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Dear friends, The essay below was written by one of our Zen students “behind the fence.” He has been a long time student and friend of mine.  I hope you will be enlightened by Jakuho’s writing, passion, and understanding of the teachings of Zen Buddhism.  I hope, as well, that you will take his sage advice in the last paragraph it could change your life forever.

In gassho, Shokai

gassho

================

I am reading from the book you sent me, titled, “What is Zen?.”   My simple answer is that Zen is Zen Buddhism, an Asian religion now practiced all over the world.  Broadly, there are three forms of Buddhism: Theravada, which emphasizes the earliest scriptures that seems be mostly about individual liberation; Mahayana Buddhism, which emphasizes compassion and social concern as much or more than individual liberation; and Vajrayana Buddhism (the Buddhism of Tibet), which adds detailed, esoteric, ritualistic practices.   

Zazen is very much a physical practice: the body is never an insignificant detail, as if meditation were a matter of mind and spirit apart from body.  Why do we walk so slowly during kinhin?  So slow that I often feel I will lose my balance?  The point is to pay close attention to body, breath, and mind when you are walking just as when you are sitting.    

Can you tell when a person is “more spiritually developed”?   Does it show?   I guess I have just defined an enlightened person as someone with wisdom and a good heart.   Wisdom in Zen means the capacity to see that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” as the Heart Sutra teaches.   What would this “wisdom ad good heart” look like?   Probably like the spiritual qualities that all our great traditions have always prized: humility, kindness love, patience, forgiveness, understanding.  

The important thing about the teaching of rebirth, the part that seems true and that matters a great deal is that life continues.   That is, there is more to our lives than the little span of time between birth and death.   The teaching of rebirth tells us that our life and death are significant beyond their appearances, more significant than we know. 

To most Zen students, at first the teachings might seem odd or nonsensical though also at the same time intriguing, because you sense that there is something to them, but after you have practiced and studied a while, they do make sense, and you can discuss and think about them reasonably.   Our lives include many paradoxical and contradictory elements.   Things are usually not just one way, they are many ways at once.

How will Zen practice affect my family relationship?  My work relationships?   The effectiveness of your practice will show up at home.  I believe and have seen much corroborating evidence, that Zen practice makes you a better husband or wife, father, or mother.   It makes you more attuned emotionally, kinder, more patient, more caring and loving, more able to be present, even when the going gets tough, even when you have an impulse not to be.

Why does Zen have such a close connection to various art forms, like haiku and flower arranging, for example?   As Zen developed in China, it co-evolved with Taoism and the Chinese arts, most notably calligraphy, painting, and poetry.   Zen priests always wrote poetry and did calligraphy.   Some experts claim that in the West, art depicts the external, while in Asia, art evokes the inner sense of things, their spirit or soul.

Doshin, I am finishing this book.   There is much work to do about the tremendous suffering in this world: poverty, social injustice, war, environmental destruction.   Isn’t it selfish to spend a lot of time just sitting and staring at the wall without helping anybody else?    Thank you for sending me this book and for your compassion, kindness, and love.   

In gassho, Jakuho

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book cover Teachings of Zen Thomas ClearyIn the introduction chapter of the book Cleary talks about the influence that conventional religions had on Buddhism.  “On a deeper level, Zen masters sought to restore and express the living meaning of religion and philosophy; the Zen teaching was to ‘study the living word, not the dead word.’ Not only did Zen reawaken Buddhism in this way, but it also revitalized Taoism, Confucianism, Shintoism, and Shamanism bringing out their higher spiritual dimensions (page xiv).”[1]

And thus our charge today is to use these revitalized teachings in our lives so that we can live a more centered life through the philosophy of Buddhism in all its forms.   He goes on to write, “People are born with nothing but the unconceived buddha mind, but because of self-importance they want to get their own way, arguing and losing their temper yet claiming it is the stubbornness of others that makes them mad.  Getting fixated on what others say, they turn the all-important buddha mind into a monster, mulling over useless things, repeating the same thoughts over and over again (page xv).”[2]

What a sad state of affairs we have created for ourselves.  Just remember what it was like when you brought that new born baby home from the hospital.  They had no likes, dislikes, or preferences except to have their diapers changed and to be fed.  What ever you fed them they ate even if it was some nasty tasting concoction like Enfamil or Similac! Yikes!    And thus they lived in the “unconceived buddha mind” not filled with delusions.

As adults we have been deluding ourselves over and over every day, week, and year.  Where have your delusions taken you today?  Where will they take you tomorrow?  Want to turn your life around? Cleary suggests: “The most important thing is not to be self-centered; then you cannot fail to remain in the buddha mind spontaneously (page xvii)?”[3]

When was the last time you did something that was not self-centered? When was the last time you did something spontaneously—jumped in a puddle of water, or ate a fried pickle at the country fair, or ran outside without an umbrella to enjoy the summer rain?  How about stopping in the middle of a heated discussion to take three breaths and dive into your “unconceived buddha mind.”  When was the last time you did that? Remember that is where all the answers exist when you stop looking for them they will appear!

I know that everyone has been searching for a name or a number or a thing and no matter how hard you tried it would not come!  But sometime later in the middle of washing the dishes, or mowing the lawn, or eating lunch the answer popped up in your mind.  Yes, Fred that was my sister’s third husbands name!

Cleary goes on to say, “The following pages contain essential Zen teachings on realizing this original buddha mind in all of us (page xviii)”[4] I hope you take this adventure with Professor Cleary and me and discover your “original buddha mind.” Let’s bring out your “higher spiritual dimensions!” You’ll be glad you did! And so will all the people around you! And that’s the MAGIC of ZEN…

[1] Cleary, T. (1998)   Teachings of Zen. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

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In Edward Espe Brown’s wonderful book, No Recipe–Cooking as Spiritual Practice, he writes:

 “We could do well to study how we do what we are doing—what is the most important point?—because as Suzuki Roshi mentioned, “If I tell you something, you will stick to it, but it is not always so. When you stick to something that I say, you will abandon your capacity to study and investigate for yourself (page 63).”

So, if you really want a more fulfilling life you need to discover what that means for you.  Try things out, practice, evaluate, and learn, and then decide if you want to stick to it or not.  I’ll bet it hasn’t been long since someone told you what to do and how to do it and maybe even when and why to do it.  I can see you shaking your head right now, I can hear you saying, “Yes, just 5 minutes ago!”  Like he or she knows how to do it better than you do!?

Edward does not want us to get caught in what he calls, “the realm of thinking” rather than observing for yourself how things happen in your experience and using that information to possibly make better choices for yourself.  I hear the little cogs in your brain turning around and around right now thinking of that last conversation you had with your boss, significant other, or coworker telling you how to do something.  You listen and begin to think it could be faster, quicker, more accurate and much more effective, or fun—if you didn’t do it that way!

I love what Edward says next, “When you observe closely how things happen in your experience, change comes from you, out of your experience, rather than being implemented top down from your thinking. ‘Don’t put another head over your head,’ is a Zen saying (page 64).”

500 Hats Dr. SeussOr are you like Bartholomew in Dr. Seuss’ book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins creating the same old hat over and over!  Are you sitting in the same old chair with the same old ideas one on top of the other over and over?

I can see myself right now in the mirror with a giant pile of hats from large to small, from fancy to plain filled with my own creations, thoughts, ideas, and plans. I don’t want to be like Bartholomew with the same old hat over and over 499 times!  Once I “observe myself closely” I see myself doing the same old worn out thing over and over again. Only then can I throw away that plain old hat and create something new, innovative, exciting, and adventurous!

Maybe at onetime in the past “it was always so” but now—not so much! Now I might need to make a better or different choice for myself.  What hat are you wearing today?  What hat do you wish you were wearing today?

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buddha-quote-thinkingAtonement is not a word we use much in America, especially today.  Yet, with what is going on in our country and around the world we sure do need more work on it, more thinking about it, and more doing something about what we need to atone for.  I don’t think we can atone for the “sins of our fathers” as they say, but we can atone for our own negative thoughts, words, deeds, and behaviors.

Atonement has been defined in many ways such as reparation for a wrong doing or making amends for your actions, words, and/or deeds.  Or even read as “at one meant.” In, Buddhism we have a gatha or chant that we recite at the end of our sitting period. It is simple yet powerful.

All harmful karma ever committed by me since of old
On account of my beginingless greed, anger, and ignorance,
Born of my body, mouth, and thought,
Now I atone for it all…

Kaz Tanahashi in his book Zen Chants reminds us that “We are in the midst of changeable and unchangeable karma in each moment.  We are bound by cause and effect, but at the same time we are partly free of cause and effect. This is the case during meditation, when we can be completely free from the chain of causation.  At this time, we can be anybody and anywhere.  We are what we meditate.  We are also the source of cause and effect (page 146).[1]

Each time I recite this chant I feel like I’ve been given a new life, and a new opportunity to get something right!  To have a “do over” as we might say today.  I may not be able to have a “do over” with someone who has passed away or no longer will take my calls, texts, or emails, but atone I must—to forgive myself for my behavior or words or deeds that harmed or hurt another.  Regardless of whether the person is someone you know or a total stranger if we have harmed then atonement is the best action to take.  If we decide not to take that action it doesn’t mean that we’re done with it anyway!

I once worked with a congregant of mine who had a very bad relationship with his brother.  Upon his brother’s untimely death, he went into a great depression for how he had left their relationship.  It came to me when we were together one day for him to simply meditate on the love that he had held back from his brother and ask an imaginary angel to deliver him a message of repentance, love, and compassion.  Not long after he said that his brother had come to him in a dream and they hugged and forgave each other, and his pain and suffering was relieved.  His love for his brother was evident in his countenance he was smiling joyfully.

He was freed from the chain of causation through atonement! How chained are you?  What will you do about it? Will you atone and be released from those thoughts and emotions?  Or do you choose to live with the pain, anger, and animosity?  The choice is yours—which will it be.

[1]Tanahashi, K. (2015) Zen Chants Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary. Shambhala: Boston and London

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Avalokiteshvara is known as the person “Who hears the outcries of the World.” There are so many on this earth today who are crying out for help in war zones, from hurricane devastation, earth quakes, in draughts, and famines, through poverty, and more.

avalokitesvara B&W Foundations of BuddhismShe represents the feminine energy of the world as the “holy spirit” represents the feminine energy in the Christian triad of the “father, son, and the holy spirit.”  She represents the fundamental aspect of Buddhahood: Great compassion.  In China she is named Kuan-yin, in Japan Kannon (or Kanzeon or Kwannon), and in Tibet Chenresi. In some cultures, Avalokiteshvara is a man not a woman so which ever pronoun you prefer to use for Avalokiteshvara is perfectly divine!

As you see in the picture she is depicted with many arms. In other pictures she also has many heads. I know that some of you can relate to her very well. You see her reflection in you. Every time you encourage a child or an elderly person to go beyond their struggles and challenges you are Avalokiteshvara in action.  Every time you drop off food at the foodbank, or volunteer with a non-profit organization, or mow the lawn of a disabled vet Avalokiteshvara is moving through you as you.  I know sometimes you feel like you could use those extra arms and at least one extra head if you had access to them.  But I always say, “Fake it till you make it.”

Joan Halifax and Kazuaki Tanahashi translated the Sutra “Great Compassionate Heart Dharani” in the most beautiful way (pages 138-39).[1]  Below is a list of things for you to think about or meditate on. Are these actions appearing in your life on a regular basis?  If not, why not? How can you make these actions more alive and present in your life each and every day? If yes, think about a few examples of who, how, and when they appeared.

  • Embodies great compassion
  • Protects all those who are fearful
  • Grants all wishes
  • Overcomes obstacles
  • Purifies delusion
  • Represents shining wisdom
  • Transcends the world
  • Removes the harm of greed, hatred, and delusion
  • Removes all defilements.
  • Brings joy to others
  • Succeeds greatly in life and love

Make this your project for the year and let me know how it goes!

[1] Tanahashi, K. (2015) Zen Chants Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary. Shambhala: Boston and London

Picture: Avalokitesvara B&W Foundations of Buddhism

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gold-face-buddha-with-three-pure-precepts-2

Photo by Mitch Doshin Cantor founder of the Southern Palm Zen Group

The power of peace is a deadly assault weapon it kills hatred, it kills fear, it kills amorous, it kills the feelings of not being good enough, not smart enough, not rich enough …the power of peace, love and compassion is more powerful than any hatred in the world it can break down any walls that anyone wants to build.

So if we really want to make a difference in this world let us join together in peace, love, and compassion.  Let us take our intelligence and drive and put it behind food, shelter, and electricity for those in Puerto Rico and around the world who are dying and suffering from natural disasters, wars, and starvation caused by global warming.

Let us put it behind creating a country where all people have the right to vote. Let us get rid of mass incarceration in America, mass discrimination in America, mass drug addiction in America and most of all mass hatred in America!

We can do it through the only way possible…through peace, love, and compassion. Inside each and every person is a little child crying and screaming for the love of their parents the feel of a hug and a kiss on the cheek. That’s all we really want in life.  We simply want someone to love us!

Can you be that love for someone today?

Metta (Loving-Kindness) Sutra
By Shakyamuni Buddha

May all beings be happy.
May they be joyous and live in safety.
All living beings, whether weak or strong, in high or middle, or low realms of existence, small or great, visible or invisible,
near or far, born or to be born,
May all beings be happy.
Let none deceive another nor despise any being in any state; let none
by anger or hatred wish harm to another. Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child, so with a boundless mind should
one cherish all living things, suffusing love over the entire
world, above, below, and all around without limit;
so let each cultivate an infinite goodwill toward the whole
world.

‘The Southern Palm Zen Group (Boca Raton)

www.floridazen.com

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In his chapter on “Training in Zen” Shibayama writes:

…they first start with an extremely intense religious quest; then comes hard, strong-willed search and discipline, which will be followed by spiritual crises, or a sense of the abyss; and finally, they experience the moment of awakening.  These are the inner processes they generally go through (page 39).images

I know if you are reading this that you too have gone through some or all of these steps. I too have done so and when I’ve had that moment of awakening I think that my life will have changed dramatically and only the good can come and I will be able to “walk on water.”  Alas, when I tried I was soon over my head in it and had to swim to shore.  This is not failure but the reality of being in a human experience.

To fail and then to get up again and go back to the reading and meditation and mindfulness strengthens my determination and quickens my compassion for others who are struggling and swimming against the tide in this physical world of challenges and joys.

Life is like a roller coaster and sometimes we are on the up-hill ride slowly moving and creeping to the top of the tracks and then all of sudden we feel the elation and before we know it we’re on the down hill portion of the roller coaster speeding faster and faster as the wind blows our hair and we can hear ourselves screaming.

Not to worry what you learned through these two experiences will help you grow in to the Buddha that you are.  Shakyamuni Buddha lived a life of luxury that many could never experience and he left it to find the truth about life.  During those times he had great ups and downs in the physical, psychological, and emotional challenges of being alive.  But in his final awakening he discovered the middle way.  Not grasping upon awakening or experiencing Samadhi but simply allowing yourself to relax and focus on your breath and the peace that you can hold in body, mind, and spirit. He realized that everything is one.

To be in the moment, to realize that we are and can experience being one with all the good that is in the universe is available to everyone.  It gives us the clarity, drive, and ability to go out into the world and make a difference, to fulfil our Buddhist promise to live a life of peace, love, and compassion toward self and others.

The beginning of the universe is now, for all things are at this moment being created, and the end of the universe is now, for all things are at this moment passing away. (Watts, 1958, p. 52) ~ Alan Watts, Zen teacher

Just a thought to ponder on while you wile away the minutes and hours of your day on your spiritual quest.

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Diane Ackerman in her book An Alchemy of Mind, The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain writes, “The brain is not the mind, the mind inhabits the brain (page 4).”[1]

Shibayama writes, “The Mind here does not refer to thought or emotion, nor does it refer to human psychology which is an object of scientific research. It is not the consciousness, nor the psyche which is dealt with by psychiatrists, either. When we go beyond all these, wash them off, and transcend their limitations, for the first time we can reach the Mind which is also called the Buddha Mind, the Absolute Mind, the Spirituality, or the truth (page 26).”[2]

And so, when we mediate we give ourselves the opportunity to transcend our human thoughts that we created through study, reading, our culture, and experiences and move into touching the greater Mind.

He shares a story about Zen Master Sekito who was training a monk and while walking through the forest they came across a dense thicket that they could not walk through. The student asked Sekito for the knife. “Sekito unsheathed his big mountain knife, and without a word thrust out the knife with the sharp edge toward him.  The companion was frightened, and withdrew his hand crying, “Stop the nonsense! Let me have the hilt.” Sekito’s reply was sharper than the edge of the knife.  He said, “What is the use of the hilt? The monk could not utter a word in reply (page 26-27).”[3]

Shibayama finishes by writing, “We are apt to stick to the hilt which is of secondary importance, and miss the Truth altogether.  Sekito is urging us to get hold of the fundamental Truth direct.  Here we see the truth of direct pointing (page 27).”  It is the blade that does the work that cuts through our wrong thinking and fears and anxieties.  Remember the axiom, “The truth will set you free.” Where is your freedom?  Hidden in a job, an education, a scripture, a political party, or religion?

Then there is the power of meditation.  Each day as you take the opportunity to sit and calm the “monkey mind” you’ll find that soon you’ll be able to transcend the brain/mind and tap in to the greater mind, the Buddha Mind, the Absolute Mind. And when you do you’ll discover who you really are and you will experience the power and peace that has always been within reach when you make that direct connection.

Which mind are you pointing to?

brain-perception

[1] Ackerman, D. (2004) An Alchemy of Mind The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain. Scribner: NY

[2] Shibayama, Z. (1970) A Flower Does Not Talk Zen Essays. Charles E. Tuttle Co.: Vermont & Tokyo Japan

[3] Ibid.

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In Chapter 2 Abbot Zenkei Shibayama writes about the characteristics of one aspect of Zen called satori and how it shows up in other religions.  It is such a joy to read about the inclusivity of the teachings and practices of Zen Buddhism regardless of whether you consider yourself a Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Christian, or of no faith at all.

The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen defines the word satori as a Zen term for the experience of awakening (enlightenment or kensho).

Shibayama goes on to write: When Zen is seen in such a broad sense, Zen means the Truth, or the Absolute; it is not limited to Buddhism alone, but is the basis of all religions and all philosophies. In this sense, Zen does not remain simply the core of Buddhism, but it works to deepen and revive any religion or philosophy.  For instance, there can be Christian Zen, or Taoistic Zen; there can be Zen interpretations of Christianity or of Taoism (page 16).

And if you take a look at all the worlds major religions today they all include some form of meditation and sitting in the quiet for contemplation. Robert E. Kennedy, S.J. is a practicing psychotherapist, a Zen teacher, and a Roman Catholic priest who has written two wonderful books joining the Christian and Zen principles Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit and Zen Gifts to Christians. They are perfect examples of what Shibayama wrote in the 1970’s!

Shibayama also talks about its flexibility.

Due to its transcendental and fundamental nature, Zen is not restricted by any fixed ideas or customs, but expresses itself freely, making creative use of words and ideas. In this way their own culture may be deepened and given new significance and life, based on Truth fundamental for all mankind (page 17).

 

He concludes this section by saying:

Up to this point in this essay I have sought to explain the position of Zen in Buddhism and to indicate the role it can play in religion, philosophy, and culture. They maintain that Zen as the Truth itself, in the broadest sense, should be understood and used by all mankind because it can help build and refine the character of the individual and can deepen thought (page 19).

I too believe this is true.  As we sit and meditate on a daily basis we discover things about ourselves that we might not have without the knowledge of the Buddha’s satori (awakening).  Through my meditation practice I have begun to live a life of peace, love, and compassion, with flashes of creativity and spontaneity that have made my life so much easier, fulfilling, creative, and fun.  Annie Nov. 27.15 (2)I am becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be, the person my dog Annie always knew I was.  Thanks Annie…

 

 

Footnote: Shibayama, Z. (1970) A Flower Does Not Talk Zen Essays. Charles E. Tuttle Co.: Vermont & Tokyo Japan

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A Flower Does not TalkThe preface of this book is incredible as it reads like he wrote it just yesterday. Although this book was published in 1970 it holds so many wonderful truths about Zen and life I know you will be blessed by your time spent with it.

If we look at the current world in which we live we can see the ever-growing importance of living a life set forth by Buddhist principles that are laid out in this book and the many others that I have shared with you over the years.

He writes in his preface:

The whole world today, both East and West, seems to be going through a period of convulsion, a time of travail, as it seeks to give birth to a new culture. There cannot be one simple cause for the tensions in so many parts of the world, but one of the major factors may be that while remarkable progress has been made in the use of new scientific knowledge, we human beings have not developed sufficiently spiritually and ethically to meet the new conditions.

It is most urgently required, therefore, that we must work to create a new human culture by striving for a truer understanding of humanity and a higher level of spirituality. We must attain a higher level of personality so that we can cope with the brilliant scientific achievements of modern times.

Zen presents a unique spiritual culture in the East, highly refined in its long history and traditions, and I believe it has universal and fundamental values that can contribute toward creating a new spiritual culture in our time.  The important point about Zen is, however, that we should understand it, experience it, and live it in the varying circumstances of our everyday life.  Small and insignificant as my existence and work as a Zen Roshi may be, I believe that they contribute to the infinite (page 5-6).[1]

Although I too am small and insignificant I also believe that sharing his writings and my musings about them will contribute to the infinite in a positive, uplifting, and helpful way.

Thus, I begin with the poem for which the book was named in the hopes that you will be uplifted in some way by his words.

A Flower Does Not Talk

Silently a flower blooms,
In silence it falls away;
Yet here now, at this moment, at this place,
   the whole of the flower, the whole of
   the world is blooming.
This is the talk of the flowers, the truth
   of the blossom;
The glory of eternal life is fully shinning here.

And fully shining in you…In gassho, Shokai

[1] Shibayama, Z. (1970) A Flower Does Not Talk Zen Essays. Charles E. Tuttle Co.: Vermont & Tokyo Japan

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