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Archive for the ‘Zen’ Category

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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Gratitude

The idea, or rather the feeling of gratitude has been growing in me lately. I’ve been wondering if it is something I can write about, determined I probably could not, until reading a friend’s post literally as if it was written to me. How serendipitous!

My gratitude extends far and wide, to the myriad things that have conspired to for me to be right here, right now. And no, not exactly sweating profusely on a rickety old bus in southern Thailand – the greater part of my right now, this entire movement towards a life of Love and Wisdom, Connectedness and Compassion.

My recent retreat focused on the concept of the spiritual heart, moving one’s center of consciousness from the mind to the center of the chest, opening towards a state of nonduality and love. The meditations were partially guided (usually the first 5-10 minutes), and one of the most poetic metaphors that kept coming up was this idea of blowing upon the ember of the heart.  The ember represents the hidden power of the light of the spirit, hidden in the material world of the earth. When blown upon, it ignites into brilliant light and heat, and when many embers are close together they can also erupt into light. Beautiful.

gratitudeI find myself often in meditation giving thanks, being grateful for so much. The cushion I’m sitting on, the Zendo I’m in and the others in it practicing with me. The Buddha, the incense and all those who worked tirelessly to produce such things. The individuals who created the conditions for the Zendo to exist, their teachers and the entire lineage. My life: my parents for their unconditional love, my sister, my greater family, friends, lovers, and even the single serving friends who passed through this existence with me just for a moment or a few hours. I am grateful for all of my teachers, old and new, the many authors and poets who have inspired me. Then there is the great expanse of mother earth, her plants and light that has nourished me, her oceans and deserts and great mountains and streams that have provided countless undulations of inspiration and bliss.  The list goes on and on.

This feeling often evokes several expressions of Dogen’s:

The entire world in the ten directions is the true human body

and part of Genjo Koan:

Conveying the self to the myriad things to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment

 

Thank you Myriad Things…

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Last weekend my Zen Teacher was in town leading one of his twice annual seminars at the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder. I’ve attended several of these over the past couple of years and while always very opening and stimulating weekends, this one in particular was very much aligned with my practice and deeply insightful.  Roshi continued a series of teachings on Yogacara that began unfolding during our 7-day sesshin several weeks ago. In an effort to summarize several of the key teachings I thought I would write a little about them.

Embodying the Truth was the title and Roshi began by describing Zen as a Yogic practice of embodiment.  Paraphrasing Patanjali, who is believed to have written many of the foundational texts for Yoga (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), Roshi stated: Yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind, fluctuations also being considered as “thought impulses”.

A powerful observation and distinction he made at this point was that not all mental formations are what we would consider thought impulses.  Basically, thoughts that distinguish the world are very different than thoughts that push us out of immediacy. Distinguishing appearances in the world is very different than comparing them. Comparing them implies a judging observer, and therefore comparing takes is out of immediacy into self-referential thinking.  This is a very important observation. I often hear people describing meditation or Zen practice as stopping all thoughts or thinking, however this isn’t accurate, as thoughts are of the mind as sights are of the eyes. We are simply trying to stop self-referential and over-conceptual thinking, not all thinking.

We then explored immediacy in greater detail, Roshi’s term for what popular Buddhism has coined as Mindfulness Practice. Roshi defines immediacy as the energetic engagement in experience and breaks it up into three aspects:  

     1. Situated Immediacy (Emphasizing Noticing)

     2. Body/Mind Immediacy (Emphasizing Feeling)

     3. Engaged Immediacy (Emphasizing Doing)

For me, this was a helpful tool in opening up the practice of immediacy as more accessible. I think I may have overemphasized noticing as the primary practice of immediacy over the other two.

Next, Roshi posed the question: Are you holding the present (immediacy) that you are receiving?  We have a choice in each and every moment, towards wisdom or delusion. Not a conscious choice, but one cultivated through Yogic practice. To remain in immediacy is the choice of wisdom, to stick to our usual practice of viewing immediacy though self-referentiality is delusion. This is echoed in Dogen’s Genjokoan

Conveying the self to the myriad things to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment

For most of us, our concepts of self are so much stronger than our concepts of the situational context or field that it takes time and practice to begin to shift our views.

Roshi then delved deeper into this moment of choice, developing a teaching around the chain of sensation <-–> perception <-–> conception that is our usual way of experiencing the world.  For example, imagine walking down a dirt path in the dark of night with only a small flashlight. In an instant, your flashlight may illuminate a rock in your path. At this moment the rock is in your sensorium, as a sensation. As soon as the light leaves the rock, the rock becomes a perception (oh I better not trip on that rock), no longer a sensation coming through any of your sensorial channel (unless of course you trip on it!). The perception of the rock functions within a concept of going somewhere or doing something (why are you walking in the first place?).

This is a very simple example, but you can imagine countless others: you hear a piece of music, and you immediately conceptualize and start recalling memories. Ooops, you’re no longer in immediacy! What happened to the perception in this example?  Well, the perception is this critical moment of choice as described above. Do we allow our perception to remain in the uniqueness of immediacy, or do we allow it to be conditioned by cognition, leading towards discursive, self-referential thought? The percept in the music example is simply a pleasant set of tones that influence you physically. How quickly we miss this.

Ironically, most often, it is our concepts that influence our perceptions, that actually go on to influence our sensations. This is sort of radical. Many people believe what you see is what you get. But what they don’t realize is that what they see has been completely altered by their cognizing mind and conceptions of the world.

Basically, the moment of percept is where this critical choice comes in: The percept can belong to the senses rather than coming from our conceptual framework.

A Yogic conception is a non-conceptual perception and this we cultivate through zazen practice.  Our adeptness of Yogic practice determines our movement towards sensation or conception from perception. We are cultivating Dogen’s Backwards Step, stepping back from the habit of conceptualization, not labeling sensation, which is beginning to see the world non-conceptually (non-dually), and the basis for realizing Buddha Mind.

We can begin to define our world with sensation more than visual separation, practicing sensorial articulation by separating the senses, practicing with techniques like hearing hearing, seeing seeing, etc.  This is at the heart of Yogacara practice.  An adept practitioner limits him or herself to experienced cognitions, those that proceeded from a sensory –> perceptual input, not those created from other conceptions. 

One of the most profound moments for me was at the end of this teaching, where Roshi reminded us that we also need to not conceptualize the conceptualizer or perceiver.  All of the above can subtly hold an implicit view that there is a self or agent working through this chain of sense->percept->concept, but the light must be turned around to apply the same practice to the perceiver, not conceptualizing the perceiver and resting in sensation…

Off I go…Thanks for listening…

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What follows is a quote from Chinese Zen Master Yuan Wu, the original compiler and commentator of the The Blue Cliff Record, 100 classic Zen Koans.  My seminar last weekend with Zentatsu Baker-Roshi focused on the third paragraph. My own commentary to follow soon 🙂

 

Mostly Yuan Wu:

Sit upright and investigate reality. Within an independent awareness, you must constantly step back from conventions and perceptions and worldly entanglements. Look to the void and trace its outline. Take your head out of a bowl of glue!

Observing the reality of physical existence is the same as observing the Buddha. Worldly phenomena and the buddhadharma are fused into one suchness. Go directly to your personal existence in the field of the five clusters of form, feeling, perception, associative mind, and consciousness – and then turn your light around: your True Nature, your Buddha Nature, will be still and clear and ‘as-is’, through and through empty. Accept It. This Mind is Buddha’s Mind. The myriad transformations and activities of the sensory world have never shaken it. Thus it is called imperturbable and the fundamental source.

Whether walking, standing, sitting, or reclining, concentrate on this fullness of mind. Be naked and pure without interruption, so that no subjective views arise and you merge with this Buddha womb. This is your own fundamental scenery, your own Original Face.

When the ancients employed their hundreds and thousands and mullions of expedient teaching devices, it was always to enable people to go toward this and to penetrate to freedom. As soon as you penetrate deeply to the source, you will case aside the tile that was used to knock at the gate.

Practice at this level for twenty or thirty years, cut off all verbal identifications, creeping vines, and useless states – until you are free of conditioned mind. This will be the place of peace, bliss, and rest. If you seek a time when you finish, there will never be a time when you finish.

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