Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Compassion is a word that’s often encountered in Buddhism. In a few words, compassion is concern for other beings.
It doesn’t matter if other beings are humans, or birds, or cats, or reptiles. Compassion is not assignable. It’s all-inclusive.
Like Zen is Zen, compassion is compassion.
Guatama Buddha described compassion as that which makes one’s heart move at the pain of others.
The Buddha was asked by one of his followers if compassion was a part of their practice.
“No,” the Buddha answered. “The cultivation of compassion is all of our practice.”
Advance warning: I’m going to do considerable wandering this evening. I may even sound like I’m moralizing or sermonizing, which I’m not.
I may raise a lot of questions and offer not many answers, but that will be good. The answers are up to you.
Each of you, ask yourself, what do you do really well? What do you feel comfortable with in yourself? Happy with? Easy with? Fulfilled by?
It might be a skill such as speed-skating, or a talent such as painting. It could be cooking, or philosophizing, or speaking in public.
What do you have an aptitude for?
Don’t worry. I won’t ask you to speak out.
Just think of one or two things you are good at.
All right. Whatever you choose about yourself aren’t holy gifts bestowed on you by a kindly master of the universe.
They aren’t divine favors.
They are accomplishments you have involved yourself with over time, and in which you have trained yourself, because they felt right and good for you.
They are you.
Think about this. When you perform your “things,” you are practicing your way. Each person has his or her own way, his or her own realization of self. One person’s way is no better, no worse, than any other person’s way.
I won’t mention the talents of terrorists or corrupt politicians.
Now brace yourself because I’m going to veer off in another direction.
As you know, when I teach Zen I usually lecture a blend of Zen and Zen Buddhism.
I do this for a couple of reasons.
If I were to teach Zen I wouldn’t be sitting here talking in circles. I can’t say for sure what I might be doing, but it would probably be something much more spontaneous.
As an example, QUATZ!
That might be easier on me or more natural for me. But it could be difficult for you.
Remember that Zen is a name for the ultimate basis of all thought and being, for something that is independent of, and unrelated to, anything else. Because Zen is beyond the grasp of the relative mind, it can’t be simply defined or easily explained.
As I said earlier, Zen is Zen. It has to be experienced.
So in my teaching it’s helpful for all concerned to combine Zen with Zen Buddhism, and make occasional reference to Zen Buddhism, which is more traditional.
In Zen Buddhism you may come across the word Tathagata in reference to the Buddha. Thathagata sounds like something gee-whiz holy or sacred. However, it means one who has come and gone this way.
Isn’t that an interesting scrap of trivia?
Never mind what the point of that is. Just remember that if space really is curved, as some cosmologists claim, all these seemingly irrelevant asides will eventually bounce back, combine, and make fabulous sense.
Now, back to the start of this talk: the subject of compassion.
Compassion has to do with understanding or perceiving the feelings of others. Of course, it’s impossible for one person to understand totally how another person feels. But one can have a sympathetic insight into the feelings of others.
That’s what compassion is about.
I have three good friends who are suffering from life-threatening situations. I can’t possibly feel what they feel, physically or emotionally. But I can be aware of their misfortune, and I can be sensitive to it even though I can’t do much about it.
That’s compassion.
In Buddhism a bodhisattva is a person who is not seeking enlightenment for only himself. A bodhisattva wants to help all other beings realize their Buddha-nature. A bodhisattva is dedicated to compassion, to the effort of relieving the suffering of all beings.
Isn’t someone who is wholly devoted to something attached to that devotion?
And if a person is obsessed with the idea of compassion, won’t that person want to be good to someone who might not want or need such help? If an individual who is happy living frugally and close to nature is presented with a bundle of money, that person’s happy life is likely to be destroyed.
The point here is, you should watch where your compassion might lead you.
Another aside. When you read or hear that a bodhisattva is dedicated to saving all forms of life, that word “saving” shouldn’t be taken in the so-called religious sense. In the Christian sense, when a person is saved it means he or she comes to believe the man Jesus Christ is the son of God and, traditionally in most churches, when one is saved they are spared an endless vacation in Hell.
In Christianity, the savior of humankind is Jesus.
The Buddha is not a savior of anything. In Buddhism, “saving” refers to personal enlightenment. So if, in Buddhism, you hear of saving all living beings, it means helping them to gain awakening, helping them to achieve self-realization.
That’s compassion.
If we think of compassion as a human act of kindness, this isn’t compassion but self-serving. It is self-praise in a conscious effort to do good. There’s nothing bad about wanting to do good. But when we can practice compassion intuitively—when we can live compassion—then we are sharing our enlightenment with all forms of life.
The British Buddhist scholar Christmas Humphries mentions, in A Western Approach to Zen, one student’s view of compassion:
“The deepening understanding of the oneness of life produces an equally growing compassion for all forms of life. Then the stone is my brother . . . . But I must have experienced it myself.”
When Philip Kapleau (author of The Three Pillars of Zen was asked where compassion fitted into Zen, he answered, “Where doesn’t it fit into Zen? Then he added that compassion, like love, isn’t something one talks about.
He told a story about an ancient Chinese governor who spent several days with a Zen master. When the official was ready to return to the capital the master asked, “How will you supervise the people?”
The governor answered, “With compassion and wisdom.”
“Then,” the master answered, “every last one of them will be the worse off.”
According to Kapleau, a truly benevolent person doesn’t trumpet his or her benevolence. Such a quality should be so deeply engrained as to be second nature. It is a manifestation of one’s true self.
One’s true self is not second nature.
True self is first nature.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


I like to read the signboards outside churches. You know, the ones that list the hours for services, show the minister’s name, and present a clever message. The messages are intended to be inspirational, but some of them can be puzzling, even to a church-going individual.
To a non-churchy person such statements can be absolutely baffling, or else very funny.
For a local example: “Passport to Heaven. Apply within.”
I often wonder if each church minister thinks up these little nuggets of wisdom, or if there is the equivalent of what, in the music world, is called a “fake” book. A fake book is a collection of songs that anyone can use.
What these ecclesiastical memos say, or don’t say, and how they say, or don’t say, it reveals a lot about organized religions. For example, not long ago I read in front of church the following:
“Give your life to God. He can do more with it than you can.”
At first you might think, hey, that’s clever. God is all-everything, and so . . . .
Then you realize what’s really being expressed.
I’ll repeat the message: “Give your life to God. He can do more with it than you can.”
That is to say, don’t even imagine you can be responsible for yourself. Instead, look to something other than you, and depend on that other thing. Then whatever you do isn’t really your doing.
Then there’s the message, “Give your heart to Jesus, your brain to science.”
Zen is about you. It isn’t about reaching out for someone or something else but about looking inward to realize who you are. Once you really see yourself, there are no promises that you’ll be cured of alcoholism or facial warts. What is important is that you—not some other—will be administering to you.
To quote or misquote someone or another, “I am the most important [insert your own name] I know.”
Is that self-centered? Is that egocentric?
I don’t think so. What it means is taking your own self as the starting point. It means acknowledging the importance of your being to yourself, and keeping your being in your own hands.
Today I’d like to talk about what I call Kitchen Zen.
This talk was inspired by Dogen’s lecture, “Instructions to the Zen Cook.”
Kitchen Zen.
It’s a catchy phrase, isn’t it? I’d like to think I made up the term, but probably someone else coined it centuries ago.
Dogen Japanese Zen master Dogen Kigen lived from 1200 to 1253. At age twelve he began a dedicated life at Senkobo, a Tendai Buddhist monastery. At that time in Japan, many serious scholars were dissatisfied with the teachings of popular Buddhist schools because most of them read so-called sacred scriptures and practiced mysterious rituals.
Back then, Zen wasn’t widely known in Japan, so the real thinkers who wanted to dig deeply into Zen traveled to its birthplace.
In 1223 Dogen and a friend sailed from Japan and docked in central China. Their landing might have been Tsingtao or Shanghai.
For one reason or another Dogen was detained in port aboard the ship. One day an elderly Chinese man came aboard to buy supplies for his monastery. He was not only a monk, but the head cook at Mount A-yu-wang Monastery. He and Dogen hit it off from the start, and the two of them enjoyed many hours conversing and sharing intellectual matters. When Dogen asked the fellow to stay longer, the cook thanked him and said he had to return to his kitchen.
Dogen asked what was so important about that kind of work, and the monk explained kitchen labor was his form of Zen practice.
“But at your age why do you slave away in a hot kitchen instead of devoting yourself to meditation?” Dogen asked.
The cook laughed and said, “My friend from a foreign land, you may be a Buddhist, but you don’t know what Zen practice is.”
Several months later, when Dogen was studying in a Chinese monastery on Mount T’ien-t’ung, the old man showed up again, and the two of them resumed their discussions, Dogen asked the meaning of “practice.” The cook-monk answered, “Words and scriptures are one, two, three, four, five. Practice means nothing in the world is hidden.”
Dogen took this to signify that words and so-called holy writings were a dime a dozen, whereas Zen practice is enlightenment. In Dogen’s later writing titled The Lesson from the Monk-Cook he indicated how he had been emotionally stirred by the cook’s Zen.
This “man of the Tao,” as Dogen referred to the cook, had shown Dogen that work which flows out of awakening is actually Zen practice. Any activity—whether it’s teaching a room-full of noisy kids, or cooking a pot of rice, or building a house, or planting a garden, or maintaining a data-base, or carrying out the trash—can be Zen practice.
Any activity can be Zen practice.
To quote Heinrich Dumoulin, author of Zen Buddhism: a History, Japan, “The cook embodied the living tradition of Chinese Zen from the time of the fourth and fifth patriarchs . . . which taught that Zen is practiced not only by sitting cross-legged in meditation . . . but just as much in daily service to the community.”
That is what I call Kitchen Zen.
I’d like to talk about ten thousand things. Not ten thousand dollars, nor ten thousand books, which would take up more time than any of us could bear.
“Things” is a purposely fuzzy word. A “thing” could be an object, a happening, even a nonentity. There is a song titled “The Things We Did Last Summer,” whose words were vague, but suggestive.
In some of the older readings in Buddhism you might come across the expression “ten thousand things.” In Buddhism ten thousand isn’t some magic number. It too is vague. It could just as well be “a billion things.”
Ten thousand refers to the uncountable numbers of forms in which life force, or Buddha-nature, exists.
The phrase came into use probably in the time of the Taoist, Lao-tzu. Of course, ten thousand, or any other large number used in this context is a metaphor to achieve an effect beyond the range of ordinary language.
That is to say, Buddha-nature is everywhere.

The basis of the expression lies in the Zen notion of “not one, not two.” In order for there to be one of anything there must be an observer. Therefore, the observer plus the observed makes two. Two implies a relationship, and that makes three.
And so on, and so on.
Ten thousand things.
Lau-tzu’s Tao-te Ching, which dates from about the 3rd century BCE, mentions that the Tao brings about one. One brings about two. Two brings about three. Three brings about all things. The ancient Chinese referred to all things—which are limitless—as ten thousand things.
A couple of other Buddhist, or Zen, expressions can be equally baffling. I’m referring to the terms “suchness” and “isness.” These words can cause a hardnosed person to throw his hands up and say, “What the hell is isness? Is isness the opposite of isn’tness?”
To put it as simply as I can, isness or suchness is another way to refer to one’s true nature.
A paradox. If each of us—animal, vegetable, or mineral—has universal Buddha-nature, how is each of us an individual entity? To put it another way, if everything is Buddha-mind, isn’t everything the same?
The Japanese poet Ikkyu wrote about this puzzler when he mentioned that if there is no mind beyond this mind (speaking of Buddha-nature), then there isn’t any difference between Ikkyu and other people.
I’m not sure what that means. I think it has something to do with those enigmatic words from the Diamond Sutra: “There are no things or people, yet there are.”
Obviously everything is not the same. You aren’t a tree. You aren’t a grain of sand. Some of our linguistic metaphors would be puzzling to a being not familiar with humanity. What would a Martian think if it were in the early stages of learning English and someone said “That woman is a shrinking violet”?
In California calling oneself something other than one’s given name is common. I’ve known a Trout (who was male), a Willow (a female), and even a Squashblossom (whose gender was vague).
Aside from sometimes sounding a bit weird, there’s nothing of itself wrong, or bad, or terrible about taking on a colorful name. Remember the childhood chant, “Sticks and stones my break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Everyone is free to call themselves whatever they wish. I was given the name John, but I prefer to call myself Jack because it seems more informal.
I applied for my first passport in my fully saturated name of John Philip McDowell. When it expired, after four years, and I applied for a new passport, I applied as Jack McDowell. That threw the passport office into a tizzy. I was told I could change either the first name or the middle name, but not both at the same time. So I became Jack Philip until that passport expired. Then I renewed, dropping the Philip to be just plain Jack.
I guess I’m a living example of not two, not one.
The point of all this is that if a person feels the need for a special name or title, it may indicate that person is not selfless. He or she may have a self-image that is getting in the way of true nature.
Christmas Humphries mentioned (A Western Approach to Zen) that as long as ego fights with ego, there is no vision of the self which is beyond, above and yet within both.
When ego-self lets go is when Buddha-nature takes hold.
Buddha-nature is universal. It’s all-embracing. At the same time, Buddha-nature is distinctively individual.
In the Buddhist sense, feeding the ego leads to suffering because the ego has a huge appetite. The more you give it, the more it demands. You give it a hundred dollars, it wants five hundred dollars. You give it an old but operational Volkswagen, it wants the latest model Jaguar.
And so on to ten thousand things.
I realize I’m mumbling in the dark talking about such stuff to this group. I’d guess we are all fairly comfortable and content with what we have and what we do. If one of us wasn’t, he or she would do something about it.
And that says something about each of us. That says we each may perceive our Buddha-nature and that of all other things, whether they number ten thousand or more.
But that knowledge should not go to our heads.