Monday, August 31, 2015

Three Greats of Zen

Someone looking at this title might see it and say, “Oh terrific, Bodhidharma, Huineng, and (fill in blank with the name of whomever the Great Teacher in your lineage is). But that's not the focus of this blog or Dharma talk.

The first “Great” of Zen is “Great Faith”. There are a lot of Zen “purists” that will say, “It's only about seeing your True Nature. That's it. Period. End of story.” Are they parroting the words of Bodhidharma or another Great Teacher who has said the same thing, or have they actually realized their Buddhahood? One thing that I have heard from the “purists” is that there is unequivocally no “Faith” in Zen, or in Buddhism in general. No “god,” no “faith” might succinctly sum up the point. This simple statement may have originated in whatever it was that led to Buddhist practice in general, and specifically to Zen. Rebelliousness isn't necessarily detrimental to practice, and in fact can be extremely useful, but even rebellion must be applied as skillfully as any other element of practice.

If the rejection is the blanket rejection of all “religiosity,” it makes me wonder what the depth of their practice is, maybe who their teacher is, and what their objective is in Zen practice. Rightly so, they may come back with, “There is no goal in practicing Zen!” Fair enough...maybe. Is this rather definitive statement the result of reading, or realization? Are they secularists in Zen clothing? Is Zen practice self-identified as “cool?”

My own road to the Path isn't entirely unlike this. The religion in which I was raised was unsatisfactory, and I started reading about numerous other “spiritual” practices. When Buddhist collections showed up on the radar screen, it was an amalgam—as much Buddha as Bodhidharma, as much Milarepa as Mu. What I found was that the writings that broadly fell into the category of “Zen” were the ones that resonated with me, so that's the direction I went. If I were going to join a Zen sangha, I was willing to do whatever the Zen sangha did, in an odd twist of “When in Rome.” My practice literally started as an act of faith. What I was doing wasn't working, and I believed this Zen thing might. Then I had faith in that Zen would. I went through my phase of sitting zazen, as I was with a Soto group at the time, and we did the chants in English and Japanese, I heard words like mantra and dharani, we dedicated merit, the whole gamut of forms that constitute practice. And at the time, it was all real. All the ritual must have been for some purpose, although I had no clue what that was. But everything was directly associated with name & form, and it took a while to shake that off.

Then, as I suspect we all might, I went through the “thinking phase,” where everything was an exercise in intellect. “Form was emptiness, and Emptiness was form,” but only intellectually. It said it in the Heart Sutra, so I said it. This still has its allure, and find myself in it again more than I'd like to admit. Intellect as part of skillful means, fine. Intellect as a means to boost my ego, to prove I'm the smartest guy in the room, and other such “I”-oriented results, no so skillful.

Then came the “attached to emptiness” phase. I told myself that if I were ever to give a Dharma talk, the first thing I'd do is knock the statue of the Buddha off the altar, and hope that it broke into 84,000 pieces. We'd see how many people were still attached to their superstitions, we'd see who was attached to “form.” Fortunately I moved on from that idea long before ever giving a talk. In this phase is where anything like “faith” was looked on with disdain, and anyone who said it was looked on with pity.
At some point, the harshest edges of attachment to emptiness wore off, if only because I saw how unattractive a trait it was when I saw it in other people, mostly in the form of Zenternet trolls.

Now, on the one hand, we can say that there is absolutely nothing upon which we can hang our hats in Zen practice. The Diamond Sutra put it as, “All dharmas are no-dharmas, thus are they called 'dharmas'.” Think you have something to stand on, the Buddha swipes it away even before your feet land. The Heart Sutra even dismantles the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path: “...No suffering, no origination, no stopping and no path...” So how could there be such a thing as “faith,” and what possible purpose could it serve?

And yet, The “Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment” speaks of “faith-understanding” as the entry gate to practice. Asvagosa is the purported author of “Awakening the Faith in Mahayana.” Third Zen Patriarch Sengcan's Xinxin Ming is often translated as “Faith-Mind Transcription.” Faith is all over Dogen's writings. So “faith” is mentioned any number of times, and is still scoffed at by some. For a practice that is rooted in the “here&now,” there seems to be little room for faith. But it's there, even if we don't call it faith, even if we deny that it's even there. We have faith in the Buddha, faith in the Dharma, faith in the Sangha. But, faith, as such, really needs no object in Zen . Ultimately, what we have faith in is our own Buddha-Nature, and that it is possible for us to realize it, so we have faith in ourselves.

This is tempered by the second “Great” of Zen, “Great Doubt.” The saying is, “Great Doubt, Great Awakening; small doubt, small awakening.” With both Great Faith & Great Doubt, personal views are dropped. With Great Doubt, the personal view (conceptual thought) is to be destroyed by a kong-an. A huatou only leads to one direction, to Great Doubt. It's the “no-this” of the pairs in the Diamond Sutra. “If this is not-this, and only provisionally called this, that means there really is no 'this,' then what is left?” Good question. This is “Great Doubt,” when the rug everything we think we have to stand on is pulled out right from under us. It need not be a fearful doubt, just an issue of impermanence, maybe of perceptions being empty. My views will change over time. My faith now is not the same as when I started to practice. I can even have Great Doubt in my Great Faith. Neither will take it personally.

In the talk, I mentioned walking in the dark. My faith is that if I take a step, there's going to be something for it to land on when it comes down. My doubt is typified by my holding onto a chair or some other object for support, because the faith is tempered by, “not always so.” Taking the step anyway is where the third Great of Zen comes in:

Great Courage. In simple terms, it's what gets me to put my foot down even if I can't see what, if anything, it's going to land on. When we do anything that gets past our fear, anything that gets past our comfort zone, that's Great Courage. You can put it in the same mix with perseverance, diligence, effort, determination, whatever else may work for you. In the Sutras, they are called “Fearless Bodhisattvas,” not Bodhisattvas of convenience. As ZM Seung Sahn would put it, “Practice, practice, practice for 10,000 years, become enlightened, and save all beings.” And we do it, even though we “know” that all Bodhisattvas are no-Bodhisattvas, all beings are no-beings, and there is no saving to be done. If that isn't a nice concise explanation of the Three Greats of Zen, I'm not sure what is. 

Click on the link for the Dharma talk. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mind, the Gap

Words are provisional, words are imprecise, words are subject to interpretation, choice s of words are subject to causes and conditions, words that I use to convey what I'm thinking, when you hear them may have a totally different meaning to you than my intent. And that's fine, it's just the way things are. But given all that, when using words, it is important that they convey as accurate a picture as they can, even though most likely they'll fall woefully short. But, they’re the best we’ve got.

I may be called a heretic, I may be taken to task, because I dare to say that a lot of what is written and said in Buddhist teaching can fall a little short of conveying the true message. Given that any number of times these words have gone through a number of translations, and “thus have I heard” that there was no tape recordings of the Buddha's actual words, I take it as a given that while he may have been precise, over the years, that they maybe it got little imprecise. And maybe this is all just an attachment of mine to using what I perceive to be the more correct word, and I willingly submit that may be the case. But I believe there is a difference between, “Let's eat, grandma,” versus, “Let's eat Grandma.”

What I am taking issue with is the seemingly interchangeability of “thinking” and “mind.” If one uses the words of Huangbo, the Chan Master who died in 850 CE, and from whose writings I took the name of the sangha (One Mind Zen Sangha), he uses the word “Mind” as the unconditioned:

            “It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the categories of  things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons. All the             Buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the One Mind, beside which nothing exists. This Mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible. It is not green nor yellow, and has neither form nor appearance. It does not belong to the categories of things which exist or do not exist, nor can it be  thought of in terms of new or old. It is neither long nor short, big nor small, for it transcends all limits, measures, names, traces and comparisons....The One Mind alone is the Buddha, and there is no distinction between the Buddha and sentient things, but that sentient beings are attached to forms and so seek externally for Buddhahood. By their very seeking they lose it, for that is using the Buddha to seek for the Buddha and using mind to grasp Mind.”

I'm good with that approach. The one thing I might take issue with is the last sentence where he says “using mind to grasp Mind.” But I'll let it slide, because “mind” in the first case is lowercase, and in the second case “Mind” is capitalized. The word he would have used would be shin, which translates as “heart/mind,” which is akin to the Sanskrit word “Citta.” But if I wanted to be picky about it, I might say “use thinking to grasp Mind,” which in English at least, doesn't flow quite as smoothly or as poetically.

The Yogacara school of Buddhism, the “Mind-Only” school teaches that the entire world is dependent upon “mind.” In this case, what they're referring to might be where “thinking” and “mind” dovetail. They're sometimes also referred to as the “Consciousness-only” (Skt: Citta-matra) school, and that's upon which I base this opinion about where thinking and Mind overlap. The deepest level of this consciousness is the “storehouse consciousness” (Skt: alaya vijnana), which contains both the individual residue of thought, but also universal consciousness, what Huangbo refers to as “Mind”.

The Lankavatara Sutra also speaks of this:

            “:..The doing away with the notion of cause and condition, the giving up of a causal agency, the establishment of the Mind-only--this I state to be no-birth....There is just one has nothing to do with intellection...Of neither existence nor non-existence do I speak, but of Mind-only which has nothing to do with existence and non-existence, and which is thus free from intellection....Suchness, emptiness, Absolute Truth...these I call Mind-only.”

We can use “thinking,” especially intellectualizing thoughts, in place of “intellection,” if you like. So we've got both the Buddha and Huangbo using the word “mind” as different from “thinking.”

Of course, where the rub is, is when Huineng tells his monks that neither the flag nor the wind is moving, “Mind is moving.” I'm not so sure it's mind that's moving. The Korean monk Wonhyo, awakened when he saw that the “cup” of delirious “water” he drunk in the night, turned out to have been a skull filled with brackish rain water (and brackish may be an understatement). What he thought of as wonderful in the dark caused him to vomit when he saw what it actually was in the light of day. “Ah-ha” he realized between bouts of vomiting, “Everything is create only mind alone!” Third Zen Patriarch Sengcan in the Xinxin Ming, his great poem whose title is often translated as “Faith-Mind Inscription,”

            When the mind exists undisturbed in the Way, nothing in the world can offend, and when a thing can no longer offend, it ceases to exist in the old way.”

Zen Master Seung Sahn refers to “Clear Mind” as “Moment-to-moment, what are you doing now?” Whatever we are doing we do it 100%, be it driving, cooking, operating on a patient, teaching, writing, or whatever. When we interject “I, Me, Mine” into the equation, then we create a subject/object duality, and then we have a problem.

If you were to go to the Buddha Dharma University website, which is the “seminary without walls” for the Five Mountain Zen Order, the URL is “” This refers to that natural state, our True Nature, where thinking is not required to take correct action. I will often put it in terms of the rests between the musical notes, the spaces between the words, the space between thoughts. When a fish is in water, no name for “water” is required. If the air were always still, no name for air would be necessary. But as there is wind, as Huineng's monks noted, there is differentiation between still air and moving air. If a fish is out of water, then water becomes water, and air becomes something different, resulting in the judgments that thinking brings along with it. If there were no “off,” would we need a word for “on?” If there were no “dark,” would we notice “light?” If the sine wave were always above the zero line, it would no longer be a sine wave. It would just be on at all times. When looking at binary code, if there were no “0” there would be no use for “1.”

But when we create duality out of these things, one being “better” than the “other,” that's when we get into dangerous territory. Yes, there is dark and light, but they are mutually dependent upon each other, two sides of the same coin, where no “coin” has sides. Same with 1 & 0, same with all things that can potentially thought of as “this” or “that.” Thinking creates subject/object, where neither is necessary. Sengcan says, “The Great Way is easy for those who do not pick and choose.” And that's why for most of us, it isn't easy at all. We constantly pick and choose, sometimes by way of discerning what is wholesome, or helpful in a situation, versus when something would do harm.

The Bodhisattva path is one where we save all beings, not just some. Given that there is no “picking and choosing” in “all,” then we are free to act according to our True Nature, before thought comes in to make opposites. “The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see,” as the Buddha states in the Lankavatara Sutra. When driving, just drive, when teaching, just teach, when planning, just plan.

Observe the space between words, the rests between the notes, observe the space between thoughts, even though this observation may just be thinking. That is our True Nature.

It really is easy if you think about it. But that's just what I think. 

Oh, the irony!

Thanks to Dōshim Dharma for his Original Mind Zen Sangha Dharma talk called, “Mind the Gap.”

Click below for  the Dharma talk:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Dialectic, not Dualistic

My first date with my partner was over coffee, discussing the relative virtues of Buddhism. Apparently she'd practiced with a Rinzai group a number of years previous, and was fine until the stick came out. Getting thwacked on the trapezius was not her idea of a spiritual practice. It's not for everyone. But as she's a therapist the discussion eventually turned to the type of therapy she practiced: Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT. Since I'm not a therapist, and hadn't even heard of this before, I listened in rapt attention. (Since it was a first date, I probably would have been rapt if we'd talked about the weather).

I immediately heard things about that therapy that sounded, Buddhist-y to me. We go on further, and the discussion turns into one regarding Mindfulness, 1/8th of the Eightfold Path. Turns out the woman who devised DBT had some Buddhist training, and was using some of that in this therapy method. Of course, other than the Mindfulness part, what jumped out was also the “Dialectic.” To put it succinctly, that refers to two things constituting “and” not “or.” It’s a non-dualistic way of seeing events, thoughts, feelings, actions, and so on, as a whole rather than opposing separate elements. A very non-therapist way of putting the dialectic might be, “I don't like this! And I can get through it, it will pass.” My apologies to the therapist community for such a lame explanation, but in general it's a way to develop coping mechanisms to address the distress that life brings.

The Buddha identified it: “dukkha.” He said it has a cause, that it can end, and following the Eightfold Path is the way toward that. Of course we Mahayana Buddhists chant, “No suffering, no origination, no stopping, and no path,” but rather that that being a contradictory, dualistic view, it's the dialectic view that one might find the Buddha saying in the Diamond Sutra: “All suffering is no-suffering, thus it is called suffering.” And there a lot of things we face every day that will fall into the category of suffering, or as I like to put it, “struggle,” or “distress.” (Suffering seems to have a more extreme connotation, where some might misdiagnose their dukkha because “it's uncomfortable, but it's not bad enough to be called suffering”). But even if it's no-suffering, no-struggle, no-distress, when you feels it, it can sure seem real enough, even if intellectually you know it isn't.

There are certainly enough issues we either face or ignore every day that could actually qualify as legitimate “suffering” though. Sometimes, the “facing,” might just take on the nature of an earnest discussion by a couple of erudite would-be philosophers, discussing the travails of mankind over cups of espresso while smoking Gaulaoises. If the action stops there, from a karmic standpoint, the action that comes from it immediately will most likely be bad breath. Eventually, however, that action may lead to an actual active action.

I've always admired idealists. Utopian idealists are sometimes needed to get the pendulum swinging in the direction of the ideal. Were it not for the quixotic windmill-tilters, there could be even more injustice than there still is. The US might still be bombing “those North Vietnamese godless commies into the stone age,” if it hadn't been for some who took to the streets and college campuses and tilted at the windmill of the US government, and eventually turned public opinion, however grudgingly, against supporting that war. Richard Nixon was the president who signed the Environmental Protection Agency into existence. I'm guessing the Earth Day environmentalists might have had something to do with that.

Thich Nhat Hanh is often credited with bringing forth the idea of “Engaged Buddhism.” I also seem to remember him saying something to the effect of, “Is there any other kind?” Writing as a Buddhist, but not exclusive as a Buddhist, and not exclusively to Buddhists, it seems as we have an opportunity to become “engaged humans,” some of whom may identify as Buddhists. I think we can all agree on the general statement that there are problems in the world today, regardless of how we identify ourselves. We may not agree on what they are, or what to do about them, but if we look at the struggles, figure out what the cause is, have faith that the struggle can be conquered, and then devise a plan to do the conquering, then perhaps  there's a chance.

The Bodhisattva vow says we'll save all beings, not just the ones whose skin is the same color as mine, not just the ones who speak the same language as me, not just the ones who can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” There are plenty of people around who don't have, and can't afford, bootstraps. I can choose divisiveness; I can choose inclusiveness. I'm also not one of those who thinks inaction is a wise and wholesome course of action. All beings may be no-beings, but that's no excuse to overlook reality as it is right here, right now, from moment-to-moment-to-moment. Someone is hungry, feed him, not just tell him to read a book on sandwich making, or tape a picture of a sandwich to him, or tell him that his hunger “is made by thinking, that it isn't real.” The Avatamsaka Sutra will not fill his belly. And I suspect the Buddha might lose his peaceful, calm equanimity if we had a sandwich and didn't hand it over.

We may not be able to change the world, but we may be able to effect a change on some portion of it. So far as I'm concerned, a dialectic approach rather than a dualistic approach would be a start. We can see poverty as a problem. We can see it as a problem, and that there is a solution. We can see a problem, then dualistically deny there is a problem. We can see a problem, and blame those “_____” for creating their own problem. We can be democrats or republicans; we can be democrats and republicans.

I'm not one of the “end-of-the-world” types who think that it's never been worse than it is today. My gut tells me (if not statistics) that the struggles change, but the struggling has gone on for quite some time. I expect that will be the case in the future as well. My experience is that in order for things to change radically, things first have to get really bad, then even worse before anyone will admit to there being a problem. California and its water supply might be one of those issues that actually brings radical change, with contributions from all, not just one self-identified group or another. That of course assumes that they all drink water.

The following excerpt was sent to me by Julio Robles, who happens to be a Mexican national and lives in Japan. I'm neither of those, if you want to put walls up between us. But he has helped me, and I hope I've helped him, even though we're 10,000 miles apart. See if anything in the piece he sent me sounds familiar:

We live in a country where the common people in general are sacrificed for the fame, peerage, and medals of one small group of people. It is a society in which the common people in general must suffer for the sake of a small number of speculators. Are not the poor treated like animals at the hands of the wealthy? There are people who cry out in hunger; there are women who sell their honor out of poverty; there are children who are soaked by the rain. Rich people and government officials find pleasure in treating them like toys, oppressing them and engaging them in hard labor.… However, the Buddha continually calls to us: “I shall protect you, I shall save you, I shall help you.”

 “My Socialism” by Takagi Kenmyō (Japanese, 1864–1914)

Takagi was one of those idealists who was executed on charges that have since been proven to be false. Deep bows to him, and all those who aren't afraid to tilt at a windmill or two for the sake of all sentient beings.

For the Dharma talk, click the title, or go to