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Oxherding_pictures,_No._6Mounting the bull, slowly
I return homeward.
The voice of my flute intones
through the evening.
Measuring with hand-beats
the pulsating harmony,
I direct the endless rhythm.
Whoever hears this melody
will join me.

The sixth picture suggests the tranquility and joy that reunion with the source of existence brings; now the oxherd rides on the back of the ox, joyously playing his flute. The verse suggests that he has been freed from old fears and anxieties and that so freed, he can now express his creative energies in celebration of life.[1]

Oneness, what does that mean to you?  The oxherder finds oneness with the Ox as he rides joyfully home harmonizing his flute, his body, and his mind with the ox.  In doing so he does not even need to hold on to the reigns as his fear of falling off the ox has disappeared.  He knows that there is no separation between the two of them and thus happily rides along playing his flute.

When we separate ourselves from people, and things, and ways we limit our abilities, we hinder our creativity, and we make life harder and more uncomfortable.  Being one with everything opens us up to insights and Ah Ha’s that otherwise would have eluded us.  To be one with the dying man as a hospice chaplain is an incredible experience.  To allow yourself to laugh with bottomless joy along with a young child is being awakened to the oneness that permeates the universe.

Laughter is catchy if one person starts laughing others seem to join in even if they do not know what the person is laughing about.  The same thing happens when someone cries, we all cry with them or try desperately to hold back the tears.  And when someone yawns everyone else must yawn no matter how hard they try not to. Just reading this sentence about yawing I know you are having trouble holding back the yawn that is trying desperately to come out!

Roshi Kennedy says that the “unity between the absolute and the relative is fundamental to Zen Buddhism (page 68).”[1]  Although we may not feel it most of the time that does not mean that it is not true.  So, when you feel disconnected to life or to a situation or a person remember that oneness exists even if the eyes can’t see it, the ears can’t hear it, and the mind can’t fathom it—it is still true! Just ask the tooth fairy! I can see that money underneath my pillow right now!

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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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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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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Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha): “Do not believe in anything because it is found written in your religious books.

The Rigveda is an ancient Indian text one of the four canonical sacred texts of Hinduism written between the 5th and 2nd century BCE, the first four books of the Bible Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers were written between the 6th and 2nd century BCE, the Tao Te Ching in the 6th century BCE, the Buddhist Sutras between the 2nd century BCE and the 2nd century CE, the New Testament in the 1st century CE, the Qur’an is the newest written around 632 CE.  Wow!  If you can remember all of that you’re better than I am!

 What’s my point?  The people who wrote these books were wonderful people who wanted to memorialize their beliefs and experiences for those who would come after them.  They were trying to explain, nature, birth, death, life, good and evil and more.  Science was not at the level it is today, they only had their eyes, ears, nose, and sometimes mouth to discover and memorialize their lives and how they dealt with what happened to them and in them in their waking and sleeping hours.

This is neither good nor bad—it just is.  Thus if saying a bed time Buddha at Bedtimeprayer will help keep you alive through the night—great what can you lose! If not eating meat is how you desire to live your life wonderful, go for it.  If eating meat but not pork or crustaceans (lobster, crabs, shrimp, etc.) is your choice that’s great too.  In ancient times you might have been better off not eating pork because it caused an infection we know as trichinosis, but so did lots of other foods.  Just a few more reasons “not to believe” everything found in your ancient texts.

My mom believed it about the pork and thus when we had pork chops for dinner they were so well done they tasted and acted like shoe leather!  That was one of the nights I always found a reason to eat at my best friend’s house for dinner.  Another time I bought some “free range chicken” and served it to her for supper.  I was bragging about how great they were and that all the chickens should be freed.  Once again mom told me a “farm story.”  “I fed plenty of chickens on the farm growing up and let me tell you they ate anything and everything in sight, at least this way their waste ends up far enough away that they can’t get at it.” You’ve got to love my mom!

So in this day and age with our education, science, technology, the internet, and more you have the opportunity to be your own researcher and discover about life for yourself.  If following your religious and family traditions is important in your life…go for it.  Just remember that not everything written in them is true…then move full speed ahead and live the life that works for you and spreads peace, love, and compassion wherever you go!

In gassho,

Shokai

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Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha): “Do not believe in anything imagessimply because you have heard it.”

It is okay to begin your journey by reading the books and watching the videos and once you’ve done that throw it all away and discover it for yourself in your own way and in your own time.  That will enhance your knowledge, give you practical experience in the area that you are working on and make it “real” in mind, body, and spirit.

I can watch all the great ice skaters in the world on TV, and I can go see them perform live in the stadium. I can feel the beautiful music vibrating in my ears and moving down into my body and enjoy its bliss.  But until I put on a pair of skates I don’t know what skating is!

Do not believe what others tell you about skating—experience it for yourself!  When I began studying metaphysics in the 90’s I was book learned, I taught classes, and shared my knowledge from the pulpit.  But until I started to meditate daily, and create my own treasure maps, and write my own affirmations and use them daily and saw the things manifest in my life—I really didn’t know what metaphysics was.

Even though I heard and read about the power of prayer until I prayed with one of my congregants in a hospice setting and saw and heard her in prayer with me I did not really know the power of prayer.  Her belief in that prayer helped her walk out of the center a few days later healed. She moved back to the north east where she continued to live many years in good health.

Once she came back to Florida to visit her family and dropped in on one of my classes and shared this story with us. Her doctor had told her that her healing from prayer changed his belief in God. My purpose is not to try to make you believe in a God or a supreme power or the like, but simply to illustrate the teaching of the Kalama Sutra, “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.”  The doctor had seen it with his own eyes in one of his own patients.

Thus we live a life of “free inquiry” not believing in anything simply because we have heard it or read it or seen it on the internet!  Regardless if the ideas are written in any ancient scriptures and in any ancient language. We must discover it for ourselves.  Live a life of free inquiry and watch what happens in your life when you do!

Let me know how that goes.

Shokai

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