Sunday, December 30, 2012

Is this Buddhist?

Image courtesy of bayasaa.
That's the question I find myself constantly confronted with as I read through the Tathagatagarbha sutras. Do the Buddha's teachings allow for some Absolute ground of being like the Tathagatagarbha? The latters sounds awfully similar to the Atman (soul) and Brahman (eternal ground/God) that the historical Buddha refuted.

I'm sure I'm not the first one to ask this, and I won't be the last.

The way that traditional Asian Buddhists deal with the Tathagatagarbha teachings, which by the way are central to Zen, is in two ways. 1.) To dismiss them as spurious, later developments not in accord with the Buddha's original teachings of no-self. This is the typical Theravadin approach. 2.) To explain the Tathagatagarbha as the Buddha's highest teachings, and because people were not ready to accept these advanced teachings, he doled them out in portions to be disseminated at a later point. (Which is a little strange if we consider how much they resemble the Upanishadic Atman teachings prevalent during the Buddha's lifetime, which the Buddha criticized. Hmmm...) Some say that the Prajnaparamita sutras were hidden away in a secret serpent realm and that bodhisattvas recited some of the Tathagatagarbha teachings from the Tuhita heaven.

A third runner up would be to interpret the Tathagatagarbha as empty, lacking substance. In other words, the Absolute/Tathagatagarbha/Dharmakaya/Dharmadhatu is not an entity, but the true empty nature of Mind. And a fourth runner up, would be to say that the Tathagatagarbha sutras are simply soteriological devices designed to encouraged people on the Buddhist path. A kind of illusory spiritual carrot.  But I digress.

None of these explanations satisfy me. Like most Mahayana sutras, I do not think that the historical Buddha ever uttered the Tathagatagarbha sutras. To my mind, they represent later doctrinal developments. As a rational, science-minded American, I don't believe in hidden realms or transcendental bodhisattvas.

Without going on too far of a tangent, let's return to our original question: Is this Buddhist? Are these Tathagatagarbha teachings authentic Buddhadharma? Asking these questions is like a cat chasing its tail.

For as the case with many unanswerable dilemmas  we're often asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking, Is this Buddhist? we should be asking, Are these teachings helpful, and true?

Buddhism is interested in the truth, regardless of its source. The Dalai Lama is famously quoted as saying that if science disproved Buddhist teachings, then we would have to revise Buddhism. I agree. We shouldn't cling to any perspective, idea, or teaching.

Zen Master Seung Sahn said that he didn't teach Zen or Buddhism; he taught Don't Know. Like Nagarjuna's sunyata, Don't Know is the relinquishing of our attachment to fixed views. This is Bodhidharma's "Don't Know" that he gave to Emperor Wu when asked, "Who are you?"

Is there a self?

Don't know.

Is there a Self/soul?

Don't know.

What is the Absolute?

Don't know.

Does God exist?

Don't know.

Don't know is our Buddha nature; it's the original state of our minds--clear, radiant, vast, and free.

At the risk of sounding trite, the truth escapes words. I don't think that self, Self, or even no-self can capture the ineffable mystery of existence. My suspicion is that the Buddha taught no-self, not as an ontological truth, but as a prescriptive strategy to break people's attachments. Because attachments cause suffering.

I honestly don't think that the Buddha was in the metaphysics business, not only because words fail to capture the Truth, but because he studied the prevailing spiritual paths of his day, and their attendant philosophies, and found that they didn't relieve suffering. They didn't work.

Does it work? Is it true? At this point in my life, these are the guiding questions behind both my practice and Buddhist study.

We can literally debate doctrine and philosophy forever. That may be a fun distraction, but I don't think it helps us on the spiritual path much. In fact, I deeply suspect that it causes more suffering than it alleviates.

I do, however, feel that Don't know is true to the Buddha's teaching, and all spiritual teachings for that matter.

So on the brink of 2013, I wish you all a happy, safe, and healthy New Year. May you Don't Know all the year long!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dharma talk - the Precepts

This is last week's Dharma talk that I delivered to the Original Mind Zen Sangha. One of my goals for 2013 is to develop a podcast. This is the beginning stage. Enjoy. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Within arm's length

I'm a high school teacher in central New Jersey, in an extremely diverse school district. About a week ago I realized something remarkable. I was having a conversation with several students about race and religion when it occurred to me that, among us, we had a Jain, a Muslim, a Christian, a Sikh, a Hindu, and a Buddhist. I quickly called over another student who I knew was Jewish and then called their attention to this amazing meeting of cultures and religions.

Within a few feet of each other, we basically had every major religion represented, not to mention skin color and continental origin.

What amazed and inspired me was how this had slipped past their attention. Normally we hear teachers complaining about what students don't notice, but in this case it was a good thing. The students didn't realize the diversity because it is so commonplace to them.And that's a great thing!

That means that America, at least where I teach, is becoming more open, accepting, and welcoming to people of different creeds, colors, and religions.

When I was a kid growing up in the 1980s in New Jersey, I was very self-conscious that my father was Muslim. I was the only non-Christian I knew. America isn't like that any more.

After a terrible week for America's schools, I thought I would offer this as a ray of light. We are the hope that we need.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Buddhas Day (sic)

Zen Master Wonji Dharma (Paul Lynch).
December 8th is commonly celebrated among Western Buddhists as the Buddha's Enlightenment day. For the Buddhist community, it is kind of like Easter is to Christians. (When I told one of my high school students that, he said, "Oh, I didn't know Buddhists had an Easter Bunny too." I hope he was kidding.) It's a magnificent celebration of the day that the Buddha Awakened to the Dharma, the universal law of how things are.

But this was only the beginning. There are many Buddhas, awakened beings, in this world. When we cut through the religious esotericism and idealism about what a Buddha is or looks like, we are free to become one.

I remember the first time I met a Buddha. It was a chance meeting on Google Hangout. There were three of us test running the conferencing app to see how useful it would be for the sangha to communicate. Eventually the host left, leaving me and Zen Master Paul Lynch to chat.

This was the first time I had ever met or spoken to him, so naturally I was nervous. But quickly my trepidation melted beneath his calm and inviting disposition.

Let me stop and tell you something about my teacher: he's the most amazing Bodhisattva I have ever met. I spend no less than two hours per week in interview with him; that's how much he cares about his students and the Dharma. And I am not his only student; at any given time he has upwards of ten students, with whom he spends the same amount of time. That's at least 20 hours of interviews per week!

He has unwaveringly encouraged me to reach my potential as a father, husband, monk, and now a Zen teacher; and most uniquely, he has empowered me to do so.

What began as a (perhaps) chance encounter that day years ago unalterably transformed my life from that moment on. Buddhas are not people who levitate or have mystical powers or features; they are simply people who have awakened to their true nature.

And then dedicate themselves to helping all beings awaken to theirs.

Don't get me wrong, they are not common. In fact, maybe it's the skeptical American in me, but I would be cautious of anyone who says that he or she is awakened. But they're not as rare as most people think they are. I am fortunate to have met one.

To me, Bodhi Day, Rohatsu, whatever your tradition calls it, is not only a celebration of the Buddha's enlightenment; it is a reminder that we are all Buddhas. Everything else is just upaya, or skillful means. 

Thank you Sonsanim for your teaching me this. And especially for all of your time, dedication wisdom, and support. I love you, great teacher. I'd still be staring at a wall if it were not for you.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hey brother, can you lend a hand?

May we all aspire to reach as many people as the thousand arms of Kwan yin/Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

I think therefore I am...confused

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been revamped for TV with an attitude. My kids watch it, and I must admit that the show is pretty cool. In this latest episode, Donatello, the most cerebral of the turtles, tries to think his way through combat and even life itself.

The way he sees it, if only he can anticipate every variable, then he will be prepared for whatever life throws at him. This should sound familiar. This is the way most people approach life.

If only I can anticipate everything, then I'll be safe. 

Now that might work in chess--I wouldn't know; I'm a terrible chess player--but not in life. The Buddha cautions against this approach to living in the Four Noble Truths. Our "if only's" can go on forever; that's the nature of being human. Our potential for dissatisfaction is limitless. The moment one thing in our lives goes the way we want it, we immediately think of ten ways that it could be better. 

That's dukkha, the human tendency to be dissatisfied with life, regardless of its content. Thinking is a tool, a capacity; it's not who we are. 

Donatello learns this hard way. In a very convenient TV-fashion, as the episode develops we learn that the villain can read minds and thus anticipate whatever move the turtles make before they attack. 

Daunted by this, Donatello, seeks the advice of his master, Splinter. Splinter says, "In a fight you cannot be up here,"and taps his head. This is the same for life. If we try to think our way through life, all we will do is get tangled up in hypothetical scenarios, none of which have any reality. They are, after all, only thoughts.

Instead, we need to come back to the present moment and just see, just hear, just smell. Drop the thinking.

Or as Splinter puts it so well, "You must find the space between your thoughts and live there."

Wow, talk about a great Zen teaching!

This is Zen Master Seung Sanh's Don't-know mind or Suzuki Roshi's Beginner's mind. It's our original nature before we clutter it up with strategizing and manipulating. That's our original mind, our Buddha nature.

And Donatello needs to return to it in order to defeat the villain. 

Not bad for a kids' show, huh?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tangled Shoes Outside the Zendo

I just read Shoes Outside the Door for the first time, a book that every Zen student should read. Honestly, I don't know how or why I took so long to read it. The book chronicles, in an engaging non-linear fashion, the outrageous exploits at the San Francisco Zen Center throughout the '70s and early 1980s. All of which culminates in the 1983 "Apocalypse" where the delicate deck of cards that is the SFZC topples.

The picture that the author Michael Downing paints is a complicated one where the lines between teacher, student, and lover blur. In which exploitation and surrender are not so easily definable, where careers/businesses and spirituality are strange bedfellows. It's a complicated scenario to say the least.

The sprawling, labyrinthine structure of the San Francisco Zen Center, coupled with ambition, deep financial debt, and dozens of other factors, certainly played a hand in the unfortunate dysfunction that marked the decade of Richard Baker's abbotship.

Complicated, that's the only word I can think of to describe the confluence of forces at work in this book.   Reading Shoes Outside the Door is great Zen practice for the sheer fact that it challenges us to suspend our judgment--that all too human tendency to blame, reduce, minimize, and bifurcate.

That kind of thinking often amputates compassion.

Studying this book can be very helpful to spot our own delusion, due to psychological projection, insecurity, prejudice, you name it. For instance, why do we feel the need to blame someone? Blame, after all, while a natural human reaction, is dualistic, and thus limited.

There's no doubt that Shoes Outside the Door displays a lot of unskillful action. But we can learn a lot from this book, about wisdom, compassion, deception (and self-deception), systems of power, sex and spirituality, Western Buddhism, devotion, loyalty, Zen masters, gender roles and sexism, the role of Buddhist teachers in the West, and much more.

This is an important book, both for what it contains, and perhaps even more so, for what it can reveal about us and our practice.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Discovering Wei Wu Wei

Photo borrowed from
I'm a self-admitted Amazon troller. Always on the lookout for new Buddhist authors, I read Amazon book reviews, scan the 'suggested authors' side bar, and single-handedly keep online booksellers in business. Most of the time the search is fruitless, but occasionally I stumble upon a gem.

I recently discovered an amazing author, one whose name I have seen at least half a dozen times, but never took the initiative to explore. Wei Wu Wei, the pen name of British Terence Gray (1895-1986), is an amazing author. Although his adopted name suggests a Taoist perspective, his writing primarily explores Buddhism, and Zen in particular, with a few obligatory head nods to Ramana Maharshi, with whom he personally studied for a period.

Wei Wu Wei, as his name suggests (it's Chinese for non-volitional action), was interested in nonduality. In order to break free from the delusion of a separate self, Wei Wu Wei offers us the teachings of the great Chinese and Indian masters. As he teaches, if we can practice non-action (not inaction), or non-intentional action, then we can close the false gap between us and the rest of the universe.

To clarify, it's not that the I does not exist, for that is nihilism or annihliationism. It simply doesn't exist the way we think it does--autonomously, independently, as a thing or object. That sense of self is a complete fiction. The truth, according to Wei Wu Wei and other nondualists, is that the sense of I that we identify with as ourselves, is absurd, for by definition a self is something concrete, distinct, and separate--an ontological impossibility. What we are is formless, impossible to locate (in time or space), not separate from anything else; in short, nondual. This demolishes our notion of 'things,' for no such phenomena exists. When he says that the self is 'no-thing,' he means just that--it is not a thing. He isn't discounting experience, for there is experience; it's just not a noun.

There is no thing called an I which experiences. That's dualistic, as are any notions, including existence and nonexistence, loss and gain, here and there, etc.

According to Wei, it is the delusion of intention that creates this phenomenon we call 'I.' The false sense of will is the agent that creates our impression of separation from others, so if we can just see through it, by acting without intention, then we can free ourselves from the false bifurcation of self and other.

Throughout his work, Wei Wu Wei launches an unrelenting assault on the absurdity of the notions of self, other, subject, object, and all other dualistic concepts.

I can't attest to his personal insights (I don't know anything about his personal practice), but I can vouch for his dialectical mastery of the subject. In a via negativa approach similar to Buddhist Madhyamaka, Wei Wu Wei negates all mental categories in order to reveal the true, nondual thusness of the present moment. Or 'this-ness' as he calls it, as opposed to 'that-ness' that we ordinarily suffer from--a world of objects. And that's Wei Wu Wei's central focus: the fact that we objectify everything, including ourselves.

All that we know are objects. Even our sense of self is an object. Anything that can be 'known' in the traditional sense, as an object of mind, falls into this category. The solution is not some form of super subjectivity--some transcendental I, whether it be a soul, spirit, or Godhood--for that is simply the other half of the subject/object dualism. That perspective has fallen into the exact inverse trap that most of us inhabit in our world of objects.

The true path is beyond the subject/object duality altogether. That's Zen. That's what koans, huatous, and meditation aim at--the obliteration of the central duality of self and other.

At freedom.

Wei Wu Wei is one of those extraordinary writers that too few people have read. If you haven't read his work, by all means, dig right in. Like many authors, his work evolves, so I recommend some of his later material. I started with All Else is Bondage and loved it; it's short, handy, and refreshing.

Give yourself a treat this fall and winter, and check him out.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Staying clear, moment after moment after moment

I just finished meditating, my back separated from Hurricane Sandy by a mere three inches of wall. Talk about humbling. I sat while the storm lashed my house, my mind and fear trying its best to spin away in disaster scenarios.

The amazing thing about Buddhism and meditation is that it takes place in the midst of the storm, so to speak. We don't run, we don't pray--we just sit or work or wash or read or exercise through it all. Whatever the circumstances may be, we accept them. We don't run.

When fear arises, there's fear. When joy arises, there's joy. Whatever happens, we accept.

Good and bad come from mind, so if we can open ourselves to the moment--rather than separating from them, like we usually do--then we are free.

Right now, there's a storm outside. I can't do anything about that, but I can chose how I respond to it. That doesn't mean I have to like it or that it will stop raining.

Just be there with the rain and the storm. Don't run, don't send your emotions to bed without dinner. Don't hide; that's what we ordinarily do. Be clear like space. The air doesn't resist the wind, so why should we?

Zen isn't about being strong, for that can easily degenerate into a form of stoicism or resistance. It's about being open, not separating from our experience. Not making anything.

So that's where I am, right now.

Best wishes to everyone.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

There's a storm a-comin

Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video.
In New Jersey, we're bracing for Hurricane Sandy. All of the weather reports indicate that Sandy is the worst storm the East Coast has ever seen; and she's aimed right at New Jersey.

These past couple of days have been a challenging exercise in patience and accepting uncertainty. As luck would have it, I am scheduled for a Zen retreat this weekend. Am I going? Will flights be open? Will my basement be flooded? All of these thoughts keep entering my mind, demanding answers that I can't provide.

Uncertainty is the prime ingredient for fear, anxiety, and plain old worry. And it makes for an interesting bedfellow. These past several days I have been settling deeper and deeper into the unknown. As that familiar sensations of worry arise--muscular tension and tight breathing--I open myself to the resistance. Our impulse is to make everything happen at once, to get it all over with in one shot. However, storms don't work like that. You have to wait them out, one moment at a time.

It's amazing practice. Difficult times can be the most fertile ground for practice. But you already knew that; I'm not saying anything new.

What's so easy to lose sight of in a widespread potential crisis like a hurricane is your connection to everyone else. It's very easy to feel isolated, partly because you physically are. But the reality of the situation is that crises like this are great unifiers.

We're not in this alone. Difficult circumstances, and the accompanying dukkha that follows, connect us; they highlight the deep connections that define us and all beings. We couldn't isolate ourselves if we tried.

We are always connected. And it's in those stressful times that we need, rely upon, those connections the most.

The funny thing is that I feel a safe spaciousness, an inviolate center of calm, that can't be touched. It's small yet hallowed. Now granted, the storms haven't arrived yet--either Sandy's forceful gale or the emotional tempest that accompanies her--but this experience has taught me a valuable, visceral lesson:

Sometimes in life we can only prepare so much. After that, all we can do is wait. But I'm not alone; I wait, not only with much of the East Coast, but with all beings.

I wish everyone a safe next couple of days. Let's all make it through this together.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Our lives are our altars

Last week I wrote about how to assemble a Buddhist altar. I provided pictures of the altar I use for online meditation. Below are some photos of my bedroom altar. This is a brand new Korean Buddha statue I was fortunate enough to locate. Most of the altar items--candles and bases, offering bowl and cup, cloth, and vases--I found at the local thrift store. The tea candle holders are Tibetan butter lamps. In the front is a Korean jukbi (clapper) and on the right a moktak (small drum). The altar itself is simply a black cedar trunk.

Here's a close up of the Buddha. My wife doesn't like his goatee, but I do; it humanizes him. The fiery aureole behind him represents, at least in my mind, our Buddha nature.

And lastly, a shot of just the Buddha. It's hard to see because it's black, but the riser the Buddha sits on, I found at Salvation Army for $1.

So that's that. It's my Buddhist show-and-tell. I hope you enjoyed the pictures. As I wrote last week, altars are a way to make the inward visible. I don't think that they should be stagnant; maintaining an altar can be a valuable form of practice. Bowing, chanting, cleaning, how do we keep our minds during these moments? Altars can teach us to be meticulous, for as we practice paying more and more attention to the details of our lives, our lives themselves become altars or mandalas--sacred grounds for celebration and awakening.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Altars: a why and how-to guide

(My home altar) 
I love Buddha statues, and I especially love Buddhist altars. To me, an altar is an external expression of an internal state. It's a reflection of the Buddha Mind. Like a mandala, an altar's every precise detail can mirror the inherent wisdom and perfection of our true nature, our original minds.

When I first decided to assemble my first Buddhist altar several years ago, I was very surprised at the scarcity of information on the internet. If you run a quick web search, you will find very few articles or posts about Buddhist altars. A Google image search will yield plenty of pictures, but few (if any) that lead to purchasable altar sets. So if you're looking for altar ideas, then images are helpful; but when it comes to actually designing your altar, you'll need to be a little more creative.

Here are a few suggestions I have for making a unique Buddhist altar:

1. This is implied, but design your altar around your Buddha statue. The Buddha is the centerpiece, so for aesthetic purposes, all of your adornments should accent it. Choose a statue that resonates with you on a spiritual level. There are plenty statues to choose from, so don't settle. On the other hand, don't stress yourself out about finding on. You are, after all, choosing a statue, not a life mate.

2. Don't waste your time searching the internet or ebay to buy an altar set. TRUST ME, you can waste many hours searching and find nothing.

3. Instead, go to your local thrift store for incense and offering bowls, candle holders and candles. What could easily cost you well over $100 dollars, you can purchase for less than $20 at these places. Check out garage sales too; you can stumble upon really great treasures there.

4. Don't buy an "authentic" Buddhist altar cloth; they can be quite expensive, and arguably overpriced. Instead, use a satin or silk shawl, scarf, or wrap. You can find these practically anywhere for very cheap. Ebay sells them for less than $10.

5. Use dried flowers. I prefer to buy a bouquet, hang it upside down for two weeks, and presto, you have flowers that will last years. This saves on upkeep, and not to mention, plenty of $$$. If you prefer fresh ones, then by all means use them, but the price can add up over the years.

6. Have fun with it. Designing an altar can be great mindfulness practice. Slow, meticulous attention to detail is excellent Buddhist practice. Try to enjoy it. Just as the final product--the altar--is an expression of an inward state, so too can be the journey of assembling it. Gathering the items piecemeal, as opposed to one all-at-once purchase, can be challenging practice, especially for anxious people like me who don't like loose ends. Plus it's fun, kind of like a scavenger hunt.

I hope these altar-hunting tips help. If you think of any I've missed, please feel free to add them below.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Nirvana Sutra and the Self

I found this video of Dr. Tony Page speaking about Buddha nature and the Self. Pretty interesting. If you'd like to read more of his work, visit his webpage: Nirvana Sutra.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Laundry lesson

Photo credit: flickr user Chiew Pang.
We can learn a lot about ourselves from how we do the laundry. For me, the challenge is in folding the clothes and putting them away, not the actual loading and unloading the washing machine. As I'm sifting through--or wading, as it more often feels like--the pile of tangled clothing, I often catch myself wanting to rush.

Come on, I tell myself, I have more important things to do! But like what? More chores?

Why can't I simply concentrate on the task at hand, be satisfied with the underwear and socks and pillow cases? Why this near instinctive urge to rush to the next task?

In life, as in laundry, most often we don't get to choose what comes next. If it's a lone sock or a towel, that's what we take. Life comes at us all at once, and seldom in the manner or order that we want it. We don't choose to lose our jobs or step in puddles, but it happens. So Zen practice is about accepting whatever arises without discrimination.

A sock? Great. A flat tire? Sure.

The greatest spiritual freedom, I'm beginning to think, opens us up to to the continuously unfolding mystery of existence, infusing us with wonder and curiosity. Sunrises, rainbows, a blister on our foot, a broken plate--it's all the magnificent Dharma of the universe.

If only we can stop picking and choosing, saying yes to the things we like and no to those we don't. If only we can do the laundry one tangled article of clothing at a time.

That would be wonderful.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Work samadhi

Photo credit: flicker user postbear.
Yesterday I did some physical work and it was wonderful. I love my job teaching high school, but there is something extraordinary about working with one's body. And I don't just mean in terms of exercise. Sure, it feels great to work out the physical and mental knots we accrue throughout the week, but that is only a small part of it.

When work is best, we feel completely connected to it. There is no more worker; thought drops away and we become the work. That's what happened yesterday.

I was carrying some heavy beams, and in a form of concentration that is not concentration there just was. No work, no worker, just thus. The mind and self drop away, leaving nothing, not even no mind or don't know mind. It's what emerges when we don't get in our own way, when we let ourselves be ourselves--free. It's our natural state.

I love moments like this. They are so rewarding, refreshing, and cleansing. I think this is why the old worthies valued work so much--as the highest form of practice. Life in action.

It is life samadhi. Nothing beats it. So the next time you have a chance at some hard physical labor, leap at the opportunity, for anything can be a great chance to practice, to find our true nature not only in the midst of life, but as life itself.

Have a wonderful week. Work work and love a lot.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Diamond in the Silk

I just finished a magnificent and exciting book about the 1907 discovery of countless Buddhist manuscripts at the Caves of Thousand Buddhas in China. Among the treasured sutras, sealed in an airtight vault for upwards to eight centuries, rested the oldest printed book ever found, a copy of the Diamond Sutra

Journeys on the Silk Road is a fascinating historical account of how Aurel Stein, a Hungarian archaeologist in the service of the British empire, traversed the deadly climes of Turkestan to arrive at the Caves of Thousand Buddhas where he discovered one of the greatest archaeological finds in history.

"Enclosed by thick rock everywhere, except for the narrow walled-up entrance, and that too, covered up by drift-sand for centuries, the air within the small chapel could have undergone but slight change of temperature. Not in the driest soil could the relics of a ruined site have been so completely protected from injury as they had been here" (122). "Heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared...a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet" (118). It was a veritable Buddhist El Dorado.

In truly captivating prose, authors Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters paint a gripping portrait of Stein, a man who resembles a reticent Ahab-esque explorer in the tradition of Marco Polo or the great Chinese Buddhist explorer-monk Xuanzang.

I was enthralled from Silk Road's very first pages. The authors trace Stein's journey from England to Turkestan to China in meticulous detail. I felt like I could hear Stein breathing on nearly every page--that's how much life the authors breathed into him--and so we share in his excitement as he "coaxes" the resident abbot, a Taoist monk, to part with many of the manuscripts. But that's just half the story.

Stein still needs to transport the relics to England, a journey just as challenging as retrieving the sutras. And of course, the scriptures still need to survive the devastating Nazi bombings of World War II. (Don't worry, they do.)

Ordinarily I enjoy strict Buddhist literature, but Journeys on the Silk Road was a pleasant and enjoyable departure for me. The book is an amazing tale of the survival of one of Mahayana Buddhism's most highly valued texts, the Diamond Sutra. I highly recommend you plumb the book's depths.

Thanks to Leyane at FSB Associates for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Whole World in a Single Smile

Photo credit: aldrin_muya.
School started for me last week. It feels good to be back. Even when I was a kid, I always looked forward to returning to school at the end of the summer. Although I would never have admitted it then.

On the first day I met a young man with a warm, eager smile. We began talking and through our conversation I learned that not only was he new to our school, but to this country as well. When I asked him where he was from, he said, "Palestine."

I paused, awestruck. I have taught plenty of students who hailed from foreign countries--Pakistan, India, Russia--but never one from the war torn Golan Heights.

Instantly I felt all of the pain and sorrow from that area of the world. When I asked him how life was in Palestine, he said, "Not good."

My heart ached for this young man and the horror that he and his family must have witnessed and endured. Hua-yen Buddhism teaches us that the entire universe is contained inside of a single atom. This radical perspective validates and honors all phenomena. I suppose that was what I was feeling--all of humanity's violence present in this young man.

And yet he had the happiest smile. There was so much warmth and optimism and kindness that it filled my heart with hope.

This reminded me that we also contain all of the hope and wonder and joy of the universe as well. It's amazing how powerful of a teacher a simple smile can be.

May we all awaken together and learn to live in harmony together.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fun with skunks

Image credit: Creative Commons flicker user vladeb.
It was around nine at night; the kids were sleeping. I lay down in our sunroom porch after a long day of planting shrubs in the backyard, my skin hot with fresh sunburn. The day had been warm but the evening was proving to be cool. I had all the windows open and was enjoying a pleasant, brisk breeze.

I was about three pages into my latest book when I heard a crinkling sound from outside. My neighbor's house is very close, so at first I assumed it was her throwing out her trash. The sound continued, much too close to be my neighbor.

I placed my book down, stood up, and crept to the storm door. It was too dark to see outside, but the plastic crinkling was very close. I flicked on the outdoor light and saw my garbage can laying on the stairs. Exhausted from working in the sun, earlier I had thrown some garbage in the can and knocked it on its side; too tired to set it upright, I had let it lay there, figuring I would do it later.

I kneeled to investigate the source of the sound, assuming it was a cat, when I saw a black tail hanging out of the garbage can. Then it registered--a skunk. I had never been this close to one before. In fact, I don't think I had ever seen a real, live one.

Slowly, I rose, backed up, and began to close the door. The skunk remained unperturbed, too hungry or interested in the contents of my garbage to heed my presence. I swung the door shut until only a few inches remained open.

"Hey," I hissed, "get out of there!" and quickly closed the door. The expectant commotion did not follow. Neither did the stench of skunk spray. Warily, I stood on my toes and peered out of the door's semi-circle window. I couldn't make out much, except for that black tail poking out of the mouth of the can.

Son of a gun! The skunk hadn't run.

I tried again, and again met the same results. The squirrel was non-plussed; it was completely determined to get a meal, I suppose.

Finally, I closed the door and lay back down. There was no sense in bothering the skunk. I would clean up the mess in the morning.

A few minutes passed in silence until my curiosity got the better of me. Yes, you know where this is going.

Once again I investigated, but now the skunk was gone. I checked the can with a flashlight to guarantee that the skunk had fled before I crept outside. I scanned the backyard with the flashlight; the coast was clear. I was wearing a t-shirt, boxer shorts, and a pair of sandals.

I stood the can upright and began to re-arrange the other ones to make room for this can. I pulled a few cardboard boxes out of the corner where the cans normally stood when I heard a sound. I flashed the light into the alcove and saw black fur scurry.

Holy hell, the skunk was in there! What kind of silly animal hides a few away from where it has been shooed away from?

Very un-cinematically, I uttered a girlish scream and bolted into the backyard, fast enough to qualify for the Olympics that had just passed. I stopped at the fence line and crouched, my heart hammering in my chest.

I placed my hands on my knees and regrouped. I had just barely escaped being sprayed! My veins were thick with the rush of adrenaline. I smiled. What a thrill.

At that moment, there was just my heart pounding, the heavy draw of breath, and the moonlight. I felt so alive. Life was so immediate; there was no interlude of mental chatter like there normally is. There was just  the skunk, and then run like hell.

And for some strange reason I felt a deep kinship with all of the Zen masters of the past. I was a living koan. "What do you do when you see a skunk?"

You run. I don't care if you're the Buddha himself, you run when you see a skunk. That's what humans do. Buddha runs in the same way as Buddha mourns when someone dies.

Linji, Mazu, Chinul, they would all run when they saw a skunk. That realization made me smile. We spend so much of our lives in doubt. Am I doing this right? What will they think if I say that? What's wrong with me? Not to mention fear.

But here, panting in the moonlight, there was no room or time for doubt, there was just this. Action, flight. The path was clear. Humans run from skunks.

Laughing at the entire situation, I jogged to the front of the house, all of the Zen ancestors laughing with me.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Zen Mirror: Jogye Order publishes bilingual series on Korean B...

Here's a great article my teacher, Zen Master Paul Wonji Lynch, published on his blog, originally written by Claire Lee.

Zen Mirror: Jogye Order publishes bilingual series on Korean B...: Jogye Order’s newly published English-language series on the teachings of Korean Buddhism, “Collected Works of Korean Buddhism.” (Jogye Or...

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Celebrating Seon Master Chinul

I'm reading currently The Collected Works of Chinul, translated and edited by Robert Buswell. I read half of the book last year, and like before, I feel refreshed by Chinul's inspiring words. Chinul was the founder of the Chogye Order, the largest Zen order in Korea today. He lived in the 12th century and is celebrated for unifying the rift between the rival scriptural and Seon schools. His influence on Korean Buddhism cannot be overstated. 

What I love about his writing is that it is very practice-oriented. Chinul doesn't have time for philosophy or metaphysics; he has more pressing matters on his mind--helping people wake up. When he does delve into philosophy (like samadhi and prajna), its aim is always practice-related. Like his great Chinese predecessor Tsung-mi, Chinul's work focuses on integrating the seemingly disparate East Asian Buddhist sects. The result was the founding of the Chogye Order in the early 13th century.

It's unfortunate that such a prominent and influential Seon Master like Chinul is so obscure in American Buddhism. I encourage anyone--not just Korean Buddhist students--to study his work. His writing is clear, straight-forward, and encouraging. Chinul, who had all three of his awakening experiences while reading scriptures or their exegeses, writes with precision and earnestness. He is the Korean version of the Japanese Soto-founder Dogen, although I find the former's writing much for approachable.

I hope you find his teachings helpful too.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The universe doesn't revolve around humans

One of the many things I love about Buddhism is the fact that it doesn't maintain that the world revolves around humans. There are far too many people--either encultured to this view, or just plain old narcissistic--who believe that the world was created for them. I'm no ecologist or social scientist, but I believe that one of the reasons our world is on the brink of so many crises is because humans are anthropo-centered, meaning they think that the world revolves around humans.

People think that not only do others see the world they way they do--a gross cultural fallacy--but that their brains organize the world is the way that the world actually is. What they commonly overlook is that perception is interpretation. We organize how we see the world according to a host of influencing factors,  including, but not limited to, culture, language, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. All of these determine, in their own way, how we experience the world.

And they're all relative.

I sincerely doubt that my world is the same as a Golden Retriever's, let alone a Buddha's. But most people are under the naive assumption that reality is somehow "out there" just waiting for us to perceive it. But that's far from the truth. Modern science is realizing what Buddhists and other contemplative traditions have know for millenia.

The Buddha taught that ignorance colors how we experience the world, and so our perception is clouded by a scrim that obscures true reality. And yet, most people treat the world like a diaper, assuming that their ego-, human-centered point of view is actually the way things are.

The other day a friend of mine was telling me a story about how when he was a kid, he and his friends were lighting some firecrackers. They walked to the bay to experiment whether a firework would explode under water. After a few tries, they proved their hypothesis correct when they saw a flash under water, followed by a big bubble. They, being adolescents, cheered and gave each other high fives, when out of nowhere, a dead fish floated to the surface.

"It was hilarious," my friend said. I didn't laugh, or even respond for that matter, because I didn't find anything funny about a fish pointlessly dying.

Each of us represented a different worldview. To him, like most to people, animals and the entire planet were made for us to use. This is even perpetuated by religious and political factions throughout the world.  Buddhists, on the other hand, don't see things this way.

According to the Avatamsaka Sutra, the entire universe is one elegantly balanced symphony of interrelated and interpenetrating relationships. From the perspective of the Absolute, a fish is just as marvelous as a human; a blade of grass just as important and worthy of respect as a treasure chest filled with gold.

But that's not how most people see things. They think that people are better than frogs and fish--and implicitly, rich and famous people are the most important of all. And that's what's really dangerous and scary, the unstated view that some people are better than others, for it easily serves as fertilizer for prejudice, racism, injustice, and ultimately, tyranny.

We as a species need to radically shift our perspectives, to cut through all of these views and see clearly. This is the aim of Buddhism. I don't know what society needs.

I try my hardest to be the best Bodhisattva, father, husband, and priest, I can be. We do what we can, when we can. Sometimes that means not laughing at a crude joke, other times it means teaching the Dharma. In the meantime, the best advice I can give to combat such ignorance is, "Only go straight, don't know."

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Bluedharma.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

You may never get a second chance

I know this sounds like a Head & Shoulders commercial, but when life gives us the opportunity to do something positive, if we can do it, we should. 

For instance, I was walking into CVS yesterday when I passed a paper towel lying in a parking spot. It was several feet behind me before I realized it, and figuring I would look pretty strange if I backtracked in the parking lot just to pick it up, I walked inside.

As I was making my way to the back of the store, the paper towel kept nagging at me. I should have picked it up, my conscience scolded. Okay, I admitted, I'll get it on the way out, and stood in line at the pharmacy department. My sense of guilt was relieved as I waited.

But when I made my way out of the store, there was a car parked over the paper towel! Drats!

What was I to do? Wait? Who knows how long that would take? And I certainly wasn't going to climb under the car to get the paper towel.

A couple of years ago, while I walked my dog around the block, I'd place all of the litter I found in a plastic bag. But I stopped because I started getting obsessed with picking up trash--attached, to use Buddhist terms. Really, I was way too interested in neighborhood trash; I couldn't walk three feet without stopping to fill my bag. I think there's a fine line between keeping your neighborhood clean and indulging in obsessions. Now, when I pass some garbage I'll pick it up if I can, but I won't go bonkers about it.

But the "paper towel incident" wasn't a waste; it taught me that if you have the chance to do something good, do it. Don't check, and at the risk of now sounding like a Nike ad, just do it.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr usr: shaggyshoo.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Fazang's Mirror House

I'm preparing to teach a course on Hua-yen Buddhism for the fall term at the Buddhist Studies Institute - Los Angeles, and so last night I was trying to find some cool resources. I stumbled upon this video, which I saw about a year ago. I figured I'd share it. It illustrates the marvelous, interconnected wonder that Hua-yen Buddhism describes. Enjoy.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dharma at 45 mph

On the way home from my daughter's karate class on Monday, she said, "Do you see the air, Daddy?" I knew that she was kidding, and so I naturally played along.

"Yeah," I said, not realizing the full import of what I had just said. And then out of nowhere it hit me--I did see the air. I can't put the realization into words because it will sound too philosophical, and the experience was much more immediate than that.

Looking at the houses whir by, I realized that I was seeing the air. The houses and trees and grass that I saw were only visible because of the air's transparency, so when I saw, say, a car, I was seeing the car and the air and all of the other conditions that were present which allowed me to see. I was seeing my eyes and my mind and the sun and earth.

It was all there. All of it, the whole darn symphony. And none of this occurred on an intellectual level; it was all unmediated. Just whoosh! 

Later, when I told my wife, the scientific skeptic, she disagreed and rattled off some scientific answer about vacuums, space, and air.

But that was beside the point. The point is, in the moment I saw the air in those houses zooming by. It was all there, unobstructed. Still later, this made me think of Huayen Buddhism and the Avatamsaka Sutra, which teaches that all dharmas, even the smallest atoms, contain the entire cosmos. Everything is the Absolute.

In my car on Monday, I stared in wonder at the universe unfolding in front of me in the form of 60's-style Cape Cods and speeding traffic.

And then I arrived home and ate dinner. Perfectly spectacular and perfectly ordinary at the same time.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Dave Bleasdale.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Being Upright with Reb Anderson

When I took the Soto Zen Bodhisattva Precepts at the Zen Center of Philadelphia, my cohort of postulants read several books about the role of the precepts in our lives. On the list were books by John Daido Loori, Robert Aitken, Thich Nhat Hanh, and my personal favorite, Diane Rizzetto. It was a very comprehensive collection, but I wish I could add one title to the list, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts by Reb Anderson. 

This is the second book of Anderson's that I've read and really enjoyed (click here for my review of the the first, The Third Turning of the Wheel). What I admire and appreciate so much about his work is, in addition to his wisdom as a veteran Dharma teacher, his humility. Throughout his exploration of the Soto Bodhisattva Precepts, Anderson touches upon some of his own painful mistakes during his tenure as Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. It takes a lot of courage to do that, and given the book's title--Being Upright, meaning to sit with courage, openness, compassion and love for ourselves and all beings through all that life offers us--his life serves as a wonderful teaching.

My favorite example that he uses to demonstrate Bodhisattva love and action is a not about a Buddhist monk, but about a wildlife conservationist. This man dressed up in feathers to help with the mating process of a finicky whooping crane. When the eggs didn't hatch because they weren't fully developed, the man waited a year (whooping cranes mate only once per year) and then moved in and slept next to the whooping crane to keep her comfort! This time her eggs hatched and the chicks survived, all because of this man's love, commitment, and kindness to the preservation of this wonderful species. That is a true Bodhisattva. 

For Dogen lovers, there are plenty of references to his work throughout the book. I recommend  Being Upright to anyone about to take the Bodhisattva Precepts, regardless of the Zen tradition you practice; it was thorough, thoughtful, and extremely introspective. 

I will close with a beautiful quotation from the book: "The teachings of all the buddhas is the teaching of the entire universe...It is to refrain from all evil, practice all good, and benefit all beings." I found this line very inspiring, and I hope you do too. May this article, like Anderson Roshi's book, help all beings.

Thanks to Linda Cogozzo at Rodmell Press for sending me a copy of the book to review. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

What do we mean by the word Zen "practice"?

I was reading some Dharma talks by Korean Zen Master Hae Am when I stumbled upon an interesting perspective on Zen practice. The Master used the word "examination" and "re-examination" several times before I realized that he was using them in place of the word "practice," which has to be the most commonly used word in any Zen Buddhist's lexicon.

But what exactly is practice?

I remember the first time I encountered the word in a Buddhist context, I wondered, "Practice what?" Certainly, spiritual practice is different than practicing for a ballet recital or playing the guitar, but what exactly is it? It definitely is not practice in the sense of warming up.

We often hear Buddhists say something like, "Sitting next to my sick child, sharing her suffering, was my practice." I know I've used the word that way.

But is the word "practice" the best word? Intuitively, we all know what people mean when they say, "Sitting in the hot zendo was my practice," but for me that sounds a bit like enduring rather than practice.

Zen Master Hae Am offers us the words "examination" or "re-examination" as alternatives. They might sound a little too cerebral, scientific, or dispassionate, but there's an open curiosity to the wonder of experience that is implicit in the terms that I really appreciate.

Obviously "examination" doesn't have the same ring as "practice" does. But isn't that what practice really is--paying attention to our lives, not allowing ourselves to be seduced by the habit of dualism, and engaging life so closely, so immediately, that there is no sense of "examiner" and "examined"?

Words are important; the Buddha acknowledged their power so much that he included Right Speech in the Eightfold Path. The more we understand our practice, the better we can frame it, I think the clearer it will manifest in our everyday lives.

So please practice, examine your life, examine your practice, re-examine your life as practice, every moment of every day.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Where the Heart Beats

John Cage is probably the most impressive experimental composer of the 20th century. He challenged conventional definitions of music by exploring household objects as percussions, everyday sounds as music, and most famously, silence. Kay Larson, author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, reveals the deeply conflicted genius of Cage as he struggles during the 1950s to find his voice as an artist, how to live as a gay man in a country where homosexuality was still illegal, and how to make his art live as an extension of his spiritual life. What Larson paints is the portrait of a fascinating man, who in true Zen fashion, literally fused his life with his art.

In addition to being a fearless avante-garde composer, in true renaissance fashion, Cage was a writer, lecturer, teacher, poet, and painter. However, Cages is most well known for 4'33". If you have never heard it performed, here it is:

As you can tell from the performance, silence, for Cage, is more than the absence of sound (which he ultimately discovers is an impossibility); it is a void pregnant with creative energy and potential. The connections to Buddhist sunyata, or the Absolute, are immediately apparent. Just as there is Absolute without the relative, there is no silence not bursting with sound.

Cage, as Larson reveals, was a close student and friend of famed Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, whose influence on Cage's work and life cannot be underestimated. This is where Cage gets his Zen inspiration. Some of my favorite sections of the book, in fact, are devoted to the brilliant Suzuki.

As with all aspects of this complex man, Cage was not a Zen Buddhist in any traditional sense. Like Huineng, the 6th ancestor, I don't recall Cage ever meditating, which in no way prevented him from having and then sharing some of the greatest spiritual experiences ever captured in Western art (a la William Blake).

Even though I have no background in experimental composition--I'm an old-school metalhead--I absolutely fell in love with Kay Larson's book. It is brilliantly written; her prose is beautiful and her research impeccable (it took her 20 years to write this book, and it shows). My favorite part is when Cage, inspired by a sudden burst of creativity, experiments with a piano. He stuffs any object he can find--forks, knives, blankets--inside the piano to create a one-of-a-kind sound, literally. One slight movement of the piano would budge a fork and then the whole sound would be lost.

The effect, like life itself, is completely un-reproducible.

Cage's work is a celebration of impermanence and all that it means to be human. Where the Heart Beats brings Cage to life in startling detail. His life, like his art, is beautiful, filled with joy, sadness, love, and passion. The book honors Cage in the best way any book can--by being a work of art itself.

Thanks to Kay Larson for sharing your passion for such a great artist, and to Penguin Press for an advanced press copy.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A life of constant revision

I've finished draft one of my Zen book, Brand Name Zen. I have written novels before, but this is the first book-length non-fiction project I have ever undertaken. It was a new and exciting process for me, one that challenged me on many levels--intellectual, doctrinal, spiritual, and emotional. In order to write the book--a critical evaluation of modern Western lay Zen--I had to delve deep inside of myself for answers. As a result, I felt a deep connection reemerging between me and the Zen tradition I practice.

At times, as I sit in meditation or even watching my children play, I feel the presence of the great Soen masters beside or with me--Seung Sahn, Chinul, and my teacher, Ven. Paul Lynch. "Presence" may not be the best word, but it's about as close as I can get.

Zen is about intimacy, with our teachers, the Dharma, all beings, and the entire universe. Our Buddhist ancestors live on through us, as we try our best to embody the Dharma in our lives. There are no words to express that ineffable feeling of closeness and gratitude we experience when we realize that the Dharma is all around us, and that the ancestors are alive with us, and through us.

I often find myself overwhelmed with love and wonder at all of the Buddhist teachers, who in their infinite kindness and generosity as Bodhisattvas, gave everything they had to preserve and maintain the Buddhadharma for us to live and practice today. I am eternally grateful to all of them.

All of this emerged as I wrote this book, as I tried my best to honor the heart, and not just the words, of their teachings.

It was a very incredible experience, one that has nourished me and my practice.

Now begins revisions. The book is relatively short, maybe 25,000 words, so I eagerly look forward to reengaging the book. For me, revision, like my Zen practice, is a never-ending process. I'm always tinkering and tweaking phrases and adding passages, looking for a better way to express or expand upon a point. It's exciting and frustrating at the same time.

I don't know who said it originally, but "Books are never 'finished'; they are simply abandoned." Having written a few books before, believe that to some extent; Eventually we have to let the books, like children, go off on their own, hoping they can stand on their own and do some good in this suffering world.

But I still have a while to go before I get to that point. In the meantime, I'll be busy revising. Thanks for reading.

This book would not be possible without the help of countless beings. Thanks to all of them, but especially to three great Bodhisattvas: my teacher Ven. Paul Lynch, Seung Sahn, and my wife.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: syntaxoflife.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Walking with the Buddhas

Your mind, my mind, and all of the great Buddhas ancestors' minds, are they the same or different?

When I wake up, I eat breakfast then brush my teeth.

If we allow our heats to open to the Great Way, which is always beyond measure, we can feel the great ancestors walking beside us. They can nourish and encourage us, sustain and enlighten us, for they are never really gone or beyond our reach. They are always with us, in a book, a verse, a flower.

I can feel great Chinul's presence as I practice his Dharma and read his words. I can hear Seung Sahn's friendly voice laughing in my ear. As I look my teacher, Ven. Paul Lynch, in the eyes, I see the entire Dharma ocean where all the ancestors are swimming.

Together we chant the great Bodhisattva's Vow, swallowing the ocean of suffering in one vast gulp. I thank all of the teachers who have helped clear the path for me. I walk humbly in your steps and, feeling our shoulders gently brush, I smile. 

The Great Way is magnificent. All we need is the courage to open our eyes. 

Is my mind the same as the ancestors' or different?

It's early. Go eat some breakfast then brush your teeth.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: ├ó–┬║CubaGallery.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Meditation in action

While writing my book, Brand Name Zen, I stumbled upon a pretty cool idea that I thought I would share. According to Thich Thien-An in Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, one of the great Chinese contributions to Buddhism is meditation in action. He uses Bodhidharma’s life as an example. 

After arriving in China, the great Indian Ch’an master is famous for wall-gazing for nine years in deep meditative samadhi. It would appear from this example that seated meditation is the hallmark of Zen, after all, Bodhidharma, the monk who introduced Ch’an to China did it for nine years. Thien-An, however, explains that seated meditation is a traditional form of Indian practice, while meditation-in-action is a distinctly Chinese development. 

As Chinese monasteries replaced the wandering Indian monk paradigm in East Asia, emphasis shifted from entirely seated meditation to manual labor as Zen meditative practice. For if the monks were no longer begging for sustenance, as they did in India, someone had to grow, harvest, and prepare the food. They might as well integrate that into spiritual practice, says Thien-An. Hence, Baizhang’s  maxim, “No work, no food.”

I had never considered this possibility. This demonstrates the truly adaptive nature of Buddhism, and how it can evolve to grow in any soil.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beyond independence

The 4th of July means different things to different people. For some, it's just a day off, for others it's a day of barbecue, drinking, or shopping, and still for others it's a day of celebrating American independence--a day or patriotism. My parents are indifferent immigrants, so the day has never held any real significance for me.

Yesterday, though, as my family and I watched the fireworks from our seats on the lawn of Burger King (yes, you read that correctly: Burger King's lawn is where we watched the fireworks at Sesame Place, PA), all of the traditional ideas that surround this American holiday--America(n), patriotism, democracy, freedom,  justice--washed over me.

What are these concepts that we wield so often in conversation, that inform our identities and politics, and that people are willing to die to defend or kill to spread?

What are these? Ideas, of course, but "what" are they? I dug my mental heels into the hoatou, the primary form of Five Mountain Zen practice.

What are these? What is this day? Who is experiencing all of this?

As the fireworks crackled in the sky, a garden of sparkles against the dark of night, I was engulfed in Don't-know. My son danced on the lawn, much to our parental chagrin, while my daughter munched on french fries. My wife sat on the Hello Kitty blanket and watched my son with one eye and the fireworks with the other.

America, American, human, self, other? All are ideas that, by nature, categorize and separate.

Only don't know. 

Interdependence, interpenetration, emptiness? More ideas. Zen isn't interested in positing more ideas; it cuts right through conceptual thought.

Are the fireworks inside or outside my mind? More gum flapping.

Only this, thus--don't know.

Just fireworks exploding against the tapestry of the night. Children's laughter, a Burger King sign blazing bright. 

Happy belated holiday everyone. May all beings find peace, freedom, and joy.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: bayasaa's photostream.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

No Logo Zen

Last week marked the beginning of my summer vacation. (I know at least one person is mentally snarling, Those darn teachers with their summers off!) Along with spending time with my kids, prepping the Ma-tsu course I'm teaching at the College of Zen Buddhist Studies, I'm also writing the first draft of my book, Brand Name Zen.

As I wrote a few posts back, BNZ explores the branded lifestyle that modern Western Zen sells us. It's promoted in magazines, websites, and much of the Zen literature published today. I define BNZ (or Zen, Inc.) as the lifestyle obsession that many people experience when they identify themselves as Zen Buddhists. And with that comes all of the Buddhist accoutrements: hip Buddhist lingo (sesshin and metta); subscriptions to all of the Buddhist magazines; staying current on who's who in the Zen world; buying cool Asian eating ware, chopsticks and all, and of course, Buddha statues; and so on.

The way I see it, these are fine endeavors as long as two things don't happen. 1.) We don't get attached to them, as often is the case. We begin to thrive off of the celebrity Zen gossip and make something special out of our practice, zazen and all. We identify ourselves as Zen Buddhists, and while on the train we think, "I'm practicing right now." That's not practicing Zen; that's thinking about practicing Zen.

And 2.), we don't confuse any of that with Zen itself. Zen, as I see it, is about waking up, and staying awake, moment after moment. Most of that other stuff is just decoration; the rest is upaya, skillful means to help us awaken.

Lately, I've been reading Naomi Klein's No Logo, the ultimate anti-consumerist manifesto. It's awesome, I highly recommend it. Although Klein's book focuses more upon corporate and cultural exploitation, it still has influenced my own book, especially in understanding that a brand is more than a name. It's a personality that a company aspires to create, which eventually transcends the product entirely, to the point where it's literally the brand that is sold, not the product.

So that's what Brand Name Zen is about. I'm moving faster than I anticipated, chewing up my material like a lawnmower. I was hoping for the final copy to be book length, in the events that I could get it published, but it might fall short of the required length--usually, 50k+ words. Self-published Epub might be the more realistic route.

Anyway, it's all good. My goal is to help people identify where they're "stuck," so they can then relinquish their attachments to Zen itself. If the book reaches and resonates with at least one person, then it was time well spent.

Have a great summer, everyone. Americans, have a wonderful, and safe, 4th of July. Bows to all.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Davide Schiano.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

YOLO, the anthem of a generation?

At high school graduation Thursday night (I am a teacher), I heard the word "YOLO," no less than three times during graduation speeches. Now in case you aren't up on latest teen parlance, "YOLO" is a bacronym for "You only live once." It's this generation's "carpe diem," used to explain (or more often excuse) rash, daring, or sometimes absurd behavior. It's used in a variety of contexts, ranging from a kid mustering the courage for a prom proposal or bombing a test (see right). While the graduation speakers used this term ironically, it got me to thinking.

It goes without saying that we will in a consumer paradise, a culture of sheer spectacle where everyone and everything is a commodity, and thus has can be bought and sold. And the anthem YOLO perfectly captures this. It expresses teen and young adult angst, apathy, and disillusionment with a retail culture whose promises of fulfillment and success have long since been revealed to be bankrupt and hollow.

Now I don't think the solution is "YOLF," as I joked with a student of mine--"You only live forever"--a pseudo-Buddhist appropriation of YOLO. That's just the opposites game. What kids need, and our entire civilization for that matter, is a realistic way to balance power, freedom, ethics, and responsibility. (Ready? Wait...wait....Here comes my Buddhism plug. GO!)

Personally, I think that Buddhism offers just that. It's a radical path for self-transformation. And if the Buddha story reveals anything, it's that one person can make a difference. Change and hope can begin in one heart, and then spread like seeds on the winds.

Still, is Buddhism a cure-all? I feel naive saying yes, for as Owen Flanagan points out in The Bodhisatttva's Brain, Buddhism has been historically weak on the political and social ends of things. Which is fine; that's never been the purview or focus of Buddhism. It's simply not Buddhism's function, which is why I'm hesitant to offer it as a panacea.

That said, I do think that this generation needs a compass to help guide them through this existential malaise. Rabid consumerism, after all, is not a far cry from frightened or disillusioned nihilism. 

So how do we help, not just as Buddhists, but as human beings who have a vested interest in helping people, not for the perpetuation of the species and this planet, but because that's our inner nature operating at its fullest potential? (There was a question in there somewhere, I'm sure.) In America, education has long been touted as the great equalizer, but in the 21st century schools are quickly becoming yet another field for corporations to wage their colonial expansion. Which in some ways, I think, YOLO is a direct response to. Kids are smart; they know a sham when they see one. So where does that leave us? 

At its heart, YOLO expresses this generation's hopelessness. And can you blame them? The global economy is in shambles, celebrity and sports heroes are as much products as those they endorse, the American political scene is a farce... and the list goes on.

And still, we must try. Bodhisattvas vow to save all sentient beings, starting now. Whether we live once or for countless samsaric lifetimes doesn't matter. Once, forever, these are ideas, more opposites. 

I don't claim to have the solution, because I don't know if there is a solution. This world needs a lot of help, not just spiritual healing. There is work to be done in every imaginable dimension--social, political, racial, personal, judicial, financial, and on and on.

But I firmly believe that the fertile soil for responsible, wise, compassionate action is nowhere but right here, right now. The Buddha's life story teaches us that one person can create a revolution. So let's dig our toes into the loam and help. Any way that we can. 

With open hands and open hearts. 

Photo taken from "faded-jeans" @

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Nutritional value of difficulty

Last night I ran into some difficulty while trying to video stream meditation (twice per week I offer online meditation on Ustream). It turned out to be a great opportunity to practice Don't-know mind.

First, I attempted to stream using my new laptop, but there's no setting to keep the computer from falling asleep. So, following someone's advice online, I opened another window and played Pandora in the background, on mute. But I guess the music was eating my bandwidth, so I kept getting disconnected from Ustream. This went on for like eight minutes, which meant I was late for the meditation. And I hate being late.

Now ordinarily I'm pretty high strung, and a situation like this would get me spuming, but rather than get all bent out of shape I just opened myself up to it. The event was neither good nor bad; any judgments were entirely of my own making. So I had a choice: make something out of the situation--get all upset because life wasn't meeting my expectations--or remain open in a non-possessive, uncontrolling mode of experience.

So eventually I got my old computer set up. I apologized for being five minutes late, and then we began to meditate. But about 20 minutes in my old laptop restarted. Talk about irony: I use my HP to avoid my new computer going to sleep, and then this one restarts on me! It's like a Seinfeld episode. Okay, maybe that last one's a bit of stretch, but it was just as comical as it was annoying.

Once again I found myself staring at an uncooperative computer screen. So I just sat there. What else was there to do? Sure I felt like a nincompoop, but getting upset wasn't going to change anything.

Don't make anything, my teacher always tells me. So that's what I was doing, or not doing---not making anything.

Usually I engaged the huatou, "What is this?", a useful method to disarm habit energy and the judging mind. But I didn't need it this time. I just opened myself to my slowly loading computer, my dull disappointment, to whatever else arose.

When I finally logged back on, I apologized once again. Then I sat the remaining minute and a half of the meditation period, and closed with the Bodhisattva Vow.

So that's what happened.  As it turns out, difficulty was a good teacher. Grist for the mill, some might say. For it's when things don't go our way that we feel the edges of our egos stretching, and our capacity to be open and accepting grows. 

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Public Domain Photos.