The Bigger Picture

In Zen we often speak about the study of the self, about checking into our experience and what it really means. Yet, if the study of the self begins and ends only with this body and mind, only with the perceptual realm that you can explore, then it will always be a limited view, a biased view, and a one sided view. It will never be able to fully encompass all that is the Self. Pointing at this Dogen writes, “…the true human body is the entire universe.” One could equally say that the true human mind is the whole universe.

So what is it to study the true human body, the true human mind?

Recently, I read a Facebook post by a friend in which she shared a quote about finding your soul and your soulmate. But what if you are so completely interconnected with all things that there is nothing permanent about you? What if you are so completely defined by the temporal arising of all things known and unknown that you cannot even identify something that is the core? Wouldn’t that be a world in which you become incredibly vast, incredibly fluid, incredibly connected?

More poetically, Dogen describes it thus, “…mountains, rivers, and the Earth, and the sun, moon and stars are mind.”

Earth Sept 2 2014 c. NASA

Earth Sept 2 2014 c. NASA

 

And yet you certainly can’t deny that there is a particularity about you. There is a grouping of physical attributes which tend to hang together to form your body. There is a consciousness, one that is full of thoughts, feelings, tendencies, history, hopes. So there is no reason to deny the unique temporal arising that is bounded by your physical and mental state. It is as much as anything else is, which isn’t much.

From the perspective of Zen Buddhism, holding both of these perspectives simultaneously is a sound view. Both things are true; they, in fact, inform each other and rely on each other. Together these perspectives enable a view that brings you into harmony with the true nature of reality. It is a view that enables you to be in accord with everything, whether you are attracted to or aversive to it.

This view of the interdependence of all things has many implications. It implies that what you do matters, because it impacts all other things. It implies that there is nothing that is static or independent or permanent. It implies emptiness inherent in form.

However, the aspect that I want to focus on today is that this view implies that there is more to life than what meets the eye. It implies that our bodies and minds can be vehicles for transformation, and for experiencing even things that are completely beyond the realm of what we can perceive. This is not mysticism. It is simply acknowledging that the human sense experience is limited, but what it means to be human is not. And that teaching is important, because without that context we are simply swirling around in the world of our biases, and our psychology, and the arbitrary boundaries that we draw around ourselves and others. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with that swirling, but to say that simply abiding there doesn’t lead to freedom from suffering.

Solar flare Aug 2014 C. NASA

Solar flare Aug 2014 C. NASA

Thus, Dogen Zenji states, “Neither the great elements nor the smallest particles can be wholly realized by the common person, but they are mastered in experience by the sages.” Sekkei Harada Roshi intones, “This thing, which you think is yourself, is neither you nor anyone else.” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi explained, “Don’t be bothered by your mind.” I say do not be defined by your mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Busy, Not Busy

This post is especially for the many readers who live outside the San Francisco Bay area, though some locals may also be interested.

Hartford Street Zen Center

Hartford Street Zen Center

In June I gave a Dharma talk at Hartford Street Zen Center on the “One Who is Very Busy.” Deep bows of gratitude to Reverend Myo and the sangha for inviting me to speak, and for being such an attentive audience. If you would like to hear the talk, it’s on their podcast page.

Bodhisattvas Fall Down Too

The Zen Ritual class has been meeting at SFZC City Center, each time studying a short verse from one of the many ceremonies that are traditional in Western Zen. Delving into the words we use to express our understanding and our intention, we find our particular places of connection, our points of entry to the gates of practice. For me this study of ritual has also helped to breathe new life into the forms, brightening the realm in which these activities take place, providing a context that resounds with meaning.

Week two we spoke about the Bodhisattva vows. Here they are again:

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.

Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.

The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.

Thus, we can take the Bodhisattva vows as an expression of our intention to awaken ourselves and others to the truths inherent in all things. We can take the vows with the intention to see through our mistaken ideas and meet the incomparable uniqueness of each person and thing.

This is a big commitment. You might have a motivation to become a better person and to have a positive impact on the world, but that can easily slip into  just another goal for the striving ego. If you find yourself criticizing your own efforts to help, or those you are helping, you might ask yourself whether your good intentions have been channeled into striving for control. To really take up these vows skillfully you have to recognize that the inner world and the outer world are completely interpenetrating. That is, the world influences you, so you can influence the world. You don’t discount others’ ability to respond or your own ability to respond. You recognize that they work together.

Portrait of Lingzhao courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery online

Portrait of Lingzhao courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery online

I mentioned one of the stories of Lingzhao as an example of just this sort of view. Lingzhao was the daughter of a family of 9th Century Chinese lay practitioners who were deeply respected.

One day she and her father, Layman Pang, were walking along when he tripped and fell. Seeing this, Lingzhao threw herself on the ground next to him. When he asked what she was doing, she said, “I saw you fall down, so I’m helping.” This is truly Bodhisattva activity, meeting the one you are helping and seeing the world from their perspective. This is to literally level the playing field, eliminating any sense of hierarchy between helper and helped. In “the Hidden Lamp,” Joan Sutherland deftly refers to this as action “to help liberate the intimacy already inherent in any situation.” Once intimate with the moment, and the people and things in it, one can respond skillfully. Skillfulness arises as the result of not being blind to specific karmic conditions or to the vast interconnectedness they create.

Of course this does not mean that you have to become completely like the others in your life that need help. So, for example, you can’t help an alcoholic friend by becoming alcoholic yourself or enabling their alcoholism. Still, until you really make an effort to see their point of view and understand what makes them just as human as you, it’s not possible to offer a helpful response.

layman pang

Layman Pang courtesy of elephantjournal

The story continues with Layman Pang’s reply to Lingzhao, which was, “It’s a good thing no one was looking.” Be careful not to fall into thinking that this is an expression of shame. The father is pointing toward the egolessness of his daughter’s response. The “no one” who is looking doesn’t get in the way of enlightened activity, doesn’t set up a separation, doesn’t need to be superior in order to offer aid. Feel free to get covered in dust! Then you can stand upright together.

Taking the Boddhisattva vows, we are promising to fall down and get up with everyone.

Zazen as Ritual

Sometimes it seems as though the Zen tradition is of many minds about the value of ritual. On the one hand, ritual can be seen as lifeless and formulaic, failing to express the immediacy of any instant or its true essence. It is criticized as rote activity that is lacking in any vitality, and fails to produce any insight. On the other hand, Zen is a tradition embraces ritual as a completely indispensable aspect of life, integral to even the most mundane of daily activities, and full of abstract expression. How can we understand this apparent dichotomy?

This question reminds me of the koan of Master Gutei and the boy. In Case 19 of the Blue Cliff Record, the commentary mentions an episode in which Master Gutei speaks with a young boy. The boy tells the Master that he’d held up one finger in response to a question about the Master’s teaching. The boy was simply making the same gesture for which Gutei was known, and which Gutei had learned from his own Master. Yet seeing the boy imitating him, the Master cut off the boy’s finger. What is the difference between the two? For me, this case points to the question of authenticity in practice. It reminds me that it is not enough to simply repeat the actions of the Ancestors; I must find a way to make the teaching and its expression as unique as I am.

Thus, although ritual is usually defined as activity done repeatedly and in a prescribed fashion, and religious ritual usually adds a layer of symbolism, the Zen teaching is that both are always present. You don’t need religion in order to add symbolic meaning, because the symbolic is always inherent in the mundane. This is the meaning of the phrase “practice and enlightenment are one.”

Still, it’s necessary to conduct our lives in a way that expresses this understanding; so we practice the ritual of zazen. “Sitting zazen” sees the impermanence and interconnection of life amidst stillness and amidst busyness. “Walking zazen” sees the impermanence and interconnection of life amidst movement and amidst peace. You can only know this by experiencing it. No matter how many times you read about zazen, or hear about zazen, or see people doing zazen, until you actually sit or walk zazen, you won’t know what it is. This is true of all ritual, and I believe that people know this intuitively. As Isadora Duncan, the famous and infamous American dancer once said,

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan

“No, I can’t explain the dance to you. If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”

So talking about (and reading about) ritual gives you some context, yet you know that it’s true meaning is in the lived experience. This particular body and mind can’t find the expression without performing the ritual. Performing the ritual, this body and mind can realize that it has always been expressing the impermanence, expressing the peace, expressing the many, expressing the one.

We play the instruments. We chant the chants. We dance the dance.

courtyard altar

 

 

Night of Fire

The red, hot light filled

the sky space between mountain

and dark black clouds,

as if some hell had opened up behind it,

threatening to swallow up

this town and my car and the whole length of road.

Its name is devil mountain

but not because of this,

more because of the sunscorch

that happens when you try to look it in the eye.

This night there is dancing on the other side,

those that cackle at

our plans to picnic and claim it as ours

this place of indescribable…

too hard to ponder.

Now urgent this question of demons

and the swift sloping flight of bird.

Now ashes

mount diablo fire image from isciencetimes

Mount Diablo 2013 fire image from isciencetimes

the side that

I never dreamed of.

 

Zen Ritual: A Practitioner’s Perspective of the Expressions of Forms

This summer I will be offering a class, at San Francisco Zen Center, that will look at the ways in which each one of us can connect at a profound, personal level with the ceremonies and activities of Zen. It means looking at formal practice from the place of our personal dharma position. That is, the class is about the ways in which ritual relates to us — individually, in community, and from the standpoint of the absolute. So we’ll look at a number of ceremonies over the course of five classes, and talk about these layers of experience and how they deeply inform our practice.
zen_priest
One example of a ritual that we’ll study is the Bodhisattva Vows, which are said at the end of Saturday morning lecture and during the Full Moon ceremony. A typical translation of these vows is:
Beings are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.
Dharma Gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.
The Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable, I vow to become it.
We can start to take these vows with the idea of being more skillful in the world, with the support of and engagement with our fellow practitioners. Yet, we can really only take these vows seriously if we understand ourselves as interconnected with all things. So we’ll read a chapter from Shohaku Okumura Roshi’s book, “Living by Vow” in which he writes:

“We cannot be proud of our practice, and we don’t need to be too humble about our lack of practice or understanding. We are just as we are. Our practice is to take one more step toward the infinite, the absolute, moment by moment one step at a time.”

I would add that we are already completely within the infinite in each moment, even though we might feel that we are stepping closer to it. So this is the way in which we will take up the study of ritual this summer. I plan to write a blog entry during each of the five weeks of class, beginning the week of June 23rd, and I hope to hear from each of you about the ways in which you engage with ceremony in your own lives.

The One who is Really Busy

It is so easy these days to get caught up in thinking that you are busy. Maybe you feel there are lots of chores to do, or emails piling up in your inbox, or texts arriving on your phone. Maybe you feel that you simply don’t have time for everything, that you simply can’t keep up with all of the people who need or want something from you. When this happens, the thought, “I don’t have time for that” can arise even when “that” is something you want to do, like answer the phone when your loved one calls or clear a space on your desk. But the pressure you feel is too high, so you cannot connect to the positive in that moment. As Zen Master Dogen says:

You fail to experience the passage of being-time and hear the utterance of its truth, because you learn only that time is something that goes past.

Messy Desk by Robin Wulfsson M.D.

Messy Desk by Robin Wulfsson M.D.

What Dogen is pointing at here is the fact that we live in each moment, and the moment is expressing the truth of interrelatedness, the truth that we are actors in our world. So your experience of time could be entirely different. You could turn that thought of not having time into your helper. You could see “not having time” as something of a tool for discerning what is skillful in your life. This is called “turning on the basis,” a practice of shifting perspective so that it aligns more closely with the Dharma. You could have a shift that enables you to live within the moment now, with all the results of the past and the possibilities of the future.

A shift in the view of not having time often happens to those who are diagnosed with a terminal illness. Suddenly a person comes to the realization that life is precious, and that they must be thoughtful about the way in which they live. Many times, for the people I visit, this creates a sense of sadness as well. If you have been postponing the things you really want to do for a long time, when you find out that you no longer have the time or the health to do them, it can be a big disappointment.

Yet you don’t have to wait for that moment to begin changing your perspective on “not having time.” You can simply take up a practice of acceptance, discernment and skillful response. Seeing clearly the moment as it is, you hold it up to the light of the Dharma, and then make a conscious choice about whether and how to respond.

For example, how would it be if you simply said, “I don’t have time for that worry” or “I don’t have time to watch violence for the sake of entertainment.” Or “I don’t have time to be angry with that person that just walked too close to me,” or “that person who took the parking place I had my eye on.”

So you can see that, with a bit of a twist, not having time can begin to open up new potential for presence, patience and for letting go of pettiness. It can help you stay focused on responding, rather than reacting. It can put things in perspective – which reminds me of a saying that a friend of mine who is a nun mentioned many years ago:

“In Zen three minutes is an eternity.”