Thursday, August 1, 2013

Zen and Philosophy

A student in one of the classes at Buddha Dharma University asked the following question: In Philosophy, there is an emphasis on the generation of opinions and the development of the so-called Schools of Thought. I wonder if Zen could be considered a school of thought by Philosophy. Is Zen even a Philosophy?

So this is interesting. Many people who read Sutras, the words of the Buddha, the words of the patriarchs, the words in many Zen and Buddhist books, develop a philosophy based on these teachings. The past masters were trying to be helpful putting "enlightened" concepts into words. To try to help others find the way, they risked diluting the Dharma.

The concept of Sunyata leads to things like: What did the Zen Master say to the hot dog vendor? Make me one with everything :-). In pop culture, Caddyshack, has the line: be one with the ball. Even ideas like "one world" or "we are all one" or "we are all in this together". So these are ideas. The Enlightened sages have taught emptiness, and people have run with it as thought experiments.

What about the precepts? We have many precepts handed down to us. Some from enlightened folks, I suppose, some maybe not. Yet people run with those, too. Kind of like the ten commandments. They even go so far as to make them sacred.

Another example. In the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, the first chapter talks about how to directly wake up. By the end of the Sutra we have Buddhism, types of meditation, retreats, etc.

Often, in Koan practice, students will often try to give philosophical answers to questions. [E.g. where will you go when you die?]. A good Zen teacher will not accept philosophical answers! Another example is the question "What is Buddha?" that received an answer of "Dried shit on stick" from a great Zen Master of the past. People have taken this answer to mean many, many things. Such as Zen is the mundane, or Zen is not special. The philosophy of dried shit! If you gave me any of these answers, I would most likely say something like "Now you are getting into philosophy."

So, yes a lot of philosophy has come out of Buddhism and Zen. As Zen students trying to wake up, we need to put it all down. With practice, maybe we will attain some clarity that will help us see what these past masters were trying to get at. Maybe we will realize for ourselves what it really means and not be limited by concepts and words.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Kumare and Insight

Recently, someone recommended the movie Kumare to me. It was an interesting movie and has some valid points for discussion. First off, this isn't a review of the movie. There are plenty of those on the internet. Also there will be spoilers, so if you are planning to see the film, you may not want to finish this article now.

Basically, this is the story of a 2nd generation Indian living in the United States who decides that he is going to become a guru. And he is going to really do it up - the big indian beard, the accent, the meaningless teachings that sound wise, the colorful garb. The whole works.

He manages to get himself in front of spiritual seekers by putting on special events at Yoga centers and develops a following. All of this we have to take with a grain of salt since it is all being filmed. What are all of these students thinking with all of these cameras around? But, we will put that aside for now. He starts to develop a following of people who think they have found a genuine teacher.

Kumare is filling the role they expect of a teacher. He listens to them. He does Yoga and mediation with them. He gives them spiritual talks. Some of it is stuff he made up himself. Some he has taken from other traditions. At the end, he has the big reveal - he is not a guru, just pretending to be one. It was all a put on.

The problem is, Kumare or Vikram has no insight. Yoga and meditation are genuine spiritual practices. They work when people do them. Kumare, in his guru role, was spending time with people. Listening to them, making them feel like someone cared. This is what spiritual leaders do. So, what a surprise, if someone pretends to be a wise, caring guru he will end up with students looking for help on the journey.

So, yes, people can be fooled. Yes, people are looking for guidance on the spiritual path. Yes, people can get taken advantage of, and, unfortunately they do.

So what is the takeaway from this? If we are helping people on the spiritual path, we must be sincere. We must hold ourselves to a higher standard. And most importantly, we must let people know the answer is inside them. Each person has Buddha nature. Each person is a Buddha.

It reminds me of the story of a novice monk asking a Zen Master for help. The Zen Master said something like: Why do you waster your time with me? You have the greatest treasure of the world already within you!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Our Daily Bread

In the Five Mountain Zen Order, when a Novice teacher is promoted to a Zen Master, there is an Inka ceremony. During this ceremony, the prospective teacher sits on a cushion and one by one people come up and have a little Dharma exchange. Dharma exchange is sort of like verbal zen combat. Some sample questions might be:
  • What is beginners mind?
  • How do you cut through delusion?
  • In this moment, what would you like to not say?
Generally, at the time of the ceremony, the presiding Zen Master has already decided to promote the novice teacher. So these interactions are generally light and full of laughter. At the last one of these I attended, this is what I put to the candidate:
In fifty years I will be dead and none of this will matter. So why should I practice Zen?
This question has a couple of big hooks. If none of this matters, what is the point? Is Zen just a waste of time? Even bigger, is life just a waste of time? We have spent a lot of blog space on impermanence. The idea that nothing lasts. All things will end. So how can we answer?

In the West, many of us have heard the sayings: This too shall pass and Give us this day our daily bread. These almost seem contradictory as well. Should we focus on time passing? Or on this day? And, could these relate to our answer?

If you have practiced meditation, have practiced Zen or some other form of spirituality, or have even read a bit of this blog - the answer may be clear. The practice is coming back to this present moment. If this question were posed to me, I would answer something like this: "Just sitting here talking to you is already enough."

So, yes, there is impermanence. All things will pass. Are we wasting time? We put it all down and return to this present moment. To our daily bread. To the only moment there is.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Don't Know Mind

In the last post regarding the class on Dropping Ashes on the Buddha we looked at how Zen Master Seung Sahn tried to help his students with the question "What is Zen?" One of the answers found in the book was "keeping don't know mind." What is don't-know mind?

As in the previous lesson, there was a selection of readings that focused on how this was presented to his students. In the class we combed through those sections and came up with the following list:
  • Clear mind
  • Cutting off all thinking/empty mind
  • Like this
  • True self
  • True emptiness
  • No I to get confused about
  • Before thinking*
  • Great doubt
  • No words, no speech
  • Big mind
As said before on this blog. Enlightenment is not what you think. In fact, our practice is to keep don't know mind. This not knowing mind is very important. If you keep this don't know mind you will Wake Up!

Once again it is a marvelous book if you are interested in Zen. And all of these topics are much more fleshed out in the book and the class. If you want to study it with us at Buddha Dharma University, the class has already started for this quarter. It will be available in the quarters to come as well.

* - As our lineage contains Zen Master Seung Sahn, it may come as no surprise the URL for the university is

Sunday, July 7, 2013

You Are Already Dead!

In the class on Dropping Ashes on the Buddha, we cover the following interview between Zen Master Seung Sahn and a student:
SS: Do you have any questions?
Student: Yes, what is death?
SS: You are already dead.
Why would he say this? Clearly this student is sitting in front of him, still breathing. In the last post, we looked at how Zen Master Seung Sahn responded when asked "What is Zen?" One of his responses was, "Keeping the mind that is before thinking."

Here is how the interview continued:
Student: I'm only dying. I haven't really experienced death yet. I don't even understand what that would mean.
The Zen Master hit him
The student became confused and couldn't answer
SS: When you think death, you make death. When you think life you make life. When you are not thinking, there is no life and no death. In empty mind, is there a you? Is there an I?

First off, what is this hit? When Zen Master Seung Sahn "hit" somebody, it was usually a light tap with his Zen stick. It wasn't an act of violence! In this instance, the student was lost. So many words, so much thinking.

Next, what about this line: "When you think death, you make death?" In the history of Zen, there are many enlightenment stories. As part of these stories, there are some capping verse or phrase that the newly enlightened person writes or says. Several of these stories end with a line or phrase similar to "Mind makes everything."

So, if we keep the mind that is before thinking. We will not have life and death, like or dislike. It is possible to end suffering in this lifetime.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

What is Zen? - According to Zen Master Seung Sahn

The class on Dropping Ashes on the Buddha is ready to go! If you click the link, it is BST517 under the Buddhist Studies heading. An earlier post mentions the ideas for coming up with the class. A short 6 months later and the class is done.

Putting together this class was a lot more involved than the other two classes I have prepared. This was because it is not a linear start on page one and go through to page 232 type of book study. Instead, a selection of readings has been chosen to illustrate Zen Master Seung Sahn's teachings and teaching style across several topics. Over the next few blog posts, the various topics will be highlighted. The class started by briefly looking at the Diamond and Heart Sutras as discussed by Zen Master Seung Sahn in another book of his called The Compass of Zen. This was done to put into context the Zen Master's teachings.

Following that, the next topic was Zen - as in, how does Zen Master Seugn Sahn answer the question: What is Zen? Ultimately, by combing through several sections in the book the following list was arrived at:
  • Zen is understanding your [true] self
  • Keeping Don't Know mind (Answer to the great question "What is This?")
  • Reaching 360 degrees on the Zen circle*
  • Keeping the mind that is before thinking
  • Everyday mind
  • To become clear
  • Understanding life and death

Once again it is a marvelous book if you are interested in Zen. And all of these answers are much more fleshed out in the book and the class. If you want to study it with us at Buddha Dharma University, the class will begin this quarter.

* - The Zen circle is a teaching device Zen Master Seung Sahn used for a while. It is covered in section 2 of Dropping Ashes on the Buddha.

Attachment to Emptiness

If a Zen teacher poses the following question (assuming he has a pen and a cup):

  This pen and this cup are they the same or different?

How can you answer?

Seems like such a silly question. Anybody who looks at the two objects can clearly see a pen and a cup. So why would a spiritual teacher ask this?

In an earlier post, the Heart Sutra and Sunyata were discussed. In the Heart Sutra it says "Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form."

What is this emptiness? Also known as Sunyata, the short version is that life can be viewed as transitory and without independent existence. A simple example is me and the sound I am hearing now. The human ears don't exist in a vacuum. The inner ear needs contact from the sound's waves for the sound to make an impression.

With that simple example in mind. Are the pen and the cup the same or different? If you were to answer "the same", the teacher would likely say: "You are attached to emptiness." Because the student was stuck in the absolute where there is no difference between things. Difference is made by thinking. If you were to answer "different", the teacher would likely say: "You are attached to name and form." How can you win?

Different teachers have different styles. Zen Master Seung Sahn might have said something like "If you say the same, I will hit you 30 times. If you say different, I will hit you thirty times." I never heard of Seung Sahn actually hitting people. It was more of a teaching mechanism.

So back to the question. What answer would a Zen teacher accept?

Monday, May 20, 2013

Practice For 10,000 Years

Wake up! Delusion is everywhere. Delusions are endless. Yet we only have one lifetime to cut through them all. Sounds impossible, how do we do it?

Practice. As Zen Master Seung Sahn used to say Practice for ten thousand years non-stop. There are many clues how to practice in this blog, on the web, in countless books, in my book.

The point is just do it!

Lots of reasons why we don't need to practice are sure to come up. No attainment with nothing to attain - so why even try? I'm gonna die anyway, so whats the big deal? Zen doesn't have any concept of salvation so what is to gain?

Zen is about returning to this very moment. As Zen Master Wonji likes to say: "If Zen isn't helping you in your daily life - what good is it?" Your daily life is here, now. This moment.

When a famous Zen Master was asked Why did Bodhidharma come from the west. He replied the Cypress tree in the garden. Live words. Words that are only valuable there and then. If you ask me that question and I give the same answer - does that make sense?

So I ask you "Why did Bodhidharama come from the west?" Cut off all thoughts. Look around. Do not name anything you see. Do not discriminate between dark and light, good and bad, alive and dead. Give me an answer!

Continue to answer that question. Every moment of every day. Practice only that for 10,000 years. It is 91 degrees and sunny today.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Teaching Zen

Previously on the blog was the topic of turning the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn into a class for the Buddha Dharma University. The book is a collection of episodes of Seung Sahn teaching Zen to students via live interaction, Dharma talks, and letters.

The book gives a great look into the teachings and teaching methods of an awakened Zen Master. Throughout the history of Zen and Buddhism, there have been many teachers to come and go. Along with them have been many different styles of teachings.

For example, there are many Sutras (teachings) that have been written throughout the centuries. Because there are many different schools of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, these Sutras cater to many different audiences, with many different aptitudes. These teachings are often helpful. Sometimes they are used to help people wake up. Sometimes people use them to try to understand Buddhist philosophy.

Going in another direction are the teachings of the Patriarchs. These were Zen masters who tried to help people wake up by directly pointing to their true nature. They used their understanding of the absolute - ideas such as "not good, not bad" and "don't make same and different" to help their students to keep a "don't know" mind. These teachers were not sharing what they found out, they were trying to help their students find it for themselves.

ZM Seung Sahn clearly falls in the patriarch category. He is never portrayed as a man of knowledge who doles out advice on ho to live. He is not championing his political opinions or his ideas on the best way to live. Refreshingly, he never evens answers the question of What is Enlightenment. (Since the big E is beyond words - how could he?)

To an outsider, it might seem he spends most of his time confusing his students! Spending a little time with this, we begin to see why this is. Because enlightenment is beyond words - it is useless to try to explain it. Instead he tries to get people to see it for themselves.

Everyone already has their ideas. They think they have some answer for the big questions of life. If Zen Masters try to give their own answers, they are simply adding to the mass of philosophy that is already out there. Instead, as in this case, we are provided with live words. Words that help us to keep don't know mind, to cut through the delusion in front of us and to wake up.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Classwork: Dropping Ashes on the Buddha

The school where I teach classes on Zen has been renamed. It is now Buddha Dharma University. It is run by the Five Mountain Zen Order. It is a great place to learn and study Zen. There is already quite an array of classes available. The reason I mention it, is because it is the kind of thing I wish was available when I was newly intrigued by meditation, which led me to Zen.

As an aside, Zen is generally associated with meditation. Yet, Zen doesn't even really require meditation. What is Zen anyway? There are some other posts on this blog about that as well as in the book. This finally brings us to the point of this post.

What did Zen Master Seung Sahn say when asked what is Zen? How did he teach? Dropping Ashes on the Buddha provides many answers to these questions. It is a collection of 100 of his interactions with students. Some lectures, some letters, and many question and answer sessions with students.

This book had a very profound influence on me. Seung Sahn's style and his teachings really resonated - even though they didn't make much sense at first. I have read and re-read this book so many times I had to get a second copy. So for the last few weeks, my blogging time has been spent going through this book with an eye toward how to present it in a class.

The way it seemed to make sense to do this was to go through the book and cross-link the talks into various categories. For example: What is Zen. He answers this one question in many different ways as parts of many different answers to student questions.

Another topic is Dharma Exchange. Briefly, this is a way of challenging students with Zen riddles - trying to get them to a moment of don't-know mind. This will be covered in more detail later in another post. The Dharma exchanges presented in the book are quite instructive and helpful. They really do point to the heart of the Buddha's teachings. My hope is that the class will help people to see this, to make these teachings more useful. There are many more topics that are covered in the book and several of them will be covered in the class.

Additionally, the class will also consist of video lectures, homework, and forum discussions. So there is still quite a bit of work to be done. It is exciting because coming up with class material really provides an opportunity to study a book I really love.