Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Zen is meditation.

Meditation is Zen.

In the context of Buddhism and, particularly in my talks on Zen, I try to sidestep the word “enlightenment.” It’s a word that has become so trendy—especially in the Western world—that most people believe enlightenment is the goal of meditation.

And that misses the whole point of living Zen.

Or of Zen living.

Instead of “enlightenment,” I prefer “awakening,” or even such terms as illumination, or edification, or insight, or awareness, or self-perception.

Those are concepts relevant to Zen.

I recently read a statement to the effect that Zen practice consists in gaining enlightenment. That’s a common thought among people who don’t know Zen, and on the surface it sounds pretty good because it contains that old buzz word, enlightenment.

But on second thought gaining enlightenment sounds too much like a logical, rational process. Remember, Zen balks at logic, and Zen certainly isn’t rational if rationality implies reasoning because Zen goes beyond reasoning. To separate Zen from awakening is to create a “this” versus “that” dualism.

I prefer to say Zen and enlightenment—or awakening—are one and the same.

In the year 1200 the so-called founder of Soto Zen, Master Dogen, spoke about what he termed the eight awakenings of great beings. These awakenings are not stages to pursue, and they aren’t yardsticks. They are a sort of cornerstone in the process of realizing awareness.

And they are interrelated.

What Dogen had to say 800 years ago to a group of Japanese monks is relevant today to everyone.

The first awakening is to have few desires.

Having few desires is the avoidance of craving for “stuff.” Stuff such as a commanding position among people, wads of money, more than one house, a red Ferrari.

Do Ferrari’s come in any color other than red?

I once knew a fellow who craved a Ferrari and was wealthy enough to buy one. Every day he’d open his garage and sit in the car’s driver seat. Just sit. He never rolled the car out of the garage because there were no highways where he could crank it up over a hundred miles an hour. Also, he was afraid of scratching the lovely red paint.

What he desired, he had, but it was of no real use to him.

People who have few desires are free from the never-satisfying hunt for importance, and riches, and stuff.

People who have few desires don’t feel the need to use others to acquire celebrity status or pile up more money.

People who have few desires are comfortable with what they have, and are not constantly agonizing about not having something else or gaining more of something.

The last time we met I mentioned that a visual symbol of Buddhism is a burning house. It is a good image, and most of you perceived that a burning house represents no possessions.

The second awakening is to know when enough is enough.

Even wealthy individuals often have a nagging feeling of being poor, and so they lust for more money or more power.

The Buddha said, “Monks, to be free from suffering, mull over knowing how much is enough. If you know how much is enough, you will be satisfied. If you don’t know, you will be discontented.”

This is called “knowing when enough is enough.”

The third awakening is to enjoy quietness.

This is the ability to be happy as your own person.

The Buddha said to his monks: “If you want to have the joy of calm nondoing, be away from crowds and be alone in a silent place.”

Now, this is a difficult undertaking in today’s world. Between noise-belching cars and motorcycles, and clattering television sets in almost every restaurant—and if a public place doesn’t have television it blares out irritating background noises, euphemistically called music. There are few public places that enjoy quiet.

Such torments are diminished by making one’s home in a quiet place. That’s why I used to live in the woods.

But if you do enjoy crowds, when you’re in them you may still feel hemmed in. As Dogen said, you’ll be like a tree that attracts hordes of birds and is eventually killed by the racket.

The fourth awakening is to give what Dogen called diligent effort.

Diligent effort. What is diligent effort?

According to Dogen, the Buddha said diligent effort is holding to natural efforts. It’s a sort of constant fine-tuning of your life. It’s a going forward without turning back.

If you make diligent effort, nothing is too difficult.

It’s like a trickle of water wearing through a large rock by constantly seeping.

The fifth awakening is to maintain mindfulness.

In the Buddhist Eightfold Path, mindfulness is also called right thought. But the term “right” may evoke the opposite term, “wrong,” which is a dualism. Let’s stick with one thing at a time, and never mind opposites.

To maintain mindfulness.

The Buddha said, “There is nothing like not neglecting mindfulness. Do not lose mindfulness. Mindfulness is like wearing armor when going into a battlefield.”

Now that is somewhat flowery because it’s couched in metaphor. The point is to be totally aware, whether you’re reading a book, or preparing a meal, or drinking a glass of water, or sitting in zazen.

Maintain mindfulness.

The sixth awakening is to practice meditation.

Practice meditation?

That’s another common term in Zen writings.

To practice something is to do it over and over again in order to gain skill at it. Like repeating a dance step, or rehearsing a golf swing.

Meditation isn’t a golf swing. Meditation is not repetition. Meditation is full-time being. Meditation is full-time awareness.

Dogen said meditation is awakening.

Meditation is remaining in dharma—that is, in Buddha knowledge—without flip-flopping from one approach to another.

Dogen said the Buddha said, “If you gather your mind it will abide in stability. Then you will understand the birth and the death of all things. When you have stability your mind will not be scattered.”

This is what’s called the sixth awakening.

To maintain meditation. To constantly be alive, and awake, and aware.

The seventh awaking is to cultivate wisdom.

That means to listen, to contemplate, to meditate, and to realize. It means not to be sidetracked by so-called shortcuts or flakey notions of quick solutions.

If you have wisdom you’re free from craving, from self-indulgence, from excess desire, from materialism.

No more thoughts of gaining “stuff.”

Doesn’t that sound good?

Finally, the eighth awakening is to steer clear of hollow discussions.

To steer clear of hollow discussions is to be free from prejudiced thinking, and from pointless cocktail-party babble.

Have you ever seen a desert dust devil? They are miniature tornadoes. They swirl across the landscape, picking up loose trash, carrying it for a while, and then scattering it all over the land. Hollow discussions are like dust devils. They cause the mind to collect pieces of dry weeds, and scraps of paper, and dead cigarette butts, and then broadcast them.

* * * * *

According to Dogen, by nurturing these eight awakenings, you can arrive at insight, and share your insight with all beings, just as Shakyamuni Buddha shared his awakening with anyone who was interested.

* * * * *

According to Dogen, the last words of the Buddha, before he died, were, “You should always endeavor wholeheartedly to search for the way of liberation. All things in the world are insecure and bound to decay.”

* * * * *
According to Suzuki Roshi: Wherever you are, awakening is there.


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