Tuesday, July 29, 2008


In past meetings we’ve talked about intellect. That’s the mental ability to reason, or the capacity for understanding. It’s not just having knowledge, but being able to apply knowledge.

Intellect is wisdom, knowledge, understanding, intelligence, and reasoning all rolled into one.

Even though intellect is part of the human condition, Zen Buddhists go beyond it in order to become conscious of their true selves, conscious of their inherent Buddha-nature.

Zen Master Dogen had this to say about Buddha-nature:

1. All beings have Buddha-nature.

2. Buddha-nature is the total awareness brought about by zazen.

3. Buddha-nature is the realization of impermanence.

4. Buddha-nature does not reach beyond impermanence but is

one with it.

Buddha-nature may seem similar to intellect, but it outreaches intellect in two senses. One sense is perception, that is, the ability to instantly acknowledge the true nature of something. The other sense is intuition, that is, the ability to take instinctive action.

Life trains us to think, to analyze, and to weigh pros and cons.

Life enables us to intellectualize, to do something with our knowledge.

This is neither good nor bad. It’s life. Doing something with our knowledge is what human life is about. We have to recognize that fact, and at the same time we have to step back and see the limitations of knowledge.

So there is life training and there is Buddha-nature.

Are they the same, or are they different?

Is on better than the other?

This is an example of what Buddhism terms duality. Duality also shows up in our intellectualizing in terms of good or bad, right or wrong, this or that. Obviously we can’t eliminate life-training or Buddha-nature, so we must reconcile them.

We must transcend duality.

Japan is a group of four major islands. Because the country is surrounded by water, its temperatures swing widely from season to season. In winter, most of the country is cold, really cold. In summer it is really hot.

Most Zen temples don’t have central heating or cooling.

At a temple in Honshu, a monk who was physically miserable for most of the year asked the master how he could escape cold and heat.

“Go where there is no cold or heat,” the master said.

The monk, thinking in terms of geography, wondered if there was such a place in the world.

“But I don’t want to leave my country,” he said.

The master said, “You don’t have to leave your country. When you are hot, be hot. When you are cold, be cold.”

Think about it.

If we could run away from cold and heat, from good and bad, from right and wrong, that might be great. But we’d be like a hamster on a treadmill. We’d never stop running.

There is no place to run to. There is no tree to hide behind.

There is hot, there is cold. There is good, there is bad, There is right, there is wrong.

Life seems to come in pairs. There are even jokes that that start out, “First the good part, then the bad part.”

These are what Zen calls dualities.

So where is a place of no-duality?

Is it possible to break free from physical or mental distress?

Zen says to become one with distress. If the day is hot, don’t moan about how uncomfortable you are. Don’t feel put upon. Experience the heat for what it is instead of fighting it. Be one with it, what ever it may be.

When you become totally one with anything you become your master instead of its slave.

As hot as Japan gets in the summer, there are few places in the world that are hotter than Indonesia in August. When I first went to Bali I could hardly breathe in the 100-degree-plus heat. I was constantly drenched with perspiration. I physically drooped and mentally sagged.

It didn’t take long for me to decide that as good as air conditioning and cold drinks felt, I didn’t want to spend all my time sitting in luxury hotels, swigging iced beer. I wanted to experience Bali.

Besides, in the most fascinating parts of Bali—the back country—there are few fancy hotels and not much air conditioning.

I didn’t want to hide from the heat, and I couldn’t fight it, so I learned to connect with it. That didn’t take long—maybe a single day—because most of the torment was in my mind, not in my body.

So I went beyond intellect.

I accepted the intense heat for what it was. I became one with the heat. I stopped looking at thermometers because I knew the numbers would be at the high end. It was hot during the day, it was hot during the night. It was hot all the time

So instead of hiding out, I walked miles and miles every day. Of course, I sweated and I itched, but that no longer mattered. I had a wonderful time poking around ruins, playing soccer with little kids, and exploring open-air markets.

I copied the natives by taking frequent showers or going swimming.

At noon the sun was almost overhead, and the heat was fierce. Yet I was so with it that I occasionally experienced a cold chill of pure delight.

I did not master the heat. I mastered myself. I perceived what heat is, and I behaved accordingly. No longer was heat bad, and cool good. No longer was there a duality of the temperature versus me.

To recycle that corny expression, we were one.

In the words of an old song, “When you’re hot, you’re hot. When you’re not, you’re not.”

Hot is hot. Cold is cold. Each is what it is.

And you are what you are.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Sometimes going back to basics does no harm, and it may shed some light on a person’s foggy thoughts. In the days I spent in the mountains recently, high on the thin air, I had a lot of Zen thoughts, which I jotted down for later reference. This talk is a result of some of those reflections, plus some notions gleaned from the BBC. There may be a few repetitions here and there. I hope there won’t be too many contradictions.

What is Zen?

What we know as Zen or Ch’an is a school of Buddhism that came about in China as a merger of Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Chinese Taoism. “Ch'an” is the Chinese pronunciation of the Sanskrit word Dhyana, which means, more or less, meditation. “Zen” is the way the word Ch'an is pronounced in Japan.

Christmas Humphreys, one of the leading pioneers in the history of Buddhism, wrote, "Zen is a subject extremely easy to misunderstand." He was right.

Many people think Zen is a sort of mystical hocus pocus. A new-age fad. It’s neither one.

Zen is not a concept that can be described in words. Zen is something a person does.

Despite that, these words may help you grasp some idea of what Zen is about. But remember, Zen does not depend on words. It has to be experienced in order to be understood.

The Essence of Zen

At the core of Zen is the concept that all human beings are Buddha—that is, everyone has an intrinsic awareness—and that all they have to do is to discover that certainty for themselves. This is what is meant by that overworked word, enlightenment. As you know, I prefer the word awakening.

As ice by nature is water, all beings by nature are Buddhas. Apart from water there is no ice. Apart from beings, there are no Buddhas.

Zen sends us looking inside us for awakening. There's no need to search outside ourselves for the answers. We find the answers in the same place we found the questions.

We can't learn this truth by philosophizing, or by rational thought, or by studying scriptures, or by taking part in worship rites and rituals, or by following many of the other things that that are common to what are called religions.

Zen is not a religion.

The first step to realizing this truth is to give up logical thinking and avoid getting trapped in a web of words and concepts.

The History of Zen

Zen Buddhism was brought from India to China by the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma in the 6th century CE. From China it spread to Korea and Japan Zen's golden age began with the Chinese so-called Sixth Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713), and ended with the persecution of Buddhism in China in the middle of the 9th century CE. Most of those we think of today as the great Zen masters came from this period. Although Zen Buddhism survived the persecution it was never the same again in China.

Zen was popularized in the West by the Japanese scholar Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966), although it was known in the West before that.

Learning Zen

Westerners usually find it difficult to shake off their intellectual and dualist ways of thinking, which can get in the way of Zen.

Zen Buddhists pay less attention to sacred writings as a means of learning than they do to actually practicing Zen. The most common way of teaching is for awakening to be communicated direct from master to pupil.

Zen practices are aimed at taking the rational and intellectual mind out of the mental loop, so students can become more aware and realize their own Buddha-nature. In ancient times, mild physical violence was used to jar a student out of intellectualizing or out of getting stuck in some other way.

Students of Zen aim to achieve awakening by the way they live, and by mental actions that approach the truth without philosophical thought or intellectual endeavor.

Some Clues to the meaning of Zen

Because Zen is so hard to explain a few quotations may help you get an idea of what it’s all about.

--Zen is not a philosophy or a religion.

--The essence of Zen Buddhism is achieving awakening by seeing one's original or original nature directly, without the intervention of the intellect.

--Zen is big on intuitive understanding, on just “getting it,” and not so hot on philosophizing.

--Zen is concerned with what actually is rather than what we think or feel about what is.

--Zen is concerned with things as they are, without trying to interpret them.

--Zen points directly to something before thinking, before ideas about something come up.

--The key to Buddhahood in Zen is simply self-knowledge.

--To be a human being is to be a Buddha. What is called Buddha-nature is just another name for true human nature.

--Zen is being completely alive.

--Zen tries to free the mind from the bondage of words and logic.

--Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one's own being.

--Zen is meditation.

--Zen, in its own words, is a special transmission outside the scriptures without reliance on words or letters

--Zen is directly pointing to the core of humanity.

-Zen is seeing into one's own nature.

Some Zen techniques are compatible with other faiths and are often used, for example, by Christians seeking an understanding of their convictions.

Zen often seems irrational. It requires an intense discipline which, when practiced properly, results in total spontaneity and ultimate freedom. This natural spontaneity should not be confused with impulsiveness.

Finally, the essence of Zen is attempting to understand the meaning of life directly, without being misled by logical thought or language.

Paradoxically, to a Zen person, life has no meaning.