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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

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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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The Essential Dogen…Trust

“Trust, also translated as faith, is one of the four pillars of Buddhism: teaching, practice, trust, and realization (page 73).”[1]  This is the order in which we move as we are invited to take on the mantle of Buddhism in our lives.  Dogen said, “The realm of all buddhas is inconceivable.  It cannot be reached by intellect—much less can those who have no trust or lack of wisdom know it.  Only those who have the great capacity of genuine trust can enter this realm (page 73)”[2]

Trust is a very difficult thing to do.  We all have put our faith and trust in someone or something and we were let down, or the bottom fell out of the investment, or the job offer fell through, but that did not stop us from “trusting” something or someone else in the future.  For the novice it is important to remember that people have been following the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha for thousands of years and have tested and tried, and failed and succeeded in their lives by following his advice and teachings.

This is the way of true learning.  It is like when you first learn anything you try and fail and try again until you master the thing.  If you give up to soon you may lose faith in yourself or the teacher.  If the teacher is a good one he or she will continue to help you and support you and show you a better way, a simpler way, a more loving way, or a faster way.  Then the teacher lets you try it again and watches to see how you do this time. A true teacher will show he or she has “trust” in you and your abilities, talents, and skills.  They often see things in you that you do not see in yourself.  That is the eye of the true teacher.

Trust in these wonderful principles of Buddhism, practice them daily, and watch what happens.  It is not by accident that these principles have lasted for thousands of years it is by practice and trust that those who have come before you have made them work in their lives making them better, sustaining them, and broadening their outlook on life.

[According to Ejo] Dogen said, “When Eisai, the late Bishop, was abbot of the Kennin Monastery, a man came and said, ‘My family is very poor.  We haven’t eaten for several days. The three of us—my wife, my son, and I—are starving to death.  Please show your compassion and help us.’ At that time there was no clothing, food, or money in the monastery.  Eisai could find no way to help.  But he remembered the copper sheet intended for the halo of the Medicine Buddha figure.  He got this out, broke off a portion of it, crushed it together, and gave it to the poor man, saying, ‘Please exchange this for food and satisfy your hunger.’ The man departed overjoyed.

The students were upset and said, ‘That copper was for the radiance of the Medicine Buddha’s image.  Is it not a crime to give such sacred material to a layperson?’

“Eisai said, ‘yes, it is a crime.  But think of the Buddha’s intention.  He gave up his own flesh and bones and offered them to sentient beings.  We would honor the Buddha’s intention even if we were to give the entire body of the Medicine Buddha to those who are starving now.  We may fall into hell for this act.  Still we should continue to save people from starvation.’

“Students nowadays should reflect on the great heart of our guiding master.  Don’t forget this (pages 71-71).”[3]

Eisai had trust in the principles lived and taught by the Buddha regardless of what others thought may be the outcome of the action.  He trusted that doing the “right” thing would surpass all rules made by man.  The Buddha said we were to live a life filled with actions, thoughts, and deeds that would help alleviate the suffering on this planet.  So when your heart knows what to do trust it and follow it to the loving actions, words, and deeds that will help end suffering, if not for all forever, at least for that person in that moment.

Trust yourself, your compassion, and the teachings of the Buddha to know when and how to do the right thing. Follow in the footsteps of Eisai.

Trust in yourself, Shokai

Things to focus on this week:

1.  I will begin each day trusting in the principles taught by Shakyamuni Buddha.

2.  I will remind myself that trust when shared with another will brighten his or her day and improve our relationship.

3.  I will remember to keep my eyes and ears open for any and all opportunities to show trust in the principles of Buddhism.

4.  Lastly, I will keep a journal of the opportunities that have been presented to me so I can keep track of my progress and my opportunities for growth.


[1] Tanahashi, K. Levitt, P. (2013) The Essential Dogen, Writings of the Great Zen Master. Shambhala: Boston, MA

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

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The holidays are a very stressful time for most people.  Holidays are also times when those who suffer from depression, suffer even more acutely.  Patterns of the past brought into the present often harm us more than they help us.  The ideas below are not meant to replace your prescription medication or advice from your doctor– they are simply to be in addition to them.

Williams, Teasdale, Segal, and Kabat-Zinn wrote these wonderful words in their book The Mindful Way through Depression (2007). “What if, like virtually everybody else who suffers repeatedly from depression, you have become a victim of your own very sensible, even heroic, efforts to free yourself—like someone pulled even deeper into quicksand by the struggling intended to get you out?”

This may seem like a very disheartening idea, and you are right—it is.  But there is a way out if you will only take the time to look at this very difficult life’s situation through new eyes, with new thoughts, with new information, and with new light.  You all have heard this funny yet ironic definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different end result.  Today is the day to begin anew, to begin doing something differently and watching and waiting for a fantastic, positive, new end result: peace, prosperity, and happiness!

The authors share with us these two very important ideas:

  • At the very earliest stages in which mood starts to spiral downward, it is not the mood that does the damage, but how we react to it.
  • Our habitual efforts to extricate ourselves, far from freeing us, actually keep us locked in the pain we’re trying to escape (page 2).

They also caution us as well when they write: “Exactly how you will experience the profoundly healthy shift in your relationship to negative moods and what will unfold for you in its aftermath are difficult to predict because they are different for everyone.  The only way anyone can really know what benefits such an approach offers is to suspend judgment temporarily and engage in the process wholeheartedly over an extended period of time—in this case for eight weeks—to see what happens (page 3).”

You may be saying, “Eight weeks! Yikes I can’t do anything for eight weeks are they crazy?”  Maybe, but how about trying it out by starting with one day, and if you feel even one tiny bit better, do it for another day, and if that day goes just a little better why not try it for a third day?  Make no plans or promises longer than 24 hours.  No one wants to get depressed about setting a goal and then not achieving it that’s for sure!  So let’s not set ourselves up for failure once again.

So let’s begin with one simple mindfulness exercise that we can do beginning today.  The authors go on to write, “Mindfulness is not paying more attention but paying attention differently and more wisely—with the whole mind and heart, using the full resources of the body and its senses (page 55).”  So there are several different exercises that you can do to practice mindfulness even when you feel sad or depressed.  You can focus on your breathing, eating, or singing for a start.

One of the ways I get my mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, out of one of her loops is to do what we call “pattern interruption.”  I ask her to sing one of the songs I know she can sing or to recite one of the poems that she has written and memorized.  Within a few short minutes she is able to go onto something different and her breathing slows down, her mind is less confused, and she can think more clearly.

The authors also share some important information with us when they write, “The difficulty occurs when we confuse the thoughts about things with the things themselves.  Thoughts involve interpretations and judgments, which are not in themselves facts; they are merely more thoughts (page 59).”

As a teacher many times my students have shared with me the fears and thoughts that they have about taking tests, writing papers, or giving presentations in class.  For them the thoughts about those things are making them more difficult than they should be, especially if they have prepared well for them beforehand.

For these students I have them use the “Three Breaths Exercise” from Jan Chozen Bays wonderful book How to Train a Wild Elephant & Other Adventures in Mindfulness (2011).  Dr. Bays says, “As many times a day as you are able, give the mind a short rest.  For the duration of three breaths ask the inner voices to be silent.  It’s like turning off the inner radio or TV for a few minutes.  Then open all your senses and just be aware—of color, sound, touch, and smell (page 76).”   Begin by closing your eyes, and counting one on the in breath, and two on the out breath, just for three full breaths.  Once you have done that observe how your mind and body feel.  If three breaths don’t work, take four, or five.  Then observe how your mind and body feels.

Do this as many times a day as you feel the need to.  When you get stressed, the mind starts to get into that “monkey talk” or “fear talk” or “anger talk.”  This is a perfect time to stop and take the three breaths.  You can even do them right in the middle of a meeting with your eyes open, or you can take a break and go back to your office or desk or to the bathroom and do it—then  observe the results.

For me I find that after only three breaths my blood pressure calms down, my mind calms down, and I feel significantly better than I did before the three breaths.  I am now able to go back to what I was doing with calmness and peacefulness.

If I am eating I take the time to eat mindfully, focusing on each mouthful, the taste, smell, texture, and feel of the food.  Doing this helps me focus on the food instead of my thoughts, and helps me quiet my body, mind, and spirit.  Try it.  I think you’ll like it.

Anyone of these things can help you in a small way during this holiday season to return your focus to the good, the wonderful, and the new opportunities that lie just ahead. Being mindful about simple things can help you be mindful about complex things when they enter your life.  Stop the struggling—start the mindfulness—and watch that depression melt away slowly like caramel in your mouth—with sweetness and light.

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