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."