Saturday, September 27, 2014

Zen and Neuro-scientist atheists

Recently I listened to a podcast where the guest was Sam Harris, a noted skeptic/atheist/neuroscientist. It has always seemed to me that Buddha was a skeptic as it is alleged he said "Question everything." A favorite quote when I started developing an interest in Buddhism and ultimately Zen.

I have already laid out one opinion on the results obtained in neuroscientific community test here and will expand on it in this post. In this interview Mr. Harris was discussing his experience with meditation and following the thoughts, paying attention to their arising and ceasing. From the discussion, it was apparent that he probably has had some insight. This experience is apparently in his new book, along with a discussion on free will. Can't say for sure as I haven't read the book and most likely won't. What struck me about this discussion, is his certainty on everything he was talking about. He is so sure about there being no free will and what has been learned through the experiments within his field.

As an aside, some of what they covered is in my book. Ideas like, did I choose my favorite color? Did I choose who I am attracted to? How much impact do genes have? Parental influence? Friends? Teachers? the list of influences can seemingly go on infinitely. Buddhists have a name for this too, Karma. Not a complete definition but great for these purposes.

All that is wonderful. What is proper use of the mind anyway? We use it for work, to figure things out, etc. For the spiritual in Zen we look for the truth. Not the truth as in actions happen and then we make up a story about it. The truth in this very moment. We also work to keep don't know mind. After all, enlightenment is not what you think.

How many of us have had some moment where we get some insight, and then we quickly try to codify it with the mind? And then it disappears! With experience, we know to not hang on to individual events or moments. We continue the practice, we continue to return to this very moment, the truth of this very moment. What is the truth? What are you seeing, hearing, touching right now?

So many of the studies the scientists do are fascinating. They can be read and digested and we can move along with our day. As Zen practitioners, we can continue to practice, to return to the truth of the present as it is. Continue to practice don't know mind. We can actually discover these things for ourselves in a very experiential and life-transforming way.

Regarding free will: In a story related to me, Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say "You don't have a choice! Until you realize you don't have a choice, then, you have a choice."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

What Percentage of Thoughts Do You Believe?

In a previous post we got on the topic of thoughts and delusion. It included the following line from the Mirror of Zen:
If you know that the arising thought is already delusion, you are already free.
How does this work in real life? Can we use the mind to determine which thoughts are true and which are false? There is a great Koan about this:
Master Ruìyán Shīyan used to call to himself every day, “Master.”
He would answer, “Yes?”
“You must keep clear.”
“Never be deceived by others, any day, any time.”
The question being "Which one is the true master?"
This is an excellent koan because it is so easy to identify with. Especially if we think that one of our thought streams is more reliable than the other(s).

The responses to the question "What percentage of thoughts do you believe?" are interesting. Most people [in a small survey] asked , respond with a question like "What do you mean?"

I asked a friend of mine who is respected along the Zen path this question. His response was fairly specific - and it was below 50%.

As taught in the Dropping Ashes on the Buddha class, the thoughts are always going to be there. It is simply our attachment to them that causes us so many problems.

As a practical means, it is easy to find thoughts that turned into actions that caused harm to ourselves or others. It is easy to find false beliefs regarding what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, and even what we even think of ourselves.

So we, as Zen students, pay attention to the thoughts that arise. We see where they come from and where they go. We learn to stop buying into them. Then we may know who is the true master.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

You Already Have Everything You Need to Wake Up!

I currently teach three courses at Buddha Dharma University. They are:
  • Dropping Ashes on the Buddha - Zen Master Seung Sahn
  • The Mirror of Zen - Zen Master So Sahn
  • The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment
  • Here is the amazing thing: The source material for each one of these classes contains everything needed to wake up! That's right - any one of these texts is enough. Add the value of the lectures pointing to the most important parts and voila, people should start waking up left and right!

    What I am saying is, when I first put these courses together and foisted them upon the students at Buddha Dharma University, I think I was a little naive. Being a mostly self-taught, self-practicing student of Buddhist texts (by far the most useful for those trying to wake up, IMHO), I thought it would be useful to pass along some of my experience along with the teachings of past masters who really knew how to help students wake up.

    One of the things I find most interesting is many responses to homework questions comparing and contrasting different teachings that students have run into in their Buddhist quests. Another thing that is interesting is some responses will be pointing out how the teachings they have studied earlier in their quests are better than the teachings in the class. I have been told how Tibetan Buddhism is better. I've also been given the teachings of Dogen as answers to questions (along with reasons I should include Dogen in my lectures).

    One of the reasons I am part of the Five Mountain Order is because of the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. In one of the sections in Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, he says "If someone tells you that the words Coca-Cola have power in them and you really believe that, then Coca-Cola will work for you."

    Does it mean we chant Coca-Cola? No, it means we do not need to attach to any dogma. We don't need to compare Soto to Rinzai to Korean Son to Dharma Punks to Yoga to Bobism. It simply means keeping the mind that is before thought, paying attention to Situation, Function and Relationship, to being here now, to clearing away everything that is preventing us from seeing reality as it is.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2014

    Zen Master So Sahn and "The Work"

    There are some popular "Enlightened" people out there. One of them is Byron Katie. After her experience (maybe realizing Mind Makes Everything), she came up with a means of dealing with thoughts, which she called "The Work." Essentially it boils down to investigating individual thoughts with the following four questions (paraphrased here).
    1. Is it true?
    2. Can you absolutely be sure it is true?
    3. How do you feel when you think that thought?
    4. Who would you be without that thought?
    Then there is the idea of a turnaround to point to a true thought based on the original false thought.

    Ms. Katie has turned these questions into big business. Spending time on Oprah, selling many books, and charging people thousands of dollars to spend a weekend with her and/or her trained people. Does she have something? Something that could help people wake up?

    In The Mirror of Zen, Zen Master So Sahn picked several bits from the Zen cannon that he though best summed up Korean Zen. A favorite of mine is:
    If you know that the arising thought is itself unreal delusion, you are already free. pg. 51.
    The passage continues with
    What need is there for employing skillful means? Freed from any delusion, you are already enlightened.
    Of course, there is always going to be need for skillful means. If all it took were reading those words to wake up, we wouldn't need any Zen teachers! Delusion runs deep. Delusion and Karma are astonishingly difficult to cut through.

    Zen is waking up to our true nature, which involves cutting through delusion. The four questions are for investigating thinking and seeing how we delude ourselves. They also rely on thought. This is using delusion to cut through delusion. Which is also mentioned in the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment. These ideas have been around for centuries, here they are being packaged in a different form.

    Can "The Work" be useful for Zen students? It can be useful in a self-help kind of way. If we are hung up on money, relationships, other aspects of being a human being living on this planet. Just remember it is using delusion to cut through delusion.

    Question four asks "Who would you be without that thought?" Zen Master Seung Sahn, and other Zen masters before him, asked students to keep the great question "What are You?"

    Saturday, May 3, 2014

    What is Buddha?

    Here is another Koan Study. It is a very old Koan and goes something like this:
    Zen Master Dongshan was asked by a monk, "What is Buddha?" to which he replied "Three Pounds of Flax.
    Sometime before Zen Master Yunmen had been asked by another monk, "What is Buddha?" to which he replied "Dry shit on stick."
    Question 1: What is Buddha?
    Question 2: What does three pounds of flax mean?
    Question 3: What does dry shit on stick mean?
    Question 4: Three pounds of flax, dry shit on stick, which is the best answer?
    Let's look at question 1 - What is Buddha? How can we answer this? The story has two answers already presented. Is one of those the right answer? Are they both correct? Or is neither one correct? What does correct mean anyway?

    Easy to get off track! So return to the question - it is asking What is Buddha? The story is a hook and could possibly lead us off track. Digging deeper, there are actually some hints in the answers. For Dongshan, we can assume three pounds of flax was something present in that very moment. Was the monk's clothing, perhaps, made from flax? For Yunmen, what could dry shit on stick mean? There are several stories about sticks and shit from the pre-toilet paper days. Perhaps within his vision was the bathroom area?

    These were respected Zen Masters answering students questions. They could have been messing with their students to confuse them. Or they could have been providing true, in the moment answers. I tend to favor the latter.

    If you are sitting across from a person posing this question, in person or on-line, how can you answer? Please think about this for a moment. What is the truth of this very moment? Just seeing, hearing, etc. So there are many answers that will work for this question. They have to be in the moment answers, not speculation, philosophy or even things out of sight. What do you see right now.

    Here are two similar answers, one is acceptable and one is not (which do you think is correct?):
    1. I am Buddha sitting here talking to you
    2. Buddha is sitting here talking to you
    In number 1, there is the concept of "I". I immediately invokes opposites, you, them, not-I, so it cannot be correct. If you want to debate that point, maybe by saying that Buddha instantly makes not-Buddha - another acceptable answer is "Buddha is here talking to me!" So all truth is Buddha. All things have Buddha-nature. Wonderful!

    If you want the answers to 2,3,4 feel free to email me your answers to Koan teachers are also available at the Five Mountain Zen Order. Question 4 is the most interesting of the remaining questions. Based on the discussion above, how can you answer it?

    Saturday, April 26, 2014

    Zen and Philosophy II

    In an earlier post, we looked at Zen and some of the ideas and ideologies that have come out of past masters putting Zen and Buddhism to words. Let's look at philosophy in general.

    Philosophy is made by thinking. Just as your entire life, actions, thoughts, and deeds can be summed up as Jim or Cathy. A complex treatise on the human condition can simply be dismissed as Existentialism or Modern Rationalism. In fact, there are people who simply dismiss Zen as Nihilism.

    Elsewhere on this blog and on the web there is plenty of discussion regarding Koan practice. In which, a teacher will ask a student a question like "What was your original face before your parents were born?" If the student responds with a philosophical answer (such as "I previously did not exist"), the teacher will not accept it. Why is this? Because waking up is beyond words, beyond concepts, and beyond opposites.

    In fact, everything involving words, language, and philosophical ideas can be debated. "Enlightened" teachers have tried to put things into words, but it quickly becomes limited. E.g. Describing reality as "everything is perfect as it is" or "everything is exactly as it should be" may be correct using our limited language abilities. Yet, to the thinking, discerning, comparing, judging, mind, this quickly becomes "So the plague, the holocaust, or even a dog getting run over by a car is perfect?"

    Another example is: "There is only now". The mind can simply look at a photograph or an old movie and say "No, there was then." Looking at a building clearly shows a past, too! What about planning for the future? The mind is going, going, going.

    And now we are off track. We are not in this moment. We are in a past that doesn't fit with our view of how things should be. We are in a future of how we hope things will be. Zen is keeping clear mind. Zen is living in this present moment. But what is this present moment? There is nothing to hang on to. So we put all this philosophy down. Put down all of our ideas of Shoulda, Woulda, and Coulda. Pay attention to what is in front of us to do in each moment. Just seeing, touching, hearing, tasting, smelling. What is our Situation, relationship, and function in this moment.

    If we can put it all down. Return to this present moment without judgment. Maybe we will understand what is being pointed at instead of focusing on the the pointer.

    Saturday, April 19, 2014

    Sudden Enlightenment, Gradual Cultivation

    A new quarter has begun at Buddha Dharma University. This semester there are several students taking the class on the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment.

    The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment is interesting for many reasons. One is because everything one needs to wake up is present in the first two chapters. These basically fall under the category of Sudden Enlightenment. The rest of the Sutra can sort of be categorized as Gradual Cultivation. Though really it is more like painting legs on a snake. It is almost as if each subsequent chapter could be started with "So you didn't quite get the previous chapters, so..."

    That is not to put subsequent chapters in a negative light! How many people read the first chapter, get it, wake up and don't need any more reading? This is only anecdotal evidence - I haven't heard of any. In fact, what happens is upon different readings of the Sutra, different chapters hit home.

    What is Sudden Enlightenment? Have you ever had a moment of before thought mind? Zen Master Seung Sahn used to ask questions like: You, me, this wall, same or different? Have you ever had a moment where, without thinking, that made sense? The Zen cannon is full of stories with the final paragraph being something about enlightenment. E.g. Wonhyo's enlightenment story:
    He was super thirsty in the middle of the night, felt around with his hands, found some water and drank it - how refreshing. In the morning he woke up and saw it was the skull of a dead animal and very gross. He threw up. Upon seeing the power of the mind he was enlightened.
    Of course, we have to take these stories with a grain of salt. Is it true as written? I've read several versions of the story, so most likely no. Did something like that happen? Possibly. Anyway, there are many stories like this and maybe you even have your own.

    So maybe something is attained. There are a couple of issues here. The first is that experiences pass fast. Trying to hold on to them is like trying to hold water in your hands. The second is the mind instantly starts to create a story about what happened. After a time, is the experience remembered? Or the story about it? Again, something is attained. Maybe we begin to see we are all one. (Please don't make this into a concept - it is easy to chew this up with the mind.)

    So maybe we see the folly of our selfish ways. Even dropping the mind's idea of a separate self. Wonderful! Do our actions change all at once? Are we suddenly calm, peaceful, considerate drivers? Are we happy for others when they get what we want? These are broad examples, it could be more subtle. Do we give freely of our time? Gossip about others? Listen to the thoughts going on and continue to believe them? Think that we have some spiritual weight now?

    Maybe. Maybe not. Instead of focusing on any experience or event. We return to this moment. What is in front of us? Can we help someone? We return to the practice. We may have fundamentally changed. Yet, more work is likely necessary. Be it more practice, changing our actions, breaking our habits, breaking our addiction to the mind. We must cultivate our experience.