Tuesday, February 26, 2013

            Most of this talk is based on ideas that were stimulated by a book by Winston I. King, author of several works on Japanese culture.  Zen and the Way of the Sword was published in 1993.

Samurai, in a few words, the historic swordsmen of Japan, were highly skilled in killing, and whose lives were an ongoing preparation for death.

            One of Japan’s greatest swordsmen, Miyamoto Musashi, said, “The way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.”

            That’s an interesting concept, isn’t it?

            What makes it even more fascinating is the fact that most samurai warriors were Zen Buddhists.

            Is this a philosophical discrepancy?

Zen is known for its awareness of the suffering of other beings. It is known for its peacefulness, its calmness of mind, its philosophy of living in the moment.

However, Zen is also aware of the inevitability of death.

            King mentions two important elements were at play in the apparent contradictory situation between Zen mind and samurai mind. One was Buddhism, in its wide-ranging forms. The other was the behavior of Japan’s ancient warrior class that blossomed in the twelfth century.

            That warrior class was collectively known as samurai. They were the military nobility that lived “the way of the warrior,” known as bushido. Their moral code stressed frugality, loyalty, martial arts, and honor. Bushido also emphasized wisdom and serenity.

            Here are two more sayings by master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi that sound very Zen:

            “Perceive that which cannot be seen with the eye.”
            “Do nothing which is of no use.”

            The writer D.T. Suzuki addressed the question shortly after World War II when he wrote: “Whatever form Buddhism takes in the various countries where it flourishes, it is a religion of compassion and . . . has never been found engaged in warlike activities.”

            King mentions the Zen attitude of “losing the tie.”

Losing the tie is a term that refers to unnecessary attachments to life, or to desires, or to death and fears. Losing the tie is a form of spiritual freedom. It comes about not by intellectual reasoning or logic but by harmonious living, by accepting whatever fits with oneself and ignoring whatever doesn’t fit.

            Chuangtzu, the Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century, said that such a spiritual state goes beyond the distinctions of right and wrong, good and bad. This makes an individual one with the Tao.

            Zen is usually identified with koans, and in another context King speaks of koan meditation as letting go of reason or intellect to deal with matters. If a koan such as the meaning of Mu is not a puzzle to be solved with a wise answer, such as the sum of one and one is two, a koan’s response has to be intuitive or instinctive.

            We know that Zen is meditation; meditation is Zen. But we do not think of meditation as a path to some sort of breakthrough. Meditation isn’t a shortcut to WHAM! BANG! Instantaneous awakening or enlightenment. Meditation is Zen. That is, living life as a reality.

            “To live so that every action, every moment, is lived with the full depth of one’s being,” to quote King.

            That brings to mind the old but familiar mountain idea.

1.      Mountains are mountains.
2.      Mountains are not mountains.
3.      Mountains are really mountains.

            Okay, let me hear from you. What is the meaning of this apparent gibberish?

            The Zen take goes as follows:  

1.      To normal human awareness a mountain is a huge bunch of rock.
2.      With a little insight the word concept of a mountain is merely what we have been told. The word “mountain” is an artificial construct.
3.       Finally, in one’s experience the word mountain is not a label but a reality.

A Chinese philosopher named Qingyuan wrote the following words:

”Before I had studied Chan for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it's just that I see mountains once again as mountains and rivers once again as rivers.”

This notion was put into a popular 1967 song by a British singer named Donovan. Suzuki went several steps further with his observation, “Not only do I see a mountain, but the mountain sees me.”

If you have lost the connection with Zen and the samurai mind, don’t worry. We will continue the subject when we next meet.

·        * * * *

Before we go home I have a story to read.

There once was a monastery that was very strict. Following a vow of silence, no one was allowed to speak at all. There was one exception to this rule. Every ten years the monks were permitted to speak just two words.
After spending his first ten years at the monastery, one monk went to the master. The master said, "It has been ten years. What are the two words you would like to speak?"
"Bed hard," said the monk.
"I see," the master replied.
Ten years later, the monk returned to the master's office. "It has been ten more years," said the master. "What are the two words you would like to speak?"
"Food stinks," said the monk.
"I see," the master replied.
Yet another ten years passed and the monk once again met with the master who asked, "What are your two words now, after these ten years?"
"I quit!" said the monk.
"I can see why," the master said. "All you ever do is complain."

Monday, February 18, 2013


          More than once I have talked about Zen Master Dogen’s concept of time. It’s an important issue, so let’s have another look at it.

          Normally we think of time as an experience of duration. A period of an event or action. The interlude between a starting and a stopping. A “during which.”

Scientists can describe minutes and seconds, and days and years, and they have ways of measuring time. They also designate different forms of time that are pretty impressive.

But scientists are unable to actually describe what time is.

Solar time is measured by the rotation of Earth on its axis, and the Sun’s apparent motion across the sky.

Sidereal time uses the apparent motion of so-called fixed stars.

Note science’s hedge terms of “apparent” and “so-called.” They mean that we think we know, but we aren’t sure.

Most people use standard time, which is based on the division of planet Earth into zones. The Earth has twenty-four time zones.

Then there is atomic time, which is based on the frequency of atomic or molecular electromagnetic waves.

Probably the notion of time as something measurable developed in prehistory from the human observance of the breathing space between dusk and dawn, or of the phases of the moon, or of seasonal changes.

          If you want to overwork your brain, think “what if.” That is, what if there was no notion of time? What would existence be like?

          Zen monks aim to separate themselves physically and mentally from the everyday world, and its pressures of time, in order to focus on their training. However, they can’t escape time altogether. In a monastery, drums and bells sound off to mark the beginning and ending of meditation sessions, and to signal work periods and meals.

          About the only individuals who manage to get away from time completely are hermits who live a solitary life in a forest or on a mountain. Their lives are regulated by the natural rhythms of sunrise and sunset, and by their bodily needs. There is a Zen koan that I can’t remember entirely that says drink when you’re thirsty and eat when you’re hungry.

          Hermits don’t look at their Rolex to see if it’s six o’ clock and time to sit down to potatoes and rice.

          Excluding recluses, most of us live a life that’s controlled by an allegiance to time. We cause ourselves to wake up at a certain hour so we can be at work, or at school, or at breakfast. As much as we might like to forget the constraints of minutes, and hours, and days, time is important to living our lives.

          According to Einstein, or Woody Allen: Time is what prevents everything from happening at once.

          Zen doesn’t deny time any more than it ignores the laws and rules of society. But Zen sees time uniquely. Zen sees time as right now. Neither the past nor the future exists. Only now is actual, and now doesn’t last long.

          Dogen wrote at some length on the concept of time in a Dharma presentation called Uji. Uji is a Japanese word that has been translated as “Being and Time, or “Just for the Time Being.”

Dogen said, in essence, that the whole of time is the whole of existence.

I’ll repeat that. The whole of time is the whole of existence.

          “Uji” is a common expression in Japanese, equivalent to several common wordings that are used in the west: “For the time being,” “Now and again,” “At a time when.” According to Hubert Nearman, a translator of Dogen’s Shobogenzo, Dogen based his Uji talk on his experience of becoming unattached to a self that exists independent of time and independent of worldly things.

This is the point of Zen, the dropping off of body and mind.

          Time is not a thing. But by devising hours, and months, and years, and keeping track of such intervals, humans have made time something out of nothing. They have made time something to be reckoned with.

          To get back to uji, time and being are two aspects of the enactment of seconds, minutes, hours, and the absence of a permanent self in the passage of time. Let me say that again. Time and being are two aspects of the enactment of seconds, minutes, hours, and the absence of a permanent self in the passage of time.

          Don’t ask me to explain that. Either you get it or you don’t get it.

          Putting this in Zen terms, there is no permanent self. There is uji, the time when some form of being persists.

To quote Dogen, “The phrase ‘is for the time being’ implies that time in its totality is what existence is, and existence in all its occurrences is what time is.”

          Dogen’s words are not only about uji—the time when some form of being persists—they come from an individual who lived uji. Nothing is definite, nothing is certain. Every thought that comes up is just for the time being.

          Again I quote Dogen:

          “Mountains are of time: oceans are of time. If there was no time, neither mountains nor oceans could be. Do not think that time does not exist for the mountains and oceans of the present moment. Were time to cease to exist, would mountains and oceans cease to exist?”

          And a final word from Dogen, “When one looks up and unbolts the barrier gate, ‘arriving’ refers to the time when body and mind are dropped off, and ‘having not arrived’ refers to the time when this ‘dropping off’ is left behind.”

          What does this mean?

          It means one should always go onward, becoming Buddha. Whatever arises one should constantly apply oneself without thinking of arriving or not yet arriving.

          Time is right now. Not yesterday or tomorrow.

          The Danish author Isak Dinesen wrote, “You can’t change the past, but you can ruin the present by worrying about the future.”