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.