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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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“All the great prophets taught that you will find a sense of peace and purpose in stillness.  They all wanted you to be able to find peace within yourself (page 42).”

~Russell Simmons (Success through Stillness)

Stillness can be seen sometimes out my office window when not a single leaf is moving on the trees. Sometimes I see stillness in my dog Annie as she lays contentedly next to me sleeping in her little bed.  At times she is so still that I have to look at her stomach to see if she is still breathing!

I find stillness in my mind and body when I am sitting each morning meditating.  I even have felt stillness as I’ve sipped my morning coffee savoring the taste of it on my tongue, feeling the warmth of it moving down my throat while breathing in the fragrance of the coffee and the hazelnut creamer.

Stillness can be found anywhere and anytime if you are looking for it. Even at the Fourth of July fireworks celebration you can be so focused on the beauty of the fireworks and the sound of them that your entire being is one with them.  You are so connected that you don’t hear the screams of the children or the barking of the dogs.

Stillness is not a thing—it is a place that we go when our minds are focused so thoroughly on one thing that time has stopped and space and eternity is everywhere in that moment of stillness.  When I was a child I loved to read the Nancy Drew mysteries.  I was there in the stillness of the book and the moment.  I was Nancy walking, running, jumping, solving the mystery.  I sat still for hours on the couch or on my bed engrossed in the book. There were many days when my mother would literally have to walk into the room and shake me to get my attention.  She was so exasperated that I did not respond to her calling my name to come in for supper.

Stillness, what is it really?  What mysteries does it hold? Oh, the places you will go! There is no time in stillness.  Stillness can last a nanosecond or an hour without differentiation.  We welcome stillness sometimes when things are getting too busy at work, school, or home.  We crave it when we are stuck in activity, thinking, emotions, and the adrenaline rush!

Such is a time to hold up a big STOP sign in your mind.  Such is a time to take hold of your breath and breathe three times slowly simply counting one on the in breath and two on the out breath. To find stillness in the breath, to live between the heart beats, where eternity lives is divine.

Take charge of your life, find time every day, as often as possible for a “stillness break” instead of a coffee break or an ice cream break!  Meet the peace within yourself. You’ll be glad you did—so will everyone around you, I’m sure!

Let’s meet in the stillness where we will definitely find our good today! See you there! I await your presence!

In gassho,

ingassho

Shokai

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There are hundreds of ways a person can begin to open to the spirit within them. In every religion there are prayers, and songs, and dances, and poems, and liturgies that have been created to help their followers find the divinity within them. We have been practicing out loud by chanting and singing, and creating music with percussion, string, and wind instruments or silently, through contemplation, meditation, zazen, introspection, lectio divina, dance, and more. Others have used sweat lodges, art, mind altering drugs, and ancient rituals. But all have been designed to help the individual find that mystical, untouchable, elusive thing within them called life.

Two extraordinary women have recently gifted me two things—one was a book, Zen Chants Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary by Kazuaki Tanahashi, and the other a journal article from Innovation Educativa which she is a co-author of entitled “The power of deep reading and mindful literacy: An innovative approach in contemporary education (Hall, O’Hare, Santavicca & Jones, 2015).” I have been moving between these pieces of writing with joy each presenting me with some fantastic ways to bring my practice into alignment with my life.

Thus I have decided to use these as a jumping off place for creating another workbook for the prison ministry in Florida of which I am one of their volunteers. The prison outreach ministry is sponsored by the Southern Palm Zen Group (Southern Palm Zen Group).

My first thought was what good I could get from the use of these techniques in my life, what I could discover about myself, and how I might even find my “true-self.” And then I read the paragraph below from Kaz’s book and discovered that what I really wanted to do was “understand” what he describes below and thus the workbook was born.

The “Four All-Embracing Vows” expresses the bodhisattva’s attitude. The first of the four vows—‘Beings are numberless; I vow to awaken them’—appears to be an overly idealistic and unrealistic promise. But if we look at it closely, we will notice that it doesn’t simply say, ‘I vow to awaken all sentient beings.’ It begins by acknowledging just how many living beings there are who need to be awakened. Thus, being kind to a neighbor, a stranger, or an animal can create rippling effects of kindness. A simple action may cause infinite results. If the ‘I’ who vows is separate from other people, what ‘I’ can achieve is quite limited. But if ‘I’ is not separate from all others throughout space and time, it may be possible to awaken all beings. This understanding is an essential ground for socially engaged Buddhism (Page 9).

My desire is to be a “socially engaged Buddhist.” My writing this workbook will help me discover new things about myself as I practice the techniques I am sharing, and hopefully, helping others do the same as they use the techniques in their own lives.

So let’s begin this adventure as Kaz did by reciting the four vows for a week as often as possible and wherever we can. Whether we’re sitting in meditation, contemplating the words, or writing them in our journal, whether we’re riding the train, or driving our cars, or making our beds–let’s chant. Chant aloud or silently as the environment allows. Let us not be separate from the words, the thoughts that follow, the sounds of the words, or the feelings and emotions that we feel as we chant. Let’s be one with everything. Let’s be accepting of what comes or does not come, no judgements or criticisms of ourselves, we’re simply chanting! The words are below as we chant them at the Southern Palm Zen Group. You are welcome to use them or use ones that you are familiar with.

The Four Vows
Creations are numberless, I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to transform them.
Reality is boundless, I vow to perceive it.
The Enlightened Way is unsurpassable, I vow to embody it.

In gassho,

ingassho
Shokai

[1]Hall, M.P., O’Hare, A., Jones L.F., Santavicca, N. (2015) The power of deep reading and mindful literacy: An innovative approach in contemporary education. Innovacion Educative, ISSN: 1665-2673 vol. 15, numero 67

[2]Tanahashi, K. (2015) Zen Chants Thirty-Five Essential Texts with Commentary. Shambhala Publications Inc.: Boston, MA

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Zen Can

Zach Zen CanAnd How to Make an Emblem

  1. This can contains 100% pure unadulterated emptiness. We must first understand emptiness in order to come to understand and appreciate the fullness of existence. Affirmation: May we all become open receptive vessels.
  2. The can hangs in the position of being poured. This represents the eternal outpouring of the dharma. Affirmation: May it’s blessings be poured upon all.
  3. The can’s surface is smooth, solid, and polished to a mirror finish. This is so that everything which comes into contact with it is reflected upon it. We must endeavor to make our minds a semblance of this. Only with an undisturbed steady and strong mind are we able to correctly meditate upon the things that come to us in life physically or mentally. Affirmation: May we all gain wisdom and understanding through our meditations and reflections.
  4. The rope that the can hangs from has 3 knots. The first represents Shakyamuni Buddha. He is holding all that which he has awakened to. Affirmation: Let us honor the memory of the awakened one “Shakyamuni Gautama Buddha. The second knot represents the dharma. It has begun to be undone. This is the unbounded and expanded comprehension that the Buddha gave to us all. Affirmation: May we study the teachings of Buddha Tathagata diligently and urgently. The third represents the sangha. It is the community of followers of the teachings and practice which the Buddha brought forth, and has passed on now for almost 90 generations. Affirmation: May each of us meditate upon them daily in good health and good spirit.
  5. The rope is symbolic of the consciousness. It passes through and around all of the rest of the symbols given above. It is a circle and also represents a never ending stream of consciousness in an eternal existence. By putting this over our head we are symbolically putting our minds, eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and throat into all that we have accepted as a new way of life. No longer shall we view life the same, see life the same, hear life the same, smell, taste, touch, or think of life the same as we did prior to coming to the understanding and practice of the Buddha’s teachings. Affirmation: May each of us be strong in our resolve and efforts.

In gassho,

Kakushin

July 29, 2015

This can was made from an inhaler that someone had thrown away and Kakushin turned it into  this incredible piece of Buddhist jewelry which he calls a “Zen Can.”  Kakushin is a member of our prison sangha.  He gave this to me as a gift on my last visit as a volunteer with our prison ministry team.  Magnificent work! It took him over 8 hours to sand the paint off by hand. And even more hours of meditation to write the descriptions and affirmations that go along with the “Zen Can.”

I am blessed to be a part of this incredible volunteer project that helps over 400 inmates be able to sit and practice the Buddhist principles in the Florida prison system.

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Emptiness here, emptiness there,
but the infinite universe stands always before your eyes.
Infinitely large and infinitely small;
no difference, for definitions have vanished
and no boundaries are seen.
So too with being and non-being.
Don’t waste time in doubts and arguments
that have nothing to do with this (page 4).[1]

In the Manual of Zen Buddhism (1960) D.T. Suzuki talks about emptiness when he is sharing his thoughts “On believing in Mind” by Shinjin-no-Mei:

In one Emptiness the two are not distinguished,
And each contains in itself all the ten thousand things;
When no discrimination is made between this and that.
How can a one-sided and prejudiced view arise (pages 78-9).[2]

In the footnote on page 79 he writes: “The Mind=the Way=the One=Emptiness.” He also explains emptiness this way:

This means: When the absolute oneness of things is not properly understood, negation as well as affirmation tends to be a one-sided view of reality. When Buddhists deny the reality of an objective world, they do not mean that they believe in the unconditioned emptiness of things; they know that there is something real which cannot be done away with. When they uphold the doctrine of emptiness this does not mean that all is nothing but an empty hollow, which leads to a self-contradiction. The philosophy of Zen avoids the error of one-sidedness involved in realism as well as in nihilism [i] (page 77).[3]

So if you are under the illusion that studying Buddhism means that you are to make your mind blank and believe in nothing and stop all thoughts completely when sitting you are mistaken. When your mind becomes “blank” you probably will soon be carried out of your house on a gurney by the EMS or the mortician!

Faith in Mind is asking us to stop trying to categorize, alphabetize, and list everything. Get rid of those boundaries, stop wasting time in the doubting and the arguing with self and others. Maybe this–maybe that? Maybe good–maybe bad. Just this! Whatever appears handle it the best you can with peace, love, and compassion. If you cannot hold it in your hand is it real?

Each and everything contains the 10,000 things. That’s just way too many things for me to judge, or compare, or juggle if you ask me! Just this apple, nothing less, nothing more…simply chop wood, carry water…nothing less, nothing more.

In gassho,

ingassho

Shokai

[1] Osho (2014) Hsin Hsin Ming, The Zen Understanding of Mind and Consciousness. Osho International Foundation
[2] Suzuki, D.T. (1960) Manual of Zen Buddhism. Grove Press: NY, NY
[3] Ibid.

[i] Nihilism An extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth; nothingness or nonexistence

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If you wish to move in the one way
do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas.
Indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true enlightenment.
The wise man strives to no goals
but the foolish man fetters himself.
There is one dharma, truth, law, not many;
distinctions arise
from the clinging needs of the ignorant.
To seek mind with the discriminating mind
is the greatest of all mistakes.[1]

Well, if one thing is true about the Buddhist sutras it is that they are a mystery and a puzzle and an enigma all rolled into one. They challenge our logical rational mind to the nth degree and make us wonder sometimes if this path is worth the work?!

First we are being told that if we “wish to move in the one way do not dislike even the world of senses and ideas.” Next we’re told that “to seek mind with the discriminating mind” is a great mistake. In order to move in “one way” rather than another—to choose whether we are to “dislike” something—is required to determine whether we even “dislike” something. Yikes!

These verses are much like the koans which we study in our branch of Buddhism. I am working on one right now and have been for the past 6 months to no avail…” Two men walking in the rain, one gets wet the other does not.” The only thing I am sure of is that life is a koan and an enigma and that is why this sutra also says, “To seek mind with the discriminating mind is the greatest of all mistakes.”

There have been hundreds of times in my life, both personal and professional when I thought through a problem with care, research, help from a therapist or a friend, decided upon the solution and the action and then BAM it all blew up in my face. And there have been other times that I quickly went with my gut, no research, no contemplation, no therapist, and it worked out GREAT! No discriminating mind.

I have lived a life where there were goals written down, organized, prioritized, and achieved and then there were times I set goals that fettered me to something that was not good for me and caused pain and suffering in my life and in the lives of those around me. I have been on all sides and the 10 directions that are described in the verses of this sutra.

And so…what do I do. Simply sit! Yes, I sit each day and calm the body, mind, and spirit. It is to look for nothing and when something appears in the mind and body I simply breathe into it and let it go. The universe is a wonderful thing and the right and perfect outcome will appear on its own. It may come from a friend, co-worker, or family member. It can come from an email or something you saw on the internet or TV or read in a book, but come it will on its own terms and in its own time—not yours. Accept what is—as it is and as it comes—that is what Buddhism is all about for me.

I simply let go of the clinging and wait and watch to see what the universe brings me! How awesome is that!

In gassho,

ingassho
Shokai

[1]Osho (2014) Hsin Hsin Ming, The Zen Understanding of Mind and Consciousness. Osho International Foundation

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When no discriminating thoughts arise,
the old mind ceases to exist.

When thought objects vanish,
the thinking subject vanishes,
and when the mind vanishes, objects vanish.
Things are objects because of the subject;
the mind is such because of things.
Understand the relativity of these two
the basic and the reality: the unity of emptiness.
In this emptiness the two are indistinguishable
and each contains in itself the whole world.
If you do not discriminate between coarse and fine
you will not be tempted to prejudice and opinion.[1]

Until we are dead we will all have discriminating thoughts, it is part of being human. However, when we practice the principles of Zen Buddhism we can learn to do what Williams and Penman suggest in their wonderful book Mindfulness an Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011):

You can watch as they appear and disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not (page5).[2]

And when you do this as it says in the Faith in Mind sutra above “the old mind ceases to exist.” I don’t know about you but my old mind is filled with memories of good times and bad times, happy times and sad times and they can bubble up at the most annoying time. A happy thought may appear in my mind about the person and I can see him or her in my mind’s eye in the middle of the funeral and the joy is so overwhelming I burst out in laughter. Others, of course, are looking at me with disdain, and yet I am unable to control myself.

Or I might see someone at a high school reunion that bullied me or caused others to make fun of me and my mind and body will be filled with anger and rage. If I am able to live the truth of the Faith in Mind sutra I do not have to identify with either the subject or the object. I can remember that emptiness is all there is and that the two—joy and anger—are indistinguishable and each contains in itself the whole world.

Yet if we hold on to things and thoughts, especially the fear and anger things, and the things that are harmful to us like drugs, alcohol, and binging, they take control of our lives and can cause physical, mental, and emotional harm. Williams and Penman suggest a way to deal with this.

Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hovers overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life (page 5).

The basic idea is to follow this process: thought ——-> awareness ——–> response. Instead of what we usually do which is thought ——> response! Learning how to do this will help you decide whether you want to act on the thoughts or not. The choice is up to you only if the “awareness” divides the thought from the response. If the process is thwarted the black cloud will soon be more than an image it will be your life filled with darkness and pain.

Faith in Mind asks us not to “discriminate between coarse and fine” and that will help us to avoid the prejudice and opinion and the darkness and the pain and simply live in the now dealing with what “is” right at this moment—happiness, sadness—Just This. A life of balance. To realize this life take time to meditate each day and to quiet the mind and you will discover “the unity of emptiness.”  And watch what happens in your life.

In gassho,

ingassho
Shokai

[1] Attributed to: Seng’tsan, 3rd Chinese (Sosan, Zen) Patriarch

[2] Williams, M Penman, D (2011) Mindfulness an Eight-week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Rodale: NY, NY.

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