Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry What????

The holiday season. Why are there so many holidays crammed into such a short amount of time (in the US, anyway)? And how many blogs are written about this time of year? And how many of those are going to offer coping mechanisms about how to deal with family members, how not to gain weight, and any number of other topics that one might infer that the holiday season is to be dreaded rather than celebrated?

There are any number of holidays both secular & religious, and sometimes a combination of both, that a "Buddhist" might feel a little left out of. We are not exactly endowed with many "holidays" in general, let alone at this time of year. Some of us celebrate Bodhi Day (AKA Rohatsu) on or around December 8, marking the awakening of the Buddha 'neath the Bodhi tree. There's Vesak, which combines Birth, Awakening and Paranirvana (death) of the Buddha celebrated in may countries. And rolling three potential holidays into one is not a great way to get time off from work.

Thanksgiving should theoretically be a no-brainer for a Buddhist, but with all the conspicuous consumption, over-indulgence, family confrontations, and potential the prevalence of booze, might make it a little rough. Christmas in a religious sense may not hold any special meaning, and the secular version is not quite what a renunciant, eschewing attachment, desire, and clinging, might really feel too comfortable with either.

But I'd really like to offer a less cynical, less resentful, less dualistic approach to the Holiday Season:

There is the practice the Perfection of dana (generosity) which doesn't necessarily mean giving your nephew a video game that was last year's model, and not being a gamer, you can't understand the look of disappointment and the forced "Thanks." It could mean being generous with one's time, going to the yet another get-together even if deep-down you'd really rather not.

The Four Immeasuables come to mind also--metta (lovingkindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy or empathy) and upekkha (patience and equanimity). I'll let you figure out how to implement each of them, since they will be subject to your situation, causes and conditions. And if it offers any solace, holidays are impermanent as anything else.

So go ahead and say Merry Christmas, it might mean that you justthismuchless attached to your identity as a "Buddhist."

And if that's all not working for you, get on the cushion and ask “Who is this that's feeling uncomfortable?” and see if you can answer the huatou.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, May All Beings Be Happy, including during the holidays.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

What Would Bodhidharma Do? (Itinerant Moknk 2)

Maybe two months ago, I wrote something called Itinerant Monk, and I closed it with “to be continued...” It's taken a while, but here it is. The gist of Part One, was basically the impermanence of all things, including addresses and plans. To recap, I moved to Massachusetts, things didn't quite work out the way I'd thought they would, so I had to improvise on the spot of daily life, and get on with it with the least amount of suffering possible, both for me and anyone else involved.

That's all any of us really wants, isn't it--to be free from suffering? Then we can go on about the business of the Bodhisattva business, that is Saving all Sentient Beings, even though there are no Beings and No Saving to be done...but we do it anyway, because there are beings out there in the conventional sense, and it is quite obvious that there is a lot of suffering going on. And the bottom line is, that I can also be one of those suffering beings at any given moment, and it's somewhat more difficult to Save You if I can't Save Myself. Not impossible, mind you. In fact the act of my attempt to Save You might be the key to ending my own suffering at that moment. We all have things that make us suffer, and the more contemplative we are, the more likely we are to be aware of them, maybe even see them coming due to recognizing our past habits and our tendencies.

A good friend of mine recognized the possibility of an attachment issue coming. We didn't go into any great detail about it—I figured he'd let me know as much or as little as he chose to. He said he was concerned about attachment, and that was good enough for me. The way he was going to deal with his attachments was through generosity, one of the Six Perfections (called dana in Sanskrit).

Now, I am not one of those people who says, “Oh no, I couldn't possibly accept that,” when someone offers me something. I think that “Oh no, I couldn't...” is possibly one of the most hypocritical statements possible. It can be very dishonest, and contribute the the delusional malaise that covers reality with the clouds of greed. And to my way of thinking, who am I to deny someone the opportunity to practice one of the Perfections? When the temple whence the scrolls came was having an auction of some others to help defray the costs of refurbishing. I thought to myself, "OK, here's my opportunity to practice dana (and end up with a scroll besides).

So he tells me he's got something to send me, says it's a scroll of the Heart Sutra from the 19th Century. I have no real frame of reference for this. I don't have any other scrolls, let alone from the 1800's., so I figure OK, that's cool. If he's concerned about becoming too attached to it because it is so cool, then let it go, and let him let it go. Until it actually arrived, I had no idea how cool it is, And trust me, it is. I had mine hanging in the entrance hall of my old home until The Move came up.

As I mentioned previously, The Move wasn't really all that smooth. I went from having one address to another, to a hotel, and finally to the address we're at now. This place is smaller than where we had been, and has a lot less storage than where we were intending on living, so we ended up needing a storage facility to move half of our things into. Two people over the course of a number of decades can accumulate a lot of stuff. And I'm not averse to being a renunciant, so even though a lot of things were donated, given away to friends, or ended up in the trash, there's still a lot of stuff, and it barely fit inside the storage space.

One thing I've learned is that thinking, “Oh, I'll remember what's in that box labeled 'miscellaneous,'” is never the case. For example, we still haven't found the box with knives and forks in it. We know they're in there somewhere, but we still haven't found them. There's probably a lesson about the emptiness of perceptions, more likely about mindfulness, but whatever it is, it's a lesson learned from not-doing rather than doing. (Repeat after me, “Pay Attention!”). But no big deal, there are plenty of knives and forks around, and we don't have to get so many that we'll end up with three sets that largely aren't necessary.

But in addition to the very utilitarian utensils, another thing that we hadn't found was The Scrolls. We don't need the scrolls in order to survive, and I had gone without them for, let's entire life minus three months. But when they weren't any place obvious, even after repeated trips to the space, I have to be honest and admit that I was upset at not finding them. Attachment rears its ugly head. ”They SHOULD be right here with the other stuff from that room!” But they weren't, and I got to learn all about my de facto attachments, practice some patience and forbearance, even diligence and persistence.I didn't throw a tantrum over it, start ripping things apart, or throwing things around. So overall, not so terrible. Not perfect, but OK.

And today, while being really diligent about finding the utensils, I found The Scrolls. I really have no idea why I hadn't seen them previously, I've been picking through boxes a number of times, but today, while looking for something else, I found them. I was happy to have done so.  I'd gotten to the point where I was prepared to admit that somehow they were lost. I wasn't happy about it, but that's where I was. And now I'm happy to have found them. Knives and forks are still in the abyss of the storage space.

 Where I have Bodhidharma right now is directly in front of my meditation cushion. I'm not sure how that will work out, because even through half-opened eyes, the big bearded barbarian will be glaring at me with his big lidless eyes. Maybe if I turn him toward the wall also, it won't be so distracting. And maybe the potential to confront distraction is OK too. Give me another way not to be judgmental and accept what comes along. I don't know that we could stare at each other for nine years (well, I'll be doing the staring, “he” is just some lines on paper that I mentally construct into the Name & Form of Bodhidharma), but we'll have to talk in nine years to see how that has worked out.

But what would Bodhidharma do? I suspect he might roll his big lidless eyes, and say something like, “Nothing Holy, Vast Emptiness...except for that storage space. Get rid of more of that stuff and you won't have the opportunity to continue learning about how attached we can be to possessions!” And then he'd probably turn toward the wall, probably glancing around every now and then to see how that attachment thing is working out.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Buddha-Nature, and Not-Buddha-Nature

Zen, like other Mahayana schools of Buddhism, has at its core Buddha Nature. Tagathagarbha is one word associated with Buddha Nature, as in the womb of the "thus-come." Dharmadhatu sometimes comes into play also, as in the Buddha-realm, the Absolute Reality, the Dharmakaya.

But getting back to Buddha Nature....We often hear phrases such as, "You're already Buddha," or, "You're perfect just as you are" (and Suzuki-Roshi wisely added, 'And you need a little work.')" So, am I perfect just as I am? Am I really already Buddha, or a Buddha, or what? If I'm already Buddha, then you must also be Buddha, and everyone else is, so who are all these Sentient Beings we Bodhisattvas are supposed to be saving anyway?

The good news is, just like Chao-chou's dog, we have Buddha Nature (Mu notwithstanding). But just what exactly is that? I certainly don't feel like Buddha. Not feeling particularly awakened this morning. My thus-come-ness just hasn't come today. (Why is it always late?!?) Innately, yes we are Buddha. We have the potential for awakening, we have the Nature of a Buddha within, just as a seed has the nature of becoming a flower within. But a seed is a seed, and a flower is a flower. You are in the womb of the Buddhas, just waiting to be awaked. We can all become enlightened, of conducting our lives fully in the Dharma Field (not that we aren't already, maybe we just don't realize it).

But if you've read any of the biographies of the Buddha, if you've read any of the old Suttas and legends, it becomes very apparent that even Gautama had a lot of work to do before he woke up as the Buddha. Now granted, he only had unenlightened teachers wandering the forests in his time, so he had to do the work on his own, without the aid of the glut of books we have today with his name, Zen, or mindfulness in their titles. (No wonder it took six years!)

Just because we've heard the term "Buddha Nature," and think it sounds kinda cool--who wouldn't want to be a Buddha--and maybe we think that we're living in reality, already in the Dharmadhatu.The fact that we become puffed-up about being Buddha, or thinking it's cool, maybe that it makes us a little special, at least more special than those poor bastards who've never heard that they're already Buddha--all these things make us "not-the-Buddha," at least for this moment. (That's as impermanent as anything else, give or take 84,000 kalpas or so).

We're already living in the Dharma-field, all dharmas are Buddhadharmas, but that includes the dharmas that we still struggle, we still have greed, and anger, and delusion, and aversions, and while they're all very un-awakened qualities and practices, we do indeed have that germ that may sprout into Buddhahood, that actual point at which we're doing right more than wrong, we're doing more good than not, being helpful more than turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. A teacher of mine once referred to Buddha-Nature as what's there...underneath all the layers of crap (karma) we've gathered onto ourselves.

But Suzuki-Roshi had it right. There is work to be done! Don't think that since we're already Buddha, why bother practicing? Dogen already did that math a lot of centuries ago, and his school (Soto) practices "just sitting." Rigorous sitting at that, in fact. And if, in fact, there is no attainment to be done, and nothing to attain, doesn't mean we've already not-attained not-it. A few lines later in the Heart Sutra we find out that all Buddhas depend on prajnaparamita and attain Anuttara Samyak Sambodhi--Unexcelled Perfect Enlightenement.
So get on the cushion, then get off the cushion, and BE Buddha, not just rest on your laurels THINKING you're Buddha and being sloppy about life and practice. Do the work! (Save a sentient being or two while you're at it, even if there are no beings, and no saving to be done, OK?)

Deep bows to you, Buddha.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Just Verbs

Words: Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs. A few other parts of speech (I'm being fonding of gerunds). Grammar, syntax, predicates, subjects, clauses, (I'm really fond of parenthetical statements). Bodhidharma, First Patriarch of Ch'an (Zen) that Awakening is beyond words...among other things. But of course, he said something—maybe that, somebody remembered what he said, someone else wrote it down. And it was communicated with those damn words. So given the inevitable game of telephone (if you're too young to know what that refers to, look it up!), and throw in a few centuries and languages worth of translation, Bodhidharma may have said “The Great Way is a bowl of rice, maybe a little cumin thrown in,” somebody else says, “Yeah, that doesn't have the same ring as 'Vast emptiness, nothing holy,' so I'll just massage it a little bit,” and thus begin the paradoxical statements associated with Zen. Or not, I wasn't there, so I'm only going by hearsay when you get down to it.

The Buddhist Sutras speak of the “Third Dharma-Ending Age,” during which people will be morally corrupt, unable to actually receive the Dharma, Shakyamuni's words will lose all ability to save people from their struggles. In some texts, Ksitigarbha (Jijang Bosal in Korea, Jizo in Japan, Dayuan Dizang Pusa in Mandarin) vows to take on the task of keeping things going until Maitreya comes along. (And also to empty hell, but that's another story). Now I'm sure there are some Buddhist “end-of-the-worlders” out there saying, “Yep, that's where we are now, degenerate age, corrupt people, 'why can't they just get it?,” the end times when you just want to go out on the corner of 47th Street and Park Ave, and join the guy who screams at the Pan Am building about the “End Being Nigh” (he's been there a while).

These days Israelis are shelling Palestinian schools and hospitals, Palestinians are lobbing rockets into anywhere they'll reach in Israel, Sri Lankan and Burmese Buddhists are conducting pogroms against Muslims, Russia is either doing or not doing something in Ukraine, and there are any number of other conflicts and outright wars going on elsewhere in the world, so yep, this must be the Dharma Ending Age. Or not. Depending on your time-line frame of reference, there are those who might point out to the Crusades, the Feudal Warlord period of Japanese history, Stalin, British colonization, Hitler, the anti-Buddhist pogroms in China in either the 800's or the Cultural Revolution, and many other periods that could possibly fall into the “corrupt” and downright ignorant ages. 

Personally I don't put too much stock in any of that as signifying the End, as that's just a mental construct based in perceptions of what good and bad are supposed to be, more perceptions of what right and wrong are. After all, whoever was on the winning side of any of those events thought it was fine...until they lost, in which case the other side could say that they were right all along and were suffering at the hands of their oppressors and have since liberated “their” people. All these conversations going on in everybody's heads, each thinking the other knows exactly what they're talking about, and even than that, that the meaning of what they're talking about is coming through loud and clear.

Upon examining all this, Awakening being beyond words is looking pretty promising. Our innate Buddha-nature (a verbal description that is totally inaccurate and incapable of describing it) would say that we are already awakened, but maybe just a few layers of delusion need to be scraped off, some of the habits need to be broken. The point is, except in some rare cases, we all “know” how to behave—not an intellectual knowing, but the internal gyroscope of balanced behavior knowing—that sometimes gets buried by our preference for greed, anger, aversion, delusion and all those other things we do that we think will make us happy, but never quite get there, and if they do, not for long. If you look at any number of Buddhist forums, invariably there will be a point at which discussion goes way off the expedient means rails and heads into the ravine of, “I'M right! That's not what the Dharmakaya is, it's this! How can I save you, sentient being, if you're so stupid!?!”(The problems with the preceding being the dualism of right vs. wrong, the reification of Dharmakaya, the duality of that being different from any other -kaya, and “I'M” probably being the biggest mistake of all. And there will be those who quibble about “problems” and “mistake” being dualistic as well).
It's all fine just as it is, how could it be any other way that it is right now, including that type of interchange? Accepting the status quo as reality as it happens to be presenting itself in this moment, but without settling for the status quo, figuring out how, when present moves into the past and there's a new present presenting itself, what are the Buddha-things I can think and do that will lessen the struggle in the world in this moment. But what can I say....

Better come up with something. We're stuck with words. More often than not, there's a narrator inside my head, who if he isn't talking to me about what's going on at the moment, is doing a running commentary on what the other narrator is saying, and second-guessing half of it. That “thinking about thinking” issue, which more likely might be talking about thoughts in conversation with other voices describing the thoughts, but being the description of the thought rather than the thought itself. But every now and then there are those moments of what I assume to be clarity, when there are no nouns, no adjectives or adverbs. The sentence has no subject, there are definitely no pronouns, the only conjunction is “and” with no “or” or “but.” In those moments when all there are is verbs (and maybe gerunds if not descriptive), it doesn't feel so much like the Dharma-Ending Age, in fact it doesn't feel like any age in particular at all. It's just tasting, just seeing, just typing, just trying to figure out a way to use the correct words where words are totally inadequate. It's all “IS” with no “it's.” And that's all fine.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

So Many Fingers

“What is Zen?” A question asked many times over the centuries, sometimes by non-practitioners—who need a definition, sometimes by practitioners who need a smack, a shout, silence, or any number of answers—and not-answers. By definition, Zen is a school of Buddhism (specifically Mahayana Buddhism) that emphasizes meditation and intuition.

That's the description I use when I give the 15-minute history of Zen Buddhism any time someone who has never practiced Zen before walks into the sangha for the first time. I start with Old Age, Sickness and Death, the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the skip ahead to Bodhidharma. The Sanskrit word Dhyana, which translates as “meditation,” transliterated into Ch'an when it came to China, Seon in Korea, Thien in Vietnam, and in Japan, and now in the West, Zen. So “Zen Meditation” is redundant. And I go on briefly from there about the story of our order, the teachers in the lineage, and that lineages are meaningless, but somehow important among Zen practitioners.

For me, Zen is the above definition, and a means to end the struggle of people right here, right now. (I'll go with “struggle” as the translation of “dukkha” rather than the more common “suffering”). Most importantly, Zen practice is a means to end the struggle. We take the Bodhisattva vows, study Sutras, debate endlessly, get involved in semantic arguments, and do and say lots of things, which quite often miss this point. Zen is no more/no less a skillful means than any other school of Buddhism, and quite possibly any and all other traditions that by-and-large are concerned with the well-being of their fellows.

But for whatever reason, Zen monks asked the “What is Zen” question...and “What is Buddha,” and “Why did Bodhidhama come from the West,” and so on. And that's when they might get a pithy answer like “Mind is Buddha,” or “Ordinary Mind is Buddha,” or maybe hit with a fly-whisk, a shout, a raised finger, and whatever the expedient means the Master might have deemed appropriate at that moment. So many fingers, but how much moon?

Here's the moon: From Bodhidharma on, it is said that realization of one's True Nature is to be Awakened. And to realize Awakening is to have the struggle snuffed out. And at one moment, that could be to maintain a peaceful equanimity in the face of all situations, or it can be not struggling against moments of struggle. And, most importantly, it is “How may I help you?”

Zen” is admittedly a noun today. To me, “Zen” is a verb, and definitely not an adjective. And it's not a part of “The Zen of....” But it is also all these things. The practice of Zen Buddhism is the practice of saving all sentient beings, but does that actually mean anything? It is the realization of the interconnectedness of everything, the interdependence of everything, the impermanence of everything, the emptiness of everything.

But it is also the individuality of everything, that feeling that I am me, and that I really can't imagine the world going on without me. It's thinking about my job that “they really have to pay me to do this, because otherwise....” It's greed, ignorance, anger, aversion, all the afflictions. It's fighting against all this, and it's ending the struggle of all this moment. I've heard (yet another) statement that Zen practice is to directly experience reality form moment to moment, in the here&now.

And if your reality is a feeling of instant awakening, or of confusion, of disgust with even more paradoxical statements that confuse you, that is wonderful! Be totally confused, be thoroughly disgusted, be fully awakened, but then let them pass into impermanence, watch them come and go, then feel fully whatever comes next. And, if you can, do it without judging about what it is to have those feelings. Then, maybe, see the moon, and see the fingers. See the fingers are the moon! And not the moon. But just see! When I write about Zen, that's not Zen (noun). But when I write about Zen, that is Zen (verb).

Then I try to put it all down, have breakfast, wash my bowl, brush my teeth, go to work, say, “Man, they really have to pay me to do this,” then come back home...and while I'm at it, save all sentient beings. And yeah, there are no beings, and no saving to be done, but screw that. That as a concept isn't reality any more than those beings I think are separate from me, and no less real either.

May all beings be whatever means necessary.