Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Leaving the Impression Behind

There's a sign on the wall here in the Dharma room, “leave no trace." No garbage, nothing out of place, paying attention to how the room was when we got here, and paying attention to leaving it that way. If nothing else, that's common courtesy. Given the number of different people who come in here—from us to massage therapists to mental health counselors to dancers, if it were any other way than what it was when we came in, it would be inconsiderate to leave the room otherwise. It might be convenient for us to leave the altar and mats in place, but not for the dancers. If the massage table were left in the middle of the room, it's not like they could work around it too easily. (Of course, Zen practitioners that we are, we would certainly proceed without judging how inconvenient this is, and what an awful person that masseuse must be).
On a practical level, when we clean the dishes, we pay attention that no food is left behind. We also put the dishes back where they're supposed to go, even if that's the dish drainer, because the dish drainer's correct function is to allow the dishes to dry--no trace of the water is left behind.

Zen Master Thich Thien-An quotes a poem:

“Swallows fly in the sky,
The water reflects their images.
The swallows leave no traces,
Nor does the water retain their images”. 
That's a metaphor of course; birds fly, but they don't leave much of a wake in the air, “cluttering it up” so that the next bird has to work around it. Fish swim, water is disturbed for a moment, then returns to its natural state. Even when the air and the water combine to create waves, once the wind stops, the waves stop. Both air and water return to their undisturbed state. When we pay attention to what is happening right here&now, we may be in the disturbed, wave-like state, we may be in the calm, peaceful state of equanimity. When the waves stop, we don't have to act like they're still there, emotionally battening down the hatches. When something challenging happens, we can either ignore it and suffer the consequences like the inhabitants of barrier reefs who don't evacuate when there's a hurricane, or like the residents in the line of a forest fire just stay put, even when the fire is at the door. Peaceful, calm equanimity is wonderful, and even in those situations when disaster is knocking, we deal with disaster and don't have to turn it into something: “Oh, this always happens to me, what did I do to deserve this?!?” Water rises, get a raft. Fire's in the yard, grab a hose.

But either way, at some point we will be going into a wave if calm, into the calm if we're in a wave. And maybe sometimes, waves turn into tsunamis, not directly alternating with calm. The good news is that even tsunamis end. The bad news is that even when they end, we may be all too ware of the tsunami having been there. But, if we're surfers, we may like the waves, even be attached to the waves, becoming unhappy when they calm down. If we like placid, we may become attached to placid, and become upset when there is a disturbance. We all know someone who is at their best when the heat is on, a regular adrenaline junkie. We all know people who are like that becoming embroiled in situations that may not even be their own situation, and making waves when there needn't be any.
But even then, due to the impermanence and emptiness of all dharmas subject to causes and conditions, they really are transparent, they really will pass. That's just how impermanence works. Our thinking is what makes them how they are, not how they are in reality. And that's fine, that's how things are too, and when we're in the middle of the emotional tsunami, that seems totally irrelevant. The Buddha's First Noble Truth points to that sometimes things are just not to our liking. We get the opportunity to apply the other Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path over and over again. Maybe that helps, maybe it takes a little while longer to help than we'd like. But even though we create all things by what's going on in between our ears, knowing that we isn't much of a help when we're really deeply feeling something. “Feelings are empty,” the Heart Sutra tells us. It sure doesn't seem empty when we're really hurting. So we feel the hurt, when the hurting is over, we really should let it pass, and that's probably easy enough in most cases. The same applies to being joyous, and letting that go might be a little more difficult. But eventually, that happens too.

We live in the world of the Relative, where even though the “things” themselves are non-existent, that we are feeling them regardless is reality. Even being delusional about reality is in and of itself reality. That's the Absolute manifesting itself in the Relative. And part of that manifestation is that reality doesn't just contain impermanence, emptiness, struggle, and non-struggle. Let's not forget about the interdependence of all dharmas. It might be nice to live in a world of black/white progression, of “feeling, feeling is empty, let go of feeling, feeling is gone.” But we don't.
It might be nice to live in a world of leaving no trace, but every single action, thought, and word is going to leave an impression. Walk on a beach leave footprints in the sand, wave washes away the footprints, done. No trace. Really? What if countless sea creatures die because of the impression of the feet? What about whether those footprints somehow contribute to beach erosion? And what if that erosion contributes somehow to the next tsunami? 
Paper or plastic? Plastic ends up in landfills, maybe strangles a bird, takes resources and energy to manufacture it in the first place. Paper also uses resources—trees, lack of which contributes to the imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. Fossil fuels undoubtedly are used to power the saws that cut the tree down, further contributing to air pollution. The possible unintended consequences are virtually endless. Even these words might cause someone to reach either some sort of understanding, have no reaction at all, or maybe become totally disconsolate over the hopelessness of not knowing what to do, and has even more struggle because of it? Obviously it's not my intention to cause more suffering, but I'm aware it might. How that suffering is dealt with by the sufferer will have its own ramifications, maybe positive, maybe neutral, maybe negative, and on and on and on. 
There's a Zen quote about being like firewood, burning out completely in our activities, leaving nothing undone—but metaphorically, maybe our fire creates pollution, maybe the fire kills animals in the vicinity or underneath it, maybe the ash and residue contributes to the next generation of plants to grow. Ash doesn't return to firewood directly, firewood doesn't return to tree directly, but maybe they can do so eventually. So it is with our actions and non-actions. We can't become paralyzed into non-action, as even that is action, unless done skillfully. 
So what to do? We take the Middle Path. It's not all meaningless nihilism, it's not all meaningful determinism. In the Five Mountain Order, we talk about “Do no harm.” We try our best to be the most effective Bodhisattvas we can be. If our best isn't necessarily saving all beings, then maybe at least the outcome isn't creating hell for ourselves or others. 
But being attached to an outcome—as either a goal or a result—is still attachment. If I think, “Well that was a great talk, definitely saved all beings there,” I'm attached to the impression I might have made. Correct action in this situation is to realize that in some way, my words have made an impression, good, bad, indifferent. But once the impression is made, leave that impression behind, and skillfully make the next one, then leave that impression behind. And maybe eventually our “ash” saves all beings, even though I'll be off leaving more impressions.

Maybe your interpretation of “leave no trace” is different from the way I'm using it here for these examples. It may verge toward a Huayan reading of interdependence rather than a strict Zen one. This turning of the phrase “leave no trace”—if it results in the impression that I'm wrong, Wonderful! If you think it's an interesting take on it, Wonderful!
I'm off to make my next set of proverbial dents in the proverbial sand. Eventually it will return to its natural state.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Not-Thou Shall Not

In the Five Mountain Zen Order Precepts ceremony, we say, “Most religions have moral and ethical rules and commandments. In Buddhism there are Precepts, however the Buddhist Precepts are not a list of rules to follow, they are signposts meant to guide us on our path to awakening”. 
One thing I like about the Precepts as they are commonly given now, is that they not only tell you what not to do, they also spell out what to do instead. They affirm as much as they proscribe. It's a nice signpost, "don't be greedy, be generous". Sometimes that's a real head-slapping moment.

But...they are no more hard-and-fast than any other of the Buddha's teachings. The moment you think there is something firm on which you can put your foot, the Buddha swipes it away. And those of us who really are looking for something solid, for something, predictable, something that's going to last, well, we're out of luck. They require us to pay attention to situation, relationship, and function. Since even the Precepts are subject to causes and conditions, always changing, changing, changing, we've got to be flexible and adaptable, just to keep up with the changing situations and relationships, if we want to respond according to the way our innate Buddha would respond with correct function.

These are the Five Lay precepts, first from the Five Mountain Zen Order, then another couple versions from other sources (I believe the “disciple of the Buddha” versions are from the San Francisco Zen Center, but I'm not quite sure where the first alternate is from).

The First Precept: I vow to support all living creatures, and refrain from killing.
  • Affirm life; Do not kill
  • A disciple of Buddha does not kill but rather cultivates and encourages life
The Second Precept: I vow to respect the property of others, and refrain from stealing.
  • Be giving; Do not steal
  • A disciple of Buddha does not take what is not given but rather cultivates and encourages generosity.
The Third Precept: I vow to regard all beings with respect and dignity, and refrain from objectifying others.
  • Honor the body; Do not misuse sexuality
  • A disciple of Buddha does not misuse sexuality but rather cultivates and encourages open and honest relationships
The Fourth Precept: I vow to be truthful, and refrain from lying.
  • Manifest truth; Do not lie
  • A disciple of Buddha does not lie but rather cultivates and encourages truthful communication.
The Fifth Precept: I vow to maintain a clear mind and refrain from harming myself or others with intoxication.
  • Proceed clearly; Do not cloud the mind.
  • A disciple of Buddha does not intoxicate self or others but rather cultivates and encourages clarity.

There are a couple different approaches to the Precepts: Hinayana and Mahayana. And that's not Hinayana as a pejorative term for any other form of Buddhist practice, it's just Small Vehicle versus Great Vehicle, as Asvagosa referred to it in “Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.” Think of it as “Little 'I'” versus “Big 'I',” if you like.
  • The Hinayana level is the most literal: The first precept is to refrain from killing, So one doesn't go out and kill. This corresponds to the relative—there's a you, there's a me, and I should not kill you.
  • The Mahayana is the compassionate level—that of the Bodhisattva. We refrain from killing not because the Precept tells us not to do it, the Bodhisattva couldn't conceive of taking a life by violent means without the thought of all beings.
That's not a particularly bi-leveled set of interpretations and actions, either Hinayana or Mahayana. One can start out really literally just not killing other humans, then maybe moves on to not squashing bugs underfoot, then maybe moves on to some of the proscriptions from the Pali Canon. The Buddha said in those scriptures not to kill directly another being (hopefully not a human) for your own food, and also not to have someone else directly kill for your food. The lobster in the tank has nothing to fear from you at this point. 
Then later on, maybe due to taking another set of precepts, or reading some of the Mahayana Sutras where it eating flesh is proscribed, you might move into vegetarianism or veganism. (This is probably also the point where arguments with other Buddhists ensue as to whether being an omnivore is against the Buddha's teachings or not). Speaking facetiously, as much fun it is to argue that issue, it's not really as simple as “Well the Sutras say this,” or “The precepts I took say...” Situation, relationship, and correct function comes into play. Much as we might want to have that black & white reliability of “Kill=Go to Hell,” it's just not that way with the Precepts. It can be argued that it's not that way in general, Buddhist or not, Precepts or no Precepts. But that's another argument to have “fun” with some time. Some sort of karmic response to the intentional thought, speech, or action will come, but it depends....

Here's a hypothetical situation for you, and unfortunately one that you might see in the news any day. And let's say you identify yourself as a vegan Buddhist.
You're walking down the beach, and you encounter a starving, half-dead, extremely weakened Syrian child. And there's a ham sandwich just out of his reach. You have choices of what to do next:
  1. Because you're a Vegan Buddhist, you think about it, and decide not to give him the sandwich, but will go off and try to find a salad for him.
  2. Because you're a vegan Buddhist, you you think about it and decide that the Buddhist thing to do would be to show the kid some lovingkindness, and give him the sandwich.
  3. You're in turmoil because your two self-identification labels are confusing you as to what you should do, so you walk away, and hope that someone else will deal with it. Maybe you mutter something to the effect of “No birth/no death, the kid and the sandwich are made by mind alone. They're both just illusions.”
  4. You react to the situation at hand, see starving child, see sandwich, feed the sandwich to the starving child, without needing to contemplate it at all.
Maybe another hypothetical situation, one from ZM Seung Sahn's “Compass of Zen” lectures. It's also something that you could also encounter virtually any time you walk down the street lately. A gunman is in the midst of committing mass-murder at a school. You're a police officer. The side of your squad car even says, “To Protect and Serve.” You're on-duty, and you have your weapon, the one you've never used before. And, for the sake of this being hypothetical, let's say you are a Buddhist and have taken the Five Precepts. Again, you have a choice to make:
  1. You can say, “The First Precept says not to take life, so I'll try to reason with him.” And then maybe he's “unreasonable,” and continues shooting away.
  2. You can say, “Oh, I'm a police officer, so maybe I should try to do something about this.” And then maybe he continues shooting away.
  3. Or, before thought, you can react to the situation at hand, and proceed with whatever the correct function is, as it presents itself at that moment.
Bodhidharma states in the Breakthrough Sermon, and Huineng echoes him—Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom—that these are the practices that matter. The Three Pure Precepts—vowing to “Put an end to Evil,” “Cultivate Virtues,” and “Liberate all beings” combat the Three Poisons of Greed, Anger, and Delusion. First we stop being greedy, angry, and ignorant. Then we move on to practicing Generosity, Lovingkindness, and Wisdom. We save all beings by allowing them to express their own Awakened “Big 'I',” we allow ourselves to do the same. 
All the precepts are to be taken seriously...but carried lightly. As Wonhyo is reported to have said, “Even hell-beings need saving.” If saving requires a Precept or two to be broken, break them. But do it skillfully, and with proper motive. Breaking one because it's simply more convenient is not Bodhisattva action. 
And unfortunately for those of us who'd really like to take the easy way, sorry. The Precepts are “Not-Thou Shall Not.”

Monday, October 5, 2015

Turn it UP!!!!

Strictly speaking, Haiku poetry has just a couple rules—3 lines, 17 syllables total, 5-3-5 syllables per line, and NO METAPHORS, NO ANALOGIES!!!! So many of the well-known haikus of the past may seem like they're just praising nature, but just as likely only observing it.
Alan Watts translated Basho's famous haiku as: 
The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
(I'm assuming that in Japanese that probably went with the 17-syllable rule, but I don't speak Japanese). 
I don't think Basho had any real feeling about the pond or the frog much one way or the other. He probably happened to be sitting on the bank of a pond, frog jumped in the water, consequently, “plop.” If he were in Tokyo at rush hour, the poem could possibly read:
Overcrowded train
Salaryman here
white-gloved conductor, shove, shove”

Here's Steve Earle's definition of blues music: Statement of a problem, repeated twice, followed by an implausible solution, in 12-bars. The blues will quite often be just as observational, it's just that the observations seem to take place when some travesty has hit.In honor of the Blood Moon of September 2015, here's a "Blue Haiku:"

Blood Moon Blues (verse 1)”
There's a moon in the sky
And it has started to bleed
There's a moon in the sky
And it has started to bleed
Gonna make a deposit
At the Blood bank, save its life

Our Zen practice is typified by our direct experience of reality—a frog jumping in the water, your wife up 'n' leaving you, train conductor with his knee in your back. And that “reality” is as much as we can see looking through the keyhole of our own sense-gates. That keyhole is most likely often covered up by layer upon layer of delusion—mistaking our limited perception as “reality.” But even that adulterated version of reality is there for us to experience fully. Sometimes, even though we think we're going to save the moon's life by donating blood, there's a good chance that while the moon isn't what's saved, maybe someone will be. Mistaken assumption, correct motive, correct outcome.

From the Chapter 15 of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, “The Parable of the Moon:” (Tony Page translation)
"...For example, by the full moon, everything appears. In all places as in towns, hamlets, mountains, swamps, under-water, wells or ponds, and in water utensils, the moon manifests itself. Beings may be traveling 100 or [a] thousand [miles], and the moon always accompanies them. Common mortals and the ignorant think loosely and say: "I see all such in the castle town, in the house, and here in the swampy ground. Is it the true moon, or not the true one?"
Each person thinks about the size of the moon and says: "It is like the mouth of a kettle."
Or a person says: "It is like a wheel."
Or some may say: "It is like 45 [miles] or [4,500 miles] [in size]."
All see the light of the moon. Some see it as round as a golden basin. The nature of this moon is one in itself, but different beings see it in different forms. O good man! The same is the case regarding the Tathagata. He appears in the world. Man and god might think: "The Tathagata is now before us and lives."
The deaf and dumb see the Tathagata as one deaf or dumb. Diverse are the languages which beings speak. Each thinks that the Tathagata speaks as he or she speaks, or thinks.
"….A person might mistake him for a sravaka, or a pratyekabuddha; [and they] might think and say: "The Tathagata is now in my line of thought [following my line of thought] and is practicing the Way"; or a person might think: "The Tathagata has appeared for me alone."
The true nature of the Tathagata is like that of the moon. That is to say that it is the Dharma-Body, the Body of birthlessness, or that of expediency. He responds to the call of the world, being innumerable in [his] manifestations. The original karma manifests itself in accordance with the differing localities. This is as in the case of the moon. For this reason, the Tathagata is eternal and unchanging.”

We still do what the Buddha refers to! We mistake our key-hole view of reality as the totality of reality. We even think the Buddha speaks English or Chinese or Korean or Japanese because we do. If we don't go to that drastic a length, we think that whatever translation we happen to have read is the verbatim version of the Sutra as spoken by the Buddha, and whatever the next translation we read is not as good as the first.

We latch onto whatever Sutra happens to justify our (pre-existing) view of what the Dharma should be saying. Maybe we impose our 21st Century pop psychology, some scientific statistic to a Sutra that is not from the 21st Century, not psychology, and not science. Deep down, even though we may intellectually know that our body will die, can we really imagine the world continuing to spin, the moon to go through its phases, the seasons to change, without our hand firmly on the steering wheel of the universe? Our ability to experience “reality” directly is as limited as our thinking allows.
Even with all these limitations, delusions, and so on, every now and then it all can come out alright. 

Even when we act out of fear, it still might result in our doing the “right” thing, we may still get the correct outcome. The impetus for what we do may be flawed, but our resultant actions may provide a wholesome outcome. The old saying, “Fake it til you make it,” is certainly applicable, if we start to counter greed, anger, and delusion by practicing, sila, samadhi, and prajna—morality, meditation, and wisdom. Maybe at first we have to force our way into them “like” a Tokyo subway conductor was doing the pushing, but it may follow that those eventually come naturally. When they do, they become habits as much as the Three Poisons may have been. 
Any time we use an analogy—the moon is “like” a wheel--we're one step removed from reality, and our direct experience of it. We hear the Parable of the Moon, and we start picturing the moon in our heads, not getting past the metaphorical moon to the message. If Bessie Smith were a Zen practitioner, when she is singing about peaches, you can best believe she's standing in an orchard. 

What “it” is like isn't “it,” IT is “it.” 
With practice, we can get to the point where when we see the moon, we see the moon, not something like a wheel. When you taste sour, pucker. When tired, yawn. When sleepy, go to sleep. When your life is a blues song, embrace the blue and cry. When you hear the cries of the world, don't be like Kwan Seum Bosal, be Kwan Seum Bosal, and save all sentient beings. 
To use a dreaded metaphor, when we're slipping away from this moment, our attention is drifting, and it's inconvenient to hear the cries of the world, and there's too much other life-music that's getting louder than the cries of reality, go to the volume knob on reality, and TURN IT UP!

Blood Moon Blues (verse 2)”
There's a moon in the sky
It's the same moon everywhere
There's a moon in the sky
It's the same moon everywhere
All sentient beings
Gotta lotta work to do

Thanks to Dharma brother Gary Cociollilo for the inspiration from his talk, “There is No Such Thing as a Sour Note.”
Click on the title to listen to the Dharma talk.