Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I want to start out with a quotation from the book The Tao of Physics, by Fritjof Capra.

“The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view—one could almost say the essence of it—is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness.”

I’d like to carry out a little exercise related to form and nothingness. It’s an exercise aimed at expanding our awareness of the interrelationship of all existence.

We learn early, as children, to speak of “this” and of “that,” as if “this” and “that” were unconnected entities. And we learn early on to discriminate between “this” and “that.”

Certainly a tree is its own distinct self. A stone is its own distinct self. Each tree has its individual tree-ness, which is like no other tree’s tree-ness, and the same goes for a stone. A tree is a tree, a stone is a stone, and a human being is a human being.

Zen recognizes the unique quality of each thing, whether the thing is a tree, a stone, a woman, or a man. At the same time Zen does not limit or restrict. Zen doesn’t set one thing against another.

Zen doesn’t judge.

Zen doesn’t say, “This is a good tree, that’s a bad tree.”

Consider this ringing bowl. It was produced in a factory, probably in Japan, along with thousands of other bowls. All of the bowls from that particular run have the same shape, the same size, the same color.

And probably all of those bowl-brothers would produce the same sound when struck.

If we were in a store contemplating a collection of ten, or a hundred, such bowl-brothers—as I was when I bought this one—they would all seem the same. They would appear to be pretty much indistinguishable. If we were considering buying one bowl from the many, how would we go about it?

A Zen person would first use most of his or her senses. She or he would look, touch, and listen. Maybe even smell and taste until one bowl stood out as the one.

If there was a bystander, the Zen person would certainly be labeled as being eccentric. A weirdo. Possibly deranged and potentially dangerous.

But the bystander would be making a judgment. We know that, of course, all Zen people are perfectly normal.

Let’s consider this bowl.

First, look at it.

Notice its shape.

The shape is more or less semi-spherical. Demonstrative geometry would describe its bulk as V = (r3/3)/2 minus the amount of liquid or sand it might hold, but we don’t need to know that much about it.

Regard the space the bowl encloses.

Sense the relationship between that inner space and the bowl itself.

Note the space outside the bowl. How far does it reach?

Well, if we can take the word of cosmologists, space is boundless, infinite. Being infinite it has no form.

Now consider this. Could the bowl exist without these inner and outer spaces?

That is to say, could the bowl exist without form and without no-form?

Don’t form and emptiness define each other?

And finally, when you get right down to it, isn't emptiness and isn't form impermanent?

The point of all this is to get you to become conscious of form and no-form. Can you see that the bowl and the emptiness in and around it are vital to the bowl’s nature? Its bowl-ness is not its form only, but also its no-form.

To paraphrase psychologist David Fontana, author of the book Discover Zen, apparent opposites are simply aspects of whatever thing we are considering, whether the thing is a bowl, a stone, or a human being. Without opposites a thing couldn’t exist.

As I said earlier, humans are conditioned early on to think in terms of this or that. But Zen understands that things can be both this and that.

What we call light is electromagnetic radiation, which consists of waves of energy. However, light also involves collisions of particles with electrons. So which is light? Is it waves or is it particles?

Paradoxically, it is both.

As Fontana says, categorizing things can lead to conflict, to agreement or disagreement.

“If you agree [with me],” he said, “you are on my side: if you disagree, you are not.”

And he concluded that this is not the way of Zen.

Consider a wave out in the middle of the ocean. Is a wave separate from the sea? Is a human separate from all living things, such as cats, trees, and earthworms? Are living things separate from non-living things, such as stones? Isn’t everything is made up of atoms?

What is real?

Before and after this moment nothing was real, and nothing will be real. The past doesn’t exist except in memory. The future is merely conjecture.

Only this moment is real. All else is what Zen calls appearances. All things—birds, trees, bugs, humans, and grains of sand—have one thing in common.

It is their Buddha-nature.

Buddha-nature is now, and it is real.

Dogen said all things are Buddha-nature.

Note the word “are.”

That means that all things do not have Buddha-nature but all things are Buddha-nature.

I could sit here and, like a holiness preacher, lay a guilt trip on you by bellowing at you to awaken to your Buddha-nature.

But exhorting isn’t Zen.

What I can do is point to the form of that thing up in the sky we call the moon, and to the non-form of infinite space surrounding it, and egg you on to awaken to your Buddha-nature.

And never mind the pointing finger.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I wonder if any of you have ever heard an old song titled “Life Gets Tedious,

Don’t It?” It has several verses, but I’ll mention only one.

Grief and misery, pains and woes,
Debts n’ taxes, n’ so it goes;
And I think I’m gettin’ a cold in the nose.
Life gets tedious, don’t it?

According to the Buddhist Four Noble Truths, life is suffering. One modern writer put it another way, stating that life is difficult. Yet, another writer noted that life is loaded with one damn dilemma after another.

Is that a negative outlook? Is negativism what Buddhism is all about?

No, that’s what life is all about.

Buddhism is about dealing with suffering.

Buddhism is about living life.

However, because the word suffering is so common in Buddhism, many Westerners make a giant leap and conclude that Buddhism is based on a negative outlook. That it is pessimistic.

Buddhism is definitely not pessimistic.

On the other hand, Buddhism is not optimistic, as are most Western religions.

Buddhism is realistic.

Buddhism is sensible.

In his book Buddhism, Damien Keown writes, “The Truth of
Suffering . . . presents the facts of life in an objective way.”

Keown goes on to say the Buddha realized that the notion of suffering was like admitting you have a serious disease, but you won’t admit it, and until you do own up to it there’s no hope for a cure.

So, what causes suffering?

In a word: dissatisfaction.

In another word: craving.

In several more words: hankering in an abnormal way for something you think you need but really don’t need.

A jazzy car, a classy house, more money, a year’s supply of whisky, a face lift.

To acquire such stuff human beings literally pawn their lives. They figuratively hock their souls.

That concept of selling one’s soul has spawned many folk tales. Such fantastical stories may have their origin in a 1500s German fortune teller and magician named Faust. He was a real person, who was reputed to have supernatural powers that were given to him by Satan in exchange for his soul.

The story was the source of the opera “Faust,” by Verde, the short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” by Stephen Vincent Benet, and many other spin-offs related to the selling of one’s soul.

I’ve drifted.

According to one source, soul is a non-real element that, together with the real body, comprises a human being.

Only human beings? What about cats, or dogs, or pet hamsters?

Let’s stick with humans.

Another source says soul is the principle of life.

Most known cultures believe in a principle they call soul, an ethereal “thing” that can exist separately from the body. Sometimes, it is believed this insubstantial thing makes itself known in another life form. Sometimes a human, sometimes a different sort of animal.

Encarta Encyclopedia notes that in many societies humans are said to have as many as eleven souls.

Can you imagine that?

What does Buddhism, or Zen, say about reincarnation, you ask?

I was taught by Master Hiromu Oda, and Master Kobun Chino. Oda had little to say about reincarnation; that is, being reborn in another form.

He once told me “Reincarnation is a cozy notion for individuals who are unable to conceive of death as an absolute end. It pretty much goes back to the Indian notion of atman, a personal soul that lives on.”

What does live on is what Oda referred to as the essence of a person. The memory of an individual’s physical appearance. The memory of their smile, their frown. The sound of their voice. The way they did this or that.

According to Keown, the Buddha said he could find no evidence for a human soul. However, the Buddha mentioned that a person’s moral identity lives on after death.

The individual is physically gone, but memories of him or her endure.

The Buddha was not a theologian but a down-to-earth realist. He believed that each person has a moral individuality—a sort of persona—that should be cultivated during life.

That moral individuality is what survives death.