Friday, December 21, 2012

Living in a World of Violence

Violence is troubling. It is pervasive. It is everywhere. It is part of life. That makes it even more troubling. It is kind of like an upsetting riddle with no answer.

When I was young and I first became aware of violence and the many ways to hurt, torture and kill people I was so upset I couldn't really deal with it. There was a kids' movie that I loved called Bugsy Malone. It was a gangster movie with kids. Instead of killing each other with bullets, they used cream pies (or something like that). Oh, how I wanted to live in that world. I used to ask my dad why they couldn't fight wars with whipped cream. This is one of those things that drove me into Buddhism as I was stuck trying to make sense of things that make no sense.

One of the best answers I heard was a story of someone asking a religious master about how he could live in a world of such suffering. The religious man allegedly responded, in the world there is also much overcoming of suffering.

The killings of the kids at Sandy Hook is really the reason for this post. Of course, it stirred up many feelings in all of us. Very strong feelings. How do we deal with those feelings? How will those close to the victims deal with this tragedy? As much as the previous paragraph gives us hope, there are those who will never overcome their suffering. We do what we can with our feelings. Maybe we put these folks in our thoughts, hopes, prayers. We hope they deal with their grief. Yet we know they will never be the same again.

As Zen practitioners, we return to this moment and pay attention. When sad, we are sad. When grieving, we grieve. If we can be helpful to those in need, we help them without a second thought. We also pay attention to our own thoughts. Do we have any violence within us? Do we wish others injury or pain? Has someone wronged us and we want revenge? How do we meet those thoughts with understanding, compassion and love? Love. How do we bring love into our hearts and minds even for the evil people in the world?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Brute Force Meditation

Starting and maintaining a seated meditation practice is difficult*. If it was easy for you, congratulations! For the rest of us it takes significant effort. First, we need to find the time to sit. Next, we need to actually sit. When we are sitting, then what do we do?

In the book, there is a lot of discussion on how to meditate. This post is targeted on the idea of brute force meditation, mainly: Should we be able to control our thoughts? When seated in meditation, should we be able to stop thinking and have a clear, empty mind?

That is not the way the mind works. That big mass of energy is constantly going. Generating millions of thoughts per second – ok, there are no statistics on that, but it sure can seem that way. So, if meditation is not about not-thinking, what is it about?

As Zen students, we are trying to cut through the delusion that keeps us from seeing our true nature. If we can’t stop thinking, how do we do that? The practice is continuing to return to this present moment. So with each breath, we return to what is. When sitting, it is just sitting, looking at a wall, or the floor, or the inside of the eyelids, etc. It is just this breath, paying attention to each breath. Maybe it is a mantra, breathe in “What am I?”, breathe out “Don’t know.” Maybe it is counting or any one of a plethora of ways to meditate people have come up with over the centuries. Of course, no matter what method we are using, thoughts come with varying degrees of impact. Sometimes as hard as we are trying to focus, we find ourselves lost in thought for seconds or minutes. When we realize this, we simply return to the moment – without judgment.

Many people use a mala when they meditate. A mala is basically a string of beads. It is simply another method to help us meditate. We can move a bead with each inhale, or each exhale, or both. It may help us to stay in the moment. When a thought comes, we still have to move a bead. Even the Zen Master Seung Sahn used the mala. As a friend of mine told me, Seung Sahn was constantly using his mala. What about brute force? Shouldn’t I be able to force my mind into a clear state? Good luck with that. The practice is returning to this moment. It is not about eliminating the thoughts. Maybe at some point we will see their true nature.

*All mediation is not seated. Seated meditation generally provides the calmest situation for practice - try bringing meditation into all of your activities.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving... Joy of Living

We cover some heavy topics in Zen and in this blog. Life, Death and Suffering. That is a criticism of Zen and Buddhism, sometimes -> Too much focus on the "bad" things of life. The answers to these criticisms are in this Blog and in the book.

With Thanksgiving coming up, this is a good time to ask: Is there any joy in this life? Or is it a vale of tears? In my experience, to takes things too seriously is to suffer. So how do we find the joy in a world that, according to Buddhists is:
  • Riddled with pervasive unsatisfactoriness?
  • Filled with old age, suffering, and death?
  • Like living in a burning house?
  • Now in the degenerate age?

These thoughts are not limited to Buddhism. These are the things people realize on their own - Zen is one way people find to answer these questions. We answer these questions by returning to the here and now. We realize that everything we see is impermanent - yet it does no make us sad. In fact, if we can realize our true nature, impermanence is not a bad thing.

This year, if you are suffering, I encourage you to continue your practice. If you do not have a teacher (Zen friend - not some hierarchical relationship), find one. They are available. Working with a teacher helps both people in the relationship, so don't be afraid to ask. Even one question.

Find the Joy. It his here, in this world of suffering, find it. Here is a silly little poem about impermanence.
If I die today
 that is ok
It wasn't always
 that way
  in this mind
   that seemed to think
   I actually had a choice

One day the thought came
 I don't want to die
  because there are still
 some episodes of MST3k
  that I haven't seen!

That started a revolution
 in the mind
  and body
   after many struggles
   with the fear of death
One day
 it was OK

If I die today
If I live today

Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What About My Personality?

In this blog, there has been the Buddhist idea of Sunyata. Often, it is interpreted as an idea. Something like "no independent self." As mentioned many times, enlightenment is not what you think. (Though your thinking will change as you practice :-))

This idea has been misinterpreted as losing one's identity or personality. Happily, this is far from the truth. It is simple to see. Page through any book of stories about the Patriarchs of the past. Patriarchs were Zen masters from times gone by who helped people wake up, not through explanation, but by continuing to point to the truth. For them, explanation was a grievous error.

Consider this koan:
Arriving at a temple, the Sixth Chán Ancestor came upon two monks who were arguing over a flag that was flapping in the wind. One said the flag was moving; the other claimed that the wind was moving. The Sixth Chán Ancestor said, “It is not the wind and it is not the flag. It is your minds that are moving.” The monks were completely stuck and could not answer.
  1. Is the flag or the wind moving?
  2. One monk was attached to the wind, another to the flag and the Sixth Chán Ancestor was attached to mind. How do you avoid these attachments?
The Sixth Ancestor was a man named Hui Neng. He would be considered a patriarch. In this case, when Hui Neng said: “It is not the wind and it is not the flag. It is your minds that are moving.” He made a big mistake. He was trying to be compassionate, to help these monks, and instead fell into a trap. Do you see it?

Back to the point. The Patriarchs were loaded with personality. Zen Master Seung Sahn was loaded with personality. Zen Master Wonji is loaded with personality. Not making self and other is simply cutting through the illusion that we are separate from everything.

To that end here are a few questions
  • When did you decide to be born?
  • How did you decide who you were attracted to?
  • All of your attitudes and opinions - where did they come from?
  • When did you decide your favorite color?
  • How did you pick your parents?
  • Is the flag or the wind moving?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Fundamentals: Not Good, Not Bad

One of the most influential teachings for me was found the first time I read Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. In it, Zen Master Seung Sahn taught Zen much differently than any Zen book I had read up until that point. He often is quoted as saying "Not good, not bad." Make no doubt about it, these four words can revolutionize your life.

At the risk of painting legs on a snake, here is an example. Suppose someone has plans coming up. Maybe something exciting like travel or a "special*" event. Then, of all the luck, the eve of big day he or she has a terrible night of sleep. Could be from worry, excitement, outside causes, who know. When The morning finally comes he or she is now very tired. If tired is now judged as bad. There is both tired and angry. If tired is not judged, there is only tired.

If our hypothetical person was living Not Good, Not Bad. There really wouldn't be a special event. Life is really a verb, not a noun, so what good is attaching to events? They come and go like a blur. Yet... the practice of paying attention, being present in this moment, the only moment there is, can relieve this type of suffering.

Surely there are things that are good and are bad, aren't there?

As a personal example, detailed in an earlier post, I traveled to South America. Only the second time I have ever been off the North American continent. I woke up in the middle of the night in Lima, Peru with the worst tooth pain I can remember. Using the practice of not good, not bad, there was no thought of ruined vacation or cursed trip or anything of the like. (Though, there was thought of disappointing my wife!) Anyway, there was the need for a dentist.

Above, the word "special" was used. In this same vein of Not Good, Not Bad, is this idea of: don't make where you want to be any more important than where you are right now. If you are new to Zen or new to the idea of "Not Good, Not Bad" it can be used as a little mantra or phrase to help out. Of course, the discriminating mind will try to poke holes in it. "The plague was bad, Ivan the terrible was bad, vacation is better than work!" Don't bite the hook! We work to end suffering in this world - that has to start with us first.

Make no doubt about it: Not Good, Not Bad is a gateway to the freedom from suffering the Buddha found.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Suffering in Arizona

In the December issue of Psychology Today there is a story that starts with the line "The promise of enlightenment is so powerful that some people are willing to offer complete devotion in exchange." Ugh. What is the promise of enlightenment? In our lineage anytime someone asks about enlightenment we simply return them to this present moment. There is no promise of some magic cure all. There is an idea of cutting through delusion to realize our true nature. Yet, even that is still an idea. Often, people bring all sorts of magical thinking to meditation, Zen and Buddhism. Part of the process is getting past all of that.

The rest of the story is sad. Some people who are so spiritually lost that they lose track of what really is important in life - to the point one of them dies. If your spiritual practice isn't helping you in your everyday life, what good is it? Any idea of spirituality that requires someone to sever ties with their loved ones is misguided. Likewise, giving control of your life to someone else for the promise of salvation is also just plain wrong. There are more ideas such as we need to go to far away places, to get a guru, or to live in isolation for various lengths of time in order to get spiritual awakening. Again, we put it all down and return to this very moment. After if enlightenment isn't in this very moment, where is it?

One other thing that was interesting in the story was how they kept saying that "Buddhism teaches that life is suffering." Is that really all the author got out of the entire cannon of Buddhist teachings? You don't need Buddhism to realize there is suffering in life! Many people realize that part on their own. Buddhism teaches how to live in this world of suffering. How to bring the joy of living into our lives right here and right now. How to end the suffering within ourselves.

Here is a little poem on the subject.
Do I need to travel
 To Tibet
 To India
 To Korea
  to wake up?

Is that where
 Enlightenment is found?

When I come back
 How will I carry it?

Did "I" go?
 Did "I" Wake up?

What is this "I"?

If enlightenment isn't
 Right here
 Right now
  Where is it?

Please show me

If you say
 "I have enlightenmnent"
  You have already missed the point

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What's the Rush?

For this scene, the setting was the streets of San Francisco. The light was red, so I was stopped waiting for my turn to go. In front of me walked a little old lady with a cane. She was very slowly making her way from my right to my left. As she took her time to cross the street, I was struck by how absolutely beautiful the weather was. In fact, many of us were driving with our windows down.

She made it past us and was about five-eighths of the way across when someone come from my right to make a left turn. Of course, the lady was directly in her way. The driver, who was trying to make the left turn, started yelling. Something to the effect of "getting the *&$#*@# out of the way!"

I don't know if she was yelling at the lady or if she was the type who generally yells while driving. In any case, her face was clearly the face of unhappiness. I didn't see the old lady react in any way, she just kept going. Who knows, maybe this wasn't the first time she has been the target of unhappy drivers.

This brings to mind one of my favorite Zen sayings:
What's the rush? We are all going to the same place anyway.
I am not going to paint any legs on this snake and try to explain it. I will say a couple of things about it, though.
  • Please sit with this. Keep this as mantra or a Koan until you fully get it. Until it permeates every bit of your being - not just some superfluous intellectual understanding
  • Do not judge this driver as good or bad. This is our culture, our society. I can promise you, if you continue to practice Zen, if you bring awareness into your driving, if you attain this teaching: When a little old lady is trying to cross the street in front of you, you will view her with compassion. That is something to strive for.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Morning Intention

Each morning we have an opportunity to set our intention for the day. This can be helpful in bringing awareness into our daily activities. It can also help to focus on how we can live each day in the tradition of Bodhidharma instead of living the life of suffering that results from simply focusing on satisfying our own wants and desires. How do we do this?

We could start by looking at our lives. What are we? Is it possible we are an expression of everything? All that has come and gone - we are an incarnation of this moment. We could add some sort of gratitude for our existence.

Are we weighed down by the events and situations in our lives? After all, life is filled with suffering. As Zen students, we work to end the suffering in our lives. Maybe we can help others, too. But, first things first. We could add something about relaxing and not taking things too seriously. We might also want to add something about seeing the humor in all situations.

If we are very self focused, we may want to add something about thinking of others and how we can help.

What about delusion? Supposedly the Buddha came to help us to cut through the delusion that keeps us from seeing our true nature. To this end, we could add something about about seeing things as they are - not as they seem or as we wish they were.

As Zen students we may need to add something regarding practice. Is our practice meditation or some type of yoga? Perhaps it is keeping our mantra or trying to keep clear mind whenever possible.

As we pay attention to our lives, our actions, our feelings, we may discover things that we find objectionable. They may cause us or others suffering. Are we selfish, mean, rude, thoughtless. Are we oblivious to the way others interpret our actions? Do we lie or gossip? Do we steal, or worse? This could be addressed as an intention to think of others and to be respectful of them. It could also result in something like a vow to bring [rigorous] honesty into my speech and our actions.

As we become aware of things that make us and others feel badly, we can isolate them and come up with specific actions to address them. If we can't isolate the behaviors, we can generalize with the intent of paying attention to see the specific actions that cause us problems.

We can add specifics to the list, too. Suppose we have a difficult time being nice to someone. Add a specific line to see him or her as a Buddha and treat him or her accordingly. Parts of this list will probably be quite dynamic as it will continue to change along with us as we work to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha.

Ultimately, we have this amazing moment of life. We celebrate the moment, we vow to continue to practice, we are thankful for what we have, and we look for what we can improve upon.

Based on this discussion, here is a possible meditation we might wish to come up with. It is somewhat detailed and might need some customization. Please come up with what works for you.
Morning Intention

I am humbled by another day of life
 I vow to see
   the joy in everything
   the truth in everything
Delusion is everywhere
  I vow to see things as they are
I am grateful for the people I meet
  I vow to see Buddha-nature in everyone
  I vow to bring awareness into all of my relationships
Suffering is everywhere
  I vow to live an attitude of helpfulness

Life is impermanent
  I vow to live accordingly
   to see the suffering brought about by attachments and clinging
  I vow to find the freedom
   present in the here and now

The way out of suffering is clear
  yet requires diligence
   I vow
    To cut through delusion
    To stop judging
     To not make good and bad
      life and death
      self and other
    To keep my practice
     be it
      Mantra practice
      Koan practice
      Mala practice
      Meditation practice
      Bhakti Yoga practice
      Mindfulness of Breathing practice
      Hatha Yoga practice
      Chanting practice
      Sutra practice
      Any other practice
      Not attaching to practice
      As possible at all times through out the day

I am grateful for this moment
   For this day
  I vow to live the enlightened life
   [according to the eight-fold path*]

What am I?

[* As necessary, add things that you are striving for. E.g. complaining less, not lying, not gossiping, any part of the Eight-fold path, such as right intention, right view, right livelihood, etc. that you wish to be mindful of.]
What is on your list? Even if you can only spend 1 minute reading or reciting your list each morning, it is time well spent.

As an afterword, this brings to mind a Koan.
Ruìyán Calls Master

Master Ruìyán Shīyan used to call to himself every day, “Master.” and would answer, “Yes?” “You must keep clear.” “Yes!” “Never be deceived by others, any day, any time.” “Yes!” “Yes!”

The question is: Ruìyán Shīyan used to call himself, and answer himself, two minds. Which one is the correct Master?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Blissing Out

Events come and go with amazing speed. Life is kind of like a train that just keeps rolling. Sometimes it seems to go fast, sometimes slow, sometimes it slows down to the point where we seem stuck. Regardless of how it feels, time/life/the train just keeps going. Often, the scenery is beautiful, breathtaking even. Other times it is just blah or even ugly. And, of course, the same awesome scenery can fade into the background after we are used to it.

Using this metaphor, events are like passing through states, or cities, or even by signposts. Looking forward to a movie, then seeing it, then looking forward to the next movie would probably be like passing signposts. A city or a state could be like high school or college. The metaphor keeps on a rollin'.

As Zen students, we keep returning to the here and now. Events come and go, we watch them come and go without attachment. If we find ourselves getting attached, we can even use a mental exercise like trying to live the idea of "don't make where you want to be more important than where you are."

With Zen and the idea of events, what is likely to come up? The e-word. Is enlightenment really an event? Is it something that changes everything? A favorite quote is "If enlightenment isn't in this moment, where is it?" Can you find it?

Coming back to the context of this post. Here is a situation to consider. Suppose you have a moment where things become clear. Maybe everything in the Heart Sutra makes complete sense. Please do not think I am describing enlightenment - enlightenment is beyond words. Yet people before us tried to come up with teachings to help us and that is why I am referencing the Heart Sutra. Or maybe sunyata makes complete sense (as discussed in a previous post). Now lets look at a situation. Suppose a moment like this occurs and life makes complete sense, yet the person you are having dinner with is very upset about something.

Do you laugh and tell your friend to relax, that they have a perception problem? Do you tell them how great it is that you have seen the truth? Or do you put down this experience, return to the present moment and try to help your suffering friend the best you can?

Bodhidharma was a great monk who brought Buddhism to the east. A great teacher who probably could have lived his life as a blissed-out hermit, instead decided to share what he had found. Hence we say that Bodhidharma's family motto was "How can I help?"

No attainment, with nothing to attain. We return to this present moment.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Be One With the Blog Post

In the movie Caddyshack, there is a scene between Chevy Chase and one of the caddies. Chevy is hitting all these amazing golf shots. He tries to help the caddy to hit a shot while blindfolded. At one point he says "Just be the ball..." Where does this idea come from?

One of the most well known teachings of Buddhism is called The Heart Sutra. If you search the web you are sure to find a copy of it. Many authors of books on Zen give their take on this sutra. I spend some time on it as well in Mind Makes Everything. The Sutra starts with the line:
"Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the prajna paramita perceived that all five skandas are empty and was saved from all suffering and distress."
Wow! That is quite an opening line. For this post we are going to put it all down except for the word "empty".

Emptiness is the word translators have used to bring the Sanskrit word Sunyata into English. What is this emptiness? It can be read as empty of an independent self. In fact, our delusion is that we see ourselves as separate from everything else.

Just look at the sense organs. When we see something, it is the photons interacting with our optics that we see. When we hear something, it is the sound waves actually interacting with our inner ear that we hear. So are you and the source of the sound waves the same or different? Separate or distinct? This goes for everything. I am always touching something, breathing something, seeing something, etc. The same is true for the thoughts. They are always about something.

We can look at if from another direction. This morning I had breakfast with friends at a restaurant. I drove a car that was designed and manufactured by a huge team of people. I ate ingredients prepared by a chef long after they were planted by a farmer who ultimately harvested them. They were then shipped to a warehouse and off to their final destination. There is simply no way that I am separate from all of this. I can't even have breakfast without the help of a great many people.

Let's investigate what we eat, too. The food is grown from the planet. Or if we are having some meat with the meal, we are eating creatures that ate the vegetation as well. Again, how are we separate? If we make the distinction between ourselves and the food, we are back to the delusion!

This is then how we practice. There is this idea of mindfulness. It is basically paying attention. As an example, when we are walking we simply walk. We pay attention as we walk. However, if we are thinking "I am walking", we have just turned the act of walking into a concept. We return to simply walking.

So we practice not making self and other. Or to return to the situation at the start of this post: When golfing, just golf.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Practice in Action

In some of these posts and in the book, I try to give examples of meditation practice in action. How do we practice in real life?

We start by paying attention to this present moment. We practice not attaching to our thoughts. Suppose the mind is very active. Maybe the thoughts are about past grievances, things that didn't go our way. Maybe we are unhappy with our loved ones, or our money situation, or politics. Could be things we wish we said or did, or didn't say or do. Maybe there are some thoughts about enlightenment and how great it will be when we finally get it. The list really is endless.

At first, we may try to think our way out of the thoughts. Maybe we try whatever coping mechanisms we have developed over the years. E.g. This too shall pass. In an hour or two I will have forgotten all about this. Time goes so fast, will these thoughts even matter? I made my own choices. Etc. Some of these thoughts may be even be helpful, after all, we have all developed our own ways of cheering ourselves up.

As Zen students, we might want to take different route. We put down those helpful thoughts as well. Enlightenment is not what you think. After all, even seemingly helpful thoughts are still from the conditioned mind. So what do we do?

We return to the breath, we return to the present moment. What are you doing in this moment? We put down all judgments, like, dislike, good, bad. Put down all opposites, hot, cold, life, death, old, young. We simply pay attention to what is. If we have a hard time doing that, we can continue to return to the breath. If we have a mantra, we can return to that. Maybe we use a string of beads to help keep our focus on the here and now. Whatever it is, we return to this moment.

After all, it is the only moment there is.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Living the Precepts Isn't Always Easy

An earlier post was about the creation of a precept, sort of a rule to live by, to give guidelines on how to behave on the bike path. Here is an example of that precept in action.

Today, I decided to head over to the bike path at White Rock Lake to see if I could blade a few miles before the predicted rain came. To set the scene, it was kind of a rough morning. I woke up feeling grouchy, not sure why. The drive over to White Rock was not the smoothest. It seemed like I had to wait at every light. It was almost like The Truman Show, every car that could be in my way, was. Nobody was in a hurry. Then, once I finally got there, the parking lot was full. It was that kind of morning.

Finally, I made it to the bike path and started passing people. I did not feel like saying "On your left" or waiting for people to move so I could pass without making them or others uncomfortable. Today it just felt like everyone was in MY way. Ugh.

Fortunately, I have the bike path precept. This precept, and the behaviors it encompasses, helps to guide my actions on days like today when I'm not feeling exactly spiritual. Ultimately, it doesn't matter how I feel. Just because I am grouchy doesn't mean I get a free pass to annoy others.

Whether I felt like it or not, I worked to follow the precept. Trying to have fun without imposing my grouchiness on others. It wasn't long before I was back in the flow, focusing on the breath and simply rollerblading.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Clear Button

How long does it take to clear the mind? As talked about in previous posts, meditation really is a practice. We have these minds that are constantly active. Getting our minds to settle down doesn't just happen, it requires work. Meditation is a very effective way to see how the mind functions and to become free of the attachment to our thoughts as well as the web of Karma.

Here is something to try. Pay attention to your mind. How long does it take from the time you physically leave work to mentally leave work? Ask this question for other areas in your life as well. What keeps you from being where you are?

Meditation is a great place to find answers to these questions. Much of the day we can't practice fully. At work, we need to focus on our jobs. When with the family, we need to focus on our loved ones. When we get some time to meditate, it becomes evident what is on the mind, what needs to be processed.

Throughout the years, I have noticed the amount of time it takes to process the events of the day has really decreased. Or course, there are still times when it takes the whole meditation session, or more, before the mind clears up. In any case, don't judge any of this as good or bad. It is practice. The mind never stops throwing thoughts at us. Fortunately, as the Buddha found: With practice we find relief.

Living life in the moment requires this sort of practice. Letting go of the past and future to live in the present moment doesn't seem to come naturally. One of the tools that may be helpful is the idea of "So, this is how it is." No matter what the situation, we see how it is. It is like hitting the clear button to drop whatever was going on in the mind so that we can be present right now.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Application of Truth

In our lineage of Zen, we practice with Koans. A great piece on Koan study from Zen Master Wanji is here. Koan practice is designed to help us practice what the Buddha learned. Here is an example.

People come to Zen for many reasons. One of the reasons I remember had to do with a story that had a line something like: "When a Zen master drinks tea, he just drinks tea." I thought that was great because I was not living in the moment at all. My thinking was always going, always in control. This is why meditation is practice. People do not simply become aware, or live in the present moment just because they decide they want to! They must practice. Back to the story, and it does relate.

When a great Zen Master of the past (Mazu) was asked "What is Buddha?" He replied, "The cypress tree in the garden."

A little back story might help. "What is Buddha?" is a question that is pointing to the truth of the moment. At the moment Mazu was asked "what is truth?" He answered with some truth in that situation. If you were to ask me "What is Buddha?" and I replied "The cypress tree in the garden." Would you accept my answer?

Please excuse the crudeness of the following examples. People throughout the years have written various things like "Buddha is a stinky fart" or "Buddha is a dirty toilet." What does that mean? I hope you can see the problem. We are trying to practice being present in this very moment. Without context, are these sayings helpful?

So I ask you right now: What is Buddha? Here is a Koan that helps to drive the point home:
Dòngshān’s & Yúnmén’s ― What is Buddha?
Zen Master Dòngshān was asked by a monk, "What is Buddha?" He answered, "Three pounds of flax."
Sometime earlier Zen Master Yúnmén had been asked by another monk, "What is Buddha?" He had replied, "Dry shit on a stick."

The questions are:
  1. What is Buddha?
  2. What does three pounds of flax mean?
  3. What does dry shit on a stick mean?
  4. Three pounds of flax, Dry shit on a stick, Which one is the best answer?

Feel free to send your answers to and I will be delighted to read them and comment if you so desire. There is more commentary on the koan in the book, and on the internet if you feel you want to read more. If you want to try Koan study with a teacher, please contact me at the above email address or contact the school at and Zen Master Wonji will help you to find a teacher.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

What's So Great About Silence?

It often seems there is this idea that meditation is something special. Setting up some candles, lighting some incense, putting on a robe and sitting in a dimly lit room sounds pretty warm and inviting. Maybe the room is at the perfect temperature and there is no sound to disturb us. How very peaceful.

Of course, once we are there, sitting in that nice place, the reality is different than the thought, or concept. When new to meditation, sitting thirty or forty minutes at a time can be tough. There is physical discomfort, like aching knees, backs, and necks. Sometimes the legs get numb - be careful when you stand up!

There is also a flurry of mental activity. Some thoughts that come are troubling. Some are enthralling. Sometimes we are anxious, and the thoughts are telling us what a waste of time this meditation is. There is a lot of discussion on meditation in the book.

To the point of the post - what is so great about silence? Zen is about waking up to this present moment and cutting through delusion. How do we do that? We practice. Mediation is the practice of being aware in this very moment. In our daily lives there is always a lot going on. People, relationships, television, radio, advertisements, traffic, so many distractions. When we take time to create a time and place where we can practice awareness with the least number of distractions, we are paying attention to this very moment. We are practicing for when we return to the turmoil that is life.

Here is a simple exercise. Pick something that is annoying to you. Maybe it is traffic. Suppose you find yourself reacting to traffic conditions as though you have no choice. It could be calling people names, in your mind or out loud. Maybe you even honk the horn or make gestures. Try turning the radio off and not using the phone to talk or text while you drive. Simply pay attention. Watch the thoughts as they come and go. What the thoughts of annoyance or even anger come and go. Awareness of them is often enough to stop buying into them. When distracted, the thoughts are almost unnoticed as we simply act on them. It is though we have no choice. Until we realize that we have a choice.

Does this mean I can't listen to the radio when I drive? No. It simply means pay attention. Practice. If you practice with silence, you will get better at practice. Then you bring the practice into the world of distraction. Then driving is driving. Driving while listening to music is just driving while listening to music.

Here is a little poem on meditation and settling down the mind.
Very active
 The mind
  Thoughts are
   Fast and Furious


Some thoughts go further
 Getting into details of
   other choices
   other possibilities

Breathe in
 Return to this moment
Breathe out
 Clear mind

Breathe in
 What am I?
Breathe out
 Don't know

Incense fills the room
Candles flicker
A car drives by
Fingers move the mala
  one bead at a time
 On the out breath

Meditating on a Saturday Morning

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Fundamentals: Don't Make Anything

What is Reality? What is our version of reality? Are they the same or different? For a long time it was almost a mantra for me to "see things as they are." What does that mean anyway? In the book, there is a topic about the fact that there are over seven billion people on earth. Does that mean there are seven billion versions of reality?

We all have this amazing awareness of our surroundings, our environment. We all see, hear, smell, taste, touch the one Reality. We then add our own views, Karma, wants, desires, judgments. We end up with a personal reality.

The thoughts presented to us by that big ball of non-stop energy we call our mind re-enforce this view. We listen to the thoughts in our heads and believe we are our thoughts. Is this really true? The great Zen Master So Sahn put in one of is books "treat each thought as unreal delusion." Why did he say that? Please investigate!

In Koan practice, a Zen teacher will ask a student questions with the ultimate goal of helping the student to find his or her own way toward waking up. One of the ways this helps is by showing us how we are constantly "making something", adding things that are not there. Here is an example:

Zhàozhōu’s Hermits

Zen Master Zhàozhōu once visited a hermit and asked, “Do you have it? Do you have it?” The hermit held up his fist. “The water is too shallow to anchor here,” said Zhàozhōu, and continued on his way. He came upon another hermit and called out, “Do you have it? Do you have it?” This hermit too held up his fist. “You are free to give or take away, to kill of give life,” Zhàozhōu said, bowing to him.

1. Why did Zhàozhōu approve of one answer and not the other?
2. If you were the first monk, what could you say to Zhàozhōu?
3. If you were the second monk, what could you say to Zhàozhōu?
How can you answer questions like these? There is a minimum of information given to us, yet all three questions can be answered. If you do not know the answer, keep these questions like this in mind as a kind of mantra, waiting for the answer to come. As always, if you want to try to answer it, contact me at If you want some more information, another past master 's comment on this is below.

Wúmén’s Comment

Both raised their fists; why was the one accepted and the other rejected? Tell me, what is the difficulty here? If you can give a turning word to clarify this problem, you will realize that Zhàozhōu’s tongue has no bone in it, now helping others up, now knocking them down, with perfect freedom. However, I must remind you: the two hermits could also see through Zhàozhōu. If you say there is anything to choose between the two hermits, you have no eye of realization. If you say there is no choice between the two, you have no eye of realization.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Zen and Math

In the computer science curriculum at the University of Illinois, there was a class that was really kind of fun. It was kind of like structured logic puzzles for a semester. Questions with wording like "if and only if" (which is much different than just plain "if"). For those who are wired with logical minds it is fun stuff. For those who aren't, it is probably like mental torture.

One of the topics of this class was called mathematical induction. Basically it says that if something is true for base case (called n, where n=0 or 1), and it is true for some other n, such as n+1, then it is true for all cases. (If you want more click here.)

Enough of that technical stuff. How does this apply to our lives? First off, a mild warning: this is kind of a thought experiment - and Zen is beyond words. However, there is a point to this exercise.

This person that I am was once one year old. The time from one year to two years came and went. This being that I am was once two years old. The time from two years to three years came and went. One fairly pivotal year in my life was when I was twenty three - that year came and went. We don't event have to stick to one year increments. High school was 4 years, and though it seemed to take forever, it came and went. In all cases, whether they seemed to go slow or fast, the years came and went. I cannot bring any of those years back. At this point, what memories I do have of any of those years is kind of like a recitation of facts. Those facts are probably a very small percentage of what happened, whatever stuck in the mind from the time.

So what is the point? In this little game, we might deduce that what is going on right now is also going to come and go, dwindle in intensity, be reduced to memory, and ultimately to fade from from the mind. Is that depressing? Or is it freedom? Or neither... or both?

Well, on one hand, this is why thought can not provide the answer to life's riddle of suffering. On the other hand, there is a lot of freedom in this. When we realize there is only now, yet this now is not what we think it to be, we may start to find freedom from suffering.

Bring awareness into each situation. Pay attention to each moment. See what it is you place importance on. Ask "is it really that important?" Pay attention to your actions and see how their effects may impact yourself and others. Awareness of all this may affect how we choose to live in each moment.

This awareness is what we strive for. Continuing to return to this present moment is the practice. It is the answer to suffering, it is the answer to what the mind throws at us. It is the answer to waking up to who we are. It is also the answer to the riddle of time. If we can only be alive in the here and now, is there really anything else?

Since this post started with math - here is a Zen Koan that has to do with math.

The 10,000 Dharmas return to the one
The 10,000 Dharmas return to the one, but where does the one return to?
If you want to try to answer it, please send me your response to Here is a little hint: if you try to answer this with words, it can quickly turn into philosophy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Freedom Style Zen

At one point Zen Master Wonji described my background as being "Freedom Style Zen." In fact, I thought about making that the title of this book. What does freedom style mean?

At some point in this life, I developed a very skeptical nature. When I heard a quote of the Buddha saying "Question everything", that was a right up my alley. Then, in the mid-nineties I found the book Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. In this book, Zen Master Seung Sahn also presented Zen in a no-bullshit way. I have spent years with this great book, often wallowing in confusion. From it I learned to keep the great question, "What am I?" with it's corresponding answer "Don't know."

Anyway, one of my attitudes was, "If Buddha didn't need a teacher, why do I?" Of course, the story of the Buddha may not be exactly what happened, but I kept the attitude anyway. In this vein, one of my favorite entries in Dropping Ashes was when Seung Sahn said people could chant "Coca Cola" and as long as they believed it, it would work. Refreshing honesty in a world where people are always selling something.

When I ran into Zen Master Wonji around 2005, I had a lot of questions for him. Such as, "If chanting leads to enlightenment, why aren't chorus members enlightened?" Another was, "Why do we have to wear these outfits, after all, they have nothing to do with waking up?" He had great, non-attached answers to these questions along with the many other questions I asked.

Many of my attitudes regarding formal Zen practice remain. After all, what does formal practice actually have to do with waking up? Oops! There goes some freedom style questioning seeping into this post. As mentioned before, Buddhism, practice, and Zen centers have their place and can be helpful and rewarding. Just never forget that enlightenment is in this very moment, wherever, whenever, whatever.

These questions are only the tip of the iceberg. Much more of this is covered in the book. To this end, there is great Koan about people's ideas around meditation being special. It is called "Xiangyan's Non-attained Buddha" and it goes like this:

A monk asked Chán Master Xiangyan:, “The Buddha of Supremely Pervading, surpassing Wisdom sat in meditation for ten eons and could not attain Buddhahood. He did not become a Buddha. Why?”
Venerable Xiangyan said, “Your question is quite self–evident.”
The monk persisted, “He meditated so long; why did he not attain Buddhahood?”
Master Xiangyan said, “Because he would not become Buddha.”

The Koan questions are:
  1. Why did he not attain Buddhahood?
  2. Dharma appears, and Dharma does not appear in this world; what does this mean?

As a Zen teacher in the Five Mountain Order/Buddhist Studies Institue - LA, I am authorized to teach Koans. If you want to try to answer this Koan or study Koans with us at the College of Zen Buddhism, please contact me at or contact us at the school via

Thursday, September 13, 2012

What Good are Sutras Anyway?

For those who lean towards Zen, the question may be asked "What are Sutras good for?"

Before we get to that question, let’s look at Buddhism in general. Zen is waking up to our original nature, not our original Buddhist nature - So why Buddhism?

Since the Buddha woke up over 2500 years ago, the Buddhists have been helping people to wake up. They have also been writing about it. The writings have taken many directions. A few examples: Some writings work to dispense the wisdom people have found when they have woken up. These teachings can help us by give us focus on correct direction. Some teachings try to point the way to help people to wake up. These teachings give us hard earned knowledge on how to practice. Some teachings sort of mix the two by providing abstract concepts that cannot really be understood by the thinking mind. These teachings cause great confusion, helping us keep don’t know mind.

Many of these Buddhists who came before us spent most of their lives as full-time Monks. They spent much time practicing and passing on what they learned. As a result, there is a huge storehouse of knowledge in the Buddhist Sutras.

For each of us that turn to Buddhism and meditation, we get exposed to many of these teachings. We can then see which types of teachings resonate with us. Even those of us who gravitate toward a certain type of teaching can still find use in many of the other types. Also, when we encounter people who are interested in Zen, we can gauge their leanings and introduce the types of teachings that may be most useful to them.

As Zen students, we see that Sutras have their place and we don't get hung up on any of them or treat them dogmatically. In fact, a single moment beyond words is worth more than any Sutra. So we treat them accordingly. Here is a short gatha from one of the Korean masters (Sanshan (Denglai)) from long ago:

 Talk produces many lifeless but marvelous meanings
  The tip of the tongue lacks bone but bears lies
 So to accept words and stick with sentences ultimately is of no use
  And what can you do with a frozen mind?

What does this mean?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Selling Water by the River

Another quarter has come to a close at College of Zen Buddhist Studies / Buddhist Studies Institue - LA. I was talking to Zen Master Wonji about classes the classes I currently teach there and if I should work on a new class to add for next quarter.

Here is the thing: the two classes I teach now (The Mirror of Zen and The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment) already cover anything one really needs to know about waking up. That is not to say you can simply read those books and you will wake up. It is to say, if you study those words, putting into practice the teachings discussed, you will have everything you need to cut through the delusion that is keeping you from seeing your true nature.

If everything is already there, why do we need any other classes? Why does the world even need the book I wrote on Zen and waking up? To muddy the waters a bit more, it gets even simpler. When I was working on the book and the lectures for the classes, it felt like all teachings were beginning to melt into a single mantra: return to present moment.

The role of a Zen teacher is to help people to wake up, to help people continue to return to the truth that is this very moment. And since not all teachings will resonate with all people, that also becomes part of the gig. We must continue to help people by finding that which will resonate with them.

Here is a poem I wrote one time when I was studying Buddha's first response in the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment. When I wrote this I was sitting outside on the deck of a house I was renting in Austin, TX.

Maitreya's Question in the SPE

In Buddha's answer to
  Maitreya Bodhisattva
Buddha says
  Attached love and
   are hinderances

So I started to make a
  list of attachments
  list of desires

So many attachments
  So many desires
   How do I get rid of them all?
    It seems impossible.

Oh Shit!
  I bit the hook!

What am I?
  Don't know.

Right here
  right now
   this very moment
If I must use words
 The sun is out
   The sky is blue
    with a few puffy white clouds

About that Thought (part 2)

At the risk of painting legs on a snake, I will elaborate on the previous About Thinking post. In that entry, Zen Master So Sahn referenced a gem that goes like this "If you know the arising thought is itself unreal delusion, you are already free."

Recently, I read a book on the neuroscience behind magic. In that book, the authors referenced a study that investigated the relationship between thought and action. Using some of the newer imaging technologies they were able to determine that for a given stimulus, the body acted first, following that - the mind generated a story about what happened.

There was also a discussion on the current thinking in their circles on the way memory works. They were saying that when an event is stored, we only keep certain details on it. Later, when we recall the memory, we actually fill in the rest of the details. Not only that - the memory is then re-stored with the new details that were just made up.

Add that to the fact (not from the book) that when we recall events we are also bringing the past into the present. We are then viewing yesterday’s memories with today’s accumulation of experience.

Of course, this is way too many words. It is one thing to read this and find it interesting. It is another to realize it.

Pay attention.

What do you find?

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment

The second class I teach at the College of Zen Buddhist Studies/Buddhist Studies Institute - LA is "The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment" as translated by A. Charles Muller. In this Buddhist teaching, the setting is a gathering of Boddhisattvas. With this backdrop, the sutra consists of a question and answer session between twelve of these Bodhisattvas and the Buddha.

These questions encompass many of the concepts in Buddhism including sudden and gradual enlightenment. One of the more interesting themes is to watch the development of the Buddhist teachings as they move from the sudden teachings to the gradual teachings.

Here is the way the class is described on the college website:

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, used in monastic education for more than a millennium (probably composed in the eighth century), is a concise guide to the key paradigms of the practice systems of the East Asian meditation schools (Ch'an, Son, and Zen). It has been most popular in the Chinese and Korean schools.

As Zen students, there is value to studying this Mahayana teaching as it employs many different ways to try to get people of different aptitudes to wake up. We will also see how it also helps the reader to understand the process of Sutra development.

In this course we will study this great teaching. The class will consist of reading assignments, video lectures, forum activities, quizzes and of course, a professor will be available. The ultimate goals of this class are to study this book, to see what we can glean from it as far as how to practice and how to teach others to practice. We will also focus on the development of the Sutra as it works to to help different audiences.

The purpose of this post is to briefly introduce this book. From time to time, I will be posting readings from this sutra and commenting on them. There is some really useful stuff in this text and I am very fortunate to be able to share it with others. Hopefully, you will find it useful as well.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

About That Thought

In The Mirror of Zen, Zen Master So Sahn quotes a gem that goes like this: “If you know the arising thought is itself unreal delusion, you are already free.”

If you haven’t been introduced to this before it may seem difficult to believe. Many of us love our thoughts. Even if we don't love all of our thoughts, we may still believe we are our thoughts. Maybe we should investigate this a little further.

One way to do that is by the practice of meditation. Specifically, watching the thoughts without buying into them. This type of practice generally uses the breath or a mantra as the mechanism to return to the present moment. By doing this, awareness of the ceaseless nature of thought grows. So grows insight into our own minds. (As an aside, meditation is really a grand subject and it is covered in much more detail in many places including Mind Makes Everything.)

As we pay attention, we will see a whole plethora of thoughts spanning many subjects. We may become aware of many things, including thoughts that aren’t in our best interest or even thoughts that are simply lies. We will see which thoughts grab us, excite us, and stress us out. Some thoughts will have us as the hero, some as the victim. It really is fascinating to watch.

We take it a bit further, along with watching the thoughts we work to not attach to them. Continuing to return to the breath or the mantra, we may begin to see the delusional nature of the ever-present thoughts. Instead of buying into them, we simply return to the truth of the present moment - without judgment. That is pretty neat stuff. It is also practical in the sense that it helps us in our everyday lives. So I ask you, are you your thoughts? Are your thoughts the truth?

(Note that Zen Master So Sahn took it even further - he mentioned freedom. Please find that freedom!)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Awareness & Opinions

The Dude: Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion man.

We are all born with this amazing awareness. We have senses acutely tuned into life on earth. Our eyes provide us with amazing pictures of reality. Our ears bring us the sounds of life. Likewise, our senses of smell, taste and touch round out our contact with the great reality around us.

My question to you is "if we are not thinking, is that reality same or different?" A corollary might be "if we are not thinking, are we the same or different?" So what is your answer to each question?

Well, we all start with the same reality. As an aside, can we be separate from this reality? The science behind this senses is quite solid. Our eyes behold color due to the photons registering on our visual sensors. Our ears gives us the sound only after being stimulated by the sound waves. The rest of the senses require contact too. Where is this separateness?

Back to reality. At this moment, there is one reality. Our senses give us as much of it as we can contact - directly or through other mediums such as TV and the telephone. As soon as that reality appears, we start to process it. And, as soon as we start to process it, the one reality disappears and becomes a personal version of reality. With 7 billion people on the planet that's a lot of different views!

Many people don't share the same views. One person's "good" is another person's "bad." One person's misery is another person's happiness. Reality, now filtered through conditioning and desire, becomes personal reality and opinion forms. The hamster wheel keeps turning.

If we try to wrap our brain around reality, we run into the deep questions. Such as, how can reality be good, and contain the holocaust, or the plague? Or How can reality be bad, with the smile of a child or the simple joy of music? That is biting the hook!

We put it all down. We stop judging reality as good or bad. We return to this present moment. We can also try to help reduce suffering, even if only a little. One way we can do that is by not defending our opinions so forcefully. Maybe we can realize that we just don't know what is good or bad. Reality is simply what is.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Verb Play

Upon reflection
 Time may seem to pass slowly
 Time may seem to pass quickly
   Yet it always passes
Sometimes we feel life is stagnant
  Nothing changes
   It will never change
Other times we wonder where the time went
  What happened to that
   Good situation?
  What happened to that
   Little boy?
    Young man?
Life is a verb
  Act accordingly

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Mirror of Zen

At the College of Zen Buddhist Studies/Buddhist Studies Institute - LA, I teach a couple of classes. One of them uses "The Mirror of Zen" by Korean Zen Master So Sahn as the textbook. In the book, ZM So Sahn picked out 86 readings from various Buddhist texts. He then added some commentaries and a few capping verses. There are also a few Koans in there as well, so it really covers the gamut of Korean Buddhism.

Here is the way the class is described on the college web site:
From the preface: "If you were to comb the mountains and valleys of Korea, polling every meditating monk and nun and hermit and ascetic as to the most necessary, essential, inseparable compendium of teachings apart from the Buddha's sutras themselves, chances are that most of them would choose The Mirror of Zen. It is by far the most quoted, most cited, most referred-to text in the tea rooms and teaching halls of the Zen temples in Korea."

Its author was Zen Master So Sahn who was born in 1520 in what is now North Korea. He became a monk at 21 and during his lifetime he assumed leadership positions at both the Zen and Sutra schools of Korean Buddhism. For this book, he chose 86 teachings from the Buddhist canon as the essence of of Zen. He also added commentaries, gathas, and capping phrases for our benefit.

In this course we will study this great book. The class will consist of reading assignments, video lectures, forum activities, quizzes and of course, a professor will be available. The ultimate goals of this class are first introducing us to this great book and ultimately together we will learn from a great Zen Master of the past.
The purpose of this post is to briefly introduce this book. From time to time, I will be posting readings from this book and commenting on them. There is some really neat stuff in this text and I am very fortunate to be able to share it with others. Hopefully you will find it useful as well!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Holding the Door Dharma

In Zen we talk about the idea of meditation as practice. What other kinds of practice can we do to help us along the spiritual path? How about holding the door for others?

In Zen there is this character called Bodhidharma. He is alleged to be the first ancestor who took the teachings of the Buddha to the East. There is a question about Bodhidharma that goes: "What is Bodhidharma's family tree?" In this case the answer is "How can I help?". If you are not familiar with Bodhidharma, I heartily recommend doing a little research. There are some teachings attributed to Bodhidharma as well, notably the Bloodstream sermon, the Breakthrough sermon and the Wake-up sermon. They are all worth investigating.

So back to our question, why hold the door for other people? If we really want to help others, we need to actually do it. Granted, holding the door for people is not going to relieve suffering. It is, however, going to change some attitudes within us. Depending on the mind we bring to our practice, many things can occur as you hold the door for others.

If we pay attention, we may notice a tremendous amount of judgment that goes on in the mind. When someone says thank you, we may feel glad or happy. When someone says nothing, we may feel some sort of negative emotion and even begin judging that person. What do we do in this case? Well, why are we holding the door for people? Is it for accolades? Is it for people to like us? No. We are doing it for our own practice. If others are helped, great! Some people really appreciate a helping hand and that is wonderful. Some people could care less, yet it was still a service opportunity for us, so that is wonderful. Maybe holding the door will allow someone to get in front of us in line. More practice!

We can also start to look for other service opportunities. Can we let people merge in front of us in traffic? Can we do it without judgment? Maybe we still make gestures at people when we are out driving. We can work to stop doing that, even if the most we can do at the moment is to keep the gestures below the dashboard so they can't be seen.

In any case, we do not attach to this. We are not good or bad for helping others. As Bodhidharma might say, we are not creating any merit by our actions. This is not to say there is no benefit in this practice. It can and will provide benefit as even the slightest thought and action with the attitude of helping others will help us in our practice.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Bike Path Precept

Last quarter at the College of Zen Buddhism in the Five Mountain Zen Order/Buddhist Studies Institute - LA we had a class on the precepts in Zen Buddhism and how to insure they are relevant in the twentieth century. Of course, there were a lot of opinions on what we should do in this area. There were two primary concerns. One area was the level of detail. The second was on the primary wording being positive rather than negative.

For example there is a precept that states "I vow to abstain from taking life." For item one, the precept could be changed to include direction on everything related to living such as euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, etc. For the wording issue, the precept could be stated as something positive like I vow to respect life.

How does this really relate to our lives as Zen students? In fact, how do the precepts really relate to life in general? Here is an example of how a precept has developed for me.

For exercise, lately, I have been doing a lot of rollerblading. The best place to blade around here is on a shared use path that goes around a local lake. This involves interacting with others which is generally what the precepts cover. Since other people can be affected, there can also be Karmic reactions. As Zen students our focus is "how can I help." How can this attitude be brought to to the bike path?

The path has many types of people on it: Parents out for walks with their children, mothers and couples pushing strollers, other rollerbladers, walkers - with and without dogs, runners, casual bicyclists and aggressive bicyclists.

The first part of the bike path precept could be something like: don't make anyone else uncomfortable. What would that entail? As a rollerblader who likes to go fast, I am probably going anywhere from 8 to 10 mph. Walkers are going 2-3 mph. Families with kids even slower. Thus the precept might have a suggestion to always announce "on your left" when passing. Many people appreciate that and it prevents them from being startled in case they don't here me coming.

What about speed when passing? If they are adults, I don't generally slow down. If they have dogs, I am wary and make sure they hear I am coming in case they need to hold on to their dog a little more tightly. If they have children - I slow down considerably. If I were to hit a kid, even because the parent wasn't keeping control of their child, it is still going to be my fault - and I am sure I would feel awful about it. So keeping this in mind helps to elminate any mind games such as judging with thoughts like "they should control their kid".

How about space when passing? When I am walking, I don't like it when people pass too close to me. Accordingly, I try to give plenty of space - both to people on the right and the left. Here there can be mind games going on, too. I want to go fast. These people are in my way, etc.

What about the other aggressive people on the bike trail? Many people are on the bike trail without any concern for anyone but themselves. It is easy to judge them when they pass without enough space or come whooshing by without warning. Is it our job to let them know they are selfish? Well, that could be another part of the precept. Do we keep our mouths shut - is it our job to let them know they are being rude? Generally, I just try to keep my own side of the street clean.

A lot goes on during a ride on the bike trail. Do I keep all of these rules all of the time? Generally, though it really has taken a lot of practice to get to this point. Hence, these guidelines have come from experience. I used to do many of the things outlined here. What I found is that is that paying attention during the blade has made me aware of what feels right and what doesn't.

Precepts are wisdom passed down from previous generations of Buddhists. If we are unaware, the precepts can help give us direction. If we are aware, the precepts are common sense - though not really written in stone. Of course, there are many levels in between as well. Some times we are a little off, so a hard and fast rule can help us.

If I were writing a precept for the bicycle path, it would simply say: Be courteous to others on the bike path. For those who wanted more detail, I could point them to this essay for some of the reasoning behind how the precept came about and what it encompasses.

Now maybe we can come up with a precept for driving!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Why do we live?

Why do we do it? Why do we get up each day and do the things necessary to live? I am being serious. Have you ever investigated this? This is actually a Koan we investigate in the Five Mountain Zen Order. In the Koan, The question is not asked directly, so I am not going to be giving away any answers.

I had this question put to me directly when on vacation. My wife had a planned a trip, she had been organizing it for months. Before the trip I had some dental pain, and I had it taken care of before we left. Well, sure enough, the night before the flight, that very tooth started hurting. Not in the sharp pain way, instead in the dull throbbing pain way. Mental pain set in, too, as we were going out of the country to some remote areas - fear of nerve pain in a strange land. The pain sort of came and went and I wasn't about to ruin my wife's trip. I brought plenty of Motrin and hoped that would do the trick. That night we were in Lima, Peru and the pain came back - very strongly. Plus more mental pain since Lima was the last big city we'd be in. I was unable to sleep and ended up laying awake in bed all night.

Bringing awareness into the situation, I was watching the thoughts. The pain at this point was probably 7-8 out of ten. There were some thoughts about making the pain go away. I could probably get some narcotics as they don't have the same rules as the US. I have heard too many stories of people getting addicted to painkillers, so I really didn't want to go that route (I have since read that even the narcotic pain killers are not that effective against tooth nerve pain). I could get a dentist, though I was worried about the level of dental care in Peru. And it was Saturday. And it was Peru's independence day. Though at this point I didn't care if the tooth had to be pulled. Watching the thoughts, there was a thought about jumping out of the 7th story window of the hotel - finally, the point of this story!

As a practicing Zen teacher, the primary practice is to watch the thoughts but to not attach to any of them. So it was interesting to watch these thoughts in this much pain. Pain changes things. The generally happy, outgoing guy who loves to travel was replaced by the "don't touch me... leave me alone" guy. So what about this thought of jumping out the window? I have done much practice on death, not attaching, and being OK to die at any moment. After all there is only now - and one of these "nows" will be the moment of death.

So if death isn't a big deal. Why not jump? Well, to start with, I have a wife who was looking forward to a nice vacation with her husband. I have parents, brothers, and other family members that would be very upset by such an action. The list goes on, from the two dogs that I feed to the guys that would clean up the mess. I hope you see where this is going. What am I? Is there a single independent I? Do I live my life for me and my pleasures? Or do I live for all beings? I ask you, what do you live for?

By the way - the picture is from the Parque Reserva in Lima.

How did this play out?
The pain in the jaw
  went on
   and on
    and on
The person had changed
  from the friendly, outgoing guy
  "leave me alone!"

The ache was intense
  The fear took hold as
This was only the beginning of
  A two week trip into remote parts of South America

A dentist search began
  In Lima, Peru
   On Saturday
   Independence Day

Thoughts of
  Life and Death
    and "Fuck!"
Went round and round

A dentist was found
  She was very nice
   Her equipment was old
  She used a lighter to sterilize the needle

She worked for two hours
  on the bad tooth
The worst of the pain went away
  the vacation continued
   with a lot less pain
Getting a root canal in Lima, Peru on independence day

Sunday, July 22, 2012


The transitory nature of existence is a core issue of our lives. Nothing is permanent and nothing lasts. How do we find happiness in a world of impermanence? It may require an adjustment in our thinking. The idea that anything will be static has to change. As the saying goes, the only constant is life is change!

How do we make this adjustment? We could practice paying attention. Whenever we find ourselves grasping or holding on to something, we could question what it is that we are holding onto. It could be a short term thing such as going to a movie, or on a date, or on a vacation. We may find ourselves looking forward to the event. Anticipating the upcoming situation. Then the situation comes and goes. Now it is in the past. We wish it could last forever. It never does. That is human. It is the way life works. Some people deal with this by always having something new to look forward to.

How do we as Zen students deal with this? We continue to return to this present moment. When on vacation, be on vacation. When at work, be at work. Never make where you want to be more important that where you are.

Isn't this nihilistic? Surely, vacation is better than work! No doubt about it. Given a choice, I would most likely be on the Big Island of Hawaii. Yet, I am sure we have all had fun moments at work and miserable moments on vacation. The point is we can't hold on to any of it. Ultimately, we see that life is a verb, not a noun. This, too, shall pass.

Does returning to this present moment, being fully present, really work to relieve suffering? Yes. In fact, this is the practice of meditation. With each breath, we come back to the present moment. Ultimately, we realize this moment is all there is. What else could there be? The past is a memory, which we continue to change. The future is an idea, a hope.

So what changes? Impermanence becomes an outmoded concept! All there is is this present moment.

I am sure this is a topic we will revisit. Here is a poem about the young me trying to hold on to a day at an amusement park.

Six Flags

When I was 6
  I would lay awake
  Having been told about
   Heaven and Hell
  I wondered if there
   were carrots in heaven
  I was scared
   Because if Heaven lasts forever
    I was gonna get bored
When I was 11
  I was upset because
   Everything was always over
  I would look forward to things
   But they would always pass
    and I couldn’t hold on to them
when I was 17
  I knew, someday,
   I was going to
    put on a robe
    put on some sandals
    paste on a beard
   And go sit on a mountain
    until I figured it all out
when I was 27
  I started
   reading zen books and sutras
   learning about don’t know mind
Looking back
  When I was 11
   I couldn’t wait to go to Six Flags
    to ride the roller coasters
     and water slides
   It was so much fun
    Funny, the things I remember most were
     how delicious the 5 cent root beer was
      on that hot summer day
     how well I slept on the bus
      during the ride home
    My 11 year old mind
     made the time at Six Flags
      better than the time
      spent elsewhere
     A lesson it has taken
      a long time to unlearn