Sunday, January 05, 2014

Today’s talk begins with tea. Not actual chai, but a few words about the drink.
“Though my tea is not the very best the pot is never dry. My wine is not exquisite, but the barrel is not empty.
          These lines are from the ancient philosopher Hong Zicheng, as translated by R.H. Blyth. They pick up from where ever it was we rambled in a previous talk on Saikontan, also called Caigentan, also called Vegetable Root Discourse. Whatever the book’s name, it is a compilation of the author’s thoughts on life, human nature, and heaven and earth.
          About that word “heaven.” Religion teaches that heaven is the location of the throne of God, as well as the abode of angels. It is somewhere up in the sky. Heaven is also believed to be the afterlife address of the virtuous dead. It’s a sort of waiting room, or holding place, for the departed before their resurrection.
          However, when I use the term “heaven” it refers merely to other-than-right-here-on-earth. No sky, no pearly gates, no streets paved with gold, no eternal angelic choir. As a Buddhist saying goes, “The wise man makes his own heaven while the foolish man creates his own hell here and hereafter.”
Anyway, Vegetable Root Discourse is an ancient collection of articles that merged Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Zen thoughts. Let’s take a closer, but brief, look at the down-to-earth concepts of these four disciplines.
1.     Confucianism: Confucianism is an ethical system developed from the teachings of an early Chinese philosopher. It emphasizes human values, and it focuses on the interests of the family. It has nothing to do with a belief in gods or an afterlife.
Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

2.     Taoism: Taoism is a philosophical practice that emphasizes living in harmony with the Way. The Way, or Tao, denotes something that is both the source and the force behind everything that exists.
“The ways of the world are full of unpredictable changes. You must not take them too seriously.” 

3.    Buddhism. Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, a man who is commonly known as the Buddha, a title meaning "the awakened one.” His teachings on the Four Noble Truths are regarded as central to the teachings of Buddhism.
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

4.    Zen is a way of life based on a mind absorbed in meditation.
“A special transmission outside the scriptures;
“No dependence on words and letters;
              “Direct pointing to the mind of man;
             “Seeing into one's nature.”
          A Japanese priest named Fujiwara Seika, born in the sixteen or seventeenth century, was so swayed by the melding of those earlier disciplines that he broke away from his conventional Zen background and established what eventually became known as the Great Learning. It was a philosophy that returned to Confucian principles. It may have been an unconventional approach in Buddhist Japan, but it attracted many followers who were attracted to the basic texts of Chinese culture.
                   You may be familiar with the old saying, “The cowboy jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions.” Well, I don’t want to stray too far into what became known as Neo-Confucianism because it might lead us in directions away from Zen.
The point is that Zen was shaped by centuries of Asian thought, insight, and wisdom. It did not pop up, like Genesis, out of zero.
          Instead, of riding off on a horse, let’s take a sideways leap to the Zen haiku poet Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). Early in life he studied Chinese philosophical models, Japanese classics, and later Zen. For twenty-three years, in the most impressionable part of his life, he steeped himself in the tea of Confucianism.
          Basho’s earlier poems reflect this Confucian influence. However, in short time his poetry developed into a deep love of nature in Zen fashion. For example, combining Confucian societal behavior and Zen thinking there is a brief, non-haiku principle that has been ascribed to Basho.
 “Clothes and utensils are to be suitable to one’s needs, not too many, not too few.”
Blyth states that such a point demonstrates a combination of Buddhist, Confucian, and poetical ideas. However, according to Blyth, the words may sound outdated and more like fossils of something that was once alive. They might be clever, but they lack immortality.
They do not show Zen insight.
Incidentally, there is a geological hollow on the planet Mercury called Basho Crater. You may find some symbolism there, but I’ll leave that interpretation up to you.

We began this talk with a quotation about tea. Giving a nod in Basho’s direction we’ll end it with a haiku regarding tea. You can decide for yourself if it shows any Zen insight.
I would pour you tea,
But your cup is much too full.
You must empty it.


Those of you who have done zazen with me for any length of time have heard me drone on about Insight, Renunciation Mindfulness, Empowerment, Transcendence, Blessings, Enlightenment, and Koans.

Such terms are part of the lingo of Buddhism and, unfortunately, of Zen. They are words that help describe things that are tricky to be put into words. They are tools, much as kitchen utensils, herbs, and ingredients are tools that are used in putting together a meal.

But a good meal is not created by tools. A good meal is shaped by the individual using the tools.

Read the blurbs about cameras. They promise a specific camera will produce amazingly good pictures.  However, a camera is a tool. It’s the individual behind the tool who creates the image.

Unfortunately, many people attach fact to tool-words rather than understanding the words are throwaways.

 Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher of communication theory, gained renown through his philosophy known as “The Medium is the Message.” Those words mean the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.

Now that is a persuasive string of words. I have never been quite sure what they hell they mean, so let’s stick to Zen.

An aside: McLuhan was known as an intellectual. That’s another fishy term that warrants a second or third look. Still, the man had the balls to say, “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.”

The French philosopher Albert Camus said “If you go around looking for the meaning of life you will never live.”

And a long time before Camus, Confucius said “Life is simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

For most people Zen is based on expectations, on hopes and beliefs.

Hopes and beliefs.

Sorry to say, most hopes and beliefs are groundless. As are most of the Zen buzz words.         

Koans are overrated. So is Enlightenment. So are such terms as Master, Roshi, and the like.

So what can be expected from the practice of Zen?

Not a lot.

We are often told what Zen is not.  That’s easier than saying what it is.

So, doubt everything and believe in nothing.

Also, don’t worry about expectations. Instead, keep busy. Live your life fully.

Great Expectations was Charles Dickens's thirteenth novel. It’s been given a tool word: bildungsroman. That means it’s a coming-of-age novel.

Never mind bildungsroman, or expectations great or small. Be aware of your life, whatever and however it is.

          We know nothing for sure, and that’s the way it is. That’s what life is all about. That’s the meaning of life, and the meaning of life is nothing but a word.

If this talk sounds radical, it possibly is. The tone may reflect the silliness of the recent holiday season.

Remember what Dogen referred to as “The Great Doubt.”

When Dogen entered a Buddhist monastery at the age of 13 he wondered why so much training and effort was necessary to attain awakening when, as he was taught, all beings have within them the Buddha-nature. This questioning caused him to leave the monastery and travel to China where he gained a better understanding of himself.

He wasn’t looking for answers as much as he was trying to fathom himself.

If you spend your time seeking answers, you might as well stare into a crystal ball.

You won’t find answers in Zen or anywhere else unless you look into yourself.

Free yourself of expectations because they are tools of the future.

The Buddha said, “Do not dwell in the past, and do not dream of the future. If you live in the present moment that is enough.”