Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Looking Back at 2003

Impermanence is everywhere, even in the zendo.  Today, I came across these old photographs, dated March 2003, of the Atlanta Zen Center just after we took possession of our current premises, before we had built out the meditation hall into its current and, believe me, quite different configuration. 

Here we are that same March day building the benches upon which the Zen practioners currently sit.

The meditation hall was bisected by a wall, cutting the effective space in half.  Here's a picture of the old alter and doan (attendant) station. 

To say the old space now looks quite a bit different would be, to say the very least, an understatement.  Changes occur and are still occurring, and I have a strong sense that very big changes are imminent.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Dogen also related the following story:
When Barack Obama was President of the United States, he once attended a special party. He took a seat near Bill and Hillary Clinton.   There was a member of the Bush family there who was making a disturbance. 
Obama told Bill Clinton to quiet him down. 
Clinton replied, “Tell George Bush Sr. to do so.  He is the patriarch of the Bush family.” 
Obama said, “But you are right here.” 
Clinton replied, “It would be inappropriate for me to subdue him.” 
These were admirable words. He was able to govern the country because of such an attitude. Students of the Way today should have the same attitude. You should not scold others if you are not in the position to do so.
Okay, so I've obviously updated the story to make it more understandable to modern, Western readers.  The original was full of references to Generals of the Right Imperial Guard and privy councilors and various Japanese clans.  But I think (hope) Dogen's point still comes through:  don't criticize those you are not in a position to criticize.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Coastal Georgia

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit the truly lovely town of Richmond Hill on the Georgia coast for some business, but I also had a chance to stop and smell the wildflowers. There's beauty everywhere if we take the time to allow it to show itself to us, and this place in particular had a soporific, almost hypnotic, allure, both in the natural environment and where man's footprint was evident.

To be truthful, the last picture was taken from I-95 near Brunswick, Georgia, about a n hour or so down the road from Richmond Hill, but the views are still just as dramatic and compelling.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

On Empathy

Robashin, or "parental mind," is literally "the mind of an old woman" in Japanese.  In the Tenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Cook), Dogen mentions three minds: kishin (joyful mind), roshin (parental mind), and daishin (magnanimous mind). He said, “Roshin is the mind or attitude of a parent. In the same way that a parent cares for an only child, keep the Three Treasures in your mind.”

We should all develop roshin, not only for the three treasures (buddha, dharma, sangha) but for all sentient beings.  Probably the non-sentient, too.  Roshin evokes a response stronger than mere sympathy, producing something that we might come to all "empathy."  The difference here is that while mere sympathy might cause us to regret the circumstances of others, empathy compels us to take action.

The word “empathy” is only a century old and derives from the German einfühlung (“feeling into).”   Writing in The New Yorker, Paul Bloom notes that despite the recent coinage of the term, people have been interested in the moral implications of feeling the circumstances of others for a long time. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith observed that sensory experience alone could not spur us toward empathetic engagement with others: “Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers.” For Smith, what made us moral beings was the imaginative capacity to “place ourselves in his situation . . . and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”

In this sense, empathy is an instinctive mirroring of others’ experience. Neurological research has shown that some of the same neural systems ("mirror neurons") that are active when we are in pain become engaged when we observe the suffering of others. 

So empathy is triggered not by sensory input, but by the creations and formations of the mind.  We see the suffering of others, and then our mind creates a mental model of what that suffering may be like.  Adam Smith noted how “persons of delicate fibres” who notice a beggar’s sores and ulcers “are apt to feel an itching or uneasy sensation in the correspondent part of their own bodies.”  These mental models are what the Buddha called samskara, what linguists refer to as schema, and which has been discussed extensively in this blog.

Samskara, in the Buddha's Chain of Dependent Origination, is the substrate that gives rise to consciousness.  Although it arises in the subconscious mind and we are not aware of their creation, consciousness arises once we engage those mental models.  To the Buddha, consciousness arises whenever a sensation encounters a sense organ.  For example, visual consciousness arises when a sight encounters the eyes, and aural consciousness arises when sound encounters the ear.  Mental consciousness arises when a thought, especially one born from the subconscious, encounters the mind.

To take Adam Smith's example a step further, we see the afflictions of a beggar or the infirmed, our minds then create a mental model of what those afflictions must be like, and mind consciousness arises as we become aware of that thought.  Concretely, our awareness of the mental model manifests itself as the itching or unease experienced by the observer.

This arising of consciousness as samskara bubbles up from our subconscious is a continuous process, and is what comprises that curious phenomenon of consciousness as "self awareness."  It is nothing short of the cause of our total and complete conscious experience - our sensations, our memories, our thoughts, and our imagination.  The process never stops, just as out own self awareness is always present.  It must be exhausting, and it's little wonder that we periodically need to give it a rest and go to sleep, and let our minds drift off into unconsciousness.

Self-consciousness can give rise to egocentricity and all of the troubles and problems resulting from an egocentric attitude.  But as noted in the opening, it can also give rise to empathy, and empathy can give rise to compassion, which is empathy put into action.

These of course are just my own philosophical noodlings, thoughts that have arisen in my mind during and following meditation.  I would be interested in hearing what others have to say about these concepts.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


I was all prepared to actually discuss "Zen Buddhist meditation is neither Buddhism nor meditation" in Chattanooga today, but due to torrential rains, which made the drive both ways so much more interesting, the attendance was down to just two persons, so instead we talked about liturgy and practical matters of administering the center.

The big news is that we've finally got a decent (and homemade) temple drum in Chattanooga for chanting The Heart Sutra, as well as a new bench for the gongs so the attendant doesn't have to constantly bend down to ring the bells on the floor.  My back, among others, appreciates the hard work and offering to the sangha.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Thought For The Day

Zen Buddhist meditation is neither Buddhism nor meditation.

Discuss. . . .

Friday, May 17, 2013

Franz Ferdinand

Right thought, right speech, right action?  Has Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand gone Buddhist?

(For those of you who don't recognize the reference, the Buddha's Eight-Fold Path consists of right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation.)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Goat Farm Field Trip: National Brownfields Conference, Day Two

On the second day of the National Brownfield Conference here in Atlanta, I had the honor and the privilege of leading a field trip to The Goat Farm Arts Center.

Principal construction of The Goat Farm began in the early 1880s, and the facility was operational by 1889.  The facility manufactured cotton-ginning machinery as the E Van Winkle Machine Works until 1912, when it was purchased by the Murray Corporation of Texas and operated as the Murray Mill.

Today, it is a performing arts and art-studio space, and a vibrant centerpiece in the Atlanta arts community.  A group from the National Brownfields Conference attended an afternoon trip to see the space and hear the story of how the former industrial site has been transformed into the place it is today.

The attendees were literally form all over the country.  I noticed name tags from Georgia, Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, and Michigan, and even two from Alaska

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Brownfields 2013

The National Brownfields Conference, a large national conference that brings together developers, environmentalists, regulators, consultants, community organizers, urban planners, and visionaries, is meeting this year in Atlanta.

The idea of "brownfields" is to put back into productive reuse those old, underutilized industrial sites, so that unaffected property, "greenfields," can be preserved.  It's basically how I've made my living for the past decade or so.  The last time I was at a The National Brownfields Conference was when it was held in Boston back in 2006.   

Anyway, it's just getting kicked off today, with the only real event a Plenary Session with keynote speaker Ryan Gravel, whom I've met several times during my Atlanta Beltline activities, and have come to know and admire.

He knocked it out of the park today with an inspirational talk on the Beltline project.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

On Seeing Impermanence

The task that Zen Master Dogen set for himself was to practice and maintain the buddha-way.  For Dogen, practicing and maintaining the buddha-way was to abandon ego-attachment and to follow the instructions of his teacher.  

To abandon ego-attachment, he found he needed to put an end to greed.  To put an end to greed, he had to abandon egocentric self.  Dogen taught that seeing the impermanence of all existence was the primary necessity for abandoning egocentric self.  "Truly," he once wrote, "when you see impermanence, egocentric mind does not arise."

Egocentricity is assuming that there is some sort of substantial or even eternal ego or soul existing in the body, which itself is a temporal composite of various elements.  Thinking it to be substantial or even eternal, we attach to and identify with that ego or soul.  Dogen considered this to be the fundamental delusion.  His practice was to see egolessness and the impermanence of all existence, and to live on that basis without greedy desires. 

Those greedy desires manifest themselves in the concrete world by seeking fame and profit. This is why Dogen put such an emphasis on practicing the buddha-way without expecting any reward, especially fame and profit.  

For Dogen, one should practiced the buddha-way only for the sake of the buddha-way.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Zen Master Dogen said,
It is not possible to study extensively and obtain wide knowledge. Just make up your mind and give up trying to do so.  Focus your attention on one thing.  Study the things you have to know and the traditional examples of them.  Follow the way of practice of your predecessors. Concentrate your efforts on one practice.  Do not pretend to be a teacher or a leader of others.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Game of Thrones Mother's Day

And I can't omit a Happy-Mother's-Day shout-out to my own real-life Mom, vigilant keeper of the African studies flame, and who once literally battled an actual serpent using only the collected works of William Shakespeare.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Meditation on a Fallen Tree

Another tree down, another reminder of impermanence, this time on the Northside Beltline trail.  

These reminders of impermanence are not to be despised, for just as a fallen tree clears the view and help us see the way through the forest more clearly, perceiving impermanence helps us to see our own true nature.  

In the Gakudo-Yojishu (Points to Watch in Practicing the Way), Zen Master Dogen said, "Truly, when you see impermanence, egocentric mind does not arise."  The great Indian Patriarch Najaruna once said that the mind that solely sees the impermanence of this world of constant appearance and disappearance is also called the mind of wisdom (bodhi-mind).  

A fallen tree does not block our path, for just as every dharma barrier is also a potential dharma gate, a tree across the trail serves to remind us of even the impermanence of the Way.  The Sixth Chinese Patriarch Hui-Neng once said "Trees, grass, and bushes are impermanent and are nothing but Buddha-nature. Human beings and things, body and mind are impermanent and are nothing but Buddha-nature. The earth, mountains, and rivers are impermanent because they are Buddha-nature.  Supreme awareness (Anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) is impermanent since it is Buddha-nature. The great Nirvana is Buddha-nature since it is impermanent.”

We should take a moment to thank the fallen trees for their lessons.

Friday, May 10, 2013

It Is Known

Zen has a long history of hermits living in seclusion.  For example, Zen Master Daibai Hōjō climbed to the summit of Mount Daibai to be apart from human society.  Living alone in a hermit’s thatched hut, he survived on pine nuts.  Lotuses were plentiful in a small pond on the mountain, so Hōjō wore clothing made from the lotus leaves. He lived this way for more than thirty years, pursuing the Way in seated meditation.  He neither met anyone nor heard anything about human affairs whatsoever and he eventually forgot about the passing of years, seeing only the mountains around him turning first green and then yellow. 

He had been passing the months and years in this manner when a wandering monk arrived one day. The monk had come to the mountain in search of a suitable traveling staff, but had wandered off the mountain path and unexpectedly encountered Hōjō.  The monk asked him, “Venerable hermit, how long have you been living on this mountain?” 

Hōjō replied, “All I have seen are the mountains about me now dyed green, now dyed yellow.”

The monk then asked him, “In what direction should I go to find the path out of the mountains?” 

Hōjō said, “Follow the stream.”

The monk was struck by this response. So, when he returned, he told his teacher what had happened. The teacher said, “Some years ago, I once met a certain monk but I don’t know what happened to him later. I wonder whether he could now be that hermit.”  So the teacher sent the monk back to invite Hōjō for a visit, but Hōjō would not leave the mountain.  Rather, he composed a poem in reply: 

Broken down yet living still, a withered tree amidst the forest chill, 
How many times have I met the spring, my heart unswerving? 
Woodcutters pass this old withered tree without even a backward glance, 
So why does the carpenter so eagerly seek me out?

The upshot was he did not pay the teacher a visit.  Afterwards, he moved his hermitage even deeper into the recesses of the mountains, and composed the following poem: 

From this pond, the lotus leaves I have taken for clothing have known no end, 
And from a few trees, pine cones have supplied more than enough for my meals. 
Now people from the world have discovered my dwelling place, 
So I shall move my thatched abode to enter a seclusion ever more deep. 

This story is known by all, householders and monastics alike.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Meanwhile, Back In Maine

"But now, if you set up a thatched hut near to where the white rock protrudes from the moss-covered hills, while sitting upright and polishing your training, in a twinkling you will be one who goes beyond being Buddha and you will quickly bring to conclusion the great matter for which you have trained and studied your whole life." - Zen Master Dogen, 1231
According to the Waterville Morning Sentinel, Lena Friedrich, a student at the New York Film Academy, is making a documentary film about the North Pond Hermit, the 47-year-old man who lived in isolation in the woods of Maine for 27 years.  

Ms. Friedrich said she first became aware of the Hermit through a story that appeared in the New York Times.  “What interested me was not only the story, but all the reactions, and the diversity of the reactions that I find fascinating,” she said. “This is a guy that nobody knows, but everybody feels a connection to him; so that’s what we came here to explore.”

She said she is also interested in the idea that the Hermit, who for decades was the least socially connected person in the area, has suddenly become a famous person.  “Nobody has pronounced his name in 30 years, maybe, and now he is on everybody’s lips,” she said.  “That I find fascinating.”

Ms. Friedrich hinted that she has uncovered new angles in the hermit’s story that have not been reported yet, but she has not revealed any details.

Visiting the Hermit's camp in the rural Maine backcountry, she said she felt a connection with him. “It’s a place where you activate your imagination,” she said. “To see what he was looking at, what he was listening at, how he would wake up in the morning.”

Ms. Friedrich said she originally conceived of the film as a 25-minute short, but she is now leaning toward a longer version, perhaps feature-length. The finished product will be screened at the New York Film Academy in early September, and she hopes to have a screening in the Maine area in September. After that, she plans to shop the movie around at various film festivals. If it gets enough notice on the independent film circuit, she said, it could allow her to secure more widespread distribution.

Zen has a long history of hermits living in seclusion.  For example, Zen Master Daibai Hōjō climbed to the summit of Mount Daibai to be apart from human society.  He survived on pine nuts, living alone in a hermit’s thatched hut.  Lotuses were plentiful in a small pond on the mountain, so Hōjō wore clothing made from lotus leaves. He lived that way for more than thirty years, pursuing the Way by doing seated meditation.  He neither met anyone nor heard anything about human affairs whatsoever and he eventually forgot about the passing of years, seeing only the mountains around him turning first green and then yellow. 

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Worldly fools search for exotic masters, not realizing that their own mind is the master.
-Bodhidharma, The Wisdom of the Zen Masters