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!)