Friday, December 18, 2009


A warning.

This talk starts nowhere, and goes nowhere.

Welcome to Zen.

In several of my travels, particularly in Asia, I’ve been asked why most Americans are dabblers. We are often perceived as a nation of faddists. We tend to pick up on short-term things that come and go. In many foreign eyes, Americans are thought of as liking to be thought of as cool, hip, mellow, groovy, awesome.

We latch on to spiritualism, to exotic forms of Yoga, to various types of meditation, to Sufi, to Wicca. All may be reasonable disciplines, at the time, but we seldom stick with any one before heading off to try another.

An example is electronic evangelism. You might be amazed at the numbers of people who subscribe to the claims of some radio and televangelist preachers.

Recently I saw a video of a television sermonizer who beseeched God to grow new legs on a dual-amputee. The preacher also asked God to let the same fellow see through his glass eyeball.

The preacher guffawed and giggled constantly at his on-stage doings, as if he were amused at the credulity of the live audience. However, the audience, to a T, appeared to swallow everything whole.

Honestly, I’m not poking fun at such people. I’m merely mentioning them as examples of the flip-flopping of so many Americans.

Getting back to Zen,

Zen first appeared in the United States in 1893, when Soyen Shaku introduced it at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. That’s a good while, so maybe Zen is here to stay.

In the 1940s and 1950s the output of such writers as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Kenneth Rexroth helped to raise the awareness of Zen in America. It’s interesting that all of these fellows were Californians of the so-called Beat Generation. And to this day California is known for its spiritual and consciousness-raising movements, as well as its dabblers.

So, after more than a hundred years in America, is Zen a passing fancy or is it something that is stabilized? Who knows? Who can even make a wild guess? Maybe Zen in America is merely one hand clapping. Or the flapping of the mind, like a wind-blown banner.

Is anyone familiar with the name Tenzin Gyatso? I’m sure everyone is familiar with the person: the exiled political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. He is widely known not for working so-called miracles, or preaching salvation, but for his emphasis on compassion.

Compassion is awareness of the suffering of others. It is the hallmark of Buddhism, including Zen.

Life is suffering, whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological.

Once we understand that, we can help others to understand.

This is compassion.

One interesting thing about Zen—I should say one of the many interesting things about Zen: You can put it into practice, no matter if you are a Christian, a Jew, or a Moslem. You don’t have to betray or change your fundamental beliefs.

Furthermore, you don’t have to profess or broadcast you are a Zen person.

Just live Zen. Be Zen.

In Zen you don’t pray. You don’t need someone or something to forgive you or grant you mercy . . . whatever that means. You don’t need anything more than yourself, and an open mind.

Zen is basically meditation and letting go. Flushing your mind and letting it open up.

Traditionally in Asia, Zen has been the calling of monks and nuns, who have dedicated themselves to a monastic life. In America Zen is for anyone who wants to clear his or her mind and seeing themselves for what they are.

Look at us, right here. We are a motley crew comprising artists, educators, scholars, students, musicians, and other fascinating types. We aren’t dues-paying members of any organization. We aren’t bound by vows to a religious life. We don’t live in a monastery. Some of us—or maybe none of us—attend a place of worship.

Most of us get together on a regular basis—Monday evenings—and we sit in silent meditation. No fanfare. No ceremony. No hallowed music. We just sit.

Now, to some people that would sound terribly dull. Most people might think that an hour or so of just sitting with no television to entertain us would be mind numbing.

Instead, it is mind opening. Refreshing.

To non-practioners, Zen may seem irrational. To them it may seem foolish and crazy. But craziness is one of the joys of Zen.

Life itself doesn’t make sense, because it doesn’t follow a rational path. Unforeseen things happen. There are tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. People become ill. They die at an early age. Humans may think they control their destinies, but shit happens.

Humans fight against fate because fate isn’t logical. It doesn’t always work to human advantage.

Zen confronts.

In the Japanese No play a Zen priest is asked about zazen. He answers (From A Commentary by Amakuki Sessan, on Hakuin’s Song of Meditation, in A first Zen Reader) as follows:

“Not to lament, . . . ;
“Not to choose whether the law be kept or broken;
“Not to fall into either being or not being—
“This is the sign by which all become Buddhas.”

A monk asked Master Baso, “What is Buddha?”
Baso answered, “This mind is Buddha.”
Some time later, another monk asked Baso, “What is Buddha?”
Baso answered, “This mind is not Buddha.”

I ask: Do you understand?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


A koan: When you can do nothing, what can you do?
I’d like all of you to cup your hands in front of you. Now tell me what you have in your hands. What color is it? How heavy is it? What does it sound like?
Nothing is hard to describe, isn’t it?
Talking about nothingness isn’t easy either. In fact, it’s downright difficult. For a parallel, take jazz. Someone once asked Louis Armstrong what jazz was. Louis answered, “Man, if I have to tell you, you’ll never know.”
This is a Zen group, and I am speaking in Zen terms, not philosophical terms. Such academics as Parmeides, Heidegger, and Sartre all wrote about nothingness.
To them, the question was why is there something rather than nothing?
If you say “there is nothing,” then you have to acknowledge an observer. And if there is an observer, there is something
I can’t tell you what nothingness is. No one can. I can scatter words around, but words fall short. In fact, when it comes to nothingness, words are meaningless. We can talk about something, but not about nothing. Nothingness isn’t shaped like a gourd or a bicycle. It doesn’t taste like chicken. It isn’t green. Nothingness is what’s left when everything is taken away.
You’ve been warned.
“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to speak of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings.” In this talk I’ll be speaking of many things that are a lot less tangible than shoes and cabbages. Some may not seem to hang together, but don’t worry about that. If you grasp them intuitively, that’s great. Otherwise, let the words and the notions sink into your consciousness.
Remember the mirror-wiping episode of Hui-neng and Shen-hsiu? Can anyone recall Hui-neng’s verse, or at least the gist of it?
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Neither is there a shining mirror.
Since there is nothing at all,
Where can dust collect?
Meditate on that. If you care to, take it as a koan. But don’t pick it apart for hidden meanings. Don’t analyze the words. Don’t even visualize mirrors and dust.
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Neither is there a shining mirror.
Since there is nothing at all,
Where can dust collect?
Think about it when you’re driving your car, when you’re painting a wall or baking a potato, before you go to sleep, when you wake up. Meditate on it.
See it. Grasp it. Sense it inside yourself. When you do that you’ll be on the way to understanding nothingness.
Remember, from the first not a thing is.
Who can describe what, in Zen, is called original mind? I’ll wait for an answer.
Original mind is one’s mind before it becomes cluttered with notions, ideas, rules, and regulations that are a part of living a normal life. Original mind is simple and pure. By pure I don’t mean virginal. I mean squeaky-clean.
Are you with me so far?
Okay. If original mind is pure, why is it necessary to wipe dust off? If original mind is pure, then dust-wiping, or rinsing with hot water, or scrubbing with a Brillo pad has no meaning.
When you think of original mind, or your face before you were born, you perhaps imagine original mind as something you can visualize or describe. Are you still with me?
Okay. If original mind is something, like a book is something, then you can stand back, figuratively speaking, and look at it. Observe it. You are here, and a book, or original mind, is there. Right?
Not right. Original mind doesn’t have shape or form. It’s not separate from you in place or in time. There’s no observer and observed. There’s no distinction or separation.
You are original mind, original mind is you.
Don’t mistake original mind, pure mind, true self—whatever you choose to call it—as something separate from you. If you expect to see an image of your pure, true self, you’ll be disappointed. Hui-neng rejected the notion of a clean mirror by declaring there is no mirror, no dust. Now make a big leap.
This is nothingness.
Nothingness is the doing away with all objectified qualities. By that I mean doing away with “I am this, that is that.” Nothingness a state of no-ness in which observer and observed are indistinguishable.
From the first, not a thing is. When you understand this…. No, when you are altogether aware of the notion of “From the first not a thing is,” all logic and reason are wiped out. What’s left?
Nothing is left. This is nothingness.
I’m almost finished, and I’ll wind this up with a dialogue between Shen-hui (Sayings of Shen-hui), one of Hui-neng’s followers, and a man named Chan-yen King. Their conversation went something like this:
Chan-yen King asked, “When the mirror has nothing to illuminate, the illumination itself loses its meaning, doesn’t it?”
Shen-hui said, “When I talk about . . . illumination, this illumination . . . is eternal … and has no reference to the presence or absence of objects.”
“Why then do you talk of illumination?”
“I talk of illumination . . . because the mind has in it wisdom, which illuminates the entire world-system.”
“That being so, when is it attained?”
“Just see into nothingness.”
“Even if it is nothingness, it is seeing something.
“Though it is seeing, it is not to be called something.”
If it is not to be called something, how can there be the seeing?”
“Seeing into nothingness. This is true seeing and eternal seeing.”
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Neither is there a shining mirror.
Since there is nothing at all,
Where can dust collect?
I hope I’ve offered you some illumination about nothingness.