Thursday, December 7, 2017

receiving in the darkness


The Four Bodhisattva Vows, from the Boundless Way Zen liturgy:

Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha Way is unsurpassable; I vow to embody it.


As the sun's transit across the sky gets shorter and shorter, I find myself touching into a deep sorrow about what it means to be human. 

Perhaps it's the darkness, or maybe just the accumulation of anniversaries of deaths and endings of all kinds from the past.  So much loss touches my heart, both personal and global.  Sorrow accompanies love and connection within the truth of impermanence.  If we could wall off our hearts from feeling love, perhaps things would be easier.  And there are so many of us who try to do just that.  When the going gets tough, some of us get going as fast as we can away from the pain of connection.   We run as far as we can from the truth of the transient nature of all phenomena.  We cut off connection to people, or we try to escape into fantasy and various distractions.  The internet can be very helpful in this regard.

I am saddled with a personality that, when faced with loss and the retreat of affection, impulsively moves me towards the people who have left me, trying to win them back.  As a coping strategy, it succeeds intermittently.  But more often, it makes the other person back away further.  And it exhausts me.  It's like grabbing the autumn leaves as they float to the ground, trying to paste them back on the trees.  Once something goes, it's gone.  Although the problem for me is, unlike the leaves, sometimes people come back.  And so I get positive feedback for continuing to reach out to those who have retreated.

Recently, I was inspired by a dear Dharma friend and student, Jeanie Erlbaum, to look into this matter in a new way.  She talks about reversing the order of the Four Bodhisattva Vows, which, when you really look into them, seem quite impossible.  How can I save all beings?  End all of my delusions?  Enter all the Dharma gates and be a Buddha?  For someone like me, the continued action towards unattainable goals feels very familiar.  But Jeanie suggests turning them all around.

What if all beings are actually working on freeing us?  Just thinking in this way, I feel a sense of relief through my whole body.  And gratitude for everyone, even the most difficult people.  And the endless passions, if we open to them fully, end up ending us -- our addiction to our limited ego identities.  Sadness, anger and fear burn us up, and all that is left is the awakened heart.  Everywhere we look, Dharma gates are getting ready to enter us.  We can receive the teachings of this boundless world, no matter what shape these gates take.  Some of them are quite beautiful, some painful, and everything else in between.

And then there's this Great Way of the Buddha.  In this reversal, we are already the embodiment of awakening.  Awakening looks like us. 

On this day when darkness comes early, I invite you to open to receiving -- the activity of all beings set upon freeing us, the passions which melt and transform the heart, and the gates of the teaching opening to us and taking us in.  And perhaps most of all, take a moment to look in the mirror and see the Buddha that greets you there.  As one Tibetan teacher once said, the world is "kindly bent to ease us."  Turn toward that kindness, and feel the ease filling your body, heart and mind.  It's a small turning, but a profound one. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

random thoughts on identity, no-self and suffering


I was recently speaking to a Dharma friend about all of the varieties of discrimination being highlighted in the world right now.  The tendency for human beings to feel a connection to a rigid self-definition, based on race, ethnicity, gender and/or religion, and to feel oppressed by  other people who define themselves based on race, ethnicity, gender and/or religion, is relentless.  And all of these categories do feel important and meaningful.  Black lives really do matter.  And the awakening these days to the pervasiveness of gender discrimination is something that I have found very useful in helping me to make sense of many of the previously puzzling encounters with men throughout my life.  Memory keeps delivering more and more experiences of small and large aggressions against me, like so many long-delayed pieces of mail, which had previously been felt as immediately painful and then quickly dropped below the level of consciousness.

And then, of course, there is the Buddhist teaching of no-self, which is so central to my practice.  My friend was wondering how to reconcile these two views -- of ourselves as belonging to a specific human being category, and at the same time being nobody.  I have been writing on this topic for months now, and thinking about it for most of my life.  I haven't come up with anything that seems to neatly solve the puzzle. 

I suspect that something that might be helpful here is to look at the self/no-self koan from another teaching viewpoint, that of suffering.  My understanding is that suffering is caused by a refusal or inability to accept reality.  We want things to be different, and so we suffer because things are not different.  Maybe they'll be different in a minute, or a week, or a century, but in this moment, fighting reality is always a losing proposition.  We can use our acceptance of reality to effect real change in the world, through the insight that arises when we stop fighting and running away from what is happening.  There is a lot of wasted energy in the refusal to be with things as they are, and that energy can be better used to bring wisdom and compassion to any situation.

And here is where recognizing that there is no self, really, and at the same time that we identify and are treated as a specific type of person within a certain category, is simply that -- a recognition.  It's in the dislike of these two types of view that our discomfort arises, sometimes as a minor irritation, sometimes as great grief and pain.  People are oppressed by other people, and treated by others as other.  We all do this, and we all are recipients of this.  The acceptance of this reality doesn't mean that we will be free of the consequences of it.  But if we can bear the discomfort, we can be free in the middle of the world as it actually is. I am free to feel whatever I feel in response to someone's offensive remark.  And I am free to receive feedback about my own blindness. 

And so the journey to being awakened human beings goes on.  We shout out "ouch" and then we bow. 
 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

you are the awakened heart


The teaching I most resonate with in Zen is that we are all already Buddhas, but our delusions keep us from knowing this.  On one level, the practice of Zen helps us to see through these delusions.  But they are so persistent.  The ideas that we maintain and nourish, that we are not good enough, and that we need to change who we are to become Buddhas, are deeply painful.  I see evidence of the clinging to this delusion every day, in myself and in others.  When I see it arise in my own students, my response is almost always to point out the delusion in some way.  I look at people and see Buddhas.  It's both a gift and a curse.  Of course, when I look in the mirror, I don't always see a Buddha.  It's hard for us all to accept this teaching.

And yet, every once in a while, our desperate clinging to a separate and inferior self drops away.  We don't get rid of it.  It just wears itself out, through the practice of sitting upright and facing everything.  And in those moments, the great kindness that fills the universe shows up and there's no way to deny it.  At these times, we scramble to go back to the familiarity of our incompetence and inferiority.  Eventually, after a few seconds or hours or days, we re-establish our sense of self and confirm our lack of Buddha nature.  But the world keeps picking at our cherished self-opinion. 

This practice is about surrendering to this wild possibility:  that we, as we are right now, with all of our faults and personality quirks and, yes, delusions -- this being showing up right now is the Buddha, a manifestation of the awakened heart. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Three Essentials of Gaofeng Yuanmiao


When I first began to study Zen, I was very inspired by Philip Kapleau's book The Three Pillars of Zen.  The three pillars that Kapleau and his teachers talk about are: great faith, great doubt and great determination.  I have made them the core of my own practice and teaching ever since encountering them.  I always loved that Zen practice appears to need all three qualities.  Without faith, doubt and determination make for a grim practice.  Without determination, faith and doubt keep see-sawing back and forth, and our practice endlessly circles around.  And without doubt, faith and determination can turn us into cheerful proselytizers, without ever touching the deepest roots of this great mystery of being human.  The quality of doubt especially seemed unique to Zen.  Doubt is considered to be one of the hindrances in early Buddhist teachings and modern Insight practice.  To value doubt, which has been so prevalent in my own life, seemed just right.

Recently two  Zen teacher friends recommended that I look into a book published in 1600 in China, which came to influence countless Zen practitioners in both China and Japan, and was a favorite of the 18th century Japanese Zen master Hakuin Ekaku.   Jeffrey Broughton, a translator and scholar I have admired for other works, has brought his insight into the Chinese and Japanese languages to this book, The Chan Whip Anthology, originally written and collected by Yunqi Zhuhong, a Chinese Chan master.  I was excited to discover that the three pillars of Zen are referred to in the Chan Whip as the three essentials, and that they were taught originally by Zhuhong's Dharma ancestor Gaofeng Yuanmiao, who lived in the 13th century. 

Broughton translates the original Chinese characters for the three essentials as "great confidence," "determination of great fury," and "the sensation of great indecision-and-apprehension."  Great confidence feels more accurate to me than great faith.  To have great confidence in this path of Zen is to know that you have come home, and that, no matter what happens, you will continue to align with this feeling of being in the tradition that feels so right.  And rather than simply talking about great determination, Broughton adds this feeling of fury -- a fire in the mind, heart and belly that keeps burning.  And then there is indecision-and-apprehension, a feeling that is hard to explain in English, but that is familiar to anyone who has practiced the way of Zen seriously.   We have a sense of things not being right,
similar to but not exactly a feeling of anxiety. 

It's easy to value confidence, but this new translation helps me also value anger and fear, which transform, through the alchemy of Zen practice, into passion and not-knowing.  Broughton's choice of English words for these three essentials also helps us to find the practice in our bodies, not just through the vehicle of thinking.  And that, happily, returns us to the basics of Zen practice:  sitting upright and unmoving, present to everything that arises. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Saturday, November 18, 2017

A thousand mountains are covered in snow

One of our Boundless Way Zen miscellaneous koans is a two line verse:  

A thousand mountains are covered in snow.
Why is this one peak not white?

We work with this koan one line at a time.  And the first line is often a temporary stopping place in the koan journey for  many people.  The poet appears to be talking about something evocative and beautiful.  But how can those thousand mountains be demonstrated?

I often encourage people who are stuck here to avoid the trap of trying to think their way out of the problem, and practice simply pausing and looking around.  Where in our ordinary life do we meet those thousand mountains?   What is the awakened life?  How does it show up?  And what about that snow?  The discursive mind sticks fast to categories.  This koan, like so many,  invites us to see the world beyond our usual binary distinctions.  Keep looking!  The promise of  Zen practice is that eventually, the teachings will  reveal themselves. 
 


Thursday, November 9, 2017

Mountains Walking

Mountains at Lake Como, Italy

"Priest Daokai of Mt. Furong said to the assembly, "The green mountains are always walking; a stone woman gives birth to a child at night." Mountains do not lack the qualities of mountains. Therefore they always abide in ease and always walk. You should examine in detail this quality of the mountains walking. Mountains' walking is just like human walking. Accordingly, do not doubt mountains' walking even though it does not look the same as human walking. The Buddha ancestors' words point to walking. This is fundamental understanding. You should penetrate these words."

excerpt from Eihei Dogen's Mountains and Rivers Sutra,
Translated by Arnold Kotler and Kazuaki Tanahashi

Sometimes our beloved ancestor Dogen is hard to understand, but please don't try to understand him with your discursive mind.  Mountains walking?  It doesn't make sense.  But if we take this one phrase and let it sink into our sitting practice, carrying it along as we encounter all the many variations of external objects in our daily life, we begin to see something that is quite radical.  We realize that everything is alive, full of the energy of the Dharma.  Everything is completely itself, sometimes still and sometimes moving, separate from us and also part of us.  Everything is abiding in ease, just as itself.  And this, of course, includes you yourself.