Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Way of the Sage

Image result for taoist sage

Here's how I see and understand awakening. Awakened people are not perfect, ethereally aloof, or devoid of passion. They do not need to reside in an ashram, monastery, or forest temple. By all means, they can if they want to; but they do not need to live there any more than a poet must live in a city or a tranquil village.

Most people imagine a Buddha as someone blissfully entranced as if on a perpetual meditation retreat. The statues of the Buddha as a transcendental saint, rapt in blissful tranquility, come to mind.

However, for me, awakening evokes images of the Taoist sage or Chinese Buddha, fully immersed in the world. Their minds and lives are characterized by an easy lightness, an ability to remain mentally balanced and lithe. Rather than be perplexed or agitated by paradox, awakened people are free within the constrains of binary logic and language like a character in Through the Looking Glass. They understand the inherent limits of human systems and view them with humor, not disdain. After all, boundaries can be very helpful, so long as we don't take them too seriously.

The human mind is sticky, as Alan Watts used to say. To create a sense of security, it likes to overgeneralize and draw broad conclusions. It wants an extended warranty on life, some assurance that things are and will continue to be okay. But life simply cannot deliver that certainty, for surety is a human psychological construct with no locatable counterpart in nature or the world.

Awakening frees us to dwell in uncertainty, in the emptiness of ambiguity, not free from anxiety and stress, but with them. Fear and distress gain their power from our resistance to them. To awakened people, worry and doubt and sadness are more like waves in an ocean--impermanent, momentary, and empty--than an ocean itself, which is how most of us experience powerful emotions or states of mind. When we misconstrue momentary events as being solid and absolute, we can easily become overwhelmed and mentally paralyzed.

Awakened people, however, don't clutch mental or emotional states. They allow them to arise, crest, and then decline, which is the nature of all events. The do not need to cleanse their minds, just as the sky needn't banish clouds. All things are already perfect.

In this sense, awakening does not free us from dualities any more than it liberates us from being human--from the mundanity of grooming, eating, sleeping, or the ambiguities of moral dilemmas. It frees us to live within life's dualities, to be fully human.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Guns, God, Gridlock

When people get attached to ideas, entrenched in their beliefs, it becomes hard for them to see past their views because it appears as if their viewpoint is reality. So much of the division in America results from people's inability to see that their perspective is just one of an infinite amount of ways of viewing the world.

Those people who staunchly defend the 2nd Amendment are often so thoroughly committed to their position that they are unable to see any alternative to either defending or attacking it unconditionally. The same applies to other single-issue voters who, for religions reasons, oppose same-sex unions or a woman's right to choose whether she wants to reproduce--because God opposes it, they must too.

It's this inflexible approach to the complexity of life that gridlocks both people and the institution of democracy. Buddhists can fall victim to this very condition as well.

Whenever people allow their lifestyle and choices to define them, they run the risk of trapping themselves in into a fixed identity. Then ideas become ideology.

I try not to consider myself a Buddhist because that entails an entire ecosystem of meanings that I do not feel necessary for me to practice the Buddha's teachings. Instead, I simply like to think (or say) that I practice Buddhism.

One of the most beautiful and liberating implications of sunyata, or emptiness at is often rendered in English, is a lack of fixity, of having no set position or viewpoint. Rather than saying I support or oppose the 2nd Amendment--both of which fall prey to a single, landlocked viewpoint--I think that's it's more skillful to say that I do not own a gun, nor do I think in most circumstances that private citizens should own... and so on.

For me, Buddhism is not what I believe, but what I do. The former often entails a rigid identity, a calcified, unwavering this is what I believe under all circumstances attitude and viewpoint; whereas the latter allows us to become whatever the current circumstances require us to be. Or maybe it might be better to see Buddhism as the freedom that emerges from a series of practices and teachings.

Even though I'm not a carpenter, if my roof collapses, I may have to become one until a professional arrives. Instead of cornering myself with the belief that I'm not a carpenter; I'm a high school teacher, I can see through that belief and just try my best to repair the roof before it causes more damage. Or maybe not--if the task is too great or dangerous, perhaps I should just wait.

There's no formula to life; that's what sunyata means. Rise to the occasion, respond to life on its terms, not our own.

This is why upaya or skillfiul means is so vital to many schools of Buddhism. I don't need to commit unequivocally to the teachings of impermanence, rebirth, or karma. Rather, in the true spirit of sunyata, we can relinquish the human tendency for a fixed view, and instead respond to circumstances as they arise.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Forget about your butt. Where is your mind?

One of the most disappointing aspects of Zen is how ossified it has become in many organizations. What originally distinguished Zen from other Buddhist schools was its reliance on mind-to-mind transmission between teacher and student. Rather than some esoteric, mystical experience, this process is simply the mirroring of two minds--the recognition that each mind is already Buddha.

Yet, many Zen schools, especially those in Europe and America, have (in my opinion) lost sight of this guiding principle. Institutions have grown to protect what they see as the integrity of Zen, acting as a kind of self-appointed litmus testers to determine who actually has the Zen mojo and who doesn't. However, in doing so, they have fallen into the very trap that Zen itself was a response to--namely the rigid authoritarianism of tradition and dogma.

Zen has always been iconoclastic. The famous Sixth Ancestor, Huineng, was an illiterate lay person in his teens when he was given the mind-to-mind transmission ceremony from his teacher. Talk about a slap in the face to authority, tradition, and ritual!

Nowadays the yardstick for good Zen teachers is how many retreats they have attended (i.e., how many hours they can prove their ass has sat on a cushion) and how long they have been practicing Zen. But this reductive formula--designed and approved by the American Zen Teachers Association--defies the central tenet of Zen, namely that it's about awakening, not how much time someone has put it in. It's not about seniority, age, race, gender, sexual orientation, how many koans someone has answered, or even about how many Buddhist miles someone has accrued/earned.

It's about mind. That's the Dharma Seal.

Personally, I am much more concerned with the state of students' minds than I am with how many hours they have sat on their asses or where they stand in some koan curriculum.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

I'll Pass on Faith

I don't rely on faith. I try not to believe in anything that requires me to believe in it, kind of like that old Groucho Marx line, "I would never join a club that would have me as a member."

I don't believe in spirits, souls, gods, angels, or even karma. I don't disbelieve in them either, any more than I actively disbelieve in unicorns or pixies and fairies.

Instead, I like to rely on what I can hear, see, smell, etc. Or theoretically know for myself. For instance, although I have never visited Japan or viewed an electron myself, it is within reason that I could if I tried hard enough. I could travel to Japan or find a laboratory with an electron microscope.

This skepticism, I believe, coincides with the Buddha's teaching regarding faith. We shouldn't believe anything until we have thoroughly questioned and tested it first.

I don't know what will happen after I die, nor do I know why certain events occur. Will I be reborn after I die? Is karma responsible for the circumstances of my life? I do not know. In order to answer in a definitive yes or no, I would have to rely on someone else's experiences, not my own. And this runs counter to what I actually do know to be true--that I am sitting on the couch, chilly from the winter temperature outside, hungry for lunch.

Those things I directly experience. They are here and now and require no speculation on my part. They do not require faith.

Zen practice draws us out of the virtual reality of our thoughts and back into the present moment, back to what we feel, emote, see, taste, and so on. I don't need to have faith that I can raise my left arm. It just happens, free from thought and deliberation--spontaneous, independent of my knowing how it occurs.

It's funny and terribly ironic that so many people, encouraged by religion, spurn what they actually know to be true--the world they live in--to pursue some speculative future after death. They literally pass up what is real for an imagined future, since after all, no one truly knows what happens when we are dead.

I personally would much rather rely on what I actually experience than to place my faith in someone else's teaching.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Why Isn't the World Enough?

It seems that humans have an innate impulse to seek transcendence. A god of some sort, soul, spirit, or some realm beyond our own.

I don't understand why. Perhaps it's that the world is too mundane for some, and that the spiritual imagination seeks broader, more idealized horizons--some truth untarnished by time, something purer than the world of form with all of its imperfections and disappointments.

Again, I don't understand this impulse, which is not to say that I am immune to it. From time to time, I too find myself instinctively yearning for some truer reality not subject to the vacillations of life--as if one existed.

One of the many marvels of Chan Buddhism is how it redeemed the physical world. Indian Buddhism often eschewed the natural world of form and time as something to be transcended and relinquished. Chinese Buddhism, on the other hand, fully embraced the world that we live in. The song of birds, the heat of the noon sun, the pain in our hearts: these are not imperfections to be overcome, but the very expression of reality itself.

The earth beneath our feet and the air in our lungs is the great reality. Why seek salvation in some speculative reality--call it God, the soul, or the Dharmakaya--when the only world we have ever known surrounds us every moment of our lives?

That's the great irony: people seek to escape into some truer reality when in actuality, the world they wish to abandon is actually that which they seek! We chase phantom ideals when the breathtaking vistas of the human spirit are always present--the air that we breathe, the longing in our hearts, the pain of a stubbed toe...

Time and space are not impure obstacles on our spiritual path to some greater reality; they are reality. Why can't that be enough?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Mysteries of the Universe

My dog likes to walk around with socks in his mouth. This morning I told him to drop my daughter's sock and he did, but the moment I left the room my family started laughing because he picked it up again.

"He's found the secrets to the universe in her sock," I joked. But it's true; the greatest mysteries are everywhere--in a drop of water, a smile, an angry expression, even a wet sock.

We don't need to sit for hours in meditation to realize this. It may help, but that's not the only way to realize what has always been in front of us.

In many version of the Bodhisattva's Vow, we recite that Dharma Gates or the Buddha Way is endless, meaning that practice never truly ends. We don't simply hang up the reigns and say, "Ok, I'm enlightened. Have a great life, everyone."

But if practice is truly endless, then it is also beginning-less. This means that we are never truly attaining anything; we are just seeing what is always there, just in a new way, perhaps with a sense of wonder or openness, less rigidity.

According to legend, Huineng, the Sixth Ancestor of Chan, awoke without ever formally meditating in his life. He received transmission of the Dharma from the Fifth Ancestor before he had even ordained as a monk. This is an important lesson, suggesting that it is the quality of our minds, of our ability to see and respond clearly, that it important, not how many hours we spend on a cushion or how many retreats we attend.

This is not to diminish meditation, for as the story goes, Huineng did later ordain and spend the next twenty years devoted to meditation in order to digest his insight. I have spent most of this summer playing guitar, exercising, renovating a bathroom, and sitting in meditation. I meditate because I want to, not because I need to or because some authority is logging the amount of hours I spend on a cushion. And because I enjoy it.

I suppose I do it for the same reason that my dog steals our socks--it is an expression of who and what I am.

But no more so than playing my guitar or mowing the lawn. Lifting weights is meditating, driving to work is meditating. Wherever you are, where is your mind? If it is fully present, immersed in the moment, then you are embodying the Buddhadharma, regardless of whether you are sitting, lying down, or standing.

Your life is the Zen center.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Dharma talk - Whether Sitting, Standing, or Lying Down

Zen may begin on the meditation cushion; however, true practice should extend into every aspect of our lives, not just the seated position.