Sunday, May 24, 2009

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due

On this lazy Sunday I decided to pick up "To Meet The Real Dragon" by Gudo Nishijima and give it a read( for the millionth time).

What strikes me about this book, and Nishijima's writings in general(as well as Uchiyama's), is the unique approach he takes to explaining Buddhism and the teachings of Master Dogen. I'd go out on a limb and say there has never been a teacher like him. It is this latter statement that I feel has set Nishijima apart from all other Zen teachers in the last 100 years.

It seems to me that the orthodox Soto Zen community all but ignores him. In my opinion this is a good thing. Everything you read on the net seems to either be an over intellectualized version of Dogen's teachings or a handful of quizzical statements meant to take you "beyond words." Nishijma doesn't bite that bait. He gives you the most direct answer everytime. Everything relies on the balance of the ANS.

Too simplistic one might say? I don't think so. It is actually quite brilliant. No more chasing your tail, just fold your legs, face the wall, and align your spine vertcally.

This is probably quite threatening to those who have spent their whole lives trying to understand Dogen and Buddhism. If you break all of Buddhism down to keeping the balanced state, you have taken away their toys. Nothing more to play with and talk about. No reason to keep doing Dharma talks.

However, just because the toys have been taken away doesn't mean they won't be given back or serve no purpose. When you understand how to properly take care of your toys or tools, you can use them more efficiently and enjoy them more.

"To Meet The Real Dragon" is a great example of adding a new twist to the typical party line, that allow you to see the same old BS in a new light. It especially reveals a much more positive outlook on the human capacity for the proper use of logic. We are in the 21st century and if the teachings of Master Dogen and Buddhism are to survive they need to be packaged in big ol' box o' logic that appeals to those with a scientific bent. No more bizzare language, just simple and direct techings that doesn't waste a moment of time.

The biggest example of this is his and Mike Cross's translation of Hishiryo. I mean, how many internet arguements have ensued over the meaning of 'non-thinking.' Even the Soto Zen Text Project prefers to translate it this way. Nishijma/Cross go with 'It is different from thinking."

I don't know a lick about the Japanese language, so for all I know 'non-thinking' may be a more accurate translation, but it certainly isn't more direct to a westerner. I personally like 'different from thinking' better. Thoughts are thoughts, thinking is the process where by thoughts get linked together in a chain. It is a process of conception. Zazen lays that aside. We are not supposed to mess with the thoughts and give them a chance to meet each other and turn into thinking. We perform the act of sitting upright and letting our thoughts go. It is literally an act that is 'different from thinking.' What is so complicated about that? Nothing if you ask me.

The problem is that 'different from thinking' isn't something nebulous that can be argued over by scholars or the orthodoxy. In a way it destroys their God. I think the arguements over the literal meanings of Dogen's and the Buddha's works often turn into a shit throwing contest. It really is no different than argueing over Chrisitian scripture.

I'll finish my ramble for now, but I'd like to add that I am a total amature who knows nothing.
I just really find benifit in the writings of Nishijma and the like who use words as the logical tools that they are intended to be.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Human Advancement

Sawaki Roshi: After all their efforts, racking their brains as intensely as possible, people today have comeback to a deadlock. Human beings are idiots. We set ourselves up as wise men and subsequently do foolish things.
In spite of scientific advancement, human beings haven't come to greatness.
Since the dawn of history, human beings have constantly fought with each other. No matter how big or small a war is, the root cause is our minds, which have a tendency to make us growl at each other.
You should not forget that modern scientific culture has developed on the level of our lowest consciousness.
"Civilization" is always the talk of the world. But civilization and culture are nothing but the collective elaboration of illusory desires. No matter how many wrinkles of illusory desire you have on your brain, from the point of view of Buddhism, they will never bring about meaningful advancement for human beings. "Advancement" is the talk of the world, but what direction are we going in?

Uchiyama Roshi: People today are dazzled by advances in science and technology and take human advancement to be identical with the advances of science. Because the advances of science are significant primarily within the contexts of scientific disciplines, we must clearly distinguish them from human advancement. Arnold Toynbee said, "Our modern scientific culture increased the speed of Adam's orginal sin with explosive energy. That is all. And we never released ourselves from orginal sin." Real human advancement would release us from the mind of the lowest consciousness, which says, "I hope to make easy gain. In order to do that, I must struggle with others."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Loyalty part 2

Sawaki Roshi: With the Sino-Japanese War(1894-1895) and the Russo-Japanese War(1904-1905), we enlarged Japanese territory and annexed Korea. We believed that it really happened. But when we lost World War Two, we lost everything and tuely understood that we had only incurred the enimity of other countries.
People often ask about loyalty, but I wonder if they know the direction of their loyalty and their actions. I myself was a soilder during the Russo-Japanese War and fought hard on the battlefield. But since we had lost what we had gained, I can see that what we did was useless. There is absolutely no need to wage war.

Uchiyama Roshi: Because Sawaki Roshi fought in the Russo-Japanese War, his words are not only for others, but also for himself, as self-reflection. We who were educated before World War Two were taught that Japan wa the greatest country in the world and absolutely righteous in all its actions and that we would obtain personal immortality if we were faithful to it. We really believed it. After the war, most Japanese could see that it was not true, and some of them reacted against nationalism.

When we reflect upon our past and think about our future, we should question not only loyalty to Japan but loyalty to any nation. Whichever country you are devoted to, eventually it will only be a page in the book of history. "If the troops win, their side is called loyal; if the troops lose, their side is called a 'rebel'." The important thing is to have a clear-eyed view of the self and to behave sanely and soberly.

Sawaki Roshi: What is the true self? It is brilliantly transparent, like a deep blue sky, and there is no gap between the true self and all sentient beings.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Aiming at No Target Sitting in the Midst of Contradictions

Here is part two of the talk I posted yesterday. Another good one. On a side note, Okumura Sensei's website has just been updated and has a very good introduction to zazen audio file.



Aiming at No Target Sitting in the Midst of Contradictions
Second in a Two-Part Lecture by Shohaku Okumura

When our discriminating mind tries to understand what zazen is or is "good" for, then zazen becomes the object and we become the subject. If we look at it that way, then we are already thinking. That is really a problem. In zazen, there is no self-observation and no self-evaluation. We need to go beyond this subject-and-object dichotomy.

In "Opening the Hand of Thought," Kosho Uchiyama Roshi writes: "When we actually do zazen, we should be neither sleeping nor caught up in our own thought. We should be wide-awake -aiming at the correct posture with our flesh and bones. Can we ever attain this? Is there such a thing as succeeding or hitting the mark? This is where zazen becomes unfathomable." We cannot measure or observe it. We cannot say: "My zazen is getting better." If we say it that way, we are already thinking, it's not zazen. It's the same as when we are sleeping. We sleep almost one third of our life, and yet we cannot say, "I am asleep." We can say, "I want to sleep" or "I'm sleepy." If I say I'm sleeping, I'm not sleeping. Zazen is the same thing.

Uchiyama Roshi writes: "In zazen, we have to vividly aim at the correct posture, yet there is never a mark to hit. Or at any rate, the person who is doing zazen should never perceive whether he has hit the mark or not." If we perceive it, we're already thinking and we're already off the mark. When we are hitting the mark, there is no perception. We are just sitting.

Uchiyama Roshi says, "If the person doing zazen thinks he is really getting good or that he has hit the mark, he's merely thinking his zazen is good, while actually, he has become separated from the reality of his zazen." Yet that is what we all want to do. We want to make sure we are in the correct zazen. We want to make sure this is good for me, that this practice is meaningful for my life. Unless we believe it or think this way, it's really difficult to practice zazen. So before we sit, we have to really try to understand this point.

Uchiyama Roshi says that when we have a target we can aim. But if we know that there isn't a target, who is going to attempt to aim? I think all of us know why we have to sit, just aiming without hitting the target. It is because the person hitting and the target are the same thing.

This is not only true in zazen. Say we are running. The action of running and the person running is one thing. What can zazen be unless it is this person? This person is zazen itself. And what is zazen unless it is this person sitting? Zazen and the person sitting really is one thing. There is no separation. But when we explain it, we have to say I am "doing" zazen. In that case, there's a concept of we and a concept of action-zazen or sitting. But in actuality, there's no action without this person and no person without this action.

Our zazen is based on the essential philosophy of Mahayana Buddhism-that is, emptiness. Emptiness means no self and no other. Everything is connected as one thing. All beings are connected to each other. All beings interpenetrate each other. There's no separation between subject and object, particularly in our zazen. The subject is this person, and the object is also this person.

We practice zazen with this body and mind, but we can't practice zazen if we don't think about sitting. We are here because we want to sit, and we think sitting is good. I came from Minnesota to sit together with you, and the reason why I'm here is I think zazen is good for me to practice. Without thinking we can't take any action, but once we make up our mind we should do our action with moment by moment awareness.

There is a Zen expression: "Break through the bottom of the bucket." In zazen, the bottom of our thinking drops out. It's like a ladle of water running through a strainer. We have to break through the bottom of the bucket, and yet, according to Uchiyama Roshi, zazen is not a method to break through to anything. Usually we think it is. We practice in order to attain a certain stage of mind that is free from thinking. If our zazen is a means to break through the bottom of the bucket, then there's a target. That's the problem. That is a common idea in Zen-we have to break through our thinking, and our zazen is a method to do it. If we practice in that way, already there is a target and the basis of our practice is hitting that target-that is to break through our thinking. That is a contradiction. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction, in the correct posture, not thinking and not sleeping.

There's no target, no way we can judge whether we are doing good zazen, there is no way we can make sure if this practice is good for us or not. This is a basic contradiction in our zazen. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction. That is our practice. Although we aim, we can never perceive hitting the mark. We just sit in the midst of this contradiction that is absolutely ridiculous when we think about it with our small minds.

Sawaki Roshi is my teacher's teacher. One of his most famous sayings is "Zazen is good for nothing." It's difficult to sell something that is good for nothing. It's like selling you the air. When we practice this kind of zazen and just sit, how unsatisfied or completely lost we may feel. Our zazen is not an easy thing.

There are many different traditions in Buddhism. The Theravada tradition in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka. The Mahayana schools in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, and the Vajrayana Tradition in Tibet. Each school has its own approach to meditation, and what it means to practice meditation. In Buddhism, skillful means are important. Those different paths are considered to be skillful means to encourage people not to stop practice. Teachers and teachings show a kind of a goal that encourages practice, and when a student reaches that stage, the teacher shows the next goal. That's the way a student practices with encouragement. That's the meaning of stages in Buddhist practice, but Dogen Zenji says our practice is very unique. He doesn't use this kind of skillful means.

If a person is just thrown in the ocean without knowing how to swim, there is no step-by-step instruction. In the midst of the ocean of the Dharma, we have to learn how to swim by ourselves. We have serious problems in each moment when we practice in this way. We always have to be questioning. We always have to inquire about what we are doing, and whether our practice is heading in the right direction or not.

In our practice, the function of the teacher is different from the Rinzai school. In Rinzai, teacher and student sit facing each other and the teacher gives a question, and the student answers. In our practice, the teacher doesn't face the student. Uchiyama Roshi says, "I never face my students and watch them, but I am facing Buddha." And we face Buddha as well. As a practitioner, we have to walk with our own two feet in the same direction our teacher is walking.

In our practice there's no goal, no target to hit. We don't feel safe. But Uchiyama Roshi says this is the most important and wonderful part of our practice. When we are confused, and insecure, that is the best thing: "This small foolish self easily becomes satisfied or complacent. We need to see complacency for what it is-just a continuation of the thoughts of our foolish self." If we feel satisfied, we should question whether we are doing the right thing or not. When we are doing things based on my thinking, my desire, and even if our desire is desire to be enlightened, to be free from our egocentricity, from ourselves, there's a basic contradiction. This desire or aspiration which makes us practice is in a sense an obstruction in our practice. The goal of Buddhist practice is to be free from ego. Our desire to be free from ego comes out of ego. That is a problem. How we can go beyond this desire even to become Buddha?

This is really an essential point in our practice. Dogen Zenji said we should give up even the aspiration to become Buddha in our zazen. And this is the meaning of just sitting. When we practice in this way, just aiming at and letting go even of the aspiration to be enlightened, then Buddhahood is there. When we are actually doing that letting go, then Buddha nature is truly revealed. When we give up our gaining mind, then our true life force arises and is actualized.

He concludes by saying: "It is precisely at the point where our small foolish self remains unsatisfied, or completely bewildered, that the immeasurable natural life beyond the thought of that self functions. It is precisely at the point where we become completely lost that life operates and the power of Buddha is actualized."

This is a really important point. Keep this in your mind, when you practice or whenever you read Buddhist texts. Then you will find out what this means. And please don't think about this when you sit.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mind and Zazen

Here is one of my favorite articles. It was a talk given by Shohaku Okumura at the Stillpoint Zen Center in Pittsburgh. Enjoy!

Mind and Zazen
A Lecture by Shohaku Okumura

Posture, breathing and mind are the three most important points in our practice. This morning I'd like to talk about mind in our zazen or meditation. Actually, we do nothing with our mind. Why we do nothing is a very important point in understanding the meaning of our practice. I think Uchiyama Roshi is one of the few people who could explain why in an understandable way for modern people. So I'd like to share his teaching with you this morning about the quality or nature of our sitting meditation practice.

In "Opening the Hand of Thought," as a conclusion or explanation of how to sit and how to breathe, he said doing correct zazen "means taking the correct posture and entrusting everything to it." It seems very simple, and yet it's not easy.

So it is with our mind. We are usually doing something with our mind. We are always like a hunter. We want to hunt something, and we have tools to catch it. When we have some object or gain, we think, "What is the best way to get it?" When we don't have an object, how we can catch it? That's a problem. And we are confused about it.

Not only in the practice of zazen but in Buddhist teachings, the basic philosophy or understanding about reality is: no separation between self and others, subject and object. And since we are a hunter, there's an object and subject. As far as we are in that kind of relationship with the object or things we want, we are against the basic philosophy of Buddhism. Even when the gain is enlightenment or reality or peace of mind, if it's a gain or object, our attitude is going against the philosophy of emptiness. Emptiness means no subject and no object, everything working together. So actually this is one life, and there's no one who is hunting and who is hunted.

In our meditation, the whole is our life. When we want to attain peacefulness of mind or some kind of insight or wisdom, that is ourselves. The one who wants to do it is ourselves, so both subject and object are ourselves. And also in the case of meditation, we meditate and the object of meditation is reality or truth or nirvana or our true self. If we watch our true self, like we're watching the mirror, what we can see is only the reflection. We cannot see this person. So actually, subject cannot be seen. It's simple reality. We cannot see our eyes. This is a difficult point to understand and to practice. The problem is ourselves, and our intention to see it. We have to be very careful about this, and how we can deal with it. That is a main point to understand our practice.

Our practice is a really unusual, unique practice. We have no object to watch or meditate. So actually, our sitting practice is not meditation or contemplation, because there is no object.

It's really important to first have a kind of intellectual understanding about what our practice is. When we sit on the cushion, we should forget about it, and just sit. It's the same as when we drive a car, or when we learn how to drive a car. First we have to study about the parts of the car, and how to deal with it. But when we really drive a car, we should forget about that knowledge, and just drive.

The same is true for our meditation practice. First we have to understand it. When we really practice, we should forget it and just sit. Intellectual understanding is also important in our practice. While we are in the zazen position, if we continue our thoughts, we are thinking and no longer doing zazen. So we have to think before we sit and practice zazen, or after we stand up. Uchiyama Roshi says: "Zazen is not thinking; nor is it sleeping. Doing zazen is to be full of life aiming at holding a correct zazen posture." Thinking and sleeping, or in Dogen Zenji's expression, dullness and destruction, are two problems in our zazen.

Uchiyama Roshi says that if we become sleepy while doing zazen, our energy becomes dissipated and the body limp. If we pursue our thoughts, our posture will become stiff. He writes: "Zazen is neither being limp and lifeless nor being stiff. Our posture must be full of life and energy." So in our zazen, we should be really awake and full of energy. Zazen is not thinking and not sleeping, just being there.

And he says, this posture of not chasing after thinking and not being sleepy is important, not only in our zazen but in our day-to-day lives, too. He says it's like driving a car. If the driver is drunk, sleepy, or nervous, this too is dangerous. Being too caught up in our thinking while we are driving is also dangerous, because we don't see things around ourselves.

This really applies to any kind of work, any activity. The life force should be neither stagnant, or dull, nor rigid. It should be relaxed, awake and relaxed. The most essential thing is that our life force live to its fullest potential. Zazen is the most condensed form of life functioning as wide awake life.

The practice that directly and purely manifests that life is the most crucial thing in our life, and at the same time, a tremendous task. It's not an easy thing. You need to be really mindful, not too caught up in thinking or not sleepy. Then we can be aware of things happening inside and outside of ourselves. This is really difficult because we want to know the effect or result or benefit we get from that. When we are thinking benefit, then our zazen becomes object again-self and others, subject and object, separated. We cannot observe it. We can just keep doing.

Often when we try to understand, we have to use language. The basic function of language-thinking, using words and concepts-is separation. So there's a basic contradiction between our outer life, which is one with all beings, and thinking. Even when we think that we are one with all beings, still we separate from the idea that we are separate from all beings. There is no way to become one by using words. The only possible way is by using negative expressions-something like "not two." That's why Buddhist or Zen phrases or expressions are paradoxical or negative. Only by negating our thinking or intellection can we express the reality before separation of subject and object. [To be continued]

Monday, May 11, 2009

Loyalty part 1

Sawaki Roshi: When Hojo's troops attacked Masashige Kusunoki's Chihaya castle, it was said that fallen warriors of the Hojo Clan were praised by their friends as they met "gloroius death" on the battlefield:

" A man lays down his life in vain for the sake of fame, why doesn't he give up clinging to life for the sake of the Dharma?"

Monday, May 4, 2009

The hallucination caused by quantity

Sawaki Roshi: Because modern religious groups develop on a large scale, many people eventually think that these institutions represent true religion. A large number of believers does not make a religion true. If large numbers are good, the number of ordinary people in the world is immense. People often try to do things by forming groups and outnumbering the opposition. But they make themselves stupid in this way. Forming a party is a good example of group paralysis. To stop being in group paralysis and to become the self which is only the self, is the practice of zazen.

Uchiyama Roshi: No matter how many coal cinders there are, they are just coal cinders. But if a huge amount appears before them, people will be impressed by the volume and think it's significant. People mistake quantity for quality. Some people, understanding mob psychology and taking advantage of it might say, "Let's form a group, organize, build a huge temple and become rich and powerful."

True religion does not cater to human desires for money, fame social position, or health. To lead a life based on religious insight is to deeply examine the universal human ideal, realize it within oneself, and live it moment by moment. If something mistakenly referred to as religion spreads everywhere by flattering the desires of the masses, it shouldn't be called a world religion. We must see it as a heresy prevailing over the whole world like an epidemic. A religion that honestly examines the universal human ideal and shows human beings how to realize it can be called a world religion, even if only one, or half a person devotes his life to it.