Saturday, September 13, 2014

Can I get a Witness?

No, because there are none. There is no Witness. In Buddhism, everything is understood to be interdependent and empty of its own existence. The spiritual Witness (with a capital 'W') is commonly defined as an eternal, unchanging entity of sorts that simply witnesses the changing world around it. In a sense, it is immortal consciousness that precedes and transcends the body.

Buddhism allows no such thing, at least most forms of Buddhism don't. Consciousness is a function of the body. No body, no consciousness. In this sense, consciousness is a verb, the result of a massively complex matrix of circumstances. It has different shades and qualities, depending upon conditions. For instance, if someone is drunk or distracted, their attention will be scattered; their awareness cloudy or dulled. Remove one of these conditions--the sun, say--and they all topple.

It is important to remember that consciousness is not privileged, nor is it the chief feature in the universe, as some traditions avouch (as in, the universe is consciousness). This is all from a Buddhist perspective, of course, and a particular one at that; for not all Buddhists schools categorically agree about the nature of the mind/Mind.

Sometimes Buddhist teachers will instruct students to "abide as the witness." Here, the witness is a skill, a capacity to be cultivated, not a thing. Again used as a verb, we witness events occurring; the goal of which is to develop distance from the events or emotions in order to grant us freedom. For example, as long as we identify with anger as ours, we will be ruled by it. Once we can view anger objectively, without identifying with it as us or ours, then we can choose how to respond to the emotion.

The process looks something like this:
1. At first students identify with emotions or thoughts, believing that there is some concrete self who is experiencing them. It's like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, where experiences are things that happen to us, in the same way as the tail is pinned like an add-on to the donkey. There is me inside my head feeling sadness happening to me.
2. When students begin to simply observe without identification or ownership, they develop distance and see that the thoughts are not theirs. If the thoughts were theirs, they could control them. Emotions happen in the same way as the weather does; they are responses to conditions--impersonal, and largely beyond our control. Freedom grows from this recognition.
This stage, of course, is extremely dualistic, in that the emotions are separate from the observer. Witnessing actually creates the false sense of an observer, a necessary step as I will soon discuss.
3. After some time, we come to realize that witnessing is simply a provisional practice that creates separation. There is no mind separate from its contents, in the same way as there is no film outside or behind the images and light projecting the film onto the screen. 
In Buddhism, at least most forms of it, there is no screen at all. There is only the images. There is no weather outside of the wind and rain; weather is actually just an abstract catch-all concept used to denote these collective processes. There is no thing called weather. Similarly, there is no thing called a witness. It's simply shorthand for the occurrence we call mental experience.

The significance is that there is no observer, witness or Witnessm for these are all dualistic. There is no mind or consciousness separate from its contents. Just as there are no thoughts without a mind (rocks don't think), there is no thinker without thoughts. There is no seer without eyes, etc.

In a metaphorical sense, if we were to disconnect our senses, as one does with an electrical circuit breaker, there would be no mind, as well as no primordial consciousness or primal awareness lurking in the background.

Body, mind, senses, and the world are all intimately connected. The witness is a stage in an unfolding process of self-realization, self-inquiry, and self-cultivation that eventually results in a wider sense of self-identification until we can eventually become whatever circumstances need us to be. When my kids need me, I'm Dad; when my hot water heaters bursts, I'm a home owner. The less we identify exclusively with these roles--or stated in more positive terms, the more fluidly we can shift from one to the other--the freer we are.

The paradox, as we see from the above process, is that in order to develop a wider sense of self, we must first engage a more narrow one. We act as a witness in order to transcend the witness; for ultimately, in the truest and freest sense, there is no observer. When I am functioning at my peak as a writer or teaching my best in the classroom, there is absolutely no sense of an 'I' or doer. There is just writing or teaching.

The story writes itself; the teachings teach themselves. No I is necessary.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Dharma is Not a Product

The Dharma is not a product and students are not customers. I am very fortunate to teach in a location that does not charge rent because that means the Original Mind Zen Sangha does not need a substantial income. Therefore, we do not not to shop for students.

Bodhisattvas dedicate their lives to helping others awaken, but what does that necessarily entail? To what lengths should Dharma teachers go to in order to appeal to students?

In the American spiritual marketplace, Zen--with its rigorous meditation practice, bare-bones liturgy, and stoic character--is not the shiniest gem. Other traditions are far more attractive.

I enjoy leading a small sangha, for it frees us from the obligation of large expenses. We don't have a mortgage, rent, or even heating bills. And that's a blessing.

Still, there is the unstated pressure to grow, to bring in more members. But how much of that is the Bodhisattva vow, and how much is just ego? (My intuition says that the moment someone utters the question, "Why aren't more people coming?", ego has appeared.)

Do we really need a bright temple in order to draw in crowds, or exciting Dharma talks to impress students? When does change or accommodation (upaya or skillful means) become just plain old compromise? Should Zen sanghas be trying to encourage people to join?

These are important questions I find myself facing as the Original Mind Zen Sangha approaches its third year. I am very wary of any approaches that intentionally try to appeal to, entice, or attract students. If someone asks how to meditate or is curious about Buddhism, then by all means answer their questions. Give them literature. Point them to resources or invite them to attend a meditation class. We can even offer seminars at the library or yoga center. Advertise with paper pamphlets--make the Dharma available.

But marketing Zen sounds simply counter intuitive (or even hypocritical) to me. I don't think that Zen teachers should be in the Zen business. Period. That approach tends to reduce people to students, and students to human advantages or mere resources.

Thoughts or comments?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sweep the Tent - Dharma Talk

Every action we perform is an expression of the Absolute, all we need to do is realize that. Even the most unlikely activities, like brushing our teeth or getting gasoline, acts that ordinarily serve as transitions or means to ends, can transform into religious activities. Zen practice is about becoming intimate with everything that we do.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Monday, September 1, 2014

"Transmission of the Dharma," or, "Why the Buddha Smiles"

Dharma Transmission--the authentication of a student's insight into the Buddhadharma, in which the student and the teacher's mind are identical--is very important in Zen. It verifies that students have received the approval of their teachers, as well as guarantees that the Dharma the Buddha transmitted 2,500 years ago is the same as the one that the student understands.

In a metaphorical and symbolic sense, it's a passing the torch of sorts. The Mind Seal, as it is also known, recognizes that the Dharma has been fully and authentically transmitted to the student. That's formal Dharma Transmission, usually recognized by a public ceremony. 

But "Dharma Transmission" is redundant. Let me explain. 

In Zen, the Dharma is understood to be IT, the Absolute, and it is always available to us. It is the coffee mug by my side, my computer, the air I breathe. It is both the individual--you, me, the Buddha, Barbara Streisand--and the totality, Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos.

We are all IT. There is no escaping it; separation is an illusion.

But unlike the Absolute in other spiritual traditions, the Buddhist Absolute is not eternal; it is always changing, or rather, it is change itself.

It's not that there is some hidden being, entity, force, or spirit that is changing its shape as the manifest realm; rather, there is only process of change, with no substratum. Nothing is hidden. 

There is no bottom in Zen. Like Pee-Wee's big discovery at the Alamo, there is no spiritual basement.

The thing is, this Dharma is always being transmitted. That's what the Dharma is, what all of reality actually is, a transmission!

There is only transmission, not from one being to another, but TRANSMISSION. Period. Dharma is transmission. Reality is transmission. In fact, there is no way not to transmit the Dharma. That's what reality is, transmission. 

Here it is, complete, perfect, lacking nothing. Always available, in front of us, around us, as us. 

Emptiness means that there is no substratum, no basement; there is only perpetual change. That is the Dharma. 

Transmission. Impermanence. Emptiness. Bottomlessness. These are all synonyms. 

"Dharma Transmission" is redundant because the Absolute is always transmitting itself. The Absolute is Transmission.

I guess that's why the Buddha is always depicted with a subtle smile playing across his face. It's the cosmic, inside joke:

Teaching or transmitting the Dharma is redundant because that's what reality is always doing, revealing itself.
Have a wonderful Labor Day.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

No Sanctuary - Dharma talk

We don't need any sanctuary from our lives. Zen practice is about fully embracing our lives just as they are.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

L.I.V.I.N' - Dharma talk

Modern culture--with its amenities, luxuries, conveniences, and leisure time--has taught us that life is about something more than living. That "life" is more than what we do; that it's about more than "toil" and labor; that life is about "finding out who you are."

This is an abstraction that Zen rejects. We "are" what we do. When we paint the bedroom, there is only painting--no "I" or "room." Just painting. Reality is right here; we don't have to go somewhere special to find it! Enlightenment is mowing the lawn and driving the kids to soccer. Life is not about anything else or more than living.

Introduction and sound engineering by Tom Inzan Gartland.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Leaves of Concrete

I was powerwashing my patio yesterday, spraying away decades of grime, mold, mildew, and plain old dirt. Each sweep of the nozzle, blasting a scouring fan of water, stripped away sheets of filth, revealing the clean concrete hidden below. The process was slow and required that I inspect each area to make sure that I didn't miss any spots.

During the project, I discovered something amazing--impressed inside of the concrete was the outline of a small leaf. At some point, when the patio was laid, a leaf must have fallen onto the soft, impressionable concrete, and left its outline.

Although the leaf itself had long since disappeared, its impression remained.

The leaf, like all things on earth, is impermanent. We all come and go; our lives flicker into existence, shimmer for (perhaps) a few decades, and then fade away. Our legacies, however, survive us. Our choices, our children, friendships, art, teachings, these all continue like that leaf in the concrete, sending countless ripples throughout history.

While everything is impermanent, some things do last longer than others. This is important to remember: what we do matters. The Dharma that the Buddha taught 2,500 years ago continues today. Its form and shape have changed but its heart, its marrow, is still alive.

This reminds me: be mindful and act skillfully. Everything we say and do leaves impressions.

Take care.