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Today I scoured my bookshelves for something to use as a catalyst for my next Zen workbook to share with our members “behind the fence.”  Yuanwu jumped out at me and said, how about my teachings?  Some of my favorite translators of Zen Buddhism, Thomas Cleary and J.C. Cleary, created a wonderful book entitled Zen Letters Teachings of Yuanwu.

Yuanwu Chinese MasterYuanwu’s teachings are filled with words of wisdom and actions for the everyday person to incorporate into his or her life. Although he may have lived from 1063-1135 his words are still pertinent to how we can live our lives each day with optimism. He is also known by Buddhists as the author of the Blue Cliff Record a compilation of 100 koans and his commentaries.

The authors write in their introduction: The Zen tradition, like all of Mahayana Buddhism, is invincibly optimistic about human possibilities—our true identity, our inherent buddha nature, can never be destroyed.  It is our basic essence, and it is with us always, waiting to be activated and brought to life (page vi-vii).[1]

The authors go on to write: These teachers meant to enable us to become aware of our buddha nature and to gain the use of it in everyday life.  Zen Buddhism, like all other branches of Mahayana Buddhism, maintains that it is the true destiny of every person to become enlightened (page v-vi).[2]

For people in other religious beliefs you may interchange the Buddha nature with Christ nature or for indigenous people your ideas and teachings.  But all spiritual and/or religious beliefs have this basic essence described throughout their doctrines, writings, music, and art. As we follow in the footsteps of the masters we begin to realize that we too can be enlightened. Even though we sit with “no” conscious intention of it—if we practice the principles and sit and live the tenants all things are possible to those who believe.  Believe it not—and it will not be!  That is the truth of all of life.

Thus, I hope this blog and eventual workbook will be of interest to all people of all faiths and beliefs, and to those who hold no particular faith belief whatsoever.  Everyone is welcome on this adventure with Yuanwu the Chinese Master. I hope you’ll come along for the ride!

[1] Cleary J.C. and Cleary, T. (1994) Zen Letters Teachings of Yuanwu. Boston & London: Shambhala

[2] Ibid.

 

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the 10 oxherding pictures Sakura Sakuragi

The way of Zen is a process—one that can take a life time.  It is not a quick fix for your relationships, jobs, or health.  It is a way of life.  It is providing the opportunity for you to have a meditation practice that moves through you throughout the day not just when you are sitting on the cushion.  It gives you the opportunity to live a life of peace, love, and compassion even in the most trying of situations knowing that this to shall pass. The ox herder learned this very well on his journey.

Francis Dojun Cook in his book How to Raise An Ox writes:

In Buddhism there is a vast difference between believing that all things are impermanent and realizing that they are; but before that belief becomes true knowledge, one must practice in the faith that it is so, and will eventually be proven to be so by one’s own experience (page 17).

Thus, sitting and reading and practicing the principles of Buddhism will give you the opportunity and the “true knowledge” you need to bolster your faith in all things being impermanent.  That impermanence makes life easier to deal with, that impermanence is why we have a saying “and this to shall pass.”  Every life is filled with things that come and go: a headache, a bad grade on a project at school, a failed job or relationship, a burnt dinner, or a cold.  They came and they went, they were impermanent.  They were not here to stay!

As students of Buddhism we work to realize that everyone and everything is the Buddha. We take the bodhisattva vow which consists “of selfless service on behalf of others [which] gradually diminishes self-serving, self-interested action (page 23).” [1]

Thus, the ox herder practiced and studied and believed and eventually realized his oneness with all things and no longer needed the ox. There was no quick fix, no magic pill or potion. Dojun continues with these words, “And this begins to happen when we completely abandon our own efforts and trust completely in our true nature, which is the Buddha.  Again, this is Buddhist faith (page 24).”

“To have faith in the Buddha is the same as forgetting the self (page 26)” –And remembering impermanence! To forget the self is to find the true self. Good luck with that!

[1] Cook, F. D. (2002) How to Raise an Ox Zen Practice as Taught in Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Boston: Wisdom Publications

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BOxherding_pictures,_No._10arefooted and naked of breast,
I mingle with the people
of the world.
My clothes are ragged and dust-laden,
and I am ever blissful.
use no magic to extend my life;
Now, before me, the dead trees
become alive.
I have abandoned the whip and ropes

 Finally, the tenth picture shows the enlightened oxherd entering the town marketplace, doing all of the ordinary things that everyone else does. But because of his deep awareness everything he does is quite extraordinary. He does not retreat from the world, but shares his enlightened existence with everyone around him. Not only does he lead fishmongers and innkeepers in the way of the Buddha but, because of his creative energy and the radiance of his life, even withered trees bloom. [1]

I love Suzuki’s title for this picture “entering the city with bliss-bestowing hands.” Every one of us can have hands that help or hinder. We can bless someone with a kind touch on the shoulder, or by the shake of a hand, or a pat on the back in their time of need. Or we can hinder them with a negative hand gesture (I’m sure you can think of some on your own), a shove, or a slap. Your hands can hold a crying newborn to sooth it’s trauma, comfort a patient in a hospice bed, or wash a baby duck covered in oil from an off-shore drilling site disaster.

Hands are powerful tools that we are given and sometimes they can seem as though they are making magic.  I like to watch the talent shows like America’s Got Talent and the most amazing people to me are the magicians.  What they can do with their hands is mind boggling!  Watching someone plant flowers in a garden, or paint a picture, or cut your hair is amazing to me.  The craft, the talent, and the finesse that your hands have to make something out of almost nothing is incredible.

Your creative energy can come out in many ways.  I hope that you are looking for those ways and perfecting them, and sharing them with others.  We don’t have to be a so called “enlightened being” like the oxherder to do great things with our hands.  We simply need to care enough, desire it enough, and be willing enough to put the time and energy in to it to find and develop that creativity, love, and perfection within us.

I love how Koeller talks about the “radiance of his life, even withered trees bloom.”  I don’t expect to make withered flowers bloom today with the touch of my hands that’s for sure. But I can pick the weeds from my garden or comfort a soul in need with them and for me that’s the “radiance of life” –doing the extraordinary in an ordinary way.  What is yours?

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

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Oxherding_pictures,_No._9Too many steps have been taken
returning to the root and the source.
Better to have been blind and deaf
from the beginning!
Dwelling in one’s true abode,
unconcerned with and without –
The river flows tranquilly on
and the flowers are red.
I have abandoned the whip and ropes

As the ninth picture shows, when self and reality (as constructs) are left behind, then things are revealed to be just what they are in themselves; streams meander on of themselves and red flowers naturally bloom red. In the ordinary events of life are found the most profound truths. Only by seeking the ox as a separate ultimate reality could the oxherd discover that there is no separate reality; that the ultimate is to be found in the ordinary.[1]

And so…why is it we are always looking for our good somewhere else, somewhere outside of ourselves, in our job, our family, our hobbies, our meditation, or our possessions?

“As Bodhidharma, the founder of Chinese Zen, said in the sixth century A.D., your true nature is always right ‘in front of you’—you yourself just do not see it (page110).”[2] Do we see that our true nature, our self, our ideas, thoughts, feelings, and love are not a separate reality they are the only reality available to us.  That the truth of life and its ultimate answer is simply in the words of Wu Li’s everyday way of living—Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.

What more is there to life than to simply live it the best we can.  When you can take the time to help make life better for another, to make yourself more approachable to others, to make yourself more loving to all creatures large and small, and to make you kinder—these things ARE your true nature.  These are the things that life is made of.  Here you are able to “dwell in one’s true abode, unconcerned with and without.” Simply being—simply chopping wood and carrying water.

Simply doing the thing that appears to you in the moment: holding the door for someone with their arms full of packages, letting someone in front of you in a traffic jam, sharing your lunch with a stranger, or mowing the lawn for a sick or aged neighbor.  Living in the moment mindfully fully aware of the things that surround you with peace, love, and compassion is simply “chopping wood and carrying water.”  Expecting no reward simply Dwelling in one’s true abode, unconcerned with and without. Embrace the life as the picture displays—a simple tree beside a stream and a few rocks on which to sit as you bask in the simplicity of life.

Close your eyes—take a deep breath! Can’t you just feel the breeze and the spray of the water on your face?! Simply divine! “The ultimate has been found in the ordinary.”

[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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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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Oxherding_pictures,_No._5

The whip and rope are necessary,
Else he might stray off down
some dusty road.
Being well-trained, he becomes
naturally gentle.
Then, unfettered, he obeys his master.[1]
 

The fifth picture shows that disciplined practice can overcome the bad habits of previous conditioning and bring one into accord with the true nature of reality. Although discipline is still needed because the old habits of mind still have power, living in greater awareness of the true reality gives one the energy and direction to live a wholesome life. Now the ox willingly follows the oxherd home, meaning that the separation between oneself and true reality is being overcome.[2]

Who is the master in your life?  Is it your thoughts, actions, fears, joys, money, your job, your relationships, your spiritual practices?  In picture #5 the ox is now following the oxherder home.  He is not tightly tethered to the oxherder, but they are casually walking one in front of the other following the path of enlightenment. As Roshi Kennedy says in his book, Zen Gifts to Christians, “Self-mastery then is living a full life in the present, attached to nothing (page 61).”[3]

The habits of our minds can pull us down a dark and dangerous path if we are not aware of them.  It is discovering the art of sitting in meditation as a “disciplined practice” where we are learning how to let the ruminations of the mind be a visitor and not a resident.  Where all thoughts can be like feathers in the wind and we can watch them as they float through our minds easily without clinging or fear or anxiety. Where we can be in front of them or behind them and they hold no power over us.

Neither do we cling to the beautiful, happy, loving, thoughts because we can grasp and cling to them just as easily and begin to chase after them with ferocity. We can cling to their images and the feelings they bring up until they hold power over us as well. And thus, we are led on a wild goose chase running after those thoughts and running away from the dark thoughts and we find ourselves in an endless circle of confusion and fear, happiness and joy. It is as if we are on the merry-go-round at Palisades Park.  Round and round we go where it stops nobody knows!

Living a life of true separation from our thoughts is allowing them to come and go as they please.  It is seeing them floating like a feather in the wind. It takes time and “disciplined practice.” Each day it becomes easier and easier as we sit in meditation and allow those feathers to fly at their own speed and height. What a great way to live a “wholesome life” without clinging to happiness or fear.

Try it and let me know how it goes!

In gassho, Shokai

[1] Koller, J.M. http://www.columbia.edu/cu/weai/exeas/resources/pdf/oxherding.pdf
[2] Ibid.
[3] 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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