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.  

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Snow in a Silver Bowl

Last night we had our first dusting of snow at the Temple, which disappeared almost as soon as it fell to the ground.  The falling flakes reminded me of the koan "Snow in a Silver Bowl" which appears twice in our Boundless Way Zen koan collection, once in our miscellaneous  koans, and once in the Blue Cliff Record, case 19, where it appears with a pointer by Yuanwu.  In the Cleary brothers' translation, Yuanwu says:

Clouds are frozen over the great plains, but the whole world is not hidden.  When snow covers the white flowers, it's hard to distinguish the outlines.  Its coldness is as cold as snow and ice, its fineness is as fine as rice powder.  Its depths are hard for even a Buddha's eye to peer into; its secrets are impossible for demons and outsiders to fathom.  Leaving aside "understanding three when one is raised" for the moment, still he cuts off the tongues of everyone on earth.  Tell me, whose business is this?  To test I cite this: look!

And the case itself is short:

A monk asked Baling, "What is the school of Kanadeva?  Baling said, "Snow n a silver bowl."

A couple of things to clarify before jumping into the koan quality of the case -- and by the way, my Dharma great-grandfather Robert Aitken, Roshi, claimed that there is no koan content here.  Be that as it may, if any part of the koan grabs at your heart and mind, leaving you in a state of wonder and confusion, it's most definitely a koan.  And that has been true for me whenever I have encountered it, first as a student and later as a teacher assigning it to my own students.

Kanadeva was one of our legendary Indian ancestors, the fifteenth counting from Shakyamuni Buddha.  It's said that when he first encountered his teacher, Nagarjuna, the teacher presented him with a bowl of water, and Kanadeva put a needle into the bowl.  If you've ever tried to find a needle in a bowl of water, you may begin to understand Kanadeva's demonstration.  And the school of Kanadeva may mean a number of things, but in one sense, all of us who practice Zen are part of that school, part of that transmission.

When I was first starting out in Zen, one of my new friends in the sangha invited me to her home.  Over her sofa was a beautiful painting of a silver bowl filled with snow.  I asked her about it, and she said, "why, it's snow in a silver bowl!" which was not so helpful.  When I looked confused, she explained that this was someone's demonstration of a koan.  I pretended to understand what she meant, but it wasn't until many years later, when I received the koan from my first teacher, that I began to understand.

Yuanwu's pointer is quite poetic, and full of pointers to some of the many meanings implicit in the case -- the strange paradox of identity and differentiation that is the subject of so many koan cases.  Snow is snow, a silver bowl is a silver bowl.  You are you, and you are also not-you.  We are all different from each other, and everything is unique in its manifestation in the world.  Sometimes we get fooled -- snow sure looks like a silver bowl.  We can mistakenly group together things that appear to be the same, and miss the vividness of their uniqueness.  All women are the same, all people of color are the same, all Republicans, Democrats, white people, gay people, men, non-binary gender people -- we stuff each other into categories.  And yet, if we focus on either the sameness or the differentiation, we miss the point, and the world becomes unavailable in its beauty and strangeness.  As Zen practitioners, we must find a way to avoid clinging to one side or the other.  We must learn to live in a world where equality and differentiation interpenetrate and shift.  Last night it snowed, and this morning there is not a trace left on the ground. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Study and Practice Retreat at Boundless Way Temple

Study and Practice Retreat, November 2017
Boundless Way Temple 
photo by Mark Brown

Boundless Way Temple had its first ever residential Study and Practice Retreat this weekend, and it was a deep and beautiful time.  Unlike our regular residential Boundless Way Zen sesshin, we went back and forth between practicing in silence and stillness, and group investigation of two koans from the life of the Chinese Zen master Deshan.  David Rynick, Roshi, James Cordova, Sensei, Diane Fitzgerald, Sensei and I created and led the retreat.  Thanks to everyone who attended (most of them pictured here) and for opening your hearts to the Great Way.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Dominik Hōzan Kulakowski receives Denkai transmission

On the night of 20 October, 2017, I gave the first step of Dharma transmission, denkai, to Dominik Hōzan Kulakowski, my beloved student of many years.  He is my fourth Dharma heir, and the first to choose to be an independent teacher, unaligned with Boundless Way Zen.   His title is Dharma Holder. 

Dominik began practicing Zen in 1992 with several teachers including Patricia Dai-En Bennage, Roshi and John Daido Loori, Roshi.  He then went on to study with Gerry Shishin Wick, Roshi for over a decade at the Great Mountain Zen Center in Colorado.  In 2007, Dominik moved to Massachusetts and began studying with me and other Boundless Way Zen teachers, devoting himself to the Way, and assisting in many projects at Boundless Way Temple and at Boundless Way Zen retreats. The other guiding teachers of Boundless Way Zen and I eventually gave him the title "senior dharma teacher" which confers the permission to give talks and Zen interviews.  As a senior dharma teacher, he regularly demonstrated his kindness and wisdom and his great love of the Way.  As a Dharma Holder, he can now take on private students in the rite of shoken, and give the precepts ("jukai.")  In the future, when he receives the second step of transmission, called denbo, he will be able to transmit the Dharma to his own students.  

Dominik works as a professor of geography and environmental science at Clark University.  He has authored numerous articles on ecology, especially the ecology of mountain forests.  He researches, teaches, leads workshops, and works with governmental and non-governmental organizations in the United States and in Europe to promote ecological understanding, conservation, and resilience.  He has led wilderness meditation retreats and has testified about environmental policy before the United States Congress.  He lives in Worcester with his wife, Anne McCauley Kulakowski, their daughter, Zosia,  and a bunch of bicycles.