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Archive for May, 2017

I seizeOxherding_pictures,_No._4 him with a terrific struggle.
His great will and power
are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau
far above the cloud-mists,
Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
I have abandoned the whip and ropes
 

The fourth picture shows that the oxherd has now caught hold of the ox, using the bridle of discipline to control it. This symbolizes the rigorous discipline required of the Zen practitioner. Although he now realizes that the power to transform his life lies within himself, in his Buddha-nature, all his previous conditionings are pulling and pushing him in different directions. Holding the rope tightly means that he must work hard to overcome his bad habits of the past that developed through the ignorance, hatred and craving that gave rise to all his afflictions.[1]

Abbot Zenkei Shibayama shares a Zen story in his book, A Flower Does Not Talk, that relates to Koeller’s thoughts on “working hard to overcome bad habits.”

Bodhisattva Manjusri once asked Zenzai Doji, “Bring me something that does not do any good.” Zenzai searched around, but wherever he went, everything he saw and touched was something that would do good.  He was unable to find anything that would not do any good.  Finally, he had to come back to Manjusri and report: “There is nothing that will not do good (page 190).”[2]

The conversation continued from there and Manjusri said:

“Bring me something, then, that will do good.”  Zenzai, without hesitation, plucked a blade of grass at his foot and presented it to Manjusri.  Manjusri took it up, and showing it to the congregation, said, “This single herb is both able to kill people and to give people life (page 190-191).”[3]

So, what does this have to do with you today, your life, your plans, your wishes and dreams? Everything!  For me when I look back upon my life I see that the challenges forced me to learn, to pray, to think, to discover, to step out of my fears and anxieties to move forward regardless of them. I was able to recognize that these challenges did NOT kill me but made me stronger, more resilient, more pliable and yes, more loving, caring, and compassionate.

Some might say I need to take off the “blinders” about the reality of life. Yes, war is hell and people living in war zones, in poverty, lack, limitation, and ill health need help from those of us who can help and are willing to help and have the resources to help. That does not remove our obligation to try to help minimize or eliminate the suffering of others. As Koeller said, “Holding the rope tightly means that he must work hard to overcome his bad habits of the past that developed through the ignorance, hatred and craving that gave rise to all his afflictions.”

So, let us as, students of Zen, work daily to take the discipline that we have learned in our Zen practice of sitting into the “real” world and help those who cannot, for whatever reason, help themselves.

Let me know how that goes!  Shokai

[1] Koeller, J.M. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/weai/exeas/resources/pdf/oxherding.pdf
[2] Shibayama, Z. (1970) A Flower Does Not Talk Zen Essays. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co.
[3] Ibid.

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I hear the song of the nightingale.Oxherding_pictures,_No._3
The sun is warm, the wind is mild,
willows are green along the shore –
Here no bull can hide!
What artist can draw that massive head,
those majestic horns?

Koller writes this about the third picture and the verse:

In the third picture, the oxherd actually catches sight of the ox. Now, having started to practice, he glimpses the hidden powers to heal his suffering. But he does not yet understand the source of these powers and how to apply them in his search for peace and contentment. The verse, in saying that “I hear the song of the nightingale.//The sun is warm, the wind is mild, the willows are green along the shore.” suggests that the reality the oxherd glimpses is not something separate from the ordinary things that he experiences, even though he does not yet know this.[1]

And thus we cannot be separate from ourselves, from who we are on an ordinary day, week, or year.  We are simply us.  Although the ox may look large and dangerous so do our fears, anxieties, and doubts. Yet when we examine them more closely they are simply the secretions of our brain, created in a mysterious way. They can turn us into who knows what when we give them the power to determine our emotions, exacerbate our fears, or harm our relationships.

Roshi Kennedy writes, “The gift the third picture epitomizes is self-reliance. It is at this stage of the journey that the ox herdsman realizes that his true nature is within himself. It depicts the real awakening of the herdsman (page 34).”[2] The Ox herder must be the one to eventually learn how to unite with the Ox and understand that he won’t find something outside of himself that has control over who and what he is.  Kennedy goes on to say, “Nothing exists but the self and this self contains the whole universe.” You are made of the same particles as the moon and the sun and the black hole. You are the Ox and the Ox is you!

So the next time you feel afraid or in doubt remember that your true nature of self-reliance, resilience, and knowledge exists in you at this very moment. Acknowledge the source of your power and move forward with confidence. Awaken to the idea that the Buddha/Ox and you are one and the same–thus all things are possible. So go for it!

Let me know how it goes! Shokai

[1] Koeller, J.M. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/weai/exeas/resources/pdf/oxherding.pdf

[2]  Kennedy, R. (2004) Zen Gifts to Christians. NY: Continuum

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Along the riverbank under the trees,Oxherding_pictures,_No._2
I discover footprints.
Even under the fragrant grass,
I see his prints.
Deep in remote mountains they are found.
These traces can no more be hidden
than one’s nose, looking heavenward.

Koller writes this about the second picture and the verse:

The second picture shows that the oxherd has now caught sight of the tracks of the ox, bringing hope that his ox is not lost forever. This could be interpreted to mean that he has recognized his distress and has begun to seek for a solution in the teachings of Buddhism or in other teachings. But he is still at the stage of thinking and talking about his problems and various possible solutions. He has not yet found a path to follow and has not yet started to practice.[1]

For each of us as we move through the days of our lives we find ourselves searching, thinking, dreaming, seeing, and planning for that perfect oneness and perfection or solution to life’s mysteries. I can reflect on my own “footprints” reliving the conversation or encounter with an old friend or family member.  Or remembering a verse I read or a course I studied at school or in the Zendo.  Or seeing the traces of my life and thoughts and actions.  I begin to search for the answer that I thought I had discovered in that study group or class or relationship.

As I begin to study the principles of Zen my “nose” begins “looking heavenward” as the poem says.  I begin to see footprints leading me toward something of which I do not know just yet.  At the same time Roshi Robert Kennedy invites me to “…let go of everything we thought we were certain of (page 20).”[2]

Let us not move toward a “fixed truth that might hinder us” but let us move each moment where the experience takes us allowing life to flow at its own pace, form, and destination.

The most exciting and important adventures in life were the ones that we least expected.  Open your mind to see what is here in the moment and remember that “truth” changes with time and experience, cling to nothing, enjoy everything—without attachment—and be ready for the next adventure in living!

In gassho, Shokai

[1] http://www.columbia.edu/cu/weai/exeas/resources/pdf/oxherding.pdf

[2] Kennedy, R. (2004) Zen Gifts to Christians. NY: Continuum

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-Looking_for_the_Ox-,_by_Tenshō_Shūbun

In truth, the person you see in this picture is all of us searching for something in life.  We know that life is a great adventure and that for some of us it has been a very difficult and uphill battle.  For others, we’ve had some good years and some bad years, and yet most of them have been simply rather normal. Regardless of which case we were living under we still found ourselves searching for something.  There is the continuing question that appears on a regular basis, “What’s it all about Alfie?  I wrote a blog on that song sometime back, check it out I think you’ll like it.

For Alfie, it was all about seeking and searching for love.  What have you been searching for? When you wake up each morning are you searching for the ox?  A better marriage, health, job, prosperity, enlightenment, peace, or better grades in school?    The Oxherd was searching for the eternal answer in life, that ungraspable something within him—roaming the world looking down in the valley, up in the mountains, and deep in the ocean.  To no avail.  When all the time his answer was right within him. He was and is the Buddha.

However, rushing and hurrying and searching and seeking outside of yourself in a teacher, a scripture, or a text or a job or money and fame is looking in the wrong place.

Simply focus your attention on the power of your breath when sitting or standing or walking and watch what happens.  When you focus on that inbreath and outbreath you will soon find your blood pressing dropping, your monkey mind quieting down, and your shoulders dropping. You’ll soon see a dropping away of all your fears and anxieties.  You will have moved into the place we call “just this.”   No past, no future, just NOW, just this one breath, one mind, one body, one moment.  Your searching for the Ox can end because you and the ox are one. You and the Buddha are one in the same. You know this when you realize that you and your breath are one.

This may be a fleeting feeling in the beginning but each day that you sit and walk in a meditative and fully present and mindful way you drop off a small weight and soon several small weights, and sooner than later you’ll feel 10 pounds lighter, 100% healthier, happier, and more peaceful.

Live in this moment, the ox is everywhere present in you and through you and will carry you easily into a life of peace, love, and compassion.  If only you stop searching for the ox outside of you—the ox within you will appear.  The ox is powerful, strong, persistent, and always there when you need him. Let your search be over! Be one with the ox in you.

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Many years ago I went on a retreat with Father Robert Kennedy who is a Catholic priest and a Zen Buddhist teacher and the author of several books on Buddhism. He studied with both Bernie Glassman Roshi and Taizan Maezumi Roshi two wonderful Zen teachers and mentors.  I was so enthralled with his teaching during our weekend Sesshin that I bought all of his books.

His book Zen Gifts to Christians is based on the famous Ten Ox-herding pictures of Zen. It is a unique way to review and understand some of the basic principles of Zen in a fun and inspiring way.

John M. Koller in the Department of Cognitive Science at Renssaelaer Polytechnic Institute has written a wonderful paper on it as well entitled: Ox-Herding: Stages of Zen Practice.  He wrote this in his introduction:

The ten ox-herding pictures and commentaries presented here depict the stages of practice leading to the enlightenment at which Zen (Chan) Buddhism aims.  They dramatize the fact that enlightenment reveals the true self, showing it to be the ordinary self doing ordinary things in the most extraordinary way.

Wonderful! I just love that idea that Buddhism helps us discover our true self in its ordinariness and its extraordinariness![1]

I will use D.T. Suzuki’s titles for each picture:

  1. Searching for the Ox
  2. Seeing the Traces
  3. Seeing the Ox
  4. Catching the Ox
  5. Herding the Ox
  6. Coming Home on the Ox’s Back
  7. The Ox Forgotten, Leaving the Man Alone
  8. The Ox and the Man both Gone out of Sight
  9. Returning to the Origin, Back to the Source
  10. Entering the City with Bliss-bestowing Hands

I will use the version of the poem that Koller uses: “The twelfth century monk Guo-an Shi-yuan (also known as Ku-an or Kakuan Shien) revised and expanded upon the traditional Taoist story of the ox and the oxherd by creating a series of ten images and accompanying verses to simultaneously depict and narrate this well-known tale.”

I hope you enjoy this adventure as an ox-herder!  I know it seems like you’re teachers are shooting the “bull” sometimes in their desire to help you understand the Zen principles and you may think I am as well.  Regardless, I know you’ll enjoy this adventure from the past and see how relevant it is in your life in the 21st century.

Hold on to the reins as this may be a bumpy ride!

In gassho, Shokai

[1] By Tenshō Shūbun – Shokoku-ji Temple website, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2350512

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