Sunday, March 31, 2013

No Expectations

According to Zen Master Dogen, zazen (sitting meditation) is the best practice for realizing suchness, for seeing things as they are. In Shobogenzo Bendowa (A Talk About Pursuing the Truth), Dogen wrote, “According to the unmistakenly handed down tradition, this buddha-dharma which has been singularly and directly transmitted is supreme beyond comparison. From the time you begin to practice under a teacher, incense burning, bowing, nenbutsu, as well as the practices of repentance or of reading the sutras, are unnecessary. Simply practice zazen, dropping off body and mind.”

“The true practice in accordance with the Way is nothing but shikantaza,” Dogen says in the opening chapter.  of Zuimonki.  Shikantaza is a form of zazen literally meaning “just sitting.” Anything added to “just sitting,” such as “just sitting to see things as they are” or even “just sitting to drop off body and mind” is not true shikantaza; something extra has been added.  While such things may, in fact, occur, shikantaza is zazen which is practiced without expectation of any reward, even enlightenment. 

It is just being yourself, right here, right now.

Friday, March 29, 2013

In Silence

"Scientists at Minneapolis’ Orfield Labs created their own soundless room, an anechoic chamber. Their studies have found that when putting subjects within the chamber, they begin to hallucinate within 30 minutes.  With an average quiet room having a sound level of 30 decibels, the anechoic chamber’s sound level is -9 decibels. The ceiling, floor, and walls of the chamber absorb sound rather than have it bounce off as normal objects do. The chamber is so quiet that the subjects can even hear their own organs functioning. Although extremely interesting, the experience is rather unpleasant. Not one subject has spent more than 45 minutes in the chamber alone. Leaving a person to only their thoughts, the chamber could drive them insane."
Makes me wonder what it would be like to sit in zazen there.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Deceiving The Teacher

"This mountain monk has not passed through many monasteries. Somehow, I just met my late teacher Tiantong. However, I was not deceived by Tiantong. But Tiantong was deceived by this mountain monk. Recently, I returned to my homeland with empty hands. And so this mountain monk has no Buddha Dharma. Trusting fate, I just spend my time. Morning after morning, the sun rises in the east. Evening after evening, the sun sets in the west. The clouds disperse and mountain valleys are still. After the rain, the mountains in the four directions are close. Every four years is a leap year. A rooster crows toward sunrise." 
- Eihei Dogen, Dharma Hall discourse No. 48 from The Eihei Koroku, Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, translators
For years, the meaning of this famous passage from The Eihei Koroku eluded me.  I understood the second half well enough, Dogen's poetic description of the time passing by in the world around him, but I did not understand the portion about deception.  How, and why, would he deceive his teacher, and why does he sound almost relieved that his teacher hadn't been deceiving him?

I asked this question of my Zen teacher several times, in private dokusan and during public mondo, but never got a satisfactory answer, usually just something along the lines of "Dogen is just being modest."  When have we known Dogen to be modest outside of this one passage?  I even asked the America teacher of Korean Zen Dae Gok about it during a mondo, and while we had a very interesting and informative exchange, it still didn't answer my question (although it did answer other ones).

Not that this was some sort of obsession, mind you.  I wasn't tossing and turning at night wondering what was this "deception" they spoke of, nor was I banging my fists against my knees during zazen trying to solve this self-imposed koan.  But it did bother me that I couldn't understand it and that no one could explain it to me.

Well, I had a breakthrough today, and an understanding (if not "the understanding") came to me.  I was reading the Denkoroku, the record of the transmission of the dharma from the Buddha down to Ejo, Dogen's student, when I came across this account of Dogen's awakening in China:
Dogen trained under Tiantong Rujing.  Once, during the late night meditation, Tiantong told the assembly, "To practice mediation is indeed to drop off body and mind."  Upon hearing this, Dogen suddenly had a great awakening to his true self.  He arose immediately, went to the abbot's quarters and offered incense.  
Tiantong asked him, "Why are you making an incense offering?"  
Dogen replied, "Body and mind have dropped off."  
Tiantong said, "Body and mind have dropped off the dropping off of body and mind."  
Dogen said, "This is a transitory ability; Reverend Monk, pray do not give me your seal arbitrarily."  
Tiantong said, "I am not giving you my seal arbitrarily."  
Dogen said, "What is that which does not give the  seal arbitrarily?"  
Taintong replied, "That which drops off mind and body." 
Dogen bowed in respect.  
Tiantong said, "The dropping off has dropped off."
Dogen once said that to truly practice mediation you must truly abandon your attachments to body and get free of your attachments to mind.  At Tiantong's words, Dogen was released from these attachments and made a ritual offering of incense to commemorate the occasion.  When asked what he was doing, Dogen replied "Body and mind have dropped off."

Tiantong confirms this saying, "Body and mind have dropped off  'the dropping off of body and mind'."  The "dropping off of body and mind" can be just another concept, another mental formation (samskara).  Full awakening is in the dropping off of even the concept of "dropping off of body and mind."  Tiantong is showing him the truth; he is not deceiving his student.

"This is a transitory ability; Reverend Monk, pray do not give me your seal arbitrarily."  Perhaps there was a trace of humility in Dogen after all.  My teacher did not deceive me.

Dogen and Tiantong then acknowledge their common, empty Buddha Nature.  Dogen asks Tiantong, "What is that which does not give the seal arbitrarily?," to which Taintong replies, "That which drops off mind and body."  Dogen bows in respect, and Tiantong assures him, "The 'dropping off' has dropped off."

Prior to this exchange, Dogen was still clinging to attachments to body and mind, and clouded in his delusion, was not showing his true nature to his teacher.  He was deceiving the teacher.  But at the end of their exchange, both were revealed, nothing was hidden, and the teacher was not deceiving his student.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Forest

Shikantaza was the very essence of life in Dogen’s monastery. The word he used for “monastery,” sorin, literally means a forest in which various kinds of trees are living together. In a monastery, all practitioners with their different characters, capabilities, and backgrounds live together with unified bodhi-mind; thus Zen monasteries are sometimes called sorin

In Shobogenzo Ryugin, Dogen speaks of withered trees, and of mountain trees, ocean trees, and sky trees. ”Withered tree” is a common Buddhist metaphor for a monk who has, in meditation, attained a deep state of non-emotion, 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. 

“Mountain trees” are those who are sitting as still as a mountain, while “ocean trees” are those who are exploring the great depths, and “sky trees” are those who are exploring the unbounded. All of these “trees” come together in a monastery, and the Zazen Hall where the mediation happens is sometimes called a koboku-dō, or “withered tree hall.”

Friday, March 22, 2013

The World-Honored One Ascends The Seat

According to a common koan (The Book of Serenity, The Blue Cliff Record, and Dogen’s Shinji Shobogenzo), one day the Buddha ascended the platform to address an assembly of followers.  As he was settling onto his seat, the Bodhisattva Manjushri struck the gavel and declared, “Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma; the Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus.” The Buddha then got down from the seat. 

Careful study of the actions of these two is instructive. At first it sounds like Manjushri is just announcing the presence of the Buddha, but what he's actually saying is far more interesting.  “Clearly observe,” Manjushri said, “the Dharma of the King of Dharma.” But the Buddha-dharma is that teaching that goes beyond what words can express.  It's ineffable; it’s not a thing and it’s not an object, so how can it be observed? But in saying “Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma,” Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is telling us exactly how it needs to be observed. It is to be observed clearly, without obstruction, with nothing in the way, including our mind’s usual interpretation of what we see. 

“The Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus,” Manjushri continues. This was the Buddha’s great realization: suchness, things just as they are. This is precisely what Zen students are working on from the very first moment they begin practicing. We sit down on the zafu to see things as they are and to manifest our self-nature as enlightened nature. As Dogen says in Shobogenzo Inmo (“Suchness”), “To do zazen is to manifest buddha mind, is to manifest suchness.” 

According to Dogen, the best practice for realizing suchness, for seeing things as they truly are, is that of shikantaza.  Literally, shikantaza means “just sitting.” Anything added to “just sitting,” such as “just sitting to realize enlightenment” or even “just sitting to be like the Buddha” is not true shikantaza; something extra has been added. It is not “just sitting to see things as they are” or “just sitting to manifest our self-nature as enlightened nature.” While these things may, in fact, occur, shikantaza is zazen which is practiced without expectation of any reward, even enlightenment. It is just being yourself, right here, right now. 

“Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma,” Manjushri said. “The Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus.” What more needs to be said beyond that?  There was nothing more to say, so the Buddha simply stepped down from the platform in acknowledgement of the completeness of Manjushri’s words (which actually was a form of comment in itself).

Thursday, March 21, 2013


No matter where I went yesterday, no matter what I did, the skyline of this suburbanized attempt at a city kept following me.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Kshanti Paramita (The Perfection of Patience)

My view of downtown Atlanta today as I waited five hours for a contractor who never showed up.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Today was my last visit to Chattanooga before the Buddhapalooza spectacular next month.  There was an average (for Chattanooga) turnout of about eight or nine people, including two newcomers.  After zazen, we talked about gaininglessness, the Zen goal of not having any goals.  

The weather was fine on both the trip up and back, warm and partially cloudy, and no traffic issues either way.  Left by 9:00, back home by 4:30.

A fine day all around.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


The more we separate our spiritual practice from our daily lives, the more both suffer - our daily lives become less spiritual and our spiritual life becomes less and less relevant to who we really are and what we really do.

This is not a knock against Christianity, but the problem with the way many people practice the faith is they go to church on Sunday and become quite pious and charitable, but then go back to practicing greed, anger, and intolerance for the rest of the week.

We Buddhists are often quite the same.  We practice mindfulness in meditation, either together with the sangha or alone in our home practice.  But as soon as the bell rings, we go back to praising the self at the expense of others, taking that which is not freely given, and practicing greed, anger, and intolerance (sometimes we don't even wait for the bell to ring and engage in these activities in our thoughts while still on the cushion).

I suppose the precepts were developed to help guide us in our daily lives, but following a predetermined set of rules is quite different from being guided by our own internal instincts and doing good only for the sake of others.  

If we integrate our practice with our life and dissolve those artificial boundaries between the spiritual and the ordinary, between the sublime and the mundane, and the sacred and the profane, we open our lives to receive the wisdom of our practice.  After all, those boundaries were first created by our own discriminating minds, anyway.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Harbinger of Spring

First copperhead brown snake of the season - just a hatchling and dead at that, but still the first.

The cats are definitely staying indoors this year.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Am I A Good Person?

“Am I a good person?  Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me?  Is there a difference?  How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?” – David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

Monday, March 11, 2013

I swear the earth shall surely be complete to him or her who shall be complete! 
I swear the earth remains jagged and broken only to him or her who remains jagged and broken! 
I swear there is no greatness or power that does not emulate those of the earth! 
I swear there can be no theory of any account, unless it corroborate the theory of the earth! 
No politics, art, religion, behavior, or what not, is of account, unless it compare with the amplitude of the earth, unless it face the exactness, vitality, impartiality, rectitude of the earth.

- Walt Whitman, from Carol of Words (1871)

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Wild

“If we kill off the wild, then we are killing a part of our souls.”
― Jane Goodall

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Good Fourtune

Pay attention to the little details lest you miss the miraculous.

This picture really summarizes my week in so many ways.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Back In 'Bama

The seemingly endless streak of field work that began at the beginning of the year continues, still in cold and windy weather although now in Birmingham, Alabama.   The photo above is of the lovely vista surrounding my work site. While all of this is earning me a living, I sometimes find myself cheering for impermanence and waiting for the next season to come along.  I find solace in the knowledge that eventually I'm going to have to write a bunch of reports on all of these field sampling events and get to spend some quality time at home in front of my computer.

I was here in Birmingham last May working for the same client and it's satisfying to find that I now have loyal clients bringing me repeat business.  My little sole proprietor business is growing roots.

On a positive note, although the forecast called for a 90% chance of rain all day, it really only rained once, a drenching downpour that oddly didn't occur while we were outside but instead during our lunch break.  By the time we were back, the rain had let up, although it was replaced by cold, gusty winds that sapped our strength and energy and seemed to drain our brains, as well.

But my hotel, which last year hosted the John Lennon Educational Tour Bus, is warm and dry, with acceptable cable selections and high-speed internet access, so what is there to complain about?       

Monday, March 04, 2013

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.” – David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Flashing Lights and Spinning Wheels

“Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.” – David Foster Wallace, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men 

Zen Buddhists put great emphasis on living in the present moment. "Be here now." Yet, can we exist anywhere but the present? The past is gone and the future has not yet happened, so where else could we be? 

Perhaps we should not be so certain, notes Jan Westerhoff in The New Scientist (February 20, 2013).  Sensory information reaches us at different speeds, yet appears unified as one moment. Nerve signals need time to be transmitted and time to be processed by the brain. And there are events – such as a light flashing, or someone snapping their fingers – that take less time to occur than our system needs to process them. By the time we become aware of the flash or the finger-snap, it is already history.

According to Westerhoff, our experience of the world resembles a television broadcast with a time lag; conscious perception is not "live". This on its own might not be too much cause for concern, but in the same way the TV time lag makes last-minute censorship possible, our brain, rather than showing us what happened a moment ago, sometimes constructs a present that has never actually happened.

Evidence for this can be found in the "flash-lag" illusion. In one version, a screen displays a rotating disc with an arrow on it, pointing outwards. Next to the disc is a spot of light that is programmed to flash at the exact moment the spinning arrow passes it. Yet this is not what we perceive. Instead, the flash lags behind, apparently occurring after the arrow has passed.

The explanation is that our brain is interpolating events from the past, retroactively assembling a story of what happened.  The perception of what is happening at the moment of the flash is determined by what happens to the disc after the flash.  This seems paradoxical, but other tests have confirmed that what is perceived to have occurred at a certain time can be influenced by what happens later.

All of this is slightly worrying if we hold on to the common-sense view that our selves are placed in the present. If the moment in time we are supposed to be inhabiting turns out to be a mere construction, the same is likely to be true of the self existing in that present.

Interesting point, but I don't think a moving dial and a flash of light is enough to convince anyone that the self does not exist.  However, this interpolation of events from the past, the story that we've retroactively assembled, is yet another example of samskara, the schema formed by our subconscious.  The Buddha taught that consciousness comes into being when we perceive the arising of schemata, and as consciousness is one of the essential element of a "self," the self is just another retroactively assembled story as subject to misinterpretation as the location of the arrow when the light flashes.

The neuroscientists who are conducting the time-lag and other psychophysical experiments would be better advised to investigate their own subjective experience of time and the self than to watch others look at flashing lights and spinning wheels.