Thursday, September 23, 2010


Many religious groups have developed rituals to such an extent the ceremonies come close to magical practices. By that I mean the rites are so elaborate, they are often understandable only to the high priests. For the average person, the meanings are lost. So the average person goes along with the hocus-pocus out of habit, rather than out of any sort of conviction as to its necessity.

I’m talking about a mixed bag of practices that includes kneeling, groveling, clapping, chanting, reciting, and so on and on.

The Roman Catholic priest Thomas Merton said that with all the bobbing up and down, the prancing and boogieing, the Catholic mass was like an elaborate ballet.

Human beings are . . . well, human beings are curious. They not only become caught up in formalized performances, but they attach themselves to objects and symbols. Things such as a cross, a star, a crescent, an effigy, or a venerated book.

These things in themselves are harmless. It’s when they become attachments, or else objects of worship, that a human’s true self becomes befuddled.

Zen doesn’t condemn rituals. Zen doesn’t judge anything. However, Zen does consider that most sacraments and liturgy can be hindrances to its purpose.

What is the purpose of Zen?

The purpose of Zen is self realization. It’s recognizing one’s true self. It’s recognizing the connection that exists among everything in the universe.

What is unfortunate about mystical practices is that they can set up sham values and bogus habits that distract from self realization.

Satori, or enlightenment, or awakening, may be instantaneous or it may be gradual. However, if one’s mind is involved in concentrating on physically fiddling around—with artificial rules—a tension is set up in the inner self. That tension hampers the spontaneity of the awakening experience.

Newcomers to Soto Zen are often baffled by its simplicity. I’ve been asked how one’s hands should be held during zazen. I say, “Hold them palm up just below the navel."

"But I’m used to resting them on my knees,” I’ve been told.

I have no argument with that because whether the hands are on the knees, or against the abdomen, or in the lap doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter if one meditates in the lotus position on the floor, or sitting in a chair, or hanging by one’s thumbs.

I teach mostly what I’ve been taught. My practices in Zen are neither better nor worse than anyone else’s practices. Allowing oneself to become caught up in the physical aspects of practice—or in bell ringing, or in chanting—can muddle the experience of enlightenment.

So don’t worry about our singing bowl. It merely provides a signal to do something, just like your alarm clock provides a signal to get you out of bed in the morning. Your clock, this singing bowl, and what ever position you prefer for meditating aren’t matters of great importance. What is important is you.

If you let your mind pester you with why we do walking meditation in a clockwise direction, you’re depriving your mind of doing what it’s capable of doing. What it’s capable of doing is hanging loose and letting happen what ever will happen.

Zen masters contend that enlightenment may be realized on any occasion. The sound of a broom handle knocking against a stone has triggered satori. So has a poke in the ribs by a master’s forefinger. Just remember that the broom or the stone or the finger—even the master—isn’t significant.

The result of the occasion is what’s vital.

Every insight is an occasion for satori.

I’ll say it again. Every insight is an occasion for satori.

But the occasion for one’s awakening can be numbed if one’s self is swaddled in ritual.
Many religions and organized systems teach that reality is outside of us in some physical object or in a practice, and that reality must be approached in a ceremonial manner.

Reality is in us.

Rather, we are reality.

Everything in existence is important, but nothing is sacred unless we make it that way.

Thursday, September 09, 2010


Over the past few months we have discussed some of the principles of Zen. A few more need to be addressed, and today I would like to talk about some other Zen values.

As ever, there will be duplications, even some contradictions in what I say. Life is full of inconsistencies and repetition. That’s the way of life, and that’s the way of Zen.

All things change.

Security is an invention of the human mind. Freedom from change does not exist in nature.

When I lived out in the country I spent many pleasant hours in the spring watching a pair of cardinals build a nest in a dogwood tree close to my house. The two birds carried twigs, bits of fuzz, and cedar shavings to make the nest a comfortable and cozy home. It was sited in a place that was safe from my cat and out of sight of crows and hawks. It seemed a perfect nest for raising a family.

The female laid a clutch of eggs while the male gathered food to bring home. Eventually the eggs hatched. Both parents took turns collecting bugs and worms to feed the babies, and they took turns keeping the chicks warm and protected.

The hatchlings sprouted feathers, and one day they were almost ready to take their first flight.

Then a fierce storm—one of our typical spring gales—tore the branch that held the nest off the dogwood. The nest was destroyed, and the infant birds were crushed.

A sad story? Yes.

Did the cardinal parents grieve? We don’t know.

We can be sure that the parents did not blame anyone or anything for what happened.

What happened was the way of nature, and the way of nature is change.

The cardinals didn’t build another nest that spring. It was too late in the season. But the next year the same cardinals put up another nest and started a family all over again.

We humans feel comfortable fastening ourselves to one thing or another. To another person, to a home, to a computer, to a truck. In Zen talk, this is called attachment.

One word does a fair job of describing Zen Buddhism. That word is non-attachment.

All of the Buddha’s teachings and all of the teachings of the Buddha’s followers can be summed up in the word non-attachment.

We have earlier mentioned the difference between detachment and attachment. To be detached is to get away from a problem, to escape from it. It means that one sees a potential problem and makes an effort to cut oneself off from it.

Life is like a flowing stream. However, instead of allowing life to flow, we too-often align ourselves with favorable conditions, or else we fight against unfavorable conditions.

Non-attachment is altogether different. Non-attachment means to neither fight against nor join with a problem but to recognize the problem and become one with it.

When humans experience a disaster they continue to torment themselves about it. Humans try to explain happenings—whether happy or unhappy—as the will of god, or as the fault of someone, or as the result of a vindictive Mother Nature.

We rant and rave that someone or something has it in for us. We think we’ve been made a scapegoat, so we try to find a reason.

Reason doesn’t exist in nature. Ornithologists claim that bird’s bones are hollow and lightweight in order to allow birds to fly. Nonsense. Birds fly. Period. Birds have hollow bones. Period. If birds had solid bones they would probably fly anyway. There is no reason, no purpose, at work.

In nature there is no such thing as rationalism—that is, reliance on reason as the best guide for belief and action. There is only empiricism—experience of the senses.

In life, things happen, and only human beings feel the need to assign a reason. When individuals assign a reason they feel better because that shifts responsibility away from them. Humans create the concepts of good and bad. If they can’t find an external reason for a “bad” happening, they are bothered. Of course, if they experience a “good” happening they take credit for it.

Thus they create, and revel in, a world of good and bad. To humans, life and its happening must be either one or the other.

However, what is, is. And change is foremost among what is. As much as humans like to believe they are immune from change, it just is not so.

You know the saying. Two things are certain in life: taxes and death. I’ll add a third certainty: change.

Change is a transformation or transition from one state, condition, or phase to another. Change is inevitable, unavoidable, and inescapable.

Get used to change. It is here to stay.

Change does not change.

Death is the end.
Life has a beginning and an end. The beginning is birth, the end is death.

Zen does not have a beginning or an end. Zen is a circle. There is no start, no finish to Zen. Like a flowing stream, Zen goes on and on.

We get one and only one shot at this life, and as far as we know there is no other, so we should make the very best of now.

In Zen there is no sorrow about death. No fear of death.

A Zen master was nearly a hundred years old and was dying. All of a sudden he sat up in his bed and started laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” The solemn mourners asked.

“Why are you not laughing?” The master answered.

When one is empty of the judgments and assumptions that have been acquired over the years, one comes close to original nature (sometimes called original face) and is capable of conceiving original ideas.

One Zen koan asks, “What was your face before you were born?” Like all koans this is perplexing, even inexplicable. How can one possibly have a face before being born?

Well, I’m going to cheat and partially interpret this koan. Face-before-being-born refers to one’s true nature before it has been altered by opinions, prejudices, judgments.

Zen is a way of life.
Zen is not something that is turned on and turned off, like a water faucet, on a certain day of the week or at a certain time of the day.

Zen deals with life by living it. Zen points to the essence of life we all live. Zen is understood through one’s experience. Zen is everyday life. To learn Zen is to learn oneself.

Finally, the last principle of Zen.
When we perceive the inconsistencies of life, all we can do is laugh.