Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen are interrelated. I’d like to talk about their common denominator, the Way.

The Way is a guide to harmonious living. Basically, it means accepting the present moment without wanting it to be anything more or anything less.

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 one’s face.

In other words, to walk to some locale you need to face in that direction and you need to take a path that leads there.

Common sense, yes?

However, humans are obsessed with saving time and effort, and they usually try to take the quickest route to get somewhere. Instead of appreciating their route, they look for shortcuts to make the going even easier.

On the way of the Way, there are no shortcuts.

The Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu, said the Way is experienced through two modes:

1, Self-knowledge, and

2. The acceptance of nothingness.

According to Lao-tzu, the greatest action one can achieve is living according to the total flow of life.

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, and living fully with whatever is dealt.

That does not mean one has to be a weak jellyfish. It means one should roll with the punches, bend like the bamboo.

The Way can’t be named or defined, and it can’t be false or synthetic,

Unfortunately, most people think of the Way, and of Zen practice itself, as achieving something. They think sitting in silent meditation and clearing the mind is foolish unless there is an objective in sight, a purpose.

This is known as awakening greed. Westerners are obsessed with awakening because to them it represents a return for the effort they have spent in sitting.

Most 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?

It’s interesting that only humans have to have a purpose. An aim. A goal.

In this part of the country, there are many oak trees. 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 live much longer than any human will.

I could say that an oak tree follows the Way

The Way does not have a purpose. It does not have an end for which to strive.

The Way isn’t a progression 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 means to attaining the Way is zazen. Zazen leads to awareness, and awareness leads to awakening. Awakening is self-discovery, self-realization.

Self-realization is the Way.

Self-realization is the Way. That’s like Dogen’s saying that Zazen is awakening.

And here we are back in that circle of no beginning, no ending.

Not everyone can understand this, and many people don’t want to understand. That’s unfortunate, but that’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 people to a dogma. Zen doesn’t attempt to persuade people they are better off in Zen.

And Zen doesn’t depend on blind faith. It isn’t stone-acceptance of what a master or a teacher says.

Some people love to argue doctrine. They ask question after question not in order to find out more about something but because they want to validate their own convictions.

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.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


For this talk I’m going to enlarge, and combine, a couple of previous talks because they closely relate to one other. Well, that’s a redundancy, because everything in Zen relates to everything else. Anyway, the subjects are Walking Meditation, and Absorption.

Essentially, walking meditation, ki-hin in Japanese, is a physical break from zazen, sitting meditation. It’s also a check on your concentration.
Can your mind remain quiet when you go from sitting to standing to walking? Can you continue meditating without feeling self-conscious about moving around? Can you walk and meditate without worrying about whether you’re doing everything right?
Remember, in Zen there is no right or wrong.
Ki-hin is a step along the way of being able to fully engage in meditation while sitting, or standing, or walking, or carrying on your daily activities.
Ki-hin is zazen in motion.
It is a link between sitting meditation and maintaining constant, clear awareness in everyday life.
Walking meditation is not a challenging procedure. Fold your hands on your solar plexus. Stand straight, and look down and forward at about a forty-five degree angle. Place one foot ahead of the other by about half a length. Transfer your weight to the forward foot. Move the rear foot forward and transfer your weight.
Oh, yes, and keep your eyes open so you don’t collide with someone, or else with a wall. I’ve seen it happen.
Breathe easily, regularly, and in time to your steps. Continue to meditate. Be in physical and mental balance all the time. Be aware, without thinking about being aware.
Move like flowing water.

Samadhi is a Sanskrit term that means total absorption. It is used in Hinduism and in Yoga, under slightly different connotations. We won’t go into them because that might confuse the issue.
Just now, the issue is Zen.
Samadhi is a concept often encountered in Zen, but not always in other forms of Buddhism. In Zen it refers to clearing the mind of all thoughts during meditation.
There is a story of a surgeon performing a delicate procedure in Japan. A severe earthquake rocks the operating theater, but the lights remain on. Nurses and attendants are terrified and run out of the operating room, but the surgeon continues with his work.
Later, when the surgeon was told of the earthquake, it was the first he knew of it.
He had been so engrossed in what he was doing, he was oblivious of everything going on around him. He was in a state of samadhi.
When we are in this state we are forgetful of ourselves. Nothing in the world around us affects us.
Still, even though we are unflappable and totally dedicated to what we are doing, we are not shut down. Our mental switch is not in the “off” position. Our intellectual lights are not out. We are occupied completely, yet we are altogether aware of everything. Sounds, lights, temperatures. We are aware of all that but not affected by it.
Samadhi is essential to Zen meditation, yet I hesitate even mentioning it because someone might interpret it as something to strive for. And when we strive too much to gain something—as I have mentioned in other talks—we tend to get in our own way and hinder ourselves.
I mention samadhi only because the word pops up in Zen writings.
Now that I have mentioned it, forget it.
If you are doing meditation well, you will be totally absorbed without realizing it, and without trying. The knack is to be aware of your absorption without thinking about it or making an issue of it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

mind or gray matter

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past or dream of the future, but concentrate your mind on the present moment.”
The word “mind” is a dodgy term for philosophers, for psychologists, and for physiologists. I owe most of the thoughts in tonight’s talk to James Austin, neurologist, and author of the book, Zen and the Brain.
Austin wrote that “mind” is a slippery word that creates more problems than do many other words, because it has been used to mean many different things.
The brain is a thing. It has color, it has weight, it occupies space. Is mind part of the brain, or is mind an entity of its own produced by the brain?
What is mind? It’s not an object you can lay your hands on. So is it a notion, a concept, an idea? Does mind exist by itself?
It’s like trying to comprehend what, in quantum theory, is called the Standard Model of light. Before Einstein, light was thought to be both particles and waves. The Standard Model clarified this theory because it includes fermions and bosons. There are four bosons, which include mesons, which include quarks and anti-quarks.
And some people think Zen is baffling.

Woody Allen said man consists of two parts, the mind and the body, only the body has more fun.
As Zen practitioners, when we do zazen we may first be aware of our breathing. Then, as James Austin says, stimulus and response patterns drop out by themselves, which means we stop being attentive to inhalations and exhalations. We enter what is known as mushin, or no mind. However, the Japanese term, mushin, means without mind and without heart.
Nevertheless, we do not become heartless or unconscious.
Instead, in mushin the brain has shucked off judgments, and worries and thoughts. It has not stopped thinking, nor has it gone into hibernation. It has become highly receptive, sharply aware.
When you sit in zazen you may hear a fire truck’s siren, but you don’t wonder where the blaze is. You may feel the room’s automatic heating or cooling kick on, but you do not wriggle in pleasure or annoyance.
You let what is, be what it is.
Zen’s no-mind suggests a mental attitude in which you are extremely attentive to the input of your senses, but you are not attached to them. That is, no-mind is different from non-thinking.
If the Zen term no-mind implies non-attachment, does the Zen term mindfulness imply a mind full of thoughts? The two terms may sound opposed, but they point toward similar modes of meditation practice.
Zazen is attention in which the brain is empty of all associations.
To quote a brilliant phrase of Austin’s, “Then, the process which began on the cushion during zazen continues afterward as an ongoing mode of uncluttered living.”
That is to say, meditation is awakening (some call it enlightenment). Off the cushion, awakening is genuine living. It is freedom from mental disorder, and the opening of a mindful state of awareness.
Remember the story of the monks arguing whether the wind caused the temple banner to flap, or if the banner caused the wind to flap.
The Zen master cut short the discussion by saying, “Neither. It is your mind that is flapping.”