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Archive for the ‘Spirituality’ Category

Questioner: I am what I know myself to be.

Nisargadatta Maharaj:  You cannot possibly say that you are what you think yourself to be! Your ideas about yourself change from day to day and from moment to moment. Your self-image is the most changeful thing you have. It is utterly vulnerable, at the mercy of a passerby. A bereavement, the loss of a job, an insult, and your image of yourself, which you call your person, changes deeply. To know what you are you must first investigate and know what you are not. And to know what you are not you must watch yourself carefully, rejecting all that does not necessarily go with the basic fact: ‘I am’. The ideas: I am born at a given place, at a given time, from my parents and now I am so-and-so, living at, married to, father of, employed by, and so on, are not inherent in the sense ‘I am’. Our usual attitude is of ‘I am this’. Separate consistently and perseveringly the ‘I am’ from ‘this’ or ‘that’, and try to feel what it means to be, just to be, without being ‘this’ or ‘that’. All our habits go against it and the task of fighting them is long and hard sometimes, but clear understanding helps a lot. The clearer you understand that on the level of the mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker you will come to the end of your search and realize your limitless being.

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Questioner: All teachers advise us to meditate. Why should we meditate?

Nisargadatta Maharaj: We know the outer world of sensations and actions, but of our inner world of thoughts and feelings we know very little. The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness.

Incidentally the practice of meditation deeply affects our character. We are slaves to what we do not know; of what we know we are masters. Whatever vice or weakness in ourselves we discover and understand its causes and its workings, we overcome it by the very knowing; the unconscious dissolves when brought into the conscious. The dissolution of the unconscious releases energy; the mind feels adequate and become quiet.

Q: What is the purpose of meditation?

Maharaj:  Seeing the false as the false, is meditation. This must go on all the time.

Q: We are told to meditate regularly.

Maharaj:  Deliberate daily exercise in discrimination between the true and the false and renunciation of the false is meditation. There are many kinds of meditation to begin with, but they all merge finally into one.

You may choose any way that suits you; your earnestness will determine the rate of progress.

Q: No hint for me?

Maharaj:  Establish yourself firmly in the awareness of ‘I am’. This is the beginning and also the end of all endeavor.

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For me, Nisargadatta Maharaj is an incredible inspiration. Like many before me, I have been touched deeply by the teachings and insights of this remarkable man.  I am That, a collection of dialogues with his students, is free from cultural and religious trappings. The wisdom he expounds is stripped bare of all that is unnecessary. If we lived in a world were we could only possess a single book, you would surely find a copy of I am That in my bag. I’ve read and reread this book a number of times, and decided this last time to pull out a number of passages that I find helpful for navigating this crazy existence. I plan to share a few of them over the coming months.

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Questioner: At what point does one experience reality?

Nisargadatta Maharaj: Experience is of change, it comes and goes. Reality is not an event, it cannot be experienced. It is not perceivable in the same way as an event is perceivable. If you wait for an event to take place, for the coming of reality, you will wait forever, for reality neither comes nor goes. It is to be perceived, not expected. It is not to be prepared for and anticipated. But the very longing and search for reality is the movement, operation, action of reality. All you can do is to grasp the central point, that reality is not an event and does not happen and whatever happens, whatever comes and goes, is not reality. See the event as event only, the transient as transient, experience as mere experience and you have done all you can. Then you are vulnerable to reality, no longer armored against it, as you were when you gave reality to events and experiences. But as soon as there is some like or dislike, you have built a screen.

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Two weekends ago I participated in a Zen Seminar with the same title as this post: Living with No Gaining Idea. It is a rich topic and one that is very relevant to my life at this time. Zen is particularly focused on questions much more than the answers. When you know something in the traditional sense, it is no longer alive, its becomes static. A question is living, dynamic, exploratory. For example:

What is a gaining idea?

Why are gaining ideas so compelling?

What are we gaining through our gaining ideas?

Is it practical to live in this world with no gaining idea?

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki says living with no gaining idea is getting rid of what’s extra.  But how do we know what is extra?

These questions and many more all swirled in our discussion and conversation. One of the first things I noticed after sitting with this topic is that as my life shifted in recent years from the realm of career to that of spirit, I found myself often not so much with gaining ideas as I did losing ideas. What I mean by losing ideas are those that sound like “If I only didn’t do this…. or If I could stop this habit…” On the surface they seem very different from gaining, but in actuality they have the same energetic quality: that of not accepting what is in this moment.  That is, seeking gain or loss from what is. That means the seminar could have been titled, Living with no Idea.  Hey, maybe we’re getting somewhere.  You might say, I don’t live with an idea, I just live.  But if you look deeply I bet you’ll find what I like to call hidden assumptions about how the world works, how you exist in the world and in relation to others. These are all forms of unexamined ideas.

In the times of your greatest suffering or pain, what is actually happening? I’ve discovered that it is when these unexamined ideas are challenged and shown to be relative, partial views of reality. Its when the world, through your career, your partner or something else challenges this hidden assumption and forces you into a place of uncertainty. In this uncertainty, we have a choice – do we rapidly seek a new idea to stand upon, or can we rest in this unknowing? I would argue, in theory, that this is the only true way of being and that this unknowing is what Suzuki Roshi is speaking of by ‘getting rid of what’s extra’ to live with no gaining idea.

Therefore, whenever our activity (or doing) is organized by an idea, it is rather fragile. An opposing idea can easily knock us off balance. If we can’t trust ideas to base our life on, then what trust is possible? On what do we base our actions? This is maybe the crux of Zen and on what Zen Koan practice is based upon. Suzuki Roshi commenting on the famous one hand clapping koan:

We say, "To hear the sound of one hand clapping."
Usually the sound of clapping is made with two hands, and
we think that clapping with one hand makes no sound at all.
But actually, one hand is sound. Even though you do not hear
it, there is sound. If you clap with two hands, you can hear
the sound. But if sound did not already exist before you
clapped, you could not make the sound. Before you make it
there is sound. Because there is sound, you can make it, and
you can hear it. Sound is everywhere. If you just practice
it, there is sound. Do not try to listen to it. If you do not
listen to it, the sound is all over. Because you try to hear it,
sometimes there is sound, and sometimes there is no sound.
Do you understand? Even though you do not do anything,
you have the quality of zazen always. But if you try to find
it, if you try to see the quality, you have no quality.

For me, this discussion and Zen practice itself often lands on a common denominator: the practice of acceptance. When you say are accepting of a situation, is this a wholehearted acceptance, or is it acceptable because it meets certain conditions?  When a situation is unacceptable to you, do you work on this fundamental accepting, or do you, like me, find yourself all too often attempting to change external conditions so that the situation can once again fall under your idea of what is acceptable?

 

All we want to do is to know things just as they
are. If we know things as they are, there is nothing to point
at; there is no way to grasp anything; there is no thing to
grasp. We cannot put emphasis on any point. Nevertheless,
as Dogen said, "A flower falls, even though we love it; and
a weed grows, even though we do not love it ." Even though
it is so, this is our life.

In this way our life should be understood. Then there is
no problem. Because we put emphasis on some particular
point, we always have trouble. We should accept things just
as they are. This is how we understand everything, and how
we live in this world. This kind of experience is something
beyond our thinking. In the thinking realm there is a difference
between oneness and variety; but in actual experience,
variety and unity are the same. Because you create some idea
of unity or variety, you are caught by the idea. And you have
to continue the endless thinking, although actually there is
no need to think.

 

Thanks for listening to my ramblings.

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In light of yesterday’s post, I’d like to dive a little deeper into this idea of living a life of intention. First, what exactly is the difference between an intentional life and an unintentional one? In Buddhist lingo, an unintentional existence can be considered living karmically. This means that you are subject to your habits, your past conditioning, the circumstances in which you exist. There may be a vague sense of seeking happiness or pleasure, but you’ve not deeply examined this ‘sense’. 

Intentional living can take on various meanings too. There can be an intention to become as rich and powerful as possible, or there can be an intention to free all beings from suffering (the heart of the Bodhisattva Vows introduced yesterday). Each direction can be add clarity to one’s life, yet I’ll argue that deeply questioning or witnessing one’s experience in this world makes it very difficult to pursue the former.

Buddhism has taken many forms throughout history – today its often considered a philosophy, a religion, a soteriological method, or even a trendy fashion. Some consider it all or none of these. The precepts referred to yesterday stem from a long tradition of providing a framework of living intentionally. For many of us accustomed to the “Ten commandments” from our upbringing, the Buddhist precepts can feel like a list of Do’s and Don’ts. This is not really their intention, instead they are supposed to shed light on our actions. What is the state of mind that exists when a precept is broken?

A Buddhist does not ask what is right or wrong, but "What am I to do at this moment?" Therefore, even killing cannot be considered right or wrong, removed from the context of the moment. There is a legend of the Buddha in a previous lifetime killing someone who was about to commit a mass-murder. If he was stuck in the idea of “Thou shalt not kill”, or any other idea, he is not free to act appropriately in a given situation. The precepts are more a guideline for figuring out how to live, rather than telling us exactly how to live.

Personally, I decided that before I would consider receiving the precepts formally with my teacher, I would hold them in my daily life, to see how they resonated with and for me. Over time, while I found the list and framework helpful, they still felt rather removed from me and abstract. After several conversations with my teachers, and continued examination of my own practice, what I found most effective in living an intentional life was through developing my own vows in the context of the greater Bodhisattva vows. These vows, which I recite daily, are constantly evolving: sometimes I add a new one or remove one, sometimes I change the wording to evoke a stronger resonance within my day. When living at the monastery I would silently recite these vows during our morning prostrations, which seemed to have the effect of shifting these vows from abstract ideas to an embodiment that I could carry with me in my day. This will continue to be a dynamic process as my life evolves and my practice deepens.

I’d like to take a step back – I again went down the Buddhist path, yet I really want to focus more generally on intentional living, no matter what your faith or background is.  There is a thin line between intentional living and controlled living. I feel that a controlled life falls more in line with the example I previously gave, that of seeking power and money. Any idea of control is always perceived control, because the world is wholly unpredictable and constantly changing. We know this, yet we continue to seek controls – over our emotions, our bodies, our relationships, our financial situation, etc., etc. Yet this is also one of our greatest sources of misery – when our perfectly laid plans don’t work out, when we are surprised by our partner leaving us or losing our job.

An intentional life doesn’t hold onto ideas like “ I need to be a millionaire” or “I need to look a certain way” or “I will own a big house and have 3 kids with my beautiful partner”.  It is much more fundamental: vowing to live compassionately, to live connected with all other beings, to keep your attention in your breath, body and phenomena. Intentionality can infuse all of our actions, it can allow us to remain centered and directed despite the ever changing circumstances. Or more elegantly stated:

The light of intention always shines through the weeds of karma

Do you live an intentional life? What are your intentions? Can you articulate them and share them with others? Do you have hidden intentions that may not actually benefit yourself and others?  Ask yourself these things.

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Sewing a Rakusu

I spent last weekend sewing a bib. I’ve never sewn in my life, why the sudden attention, and why a bib?  Well, a bib isn’t quite the right word, I was actually sewing what is called a rakusu at a workshop at the Crestone Mountain Zen Center.

The rakusu symbolically represents the garments (robe) that the Buddha put together to wear after he left his palace to seek enlightenment. According to Buddhist scripture, Siddhartha left the palace where he was a prince, collected rags from trash heaps, funeral pyres, and various other places in order to construct his robe. When Buddhism came to China, the living conditions led the Chinese monks to engage in physical labor to grow their food and maintain their temples and monasteries, and on occasion to do public works like road maintenance, so the outer robe was worn only on ceremonial occasions. The legend is that during the Tang Dynasty, when the Chinese emperors forbid the wearing of robes, then Buddhist monks created a miniature version of their robe to be worn secretly around the neck underneath their regular lay clothing. Today this tradition survives in Japan and the West, and the rakusu is a traditionally Japanese garment worn around the neck of Zen Buddhists who have taken the precepts.

Once the rakusu is completed ( I still have a long way to go!), I will officially be ordained with my teacher, Baker-roshi, in a formal ceremony called Jukai(receiving the precepts) which is in a sense a formal rite of passage that marks entrance into the Buddhist community.

For several years I have been considering this process and at some point during my 6-month stay at the monastery I formally requested the precepts from my teacher. What does this actually mean beyond sewing some fabric together and being initiated by my teacher?

Ultimately receiving the precepts are about one’s relationship to oneself and the world:

When we maintain the precepts and the spirit of the precepts in how we walk, how we sit, how we eat, how we talk, and how we relate to one another and to our environment, their constant presence brings light to our lives. The precepts transform us and bring us real freedom. Therefore, far from being a list of rules that restrict or deaden our lives, the true precepts are life giving, each one expressing our true nature, and that’s their real meaning.

Below is the list of precepts received in an ordination ceremony. Soon I’ll explore in more detail my relationship with these statements and what it means for me to live an intentional life.

 

Path of the Precepts of the Three Treasures

     I take refuge in the Buddha

     I take refuge in the Dharma

     I take refuge in the Sangha

Three Purifying Precepts

     I vow to avoid all harmful actions

     I vow to act beneficially in all things

     I vow to live for the benefit of all sentient beings

Ten Prohibitory Precepts

     A Disciple of the Buddha does not kill

          I am aware of the preciousness of each existence

     A Disciple of the Buddha does not take what is not given

          I am aware of the independence of each thing

     A Disciple of the Buddha is not involved in sexual misconduct

          I am aware of my Actions

     A Disciple of the Buddha does not lie

          I am aware of the effect of my speech

     A Disciple of the Buddha does not delude others

         I am aware of the effect of my conduct

     A Disciple of the Buddha does not slander others

         I am aware that each person is seed of Buddhahood

     A Disciple of the Buddha does not praise self

         I am aware of the interdependence of all things

     A Disciple of the Buddha is not possessive of others, of wealth, or of the   Teaching

         I am aware of the truth of the Dharma

     A Disciple of the Buddha does not harbor ill-will

         I am aware of the consequences of anger and hatred

     A Disciple of the Buddha does not abuse the Three Treasures

          I am aware that Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha include all things

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In the great rest and great halting the lips become moldy and mountains of grass grow on your tongue. Moving straight ahead [beyond this state], totally let go, washed clean and ground to a fine polish. Respond with brilliant light to such unfathomable depths as the waters of autumn or the moon stamped in the sky. Then you must know there is a path on which to turn yourself around. When you do turn yourself around you have no different face that can be recognized. Even if you do not recognize your face, still nothing can hide it. This is penetrating from the topmost all the way down to the bottom. When you have thoroughly investigated your roots back to their ultimate source, a thousand or ten thousand sages are no more than footprints on the trail. In wonder return to the journey, avail yourself of the path and walk ahead. In light there is darkness; where it operates no traces remain. With the hundred grass tips in the busy marketplace graciously share yourself. Wide open and accessible, walking along, casually mount the sounds and straddle the colors while you transcend listening and surpass watching. Perfectly unifying in this manner is simply a patch-robed monk’s appropriate activity.

~Zen Master Hongzhi

 

Excerpt from:

Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi,
translated by Taigen Dan Leighton with Yi Wu, Edited with Introduction by Taigen Dan Leighton, Revised Expanded Edition, Tuttle Publishing, 2000.

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