Sunday, April 29, 2012

Give it away, give it away, give it away now!

(Or "The Joy of Giving," but quoting the Chili Peppers has a much cooler ring to it.)

I'm a public school English teacher in New Jersey. In addition to English, I have been teaching Creative Writing for the past six years now. Last week my supervisor and I sat down to discuss my schedule for next year. Due to enrollment and other factors, I had a choice to make: I could continue teaching Creative Writing or English. I chose the latter.

One of the main reasons I decided to pass on the torch, so to speak, is that there is a younger teacher who I know would love to teach Creative Writing. He's energetic, enthusiastic, and an avid writer. That and he would be great at teaching the class.

After all the decisions were made, I spoke to him and could veritably sense the excitement emanating from him. It felt great. While the class wasn't mine to give, nothing in life really is. At best, we are stewards of titles, possessions, roles, and objects. Life allows us a short lease on these things that we think are ours, but in reality, we never really own anything. Not our cars, our jobs, or even our lives.

Impermanence is the great equalizer.

And yet I still felt joy at his happiness, much more than I experience when I receive anything for myself. So I learned something very valuable: if you really want to be selfish, give something away. The pleasure you receive from making someone else happy is so much better than trying to make yourself happy.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Jonathan_W.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I spy with my little eye...

On Monday, I was sitting in traffic with my son and daughter. To pass the time and keep my kids comfortable, I suggested we play "I spy."

Now if you're unfamiliar with the rules, here's how you play: someone says, "I spy with my little eye something ________" and fill in an adjective. Green, tall, hairy, etc. Then the other players try to guess the object. I don't know if those are the official rules, but that's how we play the game in my house, or my car as the case was.

So after a couple of rounds my daughter stumps me with, "I spy out of my little eye something blue."

Immediately I scan the surroundings for something blue when I spot a blue Nissan two cars ahead of us.

"Is it the sky?" I ask playfully.

"Nooo," she jokes back.

"Hmm, I wonder what it could be." I pretend to survey the traffic scene. "Is it a car?"


I lunge for the kill. When it comes to "I spy," I'm a silent ninja. "Is it that car?" I say, pointing to the Nissan, certain that I have nailed yet another "I spy" target.

"Nooo," she giggles bemusedly.

I shake my head. What? How couldn't it be that car? It is the only blue one in sight!

Since we are practically parked in traffic, I swivel my head around to locate this mysterious blue culprit that has somehow eluded me and ruined my hitherto untarnished "I spy" record.

But for the life of me, I can't see it.

My daughter giggles, soon joined by my son, who although he's too young to play, thinks the situation amusing--his sister pulling a fast one on old dad.

So where the hell is this blue car she's talking about?

"Are you sure?" I ask, just in case she's joking with me.


"Because," I continue, "I don't see any other blue cars."

I watch her face laugh in the rear view mirror.

Again I look for this blue car, but still nothing. Where is it? She has to be messing with me.

"Give me a hint," I say, inching my car forward a few feet.

"It rhymes with 'Shur.'"

Shur? What kind of hint's that? It's not even a word!

Then it hits me, as I'm sure it did you several paragraphs ago.

She's talking about our car--my car's blue. Duh!

"Is it our car?" I ask, amused at my own myopia.


And right then I realize--that's life: we're always chasing phantoms of the truth and happiness when it is literally right in front of us. We get seduced by ideas and concepts, thinking that it couldn't be that easy. The truth, the Absolute, our true nature, whatever you wan to call it, is far way, inaccessible to us in the mundane world except through esoteric spiritual technology.

But that's just more thinking, more conceptualization, and more distraction from the life and present moment enfolding before our very eyes RIGHT NOW.

Koans, at least the way we practice them in the Five Mountain Zen Order, is about waking up the present moment.

It's right here, right now. And here's the thing--it always has been!

The truth is right in front of us, inside of us. Zen doesn't create Buddhas; it reveals what has always been there--our original mind. Don't-know mind. Just this. Thusness. Our Buddha nature, shining bright and clear while we're at work, at home, or in our blue car stuck in traffic.

Thanks honey for opening my eyes, yet again.

May we listen to the Bodhisattvas in our lives, whose koans, like life itself, reveal the ever present truth. And may we all Awaken together.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Talie

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Ascending the "Platform Sutra"

The Platform Sutra is a seminal Zen text, despite the fact that the principal figure isn't even the Buddha. I'm taking a course on the sutra at the College of Zen Buddhist Studies, and so I was extremely excited when Columbia University Press sent me a copy of a brand new title about the scripture  Readings of the Platform Sutra – to read and review.

Edited by Morten Schlutter, author of How Zen Became Zen, an excellent book in its own right, and Stephen F. Teiser, Readings of the Platform Sutra engages the Sixth Ancestor's landmark scripture from nearly every imaginable angle – historical, autobiographical, doctrinal, and soteriological. The book explores the history of the sutra, providing vital context regarding Shenhui, the Sixth Ancestor's alleged Dharma heir, and Shenxui, the leader of so-called "Northern Chan," a school accused of being gradualist and dualistic. Without a doubt, the book enhanced my understanding of, and thus my engagement with, the sutra. As a bit of a side note, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of CUP's reprinting of Yampolsky's classic translation of the Platform Sutra.    

Readings contains some of my favorite Chan scholars: Morten Schlutter, Wendi Adamek, and of course, Peter N. Gregory. (You know that you're a real Buddhist geek when you have favorite scholars.) Gregory's essay, "The Platform Sutra as the Sudden Teaching," is my favorite. In it, Gregory elucidates some of the most puzzling passages on nonduality in the Platform Sutra. For instance, he clarifies Huineng's often misunderstood stance on thought. It was attachment to dualistic thought that he rejected, not thinking in and of itself, for thinking, like all other dharmas, is a manifestation of the Absolute. Huineng's solution was non-thought, the complete non-separation of meditative concentration and wisdom. To him, concentration was the essence of the Absolute, and wisdom its function. They are, like a flame and its light, inseparable – nondual.

The collection also contains an excellent, informative essay by Brook Ziporyn "The Platform Sutra and Chinese Philosphy," which as its titles suggests, contextualizes the Platform Sutra within the Chinese philosophical milieu. As Westerners, we tend to think of Zen as having sprung out of a vacuum, completely independent of social and cultural influences. In this essay, Ziporyn does a good job at demolishing that assumption by demonstrating how the Platform Sutra borrows heavily from Daoist and Confucian literary, philosophical, and symbolic tropes.

Readings of the Platform Sutra is really a great book; it answered many questions, but made me question my understanding of what I thought I already knew – the true mark of a good book. Was Huineng real, or is he the invention a fledgling school trying to solidify and legitimate its role in the competitive religious terrain of Tang dynasty China? Was Shenhui even his student?  

And most importantly, are any of these questions relevant to anyone besides a scholar? I think yes. As modern Zen practitioners, we need to critically examine all of the traditions and teachings that our ancestors have protected and handed down to us. That's one of the Buddha's first teachings – question everything, even, and especially, the teachings themselves. So we need to evaluate and question orthodoxy, constantly ask, Why am I chanting these words and bowing like this?

Buddhism is interested in waking up, not blind obedience or perpetuating an institution for the institution's sake. Readings of the Platform Sutra poses some excellent questions that are very applicable to modern, Western Zen. It, like Zen itself, destabilizes our notions of what we think we know. In the end, for me, it raises more questions than it answers. In the past, this might have bothered me. Maybe it's my Zen practice bearing fruit, but I appreciate the pregnant silence that Readings leaves me with. I hope it does the same for you.


Thanks to Columbia University Press for sending me the book to review.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Unclench your I

I realized something the other day: the self doesn't cling; the self is the clinging. As language speakers, we often get fooled by words. For instance, just because English declarative sentences must contain a subject, we seem to think that reality must play by the same rules.

Take "It's raining," for example. What's the "it" in the sentence refer to? The sky? Well the sky doesn't rain. Okay, then how about the clouds? Well, technically rain is the liquid form of cloud vapor, so saying that clouds "rain" isn't quite accurate; they're really not separate. The truth is, in reality there is no subject performing the verb "rain."

The same goes for us. There is no central I controlling my thoughts and actions the same way that a driver steers a car. But that's how we think about this "self" most of the time--as if it's the agent behind all of our thoughts, words, and deeds.

But reality doesn't obey grammar.

Sure I have the sense that there is some me inside my head controlling my body and mind, but to return to my original point, that sense of I-ness is itself clinging. It's a mental contraction, the psychological equivalent of a muscle cramp.

And Zen is like a deep-tissue massage in our minds. It kneads out those cramps, revealing that there never was an I in the first place.

I find that Western Buddhists, being psychologically oriented as we are, tend to shy away from the Buddha's teaching of no-self. We're a bit apologetic when it comes to discussing the "self," opting to say things like "There is no independent, unchanging self," rather than looking the issue square in the eye.

To say self is like believing that a fist is really a noun, a thing, when in reality it can just as easily be seen as an action. Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting juggling grammatical terms, trading the term "noun" for "verb." That would be like adding delusion to delusion, swapping mud for clay.

I'm reading the Platform Sutra for a course I'm taking at the College of Zen Buddhist Studies, and in the text the Sixth Ancestor says that Zen is about getting beyond all views. Nouns, verbs, these are all conceptual constructs that we should avoid clinging to. It's fine to use language, as long as it doesn't use us.

The same goes for a self. Feeling afraid might be useful in order to protect me from danger, but I try my best not to believe that there's some real "I" in my head pushing buttons. Sure there's subjectivity, but that needn't entail a subject. Our sense of an I is really just a mental constriction like an asthma attack.

To test this, the next time you get angry, when your sense of self is at its strongest, investigate the emotion. Probe the muscular tension, the tightness in your chest, the flaring indignation. Then ask yourself where this experiencing self is?

You won't find it because there is no self experiencing the anger. In fact, it's the other way around; the anger produces the sense of self.

So how do we unclench that mental fist?

In Five Mountain Zen Order we ask the huatou, "What is this?" as often as we can. When I'm emptying the dishwasher, doing the laundry, and exercising, "What is this?"

The more and deeper we probe this essential question, the more honestly we can say, "Don't know." Under the lens of this delusion-dispelling question, the self, along with its concomitant battalion of concepts, evaporates. Since, after all, it was a phantom to begin with.

Where is this mysterious, elusive I? Like Bodhidharma answered Emperor Wu, we say, "Don't know." To borrow from Kosho Uchiyama, "Don't know" is the act of opening the hand of thought. I call it, unclenching the fist of I. Others call it No Mind. They're all the same thing.

No-self is not some special state; it's our original nature. Empty, free, clear, and bright. You don't have to practice Zen for thirty years to experience it. Why would you? It's your true nature.

But I've already said too much. Same, different, self, no-self, these are more ideas. To get to the truth, we need to let go of all concepts and views.

"What is this?"

"Don't know."


Fist photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user ElvertBarnes, open hand from AmyZZZ1.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Climbing Mount Sumeru

As an American Zen Buddhist, I have always had a hard time connecting with Asian Buddhist art. I have a Western aesthetic sensibility, and so Tibetan thangkas are too colorful and mystical to move me spiritually, Japanese and Chinese art too sparse. It's not accidental that Japanese statues of the historical Buddha look Japanese, Tibetan Shakyamunis look Tibetan, and so on. The reason is because each of these cultures has integrated Buddhism into its very fabric, and developed artistic representations of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas that reflect their native aesthetics and cultural values.

Except in the West.

Perhaps its insecurity on our part, but all of our Buddhas look...well Asian. We need to learn from our Asian ancestors and begin to develop artistic representations of Buddhist themes in order to resonate with the spiritual needs of Western practitioners.

Nick Pedersen has done that in his latest collection, Sumeru.

I first spotted Pedersen's work on Sweeping Zen, and was immediately entranced by the archetypal scope of his images. In a modern, Western style, Sumeru captivates and inspires viewers with its majestic depiction of a Zen aspirant traveling along the spiritual path. Honoring our East Asian ancestors, the wanderer is dressed in Asian garb, but his or her conical hat could just as easily conceal a face from any country. Which lends the collection a universal, archetypal power that struck right to my heart. In this way, the figure serves as a mirror for our own practice and lives;

it could be anyone: you, me, our neighbors, because in true Buddhist fashion, Sumeru recognizes that we are all Buddhas already. Like Pedersen's faceless traveler, we must all traverse the steep and wild terrain of our inner world in order to Awaken.

Words cannot describe how truly powerful Sumeru's black and white images are--wondrous, magnanimous, enthralling, exciting, evocative, and inspiring. Pedersen leads us through the windy trail of spiritual cultivation, and achieves what all great artists strive to do--challenge viewers to look inside of themselves and awaken their own spiritual quest.

Few artists have moved me the way that Nick Pedersen's Sumeru has. Finally--and I truly mean this--Western Buddhism has found an authentic, artistic voice in Nick Pedersen. I highly encourage anyone interested in spirituality, and not just Zen, to explore the wondrous heights and depths of Sumeru.

"Mountains and Waters,""Flowers in the Sky,"and "Thunderous silence" used with permission from artist, Nick Pedersen.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

April Fools Zen

Last Sunday, April 1st, the Original Mind Zen Sangha met for the first time. Two people attended, and I couldn't have been more pleased and excited. I think it turned out great; I forgot to included one chant, but there wasn't any place I would rather have been.

Before anyone arrived, as I sat on the cushion all by myself, I was suffused with nervous energy and excitement. My heart was drumming anxiously. I had no idea what to expect.

So I just sat and waited, allowing myself to settle into the "Don't know-ness" of the moment.

And so that's what I spoke about--Five Mountain Zen practice and "Don't Know" mind. In life, we often think that we know the answers, based upon a carefully constructed mental map of dualistic categories (either/or, self/other, subject/object, right/wrong, etc.), when in reality we don't know. Our thinking mind often leads us into trouble, cutting reality into false opposites and filling our minds with delusive narratives and thus unnecessary suffering.

In the Five Mountain tradition, we practice the huatou method by asking ourselves, "What is this?" Ordinarily we think that we know the answer to that question: "What is this?" Some jerk beeping at me in traffic. "What is this?" A dog barking at 6 AM.

But the truth is that we don't know because true reality is beyond knowing, in that knowing means dualism and reality is beyond categorization. When we really dig into this question, the huatou cuts through the delusive dualism of the discriminating mind. It's a way of letting go clinging to ideas.

What's left is our Original Mind, free of delusions. Many people want to make something special out of it, but in reality, it's our true nature shining forth. Nothing more, nothing less.

So that's what I sat with until the first person arrived, and the main subject of my first Dharma talk. I had planned on recording it, but in the midst of all the details I forgot.

Maybe next time. Maybe not. I can't say for certain, so I'll say "Don't know" instead.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Four fingers or one?

Over the past month or so, I've been reading a lot from the ancient Ch'an Masters, and here are four excellent titles I highly recommend: The Record of Tungshan, the founder of the Caodong (Soto) school of Zen; Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi; The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu; and Master Yunmen. All are excellent, and with the exception of Hongzhi, are masters from the Tang dynasty, the "golden age" of Ch'an. Unfortunately, the first and last are out of print; I managed to find a copy of Yunmen on eBay, and a digital copy of Tungshan on Google books for a very reasonable price.

The ancient masters, I find, are more helpful than modern writers, many of whom, in my opinion, simply recycle the same message over and over again. The Zen market is saturated with dozens of books by modern authors, few of whom contribute anything new to the Zen canon. These Chinese ancestors, however--along with Linji, Huang Po, Baizhang, Mazu, Dahui, and Korean masters like Chinul--strike deep to the heart of the Dharma in a way few contemporaries can or do.

Read and savor these books; they are distillations of some of the greatest spiritual wisdom China has to offer. At first, their teachings may seem puzzling, paradoxical statements, but the more you read and digest them, the clearer their teachings become.

When reading these masters, we must remember that their teachings are upaya (skillful means) and thus are more pedagogical than philosophical. Our minds, sticky as they are and ever eager to grasp at something solid, inevitably try to turn the masters' statements into something concrete, some absolute statement. But that won't work because the masters are not making philosophical claims; they are trying to wake students up, because the Absolute transcends all words and philosophy. The teachings are fingers pointing at the moon, the great, perfect reality which is ever present. And as their teachings reveal, all we need to do is stop thinking and open our eyes.

For example: These four Zen masters, all pointing at the Great Moon of Reality, are they the same or different? Are there four fingers or one?


Have a great week.

Four fingers photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: king of monks. Single finger from Jon Yates.