Saturday, June 29, 2013

To the Buddha Bus I go

Opening a Zen Center is an enormous undertaking that includes every responsibility from raising donations to paying the mortgage/rent and insurance, to maintaining the property. Depending on whether you own the property, this might entail mowing the lawn, shoveling the sidewalk and driveway during the winter, patching a leaky roof, unclogging stubborn plumbing, and repairing/replacing the furnace and air conditioner units. Any homeowner can testify to the fact that owning property can be a major responsibility at the least, and a major hassle at the most. 

Which is why I have, what I think is, an ingenious alternative.* Why pay for or rent a permanent structure, what with all of its attached expenses, when you can find a much more reasonably priced, portable option?

Behold, The Buddha Bus, the first fully mobile Zen/meditation Center. Let me paint a picture for you. 

Imagine a school bus with all of the student seats removed; the floors resurfaced in hardwood; the metal walls and ceiling thinly insulated and covered with a light wood paneling; two RV air conditioners mounted in the roof. The altar will sit at the back wall, two aisles of meditation cushions running the length of the bus. If space permits, we can even add a small bathroom with a sink and toilet like the ones on an airplane. 

It will look something like this on the inside, minus the furniture. Although I think the wood-burning stove is super cool!

The outside will be painted with bright, vivid Buddhist iconography and the words "Buddha Bus" written in bold, inviting letters for all passersby to see. Nothing silly looking or psychedelic like a hippie bus, just bright enough to catch people's attention. 

To save money, I'm thinking that we can approach some college artists to see if they would be willing to complete the project for their art portfolio. For how cool would that look in a prospective artist's resume--a giant Buddha bus?! My local Zen group, the Original Mind Zen Sangha, meets in Princeton, where the University is obviously located, and ten minutes from The College of New Jersey and Rider University, and maybe 25 minutes from Rutgers University with its amazing art school, Mason Gross. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but those are some great artists to solicit for help.

The bus can meet anywhere that is public--in a park, a parking lot, you name it. All donations will go directly to the bus's fuel, maintenance, and insurance. Just in case you're wondering, we will meditate only while the bus is parked. When we are done, we will simply stack the mats and cushions, bungee strap them to hooks on the wall, and finally wrap the Buddha and altar items in towels and store them inside of the altar--a wooden trunk mounted to the floor.   

What's great about the idea is that it needn't replace or compete with an actual physical location. For instance, OMZS meets in Princeton on Sundays, and could continue to do so because the space allows me to conduct interviews with students, a vital dimension of Zen practice. We can use the bus several evenings during the work week when space is hard to rent.

For those skeptics out there who think the idea is too hokey, I honestly think that this project is in the original vision of the Buddha. Let's remember that Shakyamuni Buddha never owned or even slept in a temple, let alone a monastery. He walked everywhere with his retinue of monks and nuns. A converted Buddha Bus is about as close as we can get as homeowners in the 21st century to his spirit of detachment and renunciation. 

Storage will be a hurdle, for where can we park a vehicle of that size without disturbing neighbors or inviting vandals?

That aside, the single greatest challenge is going to be raising funds. Compared to the price tag attached to opening a Zen Center, The Buddha Bus is a very attainable project. I don't think that it will cost much more than $25,000. That figure includes padding for mechanical repairs and conversion fees, for while I can replace a house window or dishwasher, I am far from handy enough to do the work myself. 

If you are as excited about the proposal as I am and would like to see this vision come to life, please contribute! Even a couple of dollars will help. After all, the sum is not that much to raise, and well worth the investment to share the Dharma. 

*I cannot take any credit for this idea; it is entirely my father-in-law's. Thanks, Jack!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

You Don't Need Saving

Here are the last two weeks of Dharma talks from Original Mind Zen Sangha. The first, "Huayen Buddhism," was delivered by one of my students, Tom Inzan Gartland. You might recognize his voice from the podcast introductions.

Thursday, June 20, 2013


In my backyard, we have a beautiful Japanese maple standing about eight feet tall. We planted it three years ago and it is growing splendidly. My daughter even named it, "Snow Bo Briar Rose." Quite a name, huh?
My family is planning to move some time next year and we will miss her. The tree not my daughter; the latter is coming with us!

Last weekend as I was mowing the lawn, I noticed a Japanese maple seedling sprouting between the driveway slabs of concrete. It is red, has three leaves, and is so tiny that a misplaced footstep could kill it. Although it would be super cool if the seed had come from our tree, I'm pretty sure that the seedling must be the offspring of my neighbor's tree, which is much closer to our driveway. Not that it matters.

So yesterday I wet the brief wedge of soil where the maple was growing, and when it was fully saturated, I transplanted the two-inch tree into a pot. The goal, of course, is to nourish it and bring it along with us to our new house, where we will replant it.

Although there is something very appealing to my aesthetic sense about the symbolism of the act, I am far more impressed by the sheer vulnerability of the plant. I have grown marigolds from seeds before, but that is a small feat. A tree, on the other hand, is something to marvel at. Not because it's an accomplishment, but because a tree is so vividly alive, especially a beautiful maple.

The other day in one of my Dharma talks, I addressed the meaning of life. Nothing grates my nerves more than the question, "What is the meaning of life?"

I want to shout, "Life is!" Life does not serve anything beyond itself; life is a means unto itself. 

The seedling doesn't need a purpose beyond its own existence. I'm not just referring to life as the period between birth and death, I mean LIFE, the seamless instantiation of being which is embodied by life here and now. The Absolute manifested in this present moment.

Why should that be subservient to anything else?

In my opinion, people place way too much emphasis on events, as if life were a kind of grand storytelling, where we are all lead actors and God is the author of our own personal tale. They read omens in everyday events, as if the universe is trying to send them a personal message. "God was trying to tell me something. It couldn't have been a coincidence..."

But that's yet another idea to let go of. My life does not point to some greater meaning beyond itself; it is the meaning itself. That's what Zen is about waking up to. Just this moment, right here, right now, is complete unto itself.

Lacking nothing.

And as I gaze at that naked, vulnerable seedling, I am gripped by such an appreciation for both this (my) life and LIFE itself.

Thanks to Seonsanim Lynch and my family for helping me see that.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Samsara IS Nirvana

Check out these two Dharma talks. Download them if you'd like. More on the way.

Thanks to Tom Inzan Gartland for the introduction and sound engineering.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Half-and-Half Heart Sutra

Here are two Dharma talks from May.  Expect another double dose some time later this week. I hope you enjoy. May they serve the benefit of all beings.

Thanks to Tom Inzan Gartland for the introduction and sound engineering.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Desert Planet: Earth

Science fiction allows us to explore the human condition in ways that perhaps no other genre can. By imagining a world or reality beyond the scope or constraints of ordinary fiction, sci-fi weaves fabulous alternate realities that can serve as superb microscopes through which we can view our own world. Now let me admit early on that I am no sci-fi expert or even a connoisseur; my reading experience is limited to Philip K. Dick and a few of the staple classics.

Right now I am reading the masterpiece Dune by legendary Frank Herbert. I read it about 15 years ago and decided to make it my summer reading assignment for the Junior Honors class I'm teacher next year. Dune, most commonly known for David Lynch's 1984 film of mixed reviews, is commonly regarded as the greatest science fiction novel ever written, right up there with Frankenstein and the work of H.G. Wells and Ursula Le Guin.

The novel is about a desert planet named Arrakis exploited by feudal powers for its monopoly of a resource called spice which allows for interstellar space travel. Imagine Lawrence of Arabia in space. Sound familiar, a desert containing a valuable resource  over which powerful forces battle for control? Hmm...

What's magnificent about Dune is its depiction of ecological exploitation in a way that precedes James Cameron's Avatar by about 35 years. The novel illustrates the vast interconnected web of nature, what Buddhists call Indra's Net, in which every being and atom is part of a carefully balanced web. This should come as no surprise since Herbert adopted Zen Buddhism in adulthood.

What I think Dune deserves so much praise for, and warrants new study, is how and where it places humans inside of this web. Western religions and culture teach us that the world was created for Man; Buddhism does not accept this premise. Granted, Buddhism recognizes that being born as a human is a unique opportunity to realize Buddhahood, but this does not privilege humans above other species. If anything, it places more responsibility on our shoulders for the sheer fact that we are capable of wreaking so much more destruction than other species. This can be seen very clearly in Dune where feudal noble Houses war for control of oil...I mean spice. 

The other day in my classroom a student killed a harmless male mosquito perched on the wall well above arm's reach (only female mosquitoes bite). I was appalled at the sheer senselessness of the violence. The act bespoke of a violent elevation of humanity where humans rule the earth like monarchs, free to do as they please.

Science fiction offers us a unique lens to examine our lives, for the media of technology and science provide a safe distance to study the habits and patterns of contemporary life. Sci-fi is often regarded as being prophetic, in that it anticipates where humanity is headed, a fact I think is not nearly as important as its ability to examine the human condition as it exists today. By weaving an imaginary plot in the future, science fiction authors can reveal the human predicament now. 

To my (admittedly very limited) knowledge, no novel does this as poignantly or powerfully as Dune. For not only does it caution us about the danger of ecological disaster, it demonstrates how people get there--namely, by selfishly placing our own desires above the good of others, including plants and animals. If you haven't read Dune, I highly recommend it for your summer reading.

I have attached a brief video clip of an Italian boy who understands this fact very well. If only the rest of humanity could learn this too: