Saturday, April 26, 2014

Zen and Philosophy II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sudden Enlightenment, Gradual Cultivation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Doing it Later

As we all know, the mind is going, going, going. The big ball of energy (or whichever metaphor you prefer) never stops. As spiritual seekers, the mind is always trying to "help." It might do so by trying to explain things that we may find beyond thought. It might try to explain reality using philosophy. It might try to help comfort us, telling us things will be better later.

What about spiritual procrastination? Things like:
  • Tomorrow I am going to meditate for several hours
  • This weekend I am going to have a day long silent retreat
  • I had some realization, I need to sit and let it soak in
  • Tonight, I am not going to watch TV - I will meditate and do yoga until bedtime
There are countless ways this can manifest. Ultimately, it boils down to thinking. Planning for some future that may or may not even remotely resemble our plans. So how do we combat this - with more thinking?

Among the many definitions of Zen attributed to Zen Master Seung Sahn, one is "Zen is how you keep your mind, moment to moment." This moment. Not a future moment. The practice is here and now. In all situations, we return to this moment. If we are listening to the thoughts, giving them weight and importance, we cut them off and return to the present. That is the practice. It is not there and then. It is not limited to some cushion by candlelight. It is right where you are.

If Enlightenment isn't in this very moment, where is it?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Baizhang's Wild Duck - Answers

In the previous two posts, I proposed a set of questions to turn this Dharma exchange into an exercise that can be used to help people gain some insight.
Once again, here is the story:
Zen master Baizhang was walking with Mazu and saw a wild duck fly by.
Mazu said "What is that?"
Baizhang repiled "A wild duck."
To which Mazu asked "Where is it going?"
Baizhang said "It is flying away."
Mazu twisted Baizhang's nose and said "When did it ever fly away?"
The first question is: "What was Baizhang's mistake?"
This could also be asking, why did Mazu twist Baizhang's nose? The answer is in the story. Cutting right to the heart of the matter, the answer is - "It is flying away." Why is this the answer instead of something like:
  • If form is emptiness and emptiness is form how could there even be away?
  • He made a difference between himself and the bird
  • Away from what, is Baizhang is the center of the universe?
So my question to you would be - How can you be sure that is the reason Mazu twisted Baizhang's nose? If the story was recounted correctly, his mistake was "It is flying away!"

This is useful because we spend much of our time adding a layer to reality. In Zen, we are working to get clear mind, to cut through the illusory world that we make up. Here we practice putting down our ideas, our concepts. We don't just think of it as good in theory, we practice it.
The second question is: If you were Baizhang, how could you answer "Where is it going?"
A little role playing. We try to put ourselves in this situation, walking with a Zen teacher who is asking us about the duck. Even if we think this is a silly question, we cut through that thought and try to answer the teacher. Answers to try might include:
  • North for summer
  • Point in the direction of the bird
  • Birds fly, it is just flying
A Zen teacher wouldn't accept any of these answers. All these answers are filled with concepts. We are Zen students, how do we get beyond thinking? The answer I would accept for this is for the student to flap their arms like a flying duck.

This is useful because we spend much of our time lost in concepts, which we often substitute for reality. We put them all down and answer without words.

The third question is: When did it ever fly away?
The answer to this one is a little more difficult. In fact it is tempting to give the same answer as above - this time the question is not about the duck! What is it that is referred to? In the idea of Sunyata, form is emptiness, emptiness is form - how could anything fly away? It turns out, this is similar to questions such as "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" So we put down all concepts, like when, fly, away, and return to this very moment. Any truth answer will suffice. Just seeing, hearing, what ever is going on this very moment. Or anything that is truth: Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

This is helpful because we spend much of our time lost in concepts. We want to explain Buddhism, or reality, or what we've discovered. But again, Zen is beyond words, so how can we express truth? Koan practice actually helps us to realize this through practice. It is amazing that during Koan study, someone will pass several Koans, only to jump right back into philosophy and concepts on the next Koan. Not good, not bad. Practice, practice, practice.