Thursday, October 27, 2011

Ox Herding: Korea, 13: The Mirror of Zen

Ox Herding: Korea, 13: The Mirror of Zen

Readers of this space may recall that I am a big fan of Barry Briggs' blog Ox Herding. Barry has been traveling in Korea, and while he is away he has published a series from The Mirror of Zen, by ZM So Sahn. It's funny how these things show up just when you need them. Thanks, Barry.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Repost: Inspiring Yourself to Practice by Won-Hyo: Part 1

Garden Buddha, Do Am Sah, Falenica, Poland.
Photo by Mark O'Leary
This is a repost from a blog I have begun reading called "Wake Up and Laugh." The blog is on my "probation" list, that is, I'm still checking it out to see if I want to subscribe to it via my news reader. Check out this post. Tell me what you think. Maybe subscribe to it yourself if you like it. I'll repost Part 2 when it comes out.

For countless eons all Buddhas residing in Nirvana
have discarded their desires and trained arduously.
For countless eons sentient beings have transmigrated
throughout Samsara, not discarding their greed and desires.
The gate to the Pure Land is not blocked.
Yet few are those who enter;
most make their home among the three poisons.
Although the lower realms lack inherent power to seduce,
many enter therein.
The deluded mind values the five desires and the four elements
comprising the body as if they were jewels.
As this is the case, is there no one longing
to retire to the secluded mountains to practice the Way?
Enmeshed in desire, folks don’t go there.
Although you don’t take refuge in the mountains to cultivate your mind,
strive wholeheartedly to perform wholesome actions.
If you can renounce pleasure,
you will be as trusted and respected as the sages.
If you can undergo that which is difficult,
you will be as respected as the Buddha.
Those who greedily seek after things join the ranks of demons.
Those who give out of compassion are the disciples of the Dharma King.

(This post was also published on a blog specifically about Pure Land Buddhism)

Friday, October 14, 2011

How To Meditate, Part 3: Only Don't Know

If you missed the first two parts of this series, they are here and here

As I said in the last post, you could continue just following the breath and find enough material for a lifetime of practice. But in case that's not quite enough for you, here are some things we do in my school (that's the Kwan Um School of Zen, if you're interested) to focus the attention further.

I like to use the breath initially as a centering device anytime I sit, regardless of the technique I intend to use afterwards. This centering can take anywhere from a minute or two to a half-hour, depending on my mental state at the time. After that though, I often use a phrase, a mantra, as a sort of object of meditation. This technique is widely taught in our school, and many people find it useful.

The process of self-inquiry is central to Buddhism. Each of us carries a set of beliefs about ourselves, a roster of who and what we are. I like to compare it to a big bucket, lik eone of those orange plastic things from Home Depot. In the bucket we carry around all the things we think of as "I." 

Each or us has a name and a body, and these are closely associated in our minds with who we are. In reality however, our name is just our body's name. We could just as easily have a different name and still be the same person. As Shakespeare tells us in "Romeo and Juliet,"  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title. I could change my name, couldn't I? Who would I be then?

The message here is, I have a name, but I am not my name.

Even our body is not really who we are. Maybe you enjoy weight lifting. But you are not a different person when your muscles are well-defined than you were when you were out of shape. (It's like the old saying, "Sports do not build character; they reveal it." Fit or fat, it's still you! )  Professor Stephen Hawking is a wonderful example of someone who has a body, but is not defined by that body. To be sure, most people initially think of him as "that guy in the wheelchair." But the brilliance of his scientific work has come about despite his physical infirmities, not because of them. Reading his books, it is easy to forget that he is also "the guy in the wheelchair." Professor Hawking has a body, but he is not his body.

So who am I?

In my own case, I am a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a friend, a student, and a teacher (to name just a few things). These relationships take up a large part of my attention, time and energy. Perhaps they are appropriate answers to the question, "Who am I?"

Not really.

Relationships change all the time. People die. Babies are born. We lose friends and make new ones. Couples divorce. As my relationships change, must I then alter my answer to the question, "Who am I?" Am I defined by my relationships?

I am also a writer, an actor, a videographer, and a few other things. Maybe you are a stock broker, or a carpenter, or a truck driver. But these are all things we do, not what we are. When we retire from our professions, do we cease to exist? Sadly, for too many people, the answer seems to be yes. Too many of us invest so much in our jobs that when we stop working, we just sit around waiting to die. But this is really just a failure to explore the question "What am I?" all the way to its end.

When you unpack "What am I?" all the way to the bottom of the orange bucket, you find the bucket is completely empty. You don't even have "nothing" in the bucket, because "nothing" is a thing too. In Zen, when we get to the bottom of the bucket and see what's left, we call it, "Don't know." Not "I don't know," because who is this "I" you're referring to? But just "Don't know." And all of Zen practice is based on getting comfortable with "Don't know."

So we use "Don't know" as an object of meditation. Here is one way to do this: on the in-breath, rest your attention on the phrase, "What am I?" Some people--deep breathers, I guess--will actually repeat the phrase several times silently as they breathe in: "What am I? What am I? What am I?" Then on the out-breath, we say, "Don't kno-o-o-o-o-w." 

Try using this as the object of your meditation. Envision the different components of your personal image of who you are--your body, your relationships, your job, whatever is appropriate in your case--unpack all of these things and see whether they really are you. I predict that eventually you will get to the bottom of your bucket. When you reach that stage, you can begin to get comfortable with "Don't know." 

If you have questions about this practice (or any other), feel free to ask them here. I don't promise to have all the answers, but I'll do my best.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Zen Women

I'm a fan of Barry Briggs' blog, Ox Herding. You could do a lot worse than subscribe to it (you DO use Google Reader or one of those to keep up to date on your favorite blogs and web sites, don't you?) 

Anyway, I had somehow missed Barry's other blog, Zen Women. In it, Barry "gathers in one place all available stories of female Zen practitioners in Tang Dynasty China." This might sound like an ambitious project, but the sad truth is there just isn't much material available.  It's not a very active blog, nor is the archive especially large. But the information it contains is important, and I wanted to make sure readers of PoE are aware of it. Dig in. Learn something.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

How To Meditate, Part 2: Now What?

OK, so you're meditating. Or at least you think you are. 

You have found a place, arranged something to sit on, be it zafu or blanket or folding chair from the old card table set. You have "assumed the position," as it were. You're breathing. 

So exactly what is it we're supposed to be doing here?

Many teachers in the Soto Zen tradition would say, That's it. Just continue sitting. As unsatisfactory as this answer may be to the new meditator, it is to a degree accurate. The Japanese word for this type of meditation is shikantaza, literally "just sitting." It's an incredibly profound and powerful practice. But because you're still a newbie, you don't see it yet. And that's OK.

The goal (if I may use that word) of all Buddhist practice--sitting, walking, chanting, bowing--is to become grounded in the present moment. In Zen, we always say the most important thing is, "What are you doing right now? What is the truth of this moment?" So we want to apply that principle to our sitting practice. 

In a book called Zen Judaism (by David M. Bader), I found the following: "Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems." But of course, we never "forget" to breathe, do we? It happens by itself, the same way we beat our heart or grow our hair. Awareness of the breath becomes a very handy way to make the unconscious conscious. 

Typically, focusing on the breath goes like this: breathe in, breathe out--count "one." Breathe in, breathe out--count "two." Continue in this way up to "ten." Then go back to "one" again. Don't force the breath or try to make it longer or shorter--just let it be whatever your body wants it to be. 

While you're doing this, just place your attention on the bare sensation of breathing. Where do you feel it? Back of the throat? Inside the nose? Do you feel your chest rising and falling? Your abdomen expanding? Don't try to make those things happen; just notice them if they do happen. 

With me so far? Easy, right? Now here's where the practice really heats up.

At some point, you're going to lose focus on the breath. You'll start to think about something else, and you'll suddenly realize you forgot what number you're on. That's no problem. In fact, that's what's supposed to happen! Because the real practice is to realize you've lost the present moment (in the form of concentrating on the breath), and gently bring your attention back to it. You do this by simply returning to counting, beginning with "one" again.

You'll be tempted to think you have "messed up," done something wrong. Some days you'll tell yourself you suck at meditation. That's incorrect. The practice is not to see how many times you can get up to ten breaths, but actually to lose your concentration and get it back again. Losing count is supposed to happen. You're doing fine.

Last thing: this breath-counting is an elementary practice. For many people, it's the first one they ever learn. That's just because it's easy to teach and easy for the student to do right away. But don't imagine that because it's a "beginner" technique it's something you'll outgrow as practice matures. This simple practice has such power, you could do it exclusively for many years and not exhaust its usefulness. You might get tired of it, but you'll come back to it over and over again. It's that good.

In Part Three, I'll tell you about a couple of things you can do when--despite what I just said above--you get tired of counting breaths.