Monday, July 30, 2012

The Moaning of Dragons

Great Master Jisai of Tōsuzan in Jōshū, the story goes, is asked by a monk, “Among withered trees does the moaning of dragons exist or not?” 

The master says, “I say that inside of skulls exists the lion’s roar.”

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Long ago on Mount Ōbai, in the middle of the night, the robe and the dharma of the Buddhas were genuinely transmitted upon the head of Hui Neng, our Sixth Ancestor. This was truly the authentic transmission of the passing on of the dharma and the passing on of the robe. . . A certain monk once asked the Sixth Ancestor, “Is the robe passed on to you on Mount Ōbai in the middle of the night one made of cotton, or one made of silk, or one made of taffeta? Pray, tell us, what on earth is it made of ?” 

 The Sixth Ancestor replied, “It is not cotton, or silk, or taffeta.” This was the way that the Highest Ancestor of Mount Sōkei put it. Keep in mind that the Buddha robe is not silk, or cotton, or some fine quality broadcloth. Those who vainly judge it to be silk, or cotton, or some fine-quality broadcloth are folks that slander the Buddha’s Dharma. - from Shobogenzo Den-e (The Transmission of the Robe)

Friday, July 27, 2012


I almost posted just the picture above - my cursor was over the Publish button - when I decided I may as well include Bill Maher's comment, too.

Knowing that some people might not make the connection between the "hopelessly enslaved" and the "sheep and conformists," I decided to add some Bernie Sanders as well.

So at that point, I figured what the hell?, I may as well just rant away.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


In a society that almost demands life at double time, speed and addictions numb us to our own experience.  In such a society it is almost impossible to settle into our bodies or stay connected with our hearts, let alone connect with one another or the earth where we live (Jack Kornfield).

Our lives are lived in intense and anxious struggle, in a swirl of speed and aggression, in competing, grasping, possessing, and achieving, forever burdening ourselves with extraneous activities and preoccupations (Soygal Rinpoche).

Simplifying our lives does not mean sinking into idleness, but on the contrary, getting rid of the most subtle aspect of laziness: the one which makes us take on thousands of less important activities (Matthieu Ricard).

Western laziness consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so that there is no time at all to confront the real issues (Sogyal Rinpoche).
Three voices from different Buddhist traditions (Tibetan and Vipassana) converging on an application of ancient wisdom to a moderm problem.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

They're Back

Caesar's mushrooms (Amanita caesarea), pretty much where they were growing last year.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Monday Night Zazen

One day, in a talk on various subjects, Dogen said, 

Originally, there is no good or evil in the human mind. Good and evil depend on the situation. For example, when we arouse bodhi-mind and enter some mountain or forest, we think that staying in the mountains is good and living in human society is bad. But then, we get bored and leave the mountain thinking it bad. This is because the mind has no fixed characteristics; it changes in various ways depending on the circumstances. Therefore, if you encounter good circumstances, your mind becomes good; if you encounter bad circumstances, your mind becomes bad. Do not think that your mind is bad by nature. Just follow good circumstances.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Phantom And A Dream

Linguists also speak of schemata.  According to linguists, the words we use do not themselves convey the entirety of the things and ideas that we're trying to express. Words serve as catalysts which set off sparks of potential meaning that the listener organizes into more specific meaning by observing facial expressions, body language, and other redundant cues. As listeners, we also employ schemata, our prior experience and the storehouse of narratives that each of us carries.  We bring these unconscious scripts to every exchange, and as any given sentence unspools, we readjust our schema to make better sense of what we are hearing.

Writing in The New Yorker, Jack Hitt gives the following example.  Consider the sentence, "John was on his way to school last Friday and was really worried about the math lesson."  Although not explicitly stated, we apply a schema to the sentence and surmise that John is a student, and we can further picture him either on a school bus or walking to school as we wait for more clues to fine tune the schema.  Nothing in the sentence conveys John's height or the color of his hair, the season, or the clothes he is wearing, yet each of us supplies our own variant of this information and await further verbal data for confirmation.

Then we're told, "Last week, John had been unable to control the class."  Suddenly the schema shifts and we assume John is a teacher, and instead of riding in a schoolbus, we might picture him driving a car.

"It was not fair of the math teacher to leave him in charge," we're told.  Instantly, our mind shifts John's identity to substitute teacher, or a janitor, or a particularly trustworthy student, or whatever role our unique and individual prior experience suggests is most likely to be left in charge of a class.

And so on.  But these schemata are employed not only in our communications among one another, but in the narrative that we're constantly telling ourselves.  We see a man running out of a convenience store, and we think "robber" and surmise he is up to no good.  When we see that he runs to the street and grabs the arm of a child who was about to wander into traffic, we revise our internal narrative and think "father," and now he's a good guy.  And along with the roles we assign the man, our schema also fills in the back story of what he was doing in the store, what his intentions were toward the child, and most particularly, whether or not he represents some sort of threat to us.

These schemata are not a bad thing.  Our sense organs are constantly receiving an almost infinite amount of sensations and information, and our minds have to sort it all out and determine which require our attention or consideration. This can usually be thought of in terms of what represents a potential threat of harm and what represents an opportunity for pleasure, amusement, or advantage, although most of the sensory input, in fact the vast majority, falls into the bland middle category of neutral and is ignored, if it is even perceived at all.  If we had to examine each and every phenomena that our senses presented to us and make individual determinations of threatening, neutral, or advantageous, we'd never have the chance to get on with our lives.  The unconscious filters that we use to make these determinations are based on our prior experiences.  The Sanskrit word for these filters is samskara; linguists and neurologists call them schemata.  

In moments of extreme crisis or in unfamiliar environments or situations, we sometimes abandon our schemata and have to make those very phenomenon-by-phenomenon determinations; this usually results in the semi-paralysis we often observe in traumatized persons.  If we're, say,  in a crowded theater and suddenly smoke grenades were to explode in the dark and a gunman suddenly opens fire, the sheer unfamiliarity of the situation might be so disorienting that no schema could assist us, and the ensuing near-paralysis might even cause a person packing a concealed weapon to forget his training in self-defense, or even that he was packing a gun.  There are so many other things going on that require our full attention to assess that we are incapable of analytically developing a strategic response.  I could go so far as to say that the cause of irrational panic is the sudden loss of schemata.

The "trouble" lies in the fact that we linguistically sophisticated hominids get so caught up in the narratives that we're constantly spinning and revising, that our minds are perceiving the schemata themselves and not actual reality.  There is a mountain, and then there's the "mountain" in our schema, and we mistake our samskara for the dharma of the mountain itself.  

This can sometimes have unfortunate consequences: our schema so convinces us that the well dressed man walking down the street toward us is a "businessman" on his way to "work" that we don't perceive the pistol clearly visible in his hand.  Our schematic inability to see what is clearly visible is what magicians and con artists rely upon for their tricks.  We're so sure that the "homeless person" trying to get our attention is "asking for money," that we don't hear his warning that we're about to step into an open manhole.  

The Middle Way is to neither abandon our schemata (if this were even possible as it's an unconscious process) and be overwhelmed by the enormity of experience, nor to rely solely on our perceptions and mistake the schematic "mountain" for the dharma of the real mountain.  We're absorbed in a fantasy world of our own narration.  This is why the Buddha famously concluded the Diamond Sutra by telling us that we should think of all in this fleeting world as: 

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


Probably the best translation I've yet seen for the Sanskrit term samskara is the word "schemata."  As explained by the artist Laura M. Haight, the world is constantly in flux, and to find stability in this impermanent world we inherently operate from a series of categorical rules or scripts which we use to interpret the world; these rules or scripts serve as templates through which we perceive our experience, they are our schemata. 

For example, when you approach an unknown door you apply a series of schemata about other doors which you have used in the past, which then allows you to know automatically how the new door will work. You don’t have to be taught how to use every door that you encounter. Schemata are formed by an individual’s experiences and cognitive processes, which include stereotypes, social roles, worldviews and archetypes, so the way you approach the door, the way you operate the door, and what you expect to find behind the door are all based on your own particular past experiences - hence your schemata is different than mine.

The function of schemata in our daily lives is crucial, but can be equally damaging. It allows us to go into auto pilot for innumerous events during the day and conduct our lives more efficiently. However, when in that automatic state, we can easily ignore present events and new information. 

It is, in effect, memory and thus operates in the past, while simultaneously working as tool for plotting and predicting future events. Curiously, this inhibits us from fully engaging in the present. Once a routine has been established, there is a danger of operating solely from our existing schemata. We lose the ability to perceive the inevitable changes in our environment. 

Ms. Haight's fascination with schemata lies at their point of creation. It is a threshold period before you apply a known schema that we consequently enter into a relationship with our surroundings in which everything is equal, everything is one. In Buddhist terms, this could be defined as the here-and-now moment of Zen.

What I find fascinating about schemata is how we apply them to our sense of self, our ego-identity.  In "Buddhist Steps To an Ecology of Mind," an essay on Mark Epstein's "Thoughts Without a Thinker," Professor William S. Waldron summarizes several points where Buddhist thought converges with current scientific approaches to mind.  Both perspectives recognize that the unconscious structuring of our experience into schemata, with its deeply subjective sense of coherence, forms the basis for our cognitive identity, our perception of who we are.  As we are not aware of this unconscious structuring, our ignorance is the condition from which schemata, or samskara arise, and as we are cognizant of these schemata rather than perceptive of the actual objects, consciousness is dependent upon samskara.  This chain of schema dependent upon ignorance and consciousness dependent upon schema is not only the first three links in the Buddha's Chain of Dependent Origination, but is the way that at least some modern scientists have reached some consensus with the Buddha-dharma on thoughts independent of a thinker.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


The withered trees of which the patriarchs speak are the learning in practice of “the sea having dried.” The sea having dried is a tree having withered, and a tree having withered is the vivid state of “meeting spring.” - Zen Master Dogen, Shobogenzo Ryugin (1243)
The question, does the dragon's roar exist among the weathered trees?, is not an esoteric or overly poetic one.  The question comes up all the time in dokusan, although in different terms.  After greed, hate, and delusion are extinguished and body and mind have dropped away (the withering of the tree), what is left?  When our attachments are finally dropped, will we still love our spouse and family?  Is there any feeling at all, or is one like a statue, unfeeling and uncaring?

In the practice of certain ascetics and even some Hinayana Buddhist sects, one renounces not only greed, hatred, and delusion, but all passions, all desires, and all attachments.  But such extreme renunciation does not produce compassion, joy, or understanding, but only cold, emotionless individuals.  

In a famous Zen story, an old woman supports a monk for over twenty years, feeding him and letting him stay in a little hut.  To find out what progess he's made, she sends her daughter to the hut and tells her to embrace him and see what happens.  The daughter does as she's instructed, and embracing him askes what he is feeling.  
"An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter," replies the monk somewhat poetically. "Nowhere is there any warmth."
"To think that I fed that fellow for twenty years!" exclaimed the old woman in anger when she learns of his words. "He showed no consideration for your needs, offered no teaching for your condition.  He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should have evidenced some compassion."
She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.
I like this story because is so vividly illustrates that the withered trees of Zen practice do not grow cold on winter rocks.  The old woman's anger was over the withered tree in her hut producing deadwood rather than spring blossoms. 

Taking up this matter, Master Dogen metaphorically compares the withered trees of Zen to the drying up of the sea.  We can picture that when the sea dries up, there are no more waves.  There is no motion, nothing to move. Waves no longer crash on the shore, only to recede back to the sea and come crashing over and over again on the shore.  The drying up of the sea is a metaphor for the end of the great cycle of birth and death.  It is both the stillness of practice and the cessation of the cycle of samsara.  The stillness of practice is itself the end to the cycle of samsara.  

The sea having dried is the same dropping away of body and mind referred to as the withering of the tree. However, the withered trees of Zen do not yield deadwood and cold ashes - it is not the cold practice of the compassionless monk of the story above.  It is not result in existential nihilism, but instead blossoms into liberation and freedom.  

Letting go of greed, hatred, and delusion, we lose our egocentric attitudes, which in turn opens us up to others so that we can experience compassion, generosity, and intimacy on a deep and profound level.   

And that is the roar of the dragon among the withered trees.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Dragon's Roar

A monk once asked Zen Master Tōsu, “Does the roar of the dragon exist even within a withered tree?” 

Tōsu replied, “I say the lion’s roar exists inside of skulls." 

Withered trees and dead skulls here represent the state following the extinction of the self, the termination of the ego in nirvana.  But say, is there life after the great death of nirvana? 

The dragon's roar and the lion's roar are symbols of the great life following the great death, of rediscovery and reawakening of the whole potential after liberation from bondage to conditioning. It is seeing the truth in things. 

Is there life after the great death of awakening? What does the dragon say?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

More Dragons

Zen Master Sekisō Keisho (807–888), wanting to master his own mind, established a temple consisting only of a Kobokudō, a “withered tree hall” or zendo, where he sat and slept among the monks. Once, a monk asked Master Sekisō, “Among the withered trees, what is the roar of the dragon?”

Ordinary people talk of withered trees, but a distinction needs to be made between the withered trees that ordinary people speak of and the withered trees of which the Zen Masters and monks of the past spoke. Even though ordinary people talk about withered trees, they do not know what a withered tree is in Zen. Ordinary people imagine that a withered tree is something dead or dying, and that such a tree cannot blossom in the springtime.  

But in Zen, the withered tree is a common metaphor for someone who has reached a deep level of meditation and has experienced the dropping off of body and mind.  Such a person has let go of greed, anger, and delusion, and their passions have all but disappeared. Being unshaken by the arising of delusive thoughts, the withered tree is unwavering.  The withering of the tree is its blossoming, and its blossoming is the roar of the dragon within a withered tree. 

Zen Master Dogen points to mountain trees, ocean trees, and sky trees as examples of withered trees. He is  describing the various types of meditators - mountain trees are those who are sitting as still as a mountain, ocean trees are those who are exploring the great depths, and sky trees are those who are exploring the unbounded.  Even the largest of trees are said to have descended from some withered tree. 

Zen Master Tōsu Daidō (819-914) of the District of Jōshū originally studied the teachings of the Kegon sect, but later realized the Way in Zen Master Suibi’s order.  He then built a hut on Mount Tōsu (Tōsuzan), where he was known for the simplicity of his life.  He wanted to be able to concentrate solely on his original task, so he had others take care of the rice, which they boiled together and ate in common. After his death, he was given the posthumous title of Great Master Jisai.  A monk once asked Master Tōsu, “Does the roar of the dragon exist even within a withered tree?”

Tōsu replied, “I say the lion’s roar exists inside of skulls."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Monday Night Zazen

Zen Master Kyōgen Chikan was once asked by a monk, "What is the Way?"
The Master answered, "The singing of dragons among withered trees."
The monk replied, "I don’t understand."
The Master said, "Eyeballs in a skull."

A monk later asked Master Sōzan, "Can anyone hear the singing of dragons among withered trees?'"
Sōzan replied, "There is not one person on the whole of the great earth who does not hear it."
The monk asked, "What verses does a dragon sing?"
Sōzan replied, "Even without knowing what those verses are, those who do hear it bemoan the fact that others do not."

Everyone can hear the dragon's roar because it exists everywhere.  The dragon's roar is the expression of one's innate Buddha nature, and Buddha nature is in everything.  There can be no escape from it.  As for the withered tree, it shouldn't be mistaken for a dead tree. "Withered trees" are a metaphor for someone who has reached a deep level of meditation, a person whose passions have all but disappeared.  "Withered trees" abound with life and celebrate each and every spring with new foliage.  It's just that few have realized this.

John Daido Loori points out that those who can see through to the point of this koan and make it their own will have the daragon's roar for their own voice and will be able to make use of it among the ten thousand things.  If however, you are unable to perceive it, then the worldly truth will prevail and everything will appear to be an impenetrable barrier.

Zen Master Dogen once said that he would have liked to have asked Sōzan, "Putting aside for a moment your remark about there being not one person on the whole of the great earth who have not heard it, tell me, in the time before the whole earth sprang into existence, where was the roar of the dragon then?  Speak up!  Quick, quick!"

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Singing of Dragons

Zen Master Kyōgen Chikan was once asked by a monk, "What is the Way?"
The Master answered, "The singing of dragons among withered trees."
The monk replied, "I don’t understand."
The Master said, "Eyeballs in a skull."

Later, there was a monk who asked Master Sekisō, "What sort of thing is 'singing of dragons among withered trees?'"
Sekisō replied, "A trace of joy still being retained."
The monk then asked, "What is that thing about 'eyeballs in a skull?'"
Sekisō replied, "A trace of consciousness still being retained."

There was also a monk who asked Master Sōzan, "Just what sort of thing is 'singing of dragons among withered trees?'"
Sōzan replied, "Its bloodline has not been severed."
The monk then asked, "Well, what is that thing about 'eyeballs in a skull?'"
Sōzan replied, "Dryness without limit."
The monk then said, "Oh, I don’t know about that! Can anyone hear it?"
Sōzan replied, "There is not one person on the whole of the great earth who does not hear it."
The monk retorted, "I’m not convinced. What verses does a dragon sing?"
Sōzan replied, "Even without knowing what those verses are, those who do hear it bemoan the fact that others do not."

These three dialogues between Zen Master and monk make up the 28th Case in the Shinji-shobogenzo (Dogen's collection of kōans).  The specific words are my composite interpretation of three different translations (Gudo Nishijima, John Daido Loori, and the Rev. Hubert Nearman of Mouth Shasta Abbey).  As far as I know, this particular kōan appears only in the Shinji-shobogenzo and Chapter 65 of the Kana-shobogenzo - it does not appear in The Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate), the Blue Cliff Record, the Book of Serenity, or any of the Transmission of the Lamp records.

In a very helpful footnote, Rev. Nearman notes, "These three short dialogues are typical of many kōan stories that involve a Master and someone identified only as a monk. The monk — presumably a novice — asks a question based on an attempt to understand some saying by an Ancestor from a commonplace, literal perspective, whereas the Master gives a response as if the monk had asked his or her question from a spiritual perspective. This is done to help the monk break through a dependence on worldly ways of thinking. That is, in the above three cases the monks think that what they are quoting is somehow about mythical creatures called dragons, whereas the Masters are pointing the monks to a deeper meaning of the term 'Dragon', that is, they are pointing to one’s innate Buddha Nature."

Nishijima explains that “withered trees” or “dead trees” in Buddhism symbolize the vivid state of non-emotion, or people in the vivid state of non-emotion.  The zazen hall of a Buddhist temple is sometimes called koboku-dō, “The Withered Tree Hall.” "Withered trees" are a common Buddhist metaphor for someone who has reached a deep level of meditation, a person whose passions have all but disappeared. This meditative state is not to be confused with a quietistic or blissful condition, which is simply a passing phase that may arise in spiritual practice.

Putting this all together, then, and setting all poetry aside, the novice monk asks Kyōgen, "What is the Way?," a question asked in many different kōans with many different answers. Kyōgen attempts to help the monk to realize that the Way is the direct expression of one's Buddha Nature through the dropping away of body and mind in zazen.  The monk does not understand, as he is still clinging to the common perception.  He is like a pair of eyeballs in a skull - seeing but not comprehending.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Day the Mannequins Came To Life

An average day in Little Five Points - shopkeepers keeping shop, buskers busking, panhandlers panhandling, everyone else just chilling out.

Mannequins in storefront windows.

Then suddenly (you need to push the play button below for the full audio/visual experience before you scroll down further) . . .

With deepest gratitude to the gloATL dancers, whom you can't seem to step out the front door without encountering lately, to the great benefit of this fine city.  

BTW and FWIW, you can see my reflection wearing a Kalik t-shirt in many of the photographs above.