Sunday, December 30, 2012

Is this Buddhist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a self?

Don't know.

Is there a Self/soul?

Don't know.

What is the Absolute?

Don't know.

Does God exist?

Don't know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Dharma talk - the Precepts

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

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Within arm's length

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Buddhas Day (sic)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Hey brother, can you lend a hand?

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