due to my involvement with writing for Bayou Buddhists on  The panel consisted most notably of the Venerable Master Miao Tsan, abbot of the Vairocana Zen Monastary in California.  He is publicizing the English translation of his best selling book Just Use This Mind.

The discussion itself was a wonderful experience, but when I found out that initially the potential for an interview had been offered, I jumped on it.

I've never conducted an interview like this before so I really didn't have any idea what I was doing or what I was getting into.  Sure, I listen to interview programs on public radio all the time so I know what the end result is like, but to birth it myself would be an undertaking.

I plowed right through it.  I came up with sample questions which I ended up actually using. I played the email game to work my way to the people who could make the other end meet mine to make it happen.  I showed up and, although nervous for most of it, I got through it and even did a good job.

The whole time, from saying yes to the idea all the way through the end of the interview, all I could think was, "wow, I'm really making this happen."  So recently, I would have been making excuses to myself; talking my way out of it. 

There's still work to do.  I have to finish transcribing the recording, then format and edit it, so soon it will be posted here and at

But I really made this happen.

I've never considered myself assertive or any type of go-getter.  I'm typically passive and introverted, so this was a shock.  I don't really feel any different, but obviously I am.

While I haven't mastered myself, I am not in full control yet, size really has begun to cease to matter.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Learning from Pain... Again

Yeah, it's a theme. Well, life is suffering. It's kind of hard to miss as the first of the Four Noble Truths.

So what'd I learn and how... again?

I participated in a half day sitting organized by the Dharma Punx Houston who meet at the Houston Zen Center on Sunday afternoons. The Zen Center was gracious enough to rent out the facilities for the retreat.

I was excited to participate since the longest I'd done zazen was forty minutes followed by thirty. With the Rohatsu Sesshin coming up, I wanted a taste of what to expect. While the half day sitting can't compare to 5:30am to 9pm, it was still an experience. On top of all that, it's also where I relearned an important lesson.

The second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by desire. This desire manifests in many ways. Mostly what it boils down to is the desire for things to be different. We want something we don't have, want to get rid of something that we do. We want to be somewhere else or for something to be over with.

For me, once again sitting on the cushion, I wanted the pain in my legs to go away. It's been a long time since my legs have hurt so much. For some reason all my time sitting didn't matter that night.

Interestingly enough, I was sitting in the same spot in the zendo as I had been when I experienced what led to this post.

I've come to accept that sometimes sitting is painful, just like life. We don't always have the option to run away so pushing through the discomfort is a form of developing discipline and acceptance.

When I had my wisdom teeth taken out, I was told that it would be the greatest pain that I'd ever feel in my life.  I was given steroids to control the swelling and told to take ibuprofin as an anti-inflammatory.  I didn't know that I could have asked for more than that, so I just put up with the pain.  On top of that, I had debris get in the empty sockets.  On my follow up visit, they flushed the holes out and were amazed that I'd been able to put up with the pain.  I didn't see it as macho, I just sucked it up and waited for it to stop hurting.

Other times haven't been so extreme, but this is something that I've dealt with at various times of my life.  Something I had no control over would happen and I'd have no choice but to put up with it.  The difference before was that whenever I saw an opening to escape I'd run like hell.  It didn't even have to be painful or uncomfortable.  If something were even just inconvenient, I'd avoid it.

The difference now is that I'm more able to face the discomfort with acceptance.  Do what I need to and get over it.

What I learned that night took things another step further.  It hurt really bad.  It was no longer about accepting the pain, it became self-torture.  The thought occurred to me, "why am I doing this to myself? I get the point, just move already."  There's a difference between discomfort and doing damage and I was pushing it.

So I moved.

And I didn't care.  I accepted that it's not always about acceptance, sometimes you have to change.

This is a very powerful concept: accepting non-acceptance.  Not just at face value, but in other concepts as well.  The moment is eternal, yet ever changing.  As soon as we realize the timeless nature of time, it resumes again.  Reality is only as real as we accept it to be, yet it's still real.

The more you try to grasp this nature, the less of a grasp you have on it.  Only in relaxing the mind to accept it, do you truly hold it.  It's like a paper cup: the tighter you squeeze it, the less it will hold. The cup must have its full size to hold the complete truth.

One of the steps of the Eightfold Path, the way to end desire and thus suffering, is Right Understanding.  It's never complete, but I'm working on it.

This experience showed me how far I've come, but also how much further I have to go.  And I'm pretty sure the view ahead will always be the same.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saving All Beings

Who’s to say what’s impossible 

Well they forgot this world keeps spinning 

And with each new day

I can feel a change in everything 

And as the surface breaks reflections fade

But in some ways they remain the same

And as my mind begins to spread it’s wings 

There’s no stopping curiosity

I want to turn the whole thing upside down

I’ll find the things they say just can’t be found 

I’ll share this love I find with everyone 

We’ll sing and dance to mother nature’s songs

I don’t want this feeling to go away

Who’s to say I can’t do everything 

Well I can try, and as I roll along I begin to find 

Things aren’t always just what they seem 

I want to turn the whole thing upside down

I’ll find the things they say just can’t be found 

I’ll share this love I find with everyone 

We’ll sing and dance to mother nature’s songs

This world keeps spinning,

Well it all keeps spinning spinning 

Round and round and upside down

Who’s to say what’s impossible and can’t be found

I don’t want this feeling to go away

Please don’t go away

Please don’t go away

Please don’t go away

Is this how it’s supposed to be?

Is this how it’s supposed to be?
                                                    ""Upside Down" - Jack Johnson (click to hear)

This is one of my favorite songs ever.  These days it really describes how I feel about my practice.

I can't help how I feel.  Before it's been more about discovering things I knew nothing about.  Discovering things I never dreamed about that lie just around the corner.  It's what makes life livable for me, giving me purpose.  I can't help but try to pass it on to others in an attempt to spread my joy.

Recently this focus has shifted a little.  I've discovered some pretty crazy stuff that has changed my life, but hasn't really made it any different.  

"And as the surface breaks reflections fade/ But in some ways they remain the same."  In sitting, I have calmed the waters and seen with clarity. But they don't stay that way, as soon as I poke the reflection to test its veracity, the surface breaks.  The memory of what I've seen echoes, not as clear as the original and slowly fading, but persisting, none the less.

I see those suffering and I just want to pat them on the back and somehow let them know it's alright.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Woe is Jack of the Lantern

No, that's not a pee stain...just a humorous coincidence 

So, almost a week after Halloween, here in Swamp City, Texas, jack o'lanterns are ready for disposal.  You get about two weeks between "cut day" and "total fungal liquidation." 

So in the interest of not repeating the gooey mess of last year, I'm being proactive and throwing them out today.

Jack o'lanterns have a lot to teach us about impermanence.  They're almost like a Western version of the Tibetan sand mandalas or the Hindu butter sculptures.  They are one of the more noticeable of the temporary holiday decorations left in our plasticize everything commercialized holiday culture.

The Christmas tree used to be another example.  We go out and chop one down (or buy one at a lot) and bring it into our homes to decorate.  It stays for about a month before we undress it and toss it to the curb.  Nowadays, many of us have shunned the "real thing" in favor of an artificial tree for various reasons.

But a Christmas tree is different than a jack o'lantern.  The transformative process of the tree is decorative.  With the jack o'lantern it's visceral.  We cut into the juicy squash releasing that familiar aroma that traces back to childhood.  We pull its guts out and toss them aside with a satisfying gloppy sound, juices squishing between our fingers.  We draw a design, intricate or simple, on it's face and hack into its flesh like a sculptor into marble. 

We make it. 

A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree before you decorate it just as much as it is when it's decorated,  but a jack o'lantern is just a pumpkin before it's carved so it creates a certain attachment.

Some people go all out, carving away just the opaque orange creating a cut glass effect.  Others are more traditional and stab all the way through.  Either way effort is expended on a work of art, a work of art whose life is limited.

Keeping this in mind presents us with a dilemma: work as hard as we can to make it perfect, or hack and slash to get it over with since it's practically trash already?  Each is an extreme to avoid, but both must be kept in mind.

There's nothing wrong in taking pride in your work, in fact you should take pride in everything you do.  If you're going to do something, you might as well do it to the best of your ability.  But don't crave perfection, it is just a pumpkin after all.  It's not going to be placed on a pedestal in some museum for generations to venerate and critique as the height of the Pumpkin Carving Movement.  Hell, people in some places shoot the damn things out of home built artillery pieces.

What else can we learn from this humble Halloween tradition?  Well, after the things said and done, I still have the seeds and guts as well as pictures.  The memory of this year's pumpkins lives on in a delicious salty snack roasted in the oven.  Last year's guts were pickled and have been sitting in the fridge waiting for me to enjoy them. 

Though the jack o'lanterns are long gone they still exist in different ways just like everything else we've seen pass and everything that will pass in the future.  Enjoy them while they last, existing in the moment.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Juggling Mindfulness

I don't mean it figuratively, I literally mean the mindfulness of juggling.

One of the many skills I've tried picking up has been juggling.  I don't know if I was on some kind of circus kick or what because about the same time I built a pair of stilts. (real ones, like strap them to your leg stilts... great fun, try it sometime.  but that's another story)  I think this time, it was a book that I saw on clearance at Half Price Books that I successfully resisted buying.

I'd always been fascinated by juggling.  The ease with which it's performed, the variety of objects.  Just pick a few things up and look at you go!

While I'd tried before, this was the first time I'd been systematic about it.  I researched the crap out of it online and found many different sites willing to show me the secrets for free.  I even hand sewed three fist sized cubes of canvas and filled them with rocks when I couldn't find the bean bags I wanted at the store.

The first important thing that I learned was the need for a decently weighted object to juggle.  It's important for your body to feel where the objects are since your eyes can't track multiple objects at the same time.  While tennis balls or golf balls are easily available, they're pretty light. (and tend to roll and bounce away when you drop them)  The bean bags that I made, and later the professional looking rice filled balloons I made later, have a nice heft to them and don't roll away.

Practicing over a bed or a couch that you stand next to is a good idea, too.  You don't have to bend over so far when (not if) you drop your objects and the heavy ones can be a little loud on the floor, you don't want to disturb your neighbors.

So what does this have to do with mindfulness?

Juggling is hard!  "But it looks so easy!" you say.  Well, so does sitting.  "Sit, staring at a wall and don't think about anything."  That sounds easy, too, doesn't it?

When you start juggling, you have to accept that it won't come easily.  After all, you're basically reprogramming your mind and body to interact in a new way, a very complicated new way.  Any frustrations you have will only cloud the mind and get in the way, hindering your progress.  You get comfortable with the weight of the objects, toss them up and down a little to get a sense of the forces involved.  Alone, it's easy to process, you've tossed a ball around before.  But as soon as you introduce another, things go crazy.

When we start sitting, we have trouble accepting that it won't come easy, it sure sounds like it would.  But then we learn the reality of it.  Sitting is practice in that we have to accept that sometimes we can focus and sometimes our minds are all over.  But it's the effort, that makes us get "better" at it.  Just like juggling, any frustrations will lead us away.  You have to accept whatever comes.  So really there is no "better" to get.  What matters is that we show up and put out the effort.

But back to the juggling... So after a couple hours of solid dedication, like two tosses with one catch for the first hour, my mind started to loosen up a bit along with my body.  After a while though, I kind of got in a groove: two catches, then three, almost four.  Another hour or two and I could keep it up for about 10 seconds at time.  Now, I'm pretty coordinated to begin with, so don't think I'm some juggling natural.  I worked really hard for hours to get this down, and I hit a 10-30 seconds plateau that lasted for a long time without any further progression.  What did it was the effort.

Once the mind relaxed and I let my body just move, it became very meditative and calming.  I still had to maintain focus, I didn't just bliss out and watch the magic.  I could neither increase my focus to watch what my body was doing, nor let my mind wander to something else or the spell would be broken.  The moment was what mattered and I had to stay there.

While I'd started all this well after I'd begun my practice, I didn't really made the connection for a long time.  My body has relaxed and strengthened to where good posture is easy to maintain, leading my mind to relax into the moment as well.  I'd made this connection before with things like martial arts and brush painting, you have to put effort into acquiring the skills to make it look effortless.  Only then will it become meditative, the mind wills the body and the body responds without even a gap the width of a hair.

Juggling requires constant adjustments in speed, force and position.  The concentration required by the brain to compute each task is total.  There is no room for anything else, no space to wander away from the moment.  Each toss is a moment coming one after the next with nowhere for you to go but into the next throw because there's a catch right behind it. 

Wonder how many Zen jugglers there are in the world...

Learn How To Juggle
Learn How To Juggle (if you don't have a sense of humor)
Another good site

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

What a Difference

I feel almost  like I'm imagining it, but I really do seem more able to live in the moment now.  I'm a couple months shy of a year since I began my practice in earnest, but there seem to be some graspable changes.

The first indicator should have been months ago, when I found it easier to do things I didn't want to do or that I normally put off for later.  I still struggle, but that little voice in my head telling me to put it off has gotten quieter.  Sometimes I don't hear it, but another voices cheers me on for doing it so I'm still not acting with equanimity.

Instead, the point where I really noticed was when sitting for 45 minutes one morning, a time that a mere few weeks ago would have seemed unthinkable, felt no different than the 10 minutes that I sat later on that day.  It no longer felt like I was waiting for it to end as if I were serving time.

Some of this I attribute to my body relaxing into sitting with appropriate posture but whether this is a cause or effect is unclear since I've noticed my focus on the moment feeling sharper and clearer.  Each moment has an odd weight or groundedness to it, somehow more real as if a my glasses were fogged and they've cleared a little.  The insubstantial still has its own weight, but there is a bolder line drawn between them.

Listening to people has become more intense and I am not easily distracted by thoughts not related to the conversation.  The same goes for reading.  When I realize I've strayed it's a very crisp awakening back to the present, though.

My Aikido shows improvement in focus and intensity of intention and body awareness.  I seem to have found myself as the dojo poster child for the benefits of zazen in Aikido.

All of this seems very different than I remember but how am I to compare who I am now and how I see things with the past to ever know for sure?

Everything seems to have gained an odd immediacy yet I'm more relaxed in dealing with it.  Any anxiety I feel, while rare now, seems natural for the situation and doesn't run my mind around but instead serves to boost my focus just a little.  It doesn't seem to matter whether it's something I want to do or want to avoid, as soon as I've plunged into doing it, it feels right somehow.

I wonder what currently unimaginable changes await me as I wait patiently watching each moment come and go, doing what I can to make the best of each moment.

Monday, November 1, 2010

It Is What It Is Because It Is What It Isn't, Isn't It?


A lot of people think that Zen is supposed to be confusing, and it can be.  It's not intentional but pointing directly at the truth is very specific and precise.  So much so that until you actually experience, it won't feel true.  Maybe intellectually you can wrap your mind around it as being possible, but it won't feel true like gravity feels true, or pain, or the taste of fresh strawberries.

Words lay out the boundaries providing the frame for understanding, but without direct experience we can't see the picture within that frame.  The best we can do is describe it with metaphors, telling parables and stories of the moment of realizations of those who've come before.

For years, I'd read all these stories and metaphors, wrapping my mind around them but recently I've experienced my mind becoming them.  Something will fall into place and as I put together the words to describe it, I realize the descriptions already exist.  Not only do they exist, but they're pointing exactly to it.

It's like two people bird watching.  One spots a bird and tries to describe to the other where it is among the foliage.  Pointing directly at it, it remains unseen by the other.  "It's right there!" they exclaim. And of course, it is right there just waiting to be seen.  The second person may even be looking right at it, but not seeing it because of distracting foliage breaking up the bird's silhouette.

As I listened to Sojun Roshi's talk on the Middle Way that I wrote about last week, I heard things what he was saying but not always what he was telling me.  During the question and answer after the talk, I brought up my thoughts about things being just as much what they aren't as what they are and all that.

I knew he had been a painter earlier in his life so I brought up something related that I had struggled with years ago.  I mentioned that when I was studying fine arts, as I was developing my own "style," I struggled with portraying the figure and ground* as not being separate.  I became frustrated because, visually this is impossible.  By definition, the figure and ground have to be visually distinguishable or the canvas would be blank or at least a solid color.

This was an idea informed by my intellectual understanding of Zen and Taoism about the interconnectedness of everything, the lack of discrimination in an existential way.

After I'd said this, he told me I should try and go back to painting.  I realized at this advice, that Zen does not teach that reality is homogeneous, just that things are not separate.  The figure in a painting exists as figure because it is not the ground and vice versa, but the painting is nothing without them both.  The existence of the painting relies on the existence of the figure and the ground in relation to each other.  Every painting communicates this idea, we just don't see it even though we're looking right at it.

I could be dramatic and say it struck me like a bolt of lightning, but it wasn't like those Windows 7 commercials.  I wasn't suddenly prettier and surrounded by light with awe inspiring music in the background.  It was just the truth, as I'd been looking at it but never seeing it.

A few other examples of this came rolling out of my brain soon after this.

The first is very Taoist, in fact it's a whole chapter from the Tao Te Ching.  A cup only functions as a cup because of the absence of material inside, such is the hole for the spoke of a wheel as well.

Another that goes back to my own artistic bent is that of flavor.  When cooking, everything has some sort of flavor. Those that are successful at composing new flavors rely just as much on what they include as what flavors they exclude.  The true flavor of a well marbled piece of beef relies on not smothering it with butter or barbecue sauce or even ketchup.  Some foods call for this, and sometimes even a nice piece of beef.  But in true flavor composition, these things need to be recognized.

Speaking of composition, music is the same way.  A song is just as much the rests between notes as it is the notes themselves.  Take out the pauses and the song is no longer the same song.

I could go on like this forever, but it doesn't matter.

This seems to be one of the problems with promoting enlightenment experiences, satori or kensho.  You convince someone they're looking for something in particular when it's right in front of them the whole time, they might not recognize it when they actually see it.

Ever been in a situation similar to the bird watching one above?  As the second person, you finally see what you're looking for and get upset with the directions towards whatever's being pointed to?  "Oh, that right there!  That doesn't look like one of those, you should have said it looked like this right next to that."

Get the picture?  Look for yourself, if you keep looking you'll see it.  Remember that others can only point from where they're standing, sometimes perspective gets skewed.  Their descriptions might not make sense now, but when you no longer need them, they will.

*The figure is whatever you're supposed to be looking at while the ground is what is behind the figure.  Optical illusions usually play on this interaction with an effect called "figure-ground reversal."  This phenomena inspired my desire to eliminate this confusion.