Monday, January 25, 2016

What is "mind"?

In Zen literature, with the exception of the word "Buddha," "mind" is used perhaps more often than any other. So what is this mind that so many Zen masters speak of?

It's easy to turn the the Buddha mind into an eternal principle akin to the Christian soul or Hindu Atman. But Zen, fertilized by Taoism's appreciation for simplicity and the natural world, is not interested in an eternal Consciousness or Mind that all beings share. (This is why I don't capitalize the word.) The Buddha mind is much more ordinary than that.

It's seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, and smelling without adding judgment or evaluation. When it's cold and your nose is running and your cheeks are numb, your entire world is freezing. That's the Buddha mind at that moment, completely clear and open to the circumstances--in this case, cold.

When you go inside and warm yourself by the radiator or fireplace, the Buddha mind is cozy and comfortable.

Wherever we go, we bring the Buddha mind with us, not as a thing, but as a capacity for openness. Zen practice trains us to pay attention to this inherent human function by being open to whatever appears in front of us. It can be the headache pounding in our temples, the anxiety gripping our minds and keeping us up late at night, or the satisfaction from a hard-earned meal.
In this way, the Buddha mind is actualized when we realize the true nature of our minds--clear, empty, and open to anything that appears in front of it. 
It's as ordinary as a runny nose or rewarding yawn. The question, as always with Zen, is how open are we to the present moment? Buddha, in this context, means being fully human; it's the fulfillment of who we are.

Just hear, just smell, just taste, just see. My children are watching Shrek 2 right now; I can hear the ogre's dialogue in the back of my ears. The fire in the fireplace is settling down to low embers; my eyes are getting heavy. These are all expressions of mind. However, like all things, soon they will change.

Our task is to remain open to it all, moment after moment after moment.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Doubter the Better - Dharma talk

Zen uses a unique approach to practice and life--doubt. Great doubt means inquiring into every moment with curiosity, openness, and wonder.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Least Amount Extra

Dunkin' Donuts and other food service companies bank on the fact that consumers want as much as they can get for their dollar. Why buy a medium coffee when you can get a large for only 20 cents more?

Because I don't want the large. I don't need the large. If I buy the large I'll probably drink the entire thing, and a medium-sized coffee has enough calories and caffeine for me.

I guess that's one of the reasons that Zen Buddhism appeals to me so much--it gives you just enough, but not too much. Personally, I don't consider the Zen that I practice to be a religion, mainly because it doesn't require me to believe anything. I view Buddhism as a series of injunctions, instructions, on how to wake up and live intelligently.

The Four Noble Truths are prompts for us to examine. Why do I suffer? What can I do to be a happier, more loving person? Emptiness is a cue to let go of our attachment to fixed ways of seeing the world. There is nothing sacred about a pizza being cut into eight pieces. It could just as easily be cut into six or sixteen. Don't let ideas lead you around by the nose.

In my experience, Zen produces the least amount of metaphysical and belief-based detritus of all of the "spiritual" systems.

Contemplative practice ultimately aims to transcend itself, lest it become the object of worshiping itself. People argue over the rules and doctrines of Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, all of the time. In my opinion, the most effective systems are self-aware, and operate under the subtext, "Discard after using." That includes unnecessary institutions like the Christian Coalition to.... or the North American Zen Buddhist Association of Freethinking....

Optimally, Zen functions like a garbage can that we can use to remove all of the mental and emotional debris in our lives. But we must make sure to throw out the garbage can package too. If we don't then we accidentally fall in love with the practice itself, which is what happens when people--Westerners, in particular--fall in love with being Buddhist.

I suppose, if we were to extend the analogy to its limit, we must discard the can too. But then where would we throw our garbage? This final step implies that we can be done with our practice, as if we get to a stage in our lives when we no longer need to cultivate ourselves. This is the Myth of the Serene Buddha, and I don't think that it is possible to achieve because we are by nature imperfect beings living in an imperfect world--in a culture of excess, temptation, and delusion.

Every time we order a #3 at McDonald's, we need to make the intelligent, rational choice of whether to super size the meal for an extra 30 cents. Sometimes we make the level-headed choice and sometimes we don't.

Until then, delusions are endless; I vow to see them all for what they are.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

And I Didn't Even Get a T-Shirt!

Even though we might deny it, or not even realize it, we often think that we're going to get something from Buddhist practice. Maybe it's more patience, compassion, or just lower blood pressure. In this talk, I explain how subtle expectations of gain (or loss) can cause just as much unhappiness as the habits we are trying to rid ourselves of.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Mind as a Tapestry

I recently read an essay about tapestries and was struck by how poignantly they can serve as a metaphor for the mind.

Most people assume that humans--their minds in particular--are like needlework or embroidery. In these crafts, someone stitches thread through a base fabric to create a pattern that stands out upon the original cloth. For instance, in the image below, the complicated thread pattern is sewn onto the red fabric, creating the appearance of a dragon.

In this analogy, the threads represent all of the changing attributes, experiences, sensation, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts that appear on or occur to our self (the red base cloth). We as humans have an intuitive sense that we have a core 'I', some essential self who experiences all of the events in our lives. To continue our analogy, we believe that we are the unchanging red cloth, the backdrop, upon and against which our lives occur.

Buddhism challenges this fundamental assumption. Rather than accept the notion of a core 'I' who experiences emotions, thoughts, and experiences, Buddhism understands that there is no experiencer; there are simply experiences, such as thoughts, emotions, etc., that we misconstrue as occurring to us. For this reason, the human experience, according to Buddhism, resembles a tapestry much more than it does embroidery. 

With a tapestry, there is no base fabric. The threads, usually made of wool, are woven around one another to create the entire tapestry with the semblance of a background. Yet, there is no backdrop, just as there is no 'I' who experiences our lives; there are only the threads of experience. The red in the tapestry below is not actually the background; it's part of the tapestry.

A fundamental difference between these two analogies is that if we removed all of the threads in embroidery, the base fabric would remain (the red in the first image). This corresponds to the mistaken view that there is some fundamental 'I' who exists beyond or behind my experience. 

With a tapestry, on the other hand, if we unwove all of its threads, nothing would remain, not even what appears to be the red background (second image above). In our tapestry analogy, the self is just another aspect of the tapestry--the 'I' is yet another experience.

I think that this can be a helpful way of understanding this fundamental (what I would argue is biologically based) error in human experience. Certainly, I can live my daily life as though I have some internal 'I'--answer the phone and pay my bills--yet not be duped into taking this construct too seriously. When I view my desires and impulses as not "mine," then I am less likely to feel compelled to act upon them. Freedom emerges when we recognize that this fragile, delicate thing that we call 'I' is yet another experience. And just as all experiences come and go, so too does this sense of I-ness. 

Sometimes it stands out in sharp relief, like when we are in pain, while at others times it fades into the background. The 'I' shifts and cavorts, and, optimally, it is whatever the situation demands it to be. Sometimes I am Dad or husband; other times I am teacher or student.

The self, we come to find, can be a skill or tool that we can learn to use. Just like the "background" in the works of a master tapestry maker, the self--although ultimately illusory as a solid entity--can be used to create astonishing marvels of beauty.