Sunday, September 27, 2015

This Breath, This Life

I was meditating with my eight-year-old daughter yesterday. She was sitting on my lap while our dog circled us, looking for attention.

"Just ignore him," I told her. "He'll settle down if we don't pay any attention to him."

Just like our thoughts. If we don't pursue them--in life and during meditation--they will fade, taper off on their own. Don't feed them and soon the thinking mind, ever in pursuit of some new shiny trinket of thought, will move on to the next idea, the latest story.

Repeat as necessary.

Sure enough, the dog soon settled down into his bed next to us.

Within a few minutes my daughter looked up to me and whispered, "I think that I'm done."

"Sure," I said. About ten minutes earlier she had decided that she wanted to meditate, and now she was finished. There was no pressure for her to continue. She was done when she was done.

She stood up and padded out of the room. Inevitably, the dog bounded after her.

Again I couldn't help but smile at the fickleness of the dog. In the East they call the tendency to chase objects, experiences, and thoughts, "monkey mind." Since monkeys aren't common in the West, I think that "puppy mind" is more helpful.

A puppy cannot maintain focus for more than a few moments, as my ten-month-old puppy constantly reminds me. Any distraction becomes an imperative to possess, sniff, or taste. A new person walks into the room and you are no longer important; gaining that person's attention is now the puppy's highest priority.

And that's how the human mind works: it is perpetually on the prowl for the next best thing, the latest colorful object or thought, something to fixate on and then abandon.

Trying to learn from the dog's exit, I turned my attention back to what was actually in front of me, to what was real and not just imagined: speckled carpet illuminated by the fading glow of twilight. My body felt relaxed and my mouth was dry. The television chattered in the other room.

The Great Way is always open and available. It's just a matter of paying attention to what is really in front of us. Come back to that, over and over and over--to this breath, this life.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Two Dharma talks (audio)

Not only is every single moment that we are alive an opportunity to awaken, every single moment is already awakening. The Great Way is wide and clear. The air we breathe, the songs we hear and sing, the taste of the food we eat--it's all completely available. All we have to do is accept it.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

You don't need saving. Period. Zen practice is about learning to accept that with every single fiber of our being. Nothing can change that fact--not any mistakes we make, emotions we feel, thoughts we think, or circumstances we experience. We are perfect just the way we are. And yet we can still use some improvement.

Monday, September 7, 2015

You Never Know

This week as I was driving to work, a black pickup truck zoomed past me in the middle lane. I was in the fast lane, passing traffic, so I was surprised to see that the driver gave me a "dirty look." He was a middle-aged man with a mustache that bristled as he sped past.

A little elaboration: I live in New Jersey, so when someone flashes me an angry look--especially unwarranted--my hackles instinctively bristle. I can't speak for other regions of the country, but in New Jersey a dirty look is tantamount to a declaration of war.

But I practice Zen so of course I would never act on my knee-jerk response of contempt. Instead, I just noted the emotion and kept driving.

At the next red light, however, he and I were stopped right next to one another. I drive with my windows open whenever possible; his were rolled up. So you can imagine my surprise when he started to roll his window down.

This. Is. Not. Cool. 

What was he going to say? I had been driving attentively--no swerving or unnecessary braking. What could he possibly complain about?

Expecting the worst, I felt my chest tighten in anticipation of a conflict.

Then he smiled and made a friendly comment about my bumper sticker. My tension melted. The man had been driving to work at 7 AM like everyone else, noticed my bumper sticker, thought it amusing, and had passed me on the highway. He wasn't angry at all.

The entire conflict had been in my head.

We exchanged a few light words, and when the light turned green, drove our separate ways.

My mistake was in thinking that I knew his intentions. I was totally wrong. The tradition of Zen that I practice aims at "Don't know" mind--a clear and open receptivity to life, uncluttered by the buzz of judgments and criticisms.

Our minds naturally continue to churn the thoughts out in the same way as a leaky faucet drips water.

But what do we do with the judgments? Do we bite the metaphorical hook and believe them? Or do we notice them, allow them to buzz around in our heads and then eventually fade away (probably to be replaced by some other wild thought)?

In life, we don't know; we only think that we do. Assuming that we know what someone else is thinking or about to do makes us feel in control. But it is an illusory control, one grounded in assumptions and therefore unreality.

Not knowing is our true nature--free and unbound by concepts. So "Don't know" all the way to work and back.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Dharma talk - Look in the Mirror

Life is as simple as just seeing clearly, without the veil of judgments and criticisms. Just seeing, just hearing, just smelling, without adding a single thing.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

With New Eyes

Marcel Proust captured the spirit of Zen so well when he wrote, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." When we just see, just hear, just smell, without the conceptual overlays that so often complicate our raw experiences, then there is no good or bad, not judgment and evaluation.

Every experience is part of the great mystery. If only we could look at the world with this young man's wonder. Please excuse some of of his language, but he is colorblind and, with the help of his EnChroma sunglasses, is seeing many colors for the first time. He is very excited.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Thank you, Dr. Kelsey

Right now it's chic to dislike the government; in fact, in some circles you are considered a fool not to. Yet it is so easy to overlook the ways in which we rely upon it every day. Fresh food, highways, the internet, police enforcement, the military, education, OTC drug regulation--you name it, all of these aspects of our lives, like it or not, are impacted, if not downright possible, because of the government.

The complex world that we live in--in which very few of us grow our own food, make our own clothing, dispose of our own garbage--demands that we rely ever more visibly on others.

When I take an aspirin because I strained my back working in the garden, I'm assuming that the drug is safe. And it is, because it has been tested and regulated by the FDA. The internet that I am using to blog right now was subsidized by the U.S. government; the roads that I drive on were commissioned and contracted out by the state of NJ.

Here is an amazing example of the often unnoticed help that we receive from others. It's an article about Dr. Frances Kelsey whose work for the US FDA during the 1950s kept the dangerous drug thalidomide out of the country. Despite enjoying the benefit of Dr. Kelsey's courage,  I never knew her name until this morning. The article states that,

"[the] tragedy was largely averted in the United States, with much credit due to Kelsey. ... For a critical 19-month period, she fastidiously blocked its approval while drug company officials maligned her as a bureaucratic nitpicker."

Too many people hate the government but enjoy its benefits, or worse, don't even recognize that they rely upon it every time they drink a  glass of clean water, eat a safe meal, and use their electricity. It's a form of mental isolationism.

This is not a political post about the need for government; it's a reminder of interdependence, the central teaching in Mahayana Buddhism.

We are constantly depending on others, just as others depend upon us. Recognizing those connections is vital to developing responsibility and cultivating compassion. In the Five Mountain Zen Order of which I am a member, we try to enact the Bodhisattva vow by continuously asking, "How may I help you?"

Dr. Kelsey embodied that question through her hard work and courage. She did help us and continues to do so even now that she is gone. Thank you, Dr. Kelsey.

And thanks to my wife for sharing the article with me!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Attunement and Attainment

I love language. I'm an English teacher by profession and have a deep respect for words, with their textures and nuances, their crevices and contours. This might sound like a paradox coming from a Zen practitioner, since Zen is so often understood to be suspicious of language. But if anything, Zen has clarified my love of language rather than diluted it.

For a while, I felt a distinct conflict between Zen's pointing to life-as-it-is, prior to conceptualization and verbalization, but I have found that conflicts needn't result in negation. They can result in deep affirmations.

Admittedly, language can be tricky, especially when we use it without critically examining it. The same, however, can be said about any tool, whether it be a chainsaw or a road map. They each have their own distinct functions, which needn't be problematic, so long as we recognize their limitations.

As I try to explore new ways of understanding and expressing the Dharma, I continually wrestle with the limits of the English language. For instance, "attaining" Enlightenment has always sounded clumsy to me, for it implies that we are achieving or acquiring something that we don't already have. "Realizing" sounds more accurate, as does "awakening," because they eliminate the awkward use of the word "Enlightenment," which is riddled with all sorts of unintentional baggage.

"Attunement" sounds much more exact than "attainment." We attune ourselves to our true nature in much the same way as a radio attunes itself to a certain frequency of radio waves. The waves are always present; the radio just isn't attuned to them. When it attunes itself properly, the waves manifest as sounds.

Similarly, when we realize that this moment is truth, then we actualize what we have been all along. Free.