Saturday, March 31, 2012

Great Dharma talk

Here is a great Dharma talk by my Five Mountain Dharma brother, the abbot of the FMZORev. Joshua Wanji Paszkiewicz.

(That's my bald head on the bottom left, by the way.)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Original Mind Zen in Princeton, NJ

Sunday is the day--the first meeting of the Original Mind Zen Sangha. Last week I received full ordination as a Zen priest in the Five Mountain Order, and this weekend I'm beginning to offer meditation and Buddhist services. Talk about things moving fast. I'm nervous and excited, anxious and optimistic.

Coincidentally, OMZS will be meeting at the same exact time as another Zen group meets, one that I was a member of for several years. Upon the suggestion of a friend, I contacted my old teacher--whom I respect and hold in high regard--just to inform him that, due to scheduling, we'll both be meeting at the same time.

To my surprise, he couldn't be happier. He was very encouraging, and once things get settled with OMZS, we're even planning to collaborate in the future. It felt really refreshing to know that he supported me and was confident in my ability and competency to lead a group. Thanks, Bill.

As my Zen teacher Rev. Paul Lynch always says, "There are close to 7 billion people on this planet, the more helping hands the better. We have a lot of work to do." The more helping hands the better.

Which is why the first activity I have planned for OMZS is to chant the Bodhisattva's Vow: "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all..." This clarifies the sangha's practice and direction. I love this chant and want it to form the basis of the group's aspirations from our very first meeting.

Thanks to everyone for their support. If you or anyone you know are looking for a Zen group in Central New Jersey, come check us out. We meet at 291 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, NJ 08542, from 7-9 PM. Or join the Original Mind Facebook group; all are welcome.

Thanks and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Beating the Cloth Drum

There are two towering historical figures in Japanese Zen: Dogen and Hakuin Zenji. Dogen was the 12th-century founder of the Soto school, while Hakuin was a 18th-century Rinzai revivalist. The latter did for Rinzai Zen what Martin Luther did for Protestantism.

Much has been written in English about Dogen, but not so much about Hakuin, at least available in mass market. Although he wrote (and painted) voluminously throughout his career, and despite the popularity of Rinzai-influenced koan study in the West, not much of Hakuin's work has been translated into English. What we have is a handful of titles--Hakuin on Kensho, Wild Ivy, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, Zen Words of the Heart, etc.--that explore his doctrinal position, opinions, and even his spiritual autobiography.

However, Beating the Cloth Drum, the latest translation of Hakuin's work, is a collection of Hakuin's letters, which provide a unique window into this complicated man's life and personality. Because they were never intended to be published, these letters reveal aspects of the great teacher that his published work doesn't, or refused to. For instance, despite his constant refrain that his work was unworthy of publication, his letters demonstrate that Hakuin was in fact working tirelessly to publish his writing. Publication, after all, is one way to share Zen with a broader audience, which was one of his ultimate goals.

Translated by Norman Waddell, a highly regarded translator of Japanese Zen writers, such as Dogen, Hakuin, and Bankei--Beating a Cloth Drum shows Hakuin corresponding with people of all classes and types: disciples, lay people, and friends in the Dharma. Although not for casual readers, this book is an important contribution to Hakuin studies, and a dream come true for Hakuin enthusiasts.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bubbles in the wind

Gazing at my two-year-old son in the backyard yesterday, while he blew bubbles in the wind, I was suddenly struck by the realization that THIS WAS IT. This child was the entire universe. Not one atom or moment in the entire history of the cosmos was absent from this boy.

He was everything. All of the conditions in the universe were coalescing at this matrix that I call my son.

His being is a miracle.

All of the countless factors that had to exist--fall into place perfectly like cogs in a fantastically tuned machine--in order for him to exist were vividly apparent to me at that moment.

The birth of Jesus, the discovery of the atom, WWII, they were all present.

And not just for my son. But yours too, and your daughter. And the apple tree in your front yard. The rusty bicycle in your garage. A beetle in Japan.

They're all it.

One of the things I find must beautiful about Zen is its acknowledgement of the phenomenal world; in fact, its insistence that we constantly return to the world around us. The Absolute in Zen is immanent, not transcendental.

We're all it. Me, you, your dog, even that bubble that my son blew. Even though it burst, it hasn't gone anywhere at all. For as the "Heart Sutra" says, "There is no old age and death, and no end to old age and death."

It was a magnificent moment while it lasted. And then, paradoxically, like the bubble, it vanished.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: zzub nik.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Be here now

While driving my daughter to karate on Monday, I stopped at Dunkin' Donuts for a free Ice Coffee. This was my first time using the coupon, so I was very excited when I learned that it actually worked. And then I lucked out and avoided traffic at a usually busy intersection. Before we knew it, we were zooming off to karate again.

I must have laughed because my daughter said, "Daddy, you're really happy. Is today your best day ever?"

Without hesitation I said, "Yes." And not because things had worked out for me, but because today is the only day I'll ever have. It's like Ram Dass said, "Be here now." After all, what other choice do you have?

I realized it right then and there, and her words were a kind of koan. And like many koans, her words were challenging me to let go of my usual mental habits and just see (or act or speak, as the case may sometimes be). Not to make anything. Stop confusing my thoughts for reality. I think that's what Linji meant by the Person of No Rank--a person completely free, unencumbered by attachment and delusion.

And at that moment I completely saw.

If today isn't the best day of my life, I'm in big trouble because then I'm living in a fantasy land. From a Zen perspective, everything other than this present moment is imaginary. So how could I ever think that any other moment is better than this one right now? When you really think about it, it's insane to trade the present for any other moment; it really is.

And yet we do it all the time. We chase tomorrow while trying to forget about yesterday. Or the other way around.

What I'm learning from koan and huatou practice--on a deeper than intellectual level--is how not to make anything. The Way is bright and clear before our eyes, and it always has been. All we need to do is stop our delusive thinking and see it clearly. And that means not trading the present moment, wherever we are and whatever we are doing, for some imaginary alternate reality.

Because an uncomfortable reality is better than a mental fantasy any day, for the sheer reason that it's real. That's what Zen means to me at this stage in my practice: waking up to what's real and seeing delusion for what it is.

So I just said "Yes" to my daughter and sipped my Iced Coffee. I didn't explain all this to her, because why spoil it by making something else? That's like trying to hang a picture in the air.

I just enjoyed my free coffee, the drive, my daughter's company, the cool air lapping at my face--the entire moment. I hope you do too.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

In the waiting room

My daughter got hit with strep throat on Monday, so I took her to the doctor's on Tuesday. When we walked inside of the pediatrician's office, we were greeted by a roomful of glum faces filling the waiting room. There weren't even any seats available; that's how crowded it was. Immediately I knew that we had a long wait ahead of us, and that most likely we were last.

Thinking in advance, I had packed my daughter's iPod for her to play with and my iPad so I had something to read, and if worse came to worse she could play the few games I had stored on the tablet.

Time wore on in the usual way it does in a waiting room--slowly. I won't bore you with the details. People came and people went; you know the routine.

As our wait approached an hour and my daughter's pleas--"Daddy, my throat hurts. Are we next?"--grew more frequent, a new patient sat down next to me. And within five minutes, she and her teenage daughter were called into the exam room.

The woman sitting a few seats down, who had been waiting longer than I had, frowned and shot me a suspicious look. I just shrugged and laughed, as if to say, "These things happen. You know how it goes."

And then another family walked in and were literally called back even before they checked in at the receptionist desk.

The few remaining patients shifted uncomfortably at this. I could feel the hackles on the back of neck's rising. The woman tossed me another dissatisfied look, and my daughter groaned again. I reminded myself that I was lucky even to have health care and to live in a country privileged enough to have doctor's available at a moment's notice.

This helped on a cognitive level, but still I could feel my muscles tensing and my blood pressure rising. By nature, I'm a pretty impatient person. Waiting rooms can be torturous for me, as I sit stranded, thinking of the countless chores I could be completing in the meantime--shelves dusted, floors mopped, and carpets vacuumed.

But before my impatience set in, I caught myself. "No," I told myself, "I'm not going to be taken hostage by my frustration. This isn't about me; it's about my daughter." I had to be patient and calm for her; after all, she was the sick one, not me. She's five and doesn't have the ability to cope with discomfort the way an adult does.

Besides, my agitation was pure delusion, like painting feathers on a fish. The situation wasn't saying, "I am frustrating; I am annoying." I was--all of my tension was my own creation, my own projection. And I had seen through it.

So I took a deep breath and swallowed. I offered her a drink of water, which she gladly accepted before sinking deeper into her seat in misery. It was awful to watch her suffer and be incapable of relieving her pain. The poor kid had just gotten over a stomach bug and now here she was sick again. I gladly would have traded places with her in a second. but that's wasn't an option. All I could do was sit next to her, hold her when she wanted me to, and sooth her.

And then the Bodhisattva's Vow ran through my head, the first line in particular: "Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all."

Here I was, sitting in a room of uncomfortable people, including my daughter, and instinctively all I could think of was my own agitation. As someone who chants the Bodhisattva Vow daily, I wondered where my compassion and sense of duty were.

I realized that I needed to be patient for everyone in that waiting room, not just my daughter. I could add to the tension in the room or try my best to alleviate it.

"Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all," I repeated to myself.

So I took a deep breath and scanned the remaining faces in the waiting room. They were tired, ornery, and uncomfortable. Then I did the only thing I could do: I smiled at everyone.

I hope it made a difference.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons Flickr user: Melissa Venable.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Original Mind Zen Sangha

I am happy and excited to announce that, with the support and encouragement of my guiding teacher, Rev. Paul Lynch, as of April 1st, I will begin offering meditation and Zen services with the hopes of starting a local sangha. As you can probably already tell, I feel a close connection to the teachings of the great Chan Master Mazu. To honor that indebtedness, like the name of my blog, I have decided to name the group Original Mind Zen Sangha.

Traditionally, there are two ways of viewing Buddha nature. First, as a sentient being's potential to reach Enlightenment and become a Buddha. And second, as the inherent quality that all sentient beings possess--their true nature. Original Mind Zen Sangha, in Seung Sahn's and the Five Mountain Zen tradition, strives to help people realize the latter.

Here's a link to our page webpage. If you or anyone you know are looking for a Zen group to sit with in central New Jersey, please consider giving us a visit. We will meet in Princeton at Fellowship in Prayer on Sundays, from 7-9 p.m.

Thanks so much to my wife Jackie for her constant encouragement. And of course to Rev. Paul Lynch for his counsel, patience, and support.

Throughout all of this, I am inspired by the words of Seung Sahn: "Reach Enlightenment and then save all sentient beings." I'm working on it, Master Seung Sahn; I'm working on it. In the meantime, I will help beings any way that I can.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Buddha Nature is not a THING

Buddha nature has been one of the most puzzling Buddhist teachings for me. Very often it and Tathagatagarbha literature sounds suspiciously like Atman/substantialist language. Words like "eternal," "pure," "unchanging," are all reminiscent of the Upanishadic soul principle--teachings that the Buddha repeatedly challenged.

Sallie B. King's Buddha Nature, the first full-length study dedicated entirely to this subject, does a lot to clarify this confusion. In this meticulous exploration of the Buddha Nature Treatise (not to be confused with the Uttaratantra Shastra /Ratnagotravibhāga Sutra), King sets out to prove through exhausting analysis that Buddha Nature is in fact consistent with Buddhist doctrine, e.g. anatman and sunyata. In my opinion, she was very successful. In fact, King does a very persuasive job of explaining how Tathagatagarbha and Buddha Nature thought represents an extension and completion of Prajnaparamita doctrine. For according to the Buddha Nature Treatise, Tathagatagarbha doctrine represents the highest Buddhist teachings--the Absolute, non-dual reality revealed only after one has experienced Emptiness. For instance, the BNT states, "Buddha nature is the Thusness revealed by the twin emptiness of person and things...If one does not speak of Buddha nature, then one does not understand emptiness" (787b). Viewed in this light, emptiness is a vehicle or upaya (skillful means) that leads to Thusness, the Dharmakaya, Dharmadhatu, or Buddha nature. I find this very interesting.

King also differentiates non-dualistic Buddha Nature from Brahmanic monism, as well as placing the development of Buddha Nature within an East Asian context. Buddha Nature doctrine appealed especially to the Chinese mind, already familiar with "this world"-oriented Taoism and Confucianism. My favorite observation of King's is when she compares Indian to Chinese Buddhism: the former, expressed in an apophatic Madhyamaka sense, is freedom from suffering; while the latter in a unique Chinese Mahayana sense, is more of a freedom to... We can see the immediate connection to Chan Masters with their emphasis on non-obstruction and spontaneous, uninhibited action. Very cool. That's what I love about earthy, gritty Zen/Chan/Seon.

Admittedly, Buddha Nature is not an easy read, but it's well worth the effort because it's a very important book. It contributes immensely not only to Western Buddhist scholarship, but to practitioners' understanding as well. Which is how it interests me, because in my mind understanding Buddha nature itself is necessary for any student of Mahayana Buddhism.

When I was given the chance to read and review the book, I leaped at the opportunity; and I'm glad that I did. Buddha Nature provides invaluable perspective and insight into this often thorny subject, and if you're at all like I was--confused and uncertain about how an Atman-sounding Buddha nature fits into the larger Buddhist context--then you'll benefit enormously from the book. Without a doubt, give it a read.

Thanks to Suny Press for allowing me to review this book.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Who is the one that dies?

There was a moment this past weekend, as I lay sick in bed, my stomach tumbling like a dryer, that I realized that at some point in my life--if I'm lucky enough to live that long --hen the pain and discomfort won't go away.

Death is the final period at the end of everyone's life sentence.

Sooner or later, my body will begin to fail me; sickness, old age, and discomfort will be common bedside visitors.

So I meditated on this. I just lay there and felt the uncomfortable sensations. They washed on and off of me, ebbing and flowing with some unknowable rhythm from within my body.

I was sick, and soon I would feel better; this was fairly certain, but someday the pain wouldn't recede.

If I lived long enough, this was something I had to look forward to on a daily basis.

And as I sat with that (or lay, as the case was), terror arose at the certainty of my own mortality. It was instinctive on an almost cellular level. I was reminded of my vulnerability in my body's sickness--the ache and nausea.

But soon, like everything else in life, the terror transformed, into a dull fear.

Everything I had I would some day lose. It was the First Noble Truth manifesting: life, death, and everything in between is dukkha. It's written into the very fabric of samsara.

And I was okay with that. It wasn't resignation or stoicism; I would like to think that it was my Buddhist practice bearing fruit.

Zen is about transcending these very dualities, of life and death, self and other, samsara and nirvana. Like the "Heart Sutra" teaches, nothing ever arises and nothing ceases.

So how could something die? And who would do the dying anyway?

Don't know.

And that's all I'll ever need.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Justin Mclean.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Living Yogacara

If you're interested in learning about Yogacara Buddhism, pick up Living Yogacara by Shun'ei Tagawa (translated by Charles Muller). It's an accessible introduction to the "unwieldy" school of Yogacara, as Muller calls it. The book isn't as light as some reviewers make it sound, but plenty of repetition on Tagawa's part drives the dense Yogacarin theories home in a very practical way. Tagawa explores the alaya-vijnana and manas, along with the other six consciousness, in great detail, rendering Yogacara comprehensible.

Tagawa, himself a Hosso (the Japanese Yogacara school) priest, elucidates the "Mind-Only" doctrine, dispelling the long-held assumption that Yogacara is in fact a Buddhist form of Idealism--that phenomenal reality is merely a projection of our minds. Instead, he explains that Yogacara, like other branches of the Buddhist tree, acknowledges that reality exists; it's just that our delusion distorts our perception of it. So a revised Yogacarin statement of reality might be: The reality we ordinarily experience is a projection of our deluded minds. What we wind up experiencing is ideas, not the world itself. This perspective is fairly consummate with Zen, and so the book is useful for Zen practitioners. In the words of Sallie B. King, Buddhist scholar, interpreting Yogacara as idealism is interpreting the latter based upon Western philosophical assumptions. It's like calling a raccoon a cat simply because it's hairy, has four legs, and climbs trees. It's more accurate to call Yogacara a nondual system, which acknowledges that mind and world are inseparable and arise together.

As Yogacara was a highly influential school in the development of Buddhist thought, I think it is very important to study. And Living Yogacara is a great place to start. There are plenty of books on the subject, but most are not so reader friendly.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Service begins at home

A stomach bug struck my house in biblical proportion this week. First my son was vomiting, then my daughter, and finally my wife. I got hit with an upset stomach and some achiness, but avoided the nausea. This meant I could help out with the kids a little more because I wasn't riddled down with stomach pains.

The interesting thing that occurred during all this was the single-minded clarity with which I was able to attend to my children. Usually, in stressful situations, I remain calm but am inwardly gritting my teeth in dire frustration.

But not this time.

When I was holding my sick children, I was totally empty. Sure, there was concern and empathy, but inside I felt...well I can't really describe it because any explanation will inevitably thrust an "I" into it, when that wasn't the case.

It felt completely natural, a calm receptivity to whatever my children or the situation needed.

Mirror mind? Maybe. More likely a parent who, for a time, shed his self-centeredness and focused entirely on the needs of other beings.

Later, I realized that I felt indebted to them, as if taking care of them were a privilege. And of course it is. We--myself included--don't think of parenting as a privilege, but it is; it's a sacred stewardship over vulnerable and impressionable beings. One wrong move and....

Just kidding.

But the point is that I was only fully available to them when I had shed my own personal agenda and ultimately my sense of self. I'm reminded of Dogen's immortal words from "Genjokoan": "To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe."

Now I don't know about being enlightened by the entire universe, but I do know that, paradoxically, I was a fuller and truer person, and father, when I emptied myself of self-concerns. As strange as that may sound.

Which is not to say that it lasted forever.

The next day, I caught that old irritability and impatience creeping right back in. This is why gradual cultivation, as the great Korean master Chinul taught, is so very important.

Habit energy takes a long time to fade. This is where the real grit of practice comes in. Sure I can tend to my children when they're sick, but how about after I've worked a full day and they're trashing the house? That's real practice.

As a Zen Buddhist, I look forward to these moments--I avoid calling them challenges, even though that is closer to my meaning--to be as open, caring, compassionate, and wise as I can be. I think that true Bodhisattva work begins wherever we have to be at the present moment.

If we're in traffic with a frustrated passenger, that's where we help. If it's in a classroom, or a board office, or a train, we help wherever way we can. In life, we don't choose where and when we offer helping hands; we just offer them. You don't have to be wearing robes to help people.

Often we think of the Bodhisattva Path as being cinematic--glamorous, magnificent work to save all beings, at once!--but the truth is that it's often not flashy or exciting. It takes place in our homes, offices, and on the Internet.

This is Bodhisattva action. That's what Mahayana Buddhism is all about, which is why I consider it a privilege to be a servant of the Dharma, my family, and all beings.

108 bows.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: yak23flora's photostream.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy

Lately, the more I read, the less certain I am of assumptions I once held about Zen. First Mario Pocenski's Ordinary Mind as the Way challenged the conventional image that most Zen students have about Mazu and the Hongzhou school. And now Albert Welter's The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy destabilizes my understanding of Zen Master Linji, the Linji Lu his infamous Zen record, and thus the entire Linji Zen tradition.

Wow, that's a lot to do in one book. But it's true. In The Creation of Chan Orthodoxy, Welter sets out to prove how the common image of Linji--of a brusque, confrontational teacher with more fist blows than words--is a construct of his disciples in their attempt to establish Linji supremacy in Song-era China. Which they were very successful in doing; D.T. Suzuki, the iconic 20th century Japanese Zen missionary of sorts, is the ultimate champion of this Rinzai-based orthodoxy. But as it turns out, like Mazu, the Linji we know is more fictitious invention, or embellishment at the very least, than real. To what degree, no one will ever know.

Welter's main thesis is that this image we have of Linji is both a political and religious construct created to establish doctrinal and praxis-based orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy, now there's a word that interests me a lot.

I began my Zen practice with a mainstream Harada-Yasutani group, moved to the Soto-based Ordinary Mind school, and am now fully engaged in the Korean kanhua Chan tradition in the Five Mountain Zen Order. Essentially, I moved from the most orthodox form of Western Zen (Japanese) to a less mainstream Zen practice with the Ordinary Mind group, and have finally wound up on the fringes practicing Korean Soen. And if that last statement strikes you as a bit odd, I can attest to the fact that when you tell Japanese Zen students that you practice Korean Soen, you can almost smell the judgment and criticism emanating from them; because although many people won't admit it or even know it, they intuitively accept Japanese Zen as the orthodoxy. From my experience, you're made to feel like you're in middle school all over again, wearing knock-off Air Jordans that everyone is whispering about.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture.

So Welter's book fascinated me on several different levels--intellectually and personally. It's a dense, scholarly read, useful for anyone interested in the origins behind the Linji (dare I say) myth. If you're at all like me, a bit of an iconoclast who likes questioning so-called orthodoxy, put The Linji Lu and the Creation of Chan Orthodoxy on your summer reading list.

If you are at all interested, here is a downloadable essay I found by Albert Welter on the formation of the Linji Lu, a kind of primer for his book. Check them both out.

Thanks to the publicity department at Oxford University Press for sending me a copy to read and review.