Sunday, August 25, 2013

What's all the fuss?

If Buddha Nature or Enlightenment is our original mind, then why do we have to strive for it? Why all this struggle? These are perennial questions that have haunted contemplatives for centuries. In this talk, I address the issue with a counter question--why all the fuss? When you STOP everything--and I mean everything-- only your true nature will remain. That's your original face.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Expressing the Ordinary

Two men are painting outside of my house right now. I live in a suburban New Jersey community, very ordinary in every respect. At first, my wife and I were a little confused as to what the two men were doing. They began by setting up these tall thin-legged tables, which I couldn't help but think would make a great portable altar.

As they continued setting up, the "tables" evolved into easels. Then they laid out their paints, palettes, and brushes. How curious. How wonderful!

What could these artists possibly be interested painting in a boring residential town like mine? Well that's where an artist's eye differs from the ordinary person's. The artist, like the Zen Buddhist, sees the extraordinary in the ordinary.

From an artist's perspective, nothing is common; everything is an expression of the absolute marvel that is existence itself. These two artists are capturing the natural beauty of a house-lined suburban street, my neighbors' the sycamore, of the Stop sign and the streetlight.

There is often a nostalgia among Eastern-minded practitioners for a return to some natural, untouched, Edenic (mental) state and (physical) space. Perhaps it's the Taoist element in Zen. However, what I think this view fails to understand--sorry Lao Tzu--is that a human home is just as much of an expression of the Tao as a bird's nest.

Human achievements, whether they be the Taj Mahal or my Cape Cod home, are manifestations of the magnificent Absolute, too. That's what these artists are admiring. Even if they wouldn't put it that way, I think that's what their artistic calling is communicating at this moment.

Thanks guys for reminding me about the beauty of the ordinary.

Photo borrowed courtesy of Creative Commons Flickr user: Unitopia.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Practicing What?

If you read a modern book on Buddhism, you can't get more than a couple pages before you read the word "practice." The word is used so frequently in Buddhist conversations that it sometimes becomes a mere abstraction. So what is practice, this thing we hear so much talk about? What does it actually look like? In this talk, Doshim clarifies exactly what Zen practice looks like at the Original Mind Zen Sangha.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Myth of Zen

As a student and teacher of Zen, I find myself making a common mistake that many people do when referring to Zen--assuming that there is ONE kind of Zen. There isn't. One of the most powerful myths that exist about Zen Buddhism is that there is a normative standard, as if all Zen school and practitioners agree on one set of principles.

They don't.

Zen (including Seon and Chan) is a blanket term that is completely conventional, provisional, and conceptual. In other words, Zen itself is empty of having any sort of essence. Ironically, despite emptiness (sunyata) being such a central tenet of (many schools of) Buddhism, Zen Buddhists often subscribe to the myth that there one single entity called "Zen." Which as history would have it, in the West is more often not Japanese.

Actually, there is very little consensus about what Zen is. Despite Zen's etymological connection to the Sanskrit word dhyana, meaning meditation, not all Zen schools emphasize meditation to the same degree. For example, zazen or seated meditation, represents the sommum bonum of practice for the Japanese Soto school; whereas in other sects, meditation may take a more peripheral role next to koan, hua-tou, chanting, or mindfulness practice.

My point is, there is no single Zen. Although it is very difficult to have a conversation about Zen if we constantly have to insert, "Well some Zen schools believe...," we need to be cognizant of assuming that we have the authentic Zen.

Western Zen--and this is based entirely on my personal experience, and thus is merely an opinion--tends to be elitist. Zen practitioners, subscribing to Bodhidharma's quasi-mythical maxim that Zen is beyond words (and thus connotatively reserved for the spiritual elite), like their Zen a certain way. Too much Mahayana Buddhist liturgy or study and Zen loses its bare-bones flavor. Too much chanting or bowing or reciting the Buddha's name and--gasp!--Zen "degenerates" into pan-Buddhism and is no longer "Zen," whatever that means. Not enough emphasis on form and Zen appears loosey-goosey.

For instance, Korean Seon is much more ecumenical than Japanese Zen. It has a much broader range of practices and doesn't subscribe to such a narrow self-definition of identity. The same applies for early Chan monks who practiced right beside students of Hua-yen and T'ien-T'ai because the idea that "I'm a Chan monk and therefore..." didn't exist then. It had not yet developed. Which suggests an important point:

Zen developed over centuries. It didn't appear fully formed in its current state. Contemporary Zen is the result of hundreds of years' worth of political, social, religious conditions and factors all playing off one another.

This is very humbling and informative. My concern as a Western Zen Buddhist teacher is how this impacts our practice and lives. Humans are prone to appropriating any idea and incorporating it into their identity, or sense of self. After a time, students may find themselves saying or thinking, "I'm a Zen Buddhist; therefore, I practice [such and such] exclusively."

Frankly, that's unnecessary. If we take out all of the superfluous verbiage from that statement, all we are left with is "practice"--whatever form that may take. For me, it's a constant return to the empty, clear awareness of "Don't know" mind. From there, we then ask, "How may I help you?" I won't presume to say that this is THE Zen practice, because it isn't. That's a huge assumption, arguably narrow-minded, elitist, and most importantly, not very helpful.

To avoid ending on a negative note, I'll conclude by paraphrasing one of my favorite instructions of Zen Master Seung Sahn: "Practice, practice, practice, for 10,000 years. Reach enlightenment and then save all sentient beings!"