Saturday, September 28, 2013

Inspiring words from Ramana Maharshi

My dear friend Amy Zoll sent me the following quote from Ramana Maharshi, the beloved 20th century Indian sage.  I've always believed that what we do in the world is not so much about the words we use or even what we actually do, but about how we are, and that our presence is a direct reflection of our sincere devotion to our meditation practice.

Annamalai Swami, in his book "Living by the Words of Bhagavan",  writes:

"Bhagavan taught that one should reform oneself rather than find fault with others.  In practical terms this means that one should find the source of one's own mind rather than make complaints about other people's minds and actions.  I can remember a typical reply that Bhagavan gave on this subject.

A devotee , who was quite intimate with Bhagavan, asked him, 'Some of the devotees who live with Bhagavan behave very strangely.  They seem to do many things that Bhagavan does not approve of.  Why does Bhagavan not correct them?'

Bhagavan replied, 'Correcting oneself is correcting the whole world.  The sun is simply bright.  It does not correct anyone.  Because it shines the whole world is full of light.  Transforming yourself is a means of giving light tot he whole world.'

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Seeking and Finding

Young girl looking out at Helsinki Harbor
Philip Kapleau, Roshi's book Zen: Dawn in the West, is dedicated  "to those who wish not to seek but to find."  When I first read this, I remember feeling a bit put off.  I had thought of myself as a seeker, someone who was dedicated to finding the true meaning of life.  I had always been puzzled by the realities of death and suffering, even at a young age, and had a strong desire to know what life was about.  Following that longing, I found my first teacher, who  had studied with Kapleau, and hearing him speak about the very things I had been searching for, I settled into Zen practice and never left.  I knew in the core of my being that my days of seeking were over.  And when the Dharma treasure began to reveal itself to me, I felt even more sure that I had found something in which to take refuge.

I left that particular teacher for many reasons, but mainly because he relied heavily on emptiness as the foundation of Zen -- a key ingredient in the recipe for justification of all kinds of ethical misbehavior, much of which was quite wounding to me and many others.  But I never left Zen.  I loved the forms of it, the silent retreats, all the skillful means of practice, just sitting (shikantaza) and koan practice especially.  When I found my current teacher, James Ford, Roshi, who had a completely different personality than my first teacher, I saw that Zen practice could come through all kinds of human containers, and was both intimate with and independent of the personality of the teacher.  And James' teaching, while grounded in emptiness, was also rooted in form and ethics,  and the endless interconnections and appearances of form and emptiness.  I continue to be so grateful.

Over this past week, I have had a number of conversations with friends and students who identify themselves as seekers.  They have been telling me about all the different kinds of retreats they have been attending, all the teachers they are meeting, in what appears to be a continuing dance of seeking and not finding.  They dig holes for wells in so many places but stop when they don't reach the source of water,  and then continue their endless seeking. The catalogues from various yoga and meditation centers arrive at the Temple, and I flip through them, slightly disturbed by the promises made by all the teachers and methodologies -- a demonstration of  the vast spiritual supermarket of seeking.

If you're hungry, you have to go to the supermarket.  But eventually, you have to buy something, take it home, cook it and eat it.  I suppose this supermarket metaphor is limited -- physical hunger rises and falls and is never satisfied.  I wonder about spiritual hunger -- perhaps it's never totally satisfied, either.

For myself,  I know I will never stop seeking the truth about reality.  The more I know, the more I see how much there is to know, and so the more I find that I don't know.    But I have decided to stay put, and to dig down deep in the place I am.  The water that comes from this well is always new and refreshing. All the shallow holes spread far and wide that I have dug have never yielded anything to compare with the taste of this practice.

And every once in a while, I find friends who want to stay and sit with me at this well and dig down to the source of life.  When they arrive, we know each other.  And again, I'm so grateful.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

calm water

calm water, Lake Como, Italy
A visitor to the Temple today, someone who was new to Zen practice, asked the very reasonable question, "what do you do with your thoughts during meditation?"  She wondered if we spent our time in zazen cultivating thoughts about peace or love or tranquility, to replace the ordinary thoughts we all have about doing the laundry and catching up on emails.

It was hard, at first, for her to understand that we don't do anything with our thoughts -- we notice them coming and going, but we don't try to get rid of them and we don't replace them with other thoughts.  We let them be, and just sit still and upright, in silence.  At a certain point in our conversation, her eyes lit up with understanding, and she said, "how freeing!"

When Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, in our Boundless Way translation of the Heart Sutra,  sees "that all five skandhas are empty", what is being seen?  The Bodhisattva, known in Chinese as Guan Yin, has been "practicing deep prajna paramita" -- the practice or perfection of wisdom, of clear seeing to the very root of reality.   The Bodhisattva's clear seeing to the bottom is itself liberating, like the glimpse of freedom our visitor had today.  Everything comes and goes.  The five skandhas or "heaps" that constitute human beings and the world we inhabit (form, sensation, perception, mental reaction and consciousness) all come and go, all are impermanent and empty of a fixed self-nature.   This is not emptiness as some concept of nothing, but emptiness as a realization of everything.  Form is seen as emptiness, and emptiness itself is seen as form.  Nothing is fixed or static -- everything is in movement.

One of the many things I love about this practice is that this insight into form and emptiness continually interchanging is available to everyone, caught in glimpses or larger moments of realization.  And the instruction, to be still and to be silent and to sit upright, opens the door to this insight, which is truly one of the heart-mind, and not easily available to the intellect. "Right here, " the text says, "is nirvana."  Right here is the place we have been looking for -- the place we imagine as peaceful is in constant motion, and we can rest in the middle of the coming and going.   It's a bit like the experience of resting our eyes on the surface of a calm lake, and having the complex flux of motion revealed.  Nothing is happening, and everything is happening.  "How freeing!"

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Possessing the Moon

photo from Tom Pinkall
Sometimes we hear that Zen is about letting go, of the self and all thoughts, and finding a way to live a life that is completely empty.  This has always seemed like a partial and problematic desire to me.  My own entry into Zen practice was based on a different and equally problematic desire --  to rediscover the joy of endless possibilities, a joy I had glimpsed over and over in my life, but that I hadn't found a way to make permanent.  The big joke, after years of practice, was the discovery that nothing is permanent, even cultivating a capacity to live with joy in every moment.

Some teachers favor emptiness, and some favor form.  If I favor anything, it would probably be to find form in non-form, and non-form in form -- to be awake to the comings and goings of joy and sorrow, awake to all things.   I started out with a teacher who favored emptiness beyond everything.  He lived, as far as I could tell, in a world of complete relativity, and I heard that he died with the words, "no eye, no ear" on his lips.  A friend who also studied with him told me that, when she heard that news, she wondered about what was missing in his final words --  the other side of dying -- the moans of pain, the tears of separation.  Indeed.

Of course, with words, we can only express one side.  So perhaps this dying teacher had found some rest in emptiness in that moment.  And maybe the moment before and the moment after were full of other expressions that reflected a life fully lived.  I can, even now, vividly imagine his voice, criticizing me for not understanding his full meaning.  This was a familiar experience for me when I studied with him, especially when I started to question his ethics which were based on his view of extreme relativity. His behaviors, grounded in his reliance on the emptiness of the precepts, ultimately caused me to leave him.

Wuzu Fayan, a Chinese master from the 11th century, was quite critical of Zen teachers who favored emptiness exclusively.  His words, commenting on another teacher's apparent favoring of emptiness, inspire me and expand my view.  Wuzu says: "Hold the water in your hands and possess the moon. Brush against the flowers and the fragrance fills your clothes."

We are touched by all we encounter -- nothing is lacking, in anyone and any thing.   I bow to my old teacher with gratitude and respect, and a sense that he knew all about possessing the moon.  His teachings on emptiness gave me a good start, and led to a life based on receiving all the wonders of this amazing world of form and no-form, life and death, no eyes, no ears, and the capacity we all have to hold the moon in our hands and to be filled with the delicious smells, sights and sounds of this blooming world.