Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wisdom at the barber shop

My daughter blew my mind the other day. I was shaving my head, scalp lathered with shaving cream, while she watched. Don't ask me why, but people with hair are fascinated with the hair-grooming practices of us bald guys. So jokingly I asked her if she liked my hair cut and she said, as she always does, "You don't have any hair!"

Which is not far from the truth. My hair has begun a mass exodus over the past couple of years. Where it's gone is beyond me.

I mock cried. "But why not?"

"Daddy," she said, "life is the way that it is."

I stopped shaving, razor perched above my scalp, and studied her. It was like someone wise beyond her years was speaking out of her mouth. Or maybe it was in fact the five-year-old in her speaking. Lately, I've found that kids have an amazing acumen for insight.

She went on: "You can't argue with life."

I blinked to see if I had heard her correctly: You can't argue with life. She was absolutely right! Well, I suppose you can, but it usually doesn't do us a bit of good. From my experience, more often than not it causes more harm than good. That's dukkha for you: the dis-ease and anguish that arises when we fight reality.

Why am I balding? Why don't I earn more money? Why don't people appreciate me more? Why is my life this way, is this luck or karma? The why's go on forever. They're all ideas, expectations that we thrust onto reality and then mistake for reality itself. It's like mistaking a map of New York for New York itself.

As my teacher Rev. Lynch would say, "Just this. Don't know." Stop tying yourself into knots. Life is all good, just the way it is. If we could only stop and disentangle ourselves from our mental projections--expectations, desires, goals, wounds--then we can reside in the thusness of the present moment.

Just this. Or as they say in the Ordinary Mind School, "Life as it is."

But how did my daughter know this? Where was this coming from?

So I asked her.

And you know what she said? "I just know these things, Daddy," and walked away.

Holy crap! I had to check the mirror for remnants of my brain because she had just blown my mind.

Buddhism teaches us that we're complete and perfect, lacking nothing, and in her own way, at that moment my daughter understood that. It doesn't matter if I have a full head of hair or not, or drive a Mercedes or a Suzuki, everything is perfect the way it is. How couldn't it be?

It's once we let our thinking mind trick us into believing that thoughts and concepts are reality that we run into problems. That's when confusion arises and suffering ensues.

And all of this from a five-year-old. Wow! It's both mind-numbing and inspiring at the same time.

You can't argue with life. I have to remember that.

Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A pancake by any other name...

The other day my son was having a two-year-old meltdown and I resorted to the totally lazy dad thing to do--offer him food. More often than not it works; however, lately he's been saying no even to chocolate. My goodness, what is this world coming to?

So he was shrieking something awful and I offered him the first thing that came to mind: a pancake left over from breakfast.

Immediately he stopped sobbing, tears running down his cheeks, and said, "Yeah!"

I reached into the bowl on the counter and grabbed a pancake ball. You see, my wife has this neat little grill, like a waffle maker, that makes cake-or pancake balls.

But the second he caught sight of the pancake ball he shook his head vehemently and cried,"No!"

I tried to explain to him that it was still a pancake--well technically it wasn't a cake, but it was still made out of the same mixture.

You probably can guess where I'm going with this.

He wasn't convinced and I had to offer him juice instead to pacify him. But as I sat with him on the couch, as he sipped his drink, I realized that the pancake phenomenon is like the Buddhist teaching of sunyata, the Absolute. While matter may take a variety of forms, it's all the same substance--just like the pancakes. You can cook them flat or in balls, but they're still the same.

It's like Fazang's Golden Lion analogy--you can fashion gold into rings or a lion statue, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still gold. The substance remains the same.

The same applies to my pancake balls. Or to the entire universe, for that matter.

I sat on the couch and digested the realization. And as silly as it sounds, the insight actually had a profound effect on me. I sat and marvelled, listening to my son finish his apple juice.

It was pretty amazing. As I've said before, you never know what you'll learn from a child; sometimes they make for excellent teachers.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: garretkeogh.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Little red pill

Last week I had an interesting conversation with some Zen friends. One of them asked if we would take a little pill that would allow us to forget everything that had happened in our lives and start all over. I misunderstood the question and thought that the pill would erase only our memories of the unpleasant parts of our lives.

This is a much harder question to answer. For who wouldn't be tempted to forget all of those painful, perhaps humiliating memories from their past? My alien abduction, my stint in a biker gang, the list goes on and on. Sure, most of us would like to say, "Not me. My past has made me who I am, and I wouldn't trade that for anything."

That sounds like the kind of thing you hear on a talk show, with some celebrity who just found Jesus, not to real people. Because the truth is, life is filled with a lot of pain, anguish, and outright suffering. The Buddha hit the nail on the head when he said that life is dukkha. In our quick fix, Super size me culture, I have a hard time believing that this pill wouldn't be the next Prozac.

And I would be lying if I said that it isn't tempting. Buddhist practice aims at non-abiding, the capacity to exist fully in the present moment without resisting, passing judgment, and grasping. I guess in a way, practice is about moving from saying "yes" to the pill, to "no thanks." Not because we embrace or accept our scars in a kind of Lifetime channel kind of way, but because we see that they're not actually scars as much as they are stories that we believe. They're basically empty story lines that we have accept for so long that we have a hard time letting go of them.

In a way, I have to be grateful for my suffering because it's what brought me to Buddhism in the first place. Without it, I might still be...well, let's just say, more lost than I am today.

So in the end, I guess I would pass on the pill. Our lives are not obstacles; they are our path. That's what, I think, Zen is trying to wake us up to--that we're complete and perfect, even in our suffering. I know, that sounds harder to swallow than any pill, but I think it's the truth. Once we understand that our suffering originates in our minds, and is in fact self-inflicted and substanceless, then we don't need any pill.

We don't need anything because we have everything. We are everything.

That's because our suffering is more than just our lives or the path we walk; it's the very gate to freedom.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: j03.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Zen Master Yanshou

Yongming Yanhou was anything but an orthodox Zen teacher. Unlike "pure" Chan Masters like Mazu and Zhaozhou, Yanshou was the third Ancestor in the Fayan School of Zen, a Pure Land Master, and a firm advocate of Bodhisattva Practice. Truly, his identity refuses to be pinned down. In Yongming Yanshou's Conception of Chan, Albert Welter paints a fascinating portrait of this complicated tenth-century Buddhist Master.

I was first drawn to Yanshou after reading Jeffrey Broughton's Zongmi on Chan, expecting Yanshou to be a mere echo of Zongmi (see my last post) without a voice of his own. What I discovered, however, was a Master, who while indebted to Zongmi's work, was a brilliant thinker and syncretist in his own right. Perfectly subtitled (A Special Transmission Within the Scriptures), Welter's book shows how, like Zongmi, Yanshou is a "scholastic" or "words and letters" Chan Master, in that he advocates the study of scriptures. In fact, he insists that Chan is not unique or separate from the "Buddhist" tradition, but as Welter says, "in fundamental accord with it." A non-factionalist, I guess you could call him, Yanshou concentrates on demonstrating how Chan fits harmoniously inside of the broader Buddhist milieu. He accomplishes this in his masterpiece, the Zongjing lu, or the Records of the Source-Mirror, which Welter masterfully translates for the last 50 pages of the book. Some of the most beautiful passages I have ever read in Buddhist literature can be found in the Zongjing lu. For instance,
"There is not a single form that is not the basis of samadhi. There is not a single sound that is not an entrance to dharani. After a single taste of it, everything is transformed into its true flavor. Even after a single whiff of it, everything enters the dharma-realm. The wind, tree branches, the moon, and a sandy beach all can transmit mind. A blazing fire, an island, clouds, and a grove or trees all promote the wondrous message [of Buddhist teaching]. With each and every step, one treads the golden world."
Exquisite! But my favorite is still when Yanshou refers to Bodhisattvas as Bodhi heroes--how inspiring!

Alas, however, history has not been kind to dear Yanshou. Due to his advocacy of "words and letters Chan" and Pure Land practice, he has unfortunately been relegated to a kind of second-rate Zen Master status. Which is why Yongming Yanshou is such an important book--it returns Yanshou to his rightful place in Chinese Buddhist history, dispelling the idea that there is such a this as "true" Chan. As I think Yanshou himself would argue, it is important to study all of Zen's great masters, not just those who have become household names. As I have said before about Zongmi and Chinul, modern Zen students could benefit enormously from studying Yanshou, for he offers us an alternative to the shouting, sutra-eschewing Zen master so commonly found in Zen literature. Yongming Yanhsou is an extremely important book for serious Zen students who are interested in Zen's rich roots.

Great job, Albert Welter. Keep the translations of the less-known masters coming!

Thanks to the publicity department of Oxford University Press for the opportunity to review this book.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Zongmi on Chan

My Zen reading studies have, following in the footsteps of my practice, shifted from Japanese Zen to Korean Son and Chinese Chan. My search to understand the development of Zen, in terms of both praxis and theology, has led me back to the East Asian mainland. Chinul, founder of Korean Son, resonates profoundly with me. His "sudden Attainment, gradual cultivation" captures my current practice very well. After reading Robert Buswell's Tracing Back the Radiance and Hee-Sung Keel's Chinul, I decided to dig even deeper into the past to one of Chinul's forebearers, Zongmi, an even earlier proponent of "sudden Attainment, gradual cultivation." For like Fazang, Zongmi influenced Chinul so much that is not an exaggeration to say that Korean Son would not exist, at least in its current form, were it not for Master Zongmi.

The first fascinating aspect about Jeffrey Broughton's Zongmi on Chan, is its debunking the myth that Zen's "special transmission outside of the scriptures" means that Zen eschews sutra study. Like Chinul, Zongmi, a Hua-yen adept and Chan Master in the Heze school (rumored to descend from the Sixth Ancestor's Dharma heir, Shen-hsiu) was a large proponent of sutra study. He practiced what some Zen teachers would pejoratively call "Scriptural/Scholastic Chan" or "Chan of words and letters." His position, I think, is best summarized when he writes: "Scriptures are the word of the Buddha; Chan is the thought of the Buddha. There is no difference whatsoever between what the Buddha [thought] with his mind and [uttered] with his mouth." So it would seem that Zen's aversion for written teachings simply did not pertain to Tang dynasty China, and appears to be more of a Japanese (Rinzai) development than an actual tradition handed down from Bodhidharma, the legendary founder of Zen.

In addition to his extensive and invaluable introduction, Broughton's translations of some of Zongmi's most noteworthy texts--"Chan Letter," the incredible "Chan Prolegomenon," and "Chan Notes"--provide a clear window into the mind of a great religious syncretist. Zongmi not only synthesizes Hau-yen doctrine with Chan practice, but even more impressively, he illustrates how all Chan schools are expressions of the true Buddhadharma. A tall order indeed, especially when we consider how different the Chan schools' philosophical viewpoints are.

Overall, I praise Jeffrey Broughton for this excellent book. Zongmi on Chan, as an academic and scholarly title, is an excellent complement to practice-oriented Chan classics like The Zen Teaching of Huang Po or Hui Hai's Zen Teaching of Instantaneous Awakening, and an indispensable addition to early Chan literature and study. I recommend it to anyone interested in Chinul, Son, or Chan in general.

Thanks to the Publicity Department at Columbia University Press for allowing me to review this book.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Whatever comes is good

The other day a friend asked me, since I teach a public speaking class, what my recommendation would be for someone who experiences anxiety before speaking in front of large audiences.

Drawing upon both my Zen practice and what I've learned about the subject, I said, "Well, I'd try to remember, as the anxiety is setting in, that nervousness is perfectly normal. And that it will probably pass very quickly." Then as a Zen plug, I added: "The best thing, though, would be to learn how to accept the anxiety--don't fight or resist it, simply let it arise and fall away."

I could tell by the look on her face that that was not the answer she wanted. The last thing someone suffering from anxiety wants to hear is just to accept it. Trust me, I know from personal experience. But it's the truth; running from our fears is more exhaustive than it is effective.

We spend--or "I spend," I should say--most of our time and energy trying to run from the present moment. We try to shape and bend it to our will, hammer and polish it until it suits our liking. But the fact of the matter, what the Buddha taught us, is that life will never meet our standards.

Our lives will always know pain, anxiety, and fear; it's the human condition. But so is joy and happiness. If we could only learn to accept the present moment, regardless of its content, then and only then could we consider ourselves free. Until then, we are slaves to our fears, doubts, and cravings.

My teacher told me once that we aren't free until we understand that we aren't free; then we have a choice. It took me a while to understand, but I think I get it now, on more than just on a cerebral level.

To relate it to our public speaking example: we aren't free until we realize that we are running from our anxiety. Then we may experience a small glimmer of space, of freedom, in which we can choose. It's not the kind of choice we want. We want to say that we will never experience anxiety again, but that's simply not the case.

Instead we get the freedom to choose what we want to do with that anxiety (or any other "unpleasant" emotion/sensation).

The power, however, comes in the most unlikely form: acceptance of the moment, in its entirety. So the next time we stand in front of that crowd, our palms sweating and shaking, our hearts racing, we can resist the urge to run away mentally or distract ourselves, and instead just let the moment be.

Sorry if that's not the answer we want to hear, but it's the best I can give, because as far as I can tell it's the truth.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dharma Brothers

Not so long ago, I was musing that there isn't much Buddhist fiction out there. And while Arthur Braverman's Dharma Brothers isn't quite fiction--it resembles Thich Nhat Hanh's narrative account of the Buddha's life in Old Path White Clouds--it reads much smoother most biographies. Dharma Brothers is perfect for readers interested in the actual lives of modern Zen masters, in this case Sawaki Kodo Roshi and Tokujoo Kato Roshi, and yet it has creative energy of a novel.

Told from each of the characters' perspectives, this historical novel traces Kodo and Tokujoo's spiritual journeys as young men, and eventually as Zen monks. They read like real people; since after all, they are. Their struggles throughout the turbulent Japanese-Russian War and imperial regime of the 1930s were fascinating and compelling.

Dharma Brothers humanizes Zen and monastic life, painting a stark portrait of two of Japan's most famous 20th-century Zen masters, throughout a particularly violent period in Japan's recent history. Braverman himself studied in Japan with Zen Master Uchiyama, Dharma heir of Sawaki Roshi, so the novel has personal relevance to him--and it shows in the writing.

By all means, if you're a student of Japanese Zen, read Dharma Brothers.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

To infinity and beyond!

My four-year-old daughter said the most amazing thing yesterday. Or at least I think it's amazing.

We attended a family baptism at a Catholic church two weeks ago. She pointed up to Jesus hanging on the crucifix twenty feet above our heads, and asked, "Why is he up there?"

Obviously we're not Christian--as I think you can tell by now--and so she doesn't know much about Jesus, other than that he was a teacher like the Buddha. We skipped the whole crucifixion part of the story, figuring what was the point in mentioning all of the bloody details for a religion we don't practice? Besides, she'll have the rest of her life to learn about Jesus and God.

My wife said, "Well, you know how we have statues of the Buddha? Some people have statues of Jesus."

My daughter scrunched her face skeptically. "I don't like it," she said. After all, Jesus on the cross can be a pretty morbid sight, especially for a four-year-old who isn't used to seeing it.

So she has been asking a lot about where people and the earth come from. Her latest kick is infinity. (Maybe it has to with Buzz Lightyear's "To infinity, and beyond!") She loves how mind-boggling it is, and often asks things like, "What's the next number after infinity?" Or, "What's the number before infinity?"


My favorite expression of hers is: "I love you to infinity."

But back to the amazing thing she said. While working on a craft at the kitchen table, she said, "Everything is infinity."

I stopped to see if I had heard her correctly. It took a few seconds before I realized that I had--everything is infinity. "That's the heart of Zen!" I wanted to shout.

A couple of weeks ago I tried to explain interconnectedness to her. She was asking where my grandmother was, who died last winter, and I tried to explain that we are always connected to Mama, even if she's not "alive" anymore.

I think I confused her more than anything, especially since at the end of the conversation she asked, "But where are the strings that connect us all together? I don't see them."


But yesterday she nailed it head on--everything is infinity. It's the essence of Hua-Yen and Zen Buddhism: everything is it. Everything is connected, and contains everything else. There is only one substance, and we are it. Everything is, for that matter. There is nothing outside of it.

Wow, talk about humbling. If you want to know what infinity is, just ask a four-year-old.

Or better yet, look around you--it's everywhere.

(Thanks for opening my eyes, honey. I love you to infinity, too.)

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Sean MacEntee.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Don't wish your life away

As you can probably tell by my lapse in posts, I've been busy. I'm wrapping up my quarter in the Five Mountain Seminary, writing two final papers, and trying to finish all of my grades as a high school teacher.

So I was sitting and talking to my wife a couple of minutes ago when I caught myself saying, "Let's just make it through the holidays; then everything will work itself out." Meaning, once the holidays are over, we will find some equilibrium.

My wife looked up and said, "Don't wish your life away."

I bit my tongue before I shot back some snide remark, when I realized that she was totally right.

I was dreaming about how calm things will be in a couple of weeks and overlooking the present moment. Sure things are hectic and complex, but they don't need to be complicated. We complicate matters when we resist what's actually happening and drift off into some mental fantasy about how we wish things would be.

So my wife woke me up, like a koan cutting through delusion. Don't wish your life away--a very Buddhist teaching. Most of us spend half of our time wishing we were somewhere else doing something else. But tomorrow is guaranteed to no one.

Bodhisattva's take the form of a kind friend, an angry boss, or a loving wife.

Thanks honey for shaking me awake!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Mouthful of chocolate

My two-year-old son hates the car ride home from day care. He screams most of the twenty minutes drive. So my wife and I usually bring treats--juice boxes, graham crackers, pop tarts--to calm the savage beast. We usually wait until he starts fussing before we give in, but some days, after dealing with hundreds of students ourselves (we're both teachers), we give in early.

Last Thursday, my wife was driving when my son started screaming, pounding his feet against the back of my seat. I immediately reached inside my wife's lunch box and found a couple of pieces of chocolate. I leaned around my seat and handed it to him.

Quieting instantly, he grabbed the chocolate, tossed it in his mouth, but no sooner had I turned to face forward than he started wailing again. I turned, expecting him to have spit the chocolate out as he sometimes does; but no, he was still eating it. The chocolate was melting on his tongue and he wanted another piece.

Even before he finished the first one!

Inwardly I chuckled. This is the quintessential human condition. We're never satisfied with the food we have in our mouths; we're always looking to our next fix. Dukkha, the sense of dis-ease that fills most people's lives. If only we could drop our judgments and just accept the present moment as it is, rather than making ourselves miserable by pining for more damn "chocolate."

It's amazing the things you can learn from a two-year-old.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Don't's only gasoline

The last thing you want to hear your spouse say at 5:45 in the morning, while you're eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes, is, "Do you smell gasoline?"

At first, I shrugged it off and kept eating. My wife has this habit of smelling odors that aren't there, hearing intruders in the middle of the night who don't exist. So I wasn't too concerned.

Until I followed her into the basement and the smell was undeniable. There was gasoline somewhere.

We searched the basement, but couldn't locate the smell. It was strongest near the left wall, the one closest to the garage.

"Do you think it's coming from the garage?" my wife asked.

I sighed. Great, just what I wanted to be doing before 6 AM: searching for leaking gas in my garage.

I drank the rest of my cereal milk and we went outside.

Now a couple of months ago, when Hurricane Irene struck, my wife and I bought a back-up generator. We hadn't needed it, thank goodness, but when we opened the garage, there it was leaoking over the garage floor.

Talk about irony--here we bought it to solve one problem and now it was causing another one! Tyler Durden nailed it when he said, "The things you own, wind up owning you."

So we poured sand over the gas and placed a container beneath the leak. Luckily it was very slow--just a drop every few seconds. If I was lucky, maybe it wouldn't overflow before I got home from work. (I know someone is cringing at this right now.)

I don't know if I handled the situation as responsibly as I could have--I had to get to work, be in the classroom teaching by 7:30. But I wasn't as rattled as I normally would have been. Strangely I felt like this was just another event, admittedly inconvenient, but not as much of a problem as it normally would have felt like.

It was what it was: leaking gasoline in my garage. There was no use adding to the situation. That's what I have been learning from Zen: don't add anything. I'm a pro at that, complicating situation with all sorts of extra baggage--emotions, thoughts, you name it.

But now, standing in the garage, barefoot and in my boxer shorts, I felt an openness. I didn't have to freak out. I had a choice.

Thanks to all the ancestors for giving that to me.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: silverlunace.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Family practice

Yesterday was sesshin. I couldn't attend; my home life is way too hectic for me to leave for 10 hours on a Saturday. Coincidentally, my son was running a very high fever on Friday and my wife and I were up most of the night soothing him, so I couldn't have attended anyway.

Normally when family obligations "got in the way" of a retreat, I would mope around, thinking of all the good sitting I was missing. Talk about backwards--while I was at home, I was dreaming about how mindful I would be at the zendo! Helllllllo, wake up pal! You can be mindful anywhere; you don't need to be at the zendo to do it.

Yesterday was different, though. I knew that my place--even with my son's fever aside--was with my family. They need me now, and I genuinely want to be there for them. Not out of some paternal duty; I want to help them any way I can: changing a diaper, giving a bath, brewing yet another pot of coffee.

That was my practice yesterday--being a dad, a husband, a sleepy guy who was up half the night. Not "supporting my family," but being a part of it.

The whole time I tried my best to stay mindful--especially when my nerves were splintered from exhaustion--maintaining awareness of my body, mind, and speech. It was an ordinary day, nothing special. I didn't have any profound insights, but then again, I don't think Zen is about inducing some special experience. Sure there's kensho, but lately, through koan practice, I've been more concerned with fully engaging my life than with having some transcendental, non-dual experience.

Practice is portable; you can take it anywhere with you. In fact, I would argue that that's what genuine practice really is--wherever you are at this present moment. What's going on right now? What's your mind up to?

So I didn't get to sit sesshin, maybe next month. Maybe not. But what I did get was a chance to hold my son while he was crying, when he needed me the most. I felt what it was like to be exhausted, frustrated, and confused at 4 AM. That's what life was like at the moment. And I sat with it, in the midst of all that emotional chaos.

It was great practice.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Letting go of sitting

You may have noticed a theme running through my last several posts concerning practice. Lately, I have started reexamining how attached I am to practice, especially zazen. If Zen is the practice of complete non-abiding, requiring the relinquishment of all attachments, then doesn't it serve to reason that we should let go of Zen too? For as I have found, Zen, namely zazen, can become a form of attachment.

We hear more about this regarding koans, where teachers caution their students against attaching to koans, since they are merely a raft to carry us to the other shore. Like the Buddha's teachings, they are upaya, skillful means.

But we seldom hear that said about zazen; instead, meditation, especially in Soto Zen, is regarded as the holiest of holies.

It almost feels anathema to imply that zazen can turn into a form of attachment, but try skipping 0ne day of meditation and you will soon realize how attached you are to the practice. Shame, guilt, anxiety commonly accompany a missed zazen session of mine.

Zen has been described as a thorn to remove the thorn of suffering. But the problem is that most people forget to remove the second thorn! The purpose of Zen, or Buddhism in general, is not to exchange one set of bad habits for another set of good ones.

Zen is not self-improvement. It's a path to Wake up.

So, lately I have been studying my attachment to and motives for practicing. What is it that I expect from zazen? Sure I know that we're not supposed to expect to gain anything from zazen, but why do we do it?

Dogen says that sitting is what a Buddha does. But isn't that making zazen something special by elevating it above all of our other daily activities? In the true spirit of non-duality, how is zazen any more sacred than brushing your teeth? Shouldn't we be present during both?

Recently I have noticed how zazen holds a privileged station in my practice, and I wonder why.

Koans, or at least the way that I study them at Five Mountain Seminary with Rev. Lynch, transfer into my life. I feel like I carry them with me. But how about zazen? Have I been limiting myself by treating it as something special?

It feels like someone has kicked the stool out from under me. I'm falling. It's scary to feel the once solid ground of my practice quiver beneath me.

But I suppose this is yet another phase in my practice--removing the second thorn, which at this point, has become indistinguishable from the first.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: ElDave.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How should I know...?

I'm reading a really cool fantasy book, The Darkness That Comes Before by Canadian author R. Scott Bakker. There was this great quote that I wanted to share, but I can't find it. Basically it said that asking questions is like opium; the more we ask, the most questions arise. The wise person, on the other hands, accepts the mystery of life.

Instantly I thought of the Zen "Don't know" mind, the mind freed from the duality of concepts. Who am I? Don't know. What is this in front of me? Don't know.

I find myself asking this more and more often lately. When I'm walking down the school hallway, before the students arrive--What is this? And honestly, I don't know. There's just need to label or define it. Like Ram Dass said, just be here.

It's that ability to accept Don't know, without trying to force life, people, or situations into rigid categories, that Bakker is writing about. The ability just to accept the present moment without cutting it up into a mental grid or imposing our expectations onto it. Just let the moment unfold.

What is this? Don't know.

Because we've let go of the need to know. That's where I am in my practice right now. It's definitely influenced by Seung Sahn's teachings and especially my teachers in the Five Mountain Monastery.

Thanks everyone.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Painting practice

Painting and I don't get along. I'm messy, impatient, and have no depth perception whatsoever. So when it comes time to paint a room in our house, the task usually falls onto my wife's shoulders. This past summer, we had our screened-in porch converted to a three-season room, and like all new constructions, it needed to be painted.

My wife and I--public school teachers--had off from school on Thursday and Friday for Rosh Hashanah. Our plan was to paint on Friday while the kids were at school and then relax the rest of the day.

Oh, silly mortals.

What began as a three-hour priject turned into six, and then eight, and then eventually spilled over into the double digits.

But here's the thing: I didn't mind painting at all. Normally I would be huffing and puffing, cursing under my breath the entire time; but not on Friday. Or Saturday, for that matter. I was, to use sports terms, in the zone.

Hours passed and I didn't even notice. I was so immersed in the activity of painting that I didn't think of any else. In fact, I didn't think of anything. Ordinarily, while I'm doing something fairly rote like mowing the lawn, I will inevitably drift off into thought--planning, narrating, daydreaming, etc. But not this time.

I was so intent on painting, paying close attention to every detail and movement of the brush, that I completely lost myself in the activity. It probably had to do with the fact that I'm an unskilled painter, so I had to concentrate the entire time. But either way, it was pretty amazing. I suppose this is how athletes feel on the field or on the court. The dropping off of body and mind.

Please don't tell my wife, though; I don't want to make a habit out of painting.

Now if I can only do that while grading essays, I'll be set!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: basykes.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chanting, here and now

Chanting has never been a large part of my zendo practice. Sure I chant with the sangha, and try my hardest to stay present--aware of my voice and the voices of others. But I have never really engaged it at home, by myself.

At the end of each sit, I chant the Bodhisattva's Vow, but it's more like intoning than chanting. So the other day I stood on my cushion, opened a copy of the Heart Sutra, and began chanting. I was amazed at how fully engaging it was. Since I was the only one chanting, there was no other voices to distract me.

The experience was...I don't know, crystalline?

There was only my voice chanting.

But that doesn't quite express it quite well either. For I wasn't conscious of my voice. There was only...

Don't know.

I can't believe that it's taken me this long to engage chanting, but better late then never, I suppose. Now I look forward to it at the end of each zazen session.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita clearly saw...

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: xcode.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Type O positive

Here's a little Buddhist humor for you:

If you asked me three days ago what blood type I am, I would have said B positive. That's what my mother told me and what I believed up until two days ago.

Then in the mail I received my blood donor ID card and, to my surprise, I discovered that I am in fact O positive. My mom must have gotten mixed up somehow.

Now, in case you don't know, O positive is the universal blood type, which means that anyone can use it, regardless of their blood type. Pretty cool.

Reading the card over my shoulder, my wife said, "You see, all that Buddhism is paying off: you changed your blood type from B positive to O positive! What a Bodhisattva."

Ha!--if only. But how cool would that be?

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: MShades.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stuck in line

If there were an award for most impatient person on Earth, I think I'd win by miles. I fidget in line at the gas station, counting each precious second lost. In line at the supermarket, I try to stand patiently while my mind runs through a laundry list of all the things I could be doing if I had only chosen the right line.

For some reason, I always seem to choose the wrong line. You know, the one that looks shorter but has that annoying customer who insists on paying in change. Maybe I have slow line karma or something.

Anyway, so I was waiting in line at the farmer's market when I overheard two women talking. Both were in their sixties, and dressed in their Sunday finest.

The one in the line opposite me said, "I think he's waiting outside."

The woman behind me leaned over my shoulder to glance out the plate glass window. She shrugged, as if to say, "Oh well."

A few seconds passed as it occurred to me that perhaps these women were in a hurry and, since I wasn't, I turned around and offered the woman to take my spot.

"No, no, no," she said. "That's okay."

Suddenly all of my tension melted. The moment I started to think about someone else's needs, my own obstinate insistence on speed disappeared.

It was amazing. Sure, I've read all about the Bodhisattva's Vow and dedicating oneself to saving others, but here I actually felt it.

Now, I'm not comparing what I did to saving a busload of kids from a fiery inferno--far from it. But it was an amazing experience, nonetheless, as I literally felt my priorities shift from "me, me, me" to someone else. I was no longer consumed with my own worries, because my sphere of experience opened to include others.

My sense of self, I suppose, broadened.

I'm sure this has happened before, but I have never been so conscious of the shift. It was so simple and yet so remarkable.

Thanks ladies, you taught me a lot. More than likely, they were Bodhisattvas!

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Wesley Fryer.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Sometimes it feels like I'm amassing an army of Buddhist books and knowledge. I'm a total book junkie, and the moment I spot a title I don't own, I snatch it up. For many months, I would devour one Buddhist title after another. Once I discovered an aspect of the Dharma that I wasn't familiar with, it felt like there was a gaping hole in my heart and the only way to fill it was to read another book.

Something tells me I'm not the only one who feels this way. Chalk it up to American consumer culture, human nature, whatever, it's a prime example of dukkha, what the Buddha identifies as the universal human condition. A pervasive dis-ease, as if something is wrong, but is so subtle that we can't place our finger on it. Whatever we are doing, wherever we are, it's either the wrong activity or the wrong place. We yearn to be doing something else somewhere else with someone else.

That's how it feels when I'm reading Buddhist books. Whichever titles I'm currently engaged in feels banal (usually, although there are time when the book is exceptional and I wished it were 100 pages longer) while the next book on my menu stares seductively at me from my bookshelf. If only I could finish this damn book and move on to the next one, because I know that one will be....

The great irony of course is that I have turned Buddhism--the path to Awakening--into another project. Zenterprise, I call it. And if you open a copy of your favorite Buddhist magazine, you'll see pages promoting just that--adding another head to the one you already have. We swap one obsession for another.

My teacher recently pointed this out to me when I mentioned the next book I wanted to read. He asked, "Why do you want to read it?" I was struck dumb. Why did I want to read another translation of The Gateless Gate? It was such a simple question, but for some reason I couldn't answer it.

Well, that's not exactly true. I could; I just didn't like the answer. I wanted to read another Zen book because that's what good Zen students do, right? They meditate, stay mindful, and study. But in reality I was trying to amass a body of Zen knowledge so that I would be prepared in the God-knows-when future to answer God-know-what question.

I had made a project out of Zen. Zen isn't about how many books you've read, how many sesshins you've attended, and it sure as hell isn't about how much you know. Now there's nothing wrong with these things, so long as we don't get hooked by them. And hooked I was/am.

To my mind, Zen is about how you live your life. Are you awake in what you do--not only on the cushion but during the other 16+ hours of the day? Are we compassionate? Do we act skillfully, with wisdom? Or do we get caught in unnecessary dualities of self and other, good and bad?

It's so easy to get sucked into the Zen politics and forget that Buddhism is a medicine. When you're sick, you take it; when you're not, you stop. Don't get attached to the medicine. The forms, rituals, and practices of Zen are skillful means to help us awaken. But if we're not careful--as I haven't been--then we can get addicted to the very medicine created to set us free.

But every moment is a new one. We can wake up at any time. Now, thanks to my teacher's help, I see what I'm doing, how I've replaced one mental construct for another. First it was my obsession to become a fiction writer, then it was to become the model Zen student.

Does this mean that I'm abandoning Zen? Hell no! It means I'm going to practice even harder, to stay even more vigilant. The mind is a sticky thing that will attach itself to anything; it's a master of co opting and turning anything into an object of desire. That includes Buddhism itself.

If the path to Awakening means letting go, that means letting of go Buddhism too. It's tough, painful and disconcerting at times, but a necessary step, I think. Or at least it is with me.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week.

Deepest thanks to Rev. Lynch for his insight, patience, and help. You're a true Bodhisattva.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Bradley.Johnson.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Karen Armstrong's "Buddha"

To keep ahead of the game, I read one of the books for my "The Life of the Buddha" course starting in October. It was Karen Armstrong's Buddha. The book is written from a religious scholar's perspective, as Armstrong pieces together a loose biography of the Buddha's life. I didn't know what to expect from Armstrong, a comparative religion scholar and former Catholic nun; but I was pleasantly surprised by her treatment of the subject.

Her tone and style is (professionally) distant and academic, but not overly so. I found the writing accessible and engaging. The book is filled with interesting facts about the Buddha's time, including Vedic culture, plausible explanations for why the Buddha rejected the caste system, and even why Buddhists sit retreats. The book is short--187 pages total--and well worth the time. I saw a copy of her Mohammed biography at my local bookstore and, based on Buddha, I will definitely pick it up.

If you get a chance, give Buddha a read.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The garbage truck is coming, the garbage truck is coming...!

I'm the kind of person who wants to take off his clothes and toss them in the washer when he's doing laundry. When the trash is at the curb, I will literally carry each new item of garbage to the cans at the curb, rather than dispose of them inside. Weird, I know.

I think it has to do with some craving for finality--the need for closure. As if this might be the last time I ever have to throw out trash again. Silly and unrealistic, I agree.

So, two hours ago I was meditating when I heard the garbage truck approaching. My first impulse was to race downstairs, grab the kitchen garbage, and toss it with the rest of the trash outside. That is, until I remembered where I was and what I was doing. I was meditating, for crying out loud, and there I was ready to bolt outside and empty my garbage can!

It's Thursday; the next garbage pickup is Monday. It's not like I have to wait weeks for the garbage truck to come back. How much garbage could I possible accumulate in three days?

Anyway, there I was sitting on my mat, feeling the urge to dash outside. So what did I do? I sat and opened myself up to the impulse. It was a nervous tension motivated by some blind belief that I had to throw the garbage out. So I sat with the physical sensations and investigated the unstated thoughts that were prompting this.

What was interesting is that the more I examined the sensations, the less powerful they became. The emptier they felt. The same for the beliefs. I saw right through them. They were self-induced. There was no law in the universe demanding that I take the trash out; that impulse was coming from me.

And with that understanding came freedom. I didn't have to act on these beliefs; in fact, the more aware I was of them, the less control they had.

The whole scenario may sound silly, but I appreciated the experience. It taught me that I am not bound by my conditioning. Change is possible, and so is freedom.

Peace to all beings. Have a great weekend!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Salim Virji.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Trasmission of Light

I'm currently reading Transmission of Light (Denkoroku), translated by Thomas Cleary. Compiled and written in the thirteenth century by Keizan, Zen master of the Soto school, TOL chronicles the enlightenment of 53 masters, beginning with Shakyamuni and ending with Ejo, Dogen's chief disciple.

What fascinates me most about this collection is that, despite it being a key Soto text, all of its stories emphasize satori in some way. In fact, someone might argue that the stories themselves are vehicles for relating the Masters' enlightenment experiences.

Cleary addresses this in his introduction: the fact that in some modern Soto circles, satori or kensho is considered secondary, whereas in Transmission of Light, satori takes center stage. To use Cleary's own words, "Indeed, it is a rather well publicized fact in Japan that satori generally has been lost in the dominant sect of Soto Zen." He continues to explain that the claim "that enlightenment is identical to the Soto training system [is] based on a fragmentary selection of bits and pieces from Dogen's writing." What Cleary is suggesting is that Dogen's writing has been appropriated for institutional purposes--to maintain tradition, ritual, and all of the other accompanying religious accouterments.

Very interesting, to say the least. Give the book a read and tell me what you think.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Batman rides tonight

Admittedly, this has absolutely nothing to do with Zen, but in the wake of a hurricane and an earthquake, I figured a little humor could do us all a bit of good. I was waiting at a Stop sign in town when I saw the car below. It's a Ford Escort converted into the Batmobile! The guy driving it was in his 40s and had on a Batman baseball cap. When I gave him the thumbs up, he saluted me. I swear I laughed for at least two minutes straight, the equivalent of three traffic lights. Hope you get a laugh out of it too.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Flowers and weeds

The other day, my four-year-old daughter came up to me with a handful of dandelions and said, "Daddy, look at all of the pretty flowers I picked."

The first thing that came to mind was: Those aren't flowers; they're weeds. The words almost slipped out of my mouth before I stopped myself.

I could just imagine my daughter in therapy twenty years from now.

"Then what did he say?" her therapist asks.

She fights back tears. "He said...he said, 'Those are weeds!" And then begins sobbing.

I have enough things on my conscience already, I don't need to add that to the list.

So instead I just congratulated her on her floral acumen and off she went exploring the rest of the back yard.

That's when it hit me: the biggest difference between her experience of the dandelions and mine is that I superimposed my dualistic grid onto them, whereas she was just open to the moment. I automatically saw dandelions as a weed that invades my backyard; she, on the other hand, just saw a pretty yellow flower.

Good, bad, pretty, ugly, useful, useless, these are mental constructions that we project onto the world. I couldn't appreciate the dandelion the way my daughter did because to me it was a weed, and weeds are a pain in the ass, plain and simple.

I'm not trying to romanticize childhood as some Edenic state, but there was a simplicity in my daughter's experience that cut away some layers of my mental grime. She hasn't yet learned how to differentiate ugly from beautiful, or a flower from a weed. That comes with time.

Zen practice often feels like de-conditioning. I'm trying to unlearn my dualistic mental habits. For instance, there was a moment, around 1 AM as Hurricane Irene was raging outside my window and water was finding its way into my basement, that I asked myself: Is this really bad? How much of this am I creating?

It turned into a kind of koan. When I opened myself to the moment, I could see how empty the events were. Why should water outside my home be fine but water inside be terrible? I was the author of my own suffering--all of it.

It was more categorical thinking, just like with my daughter and her dandelions. I had created good and bad then fooled myself into thinking they had a substantial existence. The Third Ancestor said, "The Great Way is very simple. Just avoid picking and choosing." Indeed.

My daughter did it. She inspires me to see with the wonder of a child where dualities have not yet intruded. Just a flower, just this moment, just "Daddy, look at all of the pretty flowers I picked."

Just, "Wow, they are beautiful." And really meaning it.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: tobym.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The rope and the snake

Last night my wife woke me up at 3:00 AM. "I heard someone downstairs," she whispered.

I shook my head and blinked myself awake.

"Where? What do you mean?" I asked, still bleary from sleep.

"I heard the gate squeak," she explained. We have a children's gate at the bottom of the staircase, and it squeaks when moved. "Should I call the police?"

I thought for a second before saying, "No." I didn't want to call the cops until I knew someone was in the house for sure. It would save me the humiliation of waking up the whole neighborhood for nothing.

I rolled over and rummaged through my nightstand drawer for my hunting knife. My dad gave it to me when I was around 13, and for some reason I have hung on to it ever since. For moments like this, I suppose.

I slipped on my glasses and the dark bedroom slid into focus. I took and deep breath. My heart was hammering with a surge of adrenaline. I climbed out of bed and made it to the hallway.

"What should we do?" my wife asked softly, her voice laden with worry.

I turned to face her. She sat at the edge of the bed, phone in hand, ready to dial 911.

"Hold on; let me check it out first. If you hear me yell, call the cops," I said, not sounding nearly as brave as I would have hoped.

I made my way down the black hallway, the floorboards creaking with each step I took. If there was an intruder, he would know that we were awake for sure. I stood at the landing at the top of the stairs and flicked on the lights. My pupils shrank, and I squinted in the sudden light.

"I called the police," I announced into the darkness downstairs, turning to motion to my wife that I was bluffing and that she shouldn't take that as an actual cue to call. "Leave now and we won't bother you." I had no intention of "bothering" anyone; I just wanted to protect my family if I had to.

Nothing. Silence. Then a muffled shuffling sound from the toy room, as if someone were rolling over in the bed there. My heart picked up its pace.

There was someone in here! Images ran through my mind of a drug addict, strung out on crystal meth or cocaine, passed out in my toy room bed like Robert Downey Jr. I clenched the knife handle tighter and gulped. What the hell was I going to do?

Cautiously, I crept down the stairs, my heart galloping like a race horse.

I won't draw the suspense out any further. There wasn't any intruder. All my doors were locked and the windows sealed. Now anyone who has read my blog before knows that I'm going to make a metaphor out of this.

I am. Sorry, it's the English teacher in me.

The Buddha said that most of the time we mistake reality in the same way as a frightened man in the dark mistakes a rope for a snake. Standing at the top of the stairs, I was certain that I heard someone. Later, I discovered the source of the noise--my son has a plastic bed frame, so when he rolls over, it makes a loud bumping sound. In my adrenaline-filled state, I had misidentified it as coming from downstairs instead of up.

My fear had made me the man in the darkness, mistaking the rope for the snake.

But it doesn't end there. The more I practice, the more I realize that I do this all the time--mistake my thoughts for reality itself. The old map and the territory deal.

Just yesterday I saw a couple in the gym. They were tattooed and in great shape, and I automatically concluded that they were using steroids. Can we say insecure, Andre? Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. But that isn't the point. It took me maybe fifteen seconds of speculating before realizing that I was lost in my own little fantasy world. I was telling myself a story about them that suited my agenda, reducing them to stereotypes (and cliched ones at that) to fit into a mental category.

We weave these little stories about people, events, and experiences, framing and labeling them to fit into our convenient world views. I did that with the couple in the gym and I certainly did that at the top of the stairs last night.

Wake up! That's the goal of Buddhism.

Despite what last night might suggest, I'm working on it. I'm working on it.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: paperbackwriter.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The real Hinayana

Here's something I learned in my Introduction to Buddhism course in the Five Mountain Seminary. I figured I'd share it with you.

We were learning about the true usage of the term Hinayana, the black-eye of Buddhist terms. Often it is used derogatorily to refer to Theravada Buddhism under the false assumption that it is a selfish practice concerned solely with individual Awakening. Hence the name, Hinayana, which means "Lesser Vehicle," as opposed to the Mahayana, or "Greater Vehicle," devoted to the universal Awakening of all beings. This is a very narrow, sectarian, and incorrect usage of the term Hinayana.

What Rev. Jiun Foster, my instructor, offered was a much broader and richer understanding of the word. Hinayana, viewed through this new lens, is the beginning stages of any Buddhist practice--including, dun, dun, dun, Mahayana. Hinayana practice is when a person is concerned with his or own salvation. Theravada Buddhism does not fall into that category at all. In fact, the Buddha himself dedicated the last forty-five years of his life to helping others, so how could any Buddhist school, which uses him as a spiritual ideal, be Hinayana?

Seen in this light, Hinayana is a stage that we all need to work through. For in order to progress we must internalize and embody the understanding that self and other are the not separate. We cannot develop spiritually if we cut ourselves off from the rest of the universe. That, I imagine, would only breed egotism and self-absorption--the exact opposite of the Buddhist goal.

So Hinayana is a stage that can be found in any spiritual practice, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Correctly used, it does not refer to Theravada any more than it does to Zen or Vajrayana.

I really enjoyed this perspective of the term Hinayana. It has motivated me to practice hard and to re-engage the Bodhisattva's vow. I hope it does the same for you.

Thanks to Rev. Foster at Five Mountain Seminary for this lesson. Hapchang.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: El Caganer.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bad dreams

The other night my four-year-old daughter had a bad dream. She was so upset that I carried her into my bed and held her for the rest of the night. Last night, before she went to bed, she said, "I can't stop thinking bad things."

I felt wretchedly helpless; if there's one thing that's torturous for a parent its to see your child suffer. She was having so much anxiety about her dreams that she couldn't stop thinking about them. I said everything I could to put her at ease. I told her that thoughts are like clouds, and just like you wouldn't be afraid if a cloud looked scary, the same applied to thoughts.

That didn't work. Neither did my explanation that you can't eat a mental slice of pizza, so why be scared about other thoughts?

I should take my own advice. My daughter was suffering from the same habit that most people do--she was hooked by her thoughts, taking them much too seriously. In fact, thinking that they are real. We create these mental maps--simulacra--and forget that they are empty constructs. Like in the photo above, we make monsters out of shadows.

Suzuki Roshi wisely said, "Don't believe everything you think." I wish someone had told me that fifteen years ago!

Most of us are so caught in our little fantasies, our mental narrative where we are the star, that we can't even recognize when we're telling ourselves stories. And what's worse is our resistance to our thoughts and emotions. We want to eliminate any that we deem "unpleasant," and replace them with pleasurable ones. I think that we're hard-wired that way. This inevitably leads to more suffering and anguish as we try to escape the realities of the human condition. Like I said in my last post, pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. We compound our discomfort by resisting it, just like my daughter did by trying to run from her "bad" thoughts. If only we could learn how to accept them--good, bad, regardless of their content--then those labels would begin to empty. Which is what they are in the first place.

That's why koans are so useful. They cut off all discriminating thought and bring us back to the here and now. They force us to respond with our entire beings, to drop all conceptualization--where are you right now? When answering a koan, the present moment feels razor thin. Who knows, maybe that's the way life always is, and koans simply wake us up to the fact. Because that's what the practice is about--waking up.

But obviously I couldn't tell that to my daughter. So last night I just held her, assured her everything was going to be fine, and waited for her to fall asleep.

I see my own struggles in her fears. My own nightmares and anxieties echoed in hers. And not just mine, but the suffering of the whole world was present.

There was a moment that first night when I was holding her as she slept--when all I wanted to do was make everything all right--that I felt like I finally understood Buddhism. A gap closed, or maybe something opened. And all that remained was the present moment. Pure, sharp, and clear.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: gfpeck.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Complex, not complicated

Life is complex, but it doesn't need to be complicated. Modern living is busy, busy, busy. We have grocery shopping, laundry, jobs, cars that require maintainence, and homes that need cleaning. Add children to the mix and you are probably searching for a 25th hour hidden in some pocket dimension. That said, as complex as things get, they don't have to be complicated.

We heap on all sorts of extra drama to situations, and then wonder why life is so hard. The other day I caught myself in the middle of one of my internal diatribes. Self-pity, anger, and frustration were the main cast and I had given them complete license to run the show.

"Why does this have to happen to me?"

"The whole world is crazy!"

"If only..."

You know the routine. Couple that with physical tension, and I was about to scream.

And then out of nowhere I spotted my role in all this. I wasn't sitting passively watching this unfold. Quite the contrary: I was complicating the situation by adding all these new layers to my hurt.

Suffering is optional.

I spotted how I was injuring myself and stopped. The anger remained, but I wasn't feeding it with a fictional storyline where I was the victim of some injustice. I've read "Just do the dishes" countless times; now I was "just angry."

It wasn't pleasant and I didn't enjoy being mad, but it was a traceless, unencumbered anger. It came and it went.

Life is complex, riddled with details and responsibilities. But we're the ones who make it complicated by resisting what's unfolding at this present moment, by spinning these soap operas in our minds. Most of us are much better artists than we give ourselves credit for.

The problem, I think, is that we believe our own stories and don't even realize when we're trapped inside of our thoughts. The goal of Buddhism is to wake up. The first step, though, is to realize when we're asleep at the wheel.

Moment by moment by moment.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: AJC1.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Alternative temple bells

If you're looking for a temple bell for your home altar, check this video out.

It's called a Hapi bell. Granted it's not a traditional bowl gong, but it's very versatile, acting as a six-note bell, gong, and singing bowl. You can even hang it upside down. Pretty cool. Sure it's a little pricey, but compared to temple bowls of the same size, it's pretty reasonably priced.

I stumbled on the Hapi site a couple weeks ago and ordered a drum (not this model) for myself. It's in the mail as we speak. I fell in love with their instruments and figured I'd share it with anyone interested.

And no, I don't own any stock in the Hapi company. Wish I did, though! I just appreciate their craftsmanship.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wonhyo's yellow watermelon

Wonhyo is a legendary 7th-century Korean Son monk. He is most famous for his journey to China, one that he never completed. The story goes that one day, exhausted and exposed to a terrible storm, he sought shelter in a cave. Fumbling through the darkness, he satisfied his terrible thirst with a cool bowl of water that he found in the cave.

The next morning when he awoke, Wonhyo realized that the water he had drank--so refreshing and pure the night before--was in fact a brackish pool inside of a human skull.

Vomiting in disgust, he had a profound Awakening. The mind, he learned, has the power to transform all experience. Phenomena are empty; it's our minds that create good and bad, delicious and rancid. To quote Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Indeed.

After that, Wonhyo abandoned his trip to China, turned around, and returned to Korea.

It's a great story. I had a similar experience the other day, nowhere near as profound, but similar.

My wife cut up a fresh watermelon from a local farm. I eyed it curiously before taking a slice--the insides were yellow, not red like I was accustomed to.

Now I'm not a picky eater, so I was willing to give this a try. I tossed a wedge in my mouth and chewed. It was good, not quite like "regular" watermelons, but sweet and juicy nonetheless.

Later my wife asked me how I liked the watermelon.

"It's good," I said, "but not as sweet as the red kind."

She pursed her lips skeptically. "You know, I think it tastes exactly like the red. It's the yellow color that makes you think it tastes different."

I stood silent. I tried another slice, this time with my eyes closed, and sure enough, it tasted like red watermelon. Holy crap, she was right!

Here's the trip: the moment I opened my eyes and saw the yellow watermelon, my mind and tongue reinterpreted the flavor, like a placebo effect. My mind couldn't accept the fact that yellow watermelon tastes the same as red.

It was just like with Wonhyo. Our mind determines the tone and flavor of our experiences. I wasn't tasting the watermelon as much as I was tasting my expectations.

It was a pretty humbling experience. I'm just happy mine was with a yellow watermelon and not a skull.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: DailyCraft.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Zen Master Ta Hui

Busy as I am these days studying and completing assignments for the Five Mountain Seminary (a great program, by the way), I managed to slip a great read in there--Ta Hui's Swampland Flowers, translated by J.C. Cleary.

Ta Hui, in addition to being Yuan Wu's student--Yuan Wu compiled the seminal The Blue Cliff Record--is one the greatest ancestors in the Korean Zen lineage, and thus the Five Mountain Sangha's as well. Last night I learned that Chinul, legendary Korean Son master and founder of the Chogye order, was reading The Record of Ta Hui when he had his final great Awakening. This helps explain why the hwadu technique is so popular in Korea; Ta Hui implore us to stop attaching to words and sutras and find our true self, by asking the hwadu, "Who is reading this?"

His words are like razors, cutting through delusion and dualism. My favorite quote, reminiscent of Dogen's is, "Once you have the intent to investigate this Path to the end, you must settle your resolve and vow to the end of your days not to retreat or fall back so long as you have not yet reached the Great Rest, the Great Surcease, the Great Liberation." It's a great passage to hang above a Zen center door.

Even if you think that you aren't familiar with Ta Hui's legacy, you are. He wrote a book called Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Sound familiar? It should. Two generations after Ta Hui, Dogen borrowed the title for his magnum opus, Shobogenzo.

Swampland Flowers is an incredible collection of Ta Hui's lectures and letters, many of which were written specifically for lay practitioners. Even thought the book was written in the 12th century, it felt like Ta Hui was speaking directly to me; that's how relevant his writing is. You can't ask for anything better than that!

If you're interested in the works from the Chinese Ancestors, by all means pick up Swampland Flowers. Ta Hui is one of the Greats.

Thank you Rev. Lynch for sharing your knowledge of Ta Hui and Chinul with me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back to School

We're almost halfway through the summer, which means I'm almost halfway through my first quarter in the Five Mountain Buddhist Seminary program. Things are going great. I love the program and really enjoy the teachers and other students. My midterm is due on Thursday, so I'm busy working on that. As a high school teacher, I'm totally out of shape write academic essays. I'm used to grading them, not writing them! I feel like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.

"Mellon, we need you!"

But I have a post coming soon about Zen Master Ta Hui. So stay tuned.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Dean+Barb.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Land of the Two Buddhas

I just watched The Land of the Disappearing Buddha, a documentary from '70s about Buddhism in Japan. It was a fascinating piece, featuring Zen master Omori Sogen, amongst other Buddhist figures. I think the video is part of a series, becasue when it began the narrator was in Sri Lanka, discussing Theravada Buddhism there.

He posed a fascinating question that kept gnawing at me as I watched the video. It's one that I've considered before, but not as articulately. The narrator asked, "If the Buddha from Sri Lanka met the Buddha from Japan, would they recognize one another?"

The standard answer, I suppose is yes, Zen or other forms of Mahayana Buddhism employ upaya, or skillful means, to teach the Dharma, in the same way as the Buddha himself did. Zen practice may appear different from Theravada Buddhism, but at their heart, they're the same.

Just as easily, I can imagine someone asserting the opposite--that Zen or Pure Land or Vajrayana are different. Personally, I dislike Buddhist hierarchies, but there are plenty of people who don't.

It's an interesting question, one that has surfaced many times during my practice.

Would these Buddhas recognize one another?

Tell me what you think.

Also, don't forget to watch the video; it's very well done.

Thanks to Rev. Yuanzhi Daoqing for sharing the video. I really enjoyed it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Attachments for sale

Like I said in my last post, we had a garage sale this past weekend. Our main items: kids stuff. Now anyone with children knows that this is just inviting disaster. Selling a child's toys is the quickest way to instigate a meltdown of epic proportions. Surprisingly though, my four-year-old daughter handled it pretty well. She just kind of sulked by the window as she watched my wife sell her baby toys.

Now I know what you're thinking, why did I torture the poor kid? Why didn't I bring her to the park or somewhere else to distract her?

The answer: because I'm an idiot. It wasn't deliberate cruelty, just plain old male dumbness. I make no arguments to the contrary.

As Buddhists, we're no strangers to the role that attachment plays in our lives. It's right at the center in Buddhism. Our attachment causes us to suffer.

So I knew how my daughter felt. We all do. We grow attached to objects, emotions, experiences, and situations; to the point where it physically hurts to see them go.

I watched painfully as she wrestled with her attachments, and understood how awful it must feel to see something that's yours--even if you never play with it and have long forgotten all about it--being sold right out from under you. How frustratingly powerless that must feel.

But that's the nature of life, isn't it? The human heart is fickle, and wants what it can't have.

I get that way with books. I'll go months without so much as glancing at a title, but the moment I think about selling it, my attachment slams on the brakes. Whoa, whoa, whoa--I love that book. Don't even think about selling it. Who cares if I've never read it; that's all the more reason to keep it!

It's a natural human response, one familiar to us all.

The garage sale was a learning moment for me. I watched all of my own childish dramas played out in my daughter's situation. I'm a 33-year-old, 200 lb. kid.

I soothed her, told her that we would buy her new toys, which cheered her up a bit. But deep down inside I knew that the toys weren't the issue. You could buy a child a thousand toys, just like you could buy me a thousand books, and it will never be enough. The human appetite for consumption is infinite. Just take a look at greedy billionaires who will never be satisfied.

It's not the toys or money or books that are the problem; it's our attachments. It's easy to sell the toys and books; they move real fast. It's our attachments that take a lifetime of practice to get rid of.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: CEThompson.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What church do you go to?

My wife and I had a garage sale on Saturday and we did pretty well. As things were winding down, a neighbor from two blocks down stopped by. He was in his late 40s, dressed casually, with a t-shirt that read: "Tim, The Man, The Myth, The Legend." I was going to tell him that my father-in-law has the same shirt--his says, "Poppy"--but thought better of it.

Later, when I mentioned Tim's shirt to my wife, she chuckled. "What?" I asked.

She shook her head. "He tried to get me to come to his church."

What! I did a double take. "Huh? How did he do that?"

"Well, he introduced himself and then asked me what church we went to."

Talk about spiritual pickup lines! What a way to entice non-religious folk, or poach Christians: "Oh, you should come to our church!"

"So what did you say?" I asked, leaning closer.

"I told him we were Buddhists."


"He said, 'Really?' Like he didn't get that reply often."

He probably didn't. I'm sure he had his share of stock replies for Christians and non-Christians alike, but not for Buddhists. At least other religions believed in God. Don't an idol?

We live in a Judeo-Christian nation, and the average assumption is that either you subscribe to one of the major theistic religions or are an atheist. Buddhists don't really fit into these categories.

Deciding to raise my children Buddhist has really awakened me to the prevalence of these expectations and the public's overall ignorance regarding Buddhism.

I can't help but hope that some time in the near future there will be fewer reactions like Tim's about Buddhists. Like I said in a few posts ago, I think we need to kick start a cultural revolution in this country. And Buddhism is just the way to do it.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Eastlaketimes.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Zen liturgy

Liturgy often falls by the wayside as a form of practice. Many Americans have an aversion to religious rituals of any sort, perhaps the result of negative religious experiences in their past. But liturgy--chanting, bowing, and prostrating--are excellent opportunities to broaden one's practice.

I think at some point we've all had the "Why am I chanting? Everyone else seems to be so absorbed. Why can't I be?" experience. I distinctly remember feeling that way the first time I chanted the "Heart Sutra" in Sino-Japanese.

"What the heck am I doing?" I thought, eyeing the door for the first chance to bolt.

But that's a great opportunity to practice. Uncomfortable feelings mark boundaries of fear and desire to have life be other than the way it actually is. That's where we dig in. As we settle into the anxiety, boredom, or anger, we not only experience the emotion in its fullness and emptiness, but also become intimate with the beliefs that created the feelings in the first place. Like, "Life should be fun--ALL THE TIME." Or "I hate people telling me what to do." Or my favorite: "This is stupid!"

Be the barrier, Daido Roshi always said. Be the resistance. And there's plenty of that in Zen, especially while chanting.

Part of the problem, I think, stems from our expectation that bowing or chanting should be some kind of heavenly, transcendental experience instead of aching backs, hard wood biting into our knees, and dry mouths. But that's the way life is. Our addiction to special effects and sugar buzzes is most noticeable when we're sitting and staring at a wall for three hours, or chanting in unison when we'd rather be lounging on the couch and munching on chips.

Be the barrier. Be the doubt, the impatience, the aching back. Zen training and liturgy has been masterfully designed to wear those edges down.

I just finished reading Daido Roshi's Bringing the Sacred to Life, an excellent little book about how to incorporate liturgy into Zen practice. Do it with your whole heart, mind, and body, Daido instructs in the true spirit of Master Dogen. Liturgy is an opportunity to make the invisible visible, to give life and body to the spirit of our practice.

Liturgy is a living, breathing embodiment of the Zen tradition. We should cherish it just as much as we do our zazen, because at it's heart, chanting and bowing is no different from zazen. It's all practice, all an opportunity to wholeheartedly engage life as it is.

We can then extend this care and attention to other aspects of our lives--eating, driving, excercising. Liturgy is a way of consecrating the everyday, of realizing the Absolute within the Relative, which is the ultimate goal of Zen.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Big Mind Zen Center.