Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Saying "Yes" to Life

As a high school teacher and parent, on a daily basis I hear the words "Wait," "Hold on," and "Wait a sec," more times than I care to count. Maybe it's the result of technology's ability to provide instant gratification.

Consider the psychological impact of having a virtual library of entertainment--film, games, music--at a young person's disposal, as well as the ability to pause practically every media. Gone are the days when your bathroom break or interrupting phone call actually cost you time from your beloved TV program. Now we can just press "pause" and the entire event freezes for our convenience. What tacit message does this send to a developing child's mind--the world should stop for me?

But I digress. I don't want to bemoan my pet peeves about modernity. Yet the refrain to "wait"--the expectation that the world will, and should, stop for our benefit--is a dangerous symptom of a broader condition.

When we practice Zen, we make a commitment to Now, to remaining grounded in what actually exists, as compared to what we want to, or think should, exist. This doesn't just pertain to a calm life on a cushion, but more inclusively, it applies to life in the thick of the maelstrom. Countless things compete for our attention, and it's our choice to decide what we are going to attend to.

When someone asks for our help or attention, do we accept the opportunity, deny them, or defer them? It's the last one, the "wait"--whose subtext usually is, "What I'm doing is more important than you or your needs"--that frustrates me so much. Life demands that we choose and act now, always now. We can't put life on hold the way that we can pause Netflix.

Unless you are connecting the last wire to destroy the Death Star, you probably can take a break to attend to what life is offering you at the present moment--an upset child, a dog that needs to go outside, a sad spouse. Admittedly, telling someone to wait can be necessary and even helpful (it helps children learn patience and reminds them that they are not the center of the universe).

So the overall question I pose is, "Why are we telling the world to wait?" Is it because we want the world to wait for our own needs or because waiting is the best option for all involved? There needn't be one single answer like, "I am a selfish person and need to be more caring." We respond with different motives at different times. Sometimes I am more generous and patient than at other times.

What guides me and my practice is, "Whose terms am I living on--my own or this mysterious thing called life's?" My practice is saying yes to life and all of its confusion, complexity, and paradoxes.

The Bodhisattva Vow is to save all sentient beings; that means staying grounded here and now, for it's only when we are awake and present that we can hope to help others. In fact, I might go so far as to say that being here now is saving all sentient beings--not just in terms of awareness, but as an active presence and participant in the world around you.

This is a question to explore as Zen practitioners and as human beings. How are we living our lives, moment after moment after moment?

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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

How Do You Want to Live Your Life?

Zen practice ultimately boils down to this question, "How do I want to live?" It stresses clarity, attention, and a commitment to be honest--both to others and oneself.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, December 28, 2015

We Don't Need Saving

Modern film is obsessed with superheroes--Luke Skywalker, Thor, Iron Man--all of whom function as a kind of surrogate savior. But I don't believe that we need someone to deliver us from evil, to save us from some ourselves or imminent disaster. This predilection to view the world in need of saving has its roots in the mythology of almost every major religion. Jesus, the Buddha, Mohamed, Krishna, all of these figures can be seen as proto-, if not outright, messiahs.

What we need today, on a civic level, are citizens. People committed to resisting cynicism, remaining informed, and holding our leaders and lawmakers accountable. I don't expect any single person to solve the world's problems; it's only together that we can make a difference. I advocate solidarity more than singularity.

The Buddha's final instruction were for his students to rely on themselves, not as heroic pillars of rugged individualism, but as engaged participants of the world who maintain moral and personal standards. Waiting for and relying upon someone else to save the world--whether it be a historical figure like Hillary Clinton or a mythological one like the second coming of Jesus--is a direct abdication of our responsibility to our lives and this world.

Don't wait for Jesus or another Buddha. Be the Buddha, not as a singular being who strikes into the darkness to lead others, but as an active, engaged participant in the world.

We are never truly alone, for we exist inside of a vast matrix of interconnections in which we are constantly relying upon other beings, forces, institutions, processes, and so on. Of course we are individuals with moral agency, but it is our relationships that inform and empower us. If we recognize those relationships, then we are one step closer to seeing through the hero/savior myth.

Although it doesn't make for good storytelling, we need awakened communities and societies more than privileged individuals whose job it is to save us, because ultimately they are perpetuating the myth of heroic isolationism.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Happy Bodhi Day!

In this off-beat talk commemorating the Buddha's Enlightenment Day, I explain how any ideology can be manipulated to suit the ends of fanatics. Today, Islam is being vilified while Buddhism is often viewed as peaceful; however, Buddhism was co-opted by the Japanese during World War II to commit horrible acts of violence.

In fact, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the Buddha's Enlightenment Day because they thought that it was an auspicious day to start a war! Beware overgeneralizing--it's not that different from the very dogmatism it tries to condemn.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Let Your Life Breathe

The cornerstone of meditation is stopping our physical and mental activity to concentrate on our breathing. From this emerges peace and freedom. In this Dharma talk, I discuss the importance of applying that same clarity and spaciousness in our daily lives.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Get Out Of Your Head

The mind is like a vortex that sucks us inside at every opportunity it gets. Zen practice pulls us out of the quagmire of thoughts and back to the present moment. "Stay here, now," Zen insists. Reality is never hidden; we simply have to see through the screen of our thoughts and return to our lives here and now.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Happy to Disappoint

People approach Buddhism with all sorts of expectations. It's the job of the Zen teacher to disrupt those expectations at every turn in order to point the student back to his or her original nature.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Buddhists Don't...

My son was pretending to be a Buddha statue this morning. Every time that I looked away, he slapped my arm to get my attention; when I looked back, he was as still as a statue again. Soon his slaps grew harder as he began to enjoy the game more and more.

"Buddhas don't slap people," I said, unaware that I was making a broad, categorical statement.

My daughter caught right on and said, "Well, Buddhists don't listen to heavy metal."

I snickered. "This one does." I do. Left over from my childhood, I still have a penchant for heavy metal.

Both my daughter and I inadvertently expressed a very important assumption, and blunder, about being Buddhist in particular, and more broadly, about being human.

Buddhists are supposed to... fill in your verb and adjective of choice--meditate, be patient, be vegetarian, turn the other cheek, and so on. 

But there are dozens of sects of Buddhism, each with its own values and focus. It's difficult to pin down exactly what all Buddhists agree on. The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, compassion, mindfulness? 

I am of the opinion that there is no singular entity called Buddhism. When we search for this kernel of Dharma, it disappears in the same way as the self does when we investigate it. That's because Buddhism, like everything else, is empty. Stated in positive terms, Buddhism is interconnected with all other existents, and therefore cannot be isolated as a distinct this or that. 

The same must be said about other traditions. For instance, there is no entity called Islam. Just as with Buddhism, Islam is comprised of dozens of competing factions. Despite what so many Americans mistakenly believe, Muslims do not exclusively identify as being Muslim...period. There are Sunni and Shi'a, Kharijites and Sufis, not to mention the national and cultural identities that these people have such as Kurd, Saudi, Berber.

I'm an American Zen Buddhist, which means that my worldview differs from a Japaneses or Korean Zen Buddhist. The Dalai Lama and I may be Buddhists, but to each of us the term means something different. 

Humans love to generalize; it provides the appearance of safety and security. It seems like America is in such a state of insular panic right now that labeling people as Muslim or Middle Eastern makes them feel less uncertain about a potentially violent future. 

But subscribing to such reductive categorizations can be dangerous, and contradicts the spirit of American plurality. 

An inscription at the Statue of Liberty reads,
Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door! 
There is no singular Buddhism; there is no singular Islam. There is no singular quality that makes us human. That's the wonder of existence. Nothing is independent. Violence begins when we impose boundaries and distinctions where in reality there are none.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

OMZS November Newsletter

The Original Mind Zen Sangha November Newsletter is out. You can download a copy here.

Thanks to everyone who contributed. Special thanks to Jonson Miller for editing and layout.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Dharma talk - Welcome Home

When we wake up, we realize that there was nowhere to go. We are where we have always been--here. Welcome to your life. What did you expect awakening to be like? It's perfectly ordinary, as familiar to you as your own hand.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Savor It

People want what they don't have. Like a hunting shark, we are constantly on the prowl to consume, obtain, and experience as much as possible. Preferably new stuff.

I suppose that this is a survival mechanism, for the species that sits idly is not likely to compete and survive for long. Natural selection has made us a fickle species. I'm no exception; humans are hard-wired that way. The more we want, the less passive we are, the more likely we are to perpetuate our genes.

But what is good for the species may not be good for the individual. The constant pursuit of growth and self-improvement can make us miserable. This is why the Buddha said that his Dharma flowed against the stream. He taught that we don't need to act on every single impulse that flits into our minds or hearts. Who wants to hear that?

Yet we don't need to become passive either. Life demands that we act, or better put, life is action. There are no alternatives. Even quietude is an action, although not necessarily the most skillful one.

I want a Fluffernutter sandwich but that doesn't mean I must have one. I can watch the impulse arise and then decline, no sooner than it is replaced with another one. Freedom comes when we develop the mental space to choose whether to enact or voice a thought.

Contrary to some teachings, awakening to the Buddha mind doesn't mean uprooting these passions; it just means seeing them. A Buddha is not a super human, but a full human--one who experiences the full range of emotions and thoughts of his or her humanity.

As long as we live, we will continue to be plagued by desires, impulses, and emotions; but they are "plagues" only so long as we fight them. Which is not to say that we must succumb to them. We can accept them for what they are--temporary arisings--without indulging or resisting them.

I'm hungry and would like a Fluffernutter sandwich, yet I know that it's not the best lunch choice. The exciting, plenteous moment occurs in that space between the desire and my decision to act. That boundless emptiness is teeming with possibilities. That's the juicy moments I savor the most.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Where is "E"?

I've recently started playing my guitar again. I haven't seriously played in...well, forever. I'm an on and off dabbler--more off than on, and by "on" I mean, at best, I'd put in twenty minutes of practice per day. I have an acoustic and an electric. My nine-year-old daughter has been interested in practicing with me, so we each have one to play on.

In my ineptitude, I confused and frustrated the heck out of her the other day when she asked to learn the notes' names. She has a keyboard with note stickers on each white key; but when I showed her a diagram of all of the notes on a guitar, I thought that she was going to explode.

The above diagram is much harder to understand than the one for a keyboard because, on the latter, the notes are in a straight line. Not only are the notes on a guitar strung over six strings, but they actually overlap. For instance, the fifth fret on the sixth string is "A," the same as the open fifth string. From a beginner's point of view, the fact that the exact same note can appear twice on a guitar can be very confusing.

What else can be disconcerting is that the guitar can be tuned so that the notes for the open strings change. None of the notes have a fixed position. This means that all of those scales you spent so much time memorizing are no longer in the places where you practiced them! The same applies to chords. They can be moved, depending on how you choose to tune your guitar.

This is a startling example of relativity. The note "A" is still "A," but its location can change, just like in ordinary life. The scales that we use to determine values are continuously sliding. What is correct in one situation--eating with your elbows on the table--is incorrect in another context--at a formal dinner, say.

Values change with context. A man may be nice to his coworkers and cruel to his family, or vice versa. A 30-pound dog may look huge beside a Chihuahua, but tiny next to a Great Dane. Context is critical. But the human mind loves to generalize. It wants some view that it can apply to every situation, yet life doesn't work that way. Nothing is constant or absolute, just like an "E" on a guitar can appear in several places on any string; its location is not set. Neither is our identity.

Zen practice teaches us how to respond to each situation as though it were fresh, because it is. Every moment is uniquely unreproducible, and with each new event, the context changes. Useful concepts in one scenario can cease to be helpful in others. In a sense, Zen teaches us how to move our E's, to down tune ourselves to meet every situation with as much balance, poise, and skill as we can.

Trust Your Feet - Dharma talk

People tend to micro-manage their lives. They'd like to control every second and event to ensure certainty and safety. But certainty is an illusion. In this Dharma talk, I encourage students to stop trying to control everything, and just trust themselves in the same way as they trust their feet not to stumble when they walk.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Guest and Original Dharma Talk

The four stances of people--lying down, sitting, standing, and walking--seem so easy, but can be very difficult. Zen stresses that when standing, just stand; when walking, just walk. In this guest Dharma talk, Jonson Miller asks, can we 'just' do these?

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

In this Dharma talk, I discuss the good and bad news about life. The good news is: your mind is originally pure so you don't need to do anything to refine it. The bad news is: your mind is originally pure so you can't do anything to refine it. Zen walks the razor's edge between these two truths.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Wu-Wei Today

Wu-wei, often translated as "non-doing" in the sense of action without volition, is a central concept and practice in both Taoism and Ch'an.  I recently read a very interesting essay, "Wei-wu-wei: Nondual Action" by David Loy about the the subject, in which Loy explains that wu-wei is actually nondual action. While Loy does a thorough enough job proving his thesis, I still think that he misses the mark.

When someone has a screwdriver, the entire world looks like screws. Our vantage point--informed by culture, experience, language, and beliefs--inevitably influences what we see.  So if home base is nonduality (the view that reality is not separate) then we will tend to interpret the world from that perspective.
But the world is not nondual any more than it is dualistic. It is not empty or horrible or perfect. It isn't Thusness or Suchness. 
Most of those words understand that they must self-destruct because they are tools and nothing more. But the problem arises when people claim that reality is _______ -- Awareness, Buddha, God, whatever. These are all labels and reality transcends lables, which means that any word we use to describe reality is as effective as trying to screw in a nail with a screwdriver.

Wu-wei, I feel, points to reality spontaneous expressing itself right now. It can be a thought, action, emotion, or word. When we look deep inside of ourselves for a source of our identity or being--a locatable origin of our decisions, intentions, or will--we cannot find it. All that we find is a gaping gulf of spaciousness from which these actions spontaneously arise.

Where do they come from? I have no idea. They just occur like quantum particles winking into existence. And no sooner do they arise than they disappear.


This, I feel, is what the Taoist wu-wei is pointing towards. There is spontaneous, inexplicable creativity everywhere--in the trees, the sky, in animals, and of course inside of us. From a Taoist perspective, we are that spontaneous expression of the Tao, the creative principle of the universe.

To give Loy his due, nonduality naturally arises because when we act without intention--which basically means unobstructively, allowing our free, spontaneous nature to manifest--separation becomes an afterthought in the same way as a nightmare does when we sit down to eat a delicious breakfast. Huh, what nightmare? Pass the eggs, please. 

If we try to connect practices or teachings from different traditions, we have to take them on their own terms; we shouldn't simply assimilate them into our predetermined worldview. This was the mistake that Christian missionaries made when they first encountered Buddhism; they automatically began to interpret it in Christian terms, rather than try to understand Buddhism based upon its own cultural and historical context.

That's the danger of painting someone else's portrait with your brush. Wu-wei necessarily entails the Tao--the formless, creative principle guiding and underlying the universe. You cannot divorce wu-wei from the teaching of the Tao any more than you can zazen from the teaching of Buddha nature.

Where do these words come from? How do they appear in my mind? How am I typing these letters on my keyboard? I seriously have no idea. It's like my hair growing and my heart beating: they just...happen.

That is the miraculous teaching of wu-wei. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Dharma talk - Throw the Damn Ball

Control is an illusion. We strive to micro-manage our lives in order to guarantee safety, security, and certainty. But we are never truly in control. Sanity means seeing that ultimate control is impossible; Zen practice teaches us how to throw the ball of life into the air, for clutching it only brings frustration, like locked gears trying to spin in opposite directions.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

This Breath, This Life

I was meditating with my eight-year-old daughter yesterday. She was sitting on my lap while our dog circled us, looking for attention.

"Just ignore him," I told her. "He'll settle down if we don't pay any attention to him."

Just like our thoughts. If we don't pursue them--in life and during meditation--they will fade, taper off on their own. Don't feed them and soon the thinking mind, ever in pursuit of some new shiny trinket of thought, will move on to the next idea, the latest story.

Repeat as necessary.

Sure enough, the dog soon settled down into his bed next to us.

Within a few minutes my daughter looked up to me and whispered, "I think that I'm done."

"Sure," I said. About ten minutes earlier she had decided that she wanted to meditate, and now she was finished. There was no pressure for her to continue. She was done when she was done.

She stood up and padded out of the room. Inevitably, the dog bounded after her.

Again I couldn't help but smile at the fickleness of the dog. In the East they call the tendency to chase objects, experiences, and thoughts, "monkey mind." Since monkeys aren't common in the West, I think that "puppy mind" is more helpful.

A puppy cannot maintain focus for more than a few moments, as my ten-month-old puppy constantly reminds me. Any distraction becomes an imperative to possess, sniff, or taste. A new person walks into the room and you are no longer important; gaining that person's attention is now the puppy's highest priority.

And that's how the human mind works: it is perpetually on the prowl for the next best thing, the latest colorful object or thought, something to fixate on and then abandon.

Trying to learn from the dog's exit, I turned my attention back to what was actually in front of me, to what was real and not just imagined: speckled carpet illuminated by the fading glow of twilight. My body felt relaxed and my mouth was dry. The television chattered in the other room.

The Great Way is always open and available. It's just a matter of paying attention to what is really in front of us. Come back to that, over and over and over--to this breath, this life.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Two Dharma talks (audio)

Not only is every single moment that we are alive an opportunity to awaken, every single moment is already awakening. The Great Way is wide and clear. The air we breathe, the songs we hear and sing, the taste of the food we eat--it's all completely available. All we have to do is accept it.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

You don't need saving. Period. Zen practice is about learning to accept that with every single fiber of our being. Nothing can change that fact--not any mistakes we make, emotions we feel, thoughts we think, or circumstances we experience. We are perfect just the way we are. And yet we can still use some improvement.

Monday, September 7, 2015

You Never Know

This week as I was driving to work, a black pickup truck zoomed past me in the middle lane. I was in the fast lane, passing traffic, so I was surprised to see that the driver gave me a "dirty look." He was a middle-aged man with a mustache that bristled as he sped past.

A little elaboration: I live in New Jersey, so when someone flashes me an angry look--especially unwarranted--my hackles instinctively bristle. I can't speak for other regions of the country, but in New Jersey a dirty look is tantamount to a declaration of war.

But I practice Zen so of course I would never act on my knee-jerk response of contempt. Instead, I just noted the emotion and kept driving.

At the next red light, however, he and I were stopped right next to one another. I drive with my windows open whenever possible; his were rolled up. So you can imagine my surprise when he started to roll his window down.

This. Is. Not. Cool. 

What was he going to say? I had been driving attentively--no swerving or unnecessary braking. What could he possibly complain about?

Expecting the worst, I felt my chest tighten in anticipation of a conflict.

Then he smiled and made a friendly comment about my bumper sticker. My tension melted. The man had been driving to work at 7 AM like everyone else, noticed my bumper sticker, thought it amusing, and had passed me on the highway. He wasn't angry at all.

The entire conflict had been in my head.

We exchanged a few light words, and when the light turned green, drove our separate ways.

My mistake was in thinking that I knew his intentions. I was totally wrong. The tradition of Zen that I practice aims at "Don't know" mind--a clear and open receptivity to life, uncluttered by the buzz of judgments and criticisms.

Our minds naturally continue to churn the thoughts out in the same way as a leaky faucet drips water.

But what do we do with the judgments? Do we bite the metaphorical hook and believe them? Or do we notice them, allow them to buzz around in our heads and then eventually fade away (probably to be replaced by some other wild thought)?

In life, we don't know; we only think that we do. Assuming that we know what someone else is thinking or about to do makes us feel in control. But it is an illusory control, one grounded in assumptions and therefore unreality.

Not knowing is our true nature--free and unbound by concepts. So "Don't know" all the way to work and back.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Dharma talk - Look in the Mirror

Life is as simple as just seeing clearly, without the veil of judgments and criticisms. Just seeing, just hearing, just smelling, without adding a single thing.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

With New Eyes

Marcel Proust captured the spirit of Zen so well when he wrote, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." When we just see, just hear, just smell, without the conceptual overlays that so often complicate our raw experiences, then there is no good or bad, not judgment and evaluation.

Every experience is part of the great mystery. If only we could look at the world with this young man's wonder. Please excuse some of of his language, but he is colorblind and, with the help of his EnChroma sunglasses, is seeing many colors for the first time. He is very excited.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Thank you, Dr. Kelsey

Right now it's chic to dislike the government; in fact, in some circles you are considered a fool not to. Yet it is so easy to overlook the ways in which we rely upon it every day. Fresh food, highways, the internet, police enforcement, the military, education, OTC drug regulation--you name it, all of these aspects of our lives, like it or not, are impacted, if not downright possible, because of the government.

The complex world that we live in--in which very few of us grow our own food, make our own clothing, dispose of our own garbage--demands that we rely ever more visibly on others.

When I take an aspirin because I strained my back working in the garden, I'm assuming that the drug is safe. And it is, because it has been tested and regulated by the FDA. The internet that I am using to blog right now was subsidized by the U.S. government; the roads that I drive on were commissioned and contracted out by the state of NJ.

Here is an amazing example of the often unnoticed help that we receive from others. It's an article about Dr. Frances Kelsey whose work for the US FDA during the 1950s kept the dangerous drug thalidomide out of the country. Despite enjoying the benefit of Dr. Kelsey's courage,  I never knew her name until this morning. The article states that,

"[the] tragedy was largely averted in the United States, with much credit due to Kelsey. ... For a critical 19-month period, she fastidiously blocked its approval while drug company officials maligned her as a bureaucratic nitpicker."

Too many people hate the government but enjoy its benefits, or worse, don't even recognize that they rely upon it every time they drink a  glass of clean water, eat a safe meal, and use their electricity. It's a form of mental isolationism.

This is not a political post about the need for government; it's a reminder of interdependence, the central teaching in Mahayana Buddhism.

We are constantly depending on others, just as others depend upon us. Recognizing those connections is vital to developing responsibility and cultivating compassion. In the Five Mountain Zen Order of which I am a member, we try to enact the Bodhisattva vow by continuously asking, "How may I help you?"

Dr. Kelsey embodied that question through her hard work and courage. She did help us and continues to do so even now that she is gone. Thank you, Dr. Kelsey.

And thanks to my wife for sharing the article with me!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Attunement and Attainment

I love language. I'm an English teacher by profession and have a deep respect for words, with their textures and nuances, their crevices and contours. This might sound like a paradox coming from a Zen practitioner, since Zen is so often understood to be suspicious of language. But if anything, Zen has clarified my love of language rather than diluted it.

For a while, I felt a distinct conflict between Zen's pointing to life-as-it-is, prior to conceptualization and verbalization, but I have found that conflicts needn't result in negation. They can result in deep affirmations.

Admittedly, language can be tricky, especially when we use it without critically examining it. The same, however, can be said about any tool, whether it be a chainsaw or a road map. They each have their own distinct functions, which needn't be problematic, so long as we recognize their limitations.

As I try to explore new ways of understanding and expressing the Dharma, I continually wrestle with the limits of the English language. For instance, "attaining" Enlightenment has always sounded clumsy to me, for it implies that we are achieving or acquiring something that we don't already have. "Realizing" sounds more accurate, as does "awakening," because they eliminate the awkward use of the word "Enlightenment," which is riddled with all sorts of unintentional baggage.

"Attunement" sounds much more exact than "attainment." We attune ourselves to our true nature in much the same way as a radio attunes itself to a certain frequency of radio waves. The waves are always present; the radio just isn't attuned to them. When it attunes itself properly, the waves manifest as sounds.

Similarly, when we realize that this moment is truth, then we actualize what we have been all along. Free.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Your Life Is Your Altar

Most people new to Buddhism misunderstand the purpose of an altar. I don't worship the statue at its center or even the Buddha himself, the historical man that the image represents.

To me, an altar is a visual embodiment of the awakened mind--life right here and now. The Buddha symbolizes our own stainless mind, unperturbed even in the thickest and most chaotic of circumstances. It's a way of making the ordinary sacred, of reminding ourselves that every moment is it; that there is nowhere we need to go, no state that we need to attain.

It's always right here in front of us. As us.

In a sense, an altar is redundant: we are attending to a physical symbol of our lives with, and within, our lives. It's like building a roof on top of a roof. If everything is sacred, how can one thing be more sacred than another?

Zen practice frees us to wander like the Taoist sage and Ch'an master in Chinese lore, unencumbered by ritual, temple, and self-reflection. This wandering can be literal and symbolic. It can take place on the road, at work, or in a monastery.

It can take the form of changing a car tire, filing TPS reports, and polishing the Buddha on the altar. For in the end, these are all expressions of Buddha being Buddha. The physical altar is a reminder that our lives, and everything in them, are the real altars.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dharma talk - The One Teaching

All Buddhist teachings point to one thing, the awakened mind. Find your true nature and then save all sentient beings. Everything else is upaya or skillful means.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Hole of It

As I was chainsawing some wood yesterday, I spilled some bar oil on my driveway. I soaked it up with some cardboard but a thin film still remained, so I sprayed it with the hose. The water puddled on the hot asphalt as I took a break in the shade of the garage, just at the point where I could still feel the afternoon breeze.

I hosed some water over my head and closed my eyes. When the water stopped dripping off of my face, I heard a trickling sound. I opened my eyes and noticed a small fissure between the driveway and the cement apron leading to the garage. The water had found its way to the lowest point and was draining underground.

Our yard slopes away from the house, where all of our rainwater and downspouts drain. So it is no surprise that ground water had found or channeled its way into the soil in order to drain.

It is only natural. Here is water resolving itself, doing what it does so naturally--flowing. So simple, so ordinary. When it's raining and I'm inside my house tinkering and toiling, trying to fix my life, the water is trickling away down this hole.

If only we could be so adaptive, selfless. We can.

Zen, an heir to Taoism with its emphasis on natural spontaneity, teaches us to stop blocking ourselves and simply respond to circumstances without the clutter of an insistent ego. If we, like water, can simply stop demanding that life follow our orders, and just find the holes--the natural openings that life offers us--then we can move freely. As the title of The Gateless Gate suggests, we are never bound; the Way is always open and clear.

That is our original mind.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Weeds and All - Dharma talk

Learning how to accept circumstances as they are is one of the most important skills we can learn. Zen does not aim at uprooting those unpleasant aspects of our lives or personalities as much as it helps us to learn how open ourselves up wider in order to accept them. Then we have the choose to weed our metaphorical gardens or just let things be.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Happy 5th of July! - Dharma talk

In this Dharma talk, delivered on July 5th, I discuss what our lives would be like if we treated every day like a holiday.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Stop arguing with religious people

The only thing that I understand less than religious people justifying their hostility towards homosexuals through the use of religious scripture is people who try to counter this same hatred with religious scripture. The former is an example of magical thinking, a mythological worldview that unhesitatingly believes a teaching, no matter how unreasonable it is. 

The latter is trying to convince magical thinkers that they are incorrect because they are referring to the wrong pieces of magical literature. It's not going to work because dogma does not appeal to logic; it demands that people surrender their ability to reason in obedience to a higher authority, namely a scripture of some sort. In fact, that's what many religions praise--the Orwellian ability to believe in the unreasonable. It's called faith.

That is why appealing to scripture to combat intolerance is doomed to fail, because in order to do so one must sink to the level of illogic in the first place.

I don't believe in talking bushes, people rising from the dead, celestial Buddha realms--and until people experience them for themselves--neither should anyone else. Believing that the Buddha, escorted by a heavenly retinue of Bodhisattvas, actually recited the Lankavatara Sutra is akin to believing that Lord of the Rings actually happened.  

The Bible, like many religious texts such as the Avatamsaka Sutra for exampleis a patchwork of disparate writings stitched together. To say that either is a uniform text with one central message is like saying that America is one singular country. It's not. Like America, these texts have a multitude of competing messages and agendas. 

Some operate on higher moral and spiritual levels than others. The Bible has some of the most horrific, brutally genocidal passages, as well as beautiful, spiritually inspiring ones. But to try to try to convince the fire and brimstone congregants that they should be reading the peaceful passages is fruitless. They don't understand this because they view the world in mythic terms: good and evil, faithful and heathen, saved and lost. 
My point is: we do not treat others with respect and dignity because a book, any book, tells us to. We do it because that's how we treat other humans. As humans beings, they deserve it. 
To even debate the point is tantamount to a fundamental betrayal of our own humanity. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Ad Infinitum

Summer is upon us and that means yard work. I have a massive pile of timber planks and dying bushes to chainsaw. But I can't get my chainsaw started. I don't work well with small engines. Or big engines. Or any kind of engines.

2-stroke engines require you to mix oil in with your gasoline, and if you aren't careful--and I seldom am--and leave the mixture in for a long period, it will clog up the gas line and carburetor. Of course that's what happened to me. I left the gas in the saw over the winter and low and behold, it won't start.

So after trying every solution that a mechanically illiterate person can--removed and cleaned the spark plug, replaced the gas, did a rain dance at midnight under a full moon--I cursingly got the chainsaw to start.

Yeah! In freshman literature, we'd call this conflict man vs. machine. I'd call it man vs. self, or better yet, man vs. laziness and stupidity.

I revved the hell out of the engine, partly to clear the gas line, but more to repair my bruised ego by impersonating a rowdy lumberjack. I'm lucky I didn't saw off a limb.

So after about four hours and three stops at the local hardware store, I was successful. I could now go on to saw until sunset.

Not really.

Because now I needed bar oil, a special oil to allow the chain to spin without burning out. So I cut for about twenty minutes until I was fairly certain that the spit-drop of remaining bar oil was running dangerously low.

And that's the way it is with life--we no sooner overcome one hurdle than another appears. What did we expect, life to be like a video game where we finish one final act and are done forever? That's called death. Life continues until it doesn't. We're not done with acts until we finish the big Act, and then as far as I know it's like Hamlet says, "The rest is silence."

Or maybe not. I don't know; I'm not dead.

What I learning is that life is a journey about learning how to live. Some people learn faster and are more adept at navigating and accepting life's hurdles. Then there are people like me who are pretty much in the remedial class version of the journey, supplemented with three sessions of summer school.

Problems are only problems if we view them as problems. Besides holidays and vacations, Mondays are the first day of most people's work week. The sun rises, the alarm clock sounds, we wake up, make our beds (or not), and brush our teeth.

We're only done brushing when we have no more teeth to brush or there is no one to brush them. Until then, enjoy the bumps; I'm on my way to the store to buy some bar oil.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

This Breath - Dharma Talk

Our breath keeps us alive, and yet we seldom pay any attention to it. Following our breath not only grounds us in our bodies, but it slows down our lives so that we can pay attention to what truly matters--what's right in front of us.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Happy Birthday! - Dharma talk

Buddhism does not ask us to venerate the Buddha, but to become Buddha. Or more accurately, to realize that we already are Buddha. So why elevate one day above another? Every day is the Buddha's Birthday; every day is your birthday!

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mind the Gap - Dharma talk

The Buddha taught one thing--the end of suffering. He called it Nirvana, the unconditioned, unoriginated, deathless. In this episode, I discuss how Nirvana is available to us at all times, in the gaps between our thoughts.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

No I Behind My Eye - Dharma talk

We live in an impersonal universe. None of the things that I examine are me--not the objects of my senses, my senses themselves, or even the witnessing of these sensations. None are I! Suffering occurs when when we identify any of these as I, me, or mine. The Buddhist teaching of anatman encourages us to look past the phenomenal world of impermanence to that which never changes--Nirvana.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

This too (too) - Dharma talk

Here is the Dharma talk I delivered on 4/26/15 to accompany my last post, "This too." Enjoy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

This too

The two most important words in Zen are "This too." If we can accept everything that comes to us, everything that life presents us with, then we are walking the Way of the Buddhas.

The Buddhadharma excludes nothing. It encompasses the stars, the moon, the rivers, and most importantly, our lives. Anger is not left out; neither are pain or jealousy. Zen practice is about transforming our lives into a container large enough to include all that arises.

When you get a raise at work, say, "This too." If you feel guilty about the raise, "This too."

Got fired? "This too."

If we can only learn to live with the spirit of these two simple words, then we will recognize that we are already walking the same path as the great ancestors. "This too" serves as a gentle reminder to open ourselves to life as it is, not how we want it to be.  

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dharma talk - Don't Drink Bleach

Emergencies don't give us time to think. We just act. In this talk, Doshim explains how we all know how to act, if we can only get past all of our thinking and second-guessing.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dharma talk - No More Toys

People love toys--new cars, gadgets, concepts, and especially their sense of self. All of these can become crutches or obstacles if we fail to see clearly through them. In this talk, I try to remind students how subtle the craving mind can be.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Original Mind Zen Sangha April Newsletter

Click here to download a copy.

Special thanks to Jonson Miller for all of his work on the newsletter.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Beyond Buddhism - Dharma talk

Don't get attached to Buddhism--its rituals, chants, and lifestyle. The true Dharma must transcend itself. If you want to walk the Way, forget the Way and become the Way.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Spiritual Cover Artists

In Buddhism, challenging the Dharma is not heresy; it's an obligation. The Buddhadharma is not some static monolith to be worshiped and adhered to at all costs. It is performative, something that we engage, test, develop, refine, and at times, revise. We should always be experimenting with new forms of expressing the Dharma.

And yet I am astounded at the sheer volume of stale, recycled Buddhist material circulating online. Most often all that I see are people simply parroting the teachings that they have read, repeating stock responses that their teachers or teachers' teachers once said.

It's not uncommon for Buddhists to spar on the Internet, exchanging the words of long-dead Zen masters, the Bible, or other spiritual figures. It's like an ensemble of spiritual cover bands--sure, it's good music, but none of it is original.

Buddhism expresses itself in many different forms across the globe. It is vibrant, colorful, and verdant. And yet few modern teachers push themselves to communicate the Dharma in a fresh way. I wonder why.

I personally believe that every Buddhist student--and especially teacher--needs to develop his or her own voice, lexicon, and approach to expressing and embodying the Dharma. Quit repeating what someone else said, and articulate the Dharma as you understand it. That's not to say that we should abandon those who have influenced us, but eventually we need to walk on our own. To paraphrase Isaac Newton: Stand on their shoulders and glimpse new vistas of expression. 

Zen Master Seung Sahn taught Don't-Know Mind because that's how he understood the Buddhadharma. 

Suzuki Roshi taught zazen and Beginner's Mind.

Bankei taught the Unborn, Dogen Shikantaza, Mazu "Mind is Buddha," and Linji the Person of No Rank.

But where is the Western Zen idiom? I find it terribly ironic that Zen, famous for its emphasis on spontaneity, has not yet found its own distinctly Western voice. Admittedly, there are several American teachers who have developed their own approach to Zen. John Daido Loori's Eight Gates and Charlotte Joko Beck's Ordinary Mind School come to mind. But by and large, most Western Zen teachers prefer to play it safe and walk in the shadows of the great ancestors than to step off the path into the dark unknown.

Maybe it's the fact that, since Zen reached America approximately a hundred years ago, Americans are still insecure about pioneering their own form. They'd rather rely upon the innovations of the ancients.

My Zen teacher always encourages me to make the Dharma my own. I may not always express it the way that he would, but it resonates with my own experiences and understanding. That, I think, will be the task for Western Buddhists throughout this century--making the Dharma their own.

This situation reminds me of McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He bets the other mental patients that he can lift a massive water control panel and then bust out of the mental ward by throwing it through the steel-reinforced window. It's an impossible task, but he's willing to give it his damn best. "At least I tried," he says at the end of the scene. 

That's what we all must do--be brave. Be willing to fail.

Stop cutting and pasting from Wikipedia; quit copying Ch'an Masters' dialogues, borrowing someone else's words, whether they be from the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Tao Te Ching, or the Koran

Explore, experiment, integrate, and digest. Exercise that same creativity that our Buddhist ancestors did. Borrow from these great sources. Use their teachings as seeds, but let the fruit be an expression of your own life and insight.

Trust in yourself. I do.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Buddha Bows to Buddha

A fundamental paradox of Buddhism is that, despite the stress that it places upon impermanence, many Buddhists don't want Buddhism to change. We get comfortable in the robes, with the rituals and liturgy, and are leery of introducing new language or insights, for fear that they are, or will be considered, deviations. Less authentic.

But that's what Buddhist history is--a countless series of developments, growths, offshoots, and innovations.

Bankei taught the Unborn, Seung Sahn Don't-know mind. Chinul, the founder of the Korean Chogye Order, is condemned by some modern critics as a heretic for promoting Sudden Enlightenment, Gradual Cultivation. And that's just Zen! Then there's Huayen, Pureland, Vajrayana, and many more schools of Buddhist thought, each with its own emphasis and teachings.

For me, Buddhism is about awakening. I'm not interested in sectarianism or playing by the "Buddhist rules." I don't feel any more affinity for teachers or people because they are Buddhist. There are plenty of Enlightened masters who are not Buddhists. (There are also many spiritual teachers, both Buddhist and non-Buddhist, who are, in my opinion, drastically overrated.)

A future project of mine, which I will hopefully complete in 2015, is a book called Buddha Bows to Buddha. It will explore the overlap of two 20th-century non-Buddhist sages who are commonly recognized as Enlightened. I will try to explain how their experiences can parallel the Buddha's, even though their teachings are radically different.

My personal idiom, which I feel best reflects my personal experiences, is Absolute Nothingness. Non-being, Non-awareness, and Not-knowing. Are these the same as emptiness or sunyata, Buddha Nature, or Tathagatagarbha? I don't know, nor I am not very interested in doctrinal consistency. I can only speak from my own personal experience.

This may sound like a cop out, but the experience of Nirvana is beyond words, so it doesn't really matter what we call it. Words are only words. Yet I cannot dismiss the feeling that it is our responsibility to own our insight. That means finding new and creative ways to express it. We digest our experiences by integrating them into our creative lexicon.

Art, poetry, prose, symbolism, these are all media for us to explore and eventually embody our understanding. I don't like relying on other people's words; I'd rather speak in my own voice and from my own life.

That is bound to draw criticism. I started a new blog, Absolute Nothingness, because these teachings of mine don't immediately fit into the traditional Buddhist rubric. Are they Buddhist? I absolutely believe so, in that they point to the root of the word "Buddha"--to the awakened mind.

I chose the title of my latest book, No-Mind, because the term is so deeply rooted in Zen/Ch'an history. Yet, as I said earlier, my interpretation is very different from the standard understanding (see my last post about this).

I believe that true enlightenment necessarily entails true, authentic expression. That's what I'm trying to do.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dharma talk - "Shhhh!"

So much of our lives is spent listening to the chatter in our heads. Zen brings us back to the ever present reality prior to thinking. Our practice is to drop that steady buzz of thoughts and abide in the spaciousness that is our true nature. We have a lot to learn from the silence.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Reinterpreting Enlightenment

Though "No-Mind" is a common term found throughout Zen literature, besides D.T. Suzuki's The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, very little has been formally written about it. I just completed my own short book about the subject, one very different from Suzuki's. It's called No-Mind: Realizing Your True Nature.

In my synopsis, I write that the book is "a new interpretation of Enlightenment called No-Mind," to which someone online playfully asked, "How is No-Mind new?"

Well, let's look at how D.T. Suzuki, who represents the standard interpretation, understands No-Mind. To him, "[when] mushin (wushin) is realised, there is no-mind in all our doings, which is the so-called state of ‘no-mind-ness’; this is a life of effortlessness, letting the Unconsciousness live its life" (116). In this view, No-Mind expresses a state of ease or fluidity, in which the person glides effortlessly through life and circumstances, unencumbered by the chatter of the ordinary, noisy mind.

This is not how I define No-Mind.

To me, we realize No-Mind when we awaken to Non-being, which is our true nature. The basis of reality--what some call the Absolute--is Non-being, the creative Groundless Ground of all existence. The same as the Lao Tzu's Tao, Non-being is also the foundation of consciousness. So No-Mind emerges when consciousness awakens to its own source, Non-being.
This is not done with awareness or mindfulness, but through Non-awareness or Not-knowing. We glimpse Non-awareness by turning our attention away from all that "exists," back to the root of mind itself, that which we do not know.
Implicit in this interpretation is an entirely new way of understanding mind. For while most people equate mind with consciousness, I'm suggesting that the complete mind includes both consciousness and Non-awareness. I developed this view based upon my own experiences of Not-knowing.

Admittedly, No-Mind is far from a conventional Buddhist approach, but Buddhism itself has a long history of re-orientations and paradigm shifts. I hope that the book and this re-reading is helpful.

In my next post, I'll expand upon Non-awareness or Not-knowing. Until then...

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New book, No-Mind, is now available

Here is a description of my latest book, now available as a Kindle ebook or in hard copy.

No-Mind: Realizing Your True Nature

Drawing from Zen, Taoism, and Advaita Vedanta, No-Mind: Realizing Your True Nature proposes a new interpretation of Enlightenment called No-Mind. Unlike many conventional spiritual paths that are built upon awareness and knowledge, No-Mind is attained by cultivating and awakening to Non-awareness or Not-knowing, the ground of consciousness and existence itself. 

Fortunately, you do not need to be a guru or Zen Master to realize No-Mind. Written for novice and experienced practitioners alike, No-Mind: Realizing Your True Nature outlines this new spiritual path to Enlightenment, offering ten accessible and engaging meditation practices for you to realize No-Mind yourself.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Don't fall in love with Zen

Don't fall in love with Zen because that Zen is an idea. There are many people who love the texture, culture, and ritual of Zen. There is nothing inherently bad or wrong about that, other than the fact that true practice must transcend itself. 

As so many stories teach us, we need to cast all of our ideas about Zen into the fire. The paradox of Zen is that the moment we declare that we are Zen Buddhists, we stray from the Way. This declaration reeks of self-consciousness. It's way too deliberate. 

True Zen never announces itself; it is free not to be Zen. Categories can trap us inside of rigid identities. A "Zen" lifestyle can imprison us inside of expectations about who we think we should be. If you've ever thought, I should be calmer; I practice Zen... then you know what I'm talking about it.

Forget the Zen celebrity websites dedicated to Zen Masters so-and-so. Resist the urge to buy the latest Dharma book, and instead study the Dharma of the spring flowers and mosquitoes. 

True Dharma doesn't even know the name "Dharma." 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Empty THIS - Dharma talk

Empty THIS

Emptiness or sunyata is often viewed as an absolute statement about reality, as in "All phenomena are empty of self." In this Dharma talk, I offer an alternative approach. Instead of emptiness being a statement, it can be understood as an instruction: "Empty yourself" and "empty your concepts about..." This approach emphasizes the continuous relinquishing of our attachments to concepts rather than creating another concept about emptiness itself.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Chop wood, stay warm

Like most of the Northeastern U.S., New Jersey is currently a frozen block of ice right now. My household is scrambling for firewood to heat our downstairs, and consequently, most of our house. We have a couple of log rounds in the backyard that a friend graciously gave us so I set to chopping them.

I'm in decent physical condition--been better, but I've been in worse shape too--yet there are few activities as demanding for me as splitting wood with an axe. I'm fairly large, over 200 lbs, so I get winded pretty quickly. Yet I love it!

Maybe it's Ch'an nostalgia filling my body--the romance of working outdoors like the old Masters whose maxim was, "No work, no food"--but there is an exhilaration to chopping one's own wood, knowing that soon the wood will heat my home.

After half a dozen heavy swings, I find myself leaning against the house, panting. There is no "I" at moments like these, only...pantpantpant!

The whole world is one giant, panting, frozen lung.

Then I'm back at it, hefting the clumsy maul over my head. Wood splits and my arms grow heavy. Sweat fills my hat and my glasses steam up.

I'm leaning against the wall again. Or rather, there is only "leaning against the wall." No one is doing it. There's no volition involved. If my body doesn't lean, it'll double over in search of oxygen.

Many times Zen practice does not take place in the Dharma room or on the cushion. Just swinging the axe, lugging the triangles of wood, that is life as it is.

No "I" is necessary. Losing ourselves in our lives, what more we can ask? Paradoxically, I feel most alive when there's no "I" present.

Eventually Zen must transcend Zen.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Dharma talk Duo

"And So It Goes"

In this Dharma talk, Andrew Hyeonjeong discusses how to accept the ubiquity of impermanence and the certainty of death.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

"To Be or Not To Be is NOT the Question"

Ordinary people see the world in terms of "things," which causes them a lot of suffering because "things" inevitably oppose other things. They are rife with conflict. Zen shifts the question of "What (thing) am I?" to "How do I want to live?" In this talk, Doshim explores skillful living through Zen practice.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Gateless Way

My kids and I were upstairs this morning eating breakfast when our puppy started whining. We have a gate at the bottom of the stairs to keep him from climbing up on his own, which he does every five minutes without the gate. So I climbed down the stairs and removed the gate and went back upstairs, expecting him to follow me up.

But he didn't. He just kept whining.

So we called him, but he still didn't come upstairs. He just kept whining, staring at the space where the gate had been moments ago.

He was so accustomed to the gate that he wouldn't climb.

The same thing applies to us. We impose barriers upon ourselves so often on--stories about who we are, our limitations, the world, how things should be--that when we get a glimpse of the world without them, we can't recognize it. We think that these constructions have a permanent, absolute reality to them, when of course they don't.

In The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman calls it "institutionalization." We get so accustomed to the bars that we come to rely upon them. I know that this sounds crazy, but our suffering can become a source of comfort, something reliable in what otherwise appears to be a crazy, uncertain world.

Yet they are only mental barriers that we are imposing on ourselves, and Zen practice aims at seeing through them.

The Great Way is wide open; there are no barriers. We are always free, even when we feel the most bound. What's extremely challenging is allowing those old propensities to subside, and to accept our free and open true nature.

Those old tendencies--call them habits, karma, or neuroses--are so seductive that can convince us that they are us. That they are our true identity; that we are them.

But they are no more us, or we them, than the clouds are the sky. Don't be fooled by your thoughts or habits. There are no gates. There never were.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Mystery Box

It's been real cold lately and my family has been hunkering down in our family room next to the fireplace. My kids vacillate between reading, drawing, playing with our new puppy, and watching a show called Good Luck Charlie. If you haven't seen it, GLC is very well done, about a wacky family named the Duncans.

When it's on, I can't help but watch because the characters are so well drawn and the story lines are so funny. This morning there was an episode on where Gabe, the middle child--a devilish, yet lovable little monster--is obsessing over winning one of those arcade claw games. His goal is the mythical Mystery Box, whose contents are...well, legendary. Rumor has it that some kid won one and found a mp3 player inside.

Eventually Gabe spends all of his arcade tokens trying to win the box, and even gets his arm stuck in the prize slot.

It's the dream of the Mystery Box--its utter unknowability--that entices him. He can't let go of the dream to open it because his imagination keeps teasing him with the possibilities. Mp3 player? Gold necklace? Treasure map?

"It's probably just something silly, like a whistle," his dad cautions.

Good advice. The stuff of reality seldom lives up to the mythic proportions we assign things in our imaginations. We strive for the perfect job--becoming a writer perhaps--only to soon learn that it is a job like any other. All job have their ups and downs.

We strive for the perfect car, partner, body, only to learn that none of these things satisfy us. Sometimes we even leap from one spiritual practice to another, as if the "answer" is just around the next bend in the spiritual bazaar. It's all symptomatic of the same dilemma--our insistence that we lack something, and that we will only be whole when we find it "out there."

Yet, the only mystery that can satisfy us is the Great Mystery. The realization that we are complete and whole, lacking nothing.

Introspection, gazing inwards at the limitless space inside of ourselves, witnessing the endless mystery of our existence, that is the only practice that can leave us lastingly fulfilled. In Zen, we call that "Tracing back the radiance"--seeing our true nature. But we needn't practice Zen to get there. Zen is one path among many.

The process of inquiry is what's important, not what we call it or whose name is on the road.

Then everything is revealed to be the Mystery too!

I was outside last night with the dog and it was snowing--light, puffy snowflakes. I looked up at the sky and tried to catch some snow in my mouth. There was no profound dropping off of body and mind as sometimes is the case in Buddhist lore. Just the snow falling and my dog peeing.

But it was Just So. And that was good enough. Everything is the Mystery--snow, dog pee, and all.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Puppy Mind, or What I Learned from Our New Puppy

My family just got a dog; his name is Beau. As far as we can tell, since we adopted him from a rescue group, he's a Chihuahua Beagle mix. He's three months old and very friendly, but towards the end of the evening my children need a break from him so I take him into the meditation room with me to calm down a bit.

Oh how naive of me.

Since I don't bother to turn the heat on for the mere 30 minutes I plan to spend in the room, first I sit and wrap myself in a blanket. Beau immediately tries to eat the blanket and then I attempt to distract him with a chew toy or bone.

Candles burn on either side of the Buddha statue and I settle into the breath, while Beau explores the room. This proves difficult for me because he isn't completely housebroken, and so I am waiting for him to use the carpet as his personal toilet.

Eventually he whines to get out. On a good day, I calm him enough to have him sit in my lap by petting him and offering him his bone. Sometimes he falls asleep; sometimes he doesn't.

Try meditating with a puppy in your lap. It's not easy because he is so easily distracted. It reminds me of myself when I first began meditating.
Zen teachers call it monkey mind, but I think that puppy mind might be a more apt Western analogy. Our minds leap around like an unleashed puppy, investigating one thought after another, in search of the most satisfying or tantalizing one.
Sometimes the thought brings pleasure, while at other times it inflicts pain. You don't have to spend much time on the meditation mat to learn how much the human mind likes to torture itself with injurious thoughts.
Which leads us to another side of the puppy mind. While puppies' attention span is so short--they're engaged with you one minute and then chasing a squirrel then next--they can be incredibly persistent.

Anyone who has ever raised a puppy can attest to their surprising determination. If you don't want them inside of your laundry room, by God they are going to try every way they can to get in there--no matter how hard you try to distract them.

This is an aspect of the mind that we often overlook--the human capacity to fixate on one thing.

Over and over and over again.
Once we get something in our sight, be it an idea or possession, the human inclination is to seize upon it. Sure, most minds are as fickle as a butterfly, flitting from one thought to another, but they also possess the fierce focus of a cat hunting a mouse.
All of these things have been unfolding in my meditation room, and thus inside my own mind, as I try to meditate with a puppy in my lap. Or off my lap as the case more often is.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

There's a Hole in My Robes! - Dharma talk

Life seldom plays by the rules, let alone 'our' rules. We're late on our first day of work; we miss an important job interview; we forget to fill our medicine prescriptions--life doesn't obey our commands. In a sense, Zen practice is about learning to embrace whatever comes our way, regardless of the circumstances. I came up with the title of this talk after my Zen robes split down the back. Better grab the needle the thread and start sewing!

Zen isn't about being passively peaceful in the face of difficult events, but about responding as skillfully as possible. It's about acting gracefully when you get caught in the rain without an umbrella.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Beyond Doctrines and Dogma

Yesterday I had a conversation with a colleague about world religions. We were talking about depictions of God and how different religions view iconography. Then I mentioned to him the phrase, "Kill the Buddha!" and I thought that his face was going to fall off.

What the hell! his expression said. Kill the Buddha?

To the best of my knowledge, Zen is the only tradition that openly recognizes both its limitations and the fact that Zen itself needs to be transcended. Any and every concept of the Absolute must be immolated. Maybe it's this difference that makes me hesitate to label Zen a religion. (When it is properly practiced, I don't think that Zen is a religion, at least not in the same way that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and mainstream Hinduism are. Beware the institution that exists for its own sake!)

This is very different than other spiritual traditions. While some religions renounce representing God with graven images, they fall into a much more subtle, insidious trap--they create an idea of God. And then they defend that idea, and sometimes kill for it.

Ont the other hand, no Buddhist idea is worth fighting over. Which is not to say that people don't fight over them; it's just that, properly understood, Buddhism is a tool, not a lifestyle or dogma.

Every idea must be recognized as a concept. Admittedly, some concepts are more helpful than others (such as washing your hands during the flu season), but all are merely bubbles floating in our minds--transient, insubstantial, yet sometimes dangerously seductive.

So kill the Buddha. Let go of all ideas and ideals about what you think an Enlightened person looks and acts like. Then act in accordance with what's in front of you.

The toilet's dirty? Clean it.

You hurt someone's feelings? Apologize.

It's snowing outside my house right now. In a few hours when it stops, I will go outside and shovel. In the meantime I'll get a snack.

No God. No Buddha. Just a banana with a cup of coffee. And when that's done, let that go too.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

MLK's Shrinking Legacy

Many Americans will be enjoying tomorrow off for Martin Luther King Day. And well they should, for not only was Dr. King an advocate of civil rights, he was a champion of worker's right, too. In fact, the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Dr. King delivered a speech to Memphis sanitation workers, encouraging them to fight for fair wages and benefits--a battle that is still occurring on a much broader scale in this country, as insurance premiums rise and workers are expected to contribute more every year.

This little-known fact demonstrates, to me at least, how full circle our nation has come in the past fifty-one years. Today, the labor movement in the United State, once thriving in the 1970s and '80s, is another glaring example of the diminution of the working class. As an advocate of organized labor and member of a union myself, I cannot help but be ashamed at how upset Dr. King would be about the systematic dismantling of two decades worth of progress in workers' rights. Not to mention the terrible racial plight this country still finds itself in.

On Fridays, many people wearily utter, "Thank God it's Friday." I smirk every time I hear this because a friend's reply always comes to my mind:
"Don't thank God. If he had it his way, we'd be working six days a week! Thank the unions."
Indeed. And thank you, Dr. King, for your bravery and commitment to actualizing the American Dream for all Americans--black, white, brown, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Buddhist, male, female, transgender, hetero- and homosexual, rich, and poor.  

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Religion is just another thing to let go of

I don't consider Zen--or at least the Zen I practice--to be a religion. Religions entail beliefs and doctrines; I'm not interested in either of those. People argue, hurt, and sometimes kill one another over those issues.

Emptiness or impermanence can sometimes become arguing points for Buddhists, when they allow it calcify into a doctrine. But I don't view emptiness or impermanence as statements about reality as much injunctions to relinquish our attachment to things. In this light, it's not that things are empty; the Buddha is saying, "Empty yourself of your views about, and attachments to, things."

In other words, the Buddha taught impermanence because engaging life with impermanence in mind encourages us to let go and stop expecting unrealistic outcomes from reality.
Things change so let go of them. 
Buddhism can then be understood to be a series of instructions: Do 'this' and 'this' and see if it works.

Religion, on the other hand, insists; it declares. It circumscribes and reifies. So I don't see Zen as having anything to do with religion. My head hurts right now--that's real. I directly experience that.

The fire burning in the fireplace at my side is hot. There is no room for God or even Buddha in this moment. It is already complete by itself.

No one argues or kills one another over the experiences that haiku point to: frogs leaping, the smell of horse manure, the crunch of snow underfoot.

Religions dig their toes in the doctrinal sand and say, "Well, according to so-and-so....and anyone who believes differently is wrong!"

I've never been fond of belief systems. We chant the Heart Sutra at the end of our evening practice as a reminder--Don't get attached to anything.

Least of all Buddhism. Let go of God, let go of Buddha. Any ideas we hold onto become our masters.

My head still hurts. The fire blazes even hotter.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

(Insert Name Here) Does Not Exist - Dharma talk

This is the Original Mind Zen Sangha's 100th Dharma talk! Enjoy.

(Insert Name Here) Does Not Exist

The "I" is the greatest fictional character that ever existed because people believe that it exists. In this Dharma talk, I discuss the illusion that we call "I" and how not to take it so seriously.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Go Back the Way You Came - Dharma talk

Happy New Year! Here is a Dharma talk for your listening pleasure.

Go Back the Way You Came

Sri Ramana Maharshi, an awakened Hindu sage, uttered this title to a disciple as instruction for realizing one's original nature. In Zen, this practice of self-inquiry is called "Tracing Back the Radiance," and is central to the practice at Original Mind Zen Sangha.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.