Tag Archives: meditation

New posts are on the new blog…

…at www.EkanZenStudyCenter.org you will find the latest posts by Konin, an updated teaching schedule, and many more resources.

Check it out!

www.EkanZenStudyCenter.org/blog

Why not have a look?

www.EkanZenStudyCenter.org

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.

**** If you have read this far, consider visiting http://www.ekanzenstudycenter.org to sign up to continue reading this blog. In future it will no longer be posted to this site. Thank you! ****

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.

InstagramCapture_4e3ca6e3-519b-4a10-8a24-d68608f9034b

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?

Living Within Your Buddhanature

13th Century Zen Master Dogen taught that Buddhanature is the ground of all being, inherent in all people, places and things. He turned the ancient phrase, “All beings have Buddhanature” into the phrase, “All beings are Buddhanature.” This is quite a different way of experiencing life. Yet, I suspect that most of us don’t routinely experience life in that way. This is because we have a subtle misunderstanding about what or who we are.

Hosshinji.275

Below is a link to a recent dharma talk I gave to the group “Access to Zen,” which meets in San Francisco. The talk addresses the question of a human life and some ways that we can open up to its meaning.

* Please note the correction to this talk. The phrase “The Way is perfect and all pervading” is the first line of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, “A Universal Recommendation for Zazen,” not Genjokoan, “Absolute Questions of Everyday Life.”

http://www.accesstozen.org/variety-is-the-spice-of-life/

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

 

 

The Sound of Finding Your Seat

Zazen (sometimes translated as seated meditation) usually takes place in silence in the Soto Zen Buddhist tradition. Though a teacher might occasionally give a short Dharma talk during a period of sitting, it is much more usual to simply sit quietly. Guided meditation is very unusual in the tradition, in part because of Zen’s emphasis on a non-conceptual encounter with the world.

Still, one can never hear the instructions on how to sit zazen too often. In fact, the founder’s short description of the purpose and method of sitting, the Fukanzazengi, is chanted on a regular basis at most Soto Zen monasteries.

Redwood zendo trio

So, as part of a year-long program I am co-leading, I recently gave a 10 minute guided meditation. It leads the practitioner toward finding a relaxed, stable and alert posture, and then abiding in the thoughts and feelings of the present moment. Try it out. You might find that it’s refreshing to hear something you thought you already knew.

A Day to Celebrate

Racism is a Zen topic because it is about our mutual human inheritance, our struggle to live up to our personal, social and religious ideals, our ability or failure to acknowledge our common humanity and our connection with that which is greater than us. It has been in the US news of late in two particular instances – one in which a wealthy white man made some extreme comments about slavery and another in which a very wealthy white man made comments about associating with blacks and about the black men that played basketball on his team. In both these instances, those with authority have made clear decisions that express their strong disagreement with racist views. This is a day to celebrate, a day when those in power use their authority to issue appropriate consequences for those who would injure others through their deluded views of separation and arrogance.

San Francisco Airport mural

San Francisco Airport mural

The sense of separation is one of the most fundamental delusions we hold as human beings. It is a mistake that might cause us to feel that we must put ourselves above others, or that we simply cannot care about others because we are too busy caring for ourselves. Simply writing this down makes it obvious how absurd it is. The fact is that we alone cannot completely take care of our own interests. We need other human beings to survive and they need us as well. So, while it is true that each person is a unique individual with a unique life, it is also true that every single person on the planet has the same DNA and that what we are is much, much greater than any one human being.

So it is up to each of us to turn this sense of separation around, and begin to study our own bodies and minds and the truth of our interaction with everything around us. Zazen, sitting meditation, is one way to simplify the amount of interaction to the point that we can begin to be present for it. Give it a try. You might find that your ideas are as fleeting as time and as changing as water. And that’s a good thing. Because racism can only exist when you hold on to a view of a very, very small world.

In the Service of Wisdom

Though “zen” is a word that is used for many things, including MP3 players and beauty salons, the tradition of Zen is known for a variety of practices and arts. What can we learn from these practices that is applicable to life in the West?

Redwood zendo trioZazen

Zen is known to many for its meditation, a form of sitting that involves facing the wall. Although there are as many kinds of meditation as there are minds, zazen can be described as a form of meditation that is at once single-mindedly concentrated and open to a wide field of experience. That is, zazen is sitting that fully meets all aspects of our experience of the moment.

Shodo, Shakyo, and Sumi-e

Shodo is the art of Japanese calligraphy. Shakyo is the art of sutra copying. Sumi-e is the art of ink drawing. These arts, using a brush and black sumi ink, are forms of expression that require focus and years of practice to master.

Hoitsu Suzuki calligraphy courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center

Hoitsu Suzuki calligraphy courtesy of San Francisco Zen Center

In this age, when it’s possible to simply scan the most beautiful copy of an ancient text, upload it to your favorite copy center, and have 1000 copies made at 0.6 cents each, why would anyone want to write out a text by hand, much less using a brush? Or what is the value of painting yet another stalk of bamboo? Yet the beauty and uniqueness of each of these expressions is renowned.

Shojin Ryori

Shojin ryori literally translates as “devotion cooking” and means Zen temple cooking. It was the topic of a famous teaching by Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen. In the piece, entitled Instructions to the Cook, Dogen explains the way in which cooking is a practice on a par with meditation and the study of the Buddhist teachings. His audience of practitioners would have consisted mostly of men who likely viewed cooking as, at best, a daily necessity or, at worst, an undignified chore. Yet Dogen taught,

Take one stalk of vegetable to make the six-foot body [of buddha]; invite the six-foot body to make one stalk of vegetable. This is the divine power that causes transformations and the buddha work that benefits beings.

– translation by Taigen Dan Leighton

Garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan

Garden at Ryoanji in Kyoto, Japan

Japanese gardens

Looking at a Japanese garden your first thought might be, “What kind of garden is this? It hardly has any plants.” The monastery in which I lived had moss gardens in its interior courtyards, a vegetable garden where we grew quite a bit of our food, and a flower garden on the street along the exterior wall. Much of the daily life of the residents involved tending the gardens. Imagine spending an hour weeding a patch of moss the size of one square meter. Kneeling on the coolness of it, with weeding fork in hand, a monk bends closer to look for the tiniest of grasses. Or a person sweeps the trail in the forest with a broom made of bamboo twigs, lifting the leaves into small piles, even as they continue falling from the trees.

Common Denominator

So what is it that can be distilled from this odd collection of practices? What do these arts have in common, and what can we learn from them?

Each of these traditional Zen arts is taking an everyday activity and turning it into a practice. It is taking the mundane activity of life, such as writing or weeding, and doing it in the service of wisdom. This turning toward wisdom takes place through the intention, the awareness, and the Mind that is applied, and it transforms the way we experience the activity. It’s not that it makes the activity into something magical. The cooking is still the cooking, chopping vegetables and boiling water. Yet the experience of cooking is met in an entirely different way, a way that connects to cooking as enlightened activity.

By Andy Serrano

By Andy Serrano

This way of meeting our everyday life as enlightenment is the inheritance of the practice of the Zen ancestors.  Start by understanding that every moment is a moment of enlightenment, ripe with the opportunity for realization. Because this is so, then sweeping must be enlightenment when it is fully engaged. This full engagement takes time, and it demands our full attention. That is why the Zen way is often the slow way. Doing even mundane things is the activity of a Buddha, and it is up to us to encounter how this can be so, whether you are sweeping in Kyoto or in Kansas.

No Time to Lose

Yesterday I was at the park relaxing in the grass with a friend who is a long-time sitter. She said she often encounters people who are interested in meditation and are just getting started. My friend asked me how to respond to people who say, “I can only sit for one or two minutes, and then I have to get up because I can’t stand it anymore.” I too have heard this comment, and I don’t doubt that it happens. Hearing it, I am reminded of the Zen tradition’s emphasis on posture both as a support for, and an expression of bodhi-mind, the mind of awakening. That is not to say that sitting up straighter will cause your mind to go blank, and result in a mental state of ultimate peace. Rather, it means that in Zen one doesn’t focus so much on the imperatives associated with thoughts. We simply abide in body and mind, without attempting to add anything or take anything away. In and of itself, it can be a tremendous relief to sit down on the cushion and know that, for a limited span of time, there is no need to get up and start doing something else.

Zen Master Dogen

Zen Master Dogen

Zen Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen school, put it this way:

Just this seeing and hearing

Goes beyond seeing and hearing,

And there are not other colors or sounds to offer you.

Having completely settled within this,

You are genuinely beyond concerns.

Notice that Dogen mentions “Just this…,” subtly giving a nod to the fact that you might want to seek for some quieter or calmer state, particularly when you feel agitated, or as you get older and lose our seeing and hearing faculties. Alternatively, you might seek for some more exciting state, feeling more comfortable in the swirl of activity. Yet there is no better experience to be found, because awakening is already expressed within the everyday experience of delusion. In fact, it is impossible for one to be anywhere else but in the present moment, since everything is in the midst of being created in every instant. Still, to say this and accept it as a concept is what we call in Zen “a painted rice cake,” something that is not going to satisfy your hunger. Zen is a lifetime practice because ultimately the present moment is indefinable, and thus it cannot be conceptualized. It is a practitioner’s endeavor to encounter it, to live it.

So the question arises, “How does one settle within this?” Here you encounter the body, abiding within the sensations and mental states that arise. You might notice tightness or pain in the body, or a tight jaw. You might encounter a subtle sensation of fear and its sidekick adrenaline, or of anxiety, or of simply feeling sad and overwhelmed. You might encounter the sound of ringing in your ears, and of a rapid, shallow breath. The real question is, so what? What is so difficult about sitting in the midst of that? Is it that you think it will go on forever? It cannot, as there is nothing that goes on forever, even Shakyamuni. Is it that you think you need to do something about it? Well, sitting is a form of non-doing something about it and, if you sit long enough, you will see for yourself that your mind will change. In fact scientists have now shown that, due to neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the physical brain to change its structure over time, any activity that you do regularly will tend to be easier to do over time because your brain builds the pathways to enable it. However that is simply a symptom, I believe, of the truth that by sitting we can experience the natural stillness of mind within the world of activity.

And when you are sitting and you find your mind racing or simply wandering, pay attention to the way you are sitting. Are you able to balance between left and right, between front and back? Are your hands in an open, relaxed position? Is your chin tucked in enough to lift the crown of your head?

zafu zabutonThe teaching of the Buddha is that your fundamental nature is peace and clarity. It’s okay to doubt that, but please don’t doubt it so much that it knocks you off your cushion. Just sit!

Leadership on the Eightfold Path

Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Eightfold Path of practice as the Fourth Noble Truth, as a path of liberation from suffering. Though this occurred more than two millennia ago, these teachings are relevant to leadership in modern times.

NOTE: The word “right” is the usual translation of the Sanskrit word “samma,” but that is a bit rough. The word samma does not have the understanding of right versus wrong. It has the meaning of integral or whole. Some have used the word “sound” as a translation. As in, “that is a sound decision.” This more closely reflects the sense of skillfulness that arises from the Path.

Right View – Our way of being in the world can be a way that increases our suffering, reduces our suffering, or liberates us from suffering. It is our fundamental view of the world, of our experience, that makes the difference. The Buddha taught that the view which would liberate us from suffering, rather than make it worse or mitigate it temporarily, is the view of emptiness. When Buddhists speak of emptiness it simply means empty of inherent existence, empty of the ability to arise completely independently. This makes sense intuitively. All things arise due to causes and conditions. They cannot come into being or cease to be without reliance on causes and conditions. Then, from this standpoint, you can begin to see why the corollary to emptiness is impermanence, the fact that people and things are always changing. The conditions of each instant are shifting and moving, in ways that you can see and in imperceptible ways. The ability to accept change, and understand that it is inevitable and neutral, is the starting point for sound leadership. That is, sound leadership accepts that change will occur. Sound leadership incorporates this fact in planning and makes the most of change.

Example: State governments requiring electric companies to develop wind turbine farms.

V838 c. NASA

V838 c. NASA

Right Intention – Naturally, it is not enough to know how to view the world. You must put it into action, but action stems from intention; it starts with our motivation. A great practitioner once famously said that he wakes up every day and cultivates his motivation. This is because actions and speech reflect intention, even when you don’t want them to. So it is important to establish right intention, which stems from the fundamental acceptance of change and the vow to work in harmony with it. This is not passivity, but rather seeing clearly what actually is, so that you can respond most skillfully. Right intention is based in the ability to respond, rather than react. Sound leadership flows from the motivation not to ignore or resist change, but to respond in a skillful manner.

Example: Establishing Virgin Galactic even while developing Virgin Atlantic.

Right Speech – The extent to which your words express acceptance of what is, and an intentional response, is the extent to which those words express right speech. There is a lot that can be said about right speech, but the Buddha offered five simple guidelines. He said that right speech is timely, helpful, truthful, kind, and not spoken out of ill will. These aspects of right speech remind you that words are meaningful, and it is important to consider their impact, both on yourself and on those who hear them. Sound leadership knows the impact of speech and uses it skillfully, to express an understanding of impermanence and an intention to harmonize with it. It uses speech to bring clarity to any situation.

Example: “Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.” – James Thurber

Right Action – Based upon a sound view of emptiness and impermanence, and a sound intention to live in accord with that view, your actions must also be in accord with the Way. As with speech, right action will provide clarity and harmony. Thus, right action is usually associated with ethical action. It involves finding a skillful way to operate in the world, guided by what is most fundamental. It acknowledges ambiguity, and does not use it as an excuse to set aside the necessity to respond. This is why the Buddhist precepts, or moral guidelines, are not commandments but rather vows, expressions of your underlying intention. Sound leadership recognizes ethics as an integral aspect of life. It acts in harmony with life.

Example: After finding a handful of bottles poisoned, Johnson & Johnson pulled Tylenol off the shelves.

Right Livelihood – This teaching is specifically about work. It is based on the understanding that, in emptiness, each instant contains within it the causes and conditions for the next instant. So this is the teaching that the work that you do has consequences, and it is important to consider those consequences and ensure that they create harmony in the world. Sound leadership recognizes that work is not different from other action. Sound leadership takes responsibility for its results.

Example: If you are a fisherman, not fishing a particular species into extinction.

Right Effort – This is the teaching of sustainability. The Buddha practiced asceticism to the point of death, and then realized that this kind of effort would not lead to liberation from suffering. So he taught the Middle Way. This is the way of wholehearted engagement, because anything less than that is not enough. Yet, it is also the way of embracing limitations, because your effort should not damage your capacity. It must be sustainable, or it misses the mark, risking the full rewards due to shortsightedness. Sound leadership knows that effort must be balanced in order to be effective.

Example: Staying home sick, instead of vomiting at a fancy dinner.

Right Mindfulness – While much of the Eightfold path is focused on activity, right mindfulness is about finding the still point in each moment. It is discovering the inherent steadiness of the mind, and the way that can be a foundation for everything else. This teaching is typically associated with meditation, stripping away momentary distractions to encounter the essence of what is already there. It is pausing to gather the mind, living in the present moment. Sound leadership values steadiness and a clear head.

Example: Phil Jackson teaching the Bulls basketball players to gather themselves before a game.

Sunrise c. NASA

Sunrise c. NASA

Right Awakening – The teaching of Buddhist wisdom is that this very life can be one of awakening to your innate freedom and the abundance of the world. It is within your capabilities, if you are willing to live in the present moment and respond skillfully, in harmony with the natural function of cause and effect. Wisdom is not something that can be given to you, yet it is manifest in relation to others. In Zen it is sometimes expressed as “not one, not two.” Wisdom is both an individual experience and a group function, and it is based in true discernment. Sound leaders are like great conductors, they help to make a symphony by energizing many individuals.

Example: Cooperative competition all over Silicon Valley.

 

Getting Up from Your Seat

It is said that the Buddha did not immediately begin teaching after he awakened to ultimate wisdom. Several weeks passed before the Buddha arose from his seat, and it is believed to have been several months after that before he offered his first talk. Yet arise he did. And, in doing so, he again expressed his own unshakeable conviction that mankind is fully capable of transcendent compassion and inconceivable wisdom.3559084-Ruins_Sarnath

This is an important point to remember these days, when I often encounter people who worry about the state of the world and the people in it. They read the newspaper, watch television and talk to their neighbors and co-workers about unspeakable acts of violence and terrible natural disasters. They hear of murder and rape, and of theft on a scale so large that it becomes unimaginable. They talk of hurricanes, and earthquakes, and floods, and all manner of disease. They say to one another, “These things are wrong. The people who do these things are evil and the world is getting darker every day.”

Yet this is the same world that Shakyamuni Buddha spoke of when he said, “I and all beings are fully awakened on this day,” a day that is now celebrated as Bodhi Day, December 8th. He was not speaking of some world outside of this one. The beings that the Buddha spoke of are all beings; those of the past, present and future; those with and without understanding; those male, female and something else; those who are good and those who are bad.

So how do we discover this teaching for ourselves, right in the midst of so much troubling news? How do we learn to see the Buddha in every face, no matter how contorted or stunningly beautiful? In the 13th Century Dogen Zenji, a Japanese Zen Master, said “Without exception everyone is a vessel. Do not ever think that you are not a vessel,” expressing the same understanding as the Buddha, but in a different way.buddha bust That is, Dogen was pointing at each and every being as an expression of the great teachings of impermanence, emptiness and freedom from suffering. But you might say that you don’t feel free from this realm, that you are completely trapped in this world full of troubles and people with intent to kill. In one sense that is true; you are a function of millions and millions of conditions that happen in each instant, each dependent on the others. You exist only to the extent that you interact with the world around you, within you. Yet it is precisely because of this state of being caused and created by the myriad things that you are also completely free of them in each moment. That is, as an expression of the fully interconnected universe you are, in essence, stillness in the midst of motion. There is nothing you have to do to make this true. However, that truth explains why we sit zazen, the form of meditation which allows for transcendence of the moment through complete presence in the moment.

Now all of this may be starting to sound very theoretical. So I’ll offer an example. Take the example of spitting. Once I was walking along the street very early in the morning. It was dark, and I was in a town that I don’t live in, visiting a family member. I was wearing my work clothes, which to many people look like a karate outfit, and I had my hair shaved to something like 1/8th of an inch, what is referred to by folks in the armed forces as “high and tight.” A man was walking toward me in the opposite direction. I could tell that when he looked at me he didn’t like what he saw. I was a bit nervous as he approached, but decided that he didn’t look like he would get violent. Still, he came closer and yelled at me, “Go home, alien,” as he continued to walk past me on my left. Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn his head toward me and spit. Thankfully it didn’t reach me. Yet it left a very strong impression. I have thought about that morning many, many times. And I’ve seen others spat upon. What is an appropriate response? Would it be different if it were a woman? Certainly, when someone spits at you, you might have thoughts of retaliating in some form. Certainly you can be expected to feel some “fight or flight” energy. But, actually, you express and experience the most freedom when you do not do anything. By not attacking the person or groveling to the person, you simply stand still and express your own powerful ability to be the skillful response. You allow that person who spit at you to completely receive their own consequences. You kill them with kindness.

This is not to say that the appropriate response is always to do nothing. Sometimes the most skillful thing is to do or say something. However, even then, you cannot relinquish your potential to express the stillness of the moment. Even then, you do not relinquish your authority to express the freedom that interconnectedness allows. Sometimes kindness expresses itself by not yelling at a spitter, and sometimes kindness expresses itself by stopping someone from shooting more innocent people. I’m reminded of an attack that took place at a Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee a number of years ago. The Rev. Chris Buice, pastor of the church, said of the shooter who had been subdued by the churchgoers that day, “He was a victim of his own hatred.”

So, when you learn about people that are doing great harm in the world, you can ask yourself what kind of response you want to offer. You can ask yourself whether you want to respond by offering kindness, freedom and skillful means to everyone you encounter, or by offering worry, and a sense of further separation and judgement. You can ask yourself how to best express your interconnectedness to them and to those that they harm. Then, just be it, knowing that the Buddha has already said that you can, knowing that the Buddha has already said you are.