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.