Sunday, September 30, 2012

The End of September

As we approach the month of October, we note that the passing of the autumnal equinox went by without mention.  On September 21, day and night were of the exact same length, they were balanced, in equilibrium, harmonious.  With each passing day, however, we lean a little bit more toward the dark, with the hours of daylight growing less and less and the hours of night increasing.

It is easy to mistake this for a metaphor of slipping into ignorance.  However, in Zen, the moon is often a symbol for direct realization, for seeing things as they really are, and not mere reflections on a pond or in a pail of water.  We look to see the moon itself, not the fingers pointing at the moon.

The distracting hours of blinding daylight intoxicate us with their overload of sensory input.  These next several months provide an opportunity to move beyond the realm of the senses into directly seeing our true nature.  As the autumn sky is usually very clear, this is a good time to view the moon.  Zen Master Dogen wrote several chapters of the Shōbōgenzō around the time of the autumn equinox,  the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

On the Trail of the Ox

Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Suffering follows an evil thought as the wheels of a cart follow the oxen that draw it. - The Buddha

Zen Master Nanyue once said, "Think about driving a cart. When it stops moving, do you whip the cart or  do you whip the horse?"  

Friday, September 28, 2012

Tree Work

Zen Master Setchō Jūken (980 - 1052) once said, "To say something up a tree is easy. To say something under a tree is difficult. This old monk will climb up the tree. Bring a question!"  Setchō meant that it is easy to express peculiar ideas, but difficult to manifest the everyday state.

A year or so ago, when I first left the corporate world and went out on my own, I experienced great anxiety.  Will I go broke?  Will I become homeless?  What will happen to me?

One very particular, if not peculiar, way this anxiety expressed itself concerned a young poplar tree in my back yard.  I live in a virtual urban forest, surrounded by tall trees.  This particular poplar was growing too close to a stucco retaining wall, and as the tree grew the roots were expanding and causing not only the wall to buckle and bulge, but to actually move.  It got to the point where a wooden gate between the wall and the house would no longer close, as the retaining wall had slowly crept several inches over and narrowed the  distance between the wall and the house.  I worried that one day, the wall would collapse altogether, and if it didn't result in a full-on landslide, at the very least the tree would fall and damage the house.  The cost of the repair, to the house, to the wall, to the tree, to whatever else, was beyond my estimation, but I worried that it would bankrupt me and that I would be ruined, forced to foreclose on my home and move out of the neighborhood in disgrace.  I actually spent several sleepless nights worrying about this scenario, as far-fetched as it may sound.

Today, I finally got around to taking control of my anxiety and doing something, other than worrying, about the situation.  I got an estimate and hired a tree service company, and this morning a small squadron of workers descended on my yard to take down the tree as well as some errant branches from other trees that hung over my house and worried me.

Fearlessly rappelling up the trees with chainsaws dangling from their hips, they removed the branches and took the poplar down incrementally, starting at the top and working their way down in 8 to 10 foot segments.  Just watching them high up in the tall trees could induce vertigo, but they supplied me with ample firewood for this winter, as well as more wood chips than I know what to do with.

So now the tree is down and the wall is safe.  I will repair and replace the gate, and everything will be back to normal.  As it turns out, I had to climb a tree before I could once again manifest the everyday state.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
-  Aristotle

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Are Cats Conscious?

I'm not sure what amazes me the most about the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, posted in it's entirety here yesterday - the fact that it took until 2012 for a group of scientists to decide that, yes, it appears that animals (human and non-human animals as they helpfully point out) are conscious after all, something most everybody has known for millennia now, or that the Declaration seems to be entirely untroubled by the lack of a working definition of "consciousness."  Yes, animals are conscious, they declare, but now what does that mean?

It's well known that Buddhist monasteries kept cats for several centuries now.  "The monks of the East and West Halls were having an argument over a cat . . ." a famous koan starts (and ends quite unfortunately for the cat).  Cats were said to be guardians of the dharma, as they hunted the mice that ate the paper scrolls the sutras were printed upon.  Further, Buddhists monks are arguably the most preeminent researchers in the field of subjective consciousness, having spent countless years in observant meditation.  Given that, they probably knew a sentient being when they saw one, so why this argument over a cat (and what were they arguing about)?  Still, a monk had to ask Zen Master Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature?"

This urban monk keeps two cats (The Adventures of Izzy and Eliot) and while consciousness is difficult to define and harder still to identify, as it's a subjective experience, I, like every pet owner, can clearly see some evidence arguing for personality and for intelligence in my pets.  The two cats clearly have a desire for self-preservation, and if they desire to preserve themselves, it stands to reason that their intelligence will allow for a sense of self, ergo, consciousness.

On the other hand, they clearly have no capacity for language, so one can only wonder what manner of "thought" must pass through their little heads. They get very excited when they see another cat out the window but seem totally uninterested in their own reflections. They seem to have figured out that it's themselves and not another cat that's appearing in the mirror, but their own reflection is far, far less interesting to them than the red dot of a laser pointer crossing the carpet.

Author Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Eating Animals, describes his experience with his pet dog George as follows:
It wouldn't be right to say that my relationship with George has revealed the "sagacity" of animals.  Beyond her most basic desires, I don't have the faintest clue what's going on in her head.  (Although I have become convinced that much, beyond basic desires, is going on.)  I'm surprised by her lack of intelligence as often as I'm surprised by her intelligence.  The differences between us are always more present than the similarities.   
And George isn't a kumbaya being who only wants to give and receive affection.  As it turns out, she is a major pain in the ass as awful lot of the time.  She compulsively pleasures herself in front of guests, eats my shoes and my son's toys, is monomaniacally obsessed with squirrel genocide, has the savant-like ability to find her way between the camera lens and the subject of every photo taken in her vicinity, lunges at skateboarders and Hasids, humiliates menstruating women (and is the worst nightmare of menstruating Hasids), backs her flatulent ass into the least interesting person in the room, digs up the freshly planted, scratches the newly bought, licks the about-to-be-served, and occasionally exacts revenge (for what?) by shitting in the house.   
Our various struggles - to communicate, to recognize and accommodate each other's desires, simply to coexist - force me to encounter and interact with something, or rather someone, entirely other.  George can respond to a handful of words (and choose to ignore a slightly larger handful), but our relationship takes place almost entirely outside of language.  She seems to have thoughts and emotions.  Sometimes I think I understand them, but often I don't.  Like a photograph, she cannot say what she lets me see.  She is an embodied secret.  And I must be a photograph to her.
So much more is it for me and the two cats.  They are like an alien intelligence living in my house. Considering that they're two representatives of the same gender of the same species, they each have very different behaviors, which implies that their actions derive more from something that we can call a "personality" rather than mere instinct.  Yet, in their different ways, both seem to crave that which they desire and seem dismayed when their cravings aren't satisfied, the Buddha's very description of dukha, often translated as "suffering."  And if their little minds can create suffering, how can we say they are not conscious?

Conscious or not, though, life is difficult, and it always (always) ends in a manner not of our choosing.  So given this challenge, given this difficulty, regardless of whether they're self or others, whether they're human or non-human, how can we choose to be anything other than kind to all living beings?

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

"On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observations can be stated unequivocally: 
  • The field of Consciousness research is rapidly evolving. Abundant new techniques and strategies for human and non-human animal research have been developed. Consequently, more data is becoming readily available, and this calls for a periodic reevaluation of previously held preconceptions in this field. Studies of non-human animals have shown that homologous brain circuits correlated with conscious experience and perception can be selectively facilitated and disrupted to assess whether they are in fact necessary for those experiences. Moreover, in humans, new non-invasive techniques are readily available to survey the correlates of consciousness. 
  • The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures. In fact, subcortical neural networks aroused during affective states in humans are also critically important for generating emotional behaviors in animals. Artificial arousal of the same brain regions generates corresponding behavior and feeling states in both humans and non-human animals. Wherever in the brain one evokes instinctual emotional behaviors in non-human animals, many of the ensuing behaviors are consistent with experienced feeling states, including those internal states that are rewarding and punishing. Deep brain stimulation of these systems in humans can also generate similar affective states. Systems associated with affect are concentrated in subcortical regions where neural homologies abound. Young human and nonhuman animals without neocortices retain these brain-mind functions. Furthermore, neural circuits supporting behavioral/electrophysiological states of attentiveness, sleep and decision making appear to have arisen in evolution as early as the invertebrate radiation, being evident in insects and cephalopod mollusks (e.g., octopus). 
  • Birds appear to offer, in their behavior, neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy a striking case of parallel evolution of consciousness. Evidence of near human-like levels of consciousness has been most dramatically observed in African grey parrots. Mammalian and avian emotional networks and cognitive microcircuitries appear to be far more homologous than previously thought. Moreover, certain species of birds have been found to exhibit neural sleep patterns similar to those of mammals, including REM sleep and, as was demonstrated in zebra finches, neurophysiological patterns, previously thought to require a mammalian neocortex. Magpies in particular have been shown to exhibit striking similarities to humans, great apes, dolphins, and elephants in studies of mirror self-recognition. 
  • In humans, the effect of certain hallucinogens appears to be associated with a disruption in cortical feedforward and feedback processing. Pharmacological interventions in non-human animals with compounds known to affect conscious behavior in humans can lead to similar perturbations in behavior in non-human animals. In humans, there is evidence to suggest that awareness is correlated with cortical activity, which does not exclude possible contributions by subcortical or early cortical processing, as in visual awareness. Evidence that human and nonhuman animal emotional feelings arise from homologous subcortical brain networks provide compelling evidence for evolutionarily shared primal affective qualia. 
We declare the following: 'The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.'' 
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness was written by Philip Low and edited by Jaak Panksepp, Diana Reiss, David Edelman, Bruno Van Swinderen, Philip Low and Christof Koch. The Declaration was publicly proclaimed in Cambridge, UK, on July 7, 2012, at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, by Low, Edelman and Koch. The Declaration was signed by the conference participants that very evening, in the presence of Stephen Hawking, in the Balfour Room at the Hotel du Vin in Cambridge, UK. The signing ceremony was memorialized by CBS 60 Minutes.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Place Where No-Buddha Exists

A monk went to bid farewell to Zen Master Joshu. 
The master asked, “Where are you going?” 
The monk replied, “I’m going to visit various places to learn the buddha-dharma.” 
Joshu took up the whisk and said, “Do not stay where buddha exists; run quickly from where no-buddha exists.” 

"The place where no-buddha exists" means being free even from attachment to the buddha. In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen said, "Do not seek to become buddha."

Dogen also instructed, 
An ancient master said, “At the top of a hundred foot pole, advance one step further.”  
This means you should have the attitude of someone who, at the top of a hundred foot pole, lets go of both hands and feet; in other words, you must cast aside body and mind. 
There are various stages involved here. Nowadays, some people seem to have abandoned the world and left their homes. Nevertheless, when examining their actions, they still haven’t truly left home or renounced the world. 
As a monk who has left home, first you must depart from your ego as well as from desire for fame and profit. Unless you become free from these things, despite practicing the Way urgently as though extinguishing a fire enveloping your head, or devoting yourself to practice as diligently as the Buddha who stood on tiptoe for seven days, it will amount to nothing but meaningless trouble, having nothing to do with emancipation. 
Even in great Song China, there are people who have departed from attachment to their family which is hard to let go of, abandoned worldly wealth which is difficult to give up, joined communities of practitioners, and visited various monasteries. Some of them, however, have been spending their lives in vain because they practice without understanding this key point. They neither realize the Way nor clarify the Mind. 
Although in the beginning they arouse bodhi-mind, become monks and follow the teachings, instead of aspiring to become buddhas or patriarchs, they only concern themselves with making it known to their patrons, supporters, and relatives about how respectable they are or how high the status of their temple is. They try to get people to revere them and make offerings to them. Furthermore, they claim that other monks are all vicious and immoral; that only they are men of bodhi-mind and good monks. They try to persuade people to believe their words. People like this are not even worth criticizing; they are like the five evil monks at the time of the Buddha who lacked goodness. Without exception, monks with such a frame of mind will fall into hell. Lay people, who don’t know what they really are, think that they are respectable men of bodhi-mind. 
There are some who are a little better than these people. Having abandoned their parents, wives, and children, and no longer coveting offerings from patrons, they join the communities of practitioners to practice the Way. However, though they feel ashamed of being idle, since they are by nature lazy, they pretend to be practicing when the abbot or the shuso is watching. However, when no one is around, they waste their time, neglecting to do what they should be doing. They are better than lay people as irresponsible as themselves, but still cannot cast away their ego, or their desire for fame and profit. 
There are also those who are not concerned with what their teacher thinks or whether the shuso or other fellow practitioners are watching or not. They always bear in mind that practicing the Buddha-Way is not for the sake of others but only for themselves; such people desire to become buddhas or patriarchs with both body and mind. So they truly practice diligently. They really seem to be people of the Way compared with the people mentioned above. However, since they still practice trying to improve themselves, they have not become free from their ego. They want to be admired by buddhas and bodhisattvas, and desire to attain buddhahood, and complete awareness. This is because they still cannot throw away their selfish desire for fame and profit. 
Up to this point, none of these people have yet advanced beyond the hundred foot pole; they remain clinging to it. 
Just cast body and mind into the buddha-dharma, and practice without desire either to realize the Way or to attain the dharma. Then you can be called an undefiled practitioner. This is what is meant by not staying where buddha exists; and running quickly from where no-buddha exists.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


Once again, my monthly round-trip up to Chattanooga and back, and once again with pleasant on-the-road company. Ninety minutes of zazen, thirty minutes exploring the dharma, and a return back home. 

Next month, we will offer our annual zazenkai (all-day meditation retreat).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Imaginative Fictions

Yesterday, it was pointed out that reconstructed memories are subconsciously created by the brain, as the human mind abhors a vacuum. If we identify with our consciousness, which arises from those memories, then our definition of our self is based on a very unreliable witness.

French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist Simone Weil (1909 - 1943) seems to have come to the same conclusion, as she stated, "Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life," and "All sins are attempts to fill voids."

Friday, September 21, 2012


All our memories are reconstructed memories. They are the product of what we originally experienced and everything that's happened afterwards.  In the TED talk above, forensic psychologist Scott Fraser suggests that even eyewitnesses to a crime create "memories" they could not have seen. Why? Because the brain abhors a vacuum, and reconstructs memories to fill the gaps.

"Reconstructed memories" are the product of our mind, and are conditioned by our opinions and experiences, from our preferences and our prejudices.  They are similar to what linguists call schema, to what the Buddha called sanskara.  Fraser emphasizes that we are totally unaware of the reconstruction of memories as it's a subconscious process.  Similarly, the Buddha taught that sanskara, sometimes translated as "mental formations," arise out of ignorance, that is, their creation is beyond our cognition.

According to a recent study by Northwestern Medicine study, every time you remember an event from the past, your brain networks change in ways that can alter the recall of the event. Thus, the next time you remember it, you might recall not the original event but instead what you remembered the previous time you accessed that memory.

I can see this in my own experience, as you probably can as well.  When I try to recall my very earliest childhood memories, two images come to mind: in one, I am riding in a motorboat with my parents; my father is driving and my mother is holding a blanket above my head to protect me from the spray.  In another, I am sitting on the dirty clothes hamper in the bathroom telling my father the imaginative, made-up stories of a child as he's shaving in the morning getting ready for work.  Yet when I look carefully at these memories, I realize that I don't really remember the actual experiences; they feel different than my vivid memories of recent events.  What I'm actually remembering are the stories, and the telling of the stories to myself and to my parents and others over the many years of my life.  In other words, I don't remember the events, I only remember the later story.

Here's another example: immediately after I graduated from high school, my family and I moved to another town in another state, and I quickly fell out of touch with all of my high school friends.  In the new town, I never reminisced about the high school faculty, since none of my new friends in the new town went to my old school and were therefore totally uninterested in stories that didn't involve them.  But after a few years had passed, I coincidentally met someone a few years older than I who had gone to the same high school, and he started regaling me with his stories about specific teachers, the administrators, oddities of the school, and so on.

Here's the strange thing, though: I couldn't remember a bit of it myself, and his stories, just a few years after I had graduated, sounded as alien to me as they would have to one of my new friends in the new town.  When he asked me what the name was of that math teacher with the buzz-cut and bushy eyebrows, I not only couldn't remember the name, I couldn't even summon a memory of the person he was asking me about.  Even to this day, I now remember that name, Mr. Michaels, not from my first-hand experience but from that later conversation.  I asked him how he remembered all of this, and he looked at me strangely and asked, "How could anyone  ever forget a weird cat like Mr. Michaels?"

Since I hadn't accessed those memories for a couple of years or so, they had disappeared like a short-term memory, as if the names of the high school faculty were no different than a random telephone number being transferred from a telephone book to the touch pad of a phone.  To be sure, memories of my friends, of teenage crushes and sweethearts, of adolescent adventures and escapades, still seem vivid to this day, but my memory of things that didn't interest me as much (e.g., the faculty) are gone, except for the memory of being told what I had forgotten.  And the recent Northwestern study suggests that even that memory is really just a "memory of memories," a memory of the story that I tell to myself, and not a recollection of the conversation itself.

It occurs to me as I write this that one of the reasons for the human mind to constantly engage itself in an internal monologue, that reason that we mentally talk to ourselves all the time, is to maintain the storehouse of  these memories, to exercise the neural network that supports our schema, our sanskara, and thus continue to give rise to consciousness, to our perception of an ego-self.

Scott Fraser emphasizes the legal and practical implications of reliance on reconstructed memories.  The Buddha taught that consciousness arises from sanskara, from these reconstructed memories, and if we identify with our consciousness, our definition of our self is based on a very unreliable witness.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Athens, Georgia

I was in Athens, Georgia for much of the day today, meeting with a client and preparing a site for some test work early next month.  As a bonus, the client took me to lunch at an Athens restaurant called Weaver D's, the inspiration for the somewhat maudlin REM album Automatic for the People.

Now, there's nothing extraordinary about that.  Most University of Georgia students, as well as faculty and staff, have probably eaten there at one time or another.  And although I like REM well enough, I'm not a major fan and don't tick off my life accomplishments by the things that I may or may not have in common with them.  And although the food was good (I had barbecued chicken, green beans, and buttered potatoes. with sweet tea), I won't necessarily remember the experience solely for its gastronomic values.

Still, it was pretty cool, though.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Last night, we attended a screening of the film Samsara.  The movie was made by the creators of Baraka,   and was filmed over a period of almost five years in twenty-five countries. Neither a traditional documentary nor a travelogue, Samsara shows sacred grounds, disaster zones, industrial sites, and natural wonders in the form of a nonverbal, guided meditation. By dispensing with dialogue and descriptive text, it subverts expectations of a traditional documentary, instead encouraging your own inner interpretations of the images and music.  The filmmakers approached nonverbal filmmaking with an understanding that it must live up to the standard of great still photography, revealing the essence of a subject, not just its physical presence.

Samsara is a Sanskrit word that means “the ever turning wheel of life.” It was reportedly the point of departure for the filmmakers as they searched for the current of interconnection that runs through our lives.  The film explores the wonders of the world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the unfathomable reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience. Through its powerful images, the film illuminates the links between humanity and the rest of nature, showing how our life cycle mirrors the rhythm of the planet. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


"Every night, when we fall into dreamless sleep, consciousness fades. With it fades everyone's private universe - people and objects, colors and sounds, pleasures and pains, thoughts and feelings, even our own selves dissolve - until we awake, or until we dream." - from the Preface to Phi, A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul, by Giulio Tononi
I can confirm that such is my experience, too.  When I fall asleep, there still seems to be a dim consciousness, as when I awake from this state, I'm aware that I was asleep and that time has passed.  I have some memory of being asleep and an awareness that some period of time has passed, although my mind is a very unreliable indicator of the amount of time that has passed.

Several years ago, I underwent some corrective surgery for a deviated septum.  It was the first time that I had been anesthetized, totally put under, since childhood.  What is interesting to me is that as I look back I realize that while I was under, there was absolutely no consciousness or awareness of a passing of time - it felt as if I had  been put under and then instantly awakened, although somewhat groggily, with no interval of time between, although I later came to realize that I was under and in surgery for well over an hour or more.  There  was no memory at all from that period, no recollection even of unconscious blackness. This is very different from an evening's sleep - when I put my head down on the pillow and close my eyes, it does not feel like the alarm clock instantly goes off.

So it seems that there are deeper and deeper levels of unconsciousness - the dim consciousness of dreaming sleep, the deeper unconsciousness of dreamless sleep, and the total unconsciousness of anesthesia.  This brings up the question, then, are there inversely higher and higher levels of consciousness while awake?

It seems that we have moments of heightened awareness, be it the adrenalized state of fear or excitement when all of our senses are working on overload in response to a threat or perception of imminent danger and time seems to slow down, or moments of bliss or ecstasy when we seem to be transported out of time altogether and our mind is focused on a single sensory sensation, be it tactile, aural, or visual.

I wonder if these states of heightened consciousness are akin in an inverse kind of way to the successively deeper states of unconsciousness (sleep, dreamless sleep, and narcosis), why the perception of time seems to be so intimately tied to these various states, and what all that tells us about the nature of time, of consciousness, of memory, and of reality itself.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Dogen instructed, 
An ancient master said, “The provisions and food in storage belonging to the monastery should be entrusted to the officers who understand cause and effect. Let these officers administer the various tasks; dividing the monastery into departments and distributing the work.” This means the abbot of the monastery should not take charge of any major or minor matter whatever; rather he should concentrate only on practicing zazen, and encourage the members of the assembly.  
It is also said, “It is better to master even a small skill than to own thousands of acres of productive rice paddies.”  
“When you do a favor for others, do not expect a reward. After having given something away, harbor no regret.”  
“Keep your mouth as silent as your nose, and no disasters will reach you.”  
“If your practice is lofty, people naturally respect you; if your talent is great, others will follow you of themselves.”  
“Despite plowing deep and planting shallow, you may still suffer natural disaster. All the more so will you receive the effect of your evil if you profit only yourself while harming others.”  
Students of the Way, when you learn the sayings of the ancient masters, you must look at them and examine them very closely with fullest attention (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 5, Chapter 19).

Sunday, September 16, 2012

We Get Mail

Sent: Sunday, September 16, 2012
To: shokai
Subject: polishing the tile

Hey, it's me again. I've been thinking about the tile polishing story pretty much every day since you last emailed me and I think I'm starting to understand it, but I haven't fully applied it yet. I thought I'd check in with you to make sure I'm not leading myself astray somehow. Take as long as you need to reply I know you're probably busy with work and life.

I think the message in the story is basically the same as this line from Takuan Soho: "To have something in the mind means that it is preoccupied and has no time for anything else. But to attempt to remove the thought already in it is to refill it with another something. The task is endless. It is best, therefore, not to harbor anything in the mind from the start."

Just sitting down wide awake and doing absolutely nothing basically. Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it "on-purpose, moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness". The purpose seems to be that when you don't want anything at all you see all kinds of thoughts that you normally get "stuck" on. I think this is what Buddhists refer to as judgements/opinions/preferences/distinctions/etc. When I maintain this type of attention I don't seem to get "stuck" in them as much. I still get caught up in attraction/aversion chain reactions to thoughts often and my mind still wanders at this point, but I think I'm starting to see what the lotus symbolism all through Buddhism means. And the phrase "opening the hand of thought". Just that opinions and judgements cant stick to you if you stay aware continuously and don't fuel them.

Is that the right way to understand the story? If you maintained that type of awareness then nothing could stick to you and you would drop off distinctions daily?

Sent: Sunday, September 16, 2012
Subject: polishing the tile

Good to hear from you! I’ve enjoyed our conversations and appreciate the opportunity to continue. 

You bring up some very good points about Nanyue’s polishing the tile and the lesson that he was teaching Mazu. I may use some of your quotes in my own talks, thank you. 

Non-grasping, or non-attainment or whatever label we put on it, is an important discipline in following the Way, and one that the Zen Masters of the past are constantly encouraging us to follow. Non-grasping applies not only to the obvious temptations of fame and fortune, but also to enlightenment itself, to our Buddha-nature. Not only does grasping fill our mind with the concept of the goal, whatever it may be, but it also creates the illusion that the world is somehow imperfect as it is, but could somehow be better “if only” our goal was attained. What we so often find is that even when we attain the goal, there is yet another goal to attain, and so on and on forever. 

Consider this: Mazu was sitting in silent contemplation, an excellent practice, with the “goal” (uh, oh) of “becoming a Buddha.” Not only did he have a fixed concept in mind, preoccupying him from experiencing the open hand of thought, but the underlying assumption was that his Buddha-nature was something he did not yet have, but could somehow come to be attained through diligent practice. Nanyue was trying to show him that a tile could not become a mirror as a tile didn’t have “mirror-nature,” but an ordinary person can become a Buddha because every person already has Buddha-nature (the potential to become a Buddha) within them. Nanyue was seeking to attain that which he already was. 

To look into this a little deeper, we see that in polishing a mirror, the practice (polishing) produces the effect (a reflective mirror). But in Zen, the practice (silent sitting) is the effect (expression of our Buddha nature). We all have Buddha nature, and it is expressed through the practice of zazen. Mazu’s error was that he was trying to become that which he already was. 

A mirror is always a mirror, but polishing can improve its reflectivity, clear away the accumulated dust. All persons are already complete Buddhas, but the layers of thought and ego-attachment, not to mention the three poisons of greed, hate, and delusion, encrust that Buddha nature. As soon as we stop the discriminating mind while sitting in zazen, that nature is expressed. 

To put it another way, the Buddha Way is both the way to Buddha-hood and the way of a Buddha (the way a Buddha behaves), and both are found in zazen.     

Next month (October 20), we will have a zazenkai (all day sitting) at the Chattanooga center from 12 noon until 9 pm. These extended periods are good opportunities for practice-enlightenment and to more fully express our Buddha nature through silent stillness. It would be great if you could join us! We’ll have our regular Sunday service the next day (October 21). 

In gassho,

Saturday, September 15, 2012

East Atlanta Strut

Once again, and for what is by my count the third time, it's the weekend for the East Atlanta Strut.  Part local music festival, part parade, part art fair, part circus sideshow, and part block party, the East Village Strut is an annual reminder of all that is good about East Atlanta Village (EAV) and Georgia in general. So, without further words, my gallery of scenes from this year's Strut.