Tag Archives: impermanence

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The Opportunity of Now

The third topic in this series of six posts about the bodhisattva practices known as the paramitas is kshanti or patience.

deercropped

Overall, I think of kshanti as an aspect that balances the others. Generally one can see the first two paramitas – giving and ethics – as compassion in action, and the last two – meditation and wisdom – as equally expressions of wisdom. Balancing compassion and wisdom, the two broadest areas of Buddhist practice, are the two paramitas in the middle of the list – patience and effort. Effort, or virya, is our topic for next time. For now, I would like to say a few words about kshanti.

Kshanti is the practice of patience. You might say that it has two primary aspects. The first aspect is that of forbearance. This may be closest to its original meaning, when the teaching was developed, around the beginning of the Common Era. This means that when you practice kshanti, you cultivate the ability to endure hardships. You practice being present with even the most difficult things in your life, receiving them in a way that doesn’t reject them or turn away.

This way of practice brings to mind a teaching by Shantideva, the 8th Century Indian sage whose teaching was very encouraging. Shantideva taught, “If you can do something about it (your problem), why be discouraged? If you can’t do something about it, why be discouraged?” One can equally say, either way, why be impatient? Either way, you don’t turn away.

frog in India

The second aspect of kshanti is allowing. That is to say, the patience you are practicing is specifically patience with what is. It is a practice of acknowledging what is, as it is, without judging whether it is good or bad. It is the practice of allowing what is to be what it is.

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And how is it? It is changing, always changing. Nothing remains in one state forever; nothing is permanent. In fact, each moment is a completely new state, the result of innumerable conditions that have arisen and dissolved.

Thus, many centuries after the teaching of kshanti was first expounded, Zen turned it, bringing forth another aspect. Putting the two sides of kshanti together – not turning away from what is, and seeing it as a new expression in each moment – Zen Masters understood that each moment is an opportunity. In deed, each moment is an opportunity to awaken to the true nature of things, to see how your life is teaching you about suffering and freedom from suffering. Each moment is an opportunity to awaken, if you are able to truly be present with what is. This is the opportunity of now.

Seeing it in that light, it’s easy to understand why sitting zazen is so important to Zen practice. For it is in sitting that you find the capacity to encounter your life. It is in zazen that you learn that you can face whatever is in this moment. It is in zazen that you find, again and again, that the opportunity of now is always available.

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So I hope to encourage you to practice patience and, to do that, I will  share a quote from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. “If you become too serious, you will lose your way. If you are just playing a game, you will lose your way. So, little by little, with patience and endurance, we must find our way for ourselves.”

Finally I would add, moment by moment, we do find our way for ourselves. The question is, which way?

Stepping into a New Stream

I had the pleasure of giving the Saturday morning Dharma talk at Hartford Street Zen Center about a week ago.

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I spoke that day about the teaching of “no self” and the way it has arisen in both Eastern and Western culture. The nun Vajira, Greek philosopher Heraclitus, monk Nagarjuna, visionary Mahatma Gandhi, and Episcopalian priest Rev. Charles Freer Andrews all get a mention.

If you’d like to listen to the talk, you can hear it here:

 

Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose – continued

Continuing on yesterday’s theme…

The beauty of this teaching of no gaining mind is that no gaining also means no losing. That is, you have nothing to lose if no one recognizes your most generous acts, your most selfless words, your most harmonious gifts. You have nothing to lose if there is no discernible reward for being your best self. This can be said because you are already one with all things, so the recognition is intrinsic.

It reminds me of the parable of the Bodhisattva Never Disparage. It’s a tale from the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Pundarika Sutra) and it tells the story of a being who had vowed to never disparage other beings. It’s said his practice was to tell people that they too would be Buddhas, as is predicted in the Lotus Sutra. However, some people didn’t like this, and would shun him, yell at him, or even throw rocks at him. At those times, when his safety was at risk because people not only didn’t appreciate his compassion but disagreed with it, the story tells us that the Bodhisattva would “run away to a safe distance and continue” telling folks that he could see their buddhanature.

And so it is with each of us. We are called to bring compassion into the world, called to see the best in others and to “do good,” and perhaps we meet with some resistance or we are ignored. But a practitioner who truly sees non-separation, truly sees nothing to gain and truly sees nothing to lose.

Hide and Seek c. Center for Media and Democracy

 

Nothing to Gain, Nothing to Lose

One of the most misunderstood and misused teachings in Zen is that of “no gaining” mind. It is often quoted, typically without context, and suggested as an exhortation for a practice which takes “no goal” as its goal. This is a misunderstanding, quite far from the meaning of this phrase and the application it has to Buddhist practice.

In Japanese the term is 無所得 pronounced “mushotoku.” Taking each character separately; “mu” is a negation, “sho” means place, and “toku” means advantage, gain, profit. So the literal meaning is “the place where there is nothing to be gained” or nothing to which we can be attached. From there it is easy to understand that “no gaining” is a teaching of “no false discrimination,” or you might say abiding in the non-separation between subject and object. That is, “no gaining” mind refers to that mind which sees emptiness and interconnectedness as one.

For Zen Master Eihei Dogen this phrase appears in relation to egolessness, particularly in “ShobogenzoZuimonki,” a collection of pithy sayings by Dogen, as recorded by his disciple Koun Ejo in about 1234 CE. In this short compilation we hear Dogen’s constant exhortation to zazen, and to practice that fully engages body and mind without the expectation of gain. He says,

Simply do good without expectation of reward or recognition, be truly gainless, and work for the sake of benefiting others. The primary point to bear in mind is to drop your ego. To keep this mind you have to awaken to impermanence.

Thus, Dogen’s idea of the goal of practice is quite clearly described – awakening to impermance. This echoes the opening lines of the Heart Sutra in which it is said that Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion, was relieved of all suffering simply by “seeing” that body and mind are empty of permanent existence.

Sitting in zazen, experiencing our fundamental non-separation from all things, coming from the place where there is nothing to be gained, we also come to understand that there is nothing we lack. There is no need to look outside of ourselves for acknowledgement, no need to hope that our teacher will give us something special, no need to grasp at things that are always flying away. Instead, we can fully express, from within, harmony and the wish to benefit others, because they are none other than us.

Walk to Feed the Hungry Sokoji

 

 

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