Monthly Archives: May 2012

Close to This Moment

The fact is that there is nothing to hold on to. There is nothing in the mundane human world which is perfect and complete, nothing to warrant our intense clinging – no person, no object, no doctrine. We cannot even rely on what we see with our eyes or think with our minds. Yet, ironically, living with this truth – the truth of having no ground to stand on – can lead us to a life of intention. It can lead us to a life in which we value each moment as precious, knowing that the people and the things around us are fleeting. We had better enjoy them while we can. So we vow to stay close to the moment, present with everything that seems to come into momentary being. This is the practice of zazen, whether sitting, standing, walking or lying down.

Yet this simple activity of staying present can be quite difficult. All sorts of responses and reactions are bound to occur, some of which may be unpleasant. Still, studying these feelings, we can discover that fearlessness doesn’t mean an absence of fear, but rather presence in the presence of fear.

In Buddhist psychology there is a characteristic of consciousness called “vedana,” a Sanskrit word which is usually translated as “perception,” It means something like “gut reaction.” It has three settings – pleasant, unpleasant or neutral – and it happens nearly instantaneously after we come into contact with some sort of sensory experience. By studying vedana, we might find that those immediate, basic attractions or aversions become more transparent and less compelling. So we can better choose how to respond, rather than being pushed and pulled by our reactions.

A monk asked Master Dongshan, “Among the three buddha-bodies,which one does not fall into any category?” Dongshan replied, “I am always close to this.”

Tozan Ryokai (Dongshan)


Who needs monks anyway?

In a country that prides itself on a secular orientation, there are many people who have questions about the role of religion and of monastics. For Buddhist monks in particular, there is often a lack of clarity about how the lay community can or should interact with them. And in fact, within some American Buddhist communities, particularly in today’s Zen sangha, there are lots of questions about the role of a monk even within the temple or monastery environment, as well as outside of it.

For one thing, in Zen, the term “monk” can be applied to any person of any gender or no gender who has received ordination, and thereby taken the 16 foundational ethical precepts. Or the term “priest” can  also be used for them, though it sometimes has the additional connotation of someone who has completed dharma transmission, a milestone which usually indicates someone who has the authority to ordain others. Or the term “nun” can be applied to the ordained sangha who are female. Or the title of Reverend is often used. But, for our purposes, all of these terms are interchangeable ways of speaking about those ordained in Zen. They all have basically the same vows, the same responsibilities and the potential for the same roles.Their activities may differ, but their basic vows do not. Personally, for myself, I prefer the term “nun” or one day if I am a full-fledged teacher, maybe “acharya.”

Takuhatsu in the snow

Practicing in Japan I learned that it’s possible for a monk to simply be the presence of the Dharma in the world. This was particularly obvious when we went on takuhatsu (alms collection walks), a weekly activity at the monastery where I lived for a year and a half. We would go to small towns and villages, dressed in our traditional robes and other monk-type gear, and visit each and every house. No matter the reaction – good, bad or indifferent – the town folk recognized us as monastics. This is important because it is an opportunity for them to encounter the teaching and to notice whether they feel inspired, enraged or something in between. Then, for me, this sense of presence extended to other activities outside the monastery, rituals within the monastery, and finally to everything in my life. I found that my having taken up this life made it possible for others to consider their own responses to the monastic life, either by making it possible for them to feel inspired to practice, generous and giving of their resources and time, or by sparking a sense of separation and difficulty, or some other response. But the critical point was the clarity and authenticity of the interaction. There was no mistaking that we were monks, and that meant that the laity could make clear choices about how to respond to us.

Three Zen Nuns

So it seems to me that the point, then, is not that everyone who wants to practice Zen in America should be a monk, but rather that a strong monastic community helps to sustain a strong lay community, and vice versa. A clear role for the monastic makes it more possible for lay people to take up their own practice. And that is the true meaning of sangha.

Ice Cream Won’t Help

A few days ago I read an article which stated that fully two-thirds of the American population is overweight and one-third is obese, and also stated that these figures are likely to rise in the future. This is a problem, one which is directly addressed in Zen practice.

Many Americans seem to be trying to feel better by eating too much. The problem is one of overwhelming the body with excessive consumption of food and drink. It is a problem which points to a nation of people who are reacting to their suffering by overwhelming their senses. These are people who are trying to put out a fire by eating, who are trying to stop their pain by putting greater quantities of food and less nutritious food in their mouths. However, what people generally experience when they try this method of managing suffering is that it is only temporary. You may momentarily feel less anxiety while you are eating the pint of ice cream, but a few hours or minutes later, it will be back. So then you feel the need to do it even more, and you learn that the suffering you are experiencing burns and burns no matter how much ice cream you throw at it.

Buddhism’s answer to this issue is to stop trying to end suffering by increasing desire. If you think about it that way, it seems completely illogical in the first place. How could you end suffering by increasing desire? And yet, that’s what seems to be happening here. The Buddha in the most basic of teachings suggests that suffering can only be addressed by finding some way other than reactivity. You have to find a way to respond, instead of reacting, and in order to do that you have to be able to slow down enough to see how your desire is a reaction to your suffering. This is what he revealed in the Four Noble Truths.

1) There is suffering. 2) Suffering is caused by a mistaken way of understanding the world. 3) There is a way to resolve suffering. 4) The way to resolve suffering is by applying practices that help you to respond to things more appropriately because you see how they really are.

This is where Zen comes in. Zen puts you into situation where things are simple enough that you can start to see how they really are. Zen asks you to be present in a place and in a way that minimizes the amount of sensory input you receive. The point is not to deprive you of anything, but rather to heighten your awareness, so that you can begin to understand what you are encountering and how you respond to it.

Think about it this way: In Zen, you sit in a silent room to minimize sound input. You sit facing a wall to minimize visual input. You sit still to minimize touch input. You don’t eat or drink anything while sitting, to minimize taste input. You even go so far as to train your mind to focus on your breath or on simply being present with your sensations and thoughts, to minimize thought inputs. Why? Because there is something to be said for not overwhelming the senses. There is something to discover in the mind that is sheer presence, something that cannot be discovered by simply adding more and more sensations, tasty as they may be.