Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Women are like tea bags . . .

. . . they only realize their true strength when they're in hot water."
- Eleanor Roosevelt

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"In Zen, the medium is consciousness itself"

The following interview with my Zen teacher, Taiun Michael Elliston, appeared today on something called the Buddhist Geeks website. Here's the interview more or less in its entirety, edited slightly to smooth over some of the verbal glitches from the transcript:
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m joined today by a special guest coming directly from Atlanta: Zenkai Taiun Elliston. Zenkai Taiun Elliston is a Roshi in the Zen tradition. He’s the founder and guiding teacher of the Silent Thunder Order. By the way, I love that name, Roshi, its super provocative.

Taiun: We like it too.

Vincent: Nice. You were mentioning before the interview started that the genesis of the name "Silent Thunder" had something to do with a Zen teaching?

Taiun: It’s a term, mokurai, that my teacher, Matsuoka Roshi, used a lot. It has to do in a way with the resolution of opposites. He explained that it meant stillness is great action, or thunder is silence, silence is thunder, thunder in silence, stillness in motion, and so forth. So it’s kind of a fundamental non-dual term, if you will, mokurai.

Vincent: Beautiful. And then you’re also the Abbot and guiding teacher of the Atlanta Soto Zen Center, which I presume is in the heart of Atlanta somewhere?

Taiun: Yes it’s just to the northeast of downtown and it was founded in 1977. That is, we incorporated in 1977, so we passed our 30th anniversary a few years ago.

Vincent: Part of the reason that we wanted to speak with you on Buddhist Geeks today is not just because of your rich Zen background but also because you have a deep and rich background in the field of design and art. I understand that you taught design and art at the university level in Chicago some time ago, and I wondered if you could maybe start off by sharing a little bit about how you got into design and then also how you got into Zen.

Taiun: Backwards of course, like most things we do in life, I backed into it. My brother was a child prodigy in music playing piano, so I taught myself to draw at a very early age. I couldn’t compete musically but I would get attention by being able to draw and showing people things. So I copied Disney characters and things like that, I trained myself to draw. I had an art scholarship offer to U of I at Urbana and found out somehow about the Institute of Design - the so called New Bauhaus in Chicago - at the Illinois Institute of Technology. We didn’t have Google or computers in those days so it’s kind of mysterious how this all came about, but I ended up instead of going to Urbana, I went to Chicago to the Institute of Design pretty much on full scholarship and loans and so forth. My family didn’t have money to send us to school. I thought, of course, that I was going there to become a painter, to become an artist, and as it turned out, of course, it was more industrial design oriented. So during that period of time my focus shifted from what I thought I was doing to what they were actually offering. I became trained, really, as a designer instead of an artist. So again I got into it kind of backwards.

During my tenure there I started doing graduate work as well; I did my Master of Science as well at IIT at the Institute of Design. I was hired by a former teacher to start teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago. While I was doing my graduate work in design, I was teaching freshman and sophomores and people like that coming into a design/art environment. So I had to clarify this for myself very quickly, very early in my so-called career, in order to be able to teach it. At the same time, I was recruited by the Art Institute of Chicago to begin teaching there, so I taught in both of those schools, of art and design, before moving to Atlanta in 1970.

The way it came about that I backed into Zen was a friend of my brother's who had become a very well-known jazz musician by that time in Chicago was attending the Zen Center and he mentioned that to me, that he was doing Zen these days. So I said "that’s interesting," and I went with him that weekend and met Matsuoka Roshi at the Chicago Zen Buddhist Temple which, if you’re familiar with Chicago, was on Halstead just south of Fullerton. That first year, I became his disciple. It was a time in my life when I needed something like that; I was teaching full-time and had a young family and all of the issues and problems that arise with that.

I see myself doing things backwards quite a lot as I backed into the design field as well as actually backing into Zen, but I don’t regret either of them.

Vincent: You know, Matsuoka Roshi is someone that I hadn’t heard of before I spoke with you; I was wondering if you could share a little bit about his history and kind of where he comes from, and his background and stuff.

Taiun: Yeah, briefly, he came over in 1939. He was interred during the war according to the story, and he didn’t talk much about his personal biography. He never became famous like some of the people who came over later like Suzuki Roshi and others, but he was a student of DT Suzuki at Columbia.

I think it was in the 50’s that he set up the Zen Center in Chicago, and then I met him there in the 60’s. Of course your first impression of somebody is never what you expect, but especially so when you’re expecting a Zen Master. He just seemed like such an accessible, approachable person who had a great sense of humor, very warm and friendly. He told me one time, he said, "you must become a priest, not for yourself, but so that others will listen to you." He said we live in a credentialed society and if you don’t have credentials, they won’t listen. I said "okay," and he performed what he called "discipleship," and that was the Ten Precepts; for other people, for most people, he would perform the Five Precepts first, what we call jukai, or initiation. In my case, they were combined into the first ceremony.

So I began training with him, he was not very formal in his approach to the Soto-shu Sect in Japan. In fact he, like many of the early teachers coming over here, had some issues you might say with the size and scale of the institution that it had become in Japan. So he did not register all of our ceremonies and things of that nature, he did them on a very informal basis understanding correctly that we were starting a new beginning for Zen here in America. He always said this would be the rebirth of Zen here in America. So later on, after he died, I underwent some formal ceremonies to kind of "get right with God" you might say, assure that our credentials are unquestionable. Fortunately Shohaku Okumura Roshi agreed to do my transmission ceremony after I practiced with him and Barbara Kohn of the Austin Zen Center for some time. So they kind of helped bring our lineage into alignment with the larger traditions of the American Soto and Buddhist Association.

Vincent: Interesting. I know that since you’ve been teaching, I guess since the early 80’s, I’m sure that your design work has impacted your thoughts on how best to teach Zen or communicate Zen, and that’s something we wanted to go into with you and explore because this is a conversation that doesn’t happen so often, given that most people aren’t trained designers. So I was wondering if you could share a little bit about your thoughts on design, thinking, art - how this unique way of looking at the world could impact the development of Zen practice or how you’ve seen it impact.

Taiun: Sure, I think that’s a very fertile area to discuss. I became both a 2- and 3-dimensional designer while doing a lot of retail stores and exhibits and trade shows and things of that nature, as well as graphic design. When I retired from design I was pursuing, really, national accounts. There came a point at which I had a choice in my early 60’s of either going after more national accounts or to, in a sense, retire from that into full-time Zen, and that’s the point at which I made the transition and decided to devote the rest of my life to full-time Zen practice.

I think to get at the question you’re asking is the way the two inter-relate. I see many parallels. In a way, we all reinvent Zen and in a way, we all reinvent design. Every designer comes up with basically new approaches, it’s almost like any other profession where, in the beginning, you need to have the flexibility of mind to imitate the teacher, and eventually you need to develop the flexibility of mind to innovate. In the case of Zen, for instance, I am not Matsuoka Roshi and my students are certainly not me. So the way he practiced and taught by his example doesn’t always work for me, so I’ve had to see ways of reinventing - what we call skillful means or the expedient means to help others. So we see Zen as the lay practice, you might say, the religion or spiritual practice of the future. It's designed for lay people. There are monastic versions of it, but in our culture Matsuoka Roshi seemed to see that this again was going to be the rebirth of Zen, but primarily through lay practice. So the design element comes into it in that we are designing Zen, in a sense. Now, a lot of people would like to throw that out — they would like to Americanize it, westernize it, and throw out all the Japanese and Chinese stuff. That’s a little bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water; it’s very difficult to do. Anything you remove is replaced by something else, which may not be as functional.

But nonetheless this is a process, and both design and Zen are very heavily based on process. So we’re now undergoing, like it or not, is the first 50 to 100 years of Zen in this culture - the redesign of Zen - and we’re designing the program as to how people can practice this and maintain a household and a job and keep a car running, keep a house from falling down, and so forth. And the packaging of Zen so that when it’s communicated to new people it’s understandable but it doesn’t lose its essential strength. So one way you can think of it is Soto Zen is a great brand, it goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. In both design and Zen, the focus is on practice and sensory learning.

The method they taught at the Institute of Design was so-called New Bauhaus, the Bauhaus from Weimar Germany, people like Walter Gropius and Paul Klee, other people who were driven out of Germany by the Nazis. One of them, Moholy-Nagy, came to Chicago and founded a design institute on the North Side which later merged with IIT, so that was the so-called New Bauhaus. The emphasis was on the Bauhaus tradition. The first year that you go through is on sensory learning, you just work with lots of tools and materials to no particular end, not building birdhouses or anything of that nature, but working with wood, glass, metal, plastic, plaster, casting processes, welding - all different kinds of forming and joining processes. The task of the Foundation teacher was to take where you were and, in a sense, take it away from you, break it down. They reduce the process of so-called drawing to simply marking with found objects. Like say, a big rag, dip it in ink, and mark with that, and so forth. All kinds of very sensory immersion types of techniques are used to help break down your preconceptions of what this is about, so that they could begin rebuilding on a stronger foundation. Part of what happens then is what was familiar to you, like your own signature, a familiar mark that you make, by going through these kinds of exercises becomes very strange; you begin to see it very differently.

So this is the way that creativity is approached, a way of getting you to rely more on your intuitive mind. So I found that entering into Zen, when we started practicing Zen, that it was very similar. That is, you’d sit very still for very long periods of time. So what naturally has to happen is your familiar sensory world begins to break down, people begin to see light and color in the blank wall and hear different sounds than they’re used to hearing and feel different sensations and so forth. So I found a very strong parallel when I first starting practicing Zen to this Bauhaus method of immersion in medium. In Zen, the medium is consciousness itself.

Vincent: What other types of parallels or what other types of things have you seen cross-fertilize between those two?

Taiun: Well one of the things that I think you asked was about how Zen could impact the field of design.

Vincent: Yeah, kind of both ways.

Taiun: My view of Zen is it can impact every field - medicine, it can impact education, on and on and on, I see no limit to it. But in terms of design, art, music, the plastic in performing arts, dance and so forth and martial arts, of course. Zen, I think you could say, is the heart of creativity.

It might seem that there is nothing more stupid than just sitting still doing nothing, but simplicity is the highest value in the Zen aesthetic, as well as the design or art aesthetic. Simplicity is the highest value, but it’s the most difficult to obtain. So in design, for instance, we are introduced to this idea in classics of simplicity, such as the bobby pin, that are ubiquitous and worked for so long nobody even remembers who designed them. So if you look at zazen, sitting in Zen meditation, what it actually is, it’s the simplest possible reduction of method to a simple sitting posture, paying attention to the breath, and paying attention to attention itself. So it can not be reduced any further, even the zafu, this round cushion that we sit on, is very difficult to improve upon from a design perspective. Very difficult to make any change in the zafu, which we think is a Chinese design centuries and centuries old.

Now Zen meditation is like design in that it is an immersion process so that in design or art - painting in sumi ink or even oil painting, water color - a kind of dialog ensues between the consciousness of the artist and the medium itself. You can not make a medium do things that it will not do, can not do, physically. So we have what are called forgiving media and unforgiving media - water color is said to be a very unforgiving medium. Painting sumi ink on silk, which we do to paint our formal certificates on huge pieces of silk about five feet long and a foot and a half wide with a very tiny brush, and painting a continuous red bloodline. If you stop or go back over the line, it immediately bleeds into the silk so it’s very, very unforgiving.

So Zen meditation is a medium, you might say, or a technique to approach the medium of consciousness itself. Your consciousness may be a very unforgiving medium, other people may be more flexible, but when you begin to sit in Zen meditation you find it is different from other forms of meditation. In fact, it’s not technically actually a meditation. The reason for that is because it becomes objectless, and at the greatest depth of artistic creativity it also becomes subjectless, the individual becomes merged with the medium. So there’s no conflict, there’s no resistance.

This is, by the way, the holy grail of jazz which I learned from my brother and my father who had a jazz band in the 40’s. When the musician gets to the point that everything he can hear - and Charlie Parker is the person who’s always pointed to for this - everything he hears comes through the instrument with no resistance.

Vincent: That’s fascinating and do you feel like the practice of Zazen can actually support that process in other mediums? I mean it seems to me that’s kind of what you’re saying. That shikantaza, for instance if one really is practicing shikantaza, then that consciousness can be transferable to these other domains in life.

Taiun: It’s not the purpose, obviously, but it’s a side effect. Shikantaza, just precisely sitting, is what is said to me in translation, naturally resistance comes up. We’ll have some pain in the legs, pain in the back; when we have physical resistance, that’s one of the first barriers. Once we have been able to sit long enough and patiently enough to overcome the physical resistance, we have developed a lot of patience. So naturally that patience comes into our practice with other people, it’s much easier for us to be patient with others, much easier to be patient with a project or a medium that we’re working with because we have developed kind of a fundamental patience with our own impatience on the cushion. So, yeah, I think it carries over. Many of the greats, classic artisan brush painting and so forth, and music in the Orient in particular, you read stories that they would always sit in meditation before they would pick up the brush.

Vincent: And you use this really interesting phrase that “consciousness is the medium of Zen.”

Taiun: Yeah, if you think about it. Just as when going to design school, people come in with a lot of their own opinions, or going to music school or any place else, and then they have to be disabused of those misconceptions, you have to be able to relinquish those. In the same way when you sit in zazen, you assume that you already understand your consciousness, you assume that it is what you have been since you were a kid and there's no mystery there. But what happens is when you sit very still for very long periods of time everything changes. I think it was Krishnamurti who said something like "if you speak, it is silent. If you’re silent, it speaks." So, similarly, if you move it is still, if you are still it moves. So what we consider to be seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking, in Zen we begin to find that it’s distorted, it’s incomplete. We don’t really see seeing itself, we don’t hear hearing itself, and we don’t feel feeling or sensation itself. We see the objects in our field of vision and we hear the objects in our field of hearing and so forth, but there’s another side of it and all you really have to do to experience this is put in some swimming earplugs and sit for a while. You’ll hear this raucous noise that’s going on inside your body which you don’t ordinarily hear. So the mind turns off. There’s a theory of the brain from back in the 60’s, inspired, I think, by psychedelic drugs, that the brain is basically a filter, it filters out more information than it lets in. Its function is to filter out. This is evidenced in Buddhism where Shakyamuni Buddha was attributed with saying "the mind imposes a false stillness on reality."

This is where mokurai begins to come into play. If you sit still, then you begin to see great action. So Zen meditation is different from other meditations in that it involves the eventual transcendence of subject/object and becomes objectless, so it’s not truly a meditation - there’s no subject meditating upon an object. In that same time, the transcendence is transcendence of the duality of mind and body, of self and other, so it becomes consciousness contemplating consciousness through consciousness. The subject, the predicate, and the object are just one.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Another weekend passes without a post, and this one was a virtual washout. What was I doing all weekend that I couldn't find the time to post? I don't know, but last weekend's rain is scheduled to continue through the coming week.

Monday morning marks a return to work, capped as always by Monday Night Zazen. We had several first-timers, always a welcome event, and an enjoyable conversation afterwards. A nice start to a soggy week.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


It saddens me that I have to write letters like this, and it's certainly a reflection on my shortcomings as a so-called teacher, but here's a (slightly redacted) version of a reply email I had to send to a friend this evening:
I'm glad you wrote, as I think you did very much misunderstand me. I was trying - apparently not very successfully - to clarify myself as I dropped you off at home Monday night, so let me try to express myself again in writing.

First of all, there are no "requirements" at all for you (or anyone else) to sit with our Monday Night Zezen group. I was trying to tell you that you're free to say whatever you like, but that when you do say certain things, I will reply - and have been replying - with certain other statements. I believe my original comment was that I hope I hadn't offended you in doing so.

During his lifetime, the Buddha refused to answer questions about whether or not there was a God. Buddhism, including Zen, does not address this issue, but leaves it open to each individual to reach their own conclusion. Therefore, if someone in the group were to express a strong conviction in atheism, I would acknowledge their view but counter that Buddhism does not embrace "atheism." Conversely, if someone expresses an equal conviction in the existence of God, I'd again acknowledge their view but point out that these are not Buddhist teachings, either.

The Buddha was equally mute about the existence of a soul (although he did once say that upon close examination, he saw no evidence of the existence of such thing as a soul). So when there's a mention of an eternal soul, I bring up the Buddha's teachings on this matter.

There have been some people on Mondays past who held very strong opinions about, say, meditation and neuroscience, or Zen and quantum physics. While I would have loved to discuss their ideas with them over a cup of coffee sometime, I didn't want to confuse the others with a mixed message that Zen was somehow about psychology or science, and they got very frustrated when I wouldn't acknowledge their views. I have many strong opinions myself, some of which I've discussed with you away from the Zen Center, that I try not to bring up on Monday nights (not always successfully). Still, the Zen Center exists to propagate Zen Buddhism, not my extracurricular opinions, or those of others.

Likewise, in the recent past, when you made references to certain aspects of your practice that are outside of or beyond the Buddha's teachings, then without passing any judgement and certainly without casting any aspersions, I have tried to merely point out that the Buddha, or past Zen Masters, might have taken a more ambivalent view. My initial comment was that I hoped you were not offended when I had done this, as I had meant no offense. I was apparently not skillful enough, however, to avoid offending you with those words, although I do believe that your pride may have looked for an attack in my comments when in fact I had meant none, and possibly even amplified my comments beyond their original meaning.

You are correct that Buddhism is about tolerance and acceptance, but that does not mean that all opinions, however valid or strongly held, constitute "Buddhism." And since my task is to try, to the best of my limited abilities, to convey Buddhism, specifically Zen Buddhism, I need to point out that when certain opinions and ideas are expressed, very much including my own sometimes, they are not "Buddhism." These things are not to be confused with these other things that the Buddha taught.

So, for the record, let me be clear: you do not need to carefully monitor what you say. You are free to fully express who you are. What I ask for is the same acceptance and tolerance that you've mentioned when I follow up with "Yes, good, but the Buddha, (or Dogen, or whomever) would have said. . . " The fact that I've been doing this for a while either without your noticing it or without offending you - until I blurted it out on the ride home - suggests to me that such a thing is possible.

My teacher's teacher once said that thoughts are like a knife through water, leaving no lasting impression, but that words are like a knife through sand - they can leave a mark, but one that can still be smoothed over (actions are like a knife on stone and leave a permanent mark). However, I'm not sure that more words can ever heal the marks left by former words, something I was directly realizing as I dropped you off.

So let me suggest this: let's try not to discuss this any further unless it's absolutely necessary, but instead continue to practice meditation as we have been doing, and you be the same self you've naturally been all along. Let's allow practice to sort all this out. I think that both of us are more than capable or raising above these differences, either real or perceived.

In deep gassho,


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wales' The Joy Formidable open their US tour tonight at The Earl in Atlanta.

Really? Atlanta? The Earl?

You'll never see this band in so small a venue again. I'm there!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Students of the Way should be thoroughly poor. When we look at people in the secular world, men of property inevitably have two kinds of troubles; anger and dishonor. If they have some treasure, others wish to steal it, and when they try to protect it anger immediately arises. Or in talking about some matter, argument and negotiation eventually escalate to conflict and fighting. Proceeding in this way anger will arise and result in dishonor. Being poor and unselfish releases people from these problems and they find peace. Proof is right in front of our eyes. We don’t need to search for it in the scriptures. Not only that, ancient sages and wise predecessors criticized being wealthy, and heavenly deities, buddhas, and patriarchs have all denounced it. Nevertheless, foolish people accumulate wealth and bear so much anger; this is the shame of shames. Our wise predecessors, ancient sages, buddhas, and patriarchs have all been poor yet aspired to the Way. (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 3, Chapter 4)
"The Buddhist community, sangha, differs from other communities in that its operating premise is harmony. Thus, we defer personal needs and agendas in favor of the group.

"Recently, we have witnessed an egregious disruption in the harmony of the sangha of ASZC. It resulted in an unfortunate outburst and chaotic dissolution of the first meeting welcoming the new executive committee of ASZC’s Board of Directors. This was a time of urgency where we should have been pulling the sangha together rather than pulling it apart, and has precipitated a crisis of confidence.

"This is most unfortunate. The fomenting of disharmony in the sangha is a direct violation of the final of the Ten Grave Precepts, in that it necessarily defames the Three Treasures.

"For my part in this sad occurrence, I will do penance. For at least six months I will not wear the Okesa at ASZC. I will also not accept the new formal Okesa the sangha is said to be sewing for me. I will do other penances, such as multiple prostrations, and suspension of certain formal activities, until harmony is fully restored.

"My deep apologies to all who were in attendance and disturbed by the discord, and to the sangha at large for any untold consequences. We can and must do better.

Deep bows,
In these times when so many scandals have rocked so many sanghas here in the United States, it's almost a relief to learn that our roshi is repenting over a matter as relatively trivial as an argument over money. Arguing and negotiating apparently escalated into conflict and fighting, giving rise to anger and resulting in dishonor. But as Dogen once said on another occasion (Zuimonki, Book 1, Chapter 18), "Do good things secretly while people are not watching, and if you make a mistake or do something bad, confess and repent of it. When you act in this manner, good deeds you have done in secret will have recompense, and wrongdoings will be revealed and repented so that punishment can be dispelled."

Attachment to wealth can be as insidious and hard to break as any other attachment, including the passions of sex and love.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Videos Worth Watching

Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, Solange Knowles, and Twin Shadow have collaborated on a track called "Kenya" for the Coca Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN). I like this song because the musicians keep the mix spare and simple, letting the African sound come through, rather than burying it underneath layers of their own egos.

Plus, for those of you starting your Christmas shopping early, I could use a pair of those earrings seen at the 1:00-minute mark.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday Night Zazen, of a sort

Takehiko Inoue, creator of the manga Slam Dunk and Vagabond, drew a series of art pieces over six hours to offer his prayers for Japan after the March 11 Tōhoku Chihō Taiheiyō-oki Jishin (東北地方太平洋沖地震, literally "Tōhoku region Pacific Ocean offshore earthquake") and subsequent tsunami waves.

Using an iOS app called Zen Brush, Inoue had previously drawn 33 "Smile" art pieces and posted them on Twitter between December 22, 2010 and February 22, 2011. However, the recent events in Japan prompted Inoue to draw over 27 more "Smile" art pieces in a matter of hours.

Here are 18 more smile-prayers for the people of the Tōhoku region, and for all of humanity and for sentient beings everywhere.

Update: Inoue's art is apparently part of a larger Draw For Japan movement. On Sunday, two days after the earthquake, the light-novel artist Noizi Ito posted a picture of her "Brigade Leader" character Haruhi offering prayers.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

One day there was an earthquake that shook all of Japan and parts of a renowned Zen temple collapsed. Many of the monks were terrified.

When the earthquake stopped the teacher said, "Now you have had the opportunity to see how a Zen man behaves in a crisis situation. You may have noticed that I did not panic. I was quite aware of what was happening and what to do. I led you all to the kitchen, the strongest part of the temple. It was a good decision, because you see we have all survived without any injuries. However, despite my self-control and composure, I did feel a little bit tense - which you may have deduced from the fact that I drank a large glass of water, something I never do under ordinary circumstances."

One of the monks smiled, but didn't say anything.

"What are you laughing at?" asked the teacher.

"That wasn't water," the monk replied, "it was a large glass of soy sauce."

I don't mean to make light of the tragic events in Japan over this weekend, but I am reminded that life along a seismically active subduction zone has long influenced Zen traditions. Zen Master Dogen once said, "Our life changes moment by moment, it flows by swiftly every day. Everything is impermanent and changes rapidly. This is the reality before our eyes. You do not need to wait for the teaching of masters or sutras to see it. In every moment, do not expect tomorrow will come. Think only of this day and this moment. Since the future is very much uncertain, you cannot foresee what will happen, you should resolve to follow the Buddha-Way, if only for today, while you are alive."

Impermanence has asserted itself forcibly upon the Japanese mainland, and if a picture's worth a thousand words, let us contemplate a thousand pictures - or at least a couple dozen - to try and grasp the magnitude and the nature of this tragedy.

The Zen Inspiration blog lists several charities and ways to provide disaster assistance.

Meanwhile, over in Libya:

Is it just me, or does that last picture look like it should be a Nike ad?