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.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A wave in the ocean

Every night when I put my daughter to bed, I stay in the room until she falls asleep. Some nights take longer than others, depending on how late I get her in bed and how active she was that day. Most of the time, I bring my laptop to check emails and finish any loose ends on my computer while I wait for her to fall asleep, which can sometimes take up to a half hour.

Last night, I lay on the floor in the semi-darkness of growing twilight, my face lit with the soft glow of my laptop screen, when out of nowhere I heard her cry.

"What's the matter, honey?" I asked. Sometimes she cries because she left her stuffed animal downstairs, so I wasn't too alarmed. But there was a note of urgency in her cries that sounded unusual.

"I don't want to die!" she sobbed. And I mean sobbed. Where the heck was this coming from?

Instantly I snapped my laptop shut and rushed to her side. Lately, she has been asking a lot about death, wondering what happens to us when we die. It's a natural stage that kids go through, I suppose. I don't personally remember the first time I learned about death, or being too worried about it; in fact, I don't remember realizing that I would actually die someday until I was in my twenties. Maybe I'm just slow.

"I don't want to stop doing things," she said as I patted her back. She was probably trying to imagine some form of non-existence and what that must be like, or not be like, I should say. Sheer blankness is inconceivable, the complete erasure of consciousness. It's like trying to imagine what you were like before you were born or where you go during deep, dreamless sleep.

Vividly I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with a Catholic friend of mine. He asked me what I would prefer, hell or nonexistence. He said that he would prefer hell--eternal damnation from a Catholic perspective--to oblivion. Now that's telling, especially coming from a grown man.

Non-existence is one of humans' greatest fears. Grasping at self, the Buddha called it.

So I can relate to my daughter's anxiety; she is, five, after all. Death can be pretty terrifying when you first think about it.

When she's really scared, I offer for her to sleep in "the big bed" with us, her parents. So that's what I did. But it didn't work this time; she was still upset and kept crying. Obviously, telling her that she didn't have to worry about dying or that I didn't know what happened to people when they died wasn't doing the trick. I was going to have to pull out the big guns.

Now I know what you're thinking: You're a Buddhist. Why not explain rebirth? Because I never felt the need to introduce heavy Buddhist teachings like rebirth. She understands impermanence because I think it's helpful for a child to have the skills to let go of situations. But I've never felt the need to delve any deeper than that.

Until now.

"What happens," I asked, "to a drop of water in the bathtub? Does it disappear?"

"No," she said, sniffling and sensing my shift in direction.

"Where does it go?"

"In the water."

"Does it disappear?"

She chewed on that for a bit, then said, "No."

"Right," I beamed. "And we're just like that drop of water. We can't disappear; we just change."

She liked that idea; I could tell by her smile.

"Or like a wave in the ocean," I continued. "A wave comes up and then falls, but it's always a part of the ocean, right?"

"Yes," she said. "It's like when we leave home in the morning and then come home in the morning."

"Right. That's like us. We're like that wave--we're born, we live, and then we go back into the ocean."

I went on to explain how the Buddha taught that we are reborn as people again (I left out the whole other realms explanation) and how, like the Dalai Lama says, we were once everyone's mother and father son and daughter. She really enjoyed that idea--that she was my dad once.

"I like that, thanks," she said, sounding much older than she is. Then she gave me a hug and eventually fell asleep.

Did I do the right thing? Is rebirth real? Are we reborn after we die? Or is that just like so much other Buddhist teaching, upaya or skillful means, spiritual medicine?

I don't know. But it helped, and that's all that mattered at that moment--helping ease another being's suffering.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: ahisgett.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tracking Bodhidharma

When I first received Tracking Bodhidharma in the mail, I quickly scanned its jacket for details about this book I had been very excited to read. I groaned the moment I saw the words "Travel Narrative," expecting the book to be some half-baked story about a Zen enthusiast backpacking through China.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

Tracking Bodhidharma is Andy Ferguson's delightful story about how he traveled throughout China to learn about the legendary founder of Zen, Bodhidharma. The book's subtitle, A Journey to the Heart of Chinese Culture, plays a large role in the the story, as much of the book examines modern China. Ferguson, also the author of Zen's Chinese Ancestors, weaves a fascinating tale about contemporary Communist China, Chinese Buddhism recovering from the ravages of the Cultural Revolution, Emperor Wu, and of course, Bodhidharma.

Ferguson writes with a true storyteller's voice, and as the author of Zen's Chinese Heritage and a fluent Chinese speaker, he has the chops to write about China. As a practitioner of Buddhism for many decades and a frequent visitor to China, rest assured that Ferguson is fully qualified to write this book.

Like few Zen titles, Tracking Bodhidharma is addictive; I tore through its 350 pages in three or four days. For someone who knows very little about China, other than Taoism and Chan, I was fascinated to learn about modern China. Since much of the book follows Ferguson as he visits temples and other holy Buddhist sites, it's both fast-paced and extremely informative.

My favorite parts of the book concentrate on Emperor Wu, who appears as little more than a side note in Zen history. Wu's influence on Chinese, and almost all East Asian, Buddhism was vast; on average he built 10 temples per year. Talk about a loyal patron.

As this suggests, Emperor Wu, commonly known as the "Bodhisattva Emperor," was a fervent supporter of Buddhism, but I was shocked to learn, even a monk at times. I say "at times," because the quirky emperor would ordain--during which time he would literally stop ruling China, thus sending the country into political chaos--and then eventually return to the palace after the court had bribed the Buddhist church for his return. Okay, "bribed" might be a strong word, but that's pretty much how the story went.

Absolutely fascinating!

Ferguson goes on to contrast two types of Chan--imperial, embodied by Emperor Wu, and Bodhidharma Chan. Although the two occasionally dovetailed on certain issues like vegetarianism and farming, overall they had different religious (and political) agendas. This is best personified in the famous story of Emperor Wu and Bodhidharma's first, and only, meeting. I'm referring to the time when Bodhidharma zinged Wu after the latter asked, "What is the true Dharma?", to which Bodhidharma replied, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy." This is only after Bodhidharma told Wu--the great "Bodhisattva Emperor," mind you--that he didn't gain any merit by supporting Buddhism, a claim that deeply challenged Buddhist doctrine, practice, and tradition.

As this tale illustrates, Bodhidharma was an iconoclast, but his true influence on Chan and all of East Asia transcends this episode; it's virtually unfathomable. That's the focus of this book.

Overall, Tracking Bodhidharma is a great read. It's a enticing page turner, which is not a description you often hear about Buddhist titles. Unlike some of the other books I preview, this one is actually a perfect choice for the beach. Bet you never thought you'd hear that about a Zen book!

Thanks to Counterpoint Press for sending me a copy to review.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The practice of "no practice"

This past Sunday we had a very small turnout at OMZS, by which I mean that one person attended. Andrew's a regular and so, since there was only two of us, we sat and talked for and hour and a half. That's right, we didn't chant or meditate, we just sat and talked. That was our practice for the evening. It's what my teacher would call sangha building, and that's exactly what we were doing.

And it was damn good practice.

We talked about all sorts of things--film, writing, my book project for the summer, a film he is directing, Buddhism, and of course Zen. A reoccurring theme in our conversation was Zen practice--in particular, what is it?

For me as a Zen priest and a member of the Five Mountain Zen Order, practice is whatever you are doing right now. Wherever you are, that's your practice. Let go of all attachments and engage this moment wholeheartedly. Period. That's it.

When you're mowing the lawn, mow the lawn; don't dilly dally in fantasy land (yes, that's right, I said "dilly dally"), entertaining fantasies. When you're driving, just drive; when you're driving and listening to the radio, drive and listen to the radio.

When you're meditating, just meditate. But by no way does that mean that Zen is limited to the cushion. The cushion is fertile soil for our practice, but the true field is our lives. If we can't embody, live, Zen practice, then what are we really engaged in?

One point that I raised during the conversation was our attachment to sitting meditation itself. This is a thorny issue. We can easily get caught by our expectations of what Zen or practice is, or especially, is not.

To that I say, don't make anything; just go straight. That's a popular expression of Zen Master Seung Sahn, and one of my personal favorites. It means, let go of it all--what we think life, or Zen, or spirituality is or should be, and just practice.

As a father and husband, there are days where my familial responsibilities do not allow me to meditate. That's when I feel all itchy and anxious inside, I suppose like obsessive people do when they can't act on their impulses. So my practice at that moment is not meditating.

And to be perfectly honest, it's a great teacher. It teaches me that I need to let go of all of my attachments, including Zen and seated meditation itself.

For if Zen is about letting go of everything, then that must apply to Zen itself.

On Sunday night our practice was talking. Right now my practice is writing. Soon it will be teaching, and tonight it will be sitting meditation. Or maybe not. But if I can't meditate, then that's my practice--not meditating.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Matthew Knott.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Brand Name Zen

Until recently, as a high school teacher with summers off, I took full advantage of my vacation time and wrote a book each July and August. They were all fiction, and alas, I was never able to publish them. Last summer I didn't write because I was busy studying and completing seminary assignments for the Prajna Institute for Buddhist Studies. But I've got the itch to write again.

So I've decided to write a book this summer about a subject that I feel very seriously about. It's one that I have not yet explored on this blog, but one that feels long overdue.

It's going to be called Brand Name Zen, with the tentative subtitle, Why are we buying it?, or something along those lines. It's going to explore what I see as the new Zen orthodoxy here in the West, which means systems of power and hierarchy both in and between Zen traditions, Zen politics, the role of digital communication as a legitimate form of Zen communication and transmission, and finally the role of Zen Masters and Dharma transmission here in America.

There are a small number of voices and media who have solidified, and are committed to establishing--although perhaps unbeknownst even to them--what I call Brand Name Zen. And so I want to offer an alternative perspective on what I think of as this new Western orthodoxy.

Brand Name Zen is not a challenge or a call to arms as much as it is a series of observations that aim to encourage and foster a creative dialogue--or conversation I should say, for dialogue implies opposites, and that's not what I'm positing here. Hopefully, this book is the beginning, not the end, of this discussion. As my working subtitle suggests, this is a book about questions more than it is about answers.

As a member of a progressive Zen organization committed to empowering its members--the Five Mountain Zen Order--I feel that I have a unique point of view on how Zen organizations operate; it's both an insider's and outsider's perspective. An insider in the sense that I'm engaged in Western Zen (I'm a former member of two Japanese Zen groups, Harada-Yasutani and Soto) and in some small ways through this blog contribute to the chorus of Zen discourse resounding through the blogosphere and mahasangha. And an outsider in that I practice Korean Son, which generally falls outside of the purview of orthodox Western Zen which tends to be Japanese-oriented, and also because the Five Mountain Zen Order isn't traditional by anyone's standards, even, or especially, Korean Son's.

I hope to have the project completed by the end of this summer, 2012. At first I plan to publish it as an e-book on this blog; we'll see where it goes from there.

Please offer your thoughts and suggestions. Thanks for reading.

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Pranav Bhatt.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Yogacara, it's not what you think

Arguably, there is no facet of Buddhism more misunderstood than Yogacara. Contrary to popular belief, among both scholars and Buddhists alike, Yogacara is not  a form of idealism. The 'mind-only' label attached to Yogacara is a misnomer, especially when held against a Western philosophical backdrop. If you're at all interested in what Yogacara Buddhism really is, then pick up a copy of Dan Lusthaus's Buddhist Phenomenology.

Dense, monolithic, dizzying, and masterfully executed, Buddhist Phenomenology is a massive tome of scholarship. By no means is it an easy read, nor should it be, for Dan Lusthaus is a preeminent expert in Yogacara, a complicated and highly influential system of Buddhist thought. The book is nothing short of flawlessly thorough in every detail. Honestly, I am shocked that any single human being could know so much about one subject. It's beyond impressive.

So if Yogacara isn't a form of idealism, what exactly is it? If you've ever read a Yogacara or hybrid-Yogacara text like the Lankavatara Sutra, you'll remember there's a lot of mention of 'mind-only'; according to Lusthaus, this is not a denial of external reality, but rather a recognition that all experience occurs within consciousness. For this reason, he identifies Yogacara as a type of phenomenology a la Edmund Husserl. Lusthaus's primary text of reference is the Ch'eng Wei-Shih lunwritten in the 7th century CE by the Chinese monk Hsuan-tsang.

Yogacara, like its Indian cousin Madhyamaka, is not interested in asserting any ontological statement about reality. What it is interested in is waking people up; it does this by attacking our attachments, namely the human propensity to objectify (or to use Lusthaus's term, "appropriate") reality. Humans cling to all sorts of things: ideas, objects, identities, etc. Yogacara's unique approach--and brilliant contribution to Buddhist praxis--is its understanding that consciousness itself is the one thing that cannot be grasped or appropriated because of its empty nature. If Yogacara privileges consciousness over other phenomena (or dharmas, to use Buddhist terms) it's simply because our only way to know, or better yet, experience, those phenomena is in our through consciousness; hence, its emphasis.

As Lusthaus reveals, the Yogacaric refrain of 'mind-only' is in fact, like much of Buddhism, upaya or skillful means. Its intention is to break our attachments, period. The goal is to break our habit of grasping at external objects, and the way Yogacara does that is to refute externality altogether. When we grasp onto Yogacara and reify it into a statement about reality--as if the world and everything in it is the projection of our minds--then we have fallen into the very trap that Yogacara is trying to free us from.

Don't get me wrong; Yogacara does acknowledge that the world we experience is a projection, but it's more concerned with how we experience and understand reality, rather than what reality is; its focus is epistemological not ontological. Basically, Yogacara says that we confuse our mental maps of reality for reality itself, a diagnosis familiar to all students of Zen.

This is the barest explanation I can give of this rich, dynamic tradition; I've done it and Lusthaus's treatment of the subject little justice. Yogacara left an indelible mark on East Asian Buddhism, influencing such seminal texts as the Awakening of Mahayana Faith and the aforementioned Lankavatara Sutra, not to mention Tien'tai and Zen. We would be wise as Buddhists to study and learn from all that Yogacara has to offer. Buddhist Phenomenology, a magnum opus of Yogacara studies, is both a great place to begin and continue one's studies; Buddhists from all traditions would benefit from reading this brilliant treatise.

Thanks to Routledge Taylor & Francis Group for sending me a copy of this wonderful book to review.