Tuesday, April 18, 2006


     I’d like to talk about something that is common to Taoism, to Buddhism, and to Zen. It’s what is known as The Way. Basically The Way has to do with accepting whatever the present moment is without wanting it to be anything else. The Way also has to do with working within the natural order of things.
The Way is perhaps better known in its Chinese translation, which is the Tao. The printed Chinese character for this word originally meant a path to reach some place, but the character also suggested walking, and the face. To walk to some place you need to face in that direction and you need to take a path that leads there.
Humans are obsessed with saving time and effort, and they usually try to take the quickest route to get somewhere. As they proceed they look for shortcuts to make the going even easier.
Lao-tzu was perhaps the first person to enunciate The Way, that is, the Tao. Lao-tzu was a Chinese philosopher and a contemporary of Guatama Siddhartha, the Buddha. Lao-tzu said that The Way is through self-knowledge and the acceptance of nothingness. According to Lao-tzu, the greatest action one can achieve is living according to the total flow of life and the underlying pattern of the universe.
For that there are no shortcuts. Shortcuts in life can lead to early death.
Being in harmony with the Tao, that is, with The Way, means doing nothing artificial or unnatural but instead following one’s own true nature. The Way shouldn’t be false or man-made, and it can’t be named or defined. It’s the spontaneity and freedom of the universe.
     Legend says that the Buddha was once asked if he was a god, or a saint, or a magician, all of which he denied. When he was then asked what he was, he said, “I am awakened.”
Zen master Dogen writes of “Buddha-way,” which refers to the truth to which the Buddha awakened. Dogen advocated the day-to-day practice of simply zazen, which he called the Buddha-way.
     Unfortunately most people think of Zen practice, and of The Way, as going somewhere and achieving something. They think sitting in silent meditation and clearing the mind is foolish unless there is an objective in sight—a purpose—and enlightenment is gained.
     This is known as enlightenment greed. Westerners are obsessed with enlightenment because to them it represents a payoff.
     Most so-called religions have a purpose, and that purpose is the saving of one’s soul. That term of saving one’s soul is an interesting one. First, what is meant by “saving”? Saving for what? Saving from what? Setting free from the consequences of sin? Redeeming?
     I remember a bit of graffiti I read somewhere. Some pious person had scribbled on a wall the words “Jesus saves.” Someone less reverent added “At the Bank of America.”
     That was a bit of clever wall scrawl, but there was more. In another handwriting were the words, “No I don’t.”
     Then came the capping line: “Quiet, son.”
     So much for saving.
     It’s interesting that only humans have to have a purpose. An aim. A goal. Where I live many oak trees grow wild and naturally. Judging from the size of some of them, several are quite aged. Does an oak tree have a purpose? An oak tree is simply an oak, and it is an oak superbly and wonderfully. Most oaks, if left alone, will exist much longer than any human. Without making a big deal out of it, an oak follows The Way
The Way does not have a purpose. It does not have an end to be striven for.
     To Dogen, The Way wasn’t a progression in one direction from here to there.
Instead The Way is a circle that has no beginning and no ending. We are born, we live, we die. This is the life of a Buddha. According to Kosho Uchiyama Roshi, who wrote an excellent commentary on Dogen’s Bendowa (in the book The Wholehearted Way), the only basis of any possible system of values must be the fact that we are living right now, right here.                  
     The gate to attaining The Way is Zazen. Zazen leads to awareness, and awareness leads to awakening. Awakening is self discovery, self realization. Self realization leads to The Way. Self realization is The Way.
     Self realization is the Way. That’s like Dogen’s saying that Zazen is enlightenment.
     And here we are back to that circle of no beginning, no end.
     Not everyone can understand this, and many people don’t want to understand. That’s unfortunate, but it’s how it is. We can’t go out on the street and collar people to try to convince them of the value of The Way. Zen isn’t a tradition of proselytizing, of converting to a doctrine. Zen doesn’t attempt to persuade people they are better off in Zen.      
And Zen doesn’t depend on blind faith. It isn’t cold acceptance of what a master or a teacher says.
     Some people love to argue doctrine and dogma. They ask question after question not in order to find out more about something but because they want to substantiate their own convictions.
     I once gave an introductory talk on Zen to a Unitarian group. Now most Unitarians are regarded as free thinkers, unattached to any solid beliefs, and open minded. So at the end of my talk I was surprised and amused when a woman in the front row snorted, “Well, I’m not buying it.”
     Well, I wasn’t selling it.
     Zen is not for such individuals.
     It’s like carrying oars to people who live in the mountains.
     Does following The Way make one a better citizen? A better parent? A better anything? Maybe yes, maybe no. That’s not what matters.
     Following The Way makes one a better one, and that’s what matters.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Zen literature offers many stories about masters whose character was demonstrated by a cryptic statement, or even a wordless act. My talk today is adapted from a Japanese account that first appeared in an 18th-century collection with the curious title of Blowing a Solid Iron Flute Upside Down.
Don’t ask about that iron flute. I’ll talk about it some other time.
     First, let’s consider something.
People usually go to hear a learned person talk about something. Tibetan Buddhists travel long distances to listen to a lecture by the Dalai Lama. Christians and Jews go regularly to church or to synagogue anticipating a discourse by a minister, a priest, or a rabbi.
     A question: Why do people want to hear someone give a speech? Listening to a truth-seeking talk is not an entertainment. It’s not like watching a television soap opera.
     A few possible answers: The speaker’s words may be beneficial to a listener. They may be enlightening, inspiring. They may offer fresh thoughts. They may encourage thinking. They may suggest answers to questions. They may open new ways of seeing oneself and the world.
     All of these reasons why people go to hear someone speak are good reasons, and they lead to a story.
At a morning lecture a Zen master addressed a group of novices. Later in the day the master was stopped in the monastery garden by one of the monks.
     The monk said, “Master, I have a problem. Will you solve it for me?”
     The master fixed a beady eye on the monk. Then he said, “I will take care of your problem at the next lecture.”
     Late in the afternoon all the monks gathered for the evening talk. The master called out, “Will the monk who told me he had a problem come up here right now.”
     The monk walked up to the master, who was seated in front of the audience. The master grabbed the monk by the shoulders and gave him a good shake. Then he tweaked the monk’s nose hard.
     “Pay attention, monks,” the master said. “This fellow has a problem he wants me to solve at this lecture.”
     The master pushed the monk to one side and returned to his room without saying another word.
     Think about this.
What is going on? Why was the master so brusque? How could such a severe teacher be respected?
What is the point of this story?
     As starters, here is a question.
In the beginning of your practice is it possible to meditate intensely if you do not have a question, an uncertainty?
     Problems come in all shapes and sizes. There are big, fat, serious concerns, and there are little, insignificant, frivolous questions. A problem is whatever one makes of it.
     I personally don’t care for the word “problem,” so I seldom use it. Humans create their own self-styled problems. If a person experiences no setbacks in life, you can bet he or she will manufacture impediments to suit him or her self.
     That is to say, humans dote on problems.
     I used to work with a fellow whose favorite expression was, “We have a problem.”
     First, I didn’t care for the “we” part. Maybe Paul—who was otherwise a fine editor—had a problem meeting a deadline, or writing a chapter of a book. But his habits didn’t include me.
     Second, I felt Paul invented ostensible problems just to make his life more interesting.
     In a compassionate spirit, I used to think that perhaps I could help Paul work through what he perceived to be a problem. But after a few tries I learned I couldn’t perform a miracle and make everything hunky-dory for him when he was letting the notion of problems master him instead of the other way around. So I quit trying.
     Was it Dale Carnegie who said “There are no problems, only solutions”? Or was it Julius Caesar? Or was it Lao Tzu?
     Everyone experiences glitches in life. More often than not these snags are minor flaps that people use as excuses to spoil an otherwise fine day. I don’t mean to jeer at problems. I just don’t like to assign much importance to much of what most people consider to be afflictions.
     Now if you are hanging by a vine over a hungry tiger and a mouse is nibbling the vine, you might have a problem. Remember what the fellow did who found himself in this situation? He ate a wild strawberry and savored its sweetness.
     Are any of you familiar with TANSTAFL? I’ll spell it: T-A-N-S-T-A-F-L. It stands for There Ain’t No Such Thing As Free Lunch.
     Do you know the origin of the expression “free lunch”?
     In the early 1900s taverns and bars laid out huge sideboards of ham, turkey, cheeses, pickled eggs, breads, and peanuts, all at no extra cost to patrons. No one had to pay for what he ate, only for what he drank. This was a free lunch, right?
     Not quite. Everything on the spread was salty. The more a barfly ate, the thirstier he became. Which meant he had to run up a hefty drink tab to quench his thirst.
     Remember, there ain’t no such thing as free lunch.
     I think I’ve drifted.
     I was talking about the monk who said he had a problem, and the master who yanked the monk’s nose, then walked away without giving an evening lecture.
Again I ask, rhetorically, for there is no real answer, what’s going on here?
     What might the master’s actions signify?
     If I were to speak directly to the monk, I might say, “My friend, meditation and so-called problems are mutually inclusive. The point in meditating is finding out how to recognize a so-called problem and to immediately deal with it. You, sir, don’t need to ask the help of the master.
     “The master solved your so-called problem in the morning. Didn’t you realize that? In the evening his non-lecture was clear and eloquent.”
     Nyogen Senzaki, a Zen master who lived in California until his death in 1958, told of a personal experience that relates to what I’ve been saying.
     Once a lay person visited Senzaki’s zendo for a tour. In the meditation room he asked, “What is Zen?”
     Senzaki whispered, “We don’t talk in the meditation room. We meditate.”
     The two of them walked into the library. “But what is Zen?” the visitor asked again.
     Senzaki said, “In the library we don’t speak. We read books.”
     Finally they reached the kitchen, and, sure enough, the visitor asked “What is Zen?”
     Senzaki said, “In the kitchen we cook without conversing.”
     As the master escorted the visitor to the zendo exit, the fellow opened his mouth to say something. Before he could speak, Senzaki shook hands, turned around, and closed the door behind him.

     I wonder if the visitor understood what Senzaki was telling him.