Sunday, May 21, 2006


Teisho given at Sesshin, May 18, 2006

     In past talks I’ve mentioned how my father would try to stump me with meaningless questions that were akin to koans. One of his favorite brain-twisters was, “Why is a bicycle?”
     Zen individuals are often asked, why is Zen? That question in itself is Zenlike because it’s short and to the point, but the point isn’t quite clear.
The one being questioned usually takes the question not as why is Zen what it is, but why is he or she a Zen person. Either way, one’s response is pretty much the same, though it uses too many words.
     To address the question of why is Zen I’ll try to keep to the point.
For most people life is complicated.
Can we grant that?
Nations oppose, they squabble, and they go to war. Individuals can be ambitious, hurtful, destructive. Remember the Olympics ice skater a few years back who paid to have her chief competitor’s knees shattered with a metal bar?
People can be greedy. Remember all the shady securities traders who bilked people out of millions of dollars? Remember the savings and loan shysters who made off with millions more? Remember the CEO’s of big corporations who are paid annual salaries in the millions of dollars, and who fiddle with the bookkeeping in order to swindle their stockholders and gain more millions of dollars?
People can be selfish, egotistical, mean, and downright ornery. Some individuals will try anything, including homicide, to get what they want.
     When I was ten years old or so I sometimes categorized humanity as being no damn good because of the nastiness so many humans caused each other and themselves.
Over the years I think I’ve become more charitable.
I’m not trying to paint a picture of doom and gloom. Just look at the day’s news. Any day’s news. It’s all gloom and doom.
However, people can also be benevolent, obliging, gentle, altruistic. But it seems these kinds of people are uncommon. They don’t make the news.
The point is, life is tangled.
Yeah, yeah, you say. You aren’t talking about me, you say. I say that’s fine. If you are a good sort, and your own life isn’t complicated, you’re probably on the Zen path. But stay with me for some more words.
     The Buddha said life is suffering. Suffering is the word most commonly used, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the physical pain of stomach ulcers, migraine headaches, or impacted hemorrhoids. Suffering refers to frustrated desires, nagging wants, dissatisfaction, discontent.
Suffering means eating one’s heart out needlessly.
     Zen doesn’t ignore life and its hardships. A Zen person lives with the difficulties that are part of life. A Zen person lives in the world but is not part of the world.
     Most Westerners think of Zen in terms of ceremonial dress, and shaved heads, and detachment.
     Zen isn’t limited to a monastery in Japan, or to a hermit’s cave in China. Zen is for anyone anywhere. Zen doesn’t require robes and incense, gongs and chanting. Zen doesn’t demand denunciation of anything, or acceptance of anything.
     Zen is you, right now.
     That’s what Zen is, and that’s why is Zen.
     Most so-called religions are incredibly elaborate in their belief systems, and most religions are based on compensation. Do this, and you’ll be glorified. Don’t do that, and you’ll be rewarded. That’s because belief systems are devised and managed by humans, and humans are suckers for rewards.
     So, is Zen the do-all answer to life’s big and little problems? No, and no again. Zen does not offer quick-and-easy answers to anything, much less to suffering.
In fact, Zen generates one question after another. But if you try to find answers to Zen questions you become bogged down because you are thinking in terms of this and that, in terms of questions and answers, in terms of opposing things.
This is what Zen calls dualistic thinking.  Zen avoids dualisms because they don’t go anywhere.
Zen is you, and you are Zen.
     What Zen does is enable you to see life’s twists and turns clearly and to become conscious that those twists and turns aren’t really problems unless you allow them to be problems.
     In other talks I’ve mentioned people who imagine every combination of circumstances as a personal dilemma that has to be corrected. But consider this: Problems don’t appear out of nothingness. Problems aren’t like the Big Bang, a cosmic event that just happened.
Problems have a cause. They are created by people. The word problem—like the word religion—is a word I wish would go away because it’s a pointless expression. What most people think of as a problem is simply a situation that will fade away once it’s seen clearly for what it is.
Remember: If you understand the question, you don’t need the answer.
Do you remember the core of the Buddha’s teachings, the four noble truths? They have to do not with some sort of pie-in-the-sky-after-life but with life right now. The four noble truths acknowledge right off that life is not a bed of rose petals but a thicket of brambles.
We humans are not continuously cheerful. Instead, most of us are discontented, dissatisfied, and disgruntled. We feel we are never getting enough. Not enough money, not enough happiness, not enough sleep, not enough respect.
As the comic Rodney Dangerfield said, “I don't get no respect from my doctor. I told him I wanted a vasectomy. He said, with a face like mine I don't need one.”
Discontent is termed dukkha in Sanskrit. In English, dukkha is suffering.
And that’s the first of the four noble truths: Human beings suffer.
The second noble truth is stated simply. Suffering is the result of desire. In two words, we want. What’s ironic is that we usually want what we really don’t need. More money, a grand house with half-a-dozen bathrooms, a jazzy car that can go from a dead stop to sixty miles and hour in four seconds.
Do we really need a big house or a flashy car to be happy?
Remember, the best things in life aren’t things.
The third noble truth states we can do away with suffering. Note the word we. “We” means you, “we” means me. Intermediaries aren’t required.
No guru, no priest, no savior, no Supreme Being. You and only you can eliminate the worthless stuff you think life hands you but which you and only you create.
That isn’t hard to see, is it?
You’re the one in charge of your life. If you want your life to be filled with more than debris and litter, don’t look to someone or something else. Look to yourself, and keep away from the desire for litter. To keep away from desire you don’t have to become an ascetic or a priest or a monk. All you need do is follow the Taoist/Buddhist way and take the middle road.
That’s the third noble truth.
The fourth noble truth says to follow eight guideposts of the middle road. We’ll discuss those guideposts another time.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


     Once in a while it’s good to step back from our practice of Zen and refresh ourselves as to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. After all, as Zen people we aren’t blind followers. We may subscribe to a tradition, but we aren’t habitual worshippers.
     I was recently asked some of the usual questions that people ask about Zen, and so I’ll address a few of those questions as a sketchy roadmap for this talk.
What is Zen all about?
Is Zen a religion?
Is Zen a philosophy?
Is Zen the same as Buddhism?
To give a direct answer, Zen is a way of life. To give a Zen answer, Zen is nothing more than a bit of moss growing on the side of a rock.
If we, as Zen people, become so accustomed to our practice, and so obsessed with its historical lore, we may allow ourselves to lose sight of that moss on a rock. And if that happens we may find ourselves merely going through persistent motions.
To quote Samuel Johnson, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
One Zen writer [David Fontana, Discover Zen: A Practical Guide to Personal Serenity] said that Zen is both a practical and a spiritual path. Zen is spiritual because it encourages us to see the emptiness behind the world of appearances. That means Zen enables us to go beyond the artificialities and the deceptions humanity constructs in order to trick itself into accepting its own blather.
Zen is practical in that it deals with—it exists in—the present moment. It makes it possible for us to live life without being constrained by thoughts of yesterday and tomorrow.
Zen is both spiritual and practical because it lets us understand that all existence is sacred. Our human existence as well as the existence of that bird singing outside.
When I say existence is sacred am I attributing a sense of holiness? Not at all. I mean sacred in the sense of being exceptional, in the sense of surpassing what is common or usual. Of intrinsic worth. Uniqueness.
Unlike organized religions Zen follows no man-made rules. It has no ideology. This enables us to be free.
We are what we are, but too often humans allow themselves to believe they are something else. Zen allows us to really see ourselves. It leads us to discover our true being.
Remember the koan that asks what your face was before you were born. That is our true being.
Through Zen we gain awareness, serenity, compassion, and a sincere appreciation of the preciousness of our existence as well as the existence of all things.
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “I am a part of all that I have met.”
The world is a squirrel cage. Society hammers away at humans running here and there to do this or that, to be this or that. Society encourages people to behave in a manner that negates naturalness and promotes artificiality. Society encourages humans to wear masks and suits of armor that buffer them from the real world.
Zen enables us to see beyond the masks and the armor and live a life that is intuitive rather than established by edict.
Zen may threaten some people because some people can’t face their own true self.
To other people Zen may seem wishy-washy because they have to have some thing, such as a supreme being, to lean on. To create in one’s imagination a place, or an artificial being you can dump all your troubles onto, is easy.
Practicing Zen is not easy.  But being Zen is effortless because it is nothing more than unconditional living.
Still, Zen is not for everyone. Not everyone can let go.
Another quotation, this one from the 11th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam.
“I myself am heaven and hell.”
If you see that, you have a handle on Zen.
Zen confirms that you are not this or that, or something else. Zen says you are the enlightened mind. You are your own true nature.
Do you know what a flimflam man is?
A flimflam man is a con artist, a snake-oil salesperson.
I hope I don’t sound like a flimflam man. I’m not trying to peddle anything to anyone.
Zen people are not evangelists.
As I said, terrific as Zen is, it’s not for everyone.