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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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PlanetHood book cover Ferencz and KeyesI am one of the luckiest people on the earth.  My neighbor is Benjamin B. Ferencz the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg war crimes trials and I have a copy of a book that he co-authored with Ken Keys, Jr. the author of The Hundredth Monkey entitled PlanetHood The Key to Your Survival and Prosperity written in 1988.

They begin the 7th Step with these thoughts:

“We have seen that after the horrors of each world war, nations recognized—at least for a brief time—that change was necessary to create a peaceful world order. The truth is that our political leaders simply did not dare enough—or care enough.  We, the public, did not do enough. We all let each other down (page 127).”[1]

It has been 31 years and not a single thing has been done about wars on planet Earth.  Ben and Ken quote Robert Muller former U.N. Assistant Secretary-General and author of A Planet of Hope with these words.

“We need first and foremost a world democracy, a government of this planet for the people and by the people.  But the problem is so colossal and unprecedented that few political thinkers even dare to consider it.  They feel more at ease discussing the number and strength of missiles needed to protect specific national corrals. Since government and institutions are so slow and reluctant to do it, we must build the world community through individual commitment and action (page 127).” (Emphasis is mine.)

Zen and Peace!  If only more people could be involved in the principles and practices of sitting meditation, chanting, and living a life of peace, love, and compassion our wars would soon end, our jails would be empty, and our earth would be safe from global warming and its eventual demise.

They write, “Remember if the people lead the leaders will follow. Better active today than radioactive tomorrow (page 128).[2] You would think that this book was written yesterday!  So, here is their suggestions today for us.

“We suggest that you pledge to yourself and the world to do a daily deed: a daily action that will make world peace one step closer when the law of force is replaced by the force of law. Such a Peace Patriot pledge need not be burdensome. Depending upon your time and money available, you can live out your pledge with integrity each day on either a maximum or a minimum basis—something in between.  For example, as a daily deed you could write a letter to a friend about U.N. reform. Or donate money to an organization working for planethood. (page 128).”

Now think of other ways you can help before our children and grandchildren don’t have a planet to live on.  Why do you thing Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are leading the commercial race to space?

Ron Epstein, lecturer for the Global Peace Studies Program in San Francisco State University wrote:

Buddhism teaches that whether we have global peace or global war is up to us at every moment.  The situation is not hopeless and out of our hands.  If we don’t do anything, who will? Peace or war is our decision.  The fundamental goal of Buddhism is peace, not only peace in this world but peace in all worlds. The Buddha taught that peaceful minds lead to peaceful speech and peaceful actions.” [3]

I hope you’ll join me and Ron and Ken and Ben before it’s too late…

 

[1] Ferencz, B. Keyes, K. (1988) PlanetHood The Key to Your Survival and Prosperity. Vision Books: Coos Bay, OR

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://online.sfsu.edu/rone/Buddhism/BUDDHIST%20IDEAS%20FOR%20ATTAINING%20WORLD%20PEACE.htm

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  1. Sit early in the morning before you begin your day. It will set your mood and tone bhante-gunaratanaand can open your mind to great ideas and solutions for a situation that you are dealing with.
  2. Find a quiet place even if the only place is the bathroom with the door locked.
  3. Sit in a way where you are comfortable be it in a chair, or on the floor with a cushion in half or full lotus, on a meditation bench, sitting up in bed with your pillows behind your back, outside in your garden, on the veranda, on the back porch, or in the tub in a bubble bath. Regardless of where you sit make it a priority and sit on a regular basis in the same place, if at all possible.
  4. Set a specific amount of time, start slow and work your up to longer and longer times. I suggest 5 minutes at first and when 5 minutes feels like it flew by like a jet airplane, move to 10 and then 20 minutes. Simply focus your attention on your breath, in and out, when your mind wanders bring it back to your in breath and out breath.
  5. Some days are better then others when sitting. Thus, if you have a day that you can’t seem to quiet your mind don’t get mad and put yourself down.  Just know that everything takes time to learn, including meditation.  Remember growing up when you tried to learn how to ride a bike, or ice skate, or roller skate, or play baseball, or dance. You did not lace up those skates and fly around the ice like an Olympic skater! You started and stopped and fell down, and got up with help, and started again.  Before long you were skating with your friends with ease and grace or dancing with your favorite partner at the school dance.  Such is life and sitting in meditation.
  6. Finally, start by setting a goal such as I will do this for one month and if nothing happens and I don’t feel any difference in my life then I will stop. But to be sure that you really did or did not feel any changes you might want to keep a little notebook by your sitting place and jot down a note after your time sitting.  Write down both good and bad experiences.  During the day you might even notice something that you’ll want to add to your notebook such as “I really was calm at work today as I worked on a very difficult project.  In the past I would have gotten upset and angry at myself or taken my anger or frustration out on my co-workers or my family.”
  7. Finally, after all that I hope you’ll continue sitting and meditating and living a life of peace, love, and compassion for self and others. Try it I think you’ll like it and so will the people around you in your daily life!  They will love the new you!

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Father Leo Booth in his book Meditations for Compulsive People writes these words about love: “So many of us love our pets not because they speak of unconditional love, but becauAnnie and Bubbles at doorse they live it (page 135)!”[1]  And yet you’ll see so many times on the news about the police shutting down a puppy mill or rescuing animals left out in the yard during a blizzard.  I have a wonderful book, Dogs Don’t Bite When a Growl Will Do, in it I read a story about a German shepherd who ran in front of a taxi cab driver and refused to move.  He got the driver to follow him to a poodle lying nearly frozen in the snow.  Oddly enough the cab driver had just recently given up looking for the dog for one of his customers.

The author continues by writing: “Those feelings—concerns, empathy, and distress—led the dog to perform an act of kindness and compassion (page 271).”  Yes, the dog!  He goes on to write, “The world is full of opportunities for all of us to demonstrate our compassion.  I believe that when we learn to match the compassion shown by our canine companions—or for that matter, unknown German shepherds and anonymous drivers who encounter stray dogs on the road—then the world will be a far better place to live (page272).”[2]

You cannot separate the word peace from unconditional love.  Peace and love are like vanilla ice cream and apple pie, or peanut butter and jelly they are inseparable and delicious and necessary for a world to be a peaceful and safe place to live. Pema Chodron in her book Awakening Loving Kindness writes, “It isn’t a sin that we are in the dark room.  It’s just an innocent situation, but how fortunate that someone shows us where the light switch is. It brightens up our life considerably (page 25).”[3]  Even if that someone is a most unusual team: a German shepherd and a cab driver.

You cannot have peace without love and you can’t have love without peace. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that this is true.  You don’t have to be anything but a human being who cares about others and puts them first and NOT twenty first.  As Father Booth so aptly describes in these words about Winston:

“There was a time when I abused him.
Gave him a dog’s Life!
In my drinking days when I was lost in self-pity;
Lonely,
Afraid,
Miserable,
Confused,
Angry,
I was hurting. So, I hurt others.
 
I abused my family.
Disappointed the congregation.
Angered the bishop.
And kicked the dog.
Yes, I kicked my dog—
When I really wanted to kick the bishop?
I can still see those large eyes staring at me.
Winston. Please forgive me.
And I know he did.
Winston watches,
Waits,
Comforts,
And loves in perpetual silence.
A companion and friend.
My dog.
It may seem odd, but I see God in Winston.
Something in that selfless love is divine.
In his silence I am healed
In his play, I am revitalized.
In his expression, I am accepted.
My dog.
His example taught me how to let go of resentments;
Enjoy serenity,
Live humility.
My dog became my mentor (page 136-7).”[4]

And peace arrived…when Annie and Bubbles entered my home.

[1] L. Booth (1995) Meditations for Compulsive People. SPC Limited: Long Beach, CA
[2] M Weinstein, L Barber. (2003) Dog’s Don’t Bite When a Growl Will Do. Perigee: NY, NY
[3] P. Chodron. (1996) Awakening Loving-Kindness. Shambhala: Boston & London
[4] L. Booth (1995) Meditations for Compulsive People. SPC Limited: Long Beach, CA

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buddha-quote-thinkingWe feed our mind with many things and what we feed it with can determine who we are, how we treat others, and what will manifest in our lives.  Words can be sweet like the taste of a ripe apple in Spring or sour like a pickle that has been soaked in brine for many weeks or months.  But it is always up to us which we will eat and which we will share with others.  And how we share it…

While I was going through my mail from the prison ministry the news of the bloody massacre of the Muslims in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand came on the news. As I listened I opened an eight-page letter from one of my pen pals “behind the fence.”

My pen pal had a lot of words rolling around in his head about the principles of Zen until he got confused.  I quickly came upon two poems that I thought he could use in his time of contemplation of Zen principles and how he uses them in his life.

Asukai  Masatsune (1170-1221)

I walked among stones
Through mountains of mountains,
Paying no mind
Until the flower-trail behind
Turned into drifting white clouds (page 117).[1]

Dogen Kigen (1200-1253)

Cast away all speech.
Our words may express it,
But cannot hold it.
The way of letters leaves no trace,
Yet the teaching is revealed (page 119)[2].

Had the killer paid no mind to his thoughts and the writings he was reading about hate for others of a different faith and had he cast away his hate filled words and left no trace of it and replaced it with peace and love for all human life those people would be alive today.

Be aware of your thoughts and words as being “food for the mind” they can give life or take it away. How many times has someone said to you “you’re going to eat those words someday?” Simply use your words of peace, love, and compassion for all and the complexity of life will winnow down to simply loving life and all humanity.  And you’ll never have to eat your words again because they will have turned into “drifting white clouds.”

[1] Hamill, S. and Seaton, J.P. The Poetry of Zen. Shambhala Boston & London 2007

[2] Ibid.

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basket of fresh fruitThere are many variations of the prayers that the Buddhist communities use before they eat to bless their food.  This is the one we use at the Southern Palm Zen Group.  I like it a lot as it is simple and to the point.

“Earth, water, fire, air and space combine to make this food, numberless beings gave their lives and labors so that we may eat, may we be nourished so that we may nourish life.”

Thus we focus not on the “food” but the reason that we eat: to nourish our bodies and minds.  It’s really that simple.  As humans became more social beings we began to eat for pleasure and times of sharing, fun, and celebration with our families and friends. We created reasons to eat and to give thanks before the meal to show our gratitude for the food, our families, and our friends.

Brown encourages us to do a little less “picking and choosing” when it comes to food.  He says, “So instead of picking and choosing, as students of life we might at times choose to practice acceptance, gratitude, enjoyment, thanksgiving (page 145-6).” That is easy to do by always blessing your food before you eat.

I used to teach the kids in Sunday school when we had snack time to say, “Ruba dub dub thank you God for the grub.” Some of the parents did not like it but the kids loved it and it started them off on a great practice of giving thanks for the food they had been given–even if they disliked it.  It can also be a time when you can share with them that many children have no food to eat and to be grateful and happy that they have food on their table.  To value the food that they have will help them have compassion for those who have none.

Giving thanks is something we all do at Thanksgiving with our families and friends sitting around the table, but I hope you’re doing it every day not just one or two days out of the year.  You’ll be surprised how much better the food will taste, and how much less Pepto-Bismol you’ll have to take after the meal.  Regardless of who cooked it–the  worst or the best cook in your family–giving thanks will make it go down easily!

Just remember what Mary Poppins said: Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down or Uncle Joe’s chili…well maybe not Uncle Joe’s chili…but giving thanks may help!

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upaya-gold-buddha-DoshinYueh-lin (thirteenth century) is to have said, “What is true speech? Ninety percent accuracy is not as good as silence (page 104).”[1]

Wow!  I agree with Yueh-lin! There is way too much speech in our world today.  Even though I make my living by speaking and writing even I know that there is too much talking and not enough doing, or meditating, or wondering, or feeding the homeless.  All of which take little or no talking.

I’ve always known that my students learned more by doing then by listening to me flap my jaws for an hour in the seminar.  Thus, I give them time to play a game, watch a YouTube video, or figure out a “what if” scenario, or discover a new way to make something better.  I’ve got them doing a three-breath exercise before each class and before they begin writing, or before they begin that job interview. And most importantly before they say something they will regret.   To say LESS and do MORE…that’s the key to life.  Often the person who talks a big game is simply talking and not doing!  I’m sure we all know that person…I just hope it isn’t you!

The proof is in the pudding?  What the heck does that mean?  The person who is making the pudding or pie or soup is usually thinking quietly of what ingredients are needed to make this wonderful recipe.  It’s not cooked to long or to short, it’s cooked just right!

If we spend more of our time meditating and contemplating, then doing—our life will turn out just right!   Remember true speech should not only be accurate and truthful, but it should be restrained, kind, thoughtful, and sometimes not spoken at all.  And at that note I think I’ll end right here.

[1]

Cleary, T. (1998)   Teachings of Zen. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc

Photo by Mitch Doshin Cantor, Southern Palm Zen Group.

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