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Dad WWII Portrait Military Uniform 001

Jerome Henry Bishop WWII  honoree Distinguished Flying Cross

 

My father and the Zen Master Hakuin had one thing in common—they both had a great sense of humor! My father had the ability to get people to laugh any time anywhere.  He was a professional photographer and did thousands of family portraits in his lifetime.  He was able to get the most frightened child to the most suppressed adult to smile as he snapped the picture.  He also loved to joke with the cashier in every store to help cheer them up.

Stevens writes this about humor and Hakuin:

Hakuin’s grim do-or-die kensho Zen was balanced by his insistence that Zen training must include fits of ecstatic, blissful laughter; the deeper the kensho, the more one overflows side-splitting mirth.  He also said, “Those who understand jokes are many; those who understand true laughter are few (page 79).”[1]

Kensho for most students of Zen is simply “an initial enlightenment experience that still requires to be deepened (page 113).[2]  On one of my retreats I could feel this great joy and laughter beginning to come alive in me but I knew I was at a silent retreat and could not just burst out in laughter in the middle of the Zendo that was for sure!  So, I quickly jumped up off my cushion and ran out of the building and allowed myself to laugh and feel the joy in every cell of my body and mind.  I had no idea that this reaction had a name as I was a new student of Zen, but I sure enjoyed the feeling that it gave me!

When was the last time you had a real “belly laugh?”  When was the last time you watched a comedy show or a comedy movie and actually laughed out loud?  Laughter has a healing power all of its own!  “Consistent evidence has been shown that laughter, over time, offers significant medical benefits, including boosting the immune system, lowering blood pressure, improving heart and respiratory functions, even regulating blood sugar.”[3]

We all want to live a meaningful life and being able to laugh and share that laugh with others will bring meaning to your life and greater health!  How can you turn that away!?  Won’t you join me in a great big belly laugh today!  It could change your life for the better…

[1] Ibid.

[2] The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen

[3] https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-healing-power-of-laughter/

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Dharma Pets New Friends AnnieJohn Steven’s goes on to write this about Hakuin’s motto in his book Zen Masters: “Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness (page 76).”

Steven’s continues with these thoughts from Hakuin’s teacher Shoju: “If you can maintain your presence of mind in a city street teeming with violent activity, in a cremation ground amid death and destruction, and in a theater surrounded by noise and distraction, then, and only then, are you a true practitioner of Zen (page 76).”[1]

Alas, the world of 2019 exactly replicates Shoju’s description of the 17th century.  Have we not learned anything from our ancestors?   Currently our world is filled with violence, ethnic cleansing, poverty, and famine.  Image how your life would be if within this chaos you could hold your center and you could focus on the task at hand.

Imagine that you could actually see and experience the beauty of the flowers and trees, or the glistening of the snow after a storm.   Imagine that you could appreciate the uniqueness of the faces of the people around you through eyes of compassion and universal love. Imagine that you could be at peace even in the most difficult of situations.  Finally, imagine that you can see every situation with clarity and opened eyes, opened mind, and an opened heart.

In every tragedy there seems to be one person who has the focus of mind to jump into the river to save a person from drowning, to stop their car and pull a person out of a burning vehicle, or to begin CPR on someone in need.  You might be thinking that’s NOT meditation! If mediation is defined as having full focus on your breath… there can’t be a “fuller focus” then doing that which is needed in the moment!

Be here now! Meditation in the moment and in motion…and while you’re at it how about bringing along a friend!

 

[1] Stevens.J (1999) Zen Masters A Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan Kodansha International: New York

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gasshoThe next section of this wonderful book Zen Masters a Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet, goes into the life of the teacher and poet Hakuin.  He spent his life moving from one great teacher to another studying, working, and living the life of a Buddhist monk and eventually acclaimed teacher and poet and more.

Stevens’ writes: Hakuin-style Zen was based on his lengthy quest and his forceful character—”Our master moved like a bull and glared like a tiger.” One of his disciples wrote in awe. “Never be satisfied with small attainments (page 73).”[1]

Too often our self-image is lived through the eyes of another such as a parent or spouse or teacher and thus we believe what they say about us more than we believe in our own abilities, dreams, and desires.  We give our life over to others and that makes it so easy to give up our own dreams as we take on the dreams and desires of another.

Too often we follow in the footsteps of a family business or career.  Dad was a minister so I must be one as well.  Mom was a teacher so I must be one.  My “big dreams” are left dwindling in the night or set aside for the dreams of another.  This just doesn’t happen to the young—it can happen to the mature person as well.  I’m sure you’ve had a family member or friend who wanted to change careers later in life and everyone accused him or her of having a “mid-life crisis.”

A mid-life vision is more like it!  Hakuin was “never satisfied with small attainments.” He was never afraid to travel far and wide to find that next great mentor and teacher.  Stevens goes on to write:  “With Hakuin’s maturity, the latter half of his career as a Zen master was the “fruit”—self-less devotion to the care and nourishment of others (page 72).”[2]

Hakuin learned this idea from his teacher Shoju and shared this as well with his students: “If your eye is true and your mind unobstructed, there is nothing you cannot overcome, including a sword attack (page 67).”

I am not suggesting that we should take up arms, but we might want to release the fears that are holding us back from living the life we have dreamt of! I will leave you with a poem written by one of Hakuin’s teachers Shoju.

Die while alive,
Be completely dead!
Then do
What you will
And all will be well.

[1]

Stevens (1999) Zen Masters A Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan Kodansha International: New York

[2] Ibid.

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If we are to live a meaningful life, we each need to understand and acknowledge what craggy-gardenswe have “strewn along our path” good, bad, or indifferent–actions, words, and deeds.

Ikkyu wrote yet another profound poem when he said:

 

 

Bliss and sorrow; love and hate; light and shadow;
heat and cold; happiness and anger; self and other.
The enjoyment of poetic beauty may well lead to hell.
But look what we find strewn along our path:
Plum blossoms and peach flowers (page49)!

I resonate with his idea of poetic hell sometimes, for sure!  Although I was an English Lit major in college, I was never good at writing poetry. I always felt like I was working on an assignment that was undoable, unmanageable, and frankly really bad writing!  So, I avoided it at all costs…  until I became a Buddhist and starting writing poems for each of my friends as a gift for their Jukai ceremony.

Each person gets a Zen name during the Jukai ceremony that embodies them as a student and practitioner of Buddhism.  That’s why you see Shokai on my writings.  Shokai means “inviting the world.”  You can all guess why I was given that name!  I’m always inviting my friends and family to meditate or read a great Buddhist book, or read my blog, or come sit with us at the Zendo.

Some students want to go even further on their path with additional studies to move into even higher positions like a monk or a teacher.

In your life you’ve created many paths from careers to families and more.  Some of the paths have been easy and smooth as the ice on a lake in January or some may have been as unexpected as a summer storm. Sometimes others have strewn things on your path that may make you stumble or pause or even force you to rise to the occasion.

What have you “strewn” along your path today?  What has been strewn along your path by others? How did you handle it?  Like “Plum blossoms and peach flowers?” Or not…

 

Footnote: J. Stevens (1999) Zen Masters A Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan Kodansha International: New York

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gold-face-buddha-with-three-pure-precepts-2I never tire of reading the beautiful poetry of the Buddhist monks and Ikkyu is no exception to the rule.  Living a meaningful life also requires us to enjoy the beauty of spring, the sound of music, the laughter of our teachers, friends, and families, the words of our favorite writers, and poets—past and present.

The Center for Spiritual Living in Boca Raton, Florida, gives out little cards with words of wisdom on them.  I found this one today when I opened up the book. “We reap whatever we plant…enough to share and to spare.”

Ikkyu planted so many wonderful thoughts and teachings through his writing and the way he lived his life.  You can as well.  Even if you don’t think you are able to write poetry or prose simply living life as if spring was in the air every day just may inspire someone around you to write a poem with you as their muse.  You never can tell…

The rest of Ikkyu’s verse goes like this:

“But everyone else is afraid to drain its cup.
Heaven is achieved, hell disappears.
I spend the day amid falling blossoms and wind-blown fluff (page 26).”[1]

When was the last time you spent the day amid flowers with your hair blowing in the wind?  Or having to chase down your hat as it blows off your head! When was the last time you “drained your cup” of something or someone who was not helping you move forward in your life with meaning, peace, love, and compassion?

There is another story told about some farmers who were being “bled dry by excessive taxation and corrupt officials (page 30). To stand by them in principal Ikkyu wrote:

Over and over,
Taking and taking
From this village;
Starve them
And how will you live (page 30)?

It sounds like the corrupt officials were NOT living a meaningful life as I see it!  It reminds me of some of the things we are seeing today in our modern world…taking from the poor to make the rich richer.  That is definitely not the way to “live a meaningful life” unless of course your only meaning in life is to get richer and greedier.

Definitely not Ikkyu’s way for sure, not my way, how about you? I never tire of springs great pleasure and it doesn’t cost me a dime!

[1] J. Stevens (1999) Zen Masters A Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan  Kodansha International: New York

(2) picture by Mitch Doshin Cantor http://www.listeningwiththeeye.squarespace.com

 

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SomThich Nhat Hanhe years ago, I came across a wonderful little book entitled Zen Masters, a Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet by John Stevens.  Immediately I began to think about myself and my work and my studies as a Buddhist priest, teacher, and blogger.  Would my friends and students place me in any of these areas?  Do I place myself in any of them?  If so, how has my self-image affected my life? How has it given meaning to my life?

Everyone has had questions about their life while growing up.  They may not have been thought of as questions because the ideas may have started with an experience or a book or a teacher where a seed was planted.  For me I found myself at the age of 4 setting up some chairs in the garage and inviting my little girl friends to play school.  I, of course, had to be the teacher and they were the students!  I have no idea what I was teaching them but I do know I enjoyed the job!

The author chose to write about three famous teachers of Buddhism Ikkyu (1394-1481), Hakuin (1686-1768), and Ryokan (1758-1831).  Each one was unique and impactful in their own way just as you are—even when you don’t know it.  Your words, deeds, ideas, emotions, and thoughts affect not only you but everyone around you from your family and friends, to your co-workers, and everyone you meet in your daily life.

Do you open the door for the mom or dad with a baby carriage, do you carry a bundle for the elderly person who lives next door, and do you support your coworker when they need a lift on a very stressful day? Or are you the one who would not even notice the goings on in the three scenarios above?

What is your idea of a meaningful life and how do you express it? Are you the maverick, the master of masters, or a wandering poet?  No judgment here, no grading one against the other as all three of the great men written about were all unique and special in their own way, and thus are remembered and written about hundreds of years later.

What will people remember about you?  I hope this blog series will help you dig deep into yourself to find the maverick, the master, and the wandering poet as Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan did all those many years ago!

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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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