Thursday, January 31, 2013

Music's In the Ear of the Beholder

Writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik notes, "Of all the amazing things the mind does, the most amazing may be that it can take sound and turn it into meaning.  The rest of the double leaps the mind makes looks almost easy by comparison: we like pictures of babies at picnics in sunlight because, after all, in the world we like sunny days and chubby babies.  The stories we tell in literature are like the lies we tell in life.  But music is simply a set of physical vibrations that reach our eardrums; from those vibrations we make the emotional map of our lives" (Music To Your Ears, January 28, 2013). 

The sound of music against the vibrating membrane of the eardrum is instantly organized by the brain not just into a stream of passing information but into an "auditory scene," a kind of dimensional space in which sounds are instantly separated, streamed, and regimented.  As it turns out, Gopnik notes, the ear is a lot like what the Gestalt psychologists had found out years before about the eye - that it is a piece of the mind.  The ear creates aural figures and aural backgrounds the way the eye makes figures and ground.

We store musical information in our head and manipulate it and play around with it.  There seems to be two "systems" in the brain that respond to music. One is called veridical and responds to the pleasant sounds of the songs we already know. The other has been labeled sequential and anticipates the next note or harmonic move in an unfamiliar phrase of music. The sequential system is stimulated when music follows the logic of the notes or surprises us in some way that isn't merely arbitrary.

This has two interesting implications to me.  First, that music that we experience is not really created by the performer so much as by the listener, who decodes all of  the aural information entering the ears, synthesizes it, and reconstructs it as something called "music."  Two person's experience of the same musical passage may be completely different, depending on how their individual minds process it.  This is why some people can, say, love metal but hate opera, and vice versa.  

Second, this ability to create music in our mind is obviously based on our own individual experiences, which is why some foreign musics can sound so unfamiliar and, well, non-musical at first.  But as we start to develop some familiarity with new musics, we develop sets of mental templates of where notes should go, where they stop and start, and how the various lines are supposed to fit together.  This helps explain some of the camaraderie among devotees of particular genres of music - people who's minds can create enjoyable music out of the complexity of orchestral proceedings or the simplicity of a strummed guitar have similar templates and likely similar past experiences, and are probably more likely to be compatible on a social or personal level than those with different sets of templates.

These mental templates, acquired during our lifetime of experience, are of course samskara, our mental formations, the "mental maps" of Erich Fromm.  The Buddha recognized samskara as one of the aggregates that constituted the ego-self, as well as the necessary condition for the arising of ego-consciousness.  As it turns out, they also are why we humans can hear and appreciate music while all other animals seem to regard our precious and beloved music as mere noise, with the possible exception of whales, whose music sounds so strange and foreign to our human ear-minds, as human and cetacean samskara must be quite different (if the latter even exists at all).

I have often asserted that all music, without exception, is a direct expression of the buddha-dharma.  With this new understanding, this statement now seems more true than ever.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Nothing Is At Least One Thing Too Much

Zen Master Dogen asked, "Why store up useless things? Even among lay people, those who completely devote themselves to a certain way do not think it necessary to possess property such as rice paddies, gardens, or manors."

Dogen was speaking of things we possess in the concrete world of the relative.  But speaking in the absolute, any name and form we carry with us is really an unnecessary burden, as it's the mind that separates things from the formless substance of the universe, and believing these things to be separate from other things and to be real is our delusion, the dream from which the Buddha would have us awaken. 
A monk once asked Joshu, "I have nothing.  How's that?"
Joshu replied, "Throw it away."
The monk then asked, "How can I throw away nothing?"
Joshu answered, "Then carry it with you."
Obviously, this monk was still clinging to the concept of "nothing" as a thing, a name and form, and Joshu was encouraging him to drop even that. When the monk didn't understand, Joshu told the monk to go ahead and carry around this delusion, and feel how its weight burdened him.

It's kind of like when we're sitting in meditation and things are getting very quiet and the internal monolog of the mind seems to finally come to an end. But as soon as we think "It's really getting quiet," we realize that there's the voice again, articulating yet another thought. Trying to think about not thinking is still thinking.

Zen Master Bankei (1622-1693) had some very practical advice for this situation. Bankei said, "You people try to stop your thoughts from arising, and then by stopping them you divide one mind into two. The original clinging thoughts that you were able to stop may have come to an end, but the subsequent thoughts concerned with your stopping them won't ever cease. Well, you might wonder, what can I do to stop them?"

"Just let them come. Don't develop them any further. Don't attach to them. Without concerning yourself about whether to stop your rising thoughts or not to stop them, just don't bother with them. And then there's nothing else that they can do but vanish. You can't have an argument with fence. When there's no one there to fight with, things can't help but simply come to an end of themselves."

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Longbow Or Crossbow?

Thus have I heard:  One day the Buddha told his followers,
"It's just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.' 
He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me... until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short... until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored... until I know his home village, town, or city... until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow... until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated... until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird... until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.'  
He would say, 'I won't have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.' 
The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him." 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Zen Master Dogen instructed,
During the reign of Taiso of the To dynasty, a foreign country presented the emperor with a horse that could travel thousands of miles a day. After receiving the horse, he thought to himself joylessly,  “Even if I travel thousands of miles on this excellent horse, it is useless if no retainers follow me.” 
Therefore he summoned Gicho and asked him about it. 
Gicho replied, “I agree with you.” 
So, the emperor returned the horse with a load of gold and silk on its back. 
Even an emperor in the secular world did not keep what was useless; he returned it. Much more so for Zen monks; besides robes and a bowl, there is nothing at all which is useful. Why store up useless things? Even among lay people, those who completely devote themselves to a certain way do not think it necessary to possess property such as rice paddies, gardens, or manors. They consider everyone in the whole country their own people or family. 
In his will to his son, Chiso Hokyo said, “You must concentrate your efforts on the Way exclusively.” 
Needless to say, as children of the Buddha, you should abandon all affairs and devote yourselves to one thing wholeheartedly. This is the primary thing to bear in mind (Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 6, Chapter 13).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn"

Periods of great uncertainty can become a teacher to us.  In uncertainty, we abandon our conceptual models and learn to see things as they truly are, not as our friends, our family, and even our own prior experience lead us to believe they are. 

On the other hand, we need to be careful that paranoia doesn't lead us to accept a narrative that doesn't exist outside of a runaway imagination. 

A middle way exists between blind faith and cynical doubt.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

All things in the universe have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance.   Substance, on the other hand, has no name and no form.  Energy, mind, god, and matter are names and forms.  Having name and form is having opposites. Formless substance is the Absolute.  

In thinking, all things are separated into opposites: good and bad, beautiful and ugly, mine and yours.  I like this; I don't like that.  I try to get happiness and avoid suffering.  People desire money, fame, sex, food, and rest.  All this desire is based on thinking.  Thinking is desire, and desire is suffering.  Suffering  means no world peace.  Not thinking is not suffering.  Not suffering means world peace.  World peace is the Absolute. The Absolute is I.

Not understanding yourself is not understanding the truth.  That is why there is fighting among ourselves.  If all the people in the world understood themselves, they would attain the Absolute.  Then the world would be at peace.

- Based on the teachings of Seung Sahn

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Not Knowing

One day, a student asked Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, “What is Zen?” 

Seung Sahn held his Zen stick above his head and said, “Do you understand?” 

The student said, “I don’t know.” 

Seung Sahn said, “This don’t-know mind is you. Zen is understanding yourself.” 

Seung Sahn taught that in a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough, and they taste the same. 

In the same way, all things in the universe – the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, people, and so forth – have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance. The universe is organized into pairs of opposites: light and darkness, man and woman, sound and silence, good and bad. But all these opposites are mutual, because they are made from the same substance. Their names and their form are different, but their substance is the same. 

Names and form are made by your thinking. If you are not thinking and have no attachment to name and form, then all substance is one. The don’t-know mind cuts off all thinking. This is your substance. The substance of Seung Sahn’s Zen stick and your own substance are the same. You are the stick and the stick is you. 

In this sense, not-knowing is a place where we haven’t yet created name and form. What we don’t know is formless – we haven’t put a name on it and therefore it doesn’t assume a form. When we practice true intimacy with not knowing, when we don’t know our own self, then we are formless and part of Seung Sahn’s cookie dough, the formless substance of the universe. 

Dogen said that to study the way is to study the self, and to study the self is to forget the self (not-knowing). To forget the self is mind and body dropping away (formlessness), and experiencing mind and body dropping away is to enter realization. 

Seung Sahn said Zen is understanding yourself, and that you are don’t-know mind. Same thing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An Illustrated Catalog of Random Thoughts Passing Through My Mind In the Last 24 Or So Hours

So let's see now, what do we have to catch up on?  Yesterday, as you know, was President Obama's second inauguration, and he took the oath of office with his hand on a Bible once owned by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., before giving what turned out to possibly be the best inaugural speech of the 21st Century. "We will respond to the threat of climate change," he promised, "knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms."  A reality-based President - what a concept.

Meanwhile, back here in the ATL, Muhammad Yunus, the father of micro-credit who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh, announced that he will soon call Atlanta his second home, thanks in part to Dr. King's legacy.  At the launch of his Yunus Creative Lab, he said, “It’s official. We have to start a program in Atlanta. A lot of people are saying they want to be part of it.”  

Atlanta can already boast of having had two Nobel Peace Prize winners — Dr. King and former President Jimmy Carter, and a visiting winner, adjunct Emory University professor His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  “I have a very close connection with Atlanta now and for many years back,” Mr. Yunus  said.  “Martin Luther King was a dream maker. King is someone who inspired me throughout my life.”

On a much lower level of karmic awareness, last week Rush Limbaugh wondered aloud on his radio show if civil rights leaders such as Dr. King and Congressman John Lewis (D-Atlanta) would have been beaten up had they had carried guns. "I'm just asking," he said, to which Rep. Lewis replied, "African Americans in the '60s could have chosen to arm themselves, but we made a conscious decision not to. We were convinced that peace could not be achieved through violence. Violence begets violence, and we believed the only way to achieve peaceful ends was through peaceful means."

Agreed and well put (I'm proud that Mr. Lewis is my representative in Congress).  But there were African Americans in the '60s who did choose to arm themselves.  Citing a Second Amendment right to bear arms, to defend themselves and their community against government oppression, the Black Panthers took up arms and the right wing totally freaked out at that time.  They're still freaked out, constantly ranting about modern-day Panther members patrolling polling places and intimidating voters.  I say the patriarchs of the modern NRA-backed gun-rights movement are not the nation's founding fathers, but the Black Panthers.  I don't understand why the NRA doesn't recognize their role models for who they are.

Coming back to the present moment, or at least closer to the present moment, during last evening's Monday Night Zazen, we discussed the arousing of Bodhi-mind.  Many of us find our way to Zen practice through our experience of suffering, and take up spiritual practice sensing that transformation is possible. But in order to truly transform our suffering, we have to see deeply into its nature  - we have to address the root of our suffering.  By clearly seeing and acknowledging the effects that the three poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance have on our lives, we can begin to do something about them. 

A full-day retreat at Brooklyn's Fire Lotus Temple on Saturday, February 2, 2013, will focus on the three poisons and the effects they have on every aspect of our lives. Led by senior lay practitioner and dharma holder Ron Hogen Green, the retreat will offer guidance of how we cause suffering, and how it is from greed, anger, and ignorance that the whole of cyclic existence and suffering arises. Our usual strategies--repression and avoidance on the one hand, and acting them out on the other--only serve to perpetuate the cycle of suffering, but sincere practice opens another door.  In their essence, the three poisons are powerful energies that arise in this negative form because of our self-centered views. As our hold on these views begins to loosen, our greed, anger, and ignorance naturally begin to transform into the three virtues of compassion, wisdom, and enlightenment. This is the path of liberation that the Buddha taught.

The Buddhist precepts are like a set of road signs or compass orientations on this path of liberation.  To be in accordance with the precepts is to be moving in the correct direction toward liberation. When we’re not acting in accordance with the precepts, that’s fine (at least from a Zen point of view – there might be legal or karmic consequences to consider), but you’re not moving in the direction toward liberation and you’re squandering your precious time in human existence.   It's your choice, but that’s why Zen is so full of reminders of our own impermanence (we shouldn’t waste all of our time on trivial matters) and on achieving bodhi-mind (desire for awakening). 

Even the Bodhisattva vow to save all sentient beings is more aspirational than literal. Do you really think you can free all sentient beings? Every person living in the Australian Outback, every bird in the sky, every hissing cockroach in the jungles of Madagascar? We’re doomed to fail, but we still keep trying. 

An ancient Tibetan text advises us “As a bee seeks nectar from all kind of flowers, seek teachings everywhere. Like a deer that finds a quiet place to graze, seek seclusion to digest all that you have gathered. Like a madman beyond all limits, go wherever you please and live like a lion completely free of all fear.”  Gate, gate, paragate, y'all, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Zen Master Dogen instructed,
These days, many people who are learning the Way listen to a talk on the dharma, and above all want their teacher to know that they have a correct understanding and want to give good replies. This is why the words they listen to go in one ear and out the other. They still lack bodhi-mind and remain self-centered.

First of all, forget your ego and listen quietly to what others say, and later ponder it well. Then, if you find some faults or have some doubts, you may make criticism. When you have grasped the point, you should present your understanding to your teacher. Waiting to claim immediate understanding shows that you are not really listening to the dharma.
Dogen also instructed,
Students of the Way, when you practice with a certain teacher and learn the dharma, you should listen thoroughly again and again until you completely understand. If you spend time without asking what should be asked, or without saying what should be said, it will certainly be your own loss. Teachers always await questions from their disciples and give their own comments. You should ask again and again to make sure even of things that you have already understood. Teachers also should ask their disciples whether they have really understood or not, and thoroughly convince them of the truth of the dharma.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Inaugaration Day

In his commentary on Thung Zăn ("Union of Men"), the 13th Hexagram of the I Ching, Deng Ming-Dao notes that in our present era, we isolate ourselves from one another and allow our society to stratify into different classes. It is hard to remember that a true community, a true Union of Men, should be as easy as growing plants or sailing down a river. As easy as enjoying music together. In fact, a community that is hard to assemble or that must be maintained by coercion is not a true community.

It has been said that America has become a Balkanized nation, divided along territorial, political, racial, and economic lines.  You hear a lot of this kind of talk here in the American South,which has been isolated territorially, politically, racially, and economically for quite some time now.  

However, in a surprising display of unity, tomorrow this nation will inaugurate the second term of President Barack Obama while at the same time recognizing the public holiday for the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I say "surprising" not only because of this nation's not inconsiderable history of slavery and genocide, but also because of the polarization of our society, both politically and socially.  

Re-election of the President indicates a great many good things in store for this country.  We will not repeal  Health Care Reform.  We will not have a Supreme Court that will overturn a woman's right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.  We will not privatize Social Security nor turn Medicare into a voucher system.  

As the nation considers reforming it's law on guns and firearms, reactionaries are claiming that American's constitutional right to bear arms is not only for self-protection, but also as a check and balance against the perceived tyranny of government.  As I understand it, these zealots consider it not only their right but their duty to wage an armed insurrection against the government if it strays too far from their interpretation of the Constitution.  

This is an odd and disturbing interpretation of the Second Amendment and it can lead to some disturbing consequences.  One group at one location may arm itself and vow overthrow based on what it considers unfair and too burdensome taxes, while another group elsewhere takes up arms against what it considers to be too great spending by the government and an unacceptable level of national debt, and yet another initiates revolution over the perception of  a loss of the right to bear arms.  Soon, this would lead to roaming troops of armed insurrectionists led by war lords, a situation such as that seen in Somalia and some other unfortunate nations.  In order to defend themselves from the warlords, the remainder of the population will have to either take up arms themselves and fight to maintain the status quo, or be herded into refugee camps and hope for protection and sustenance from outside agencies.

This is not a happy or comforting picture of America's future, nor most civilized people's idea of a true community.  According to the I Ching, a community sustains us, especially when we suffer disaster.  In bad times, the community pulls together.  In good times, we join together to further improve our lives.  The I Ching reminds us that the strong cannot be compelled, they must be softly induced. Good leadership requires flexibility rather than stiff force.  A wise ruler leads the strong by being open, modest, gentle, and giving.  

President Obama has had a great many accomplishments during his first term, but he also made many choices that disappointed me, including the continued national and international surveillance of citizens in the name of the Global War on Terror.  I am alarmed by his use of the Intelligence Community to commit actions such as targeted drone strikes, actions that should be considered Acts of War and thus authorized by Congress, not the President, and carried out be the Armed Forces, not by Intelligence.  I'm dismayed by his continued coddling of Wall Street and his Administration's lack of transparency.  

But the good far, far exceeds the bad, and still stands in marked contrast to his predecessor.  In fact, I still have faith that Obama can find the flexibility required to be open, modest, gentle, and giving, and be the kind of wise leader envisioned by the I Ching.

Friday, January 18, 2013

“Attempts to wake before our time are often punished, especially by those who love us most. Because they, bless them, are asleep. They think anyone who wakes up, or who, still asleep, realizes that what is taken to be real is a ‘dream’ is going crazy.” ― R.D. Laing
R.D. Laing, who comforted me so much in my psychedelic teens and early 20s, reassures me once again by suggesting the possibility that even those of us who are still asleep can nonetheless recognize that what is taken to be real is actually like a dream.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Precepts

Sorry the following is so long, but once I got stared, I couldn’t decide where to stop.

The Buddhist Precepts are simply a bunch of rules that the early sangha came up with to govern how to live together, and those precepts that seem to enhance our following of The Eight-Fold Path have stuck with us and have been handed down over the years.  Today, there are many, many different versions and translations of the precepts, almost one set of precepts for every Buddhist school, if not teacher.  

Monastics have many more precepts that they’re asked to observe beyond the basic Ten Grave Precepts, and in some monasteries there are literally hundreds of precepts. Apparently, as monastic life proceeded over the centuries, more and more precepts were required to deal with situations that arose, and Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal says we can only imagine what must have led up to one monastic precept he’s heard that states that no monk shall ever insert his penis into any orifice smaller than that of a chicken’s. 

Some schools of Buddhism go to great, even comical (in my opinion) lengths to try and comply with all of the many monastic precepts.  For example, I have heard of Tibetan monks not being allowed to even so much as touch money, and having to request others to take their cash out of their wallets for them and hand it to a ticket agent so they can board a train. And of course, many monks have practiced celibacy in order to comply with the Third Grave Precept on sexuality (except, apparently, with chickens). 

I recently heard the Fifth Grave Precept expressed as an admonition against “intoxicants that engender heedlessness.”  In the tradition in which I practice, The Silent Thunder Order, we just say “Do not cloud the mind with intoxicants.”  The late John Daido Loori’s Mountains and Rivers Order states “Proceed clearly. Do not cloud the mind,” and does not even mention intoxicants at all. I don’t know if the addition of “that engender heedlessness” helps point out the problem with intoxicants or merely creates the perception of a loophole in the precept (such as, “what about intoxicants that are so debilitating that one can’t possibly behave heedlessly?”) 

The precepts are often confused with absolute rules, and in Judeo-Christian, Western society, they are often thought of as similar to The Ten Commandments.  But in Buddhism, there is no divinity passing down a set of absolute, if inscrutable, laws. In Zen, we “observe” the precepts more than “obey” them. 

On close examination, we violate the precepts all the time. While I’ve managed to avoid the temptation of murdering anyone today, and I might even have avoided proxy killing by not eating meat that someone else slaughtered for me, my tax dollars still go to war efforts, drone strikes, police actions, and so on in other forms of proxy killing. I might not knowingly step on bugs and try to avoid killing insects and pests indiscriminately, but I may still kill small organisms unconsciously when I scratch what I thought was an itch. Even my blood with its hemoglobin and antibodies and such is designed to kill microbes, parasites, and other foreign organisms, so my very body is engaged in killing all of the time. And aren’t plants living things, so don’t vegetarians kill as well? And so on. We can’t not kill - to live is to kill. This certainly doesn’t excuse us to go out and commit murder, but by observing when and how we violate the First Grave Precept (“Do not kill”) and the karmic effects that it has, we move in the direction of not more, but less, killing. 

When I first started Zen practice with Sensei, I heard him say “We observe the precepts by breaking them.” At first, this struck me as a massive cop-out, a way to avoid moral behavior, especially with regard to the Fifth Grave Precept against intoxication. It didn’t help that I was dating a recovering alcoholic at the time, and had chosen to practice total sobriety with her.  But Sensei enjoys his Saki, and has some amusing stories about getting shitfaced with his teacher.  I figured he just didn’t have the moral fortitude to refrain from drinking (if he wasn’t an outright alcoholic himself), and had found himself some wiggle room to continue to drink. It took me several years to understand the Fifth Grave Precept. 

Intoxicants go beyond alcohol and drugs. Music can be an intoxicant, as can other forms of entertainment. Daido Loori even goes so far as to say that sunglasses can be an intoxicant.  Let me explain. 

In yet another version, all of The One-Minded Precepts of Bodhidharma start with the phrase “Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous.” The fifth of the precepts states “Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous; in the intrinsically pure Dharma, not arousing ignorance is called ‘not being intoxicated.’”  As Daido Loori explains, we violate the precepts with the “if only. . . “ assumption that the world would somehow be better if only something were a little different. We violate the First Grave Precept when we decide the world would be a better place “if only” a certain person or persons or animal(s) were not in it with us. We violate the Second Grave Precept against stealing when we decide that the world would be a better place “if only” we possessed what someone else owns. And so on. 

As for intoxication, we violate the precept when we decide that the world would be a better place “if only” we had a slight buzz, or a major buzz, or were totally anesthetized against the nature of the reality around us. That’s why Loori equates any manipulation of reality to intoxication, including music to rid the universe of its unbearable quiet or just to change the mood, or earplugs to get rid of the unbearable noise, or even sunglasses to change the way er perceive light. 

Does this mean that we shouldn’t listen to music or wear sunglasses (or do both at the same time to be really cool)?  Not at all. We should just observe that we’ve chosen to impose our own egocentric version of how reality should be over that of our “inconceivably wondrous Self-nature” (which is to say the entire universe, since to a Buddha Self-nature and the universe are one and the same). As for alcohol and drugs, it is up to each of us to observe our own behavior, observe how we violate the precept and why, and the effects that those violations have on us and others around us. As we observe, our behavior will naturally change on its own accord in relation to those observations. 

Personally, I’ve almost entirely lost any appetite for inebriation and intoxication as I’ve come to appreciate that inconceivably wondrous nature of the reality of this very moment.   But that doesn’t mean I can't and don’t enjoy an ice-cold beer on a summer day, or a good glass of wine with dinner. Or listen to new music to excite my interests and curiosity. 

It is no different when it comes to sexuality. Our order states the Third Grave Precept as “Do not misuse sexuality.” That’s a far cry from practicing celibacy, and many Zen priests are married and have children. In fact, considering that sexuality is one of the joys of being alive, I could argue that suppressing our sexual nature in a celibate existence is itself an abuse of our natural sexuality. Committing rape is clearly and obviously a violent misuse of sexuality, but other actions that do not honor the body also go against the precept, such as commodifying and selling the body in prostitution. There’s a lot of grey area here, and the violations are probably as much in the intent and the attitude as in the actual acts performed, and I’m not going to be the one who tries to say what is or isn’t in violation of the precepts. Bodhidharma doesn’t even mention sexuality in his One-Minded Precepts, but instead implores against greed in the third of his precepts. 

Zen Master Ikkyu is an interesting case. First of all, we have to assume that he was a fully awakened and self-realized Zen Master, and all indications are that he was. But to those who asked, he would say that his true self was very sexual by nature and best expressed in the bedroom and the bordello. Therefore, he was able to commit actions, such as consorting with prostitutes and frequenting whore houses, without violating the precept, as he was celebrating, not denying, the wondrous nature of his true self. But as he was fully awakened and self-realized, he had an understanding that far surpassed mine, so I’m not able to say “Me, too” and run down to the local strip club. Or to say my true nature really likes to party and partake of drugs, as I’m not Ikkyu and self realization is still outside of my own direct experience. 

It’s similar to the famous story of the two monks who encounter a young lady on the street. One can pick her up and carry her over the mud puddle (a violation of his very strict, monastic precept against touching a member of the opposite sex) because he was able to immediately move past the action, while the other dwelled on it (“I put her back down, but you’re still carrying her,” the first monk said when the second admonished him later). 

I think the point of the Ikkyu case is not that it’s okay to behave in any way that we think that we want from our own small, egocentric viewpoint, but that the precepts themselves are but points to observe on the road to realization (the Eight-Fold Path). To put it another way, the precepts aren’t absolute rules which must be obeyed at all times in order to appease a vengeful deity nor are they absolute requirements for achieving nirvana, but instead are a common sense set of things to observe as we try to follow the Eight-Fold Path. Violations of all of the precepts are us putting our own egocentric interests over those of our true nature, which leads us further away from our true nature. 

Finally, I have to point out that in zazen, we are fully in accord with all of the precepts. We’re not killing, we’re not stealing, we’re not abusing sexuality, and we’re not engaged in other one-sided acts of egocentric gratification or denial of the inconceivably wondrous nature of the universe.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Merry Martin Luther King Day, y'all.  I think it's fitting that today was the day that New York State chose to enact the toughest gun law in the country.  According to The Huffington Post, "Owners of an estimated 1 million previously legal semiautomatic rifles, such as the Bushmaster model used to kill 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Conn., a month ago, will be allowed to keep their weapons but will have a year to register them with police. The sale of any more such weapons is prohibited."

The United States incarcerates far too many of it's citizens, the majority of them minorities, but I still think it makes more sense, if you have to incarcerate people, to lock up those with illegal guns rather than those with illegal cigarettes.

Monday, January 14, 2013

One day Zen Master Dogen instructed,

When someone asks about the dharma or the essentials of practice, Zen monks must reply on the basis of the true dharma. Do not answer on the basis of expedient means that are not true, thinking the person is not a vessel of the dharma, or is incapable of understanding because he is only a beginner.

The spirit of the Bodhisattva Precepts is that even if a person who is a vessel of hinayana asks the way of hinayana, you should reply only on the basis of mahayana. This is the same as the Tathagata taught during his lifetime. The provisional teaching as an expedient means is really of no value. Ultimately, only the final true teaching is beneficial. Therefore, without being concerned with whether the person can grasp it or not, you must answer only on the basis of the true dharma.

When you see a person, value his true virtue. Do not judge him on his outward appearance or superficial characteristics.

In ancient days, a person came to Confucius to become his student. Confucius asked him, “Why do you want to be my disciple?”

The person replied, “When I saw you going to the court, you looked very noble and dignified. So, I wanted to become your student.”

Confucius then asked one of his students to bring his cart, garments, gold, silver, and other treasures. He gave them to the person saying, “It is not me that you respect.” And he sent him away.

Dogen also said,

The Kanpaku (the Chief Advisor to the Emperor) of Uji once came to the bathhouse in the court, and watched the person in charge making a fire.

He saw the Kanpaku and said, “Who are you? Why did you come to the bathhouse in the court without permission?”

The Kanpaku was driven out. Then, he took off the shabby clothes he had been wearing and changed into a magnificent costume. When he appeared dressed up the man in charge of the fire spotted him from a distance, became frightened, and fled. The Kanpaku put his robes on the top of a bamboo pole and paid homage to them. Someone asked what he was doing.

He replied, “I am respected by others not because of my virtue but because of this costume.”

Foolish people respect others in this way. Their respect towards words or phrases in the scriptures is the same.

An ancient person said, “Though the words of statesmen fill the land, there is no fault on their tongue.  The actions of statesmen influence the whole country, but there is no one who bears a grudge against them.”  This is because they have said what they should say and carried out what they should have carried out.  These are the words and actions of ultimate virtue and the essence of the Way.  Even in the secular world, if people speak and pass judgment with one-sided personal evaluations, there will be nothing but mistakes.  The speech and deeds of Zen monks have been established by our predecessors.  Never hold onto personal one-sided views. This is the Way the buddhas and patriarchs have been practicing.

Students of the Way, you should reflect on your own selves. To reflect on your self means to examine how to maintain your own body and mind. You are already the children of the Buddha Shakyamuni. So you must learn the Way of the Tathgata. There is a code of conduct that has been carried out by previous buddhas regarding the manners of body, speech, and mind. Each one of you should follow them.

Even in the secular world, it is said that clothes should be in accordance with the law, speech should be based on the Way. Much more so then should Zen monks never follow their own selfish ideas.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


One day Dogen instructed, "When someone asks about the dharma or the essentials of practice, you must reply on the basis of the true dharma. Do not answer on the basis of expedient means that are not true, thinking the person is not a vessel of the dharma, or is incapable of understanding because he is only a beginner."

I often get questions about Zen that, although sincere, make sense only in the context of other belief systems.  For example, I've been asked how Buddhists receive forgiveness for their sins, or how we can be sure that our next life will be a happier one.  Since the very nature of the question indicates that the asker either won't understand or won't be receptive to the answer, it is tempting to give a short but misleading answer and be done with it.  But in the spirit of a true Bodhisattva, even if a person is following another spiritual path and asks a question that makes sense only with regard to that other path, we should reply on the basis of the true dharma.  This is the way the Buddha taught during his lifetime. 

A provisional answer as an expedient means is really of no value. I remember asking, back when I was a newcomer, what the five aggregate were, and a senior teacher told me they were the five senses.   It was a  short answer and ended my inquiry quickly, but when I later learned that the true answer had little to do with what he had told me, I both resented the senior for his dismissive attitude and ultimately came to distrust his teaching (fool me once, etc.).  

Ultimately, only the final true teaching is beneficial. Therefore, without being concerned with whether the person can grasp it or not, we should answer only on the basis of the true dharma.  When we're asked a questions, we should value the person's true virtue, and not judge them on status, outward appearances, or superficial characteristics.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Living and Dying

Great Master Kassan Zenne (805–881) was a successor of Master Sensu Tokujō. At the suggestion of Master Dōgo Enchi, he visited Master Sensu and attained the truth under him.  Later he lived and taught on Mount Kassan. 

It is said that Master Jōzan Shinei, a successor of Master Isan Reiyū, once told Kassan,  
“Because in life and death there is no buddha, then it is not life and death.” Kassan replied, “Because in life and death there is buddha, then we are not deluded by life and death.”
Although the words “life” and “death” exist in all languages, Zen Master Dōgen taught that we are not able to understand intellectually what our life and death actually are, saying that their real meaning is embedded in our actual day-to-day life itself.  He described life and death as the real momentary state of the present moment.  In our daily life, life and death both exist in undivided wholeness.

Dōgen paraphrased Kassan's exchange with Jōzan by writing,
"Because there is buddha within living and dying, life and death do not exist. We can also say: Because in life and death there is no buddha, we are not deluded by living and dying."
Dōgen uses the phrase "living and dying" to refer to the ever-flowing, ever-changing conditions that have no permanency, and the phrase "life and death" to refer to the delusion of static, unchanging conditions that are created by the discriminating mind. So, by substitution, we can say, 
Because living and dying exists as ever-flowing, ever-changing conditions that have no permanency, life and death are not the static, unchanging conditions falsely perceived by the intellect.  We can also say that since the static, unchanging "life and death" perceived by the intellect is a delusion, we should be present with the ever-flowing, ever-changing conditions of impermanent living and dying.
However we conceive of life and death, they are just that - concepts, mental constructions, schema, samskara.  But real living and real dying are the actual experience of this very instant, this very moment, not the past of our memory or the future of our imagination.  In this moment, right now, life neither comes into existence not disappears, it's just here, as it is, thus.

It is a mistake, Dōgen taught, to think that we go from being alive to being dead. In the Genjō-kōan, he said that although firewood becomes ash and can never go back to being firewood again, we should not take the view that ash is its future and firewood is its past.  Remember, in the eternal here-and-now, firewood abides in the place of firewood and ash exists in the place of ash.  Although each has a past and a future, the past and the future are cut off in the eternal now. 

Similarly, human beings, after death, do not live again.  At the same time, it is an established custom in Buddhism not to say that life turns into death.  Instead, we speak of “no appearance.” How can something end that does not exist in the first place?  And in the Buddha’s very earliest teachings, he established that death does not turn into life. This is why we speak of “no disappearance.”  How can something exist that does not end? 

Life, then, is an instantaneous situation, that is, the state of this very instant, and death is also an instantaneous situation.  

Friday, January 11, 2013


The memories of a man in his old age are the deeds of a man in his prime.
You shuffle in the gloom of the sickroom and talk to yourself as you die.
Life is a short, warm moment and death is a long cold rest.
You get your chance to try in the twinkling of an eye: eighty years with luck or even less. 
- Pink Floyd

"Tomorrow when you're old and your mouth is paved with gold, you'll begin to feel the cold inside."
- Viv Stanshall
It goes without saying that we should consider the inevitability of death.  We should be resolved not to waste time and refrain from doing meaningless things. We should spend our time carrying out what is worth doing.

So we need to ask ourselves, among the things we do, which are really the most important? 

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Everything in the universe comes into being from other conditions.  When certain conditions come together, phenomena are manifested, and when those conditions are absent, the manifested phenomena ceases to exist.

We are no different.  When certain conditions come together, specifically a physical form, sensations, thought, a mental schema, and consciousness, our sense of an ego-self arises.  When any one of these conditions is absent, the ego-self is gone.

There's an easy way to test this hypothesis.  Find a comfortable place and sit there in an upright and alert posture. Breathe naturally, and perhaps watch your breath rise and fall for a few minutes.  Try to ignore the thoughts that arise in your head, but don't try to suppress them either.  Just let them go.  Eventually, you might find yourself entering into a state not of "not thinking," but of "non-thinking," the distinction being that thinking hasn't stopped but attention to thought has.  Of course, as soon as you recognize and identify this state, you're engaged in your thought again and have to start over.  But once the thought is gone, the mental constructs of thought fall away, including the concept of an "I."  To put it another way, when there is no more thinking, there is no thinker.

There's nothing at all mystical to this.  Try it.

An interesting conclusion that comes from this experiment is in the recognition that the self is not a permanent and abiding thing, but comes and goes according to conditions.  Bodies are born and bodies die, but there ultimately is no "self" that can be found that dies.  This does not mean that we don't mourn the loss of people that we've known and loved, or want to cling to life while we are still alive, but it does reassure us that, in the end (literally) there is no real loss of anything.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

East Shooshire

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.  He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.... To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms--this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men."
- Albert Einstein

Monday, January 07, 2013

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.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

An Explanation for My Recent Absence

I've spent the last two days at the Whole Foods store in Buckhead, and consequently haven't had the time to post.

Not that it's anyone else's fault.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

What's So Bad About Joy, Delight and Cheerfulness?

Joy is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it we abandon all unpleasant things.
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.
Pure mind is a gate of Dharma illumination, for with it there is no defilement.

After months of reading Dogen in Zuimonki encouraging his monks to abandon family, society, romance, and matrimony for single-minded pursuit of the Zen life, it's somewhat refreshing to hear him acknowledge, that, yeah, joy and delight and love and cheerfulness aren't necessarily bad things.

I half expect to hear him start singing What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding? any minute now.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A New Year

Happy New Year, y'all.

2012 is now over and complete, the Earth having completed yet one more revolution around the Sun. I somehow survived.

2012 was the first full year I spent working on my own, finding my own clients, executing projects by myself, and doing my own invoicing and collections. Total DIY.

Dogen said that everyone has an allotted share of food and life, and though you might seek after more than your share, you will never be able to obtain it. He also said, "To think of accumulating even a little bit of wealth is a great obstacle. Without thinking of how to gain or store up things you will naturally receive as much as you need to stay alive for a while. Each person has his allotted share; heaven and earth bestow it on us. Even though you don’t run around seeking it, you will receive it without fail."

I certainly did not accumulate more than my share of wealth last year, but I did learn to rely on heaven and earth to provide me what I needed. And the provisions came, often in ways and forms I did not expect. Granted, I had to work for everything I received - there were no free rides - but the work itself was a form of blessing.

I learned to do things I never thought I was capable of learning, and met challenges that seemed at times to be overwhelming. And yet I survived, and find myself looking forward to another year of taking life one day at a time.