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.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Your Life Is Your Altar

Most people new to Buddhism misunderstand the purpose of an altar. I don't worship the statue at its center or even the Buddha himself, the historical man that the image represents.

To me, an altar is a visual embodiment of the awakened mind--life right here and now. The Buddha symbolizes our own stainless mind, unperturbed even in the thickest and most chaotic of circumstances. It's a way of making the ordinary sacred, of reminding ourselves that every moment is it; that there is nowhere we need to go, no state that we need to attain.

It's always right here in front of us. As us.

In a sense, an altar is redundant: we are attending to a physical symbol of our lives with, and within, our lives. It's like building a roof on top of a roof. If everything is sacred, how can one thing be more sacred than another?

Zen practice frees us to wander like the Taoist sage and Ch'an master in Chinese lore, unencumbered by ritual, temple, and self-reflection. This wandering can be literal and symbolic. It can take place on the road, at work, or in a monastery.

It can take the form of changing a car tire, filing TPS reports, and polishing the Buddha on the altar. For in the end, these are all expressions of Buddha being Buddha. The physical altar is a reminder that our lives, and everything in them, are the real altars.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dharma talk - The One Teaching

All Buddhist teachings point to one thing, the awakened mind. Find your true nature and then save all sentient beings. Everything else is upaya or skillful means.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Eunsahn Gartland.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Hole of It

As I was chainsawing some wood yesterday, I spilled some bar oil on my driveway. I soaked it up with some cardboard but a thin film still remained, so I sprayed it with the hose. The water puddled on the hot asphalt as I took a break in the shade of the garage, just at the point where I could still feel the afternoon breeze.

I hosed some water over my head and closed my eyes. When the water stopped dripping off of my face, I heard a trickling sound. I opened my eyes and noticed a small fissure between the driveway and the cement apron leading to the garage. The water had found its way to the lowest point and was draining underground.

Our yard slopes away from the house, where all of our rainwater and downspouts drain. So it is no surprise that ground water had found or channeled its way into the soil in order to drain.

It is only natural. Here is water resolving itself, doing what it does so naturally--flowing. So simple, so ordinary. When it's raining and I'm inside my house tinkering and toiling, trying to fix my life, the water is trickling away down this hole.

If only we could be so adaptive, selfless. We can.

Zen, an heir to Taoism with its emphasis on natural spontaneity, teaches us to stop blocking ourselves and simply respond to circumstances without the clutter of an insistent ego. If we, like water, can simply stop demanding that life follow our orders, and just find the holes--the natural openings that life offers us--then we can move freely. As the title of The Gateless Gate suggests, we are never bound; the Way is always open and clear.

That is our original mind.