Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Cycle of Life

Saturday morning we had a sejiki, or segaki, ceremony at the Houston Zen Center.  It's a ceremony to give offerings to the gaki or "hungry ghosts" and calm the restless spirits of the recently departed.  In a psychological sense, it gives us the chance to recognize and accept the loss of loved ones.  Traditionally it's held in the summer during the Japanese festival of Obon, but here in the United States it coincides with Halloween and is very similar in spirit to the festivals of Dia de los Muertos.

I was honored to serve as one of two jisha or attendants to the doshi, or the priest performing the ceremony.  There are several resources online that give descriptions of the various ways the ceremony is conducted in different places, but that's not what I intend to write about.

During the ceremony, the doshi reads a statement about the body of the Buddha and the transitional and interdependent natures of all things.  One line that struck me as echoing a belief I've had for a while was
"...the living are living on the dead, the dead live on mostly in the living."
 (as close as I can remember)  This thought has many layers for me.

Initially, to me at least, "the living are living on the dead" has to do with food.  Nothing we eat wasn't alive before, and with very few exceptions is dead when we consume it.  Plant or animal, the living are living on the dead.  This food becomes us physically.  The proteins that make up our muscles, the cholesterol that holds our cells together, the carbohydrates and fats that fuel our metabolic processes.  In this way "the dead live on mostly in the living."

Another way I've always seen this has to do with people who pass living on in their loved ones.  Whether in memory or physically as offspring.  We live off of the dead, or at least those that have come before us, by way of the feats accomplished or lessons taught.  Our civilization is built on top of all the others that came before.

The theme of the Dharma talk that followed the ceremony touched on the fact that in Buddhism, and in Zen especially, the person to person historical lineage that reaches back through time to the historical Buddha is very important.  He discovered something for himself and sanctioned the teaching of those who followed only when he saw what he'd discovered in each of them.  In this way the Dharma has been "transmitted" person to person unbroken for over 2500 years.

For this reason the respect for our ancestors is very important in Zen, not just in the lineage of Dharma transmission, but in everything.*  Despite Zen's focus on the present, our appreciation for our current existence relies not only on the history of humanity, but life on Earth and even the development of the Solar System all the way back to the beginning of the Universe if not earlier.

In this way the cycle of life continues throughout time, uninterrupted with all beings interdependent on one another.  Nothing really ever dies and nothing new is ever really born, but both happen constantly.

So as the season drifts inevitably from the vibrant life of Summer into the cold death of Winter, we should remember that thus is life: ever changing, but always the same.

*since the Dharma manifests in everything and is presented as an opportunity to learn from anything that we experience.

Friday, October 29, 2010


Journal entry for this morning:
I've learned the lesson moving to Texas was supposed to teach me today.  As the mind monkeys preformed their show during zazen, they revisited that experience and how I had felt isolated in the moment after realizing my past no longer mattered because my future was gone. 
They teased me with the idea of kensho about this.  There was no great opening when it happened all those years ago so how could that be?  I didn't know the concept at the time so it was just sad.
As they continued their dance, this thought bounced around some more until it collided with the facts that not only am I okay with what happened, I strive to share it with others so that they too may gain the wisdom to accept with equanimity.
At this tears welled up in my eyes, even as I write this the emotion is great.  This is the calling of the bodhisattva, there is no avoiding it now.
As the bell rang to signal the end of zazen, I clasped my hands in gasho to bow but found myself once again moved to tears and slowly bowed twice more in gratitude for this realization.

The Four Bodhisattva Vows have reached critical mass and carved themselves on my heart.  They no longer just live as balloons floating around in my head.  Beings are numberless, I can't help but try my best to save all I can as they come into my life in whatever capacity feels natural. Delusions are inexhaustible, pain and suffering are our greatest teachers because they can't be ignored.  Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them by being present to whatever wisdom shines on me.  Buddha's Way is unsurpassable, it has brought me here, how can I ignore its truth?  I can only become it as it continues to reshape my life.
Everything is different, yet nothing has changed.  I still got off the cushion, showered, shaved and ate breakfast.  Life continues on around me and I engage in it.

Even still, I ask of each moment, "What is this?"

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Applied Practice and Samantabhadra Bodhisatva

I learned a new word today: praxis - "the practice and practical side of a profession or field of study, as opposed to the theory"

I stumbled across it while looking up information about a Bodhisattva my teacher pointed me towards this morning.

I recently put together a little altar to sit next to my cushion where I sit.  It's not an altar like worship-before altar, the statues don't represent gods or anything. Altar is just a convenient word to use. The statues represent concepts like mascots and are basically just reminders of those concepts.

It started out as just the little Jizo that I made a while back. (I used directions found here using Sculpy instead of clay)  Eventually I wanted to add to it and ended up with this after making a Shakyamuni statue, then a Manjushri, adding it to a Kannon statue I already had to match the statues in the zendo.  The background is a cloth covered screen with rice paper.

One day I made a connection between the four statues I had and the four Bodhisattva Vows.  
  • Beings are numberless, I vow to save them  -> Kannon is the Bodhisattva of compassion
  • Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them -> Manjushri's sword cuts through delusion
  • Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them -> Jizo is the Bodhisattva of travelers and a protector of the Dharma
  • Buddha's Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it -> The Buddha... well, he is the Buddha, it's his way
This last one didn't really sit well with me, but I figured it was just a connection that I'd made and nothing more.

Telling my teacher this this morning, I got through the first three and she asked me about the fourth.  I'd made a valid connection, but the reason the last never fit right is because there was a Bodhisattva I'd missed.

Samantabhadra (in Sanskrit, Fugen in Japanese) was the missing one from the set known as the Four Great Bodhisattva.  Samantabadra is the Bodhisattva of Practice, the missing piece.  In practice we we become the Buddha Way.  How about that?  The four of them are usually depicted seated around the Buddha.

On this page about Fugen it says: Asia, there is a grouping called the Four Great Bodhisattva, with each of the four symbolizing a specific aspect of Buddhism. They are Kannon (compassion), Monju (wisdom), Fugen (praxis), and Jizō (vast patience and salvation from suffering)*
There's that word "praxis." Buddhism is just talk without praxis.  I've experienced that myself over the past ten years.  The practice praxis refers to isn't just sitting, but living the teachings. It is the Buddha's Way. There's no difference in the Buddha's Way between sitting and standing (or walking or lying down...), it's an all the time kind of thing so we vow to become it.

As I've mentioned before, zazen is like exercise.  It loosens us up, stretching and strengthening our "praxis muscles" helping us to manifest the teachings in our daily life.  This isn't a concept I have much trouble with, but it was interesting to have that circle completed for me.

*or by their Sanskrit names: Avalokitesvara (who the Tibetan Buddhists believe the Dalai Lama to be an incarnation of), Manjushri, Samantabhadra, and Ksitigarbha, respectively

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Yes, but..."

"Yes, but..."

In passing, that's how Sojun Roshi summed up the essence of the Soto tradition.  That's right, in passing.  The man is so full of insight, even his casual remarks open eyes.

But seriously... I don't remember if that was his thought or if he was quoting Suzuki Roshi, but either way he shared it with us.

What does it mean?

To me it is a reminder that we will never know everything.  No experiences we accumulate will ever add up to the total experience of the universe.  We say, "things are this way," and someone else replies, "yes, but.. to me it is like this."  Those two words keep us searching, reminding us that life is dynamic.  What is true in one instance may not be in another, but it does not deny it's veracity.

It also is a call to always try to see the other side, to always play devil's advocate.  In this way we not only try to accept we don't know everything, but also we try to identify with those we view as opposed to us.  We sometimes even see through our differences to see the similarities, giving us common ground to start understanding.  We have to be positive and take the first step forward not harboring our grudge waiting for them to give in.

Both of these push further into the paradox of duality in a non-dual universe.  Once we define something intellectually through dualistic discrimination, we simultaneously define both what it's not and what is not it.  In physics we say a table is solid; we can touch it and our hand will not pass through.  Modern science says, "yes, but.. on a subatomic level the solidity of the table disappears. Atoms are nothing but clouds of energy that have no substance at all."  Light is another wonderful example, it functions as both particle and wave but is neither at the same time.

Any Zen doctrine we talk about relies on the duality of language to distinguish what is apparent truth and what is delusion.  But to believe this truth is separate from what is not true is delusion.  "Yes, that's true, but..."

As my practice has progressed, things have occurred to me that I have wanted to share.  In order for me to receive help in understanding them, I have to be able to communicate them.  But as I try to corral these ideas for my mind to brand with labels, I realize how futile it is.  As soon as I have one idea strapped down, I see it's far more complicated.  My label is empty and only addresses face values.  I know this both intellectually and internally, but I still have to get it out somehow.

In order to clear away our delusion, we first have to examine it thoroughly.  We learn its weaknesses and where it's strong.  We figure out the rules that hold it together.  In this way, the intellectualization is helpful and a necessary crutch.  But we can't get attached to it because the scaffolding we construct to examine the structure is itself adding to the structure, deepening the problem.  We penetrate to what our minds tell us is the truth and our hearts say, "yes, but... there's more."  Only after our minds are satisfied can we commence with the serious business of stilling them.

What makes this uniquely Soto is that in practicing shikantaza, we don't try to harness the mind.  As Uchiyama Roshi proposed, shikantaza is "opening the hand of thought."  We relax, accept and observe.  Rather than grab onto a koan like an ice cube and squeeze until the truth drips through our fingers, we let it sit and melt on its own.  With our mind relaxed the defenses of our ego are down, leaving our hearts open to receive the truth which life may point to whether in the form of a koan, a casual remark, the sound of a drop of water, or a firm slap in the face.

In zazen we watch our thoughts come and go like clouds across the sky.  This is an attempt to really take in the panorama, the big picture.  This is contemplating "vastness/expansiveness" or the character "great/large" that Dogen mentions in the Tenzo Kyokun.  If we allow our minds to be captured by a single thought and dragged along as if we were contemplating what image the shape of a certain cloud reminds us of, we don't see the other clouds, the rest of the universe.

Sitting zazen is practice like practicing a sport, or developing any other skill, but zazen off the cushion is practicing like a doctor practices medicine or a lawyer practices law.  Sitting provides us with the "yes," and life provides the "but.."  The Middle Way exists between the "yes" and the "but," while the affirmation is still true but before the negation establishes discrimination.

This is a tricky path to walk, but so incredibly simple at the same time.  Just as always the only thing that we can do is what we can do, no more is possible and no less is permissible.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Middle Way Isn't Just the Middle

This weekend I was honored to be able to spend a lot of time around Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi.  I was lucky enough to be asked to help prepare breakfast for him, my teacher, the resident students, and the Ino as well as a couple others the past two mornings.  It was wonderful to be around him and the others in a relaxed setting.

For those of you who don't know, Sojun Roshi is the abbot of the Berkley Zen Center and a treasured student of the famous and influential Shunryu Suzuki Roshi.  He's a very kind and gentle, insightful person who has obviously worked very hard at cultivating himself.

He's also realistic and modest enough to admit to us that while he is a priest, he's also a bad person sometimes, too. "Seriously?" you ask, "how is this possible? He's one of a handful of the most respected Zen teachers in the country if not the world."  Even so, he's still human and his practice continues after all these years just as ours does.

He admitted this as part of his dharma talk on Saturday morning at the Houston Zen Center in which he discussed a deeper dimension of what the "Middle Way" of Buddhism really is.

To begin his talk he brought up the first koan given to students in the Rinzai sect.  As I think I've mentioned before, Soto Zen doesn't use koan the same as Rinzai, but they're still a useful teaching tool that I've recently come to appreciate.

So the koan.  It's actually a pretty popularly known one, known even outside of exclusive Zen circles.
A monk asked Joshu, "Has the dog Buddha nature or not?" Joshu said, "Mu."
 Mu essentially translates as "no." It's not a literal translation, that's closer to "not any."  On another occasion the same monk asked again and Joshu replies in the affirmative.*

It is an accepted Buddhist concept that all beings, sentient or insentient, have Buddha nature so the initial negative answer wasn't what the monk was expecting which is probably why he asked again later.  The truth didn't change even though two opposite answers were given.

The reality or truth, Sojun Roshi said, is the Middle Way. Both answers are correct and neither are correct at the same time.  This is tricky ground because it is the use of dualistic language to explain a non-dualistic concept.  Language by definition is dualistic since each word is defined just as much by what it means as by what it doesn't mean, that's just how it works.  Not every word has an opposite, but each word both includes and excludes meaning.

Before whenever I thought about what makes the Middle Way, I thought it meant the mean between any two extremes, moderation  Everything he said lead me to understand that the truth of the matter is that the Middle Way isn't just the middle, but it's all inclusive.  The answer to the question of whether or not a dog has Buddha nature is yes and no because everything is interconnected, nothing is independent.  To say something is independent implies that it is separate from something else.

So because the dog has Buddha nature it doesn't have Buddha nature.  A tree is no different than a car, they're not exactly the same but they're not separate.  The nature of a tree depends on the nature of the car for its identity.

Sojun Roshi also applied this to truly live life is to walk the Middle Way among birth and death.  Each moment the self we are (as well as the whole universe) dies and is reborn as a new moment takes its place. This reminds me of the image used in Japanese swordsmanship schools of a piece of paper with the character for "life/birth" printed on one side and "death" on the other.  This is to remind us that the spacing that separates survival and death in an attack is the thickness of a piece of paper.  In Zen we live in this space sandwiched between birth and death.  It is not exclusive of birth and death but is neither birth and death.

See how the duality of language makes illuminating the truth so difficult?  Zazen is the practice of sweeping away the structure of definition and duality we've built up over the course of our lives.  There's no way to intellectualize our way to the heart of the matter since each thought we grasp at builds up new layers to hide the truth.  Our true nature is always there it's just waiting for us to settle the dust clouds we've kicked up by labeling and defining every new thing we encounter.  The common image used in Zen is that of the reflection of the moon (perception of the truth) in a pool of water (our minds).  Until we quiet our mind, all we see is the shattered multiplicity of the reflection.  Actively thinking just stirs up the water as we grasp at the reflection.

So everything is the same, without difference: comfort and discomfort, good and bad, right and wrong, you and me, matter and energy, true and false.  You name it (or don't) it's all the same just as much as it's different. 

Why worry about anything, what is there to fear?  You do what you do because it's what you can.  To truly experience the undiluted life, to be free of discontentment, we have to make the effort and investment to shake off our attachment to duality.  Excessive focus on the past, whether fond memories or regrets is leaning into death.  Focus on the future with dreams and worries is leaning into birth.  Neither is bad, we don't live exclusively from them, but we don't live in either of them.  We need to learn from our mistakes in the past and organize the future.  We have to see that our hesitations and fears are the product of our ego struggling to establish itself as perfect (and sometimes unconsciously just as oppositely tragic) .  Let yourself make mistakes, we all do.  Accept them and learn from them.

As we all stumble along our own paths, struggling to walk the Middle Way, we drift to the right and to the left.  Coming back to the middle is no more than an intention to not ignore either extreme, not trying to avoid either. 

*The previous explanation that I'd always heard didn't include the "yes" response.  Instead "mu" is a non-answer, telling the monk that he's asking the wrong question.  There is no answer because the question is irrelevant.  We can't find the truth by asking questions, it can't be given to us.  We have to find it on our own.  The Buddha found the truth through zazen, there was no one for him to ask questions.  For that reason, we sit.  Questions help us understand what we experience, but there is no new information.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Vow for the October Moon

So last month's vow went alright.  We didn't eat fast food as much and were better about what we ate when we did go out.  I cooked more and healthier, but it's still an ongoing process.

This month I've chosen to take a different route.  Rather than focus on one of the Precepts, the spirit of my practice is what I've picked.

I don't usually have very much trouble being generous.  I'm not perfect, so there are definitely times when I could be more generous.

The issue I have is with receiving generosity, complements and gratitude.  When I give any of those, it's not that big a deal to me.  I sincerely mean it, but  I don't have to yank it out from somewhere deep inside, but for some it is. 

I don't react to the way I'd like to compliments naturally and sometimes I could see it as being rude.  I have trouble receiving and just saying thank you.  It comes alright in situations like work, thanking people for what they've done, but compliments are tricky.  Also many offers of generosity, I receive reluctantly or awkwardly.  I have trouble accepting help, probably out of pride, but who knows.

Zen monastics traditionally would go out into the community and practice takuhatsu, or alms begging.  They would accept whatever was placed in their bowl with equanimity.  In addition to providing food for the for the temple, it provided the monks with an opportunity to practice acceptance.  For those donating to them, it was an opportunity to practice non-attachment and generosity.  (Watching TV just now, a commercial reminds me that Trick-or-Treating is similar to this but joy is the currency of the transaction)

So my vow for October and for the rest of my life, is to live with "open hands."  This is the best way I can think of it. Living with open hands isn't just about giving freely, but receiving freely as well.  Everything: the good and bad in all situations, feelings, people, compliments and criticism, gifts both given and offered.  I will try my best to keep my hands open to neither hold on to or reject.

I'll start by saying thank you to everyone that reads my words, whether you comment or not.  Thank you to everyone that opens themselves to others through their writing as well.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Contagious Calmness

So, I've still got it.

One of the classes I'm taking right now is called A La Carte.  It's really fun and easy (although sometimes frustrating) for those of us with industry experience. (A lot of my fellow students have never worked, or honestly will ever be able to hack it, in real restaurants)

Basically the class is divided into four groups of 4-6 people and we rotate staffing each portion of a restaurant at school.  People can come and have a student prepared six course lunch served to them by students for only $10 per person.  Each group rotates through hot station, cold station, dish pit, and service staff with the teacher, who actually is one, serving as chef.  One of the added benefits for us industry pros is that the chef allows one of us to serve as sous-chef and expediter each class.

This position in a classically structured French kitchen using the brigade system is the chef's first officer.  The sous-chef, or "under-chef" serves as a go between for the chef and staff, making sure things get done.  In most kitchens during service time they act as expediter, taking orders from the waitstaff and communicating them to the kitchen then staging them for service and finishing them off by wiping plates and adding garnish.

This is what I got to do today.  I've wanted to be expediter at just about every restaurant that I've worked in, but even though it takes a slightly different skill set than other positions, I was never taken seriously or believed in since I don't excel in back of the house* positions.

At school we don't have fancy computers to print out tickets so each server turns in a ticket for each table's order all at once.  Normally each course has a separate ticket that goes out with the food.  Instead the servers ask for each course to be "fired" and the expediter relays that to whatever station is responsible for that course.  The station then prepares it and puts it in the "window" which is a shelf between them and the expediter.  The expediter then wipes any drips and dresses the plate with any garnish to "sell" it in their own window between them and the servers or food runners.

Doesn't sound all that hard, does it?  Well, tickets come in constantly as well as servers coming back on top of each other to fire different courses.  Sometimes there are modifiers to an item, such as no bacon, a vegetarian substitution, or desired doneness.  The expediter will "add on" another number of items to a station and the station will call back the order to confirm.  If a certain number of items has already been called and more need to be added, the expediter will add on the new number and then add that to whatever has been already called, letting the station know how many they need "all day."

The expediter has to keep straight what's been fired and what hasn't yet, what's been sold to them and to what table it's going.  Sometimes servers make mistakes and need an order "on the fly," or they have to go back to the table to let their guest know we're out of something because it wasn't sufficiently communicated to them that an item was "86'd" because the kitchen is out of it.  There's all kind of slang that will put you "in the weeds" if you don't learn it quickly.  On top of all that, in the real world, kitchens are a cesspool of machismo and trash talking is the vernacular. If you can't hold your own, the kitchen won't respect you and they'll still make work near impossible. It can get hectic.

I had five servers each with about three tables each ranging from one to eight people, which I was told was the most we'd had all semester. I think we served 37 people.   Every one did a really good job and we got it done without any serious problems.

The thing that really pleased me was something that I hadn't heard in more than five years.  Before he left, the chef thanked me for doing such a great job and keeping a cool head.  The expediter has to have the strongest personality in the kitchen to keep things in control and he noted how well lunch service went despite issues in the dining room and the volume we did.

Back in the day, when I worked in a "quick service restaurant" (QSR, that's industry-speak for fast food.  Seriously, there's even a trade magazine by that title) I really knew what I was doing.  First of all, it wasn't really that complicated, but it was a lot of stuff to do and the volume a QSR can do during a weekday lunch can be insane.  If all the pieces don't fall into place, it's very possible for it all to come crashing down.  People freak out about irate customers, the grill person can lose count of how many patties are on the grill, there's a lot of stuff that can go wrong.

In my four and a half years of dedicated service, I had confidence in my ability. I take pride in my work and it showed.  I'd show up with a job to do and the intent to get it done.  Stuff happens, I'd push through it.  Freaking out isn't going to fix anything.  There were shifts where Murphy's Law was proved accurate and I just kept going.  I had several managers over the years tell me that I was like a calming influence on the crew. The freaking out would begin, I'd come up from that first drive thru window (it's actually referred to as the "bubble") to help out and everything would calm down.

I enjoyed the work, it didn't pay well enough for me to stick around any longer, but I do miss it sometimes. Working the drive thru, I'd have nearly 120 brief conversations with interesting guests everyday.  Through my back window I got to watch many South Texas sunsets.

The difference between that and what happened today was that back then my confidence was based on experience.  I knew the limits and all the variables, and I could do the work. I knew I could because I already had.  Today my confidence was a little of that, but it was mostly just guts.  There were a few times when I'd look down at the tickets and couldn't remember what they hell I'd called for or sold or anything.  I'd take a breath and attack the situation one thing at a time.

The funny thing about this was during my last dokusan ** this past Tuesday, my teacher asked me about whether or not I was paying any attention to my practice while at school.  Sure, I find myself correcting my posture or watching my breath, focusing on just what I'm doing in front of me, but these aren't really new things.  I enjoy what I do at school, so I'm usually pretty focused.  It was a difficult question to answer.

But that question Tuesday really primed my mind to be aware of what was going on when the going got tough today and it was nice.  I didn't have the option to freak out and just run away, I mean I did.. but not really.  I had to just keep going, and I did.

Keeping your head in a situation, especially one where everyone around you is losing it, can really impact how things will pan out.  I really feel this is one of the best ways my practice shines in my life.  This is the Bodhisattva  way and saving all beings really does start with yourself.  By improving my ability to keep my cool, I've saved others from losing it.  The effort really pays off.

So keep two things in mind.

The first, next time you go out to eat, whether full service or just the drive thru, yeah the people working there may be idiots screwing everything up, but it's a tough job that a lot of people don't appreciate. Be nice to them, pissing off the people that feed you is never a good idea.***  Food service professionals work long hard hours in hot cramped quarters so that others can enjoy a nice meal before heading to the movies with their sweetie after making probably better money sitting in an air conditioned office in a nice comfy chair crunching numbers on a computer.

Second, be mindful of how your attitude affects those around you.  It can be pretty easy to just go with the flow and let it all go to hell, but with just a little effort you can turn it all around.  Even if no one else realizes it or appreciates, you'll know. 

*"Back of the house" refers to the kitchen, while "front of the house" refers to the dining room.  Traditionally the maître d’hôtel, "master of the hotel/house"or maître d' for short, is responsible for the front and the
chef de cuisine, or "boss (chief) of the kitchen" is responsible for the kitchen with various other chefs under him.

*** While spitting in food or other such childish things are actually considered food tampering and a felony, there are things they can do that can't be prosecuted.  Orders do honestly get mixed up, but not all the time, fixing it takes time and even if it's comped you're never getting that time back.  What time did that show start again?  Do you still have time to eat your food before you have to get back to the office?
Forgot to mention post at Dangerous Harvests with a similar theme that I enjoyed.  I know I never seem to mention anybody else, but it just happens that way

Tolerance in Uncomfortable Situations

Over the weekend we took advantage of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) while visiting my parents to get to the Fairgrounds for the Texas State Fair's last weekend.  Getting down there wasn't that big a deal, there was a point where seating was limited, but people weren't packed like sardines.  Coming back was different.

My girlfriend likes her big open Texas spaces and large packed crowds are not her thing.  There just gets to be a point where all she can see is backs and shoulders and it's unpleasant to say the least so I made sure we were able to get her in a window seat.  I sat next to her in the aisle so I got the best the of super packed train experience.

Others were making the best of it, chatting it up with strangers about what fun they'd had at the fair as the train slowly unloaded at each stop.  A small girl was curiously poking my feet with hers to see what reaction she would get as her mother unknowingly bumped those in front of and behind her with various bags and her self as the train slowly rocked around.

I didn't mind all that much, we were all there and there wasn't much we could do about it.  It was still unpleasant though.  I could see in my girlfriend's face her level of discomfort rising.

I saw it as an opportunity to consider the past, present, and future discomfort of others in similar uncomfortable travel of others.  As I looked around the train I saw people of diverse decent and considered how some of our respective families arrived in this country: crammed into the holds of slave ships like cargo with little care, or stowed deep in commercial cargo ships from Asia, trudging across the scrub lands of the American Southwest or squeezed into the trunks of cars or panel trucks.  Until air travel became affordable enough, almost everyone made an uncomfortable trip to get here.  What's a handful of minutes on a clean air conditioned train?

I suppose this kind of opens the door towards metta-  or loving-kindness practice which isn't really a Zen thing.  It's not that it's not practiced, there's just not the emphasis on it as there is in some of the other traditions.  In comparison to what others experience, I had comfort to spare.

As Zen practice it falls back to the acceptance of the moment as being uncomfortable, that life is suffering.  Rather than focusing on sending out happy thoughts to the universe,* I focused on what was going on right then.  What was making me uncomfortable?

Well, unfortunately for this example, for me it didn't feel all that uncomfortable.  I've ridden on packed trains and sat uncomfortably in the back seat of a car for hours on end so I knew what to expect. I was sitting after all, most of those around me weren't.  There was the conversation going on around me to listen to.  The small girl was pretty entertaining in a cute puppy antics way.

On the other hand, zazen can be a pretty uncomfortable.  There's nothing to distract you as you sit on the cushion.  It can be like a case study in discomfort.  I originally explored this in "Sleepy Legs and Boring Zazen" and "Staring Down Death", but I've had some time to work with these thoughts.  I've also experienced several more times since then where I didn't think I could sit there any more out of pain.

In times like these I wasn't yet able to actualize being in the moment, but each second was an opportunity to push myself further.  It's difficult to really stay in the moment with that much pain when you know it will it will end, even if you don't feel it's soon enough.

Tolerance really seems to be the right word in these situations.  We're not supposed to place judgment on our experiences.  We're not supposed to learn to like the pain just as we're not supposed to hold on to pleasure.  While "acceptance" implies "favorable reception" (, "tolerance" deals more with "the act of endurance."  To tolerate implies dissatisfaction from the outset, a bare minimum; "acceptance" is more positive.  Sure this reeks of duality, but we have to start somewhere.

This doesn't just have to apply to situations though, it can apply to people and their practices as well. As tolerance is further defined as "a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry."  We don't have to like something to tolerate it.

Tolerance is often seen as the first step towards acceptance and many people get ahead of themselves and fear that this will eventually lead to liking what they're told to tolerate.  For this reason they resist.  Which isn't surprising, anytime you push something, you provide something to resist.  This is a principle taught in a physical way in Aikido that has other applications in interpersonal situations.

In sitting, we experience that it takes time to build up tolerance and then maybe acceptance to discomfort.  Taking this and the previous paragraph's concept we learn patience in tolerating others' intolerances.

Try to keep this in mind next time you're in an uncomfortable situation.  Sometimes you're able to change things for the better, but sometimes you can't and tolerance is the best you can do; stick it out because nothing is permanent.  Sometimes means other than standing up against intolerance are most appropriate; accept it and act as a role-model instead of an instructor.

*I don't know how to put that without sounding patronizing, it's possible that I don't understand the practice all that well. I can see it's potential benefits but I'm sure that sitting on a cushion staring at a wall and clearing the mind for hours probably seems a little ridiculous to some Theravada Buddhists or Vipsassana practitioners. I do take everyone's beliefs and practices seriously, we just find some fit each of us better than others.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In Defense of Zazen - Part 2: Its Merit As Spiritual Practice

If you came here from, stick around and check out the archives. Otherwise, thanks for reading and check out the other contributors for Bayou Buddhists

In Part 1, I mentioned how zazen style meditation isn't just for Zen Buddhists. It has benefits for daily life in that it can help us focus by being mindful of the present.

This utilitarian practice is refereed to by Uchiyama Roshi as ningen zen in his book on Zen practice, Opening the Hand of Thought. It is a useful way to approach zazen, but not necessarily most appropriate for a serious Zen practitioner. He mentions many other minor forms of Zen like this, none of them "pure" zazen, but each of their benefits manifest through shikantaza.

One important aspect about Zen Buddhism is that it's walks the borderline between materialism and spiritualism. Essentially, it is not a religion like other spiritual paths, but a form of realist philosophy with a practical system of employing its ideas. It's not the intellectual philosophy of Hume, Descartes, or Socrates. It's more than a world view, it is a way of life.

Zen addresses existence from both the spiritual and materialistic perspectives, and neither at the same time just as light can function as both a wave and a particle but is also neither. In some situations Zen is materialistic and in others it's spiritual.

That being said defending zazen as spiritual practice isn't in the spiritual context of practices like praying, even if at the same time it can be just as intimate with the divine. Instead the spiritual practice I'm referring to is more like the "impractical" practice of getting in touch with our true nature. It is an internal practice that is more focused on how we deal with ourselves than with others.

Zazen as Zen practice gets us in touch with ourselves. We sit with ourselves and watch our thoughts and the feelings we have about them. Eventually we come to see our thoughts as empty.

This "emptiness" is an easily misinterpreted Buddhist term. It's not a denial of existence, but recognition that our thoughts aren't as concrete as we think that they are. I wrote about this in the context of how the senses are empty and can't always be trusted here already so I won't go into it deeply here. Basically this teaching is an observation that our senses are unreliable because they are not only tainted by our own perspective but because they are also limited to the function of our sense organs.

In Buddhism the mind is considered a sense organ and thought is its sense so back to the above. Our thoughts are not the things they represent. They are like hollow forms we fill with our own associations.

Is that person we don't like at work really that bad a person? Why do we think that way? Where do these feelings come from? These are the kind of thoughts that may dissolve as we examine them. The issues and problems we have with other people only exist in ourselves.

This is the perspective that zazen can bring as we really examine how we see the world. Hopefully as our practice progresses, we not only think of others as being not separate from ourselves intellectually, but to feel that they are the same as we are with our very being.

Zazen can help us see that our fellow human beings are no separate from what we define as ourselves as our two hands are no separate from each other.

The spiritual aspects of yoga have gotten flack recently from some certain outspoken religious leaders, but it is not that different from zazen. There's no reason I can think of that believers of theistic religions can't practice zazen for spiritual benefit.

Sitting without chasing our thoughts brings up thoughts that we can't control. We acknowledge them and let them go. We open our minds to whatever comes up. If God is going to talk to us, what better time?

Seeing through our preconceptions about ourselves and others gets us in touch with the divine by showing us the interconnectedness of all of creation. How is this different than seeing the creator in everything?

Zazen, like yoga, is a tool as I mentioned in Part 1; a tool we can use to great benefit. It is not a devotional practice exclusive of other belief systems and in some form exists in the contemplative traditions of many faiths. Also like in Part 1, practicing it in this way won't make you a Buddhist. Zen Buddhism is just a belief system that utilizes zazen to actualize and deepen the beliefs of its practitioners.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

...But I Was Gonna Say That!

I'm not being lazy, just giving everyone a chance to read this! Really! If you came here from, stick around and check out the archives.  Otherwise, thanks for reading and check out the other contributors for Bayou Buddhists 

Rather than continue with Part 2 of what I started last week, (I'll get to that next week, honest!)  I'd like to address an interesting phenomena I've observed around the internet in regards to blogs about Buddhism, especially those personal blogs by practitioners.

Last week's post was a little embarrassing for me since, as I noted at the bottom, I read almost the same content in Brad Warner's Sex, Sin, and Zen just days after writing it.  This has happened to me a couple of times. I'll write something, browse through the blogs I follow and hey, I just wrote that, too!  (ahem, DukkhaGirl) Or I'll have an idea in mind, procrastinate by reading some other blogs and see my idea right in front of me.  I know it's not just me though, as I've seen others complain about the same thing happening to them.

So what's the deal?  Has our practice tapped us into some mystical universal mind that feeds us ideas?  Somehow, I really doubt it.

A lot of you may have heard the idea of living a Buddhist life as being a path.  That it's about the journey and not the destination.  Well, I haven't seen anything contrary to that so I, personally, am going to assume it's true.

We've all embarked on a personal journey for the truth, the ultimate nature of reality, nirvana, our original selves, whatever. (like I said it's about the journey, not the destination)  We've all picked a direction and started walking. 

Even our teachers and their teachings are considered no more than fingers pointing us in the right direction.  No one can walk the walk for us, we have to do it for ourselves.

While we've all chosen our own path, no matter what we call it, if it's the Buddha's Way or the Dharma that's pointing us, the destination is the same.

Yes, our journeys are unique, but quite often the terrain is similar.  Our teachers are way ahead of us and their experience provides them with somewhat of a road map to help us when we get stuck.  It can be surprising how accurate this road map can be sometimes.

It reminds me of rock climbing.  Our teachers have not only their own experiences to reflect upon, but all the help they've given others and all the help they've recieved as a guide.  Just as each spiritual journey is unique, each person has to approach the wall differently because their bodies are different, limb length varies as does flexibility and strength.  We climb up behind them and sometimes we get stuck.  Sure we could find a good spot to grab onto on our own, the first person to climb up had to, but having a guide tell us what to do next makes it quicker and more enjoyable.  They can't climb for us, but they can help.
So what does this have to do with borderline plagiarism? Well it's just a coincidence.  We're each just walking along, making observations.  Sometimes when we look up, we notice someone else is right there along side us dealing with the same issues or we see signs they've been here already.

They may be dealing with or have dealt with the same issues, but their unique path has given them a different perspective on things.  If we're open to it, we can see this as an opportunity to explore our situation a little better rather than get upset about how common our "original" ideas now seem.

We all bring our own experiences to the table.  Although we write about the same things, the way it's expressed not only tells us about the subject matter but it also tells us a little about who's writing it.  In a sense the author and the expression are no different from each other.  We put ourselves down in writing so that those that follow may benefit.

This doesn't just apply to a spiritual journey, though.  It can apply to anything.  An engineer might not approach a problem from the same perspective as a politician, but if they're both open to each other's views, they can combine their efforts to solve a problem.

All of this reminds me of one of the four Bodhisatva Vows.  I know we're not supposed to have favorites, but this one happens to be mine: "Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them."

This refers to the fact that truth can be found in any situation. We vow to learn from every experience and not dismiss anything as invalid.  My first experience with this concept is the idea that no book is so terrible we can't learn something from it.  (which has to do with censorship and book burning, but that's a whole other can of worms)  No matter how long we live and how much we see, there will still always be something to learn.

So the next time you read, or hear, or just plain experience something with which you either agree or disagree, ask yourself what you can learn from it.  Not just about the subject matter or the author, but what does it tell you about yourself?

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Little Death, A Little Birth - Every Moment

Since I found myself recounting this story over the weekend yet again, I felt it was finally  time for me to write about here.  I'd shared the general story a while back as a comment on Dangerous Harvests for a post titled "Just Die Completely".  Nathan's post was full of some good info and perspectives so if you like this check his out especially if you're a little bummed about life right now.

The summer before my junior year of high school, my family found out we would be moving to a new city about a thousand miles away.  A lot of people might think of this as a new and exciting opportunity; a chance to experience a new world and make new friends.

We did not.

As a family, there were some pretty big issues to deal with.  We had roots.  Most of our extended family lived where we were.  I had lived my whole life in houses no more than ten miles away from each other.  My dad would be moving in November and we wouldn't follow him until the summer after.

The few good friends I had I had known since kindergarten.  I didn't know how to make friends easily (and still don't) since nearly all of my activities had revolved around essentially the same twenty classmates until high school and even then I had classes with pretty much all the same students.

I knew my future was going to be different, I just thought that my past was my past and there was nothing anyone could do to take that away from me.  The more I thought about how much of an investment I had made of my past for the future, that changed.

Some of the smaller examples were things like not graduating with my high school class.  Where I came from, which high school you went to (for reasons I'm still not sure I understand) is apparently one of the most important things people want to know about you.  What was I to say?  My class ring was from one school, but my diploma would be for another.  Should I even bother getting a letter jacket?  It wouldn't come until just before I moved away and I couldn't wear it at another school, especially one that no one had heard of.

I'd put off dating (not initially so much of a conscious decision, but it was still a reason) until I would be able to drive.  It didn't seem very "adult" to have to rely on parents to drive me and a date around.  Now that I was going into my junior year with that ability, I didn't see the point.  Why would I start a relationship knowing that I would have to end it in less than nine months?  So I saved myself the trouble and did without.

The biggest blow was that of choice of university.  I'd pretty much planned where I wanted to go to school for as long as I knew of it as a possibility.  It was within walking distance of my home so I could live off campus.  They offered programs that I was interested in.  I didn't even bother seriously considering any other school.  It was expensive, but only enough so where living at home would be enough of a break to make it possible.  Moving a thousand miles away made that not such an easy choice.

So slowly I watched my future fall away in front of me like a road collapsing into the void.  Looking behind, my past followed.  I found myself adrift in the emptiness of time.  I was starting to find myself as a person but the identity that I had built for my future self in the past no longer mattered since my future was now gone.

There was a numb sadness, a fear that I didn't recognize.  There was no anger, only the helplessness of an overturned turtle.  I was still just a child, a teenager yes, but I had no real say or power in the situation.  My only option was to accept it.

And I did my best to do just that.  My life kept going, I made new friends, experienced things I hadn't even dreamt of.  There are still echos persisting in my life, even to this day.  But they're not all bad; depending on how I view them they're quite good.

While I didn't realize it at the time, this was my first, and in some ways, most important lesson in the Dharma.  I didn't have the tools to wrap my mind around it at the time, but this is impermanence.  That feeling of drifting, disconnected from the past and the future was a "little death" and it was very powerful.

In a way it was also freedom, though, the freedom to become a new person which I did somewhat.  I'm a very habitual person.  I fall into a habit and it's very difficult to get out.  It doesn't matter how destructive it may be, it still feels somewhat comfortable.  This taste of freedom was only a taste, though.  It would take me another fifteen years of life to see the true potential of what started cooking so long ago.

I didn't have my practice to rely on, or any teachings like I do now to help me get through all of that, but I did alright.  Now I'm fortunate to have the tools I do and with the grounding of that experience, I also have the perspective to see every moment's possibility for a "little birth." Each moment is a new opportunity to change myself for the better, to shake bad habits and build new ones.

It's important to remember the universe doesn't make distinctions.  The Dharma just is.  While it may be warm and comforting, it can also burn like hellfire.  We experience what we need.  All those Zen masters prone to beating their students or pushing them out windows, they weren't sadistic.  That was compassion.  They did what needed to be done for their students to wake up.

I try not to regret my experiences as bad, any of them.  I have no more control to change them than I did to prevent our relocation all those years ago.  I can only do what I can do.  So that's what I'll keep on doing.

This, of course, isn't an excuse to slack off, it is in no way resigning myself to fate or falling into predestination. It takes effort, unwavering effort, to do all that I can do.  I still have a choice, it is still freedom.  I can always just relax and let things happen, but there will be consequences.  "Freedom isn't free" as they say, it comes with a price.

So with fifteen years of experiences and results to reflect on, I'm okay with what happened.  I am who I am today because of it.  The person I wanted to be doesn't exist and I'm fine with that because it wouldn't be me.  How often do things really turn out how we expect them to anyway?  And even if they do, do we still feel the way we thought we would when they happen?

Make the best of life, look around and be happy knowing that while it could get worse or it might have been better,  it could also get better or it might have been worse.  Even this doesn't matter though, because we don't live in the past or the future.  We live now.

So live now.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What's So Funny?

As I've been moving things around, both in my apartment and in my head, I of course stumbled across a few things.  In the apartment: my little laughing Buddha statues.  In my head: more thoughts about what's going on with my practice.  The combination has left me with this:

I think Hotei laughs because enlightenment is an inside joke.

I don't get it.  Previously, I didn't care.  If I was going to, so be it, but I was okay not getting it.

That seems to have changed.  While I'm still fine not getting it for now, I'm determined to someday.

On top of that the dharma talk today was all about the Virya ParamitaParamita is Sanskrit for "crossing over" and refers to the group of practices that assist us in reaching enlightenment.  The Virya Paramita has to do with enthusiastic perseverance.  It hit home with a lot of people for a lot of different reasons, mine for the reasons listed in my last post.

It's just so weird how that works out.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


While I don't find it surprising given the number of personal practice blogs I read, it did catch me a little off guard to find myself running into doubt about my practice.  The first real inkling was in my second comment here.  Not too long after posting it, it caused confusion in me.

I don't really not believe in attaining enlightenment, do I?  Have I convinced myself so well that there's no goal or attainment in my practice that I just proceed blindly just because sitting is what I'm supposed to do?

I just started reading John Daido Loori's The Eight Gates of Zen.  It's an interesting read, but a certain passage from his chapter concerning the ten stages of practice really opened my eyes to what was going on.

He uses the Ten Ox Herding Pictures as indicators of the stages of practice, which is more or less what they were intended for. If you're unfamiliar with them here's some wiki info but Jack Daw did a good job summarizing what they mean.  It's basically a metaphor using the ox as our true nature and the process of searching for it, finding it, taming it, and letting it go.

But anyway, I get to the part where he talks about the second stage of practice:
During the early phases of practice, many people are seduced by the exotic trappings of the monastic setting - the robes, incense, sounds of bells, feeling of stillness and awe. This novelty and intensity mark a honeymoon period of practice... 
In the second stage, the student develops great faith, great doubt, and great determination, the three pillars of sound practice... The grasp of the teachings tends to be very intellectual at this point and the whole thrust of practice has to do with taking that intellectual understanding and making it very personal and intimate.
He goes on to use the image of the second picture, that of finding tracks or traces of the ox, to describe how seeing traces, we intellectually perceive the object of our search.

What was most eye opening was the three pillars of sound practice. Until I'd read that I didn't really see what was going on.  I had intellectualized the concept of "no goal" to the point of convincing myself the ox didn't really exist.  How this happened, I don't know.  I hadn't realized I had such faith in what I had learned until doubt showed up, and furthermore hadn't realized I had doubt until the above passage inspired a determination to find out for myself whether or not I believed what I did.

Looking back, there were some signs.   My enthusiasm for my practice hadn't waned, but something was stagnant, I didn't feel I was going anywhere.  Intellectually I knew this was okay, but deep down something still felt absent.  I sat because I felt that was what I was supposed to do, this period was a phase that I was only going to get through if I persevered.

Also, my practice itself came into question.  I'd never counted my breaths, it was just too hard.  I couldn't tell what constituted a thought worthy of starting over or not and my breaths were so long that I had to hold that number for a while to keep thoughts from sneaking in between.  So Dogen's instruction to avoid such practices were somewhat of a relief.  It was far easier to watch the thoughts come and go than to create the thought of counting and holding that track. It seemed to go against the purpose of practice.

But I was starting to doubt that decision as my practice seemed to be more full of thoughts than not.  I was struggling to keep myself in the present. Maybe I had skipped a step in sharpening my focus.

I had been sitting longer at home, but it didn't seem to matter.  Yesterday, sitting at the Zen Center, the second session seemed different though.  Thoughts were still there, but there wasn't as much white noise in the background.  This morning, armed with whatever sprouted in my brain from that passage, my sitting at home was similar.  It felt like it used to as I got about twenty minutes in.

The rest of the section on the second stage discusses how this stage is where the student starts to take the teachings and experiences out of the head  and into life, into actualizing the teachings.  I see this going on with me, but a lot of it still does exist in my mind.  Accidentally I have moments of awareness off the cushion that have a different feeling to them, not good or bad or special just different.  It's almost like the planets of my physical action and my mental action align and I objectively witness an eclipse.  But the action of noticing it, scares it away.

I feel I find myself at the first base camp of my mountain climb of practice.  The walk here has had its difficulties but the view of the mountain has been nice.  At this distance, I see the reality of the climb ahead of me, how serious it is.  I also see the true need for a teacher, a guide who has climbed this mountain before.  My faith was the romantic idea of how wonderful it will be to climb, but now doubt has caused me to rethink it,  "Is it worth it?  Is it really all that they say it is?"  Determination has made its appearance and I'm ready.  I've come this far already, I can't just turn around and forget all that I've seen.

So onward I go.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

As Seen on

I was featured today for my intro post on today.

"Zen in the kitchen
Anthony Bourdain inspires a young Buddhist chef to see the universality of food."

If you haven't read it check it out, you might learn something about me you didn't already know.

Apparently name dropping is a pretty good way to get recognized.  I seem to have been misquoted as having been "inspired" by Anthony Bourdain rather than "influenced."  And in context, I was referring to wanting to write, not my views on cooking and spirituality.

Oh, well... guess that's the life of a celebrity. ;)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Just Leaving It All Behind

It saddens me sometimes to read biographical accounts of individuals who, upon discovering some life changing faith, leave their families in favor of monastic life.  I know that some see it as a true calling and may not be leaving very much behind, but having difficulties with personal relationships is sometimes the disease and not just a symptom.  Renouncing the world to live some sheltered pseudo life is not the answer.

There have been times in my life where I could see running off and joining the "circus" so to speak, but usually I was in a mostly happy relationship or pursuing other things that would have interfered.  It did seem romantic and comforting to know such places existed.  Since those times, I've seen what I really would have been missing out on.

That's where the sadness comes in.  Just like everyone else, I've had some hard times, especially in interpersonal relationships.  Things just seemed so awful that I wanted to give up.  Not being a suicide enthusiast, it was going to take some rougher times to get me that extreme, but what is there between normal happy life and just ending it?

If Zen has any sort of analogue to the idea of Evil as opposing its ideals, that would probably be escapism.  Every moment of our Zen existence is geared towards living fully in the moment.  If you truly seek enlightenment, to see your true nature, then you have to live your life.  Good times, bad times,  it's your life and no one else can live it.  Embrace it with attentiveness and gratitude.  You can't just run off to leave your problems behind because they will follow you.

Do I have a problem with monastic life?  Absolutely not, I think it can be a beautiful thing when chosen for the right reasons.  I see it as a sacrifice for the benefit of others, one pointed devotion to becoming a living resource of wisdom and experience.  It takes dedication and determination.  I'm not saying it seems easy in comparison to normal life, just different.

To take vows to avoid the hassle of life is a little odd in this way, almost like a criminal becoming a police officer so he'll stop getting busted.  They're after their own interest and they're still probably going to get busted.  To see the problems of crime and becoming a police officer to reach out to others who were like you and help them, is a different matter.

Monotony is the reward for renouncing the world.  Safe and predictable, it makes life easier.  But so many opportunities for growth are thrown out with the variety of daily life.  Pushing through the ordeals, we are rewarded with a sense of accomplishment.

If my life continues as it is, when the world relieves me of my commitments, monastic life would be a greater choice than golfing in Florida.  But I'm still not ready for that.  Until then I have family to provide me with meaning, struggles and rewards.

This past weekend was fun and all the reminder of that that I needed.  My girlfriend does not share my practice, none of it: cooking, Zen, or Aikido.  We're both fine with that. They're all a big part of my life and take a lot of my time, sometimes a little too much.  So remember what's really important.  Keep things in perspective.  Do what I did and take a step back and observe the situation before you don't recognize yourself anymore.

Friday, October 1, 2010

In Defense of Zazen - Part 1: Its Merit As Secular Practice

This post will be mirrored at Bayou Buddhists at, my first actual post there.  If you came here from there, thank you for reading. Check out the archives and come back soon.  Otherwise enjoy the post.

 Due to our "peaceful and accepting" reputation outside of our community, it may surprise some that even Buddhists suffer the problems of sectarian differences.  There are fundamental basics that are more or less undeniable, but not all Buddhists believe the same things.

Very much like the Judeo-Christian-Islamic family tree, throughout history there have been divides.  Maybe I'll go into this deeper some other time but for now just know that at the very least, we have either agreed to disagree or just ignored each others' differences. We practice Buddhism to free ourselves from the selfish demands of the ego, not because we have already.  So of course we still get caught up in the delusion of my tradition is better than yours.

One of the issues circulating is that of the importance of meditation.  In the Zen tradition it is known as zazen, a Japanese term handed down to us through the Chinese chán from the Sanskrit word dhyana which basically boils down to "meditation."  While other traditions place different emphasis on meditation, in Zen this is it.  There are other ways of practicing, but zazen is the foundation and all other ways are just derivatives.

In some other traditions, meditation is a good description of what you do when you sit. defines meditation as "continued or extended thought; reflection; contemplation" and "devout religious contemplation or spiritual introspection."  Other traditions focus on an ideal to cultivate, whether compassion or the emptiness of suffering or something else.  There's nothing wrong with any of those, but it's not zazen.

So if it's not really meditation, what makes it so different? 

As most people know, a tenet of Buddhism is that existence is suffering.  Well this suffering is caused by desire.  These are simplified statements that actually have much deeper meanings, but for my purpose here, they'll work.

Desire is wanting something you don't have, but it's so much more than that.  In essence, the suffering caused by this desire is discontent with our current situation in the moment.  Why do I stress "in the moment?"  Because our discontent pushes our thoughts to plans, hopes, fantasies and worries about the future, or regrets and nostalgia for the past.  This prevents us from living life in the "concrete" world of the present, accepting life with an open mind and heart will bring peace.

In zazen, we sit.  That's it.  It's most descriptive term for what is actually going on.  In Japanese it's called shikantaza ("just sitting").  The sister tradition of the Zen tradition I practice, Soto, is Rinzai and they do things a little differently.  So from here on out I'm only discussing Soto practice. I will refer to zazen in English as sitting to distinguish it from meditation.

There's an anecdote told in our tradition concerning what's going on during shikantaza.  One monk asks his teacher about it and the teacher replies "it's thinking the thought of not-thinking."  The monk asks for clarification and the teacher's response is "it's different than thinking."  Yeah, it's confusing and humorous as Zen banter is often considered, but it has real meaning.  The thinking that it's different from is the calculating, reminiscent, fantasizing thought of daydreaming.  The thought of "not-thinking" is being present in the moment.  To think the thought of not-thinking is to not chase trains of thought around in your brain.

This youtube video is a fantastic example of how to sit.  From the beginning it stresses  that zazen is not a strictly Buddhist practice, or even a religious one at that.  This is the point that I'd like to drive home for you non-Buddhist readers.  Some people are sticklers for correct posture so this is a good resource for that care of Brad Warner.  I couldn't care less about enforcing posture, but I do know that your results will only be as serious as your effort.  An upright mind can only life in an upright body.  (Improved posture is actually a wonderful side effect.)

Zazen is a concentration exercise.  In Zen, other things may happen when practiced in that context, but essentially it is a secular tool that can be used by everyone.  Sitting is excellent as a secular tool because there are no visualizations or mantras or anything.  You just sit and stare at a wall, trying to be present.

Even if you don't buy the logic that living in the present without worrying, regretting, or fantasizing, everyone's a sucker for building concentration and focus.  There are supplements and medications marketed for this purpose.  I myself, was diagnosed with ADD at a young age and hated the medications I took.  I have found myself not saved by my faith, but by the practice of sitting mindfully concentrating on the present.

Everyone has those moments where they find themselves day dreaming and snap back to reality.  Maybe you walk into a room and can't remember what you came in for.  Or you may find yourself in a stressful situation and can't concentrate on what's at hand because you're worrying about what will happen if you do something wrong or what people are thinking about you, etc. Sitting won't cure you of these ailments, but it can help.

How you ask?  I'll lean on a metaphor that I came up with that explains the importance of sitting but that I also apply to practicing martial arts and potentially other things as well.  

Sitting is like going to the gym.  Just as we exercise our bodies, we must exercise our minds.  The gym is a controlled environment where we can work on specific muscles in a controlled way.  By eliminating outside influence and variables from a routine, specific muscles are strengthened in the most efficient way.  It may be boring, but it's the still the most efficient.  Getting fit in the gym allows for better performance when playing sports.  Sure just playing sports will exercise the body, but there are uncontrolled factors.  In something like tennis, you may not have to run all over the court or end up only returning forehand shots.  You don't work on cardio and one side of your body doesn't get used.

Our minds are muscles, too.  To quietly sit on a cushion is to limit outside influences to a very controlled setting.  It's unbelievably boring as I've explained before,  but you're not there to have a good time.  It requires discipline just like going to the gym.  And just like going to the gym, you won't see immediate results.  You won't even feel like you're doing it right after years of experience until you accept that it's about the exercise, not the results. 

So what does it exercise?  Sitting is the most efficient way to strengthen concentration.  Without the added distraction of activity outside your mind, errant thoughts are your only concern.  If you can't stay focused in this situation, how can you expect to keep your cool while taking that big exam, flying an airplane, or performing open heart surgery? 

Sure there are other activities to hone your concentration, but none are as efficient as sitting.  As this activity becomes a habit, grooves will wear into how your mind functions and you find it easier to find and fall into that "concentration place."  Throughout the day, you may be able to accomplish more with better results as your mindfulness increases.  Your mind may still wander, but when you notice, it will be easier to come and stay back.

If you've gotten down to this, the end of part one, you've already proven to have an open mind that may tolerate some boredom.  So give it a try, set aside a few minutes... say ten a day for a week and just sit.  Don't judge yourself, follow the instructions in the video above.  It may be a little painful or uncomfortable, especially if you're not used to sitting like that, but that's part of it and it will get easier. There's nothing religious about so don't think as soon as you sit down, Pow! You're a Buddhist!  I'll get into the interfaith issues next time.