Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Life's work

I know what I want to do when I grow up! That may sound strange, considering the fact that I'm 34, married, and have a career and two kids. But the fact is that it's taken me a lifetime to realize that I want to devote my life to the Dharma.

Let me explain.

Ever since I was thirteen, I wanted to be a writer, a fiction author to be exact. Anything that didn't directly lead to that goal I considered an obstacle. Which basically meant that I engaged most of my life like hurtles standing in the way of my getting published and living a glamorous life as an author--or what I imagined the life of an author to be. I saw my entire life as one long prologue to becoming a successful writer. Of course this was just a fantasy, yet one that I had swallowed hook, line, and sinker.

As everyone knows, the publishing industry is brutally difficult to enter. "Infiltrate" is more what it felt like to me. I've written several novels, but alas, none of them have been published yet. For years I struggled with this sense of rejection; after all, if I garnered my sense of identity from being a writer, what did that say about me if I couldn't get my books into print?

And then I found Buddhism and Zen. Very early on in my practice, I knew that I wasn't a casual Zen-goer, if that's a word. It's in my blood.

Last night, as I was sitting meditation with the Original Mind Zen Sangha, and later when I gave my weekly Dharma talk, I knew this was path the for me. I say "knew" (past tense) because from the very first time the OMZS met, I realized that devoting my life to the Dharma--practicing, studying, sharing, and teaching--was what I wanted to do with my life.

I vow to be a Bodhisattva, to devote my life to helping others. If that means opening a Zen center, great. If that means meeting once per week in a host location, that's great too. Either way, I want to dedicate my life, full time, to Buddhism. It just feels...right. I don't know what that exactly entails (as far as in a formal Buddhist capacity), or what kind of time frame we're talking about, but my primary aspiration is fulfilling my role as a Zen priest.

I know that I've said similar things in the past, but now it actually feels possible. I like to think of this as my Declaration of Principles, kind of like Charles Foster Kane's in Citizen Kane.

One of the most important lessons that my teacher Ven. Paul Lynch has taught me is that Bodhisattvas help in  any way they can. It may not be an act of earth-shattering proportions; it can be as simple as lending a helping hand or offering a kind word when they are needed. There are close to seven billion people on this planet, and that means a heck of a lot of suffering.

The point is to help---not on our terms, but on life's. This may mean continuing to be a high school teacher and function as a Zen priest on nights and weekend, because we don't need to be wearing Zen robes to be a Bodhisattva.

It would be pretty darn cool, though, to be able to offer Zen services full time.

Anyway, that's what I want to be when I grow up, a Bodhisattva in the service of the Dharma. I understand that in reality it's all part of an ongoing, never-ending process. Visibly, it started when I applied to a Buddhist seminary, and when I ordained as a Zen priest; but it continues every Sunday when I meet with the local sangha, or when I interact with my family and high school students, and even when I write these posts.

I don't believe in fate, and don't empirically know how karma works, but in some way, on some level, I truly believe that Buddhism is my life path. A pastor my wife knows says that he felt a "calling" to ordain; I suppose that's the best way I can describe it. Some might say that people with whom the Dharma resonates encountered Buddhism in a previous life. Maybe so, who knows?

Either way, when I am helping people in my role as a Zen priest I feel blessed and filled with joy. I thank all of the ancestors in the limitless past for preserving, developing, and passing on the Buddhadharma. I consider it an honor and an imperative that I carry it on.

Along with being a committed father and husband, it's the most important thing I can do with my life.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Indhslf72

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Third Turning of the Wheel

Buddhism is a vast, evolving organism that often appears more plural than singular. Cultural manifestations aside, the term "Buddhism" refers to so many contrasting doctrines and practices that it's often hard to see the connection between these seemingly disparate approaches. 

For instance, how does Pure Land fall under the same rubric as Zen or Vajrayana? Do koans and Tantra result in the same Enlightenment experience?  How does sunyata of the Prajnaparamita sutras relate to Tathagatagarbha or Buddha nature? 

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra, a rather obscure scripture dated to the second century CE, tackles that last question by bridging the gap between the Second and the Third Turnings of the Dharma Wheel. Reb Anderson Roshi, senior Dharma teacher at the San Francisco Zen Center, explores this sutra in his newest work, The Third Turning of the Wheel

In his words, "The teaching of the three turnings of the wheel is a conceptual offering to help us understand a nonconceptual approach to liberation." He goes on to explain that the three turnings respectively offer us a logical framework (Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination, Eightfold Path) to ground us in the practice, which then evolves into a refutation of all logic (sunyata of the Prajnaparamita sutras), and then finally a return to logic in the Third Turning. But this logic is free from the limitations of the First Turning of the Wheel, in that it recognizes that all concepts are mental constructs, upaya or skillful means. So it is a freedom within words, akin to Dogen I suppose, a wisdom that recognizes the power and usefulness of language to Awaken others.

The Samdhinirmocana Sutra--and thus Anderson's book--explores everything from the alaya-vijnana (storehouse consciousness), the Three Nature of Phenomena, to a very in-depth explanation of the Lack of Own Being of Phenomena. Like many stutras, the Samdhinirmocana can be dense, and so an explication from a skilled practitioner like Anderson Roshi is invaluable.

I really appreciate that The Third Turning of the Wheel is written from a practitioner's rather than a scholar's perspective. Anderson Roshi draws upon more than 40 years of Buddhist practice and study, all of which is evident in his passionate writing and deep personal understanding of the sutra's teachings.

As I alluded to above, historically Buddhists have had a hard time reconciling the disparate Buddhist doctrines that emerged over centuries of sutra composition. The Samdhinirmocana Sutra's central aim is to explain how these pieces fit together. Anderson Roshi does a remarkable job of elucidating the text in down-to-earth prose and through accessible analogies.

My favorite part is when Anderson compares Buddhist practice to surfing. Our world may often feel like a sea of chaos, with nothing solid to grab hold of. Which is where Buddhist practice comes in. Meditation, study, and practice in general, teach us how to remain still like a surfer in the midst of uncertainty and tumult. We just surf  on through the chaos, abiding nowhere and in nothing.

This was such a visceral, practical metaphor that it still sticks in my heart.

The Third Turning of the Wheel is true Bodhisattva action, and I commend and thank Anderson Roshi for his hard work and commitment to the Dharma. I highly recommend that you explore this book for yourself this summer. It may not be beach-reading material, but it's certainly worth the read.

Thanks to Rodmell Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Zen World, Dharma time!

The local Zen group that I run, the Original Mind Zen Sangha, has just been given a great opportunity: one of our sangha members films for Princeton Community Television and offered to broadcast my Dharma talks. This means that our group will have a 30-minute spot on a local channel every week--how cool is that! We're on right after Wayne's World. But seriously, talk about a great way to spread the word about our group, build our fledgling sangha, and support the Dharma.

We taped our first episode this past Sunday, May 20th. I spoke for 30 minutes about Five Mountain Zen practice, figuring that was as good of a place to start as any. Surprisingly, I wasn't nervous at all. As often is the case with public speaking, I grew more comfortable as I went on.

Once the video is up and running, I will post a link, because it will be available online.

Thank you Andrew for offering to tape and edit the video; I appreciate all of the hard work and time this project entails. This is an amazing opportunity for us to reach and help people, and we couldn't do this without you.

Thanks also to my teacher, Ven. Paul Lynch, who has been nothing but supportive during the entire founding process of the Original Mind Zen Sangha. I am grateful for all of your encouragement, trust, and empowerment.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Mind to mine?

Last week I was working on a very important koan, "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha," with my teacher Rev. Paul Lynch. It was a very humbling process, as there are many layers to the case. The next day I was preparing to meditate when I spotted a picture of Zen Master Seung Sahn, my teacher's teacher, and the one who developed the Dropping Ashes koan.

I was immediately struck with a visceral connection to him. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I was filled with extreme reverence for this man who had journeyed across oceans to a foreign land that spoke a foreign tongue.

Here I was standing in my Dharma room, years after his death, decades after he first journeyed to the West, practicing the Dharma that he had so carefully and gently transplanted  from Korea. It was a tangible insight into Indra's Net and the interconnected nature of the universe: a Korean monk attains his true nature half of a century ago and then an American practices that same Dharma in New Jersey fifty years later. It's breathtaking.

But it was also more than that.

There was no gap between Seung Sahn and me. To say that he and I were one would be to miss the mark, because "one" invites "two" and that wasn't the case at all. Seung Sahn, me, the Dharma, were we the same or different? Same, different, these are ideas; and at that moment, the reality of the moment needed no--or defied--categorization.

Was it a mind to mind transmission? A glimpse of Tathata, suchness?

Open mouth already a mistake.

It was remarkable, that's all I can or will say, a moment I will never forget, for I have never felt closer to my Dharma heritage.

Thank you, Rev. Lynch for sharing this precious Dharma with me. I hope to continue your and Seung Sahn's Dharma legacy to save all beings.

Photo taken from Sweeping Zen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Exploring Buddha's Brain

I'm usually pretty skeptical about mainstream books about Buddhism, so I had my reservations when a friend recommended I read Buddha's Brain. However, I was very pleasantly surprised by its scope, clarity, and readability (especially for a book grounded in neuroscience!).

Buddha's Brain--co-authored by two powerhouses in the cognitive science field: Rick Hanson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist and meditation teacher; and Richard Mendius, MD, neurologist--is a user's manual for the brain. It's basic premise is that the more we know about how the brain functions, the easier it will be to cultivate positive habits, emotions, and brain states. In other words, be happy and suffer less.

Inside, there's plenty of neuroscientific evidence to satisfy even the thirstiest of science geeks, but not too much as to bore or confuse the general reader. In fact, Hanson encourages untrained readers to skip the denser parts, a fact that I really appreciated. Each chapter also ends with a concise summary, highlighting the most significant details, which made reviewing the chapters very easy. There are also practical tips in each chapter about how to foster both a healthy body and mind.

My favorite chapter is the last one,13, entitled "Relaxing the Self." Hanson explores the scientific reality of ontological and psychological emptiness by applying the Buddhist teaching of no-self to neuroscience. He writes,

From a neurological standpoint, the everyday feeling of being a unified self is an utter illusion: the apparently coherent and solid "I" is actually built from many subsystems and sub-subsystems...with no fixed center, and the fundamental sense that there is a subject of experience is fabricated from myriad, disparate moments of subjectivity. (211) 
Stated more plainly "[a]wareness requires subjectivity, but it does not require a subject" (211). This insights is clearly Buddhist. But from a scientific perspective, why do we experience this sense of a separate, independent I, which from a Buddhist point of view, is the chief the source of all human suffering? Because, as Hanson explains, a consistent subjective experience is helpful for an organism's survival, and thus an evolutionary advantage.

So, in other words, humans are hardwired to suffer because our (false) sense of an "I" is advantageous from an evolutionary point of view. Which is why understanding how the brain functions, and thus how our minds are affected by brain states, is so very important.

Buddha's Brain is a light Buddhist text for modern readers. It's a great book to have read and understand, as it reminds us of the mind/body relationship that Zen is so aware of. It's also a perfect title to recommend to people interested in, or curiously skeptical about, Buddhism.

Thanks to New Harbinger for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

This vast and plentiful Dharma

According to Mahayana doctrine, the Buddha set the wheel of Dharma in motion three times. He started with "basic" teachings like the Four Noble Truths because people were incapable of understanding advanced teachings, like sunyata and Tathagatagarbha, which he taught only to a select few students. These teachings were hidden, some say in a secret realm inhabited by serpents (nagas), until the time came that Buddhists were ready to receive them

This creates an obvious hierarchy in the teachings, with the earliest recorded ones assuming a foundational status while Prajnaparamita and Tathagatagarbha sutras are recognized as "higher" teachings.

But here's the thing: the historical Buddha never recited the Prajnaparamita and Tathagatagarbha sutras. It's a fact; modern scholarship supports this. We can call these sutras apocryphal, if we want; but the fact remains the same--the Buddha never uttered them.

And that's okay.

As a Mahayana Buddhist, I have no problem accepting the Heart or Lotus or Diamond sutras as being authentic scriptures, even if the Buddha himself never uttered them. And no, I'm not exercising some fancy form of Orwellian doublethink.

Just because the Buddha didn't recite these sutras, doesn't mean a Buddha didn't. Zen, in particular, recognizes that we can all reach Enlightenment in this very lifetime. Which means that there have been many awakened beings since the historical Buddha first expounded the Dharma 2,500 years ago.

Chinul, Dahui, Mazu, they were all awakened masters, and I recognize all of their teachings. So I personally don't feel the need to pretend that the historical Buddha Shakyamuni recited Mahayana sutras (which he didn't), in order to believe that they are legitimate expressions of the Dharma. A Soto Zen Buddhist has no problem accepting Dogen's teachings as the word of a Buddha, the same goes for a Gelupga lama with regard to Tsongkhapa.

With that said, I am always amazed when I hear well educated Buddhists--usually trained in traditional Asian settings--claim that they have the highest Dharma, that Tathagatagarbha or Shentong or Hua-yen are somehow higher teachings than those found in the Pali Canon, or even Prajnaparamita literature for that matter. From my Western perspective, this ranking is completely unnecessary. Buddhist scriptures do not need to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces because, I think, their goal is not to create a philosophical ladder, with Pali Buddhism (what some might call Hinayana, a term I prefer not to use) at the first rung and Tathagatagarbha/Buddha nature doctrine at the top. In large part because they're not all coming from the same source--the Buddha did not utter all of them.

Which, again, is fine. Just because the Buddha didn't recite the Lankavatara Sutra in no way invalidates it as a Buddhist text.

This ranking doctrines derives from the need to integrate Buddhist teachings--to make them consistent with one another--because it is predicated upon the idea that the Buddha recited the sutras, which is simply historically inaccurate.

This ranking tendency, I feel, reflects how people can lose sight of the purpose of the Dharma. The Buddha was not interested in philosophy; he was concerned with one thing only--ending suffering, i.e., waking people up. And so his teachings are upaya, or skillful means, and should not be misconstrued as statements about reality as much as provisional teachings designed to help us wake up. The moment we rank them, we reify them, which defeats the entire purpose of the teachings in the first place.

Theoretically, someone could wake up using the Eightfold Path, koans, Tantra, vipassana, or any one of the multitude of Buddhist techniques designed for that purpose. They're all effective and valid; they don't need to compete with one another for authenticity, because the moment we fall into that trap, we're attached to form, word, and letters.

And we need to let that go; let it all go, in fact.

The Buddhadharma is a magnificent cornucopia of upaya, consisting of flavors to meet everyone's spiritual palate. It need not be competitive, hierarchical, or mythologically naive about its origins.

The Dharma is ever-present and all-inclusive, and so the last thing it should leave out is an aspect of itself.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: godutchbaby.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I'll take the eggplant...

Last Saturday my family and I attended a Communion party. We eat vegetarian and so we ordered the eggplant parmesan. When the food arrived, my wife discovered that the waiter had made a mistake and served us chicken parm by accident.

We told the waiter, he apologized, and took our plates, promising to return soon with the vegetarian dish.

But I felt terrible. I don't know if it's my Zen practice or not, but it felt like I had killed a chicken. Since my wife had cut the meat in half, the waiter would most likely dump it in the trash. My chicken was untouched, so I hope someone in the kitchen ate it.

Before the waiter grabbed the plate, I was considering asking him to make sure someone ate the chicken. Even when I ate meat, it always bothered me when people let meat go to waste. If an animal died for your consumption, the least you can do is eat all of it. Wasting meat feels so...I don't know, selfish.

And so, even though I had ordered the eggplant, I felt like I had killed that chicken. When I said to another guest at the table that I felt bad, she said, "Why? It wasn't your fault."

"Because they're probably going to throw it out," I said. My wife nodded, so I knew she agreed.

The guest rolled her eyes, as if to say, "Isn't that what animals are there for--for us to eat them?"

Ahh, no. 

But that's how most people feel, like the world was created for humans. It's our little playground and animals are our toys.

That's not cool. It's part of the very crisis that is threatening our nation, our entire planet for that matter. Greed, selfishness, and more greed.

The first Bodhisattva's Vow is to save all sentient beings. Now I'm not trying to persuade anyone to change their eating habits, but this experience taught me that we need to accept responsibility for all of our actions--our thoughts, words, and deeds.

John Daido Loori calls it owning the whole catastrophe. And that's how I felt at the communion party, like I owned that chicken's death.

Even if I didn't eat it or even order the bird's slaughter, I had contributed in some imperceptible way. I may not eat meat, but if I buy milk from a farm that also raises beef cows, then aren't I endorsing the meat industry too? Is it that very different from eating the meat myself?

If everything is connected, as Buddhism teaches us, then I am responsible for that chicken's death, the homeless children in Thailand, China's occupation of Tibet, a star blazing on the other side of the universe.

We all are. For the entire wonder and catastrophe in the universe is no different than our true selves. It may sound strange, but I thank that chicken for revealing to me how connected we all are.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: neatlysliced.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Dogen and the Lotus

I have a love/hate relationship with Dogen. I've read the first volume of his mammoth Shobogenzo and understood--or at least think I understood--most of it. Some of his writing, though, reads like stereo instructions for me. I know that he is considered a giant in Zen, but there is just something about his style that really challenges me.

For instance, he writes, "''Nevertheless deluded'"--a phrase from a koan--"is not the same as mistaking a thief for one's son or one's son for a thief. Great enlightenment is recognizing a thief as a thief; to be 'nevertheless deluded' is to recognize a son as a son."

Here he's talking about the relationship between delusion and enlightenment, but very cryptically--or for some readers, poetically might be a better word--by using phrases ("nevertheless deluded") as the subject of a metaphor. It leaves my head spinning.

Which is why I need a literally skeleton key to decipher his more challenging work.

I just finished Vision of Awakening Space and Time: Dogen and the Lotus Sutra, in which Taigen Dan Leighton explores the influence that Chapters 15 and 16 of the Lotus Sutra had on Dogen. The Lotus Sutra, although celebrated in East Asia as one of the most important Mahayana scriptures, is not very popular in the West. Dogen, a master of both the koan and sutra traditions, cited the Lotus Sutra in his sermons and writings more than any other scripture, so it was obviously important to him.

As always, in characteristically Dogen fashion, he integrated the sutra's vision of infinite space and time into his own worldview, and wove it into his poetic tapestry of the Buddhadharma. For instance, Leighton writes: "For Dogen the pure suchness of earth, space, and time serve as a matrix for practice"--a constant theme for Dogen--"and for further expressions of awakening." Because Dogen saw time, space, earth, and nature, as dynamic, interconnected aspects of the Absolute, so that even a tree or rock can preach the Dharma and be a vehicle for Awakening.

One criticism I have is that there is more Dogen in the book than the Lotus Sutra. I was expecting to understand the sutra through Dogen's writing, rather than the other way around. That must have been a mistaken assumption on my part as a reader. But for those of you interested in Dogen more than the Lotus Sutra, this works out all the better!

All in all, Leighton does a very nice job at demonstrating how the sutra influenced Dogen as a teacher, writer, philosopher, and Buddhist. I am even excited now to read Dogen's Extensive Record , a 800+ page tome, to read firsthand the passages that Leighton cited. Now if that's not an accomplishment on Leighton's part, especially considering my ambivalence to Dogen, I don't know what is.

Thanks to Oxford University Press for sending me a copy of the book to review.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Buddhist Audio Project

Here's an idea that's been bouncing around in my head for the past several weeks: in order to make Buddhist sutras more accessible, why not record someone reading them aloud? People can then download them and listen to them in the car, the train, or the bus.

I don't think that sutra study is very popular in the West; many Zen Buddhists prefer Zen literature to classical sutras, both Pali and Mahayana. However, sutra study is a vital component of Buddhist practice. I personally would not feel comfortable studying with a teacher unless s/he were well-versed in traditional scripture.

Since the downloads would be free, the recordings don't have to be professional productions, just as long as the audio is clear and the speaker's voice isn't terrible. (Sorry, but I don't know any other way to put it.) Especially since this is a DIY, grassroots kind of project. The purpose is to spread the Dharma, not aesthetics.

One thing that is really cool is that Buddhism began as an oral tradition, and in a way, this would be bringing that facet of the Dharma back to life.

This could be a way to encourage Buddhists to explore the core Buddhist teachings firsthand.  I know there are websites that offer some audio versions of Pali and a few popular Mahayana sutras, but to my knowledge there aren't any that systematically run through the entire canon.

Logistically it doesn't sound too difficult: people could volunteer to read the texts, record them chapter by chapter (for longer sutras), then upload them to a website.

Please share your thoughts and opinions, as well as whether a project like this already exists. Also, if you can come up with a catchier name, let me know.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Rusty Sheriff.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Buddha Within

After reading Sallie B. King's Buddha Nature (see previous post), I decided to continue reading about Tathagatagarbha literature and commentary. I just completed reading S.K. Hookham's The Buddha Within, and my head is still spinning. I should have remembered (from reading King's book) that Tathagatagarbha is some heavy material; it's far from the straightforward, simple approach to Buddha nature employed in Zen. It's about as complicated as Buddhism gets. Especially this text, since it is, after all, written from a Vajrayana point of view, which is famous for being scholarly, academic, and highly analytical. 

In The Buddha Within, Hookham, herself a Kagyu lama and scholar, presents the Shentong view on Tathagatagarbha doctrine, as found in the Ratnagotravibhaga Shastra. And as far as I can tell, the Shentong interpretation is exactly the same as Hua-yen and Zen--namely that the Absolute is no other than nondual Mind, empty of all conceptual qualities. In that respect, Hookham caught and maintained my interest because much of the Shentong material sounded familiar to Zen.

A bit of sectarian criticism of Rangtong and the Gelugpa school (of which the Dalai Lama is a member) manages to creep inside the The Buddha Within, for comparative purposes; but as is the custom with Tibetan literature, Hookham tends to rank stages of Buddhism with...you guessed it, Shentong transcending Rangtong. This is more of a stylistic or cultural convention, but one that always bristles my hackles when I read Tibetan material. 

That quibble aside, Hookham does a very thorough job of explaining this complex subject, even going so far as to discuss Hua-yen, one of my favorite Buddhist topics. The Buddha Within sheds important light on the fact that Tibetan Buddhism is far from homogeneous, that its traditions are as bright and diverse as their mandalas are colorful. To paraphrase Hookham, there is more to Vajrayana than the just the Gelupga school. And The Buddha Within does a highly commendable job of representing the rich Shentong perspective.

The Buddha Within serves as a nice change of pace from all of the Zen literature I have been reading, and would definitely interest anyone who has a penchant for Tibetan Buddhism, especially Prasangika Madhyamaka. I think it's important to study different schools of Buddhist thought, and for someone like me, with very littler experience reading Tibetan Buddhism, The Buddha Within is a great place to start. 

As always, thanks to Suny Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.