Saturday, February 22, 2014

33 Degrees

No that's not the name of the newest boy band; it's the perfect temperature for practicing the Dharma. It's the point right before freezing; one degree lower and the teachings that are meant to point the way to awakening, harden like cement. Frozen Dharma, in the form of concepts and doctrine, bind rather than liberate, divide rather than unite. The Buddhadharma is meant to be lived not simply thought. Keep your practice cool and fresh, not frozen and rigid.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Words, words, words

This post is dedicated to my favorite American artist, the great Kurt Vonnegut. Thank you for your wit, humor, and imagination. You will be missed. 

Every sound, every movement, every atom, it's all IT. The dance of gnats in the summer evening, the crash of the ocean waves, every word that Shakespeare wrote, these are all expressions of the great unfathomable IT. Different traditions have developed their own ways to express and realize the inexpressible. Buddhism has many terms for IT--Dharmakaya, Buddha Nature, Tathagatagarbha, emptiness, No- or Don't-Know Mind, and on and on.

Zen is often very guarded or suspicious about the use of language's ability to express the great mystery. Instead, it relies upon direct pointing--a shout, a kick, a pointed finger.

But this includes words, for they can be the greatest pointers of all, if we know how to use them properly. Koans use words to free us from the tyranny of words so that we can then use them freely.

They aim to liberate both us and language.

I haven't read a fiction book in years. Well, that's not exactly true; I have read a few here and there over the past five years. This is a huge shift, considering the fact that I'm an English teacher who thrived on reading fiction. So two weeks ago I picked up a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, one of his finest and my favorite books. Vonnegut, like a great Zen master, can be wry, witty, sardonic, and playful.

It's the last that impressed me the most.

Zen is all too often way too serious. And I mean, WAY too serious. This is strange, in light of how playful, creative, and celebratory koans can be.

Take Case #30 from the Gateless Gate:
A monk asked, "Why did Bodhidharma come from the west?"
Zhaozhou said, "The cypress tree in the garden."
The cypress tree in the garden--this is a celebration of life! Zhaozhou isn't referencing some dry theory or spiritual abstraction; he's pointing to something concrete and alive. Nothing can be more organic than a tree. This, I feel, is Zen't greatest contribution to the world--it's liberation of everything, including language.

Taoism frowned upon humans and language, whereas Zen plumbed their depths. For a true Buddha is alive, vital, versatile, relying upon anything and everything at hand--an umbrella, a shoe, a plant, and of course, words.

If the Dharma is an endless garden, then a Buddha is a curious and fascinated gardener, exploring the creative possibilities inside of every seed and lump of soil.

Nature, science, wisdom, humanity, creativity, and even thoughts and words, they are all IT.  Imagination, the kind that Vonnegut so elegantly plays with, is a marvelous expression of the Buddha Dharma. In this sense, Shakespeare, Blake, Eliot, and Joyce are magnificent teachers and speak the Dharma fluently.

I guess what I'm getting to is that, when we train our eye (or ear or tongue or heart) to see or taste or feel the Dharma, we encounter it everywhere. The birds chirping outside, our flat tire, even the words on this screen.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flicker user: PhineasX.
Title borrowed from Shakespeare's Hamlet. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Super Bow

Zen aims to wake us up to the fact that everything is sacred. When we see through our preferences and attachments, we experience life as a magnificent affirmation. In this way, through practice and wisdom, our lives are transformed into one long continuous bow to...everything.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Guilty Snow Day

I'm home on a snow day. Again. For the second time this week. Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining. I can use the time just as much as the next person.

What's funny about snow days for teachers is that once we burn through the first several, we need to make those days up later in the school year. First comes spring break, then days are added on in June. Whenever we start accumulating several snow days over our allotted few, as we are right now, I begin to feel guilty as if I am responsible for the snow.

Seriously, that's how it feels--not like I'm "done" with winter, although that feeling is certainly present too, but as if I somehow chose to have a snow day. The extension of which is that I'm secretly in charge of the weather. 

I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's how the mind works; it personalizes everything. Everything in life, even the most obviously impersonal event like the weather, somehow relates to the ego. Car traffic is directly aimed at us, for what reason I cannot fathom. (To test us, teach us patience? Got me.) Rain or snow is there for us. As is sunshine and so-called pleasant weather.

I can't count how many times I hear people say something like, "Well if it's meant to be, it'll be." Or "I just knew the universe was telling me something." Or "It's all part of God's plan."

Really? Or maybe it's just your mind telling you that? Nahhh.

The mind is extremely adept at weaving narratives and finding patterns where none exist. We live in an impersonal universe that doesn't give a jot about our feelings, dreams, or intentions, not because it's a cold and callous, but because the universe doesn't give jots.

Zen reveals life as it is, without the conceptual and emotional overlays. There is no one controlling the weather, no mastermind engineering your fate. In my opinion, that's egotistical or superstitious quackery, more magical thinking. The universe does not have a "plan" for you or me any more than I can cause it to snow.

When we examine our minds and hearts, we find a lot of pain and fear, much of which is abortive attempts to protect ourselves from what we perceive is a hostile world.

But that's just another story: "The world is unfair." "The universe is alive." "The world is..." and on and on. Just more stories.

The truth of the matter is that there is no meaning in snowfall. There is just [shiver] and [grunt as we shovel] and [huhhhh! as we blow on our hands frozen from building snowballs].

That's IT.  No "I" is necessary. Reality is empty of all of our ideas about it.