Tuesday, July 24, 2007


The Buddha lived in India, surrounded by several forms of Hinduism.

Hinduism is a religion that accepts many gods. It also accepts the

notion of reincarnation. The Buddha did not speak against such viewpoints,

he merely said they were unnecessary in ending discontent.

Is there such a thing as reincarnation?

Reincarnation is defined as:

1. a rebirth of the soul in another body, or

2 a rebirth in a new material form, or

3. a rebirth in another form, or

4. a new beginning.

Remember the symbol of Buddhism. A circle.

A circle has no beginning, no ending.

Where does something begin? Where does something end?

Where human life begins is a hot subject for the right-to-life movement.

Does life begin with the potential of a sperm or an egg?

Does life begin at the instant a sperm and an egg meet?

Does life begin at birth?

These are sizzling moral issues.

Or does life start to form with the hopes and the care of an individual’s prospective parents?

Or, does life begin with an individual’s education?

Or with an individual’s awakening?

And then, when does an individual’s life end?

What is this thing called death?

After death, what a person was in life is remembered. That remembrance is often termed that person’s spirit.

What sort of memory do we have of Adolph Hitler?

What sort of memory do we have of Albert Schweitzer?

Do individuals live on in the memories of others?

Remembrances of the dead may inspire living people, and those remembrances may pass on to future generations.

Remembrances live on.

This could be called a type of reincarnation.

“No beginning, no end” is not just a clichéd phrase.

In many Western cultures a lifeless body may be buried. In many Eastern cultures a body may be cremated.

There are exceptions. Tibetan Buddhists, and some Native Americans, expose a corpse to carrion—vultures and crows. It’s an efficient way of getting rid of the body. Also, there is a belief that the dead individual passes on to other living forms.

Whether a corpse is buried or burned, it is reduced to organic elements. What the dictionary calls the fundamental, essential, or irreducible constituents of a composite entity.

For examples, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium, carbon, and other essentials that occur naturally on Earth. These “other” essentials are the elements that make up the atmosphere we breath, and the elements that nourish living plant and animal life.

This could also be called a type of reincarnation.

Rather than “reincarnation,” perhaps “rebirth” is a better term. Or even “recycle.”

What constitutes a compost pile?

Decaying organic matter. Lawn clippings, leaves, coffee grounds, ashes, manure.

Matter is anything that occupies space.

In classical philosophy, matter is the raw material of the physical world.

In science, there are two schools regarding matter:

1. Classical physics says matter can neither be created nor be destroyed.

2. Modern physics claims matter can be transformed into energy, and energy into matter.

Take your pick.

In one form or another, all matter returns to the earth and to the atmosphere.

Then all things return as something or another.

There is no beginning, no ending.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Ever since the 1940s or 1950s, when Buddhism, and particularly Zen, became fashionable in the United States, their popularity has grown in the entire Western world.

I was raised in the Midwestern United States more or less as a Christian. At age 17 I became conscious of Buddhism when I first visited the Far East, and spoke with Japanese people. It was a marvelous discovery of a way of life I had never been aware of.

Buddhism was certainly known in the U.S. before then, especially within the Asian population. Around 1957, when I was living in California, Gold Mountain Monastery, a Buddhist Center, was established in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Out of curiosity I volunteered to help with the construction and dedication of the temple, even though most of the activities were in the Chinese language.

Also, about that time I began to practice Zen in the home of Japanese master Hiromu Oda. Fortunately for me, he spoke English.

“Hi”--Oda’s informal name—and I became good friends. He also taught sumi-e, Japanese brush painting, and I became one of his pupils. That led to the writing and publishing of my first book, The Art of Japanese Brush Painting.

As I said, Hi and I became good friends. He asked me to help him construct a patio on a patch of rock-hard ground behind his house. In spite of my limited hammer-and-nails experience with San Francisco’s Gold Mountain Center, I knew next to nothing about constructing a patio. But Hi knew even less about patios other than they were pleasant places to drink tea. So the two of us got along well.

I learned more about Buddhism and Zen from him; he learned a little about patios from me.

As widespread as Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam is today, Buddhism and Zen have become almost equally popular over the years since the 1950s.

One reason is that Buddhism and Zen are poles apart from what is known as religion.

1. Zen does not promise an afterlife.

2. Nor does it require any sort of belief in anything divine.

3. Nor does it have any rules or regulations.

4. Nor does it concern itself with sacramental matters.

4. Zen does not have a holy book.

5. Zen has no prayers.

Most people feel a need for such fringe benefits, and are uncomfortable if these embellishments aren’t accessible. Most people crave something outside of themselves in order to feel validated.

What Buddhism is about is so fundamental that it is intimidating to many people who have been brought up in the belief of something outside of themselves.

What is Buddhism about?

It’s about understanding. Understanding the human condition, understanding why we are less than content, and understanding how we can end that discontent.

To link Buddhism, its offshoot, Zen, and their common roots in Taoism, what they are about, in seven words, is living in harmony with the present moment.

That’s worth repeating: living in harmony with the present moment.

Some writers and scholars equate Buddhism with Christianity or with other religions. They draw significant parallels between them the way parallels have been drawn between the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and that of J.F. Kennedy, and between the lives of Jesus and Elvis.

For example, did you know that Lincoln’s son had a pet turkey named Jack?

Or, did you know both Jesus and Elvis were Capricorn?

Furthermore, Jesus was a carpenter. Elvis’s favorite high school class was wood shop.

Also, the name Elvis Presley has twelve letters. The name Jesus H. Christ has twelve letters.

Eerie coincidences, eh?

Buddhism can’t be linked with any sort of religion because it is unique.

Zen can’t be linked with religion because it is self-sufficient.

Religious prayer is talking to one’s god. Prayer usually asks for favors, such as “Please heal Aunt Mabel’s cancer.” Or, “We ask you to bless this food we are about to eat.”

Buddhist meditation, as well as Zazen, is listening to ourselves.

Still, we live in an interdependent world. Buddhism and Zen are about realizing your own being as it relates to all beings.

To quote Buddhist writer Gary Gach (Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism), “The Western mind-set is typically dualistic; the self split asunder from the world, . . . body separated from soul, self from the cosmos, humanity from God. The Eastern mind-set, on the other hand, sees humanity and the cosmos as interconnected, intertwined.).”

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


Zen goes back a long way in time to Buddhism. Buddhism goes back a long way to Taoism. Taoism goes back a long way to a collection of ancient Hindu discourses called the Upanishads. The Upanishads go back to the oldest-known Hindu texts, the Vedas, which may date as far back as 1500 BCE.

What came before the Vedas? When was the first, faint beginning of what we know as Zen? When did existence commence?

No one really knows. No one is really concerned, except perhaps historians and astronomers.

Will there be some sort of ending to existence? No one really knows. No one really cares, except perhaps pious zealots.

If Zen or Buddhism has an icon, a visual representation, it’s a circle. A circle has no beginning, no ending.

What does past or future matter?

The past is gone. The future is yet to come, we like to think.

All that matters is right now.

Buddhism is not a religion, a belief, or a creed. It’s not a theory or a philosophy, or a doctrine.

Buddhism is a way of living right now.

To the Western mind, trained in reasoning, speculation, and logic, Buddhism is an anomaly:

1. Buddhism has no rules. There’s no “Do this,” or “Don’t do that.”

2. Buddhism’s understanding is self-knowledge. There’s no dependence on the written word.

3. Buddhism’s behavior is self-discipline. I am responsible for myself.

4. Buddhism is tolerant. It recognizes that what works for one person may not work for someone else.

After the Buddha found out what worked for him, he didn’t go around insisting that other people agree to his way. He essentially said, “This works for me. You are on your own.”

Most people are uneasy being on their own. They need something or someone else outside of themselves.

The Buddha didn’t talk in terms of rational matters or methodological issues, so his way can’t be called a philosophy or a science. He never mentioned a supreme being, so his way can’t be called a religion.

Humans like to name everything: dogs, trees, systems of thought, beliefs. And so on. And so on.

So what is Buddhism, and what is one of its paths, which we know as Zen?

A way of life.

Better yet, the way of life.

Never mind questions.

Buddhism—and especially Zen—offer silence to questions rather than answers.

Where did we, or everything, come from? What happens when we die? What is the purpose of life?

No one knows for sure, so there are no answers. If there are no answers to life’s little mysteries, why trouble ourselves over the questions?

We can’t do anything about what has already happened, and we can’t do anything about what might happen.

Right now is something we can do something about.

Buddha is known for his awakening to the fact that there is a lot we don’t know. He also realized that life is not all peaches and cream.

As wonderful as life is, it involves such uncomfortable events and processes as aging, and sickness, and death. Still, those things are part of being.

Enlightenment for the Buddha may have been sudden, but it came to him after many years of self-observation and the awareness of his relationship to all existence.

We read of self realization having occurred to someone when a pebble struck a stalk of bamboo, or when a frog hopped into a pond. These recorded happenings may seem instantaneous, but they came about after long periods of meditation.

A burst of lightening may look as if it’s sudden, but it’s a result of built-up atmospheric changes.

Awakening, that is, enlightenment is not a sudden flash but an evolutionary process.

The word “dharma” appears frequently in Buddhist readings and dialogues. It’s a term that means truth, path, or the teachings of the Buddha.

Dharma usually isn’t immediately perceived. Most individuals awaken to it gradually.

As you comprehend the teachings of the Buddha, your understanding of dharma fits itself to your individual character. It may take a while.

Be patient with yourself and with others.

So what’s the point of this talk?

That’s for you to comprehend for yourself.