Wednesday, January 16, 2019

No Expectations

“Zen, the religion of Low Expectations.” What an advertising slogan it would be!

The phrase came to mind, and I was trying to figure out where it came from. I thought it was Alan Watts, but it seems his quote about Zen was “The region of no religion.” When I looked at the “Religion of Low Expectations,” I got plenty of hits on Google—many of which were derogatory, a lot of them directed at Islam, and the ones that did involve Buddhism usually slammed it. Christianity didn’t fare so well, and I left the search results before it came to Judaism. I figured I knew where it was headed, so no need to go further.

Those articles and blogs tended to denigrate the practitioners of those various traditions, in the vein of, “How can you expect anything more from them?” The religions themselves suffered as well, but most diatribes seemed to be aimed at the “ist” rather than the “ism.”This was not my intended direction for this piece. In fact, I’m being very complimentary about Zen and Zen practitioners.

If it were to have a point, Zen practice is to get to the point where there are no expectations. Note that I say “get to” rather than realize this from Day One. I think back to my own practice, and I was totally hung up on the Four Noble Truths for ages, and I expected Zen to address them. Period. Nothing past that, just the Four Truths. It was as if I thought the Buddha taught during lunch one day rather than for 40 years, and that the Dharma went no further than that. Little did I know....literally.

On the one hand, there’s much more to the practice and teachings than that, on the other, even Four Noble Truths are four too many. That may come off as “Zen Paradox/Elitist/What do you know anyway” nonsense. I can almost guarantee that, since it almost makes my eyes roll. Part of the reason for that is that is so incomplete a statement. Zen practice doesn’t exclude Sutra study, meditation, chanting, incense burning, bowing to statues, bowing to each other, Dharma teaching, gongan work, none of that. Go to any Zen monastery, temple, or storefront rent-a-zendo, and there’s a good chance that you’ll experience two of them in a given meeting. But the words provide nothing.

I love reading Sutras, especially when there are multiple translations. I find chanting a great experience, even when it’s not in English. I’m too prone to attach to the words and their meaning when the chant is in English, I can read the words like they’re rpose. When it’s in Sino/Korean, it requires total concentration, from the sound of the words to the sound of the moktak to the sound of the voices of the other chanters. One stray thought, and it all unravels really quickly. Even though we do all that, it’s all too much. But we do it anyway. None of these separately or collectively will result in our realization of our essential True Buddha Nature. Likewise none of those actions will prevent that realization.

We can’t expect that anything will or will not bring about that realization. Huineng awakened when he heard the Diamond Sutra. Jinul had his when reading. For others it’s been the sound of a rock hitting bamboo, a tweak of the nose, and as many other ways as there have been realizations. As soon as there is a judgment about someone else’s realization, or a judgment about what you expect yours to be, that’s a step away from your own awakened nature. As soon as there’s an expectation that just sitting or chanting or a Sutra is guaranteed Enlightenment, you’ve missed it.

Bodhidharma said:
“To find Buddha, you have to see your nature. Whoever sees his nature is a Buddha. If you don’t see your nature, invoking Buddhas, reciting Sutras, making offerings, and keeping precepts are all useless. Invoking Buddhas results in good karma, reciting Sutras results in a good memory, keeping precepts results in good rebirth, and making offerings results in future blessings—but no Buddha.”
I’d add that he didn’t say that doing any of them precludes seeing your True Buddha Nature. His message was not to expect them to do anything. They may be of help, they may do no harm, they may be a hindrance. Worst case is you'll have a good memory, a fortunate rebirth, and good karma. Nothing wrong there, until you expect that good karma, rebirth, blessings, and memory are the gateway to awakening. Even the most irascible Zen Masters would quote liberally from Sutras, which according to Bodhidharma’s equation, equals a good memory. At least you may remember where you parked your car, if not who said what in which Sutra. It’s all good.

Sengcan says in the Xinxin Ming:
“To come directly into harmony with this reality,just simply say when doubt arises, "Not two."In this "not two" nothing is separate,nothing is excluded.No matter when or where,enlightenment means entering this truth.And this truth is beyond extension or diminution in time or space;in it a single thought is ten thousand years.”
Don’t doubt that there is enlightened and ignorant. And likewise don’t doubt that enlightenment contains ignorance, and ignorance contains enlightenment without obstruction. As soon as a certainty is reached, the gates of hell are entered. As soon as doubt is raised, the gates to the heavens throw themselves open.

Huangbo Xiyun states:
“Thus Gautama Buddha silently transmitted to Mahakasyapa the doctrine that the One Mind, which is the substance of all things, is co-extensive with the Void and fills the entire world of phenomena.”
Whatever it is you expect Zen will provide you, it will fall short, and fulfill completely. If you expect for relaxation, prepare for tension, and in accepting that, reclaim the mind at peace. Expect Zen to provide you with answers, only get more questions. Expect anything, get nothing. Expect nothing, and the world opens before your eyes, even in its great great Void, where there is no Void, only vast potential.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Private Practice

Buddham Saranam Gacchami 
Dhammam Saranam Gacchami 
Sangham Saranam Gacchami

I take refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The Buddha, the Tathagata, the World-Honored One who taught the Dharma to all until the time of his death. The Dharma as Life itself, Death itself, the immutable, unchanging, unconditioned Reality that can only be experienced through the lens of Wisdom. And the Sangha, the community of practitioners, the Great Bodhisattvas, Mahasattvas, Arhants, Stream-Enterers, and those who long for a teacher, the teachings, and someone with whom to practice the Great Way. I take Refuge, I take Refuge, I take Refuge. 

And among the Buddha’s final instructions, he said above all, to take refuge in ourselves--myself, yourself, hisself, herself. No one can awaken you but you. No one can see your True Buddha Nature for you. It is your True Nature not mine; it is my True Nature, not yours; his not hers; hers not his. I can awaken only myself, I can only take refuge in myself, you in yourself, and so on. And yet, we take refuge in the Three Jewels. Is there a contradiction? There is if you want there to be. If you choose to be a contrarian, looking for a chink in the armor, the Achilles Heel, the thread that unravels the Sutras, you can find them. It may require some cherry-picking, it may involve taking quotes and stories and teachings out of context, relying on erroneous teaching from non-teachers, or dismissing a teacher and the Teachings when it is inconvenient, or causes you to look at yourself only to see something in the mirror you’d rather not see. It may just be the desire to argue. What is common in all that is the insertion of “I.”

 In the West, many people come to the practice in two ways: a disdain for organized religion, or some crisis that can’t be dealt with satisfactorily with the current means. I know a social worker who says that even delusional coping strategies work...until they don’t. Drinking, drugs, promiscuity, trying to manipulate or deceive others, they can all serve a purpose for a time. Then it turns out that the problems being escaped are still there, praying isn’t working, getting loaded isn’t working, what to do? “I’ll give Buddhism a shot, they all seem so peaceful and content, and I’m not, so there’s nothing to lose.” 

They’re not entirely misguided by this idea. By and large, if we Buddhists aren’t all peace, love, and crunchy granola, there’s often a sense of awareness, a view of a more complete picture. If it turns out not to be a solution, then the insight might come that what seemed like a permanent problem is in reality, only temporary. Then it may turn out that once again, what was a coping strategy stops working, because as causes and conditions change, the strategy needs to change also. It turns out that’s OK, because that’s only to be expected. 

Through the help of a teacher, even just reading the teachings, or being group of fellow travelers can lead to at least a direction. They can’t awaken you. They can help by sharing Dharma teachings with you, they can point you in a direction, they can provide encouragement and support, maybe even tell you when you’ve really screwed something up. But they can’t awaken you. We must take refuge in the Three Jewels for the benefit of all beings. But that in and of itself isn’t awakening. As each experience is unique to the individual, the travel of the Great Way is ultimately unique also. 

A Zen Master can't awaken you. The Dalai Lama can't awaken you. Reading Dogen or Dahui can't awaken you. Watching Alan Watts videos can't awaken you. Quoting Ikkyu can't awaken you. Quoting Fake Buddha Quotes can't awaken you. Quoting real Buddha quotes can't awaken you. No one and nothing but you can awaken you, so why waste time looking for it from someone else?

You can walk through the fog, or get drenched by a bucket of water--either way, you end up wet. Why cling to dryness?

Awakening is private practice. 

Buddham Saranam Gacchami 
Dhammam Saranam Gacchami 
Sangham Saranam Gacchami 

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Don't Wake the Baby

As any parent can attest, once the baby is finally asleep, doing anything that will wake that baby is best to be avoided. If you aren’t a parent, file that information away, because if you do have any contact with a baby, that little tidbit will be very useful. The slightest creaking floorboard, the cup banging into another on the shelf, even a sneeze, runs the risk of disturbing the little scream machine. That’s a first-hand observation, and one that seems to have been experienced since babies have fallen asleep.

There have been some observations and experiences that I can say are quite possibly are my own, but also not that I'm the only one ever had the experience, or made the same observation. In a universe or multiverses as numerous as the grains of sand in the Ganges, the likelihood really starts to diminish really quickly that I’m the only one with these experiences and observations thereof. There were two that might elicit yawns, perhaps the eye-roll of amazement that someone might even make the observation in the first place, let alone the experience and then the observation of what is quite possibly as mundane as it gets.

The first one goes back to the days of meditating in a basement Dharma room, sitting facing the wall. It's a given in sitting meditation we observe the breath. I was also observing how my heart beating really strongly.It wasn’t as if I could stop it from happening—the heartbeat part anyway--but I also paid attention to the heartbeat. Nothing too special there, maybe common. I’d even mess around every now and then, and try to pace my breathing around the heartbeat. That wasn’t the Great Revelation though. That was when I noticed that the inside of my eyelids were the exact same shade of grey as the wall, or my shadow on the wall, or both. I couldn’t really tell where one ended and another began. And that struck me as interesting. We’ve read about people who have these visions of bursting through walls, or at least seeing through them, having visions of the Buddha, or past lives, at least something that’s is considered remarkable. I noticed eyelids, a wall, maybe a shadow. And whatever separation seemed to exist when I sat down, literally disappeared. There was just undefined grey, sitting, heart beating, breathing, awareness. 

Eventually I was in a different Dharma room, which was a decidedly different environment. Where the first room was dark, this one was pretty bright, especially during the summer months. The first was quiet, the second was on a main road with traffic. That was fine, if for no other reason than I got to observe when I was annoyed by the traffic, and if I wasn’t, there was nothing to observe. I didn’t get epistemological about it and make observations about observations, because there wasn’t an observation to begin with, and observing that there was no observation to be observed. 

The second Great Realization involved walking meditation in that room. When I first started walking in the dark quiet meditation room, it was slow walking, with half-steps, paying attention to the pace and the space between each of us, taking some real mindfulness and concentration. In the bright noisy Dharma room, we were still slow walkers, but with heel and toe steps, with a tiny pause between the toe hitting with the foot firmly on the floor. Again, some concentration required, and added to that, carefully inhaling on one step, exhaling on the next. It was very intentional, a very deliberate method. Then at some point, no intentionality was involved, no wandering mind.There were no arguments with someone who wasn’t in the same room, no thinking about the next meal, or work, or when would the walking stop, there was just walking. One day, I noticed that I was doing it as naturally as breathing or my heart beating, but I noticed that I wasn’t using my thoughts to control the walking, I wasn’t thinking about walking or breathing or pacing. My reaction to having gone back into observer and observed was “Aaaaugh! I blew it!” 

Maybe blowing it was an overstatement. 

If you aren’t living in a monastery or temple, there is a barrage of distraction every day, and obviously not just on the cushion or when walking. It wouldn’t strike me as unreasonable that no matter how hard we try to follow the breath, some things creep in. Maybe earworm of a song that just won't go away, no matter how much you swat it like at a stubborn mosquito, the one who not only keeps landing, but who announces its presence by buzzing justthisclose to your ear. Traffic just comes and goes, much like our thoughts, although sometimes we like hanging onto the thoughts of annoyance about the car with the bum muffler stays around long after the car itself chugged away. Once, it was the pen mark on the wall that some previous meditator made on the wall to give them something to focus on, but try as I might, the eyelids just kept creeping more open, to just keep looking at the spot on the wall. I may as well have sliced off my eyelids a la Bodhidharma for all the good they were doing me!

If I’m all serene and at one with the universe(s), but leave the meditation room and act like the same jerk who walked in an hour before, then maybe I need to pay more attention to the distractions of life and observe them with the same sense of equanimity that I have while on the cushion. Going from being only superficially aware of my surroundings and moving on to noticing my surroundings, is nice. Going past that to observing without judgement, responding rather than reacting, is a step further. Noting the reaction we have to the distractions of our surroundings in another step. Going from “Okay,  I’m following my inhale, and now I’m observing my exhale” to just naturally breathing is the result of continued practice. Then maybe we get to the point where we don’t have to mind our thoughts and reactions and annoyances, getting right up to the point before we notice that it’s just happening naturally and yell, “Damn, I blew it!”

When meditating, seated or walking, the temptation is to very consciously maintain silence. At some point that silence can come without the need for conscious effort, it just happens. There doesn't need to be a Great Revelation, no matter how ordinary. When walking, we walk smoothly and softly, either through conscious effort or not. Can we take that same attitude with us in the other 23 hours spent off the cushion? If we can treat all sentient beings as infants deserving of love and compassion, if we can metaphorically conduct ourselves as if that baby deserves not to wail because of our inconsiderate action of banging the metaphorical cups together, then perhaps our own presence in this world can grant all beings the opportunity to rest peacefully. After all, the last thing we want to do is to wake the baby.