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.