Monday, December 31, 2012

The 108 Gates of Dharma Illumination

Right belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the steadfast mind is not broken.

Pure mind is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it there is no defilement.

Delight is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it is the mind of peace and tranquility.

Love and cheerfulness are a gate of Dharma illumination, for they make the mind pure.

Right conduct of the actions of the body is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the three forms of behavior are pure.

Pure conduct of the actions of the mouth is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it eliminates the four evils.

Pure conduct of the actions of the mind is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it eliminates the three poisons.

Mindfulness of Buddha is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it reflection of the state of Buddha is pure.

Mindfulness of Dharma is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it reflection of the Dharma is pure.

Mindfulness of Sangha is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it attainment of the truth is steadfast.

Mindfulness of generosity is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not expect reward.

Mindfulness of precepts is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we fulfill all vows.

Mindfulness of the heavens is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it gives rise to a wide and big mind.

Benevolence is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it good roots prevail in all the situations of life.

Compassion is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not kill or harm living beings.

Joy is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we abandon all unpleasant things.

Abandonment is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we turn away from the five desires.

Reflection on inconstancy is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we reflect upon the desires of the triple world.

Reflection on suffering is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we cease all aspirations.

Reflection on there being no self is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not taintedly attach to self.

Reflection on stillness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not disturb the mind.

Repentance is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the mind within is stilled.

Humility is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it eternal malevolence vanishes.

Veracity is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not deceive gods and human beings.

Truth is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not deceive ourselves.

Dharma conduct is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we follow the conduct that is the Dharma.

The Three Devotions are a gate of Dharma illumination, for they purify the three evil worlds.

Recognition of kindness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not throw away good roots.

Repayment of kindness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not cheat and disregard others.

No self-deception is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not praise ourselves.

To work for living beings is a gate of Dharma illumination, for we do not blame others.

To work for the Dharma is a gate of Dharma illumination, for we act in conformity with the Dharma.

Awareness of time is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not treat spoken teaching lightly.

Inhibition of self-conceit is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it wisdom is fulfilled.

The non-arising of ill-will is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we protect ourselves and protect others.

Being without hindrances is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the mind is free of doubt.

Belief and understanding are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them we decisively comprehend the paramount truth.

Reflection on impurity is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we abandon the mind that is tainted by desire.

Not to quarrel is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it stops angry accusations.

Not being foolish is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it stops the killing of living things.

Enjoyment of the meaning of the Dharma is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we seek the meaning of the Dharma.

Love of Dharma illumination is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain Dharma illumination.

Pursuit of abundant knowledge is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we truly reflect on the form of the Dharma.

Right means are a gate of Dharma illumination, for they are accompanied by right conduct.

Knowledge of names and forms is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it clears away many obstacles.

The view to expiate causes is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain salvation.

The mind without enmity and intimacy is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, when among enemies and intimates, we are impartial.

Hidden expedient means are a gate of Dharma illumination, for they are sensitive to many kinds of suffering.

Equality of all elements is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it obviates all rules for harmonious association.

The sense organs are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them we practice the right way.

Realization of nonappearance is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we experience the truth of cessation.

The body as an abode of mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it all dharmas are serene.

Feeling as an abode of mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we detach from all miscellaneous feelings.

Mind as an abode of mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we reflect that mind is like a phantom.

The Dharma as an abode of mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it wisdom is free of blurs.

The four right exertions are a gate of Dharma illumination, for they eliminate all evils and realize many kinds of good.

The four bases of mystical power are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them the body-and-mind is light.

The faculty of belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not blindly follow the words of others.

The faculty of effort is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we thoroughly attain many kinds of wisdom.

The faculty of mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we thoroughly perform many kinds of work.

The faculty of balance is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it the mind is pure.

The faculty of wisdom is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we really see all dharmas.

The power of belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it surpasses the power of demons.

The power of effort is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not regress or stray.

The power of mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not blindly go along with others.

The power of balance is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we discontinue all thoughts.

The power of wisdom is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we depart from the two extremes.

Mindfulness, as a part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it is wisdom that accords with real dharmas.

Examination of Dharma, as a part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it illuminates all dharmas.

Effort, as a part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we become proficient in realization.

Enjoyment, as a part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain many kinds of balanced state.

Entrustment as a part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it conduct is already managed.

The balanced state, as a part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we recognize that all dharmas are in equilibrium.

Abandonment, as a part of the state of truth, is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we can turn away from all kinds of lives.

Right view is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain the noble path on which the superfluous is exhausted.

Right discrimination is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we eliminate all discrimination and lack of discrimination.

Right speech is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it concepts, voice, and words all are known as sound.

Right action is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it there is no karma and no retribution.

Right livelihood is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we get rid of all evil ways.

Right practice is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we arrive at the far shore.

Right mindfulness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not consider all dharmas intellectually.

Right balanced state is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain undistracted samādhi.

The bodhi-mind is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we are not separated from the Three Treasures.

Reliance is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we do not incline toward Small Vehicles.

Right belief is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain the supreme Dharma.

Development is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we realize all dharmas concerning the root of good.

The dāna pāramitā is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, in every instance, we cause features to be pleasant, we adorn the Buddhist land, and we teach and guide stingy and greedy living beings.

The precepts pāramitā is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we distantly depart from the hardships of evil worlds, and we teach and guide precept-breaking living beings.

The forbearance pāramitā is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we abandon all anger, arrogance, flattery, and foolery, and we teach and guide living beings who have such vices.

The diligence pāramitā is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we completely attain all good dharmas, and we teach and guide lazy living beings

The dhyāna pāramitā is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we accomplish all balanced states of dhyāna and mystical powers, and we teach and guide distracted living beings.

The wisdom pāramitā is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we eradicate the darkness of ignorance, together with attachment to views, and we teach and guide foolish living beings.

Expedient means are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them we manifest ourselves according to the dignified forms that living beings admire, and we teach and guide living beings, accomplishing the Dharma of all the buddhas.

The four elements of sociability are a gate of Dharma illumination, for with them we accept all living beings and, after we have attained the truth of bodhi, we bestow upon all living beings the Dharma.

To teach and guide living beings is a gate of Dharma illumination, for we ourselves neither indulge pleasures nor become tired.

Acceptance of the right Dharma is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it eradicates the afflictions of all living beings.

Accretion of happiness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it benefits all living beings.

The practice of the balanced state of dhyāna is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it fulfills the ten powers.

Stillness is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it realizes, and is replete with, the samādhi of the Tathāgata.

The wisdom view is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it wisdom is realized and fulfilled.

Entry into the state of unrestricted speech is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain realization of the Dharma-eye.

Entry into all conduct is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain realization of the Buddha-eye.

Accomplishment of the state of dhāranīis a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we hear the Dharma of all the buddhas and are able to receive and retain it.

Attainment of the state of unrestricted speech is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we cause all living beings totally to rejoice.

Endurance of obedient following is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we obey the Dharma of all the buddhas.

Attainment of realization of the Dharma of nonappearance is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we attain affirmation.

The state beyond regressing and straying is a gate of Dharma illumination, for it is replete with the Dharma of past buddhas.

The wisdom that leads us from one state to another state is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, having water sprinkled on the head, we accomplish total wisdom.

The state in which water is sprinkled on the head is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it, following birth in a family, we are at last able to realize anuttara samyak sambodhi.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Some Recycled Thoughts on Samskara

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that samskara has become one of my preeminent interests in the dharma.  That interest is due in no small part to the fact that so few others seem to understand it, or to be able to explain it. 

One of the problems we face is that many of the early translations of both sutras and Zen teachings were written by academics or philosophers (e.g., Dwight Goddard, Alan Watts, DT Suzuki, etc.) with little or no actual experience with meditation practice, and that later practioners incorporated those early translations into their teachings, confusion giving rise to more confusion. This is particularly evident in reading attempts to explain the Buddha’s Chain of Dependent Origination, especially the first three or four links in the chain. Typically, even good teachers just sidestep any real explanation with linguistic tricks or diverting anecdotes, and I got to wondering if that was due to its difficulty to explain, or if they themselves did not understand.  My teacher says that the Buddha once said something like, “If you think the Chain of Dependent Origination is easy to understand, you’re not paying close enough attention.” 

Part of the problem is the many different ways samskara has been translated. Translator and author (and sincere practioner) Bill Porter, who publishes under the name Red Pine, once noted that samskara has been variously translated in the past as impulse, volition, predisposition, and mental conformation, a list to which I would add “mental formation” and just “formation.” Porter’s own preferred translation was “memory,” which sheds some light on the subject but still misses the mark in my humble opinion. 

My understanding of samskara, oddly enough, came not from any Buddhist or spiritual teachers but from neurologists such as Dr. Ramachandran and philosophers like David Chalmers. It was not until I literally stumbled across an article about linguistics that I discovered the term "schema," my own preferred translation of samskara, and reading about schema has led me to philosophers like Erich Fromm, whose “mental maps” and “frame of orientation” I believe are the same thing the Buddha referred to as samskara

The maddeningly frustrating thing about our schema is that it is both subconscious and totally unavoidable.  As long as we think, a schema is employed, and I can tell you from my limited first-hand encounters with and observations of American and Asian Zen teachers is that they are still subject to samskara. It is possible, I suppose, that in a Buddha’s complete perfect enlightenment (annutara samyak sambodhi) samskara is either avoided or managed so masterfully as to not be a factor. It has been said that a Buddha sees things as they actually are, not as we imagine them to be, or a little more poetically, that a Buddha does not see by the same light as we do. 

Bertrand Russell once said that “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain and sure of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” Even though the Buddha told us never to take anything for granted, even his own teaching, without careful questioning and examination, we should at the same time raise great doubt about our own understandings and assumptions.  I believe this is because our schema are only approximations of the truth. But even a concept like “I’m not sure of anything,” while a useful and wise assumption, is still filtered through our schema and on one level is both just another concept that came about due to our experiences and what we’ve come to learn. At the same time, it is still full of schematic assumptions such as the existence of an “I” and “things” and “sureness.” 

Our schema are only approximations of the truth, but as Erich Fromm notes, they are not completely right nor completely wrong either. They’re just good enough to assist us in directing our life, and it is from that aspect of samskara that I think the translation “volition” or “impulse” was derived. 

Recognition of samskara is useful in helping us understand both our own actions and thoughts, and also in understanding the thoughts, words, and actions of others, for developing tolerance for those who seem to think “differently.” 

There also seems to be layers to our schema, just as a map may consist of several layers. At the deepest level, the level that gives rise to consciousness of self, there’s the division of the universe into self and other, interior and exterior. Our schema maps out the dividing line between where “we” end and where “other” begins. On top of that layer, we may add memories of the self not having enough of exterior things, be they material wealth or emotional rewards like love or recognition. If so, then on top of that layer we might then add a predisposition toward anger or jealousy or greed. 

My teacher often talks about an ”if only” mentality. “If only I get that promotion” or “If only I were prettier.”  The legendary Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma taught that we violate each of the precepts because we don’t accept the universe as it is. For example, we kill because we think the universe would be better “if only” some other person or being were not in it.  We steal because we think the universe would be better “if only” I owned what someone else has. And so on. Each violation of the precepts is a failure to recognize the immaculate perfection of the world as it is. Recognizing and accepting the world as it is, not as we want it to be, helps us maintain the precepts, follow the Eight-Fold Path, and realize the Buddha Way. We need to let go of one-side egocentric views, and part of that process is recognizing and accepting the existence of samskara

As I said, as long as we think, schema will still be employed, and I don’t think it’s necessary or even possible to try to avoid schema, except in the deepest samadhi of zazen. It’s worth noting that in that state of non-thinking, self-awareness – a result of samskara – also drops away. But in our conscious, thinking state, schema will always be present. What I do think is useful, though, is understanding how consciousness arises from samskara, and since human consciousness, as much as anything else, seems to separate us from the apparent external world, an understanding of the emptiness and impermanence of consciousness may lead us to greater intimacy with the rest of the universe and greater acceptance of that immaculate perfection. 

I know I’m all over the place in the above and wish that I could find a way to discuss all this in a more logical framework, but it’s not an easy topic to get our heads around (it’s like the hand trying to grab the fist).  If even the Buddha said it’s not easy to understand, who am I to disagree?

And yes, I am aware that everything I’m writing here has been filtered through my own schema. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Mental Maps

"The poetic observation often attributed to French writer Anaïs Nin that 'we don't see things as they are, we see things as we are' is precisely what scientists now confirm experimentally: For human beings there is no unfiltered reality.  We are creatures of the mind who interpret experience through a largely unconscious mental map made up of the big ideas orienting our lives.  Philosopher Erich Fromm called it our 'frame of orientation,' through which we see what we expect to see. So, while we often hear that 'seeing is believing,' actually believing is seeing."
So writes noted environmentalist Frances Moore Lappé in her book, Eco-Mind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want.  She is, of course, referring to our subconscious schema, what the Buddha called samskara.   The Buddha taught that the products of samskara include human consciousness itself, and that samskara arises out of ignorance, that is, without our knowing it.  

In his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Fromm states, "Man's capacity for self-awareness, reason, and imagination - new qualities that go beyond the capacity for instrumental thinking of even the cleverest animals - requires a picture of the world and of his place in it that is structured and has inner cohesion.  Man needs a map of his natural and social world, without which he would be confused and unable to act purposefully and consistently.  He would have no way of orienting himself and for finding for himself a fixed point that permits him to organize all the impressions that impinge upon him." 

Thus stated, Fromm illuminates the difficult-to-understand link in the Buddha's Chain of Dependent Origination between samskara, often translated as "mental formations," and consciousness.  The mental formations of samskara include this structured and cohesive map of our natural and social worlds, and this conceptual map not only describes the contours and topography of the external world, but by conceiving that such a thing as an external world can exist, it thereby assumes an internal world that stands in opposition to that which is external.  As Lappé explains, our frame of orientation shapes not only how we perceive our place in the universe but also our own nature.  Thus, our mental map, samskara, give rise to self awareness, to human consciousness.

Fromm illustrates how samskara arises without our knowing it by discussing those individuals who "disclaim having any such overall picture and believe that he responds to the various phenomena and incidents of life from case to case, as his judgement guides him.  But it can be easily demonstrated that he takes his own philosophy for granted, because to him it is only common sense, and he is unaware that all his concepts rest upon a commonly accepted frame of reference.  When such a person is confronted with a fundamentally different total view of life he judges it as 'crazy' or 'irrational' or 'childish,' while he considers himself as being only logical."   Even bright people clung to an earth-as-the-center-of-the-universe worldview for 150 years after Copernicus showed that, no, the earth is not at the center, we revolve around the sun.

Once we see through a certain lens, it's hard to perceive things differently, be they the most mundane matters of the most momentous.  "I first grasped the huge import of this trait," Lappé writes, "when, as a college senior, I was assigned Thomas Kuhn's classic work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  In it, Kuhn shows how difficult it is for humans to shed a reigning mental map."  

The hard fact of human existence is that if our mental frame is flawed, we'll fail no matter how hard and sincerely we struggle.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Friday Night Video

More on temporal lobe epilepsy, as explained by none other than the inimitable Dr. Ramachandran.

Thanks and a tip of the hat to D. for pointing this one out to me.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Is the universe as we experience it just a huge Matrix-like simulation, and if so, how could we ever know? The question was put to physicist Silas Beane.
There is a famous argument that we probably do live in a simulation. The idea is that in the future, humans will be able to simulate entire universes quite easily. And given the vastness of time ahead, the number of these simulations is likely to be huge. So if you ask the question: "do we live in the one true reality or in one of the many simulations?," the answer, statistically speaking, is that we're more likely to be living in a simulation.
Every simulation is likely to have little glitches, seams in the fabric of the simulation.  Some call them paradoxes, some call them explainable phenomena.  We have to be vigilant in watching for these design flaws, and if the combination of Beane's probability (Pb) and the number of observed glitches (Go) is greater than a threshold value, we'll call it the X factor, we're in the Matrix, my friend.

If Pb + Go > X, then Matrix

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

"If an epileptic seizure is focused in a particular sweet spot in the temporal lobe...the effect is something like a cognitive seizure, marked by changes of personality, hyperreligiosity (an obsession with religion and a feeling of religious certainty), hypergraphia (extensive writing on a subject, usually about religion), the false sense of an external presence, and often, the hearing of voices that are attributed to a god. Some fraction of history's prophets, martyrs, and leaders appear to have temporal lobe epilepsy." - David Eaglman, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, pg. 207.
This of course brings up the question of what really happened to the Buddha as he sat beneath the bodhi tree.  Did he simply just have some sort of stroke?

Thanks and a tip of the hat to Sepehr for pointing out the quote to me.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

My Christmas Hexagram

We always knew the world would sink in snow each year.

One winter, we suffered as before,
But no one would measure our ordeal,
Until a stargazer staked a pole, setting stones day by day,
Year by year, each time the shadows moved.

His unbound hair whitened like the ice on his robes,
But he could soon predict when the sun
Would pierce night on the shortest of days.

And once that day had come,
He knew the ice would melt
And the shadows tremble in the plum blossom breeze.
(Hexagam 19 of the I Ching, translated by Deng Ming-Dao)

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dogen instructed,
Whether they seem good or bad, the deeds of a person of the Way, are results of deep consideration. They cannot be fathomed by ordinary people. 
A long time ago, Eshin Sozu once had someone beat a deer that was eating grass in the garden and drive it away. 
Someone asked him, “You seem to lack compassion. Why did you begrudge the grass to the deer and have it driven away?” 
The Sozu replied, “If I did not beat it and drive it away, the deer would eventually become familiar with human beings. And if it ever went near an evil person, it would surely be killed. This is why I drove it away.” 
Although he seemed lacking in compassion by beating the deer and driving it away, deep in his heart he had compassion.

Sunday, December 23, 2012


The word nirvana actually connotes death, as I understand that it can be translated as “extinguishing,” as in the blowing out of a candle.  Some modern people find reassurance in the concept of reincarnation, taking it to mean that we don’t really “die” at all, but merely come back as some other person or life form. However, back at the time of the Buddha, people dreaded the concept of constantly returning to existence over and over again, only to be once again subject to suffering and disease, old age, and death. People sought an escape from the cycle of samsara and during the Buddha’s lifetime, many spiritual teachers were proposing various practices and methods to escape or avoid this endless cycle. Nirvana to them was the ultimate death, the true death, the state of no more becoming.  

This is the context in which the Buddha’s teachings were first presented. The passing away of a Buddha is called the parinirvana, as the Buddha then leaves the cycle of samsara and does not return again. The flame is extinguished. 

It’s also interesting to note as an aside that this concept of the extinguishing of a flame also had a subversive double meaning. The Brahmans at the time taught that the responsibility of each householder was to constantly keep three flames burning in the home at all times (don’t ask me why - I’ve forgotten), and by advocating the “blowing out of the flame,” the Buddha was also symbolically rejecting the teachings of the Brahmans. He even went so far as calling the “three poisons” – greed, hate, and delusion - the “three flames” that must be extinguished first before the ultimate extinguishment (nirvana), which was an even more explicit and confrontational rejection of the Brahmans. All of this is just an aside, but I find it interesting to note how the Buddha was willing to explicitly reject the teachings of others. 

Anyway, nirvana is escape from the cycle of samsara, and parinirvana is the final death with no more becoming. This is why early Buddhists texts and some Theravedan teachings still talk about classes of Buddhist practioners, including, stream-enterers (those just starting in this lifetime), thrice-returners (those who’ve entered the stream in a previous life, but still have three more lifetimes to go to further purify themselves before entering nirvana), and arhats or saint-like persons who are free from greed, hate, and delusion due to the actions of their previous lives and current practices, and who will enter into nirvana upon their passing. 

After about 500 years or 14 generations of teacher-to-student transmission, this school of thought was overturned by the Patriarch Najaruna, who changed the emphasis from the arhat seeking his own nirvana to that of the bodhisattva who seeks instead to free all other sentient beings from samsara. This was the first great division of Buddhism into the so-called Mahayana, or “Greater Vehicle” and the traditional Theravedan schools, and to support the Mahayana views, sutras such as The Diamond Sutra were emphasized (or possibly even made up at the time). 

It was the Mahayana teachings that were transmitted to China and encountered Daoism, and then this Daoist-influenced Mahayana Buddhism became Japanese Zen. The teachings were being transmitted from Japan to the West by teachers like Sunryo Suzuki of the San Francisco Zen Center and Soyu Matsuoka, my teacher’s late teacher. As I understand it, these teachings do not emphasize future lives so much as this very life here and now, and nirvana, or the death of the ego-self, usually referred to as satori by the Japanese teachers, can be experienced right now, in this very life time. Even more specifically, the Soto Zen way is that we can experience body-and-mind falling away and lose the ego-self through the practice of shikantaza, or “just sitting” – zazen that seeks no ultimate goal but is just the natural way of abiding. 

Sitting in zazen and experiencing the falling away of body-and-mind (I insist of hyphenating it to remind myself that it is not two separate things, but one, that falls away) is essentially the same experience as the extinguishing of the flame of existence. It is the at least temporary death of the self, and a step outside of the cycle of samsara. It is no small thing. This is why Dogen said that practice (shikantaza) and enlightenment are one – losing one’s self during zazen is to directly experience the self as the temporary aggregation of the five skandhas, the effect that comes from the coming together of bodily form, sensation, thought, samskara, and consciousness. When thinking stops, or is at least sufficiently ignored, there is nothing holding the aggregation together, and the “self” disappears (body-and-mind falls away). This is what I understand to be “dying on the cushion.” 

In my own experience, and in my studies of Zen, the constructed ego-self does not want to die, even if temporarily. We obsessively cling to the illusion of “being,” and the mind creates all kinds of obstacles and distractions to keep us engaged in the process of thinking and thereby keeping the illusion going. This is what the Buddha experienced as the manifestations of Mara trying to keep him from continuing his mediation by first distracting him with pleasurable fantasies and then with terrifying images and doubting thoughts. The mind is very clever - in fact sometimes I joke that it is exactly as clever as you are (since it is you) - and it can manifest all sorts of thoughts, sensations, ideas, doubts, cravings, fantasies, and so on to keep us engaged in thinking and not letting go of our thoughts. 

This is where a teacher can come in. Ultimately, there is nothing to teach, but a teacher can encourage us to keep practicing zazen and help us dispel the concepts that the mind creates as barriers to letting go of thinking. A teacher encourages us to practice shikantaza (just sitting) and experience for ourselves the dropping away of body-and-mind. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

On Giving

"I do as many random acts of kindness partly because it makes me feel good and also because it makes others feel good," a friend of mine recently posted on Facebook. "I don't expect anything in return except maybe some good karma? Where was my good karma when I got ticketed for a moving violation?"

The comment is a good example of common misunderstandings about both compassion and about karma.  Random acts of kindness performed partly to make us feel good about ourselves are not truly acts of kindness.  When Emperor Wu asked Bodhidharma how much merit he had accrued by building temples across China, Bodhidharma replied, "No merit."

When we practice generosity, it’s easy to turn our actions into something special—thereby elevating ourselves, however subtly, above those we mean to help.  But according to John Daido Roshi, the late abbot of Zen Mountain monastery, doing good is not the same as true compassion.  In true compassion, Daido teaches, giver and receiver merge; in responding to the cries of the world, the Bodhisattva of Compassion always takes a form that is indistinguishable from the person being helped.

Expecting something in return for your kindness and generosity taints those very actions with egocentric thoughts.  Give and expect nothing in return; practice kindness, but do not become the kind practioner.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Whatever joy there is in this world All comes from desiring others to be happy, And whatever suffering there is in this world, All comes from desiring myself to be happy.

But what need is there to say much more? The childish work for their own benefit, The Buddhas work for the benefit of others.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Lee Grossman, president of the Autism Society of America, a leading advocacy group, recognizes the link between Asperger's Syndome and the "second brain" of the enteric nervous system.  In 2009, he was quoted in The New York Times saying, “Our kids will do much better if medical conditions like gut issues or allergies are treated.”

In recent years, the once obscure diagnosis of Asperger's has become increasingly common.  However, psychologists, physicians, educators, and parents remain largely uneducated and uninformed regarding the syndrome, particularly in girls and women - the diagnosis is given to more than four times as many boys as girls.  One reason why the prevalence in girls and women is so low in comparison to boys and men may be the fundamental lack of awareness of what Asperger's "looks like" in females. Traditional frameworks may indicate that the female with Asperger's is just shy, quiet, perfect at school, tomboyish, moody, overly competitive, aloof, a goth, depressed, anxious, or a perfectionist. 

Children with Asperger’s may be socially awkward and often physically clumsy, but many are verbal prodigies, speaking in complex sentences at early ages, reading newspapers fluently by age 5 or 6 and acquiring expertise in some preferred topic — stegosaurs, clipper ships, Interstate highways — that will astonish adults and bore their playmates to tears.

One practical aspect of all of this is the potential for zazen as a potential treatment for neurological conditions such as Asperger's, Parkinson's disease, and attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder.  Researchers at Atlanta's Emory University are investigating the effects of Zen meditation and how the brain functions during meditative states. By determining the brain structures involved in meditation and people whose activity is gradually changed in the course of long-term meditative practice, researchers hope this training could one day become a complementary treatment for various neurological conditions.

"In contrast to the common conceptualization of meditation as a relaxation technique, we think that meditation could be more usefully characterized as training in the skillful deployment of attention and inhibitory control," said Giuseppe Pagnoni, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and lead researcher for the study.  "We chose to investigate Zen meditation because, from an experimental point of view, it is a very simple technique, the quintessence of many other meditative variations. You concentrate on the correct posture and the coming and going of your breathing, and repeatedly come back to these 'attentional supports' every time you find yourself distracted by thoughts, memories, sensations, etc. We believe people who have undergone rigorous training in Zen meditation might display a functional modification of the neural circuits underlying the performance of attentional control and behavioral switching. Therefore, we are looking closely at the brain to understand which areas support the mental processes mustered by meditation and how these relate to the existing literature on neuroimaging of cognitive functions."

Which of course brings up the questions of whether Asperger's in particular actually needs treatment or a "cure."  Asperger's Syndrome has probably been an important and valuable characteristic of our species throughout evolution, and Asperger’s has recently exploded into popular culture through books and films depicting it as the realm of brilliant nerds and savant-like geniuses.  Some famous people who have or likely had Asperger's include the following:

Abraham Lincoln,1809-1865, US Politician
Al Gore, 1948-, former US Vice President and presidential candidate
Alan Turing, 1912-1954, English mathematician, computer scientist and cryptographer
Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, German/American theoretical physicist
Alexander Graham Bell, 1847-1922, Scottish/Canadian/American inventor of the telephone
Alfred Hitchcock, 1899-1980, English/American film director
Andy Kaufman, 1949-1984, US comedian, subject of the film Man on the Moon
Andy Warhol, 1928-1987, US artist.
Bela Bartok, 1881-1945, Hungarian composer
Benjamin Franklin,1706-1790, US polictician/writer
Bertrand Russell, 1872-1970, British logician
Bill Gates, 1955-, Entrepreneur and philanthropist, key player in the personal computer revolution
Bob Dylan, 1941-, US singer-songwriter
Bobby Fischer, 1943-2008, World Chess Champion
Carl Jung, 1875-1961, Swiss psychoanalyst
Charles Schulz, 1922-2000, US cartoonist and creator of Peanuts and Charlie Brown
Crispin Glover, 1964-, US actor
Daryl Hannah, US actress
Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886, US poet
Erik Satie, 1866-1925 - Composer
Franz Kafka, 1883-1924, Czech writer
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844-1900, German philosopher
Garrison Keillor, 1942-, US writer, humorist and host of Prairie Home Companion
Gary Numan, British singer and songwriter
George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950, Irish playwright, writer of Pygmalion, critic and Socialist
George Washington, 1732-1799, US Politician, and Socialist
Glenn Gould, 1932-1982, Canadian pianist
Gustav Mahler, 1860-1911, Czech/Austrian composer
Howard Hughes, 1905-1976, US billionaire
H P Lovecraft, 1890-1937, US writer
Henry Ford, 1863-1947, US industrialist
Henry Thoreau, 1817-1862, US writer
Isaac Asimov, 1920-1992, Russian/US writer on science and of science fiction, author of Bicentennial Man
Isaac Newton, 1642-1727, English mathematician and physicist
James Taylor, 1948-, US singer/songwriter
Jane Austen, 1775-1817, English novelist, author of Pride and Prejudice
Jim Henson, 1936-1990, creator of the Muppets, US puppeteer, writer, producer, director, composer
Kaspar Hauser, c1812-1833, German foundling, portrayed in a film by Werner Herzog
Keith Olbermann, 1959-, US sportscaster
Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951, Viennese/English logician and philosopher
Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827, German/Viennese composer
Marilyn Monroe, 1926-1962, US actress
Mark Twain, 1835-1910, US humorist
Michael Palin, 1943-, English comedian and presenter
Michelangelo, 1475 1564 - Italian Renissance artist
Nikola Tesla, 1856-1943, Serbian/American scientist, engineer, inventor of electric motors
Oliver Sacks, 1933-, UK/US neurologist, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings
Robin Williams, 1951-, US Actor
Thomas Edison, 1847-1931, US inventor
Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826, US politician
Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890, Dutch painter
Virginia Woolf, 1882-1941, English Writer
Wasily Kandinsky, 1866-1944, Russian/French painter
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791, Austrian composer

I don't know if the arts, science, government, and commerce would have been any better off had these people been "cured."  But I wonder if society would have been better off if these people had the technique of zazen to better control their abilities and their contributions to the arts, science, government, and commerce.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Just last Sunday, I talked about the hara (腹), the "center of being" just below the stomach and in the general vicinity of the diaphragm.  Coincidentally, today I come across a very interesting article in New Scientist by Emma Young about the so-called "other brain," the one that resides in the gut.

The human body includes a separate nervous system from that of the brain, one that is around 30 feet long and stretches from the esophagus to the anus.  This "other brain," the enteric nervous system (ENS), consists of a widely distributed network of neurons spread throughout two layers of gut tissue. It is part of the autonomic nervous system, the network of peripheral nerves that control visceral functions.  The "other brain" shares many features with the first. It contains an estimated 500 million neurons - about five times as many as in the brain of a rat - and also has its own version of a blood-brain barrier to keep its physiological environment stable.

The ENS is actually the original nervous system, emerging in the first vertebrates over 500 million years ago and becoming more complex as vertebrates evolved - possibly even giving rise to the brain itself.  Biologist Richard Dawkins points out that nervous systems have generally evolved as a long trunk cable running from front to rear, either along the dorsal side, like our spinal cord, or along the ventral side, in which case it is often double with a ladder of connections between the left and right sides, as in worms and arthropods.  "In a typical Earth creature," Dawkins writes, "the main longitudinal trunk cable has side nerves, often paired in segments repeated serially from front to rear.  And it usually has ganglia, local swellings which, when sufficiently large, are dignified with the name of brain."

It seems that we are blessed with both options, a dorsal nervous system crowned with a ganglia of epic proportions, and the ENS, a complex system of nerves and neurons, but without a ganglia worthy of the title "brain."  It is almost as if we have evolved to consist of an amalgam of two organisms, a large-brained biped that carries around a second, worm-like organism in its abdomen.  We can only wonder which organism in this symbiotic relationship is the chicken and which is the egg - that is, are we bipeds carrying around a helpful sort of worm, or are we worms that managed to get a helpful biped to carry us around?

Without the gut, there would be no energy to sustain life.  Its vitality and healthy functioning is so critical that the brain needs to have a direct and intimate connection with the gut.  The main connection between the gut and the brain is the vagus nerve.  However, about 90 per cent of the signals passing along the vagus nerve come not from the brain, but from the ENS.  If the vagus is severed, the ENS remains quite capable of coordinating digestion on its own.

The ENS is capable not only of autonomy, but it can also influence the brain.  It produces a wide range of hormones and around 40 neurotransmitters of the same classes as those found in the brain. In fact, neurons in the gut are thought to generate as much dopamine as those in the head. Intriguingly, about 95 per cent of the serotonin present in the body at any time is in the ENS.

What are neurotransmitters doing in the gut? In the brain, dopamine is a signalling molecule associated with pleasure and the reward system. It acts as a signalling molecule in the gut too, transmitting messages between neurons that coordinate, for example, the contraction of muscles in the colon.  Serotonin - best known as the "feel-good" molecule involved in preventing depression and regulating sleep, appetite and body temperature - also transmits signals  in the ENS.  Serotonin produced in the gut gets into the blood, where it is involved in repairing damaged cells in the liver and lungs.  It is also important for normal development of the heart, as well as regulating bone density by inhibiting bone formation.

The feeling of "butterflies" we sometimes experience in the stomach is the result of blood being diverted away to muscles as part of the fight-or-flight response instigated by the brain. However, stress also leads the gut to increase its production of ghrelin, a hormone that, as well as making one feel more hungry, reduces anxiety and depression. Ghrelin stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain both directly, by triggering neurons involved in pleasure and reward pathways, and indirectly by signals transmitted along the vagus nerve.

In Parkinson's disease, the problems with movement and muscle control are caused by a loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain. However, the protein clumps that do the damage, called Lewy bodies, also show up in dopamine-producing neurons in the gut. In fact, judging by the distribution of Lewy bodies in people who have died from Parkinson's, the disease may actually start in the gut as the result of an environmental trigger such as a virus, and then spreads to the brain via the vagus nerve.

Likewise, the characteristic plaques or tangles found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's are present in neurons in their guts too. And people with autism are prone to gastrointestinal problems, which are thought to be caused by the same genetic mutation that affects neurons in the brain.

Although scientists are only just beginning to understand the interactions between the two brains, the gut already offers a window into the pathology of the brain.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Zen Master Dogen instructed,
In the ocean, there is a place called the Dragon-Gate, where vast waves rise incessantly. Without fail, all fish once having passed through this place become dragons. Thus, the place is called the Dragon-Gate. 
The vast waves there are not different from those in any other place, and the water is also ordinary salt water. Despite that, mysteriously enough, when fish cross that place, they all become dragons. Their scales do not change and their bodies stay the same; however, they suddenly become dragons. 
The way of Zen monks is also like this. Although it is not a special place, if you enter a monastery, without fail you will become a buddha or a patriarch. You eat meals and wear clothes as usual; thus you stave off hunger and keep off the cold just the same as other people do. Still, if you shave your head, put on a kesa, and eat gruel for breakfast and rice for lunch, you will immediately become a Zen monk. Do not seek afar to become a buddha or a patriarch. Becoming one who either passes through the Dragon Gate or not depends only on entering a monastery, just the same as the fish. 
There is a saying in the secular world, “I sell gold, but no one will buy it.” The Way of the buddhas and patriarchs is also like this. It is not that they begrudge the Way; even though it is always being offered, no one will accept it.  To attain the Way does not depend on whether you are inherently sharp or dull witted. Each one of us can be aware of the dharma. Slowness or quickness in attaining the Way depends on whether you are diligent or indolent. The difference between being diligent or indolent is caused by whether your aspiration is resolute or not. Lack of firm aspiration is caused by being unaware of impermanence. Ultimately speaking, we die moment by moment, not residing for even a little while. While you are alive, do not spend your time in vain. 
There is an old saying, “A mouse in a storehouse starves for food. An ox plowing the field never eats his fill of grass.” This means that even though living in the midst of food, the mouse is starving; even though living in the midst of grass, the ox is short of grass. Human beings are also like this. Even though we are in the midst of the Buddha-Way, we are not living in accordance with the Way. Unless we cut off the desire for fame and profit, we cannot live in peace and joy (nirvana) throughout our lifetime.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


A rainy day in Georgia (and Tennessee) made for a dreary drive up to Chattanooga, but every day can't be sunny and it's not too terribly long of a drive (less than two hours).

A combination, I suspect, of the rainy weather and family obligations due to the impending holidays kept attendance down, but that merely allowed for more intimate conversation and practice among those of us who did make the effort to attend, including one newcomer to Zen practice. It also made it easier to get home at an earlier hour (fewer people to hang around with and chat afterwards).

The question-and-answer session concerned the hara (Japanese 腹), the "center of being" just below the stomach and in the general vicinity of the diaphragm.   In Japanese martial arts, extension from this center is a common concept, with aikido in particular emphasizing moving from the hara.  There are several breathing exercises in both traditional Japanese martial arts and in Zen training where attention is kept on the hara.  

A Western model of the ego has the "self" living up inside of an individual's head, looking out at the external world through the eyes and listening through the ears, and "engineering" the body like a piece of machinery or some sort of marionette to defend, care for, and transport the head.  The "me," then, become the thoughts. or consciousness, leading up to Pascal's "I think therefore I am."

Zen and the Japanese marital arts identify the "self," if it exists at all, as not residing in the head, but in the center of being, in the hara.  In aikido, one moves one's hara through space, and between sessions of zazen, in walking meditation or kinhin, Zen monks move the hara around the room, or even imagine moving the room through the hara, impaling oneself with the space one moves through. The practical effect of this is to lead one away from identifying with one's ever-changing memories, moods, and consciousness, and to remember that on one level we are all just living, breathing organisms as we fill and expel air from our lungs using the hara like a bellows as it rises and falls, rises and falls.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Can YOUR President Do This?

Barefootin' in Burma . . . Can your president do that?  How about this?:

Or even this?:

Sometimes I like to imagine that I live in a parallel universe where Barack Obama actually won re-election and I can see how differently things might have turned out.  Instead of serving our Wall Street overlords beneath the scorched sky full of greenhouse gasses, we might have lived in a world where something like this might have been possible:

Monday, December 10, 2012

Dogen instructed, 
Students of the Way, you should not postpone beginning to practice the Way. Just do not spend this day or even this moment in vain. Practice diligently day by day, moment by moment.  
A certain lay person had been sick for a long time. Last spring he promised, “As soon as I have recovered, I will abandon my wife and children and build a hermitage near the temple. I will join in the meetings of repentance (fusatsu) held twice a month. I also want to practice daily and listen to your lectures on the dharma. I would like to spend as much as possible the rest of my life being in accord with the precepts.” After that, he received various treatments, and recovered a little bit. But then, he had a relapse and spent his days in vain. In January of this year, his condition suddenly became critical, and he suffered increasing pain. Because he hadn’t had enough time to bring the materials to build the hermitage he had been planning, he rented a room to stay in temporarily. Within a month or so, however, he passed away. He died peacefully since he had received the Bodhisattva precepts and had taken refuge in the Three Treasures the night before his death. So it was better than having stayed at home, clinging to the bonds of affection for his wife and children dying in madness.  
However, I think it would have been better for him to have left home last year when he first made up his mind to do so. He could have lived close to the temple becoming familiar with the sangha and ended his life practicing the Way.  
Considering this, I feel that the practice of the Buddha-Way should not be put off until a later day. It is due to your lack of bodhi-mind that, you think since you’re sick you can begin to practice after you have recovered. Whose body doesn’t become sick composed as it is of the four elements!  The ancient masters did not necessarily have golden bones. They practiced without concern for anything else only because they thoroughly aspired to practice the Way. It is like forgetting petty matters when encountering a great problem. Since the Buddha-Way is the vital matter, you should resolve to complete it in this lifetime and not waste even a single day or hour.  
An ancient master said, “Do not pass time wastefully.” When you are receiving some treatment, but instead of getting better the pain gradually increases, you should practice while the pain is still not too bad. After the pain has become severe, you should determine to practice before your condition becomes critical. And when your condition has become critical, you should resolve to practice before you die.  
When you are sick, sometimes the illness passes, sometimes it gets worse. Sometimes it gets better even without any treatment. And, sometimes it gets worse even though you are being treated. Take this carefully into consideration.  
Practitioners of the Way, do not think of practicing after shelter has been assured, and robes and bowls etc. have been prepared. Although you may be living in dire poverty, while waiting until robes, bowls, and other equipment have been prepared, can you prevent death from approaching? If you wait until shelter has been prepared and robes and bowls are ready, you will have spent your whole lifetime in vain. You should have the resolution that without robes and bowls, even a lay person can practice the Buddha-Way. Robes and bowls are simply the ornaments of monkshood.  
True practitioners of the Buddha-Way do not depend on such things. If they are available, let them be with you, but do not deliberately seek after them. On the other hand, do not think of not owning them when you have them. In the same way, if it is possible to cure your sickness, it goes against the Buddha’s teachings to try and die intentionally and not receive treatment. For the sake of the Buddha Way neither hold your life dear, nor be careless about it. When possible, use moxa or decocted herbal medicines which do not obstruct your practice of the Way. Anyway, it is a mistake to put aside your practice of the Way and put primary importance on curing your sickness, planning to practice only after you have recovered.

Sunday, December 09, 2012


Wondering when compassion for oneself becomes indulgence for oneself, I slept in this morning and then allowed myself time to enjoy my a.m. coffee.  I made it to the Zen Center in time for the liturgy services and the dharma talk, and stayed around to talk with some newcomers.  

Rohatsu is now officially complete.  I did manage to make it for at least most of two of the days, the initial Sunday and the final Saturday, and weeknights except for Wednesday, when I suspect that there was no zazen due to other scheduled activities.

Meanwhile, life as I live it continues unabated.

Saturday, December 08, 2012


Okay, finally got some serious zafu time today.  I showed up at the zendo in time for three periods of zazen, 55 minutes each, with 10 minutes of kinhin (walking meditation) in between.  After lunch (steamed veggies), four periods of zazen , 40 minutes each, again with 10 minutes of kinhin separating the periods.

There's an all-night meditation tonight that started at 7:30 pm (it's a little after 8:00 as I write this) and lasts until 6:00 am tomorrow morning, but I'm passing on that this year.  I'm getting too old to recover in time for Monday morning.

Rohatsu wraps up tomorrow with the usual morning service.

Friday, December 07, 2012


Another day, another 90 minutes of Rohatsu zazen.  To paraphrase what my teacher's teacher, Soyu Matsuoka, is reported to have said, "Five minutes zazen, five minutes Buddha.  Ninety minutes zazen, ninety minutes Buddha."

It has also been said that a Buddha naturally abides in a state of zazen.  That is, unlike us ordinary beings rushing through our busy lives and trying to squeeze in a few minutes of zazen here and there, a Buddha sits in zazen unless and until there's something else to be done.  A Buddha abides in zazen until it's time to eat or to sleep, to move one's bowels or to give a talk, or to earn a living or otherwise sustain oneself.  But when any of these things don't need to be done, a Buddha returns to the natural state of zazen.

The interesting thing is, the amount of time spent in zazen and spent in other activities might be exactly the same for a Buddha and for an ordinary being. But the Buddha, who abides in the state of zazen, one leaves that state only when necessary, while ordinary beings, who abide in the mundane activities of the everyday world, one has to find the "right opportunity" to enter a state of zazen.  To an outside viewer, it might look exactly the same but in the mind of the practioner, there is a world of difference.

This past week has reminded me of where I stand in this phase equilibrium between the deluded and the awakened.  Fortunately, though, the busy week is now behind me, and I have the opportunity to reach deeper into practice for this final Rohastsu weekend and be a Buddha for at least a day or two.

Thursday, December 06, 2012


So it appears that we are now in Day 5 of Rohatsu, and I've managed to stick my bald head in the door a total of four times.  At least I made it there this evening for 90 minutes of zazen (better than none at all).

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


Day 4 of the Rohatsu retreat and I didn't even make it in at all today.  I worked once again during the day, and Wednesday evenings are newcomers night, so there didn't seem to be any point in going to the Center just to receive instruction but not actually practice zazen.  However, my home practice still continues through this week.

In my Monday Night Zazen quote of Zen Master Dogen, he says, "It is good to understand such things without misinterpretation when you enter the mountains or seclude yourselves in a city."  This is the first and only reference I've seen to Dogen acknowledging such a thing as an urban monk. I self-style myself as something of an urban monk - living alone in relative seclusion while in the midst of the bustle of the City, trying to be a bodhisattva at the very place where there are so many sentient beings to assist.  

If anyone knows of any other Zen references to the path of the urban monk or better yet, guidance for living the urban monk life, I would be so appreciative.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012


For much of the day today I had to work rather than attend the rohatsu retreat.  Such is life.  At one point during the day, however, I found myself getting quite angry after reading an email on which I had been copied from a firm that is providing some services for a client for whom I am providing other services.  I resisted the initial impulse to immediately write a sharply-worded rebuttal message, and instead went to the zendo for a short, evening sit.

The anger sat in my belly like a little fire.  While in meditation, I searched for the reason for my anger - not what triggered it (the email), but what caused me to react the way that I did - and saw that I was concerned that something that I might acquire in the future but don't actually have now (a lucrative contract with the client) might have been jeopardized or somehow taken away from me.  More specifically, my reaction was due to a feeling that I hadn't received the proper respect or recognition that my ego felt was warranted, and I further imagined the presumed lack of recognition might ultimately lead to not being awarded the potential contract.

Our tendency is to grasp at things we want, and to possessively cling to what we come to think of as "mine."  This tendency leads to anger when we feel what we're clinging to might somehow be taken away from us, and the anger manifests itself as harsh words, mean-spiritedness, and betrayal.  We can see this on all levels of human behavior, from interpersonal relationships to the conduct of nations.

When I got home and re-read the offending email message, but with the reflexive anger held in check (although still not completely absent, to be sure), I found that it could just as easily be interpreted that the author was not trying to take anything away from anybody, but was merely attempting to be of assistance, to be helpful.  My reflexive, defensive reaction had earlier perceived this offer of assistance as a replacement of  me altogether, and had blinded me to other interpretations of the offer.  We can never be completely sure of the intentions of others (or of ourselves much of the time), yet we so often run off to one extreme or the other with those kinds of assumptions in mind.

I wrote what I hope will be received as a cooperative and helpful reply to the message.  I corrected what I thought was a technical error in the original email and provided them with the reasons for my thinking.  How this all plays out in the end depends on how my reply is received - as I hope and intend or as misinterpreted by their reflexive reactions - but I'm thankful for my practice which allowed me the opportunity to step back, look at the situation from a different perspective, and hopefully behave in a wiser and less egocentric way.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Story of Ryosui Who Visited Zen Master Mayoku

Dogen also said,
The essential point to be careful about in practicing the Way is casting aside your tendency from the past to cling to certain things. If you first change your physical behavior, your mind will be reformed as well. Firstly, carry out what is prescribed to do and avoid what is prohibited in the precepts; then your mind will reform of itself. 
In China, there is a custom among lay people of gathering at their ancestral shrine and pretending to cry, to demonstrate their filial piety toward their fathers and mothers. Eventually, they actually begin to cry. Students of the Way! Even if you don’t have bodhi-mind in the beginning, if you force yourself to practice the Buddha-Way, eventually you will arouse true bodhi-mind. Especially beginners in the Way should just practice following the other members of the sangha. Do not be in a hurry to study and understand the essential points and ancient examples. It is good to understand such things without misinterpretation when you enter the mountains or seclude yourselves in a city. If you practice following the other practitioners, you will surely attain the Way. It is like making a voyage. Even though you don’t know how to steer the ship, if you leave everything to the skill of the sailors, whether you understand or not, you will reach the other shore. Only if you follow a good teacher and practice with fellow practitioners without harboring personal views, will you naturally become a person of the Way.  
Students of the Way, even if you have attained enlightenment, do not stop practicing. Do not think that you have reached the pinnacle. The Way is endless. Even if you have attained enlightenment, continue to practice the Way. Remember the story of Ryosui who visited Zen Master Mayoku.
The Story of Ryosui Who Visited Zen Master Mayoku

The lecturer Ryosui visited Mayoku, a disciple of Baso. Upon seeing Ryosui coming, Mayoku took a hoe and went to hoeing up weeds. Although Ryosui went to where Mayoku was working, Mayoku paid no attention to him, went back to his room, and shut the gate. 

Ryosui visited Makoku again the next day.  Makoku shut the gate again.  Ryosui knocked on the door. 

Mayoku asked, “Who is it?” 

“It’s Ryosui!” 

When the lecturer called out his own name, he suddenly attained enlightenment, and said, “Master, do not shut out Ryosui.  If I had not come to see you, I would have been deceived by the sutras and commentaries my whole life.” 

When Ryosui went back, he gave a speech to his class, “All you know, Ryosui knows. What Ryosui knows, you don’t know.” Then he quit giving lectures and had the people leave.

Sunday, December 02, 2012


Day Two of Rohatsu has been completed.  Really, Day One, as Saturday was only 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm.   Although there was earlier sitting for those in residency, today's schedule was from 9 am to 9 pm.

I have work and a business meeting Monday that will keep me from participating during the day, but I will be returning for Monday Night Zazen, if nothing else.

Saturday, December 01, 2012


This evening marks the beginning of the annual rohatsu meditation retreat, a seven-day event in commemoration of the Buddha's enlightenment.  "Monks around the world shudder in anticipation of rohatsu," it is said, as the retreat is generally considered to be the most intensive and arduous on the Buddhist calendar.  

For several reasons, it appears to be time for me to immerse myself back in the butsudo (buddha-way) of practice-enlightenment once again.  It's been too long.  However, as usual, I will also have to attend to more mundane matters such as my job and livelihood during the week, especially considering that I'm now self-employed and no longer have the luxury of taking vacation time and still draw a salary while engaged in meditation practice (ah, those were the days).  I have meetings, reports to write, deadlines to meet, and clients to maintain.

I will do my best, however, to attend rohatsu at times where there is not something else that I need to be doing.  Let's use this public forum to help keep me honest to that vow and have the readers, such as they are, help encourage me on this path.

Friday, November 30, 2012

"When I was young, I went to war as a Kamikaze pilot. I had firmly made up my mind to give my life because I wanted to protect my parents, my brothers and sisters and my friends. Other pilots went before me, giving their lives in that final flight. I waited my turn. My turn did not come. The war ended just when I was about to fly. I was devastated, because I could not carry out my commitment to help. I wasn’t able to serve. I felt useless. All my comrades had given their lives and here I was, still alive, to what purpose? After that, again and again, just on the brink of death, my life was miraculously spared. You too are perfectly protected. It just isn’t obvious to you. You are receiving all the care, protection and guidance and love of all the universe. You just haven’t been able to see it yet, but you will." - Harada Tangen Roshi, Abbot of Bukokuji, Dharma Heir of Daiun Sogaku Harada (1871 - 1961)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Prison Population

Can this really be true?

I don't believe everything I read on the internet, not by a long shot, so I figured this should be checked out.  According to The Sentencing Project, the State of Georgia currently has 92,599 people in prison, 479 per 100,000 persons.  Meanwhile, according to Wikipedia, the prison population of England and Wales in October 2011 was 87,673.  So, if anything, the map is an understatement.

The Sentencing Project lists 231,186 prisoners in the State of Texas, and BBC News claims there are 214,450 prisoners in Mexico.  That's close, I guess. Similarly, Louisiana has 71,311 prisoners and Japan has  79,052.  That's a random check of three random states using three different data sources.  The equivalents aren't exact, but the numbers seem legit.

The United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails, a 500% increase over the past thirty years. These trends have resulted in prison overcrowding and state governments being overwhelmed by the burden of funding a rapidly expanding penal system, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not the most effective means of achieving public safety.  Changes in sentencing law and policy, not increases in crime rates, explain most of the increase in the national prison population. These changes have significantly impacted racial disparities in sentencing, as well as increased the use of “one size fits all" mandatory minimum sentences that allow little consideration for individual characteristics.  Sentencing policies brought about by the "war on drugs" resulted in a dramatic growth in incarceration for drug offenses. At the Federal level, prisoners incarcerated on a drug charge comprise half of the prison population, while the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold since 1980. Most of these people are not high-level actors in the drug trade, and most have no prior criminal record for a violent offense.

It's time to stop the madness.