Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"Who am I?"

As some of you can probably tell by my last round of posts, I've been reading about Korean Zen lately. Don't-Know Mind by Richard Shrobe (see my review on 3/20/11), The Way of Korean Zen by Kusan Sunim (an incredible book I will be reviewing soon), and now The Compass of Zen by Seung Sahn, another excelllent title.

What all of these books have in common is Don't-know mind, what other schools of Buddhism might call a mind unattached to views. In Korean Zen, the central practice to access this Don't-know mind is through a hwadu, a koan-style question posed to free the mind from fixed views of self, other, inside, outside, and reality in general. For more details, see my 3/16 post.

After reading about hwadu, I became curious and decided to incorporate one into my sitting meditation. I chose the most direct one possible: "Who am I?" This question cuts to the chase pretty quickly.

For some reason, as I begin asking the question on the cushion, I'm reminded of Derek Zoolander. As he contemplates "deep philosophical issues," he asks his reflection in a puddle, "Who am I? Why am I here?" His reflection furrows his brow, shakes his head, and says, "I don't know" in a clueless tone.

That's a good start.

According to Zen master Seung Sahn, answering the "Who am I?" question is the purpose of all Zen practice--to discover our original face. Our true nature.

So I've been sitting with it, and though I'm miles away from arriving at an answer, I have found that my meditation is much more focused with a hwadu. My sits have been like drinking a glass of orange juice concentrate before you add the water. My meditation with the hwadu is much more centered, intense, and unwavering than it is when I simply follow the breath. I wouldn't quite call it Don't-know mind yet; it's more of an emptying, a sort of crystalline awareness.

I need to continue asking "Who am I?" more when I'm off the mat--shaving, walking, reading--in order to generate more power during my seated meditation. This, I think, will help turn the hwadu into the burning mass of doubt that Zen masters speak so much about.

Two nights ago I had a glimmer, a brief opening, where I glimpsed (or at least thought I did) a chink in my ego's armor. There was a split second of...I don't know how to explain it. A bigger me? Maybe it was a delusion or a premature breakthrough. More likely the latter. Either way, like Seung Sahn says, "Open mouth already a mistake." To put it into words kills it.

I'm going to stick with the hwadu and see where it leads me. Until then, Great Faith, Great Doubt, and Great Courage.


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: paurian.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

To meat or not to meat...

I've been a vegetarian for a couple years now, ever since I started taking my practice seriously. I felt hypocritical vowing to save all sentient beings while I still ate meat.

Umm, yeah I'll save everyone in universe...once I finish this cheeseburger.

Thich Nhat Hanh's work influenced my decision a lot. In his bestselling title Anger, he talks about how, when we consume meat, we ingest all of the suffering that these animals endure--we're eating all of their pain and terror. That shook me to the core. Whether or not it's true, the image was too chilling for me to ignore.

So I took the big plunge into vegetarianism. Actually it wasn't much of a plunge at all. I'd be lying if I said it was hard; my wife was already a vegetarian, so it wasn't much of a change for me. I never ate much meat at home, anyway.

For some reason, people always ask me the "vegetarian question," as I like to call it: why I don't eat meat. Rather than tell them I'm a Buddhist who has taken a vow not to kill--that essentially I see eating meat as a moral issue, the same way many Christians see abortion--I just tell them I think there's enough suffering in the world. So why would I want to contribute to it?

The problem, as I see it, is that too many people think that the world was created for them. Literally, they think the earth is a playground made for humans. As Ken Wilber would put it, it's a question of moral development. And let's face it, most people are about as morally developed as a caveman.

For example, someone asked me "the question" the other day: "Why don't you eat meat?"

Jokingly, I said, "Thou shalt not kill."

He shook his head. "That only applies to humans."

"Tell that to the cow," I replied.

Generally speaking, Buddhists don't believe that it's okay to kill some animals--those with four legs or wings--and not others--those with two legs and arms. Or at least this Buddhist doesn't.

Which is why my wife and I are taking the final plunge. Duh duh dun..into veganism. Yikes, it sound scary just to say it. (Not to mention veganism sounds like a cult. They should change then name to something more inviting, less imposing like veggievores.)

Today was my first day and it was tough, much harder than the transition to vegetarianism. I already miss my yogurt and milk. It's a whole lifestyle change--no pizza, eggs, even birthday cake. Heck, most types of chocolate is off limits!

But when it comes down to satisfying my tastes or eliminating the suffering of other beings, I'll accept the inconvenience.

After all, the Bodhisattva vow is to save all sentient beings, even those I had no intention to eat but continued to use for eggs and milk.

Wish me luck.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Professor Bop.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Don't-Know Mind

I find that some of the best Zen books are the least known. The Three Pillars of Zen never resonated with me; it felt too dry and cerebral. Perhaps it had to do with Kapleau's criticism of Alan Watts, the man whose work first introduced me to Zen. The same goes for Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. The first time I read it, it went right over my head. After several rereads and years of practicing, I can now appreciate the classic because I can view it in the context of practice, but as a beginner I was lost.

A fun title I recently stumbled upon was Richard Shrobe's Don't-Know Mind: The Spirit of Korean Zen. Shrobe, a student of Korean legend Seung Sahn, is a Zen teacher in the Kwan Um lineage. In this light, fast-paced read, Shrobe explores the Korean practice of questioning, or not-knowing. Not knowing, the act of letting go of fixed views, in the spirit of Nagarjuna's Madhyamika, is central to the Korean Zen lineage and hwadu study (see my last post on the subject). It frees us to act spontaneously in the ever-changing, uncertain reality we live in, and to appreciate the myserious wonder of this Buddha world. Shrobe's warm and good-humored prose draws readers in and easily acquaints them with the practice of not-knowing, the signature of Korean Zen.

I find that too often Zen students relegate their studies to Japanese and Chinese sources, overlooking the rich Korean tradition. Though less known to Westerners, Son (Korean Zen) possesses just as impressive of a body of literature and practice as its Zen and Ch'an counterparts. And in Don't-Know Mind, Shrobe does a great job of introducing readers to Son's unique approach and contribution to Zen.

I highly recommend this book as a primer for anyone interested in the Korean Son tradition, or in Zen in general. It acts as an excellent supplement for any student of Buddhism. Give it a try.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Letting go

My grandfather had a stroke last year, only months after my grandmother passed away. He can speak fine--thank goodness--but can't walk or use his left arm at all. Luckily he lives on the same property as my parents, so they can take good care of him. Lately he's been having a hard time accepting the fact that he can't do all of the things he used to; he'll talk about driving to the store, going to work, or mowing the lawn.



Until a few years ago, he was an avid hunter. So recently he's been asking my father to wheel him into his spare bedroom to look at his rifles.


In frustration, my father said to me, "Why can't he understand that his hunting days are over?"


As a Buddhist, I can understand this tendency all to well. We cling to everything--objects, ideas, people, experiences--for security, validation, a sense of identity.


When my father said this, the enormity of our clinging struck me as it never had in the past. Listening to my father relate how difficult of a time my grandfather--a man I greatly admire, who is now facing the most difficult challenge in his life--was having letting go, woke me up to the complexity of human clinging.


I suddenly realized, in light of my grandfather's story, that if we cling so desperately to objects and habits, imagine how much we cling to existence itself! Clinging to this "I," according to the Buddha, is the source of rebirth.


It all became so clear. Trapped in this dualism of life and death, I literally felt my own innate grasping at existence--a physical impulse like gasping for air. Despite my own occasional tendency to escape into the peaceful oblivion of sleep, I never considered how much I cling to the idea of existence. To my sense of identity. To my concept of "I."


Everything else is a satellite orbiting this "I."


Last week I assigned my senior Honors class to write three questions they would love to know the answers to. Inevitably the top two are: Does God exist? and What happens to us when we die?


In the past I would have definitely chosen the second one. But not anymore.

The more I study and practice Zen, the less certain I am of what I would have hitherto called "constants" or "givens"--consciousness, life, existence itself.


Now I'm more concerned with understanding the nature of this life, of this experience, of this thing I call "I." After all, why should I be concerned with the afterlife when I don't even understand the true nature of this life?

What my practice has taught me is that freedom isn't found by accumulating objects or power, but with relinquishing. In that way, I'm just like my grandfather--learning how to let go.




Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: iKeito.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Itty-bitty zazen

If you ask my four-year-old daughter, she'll tell you that she's a Buddhist. And if you ask her what a Buddhist is, she'll say, "It's someone who bows to the Buddha and meditates." She hasn't quite gotten the Dharma portion of the equation down yet, but I'm glad she understands the importance of meditation.

Every couple of days she asks me if she can come and sit zazen with me. In the meditation room, she helps me light the altar candles, bows to the mat and the Buddha, then sits cross-legged on my lap. It's difficult to hold back my laughter as I feel her little frame rock and sway with her exaggerated breathing. Following the breath must be difficult for her, because she sucks in her breath like she's about to blow up a balloon.

The other night, she sat for six minutes. Pretty good for a four-year-old.

I think that teaching children to meditate is very important. Not only is it the foundation of Zen Buddhism, but it helps them develop meta-cognitive skills as well as work through challenging situation/emotions.

Now I know that raising children Buddhist can be a touchy subject for some people who feel that kids should make their own choices about which religion or spiritual tradition they wish to follow.

The way I see the issue is twofold: 1.) Why wouldn't I want to teach my kids the Dharma? I certainly feel that they would be better off raised Buddhist than with no spiritual teachings at all. I wish I had learned it earlier myself, especially from my parents. Refusing to teach them about Buddhism--something I love so much and is such a huge part of my life--would feel like I was depriving them of something vital, like spiritual nourishment.
2.) There's no way to separate me--either as a parent or simply as a person--from being a Buddhist. My kids are going to know that "Daddy's a Buddhist," so inevitably they're going to learn about the Dharma. With that said, why not teach it to them, rather just about it? I just wouldn't feel honest about myself if I withheld this part of my life; I'd feel like I was leading a double life.

But all that's a long way off; my daughter isn't even in kindergarten and my son's still in diapers. For now, I'll be satisfied with my daughter trying to sit zazen. Buddhism aside, it's a great experience to share with your children, for all of the same reason that we ourselves meditate. Not to mention, it's a great way to bond, and it's pretty damn cute.
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: zenonline.




Sunday, March 6, 2011

Eye of the storm

It's tough being a teacher these days. Besides the daily vitriol I see on TV, in New Jersey, teachers are getting clobbered by hostile legislation. Increased benefit and pension contributions, salary caps, the elimination of tenure, massive curriculum overhauls, merit pay--my head is spinning.

Think of it this way: imagine walking into work tomorrow morning to discover that every aspect of your job is about to change. I mean every.

Talk about stressful.

Add to that drama in my extended family and my blood pressure looks like Lance Armstrong's while he's pedalling in the Tour de France. I've also started drinking more coffee than is good for me. Put all that in a blender, press 'puree' and you have a recipe for a meltdown. That or some good practice.

So last night, amidst all this upheaval, I climbed the stairs, lit my candles, made my prostrations to the Buddha and began sitting. At first my head was a torrent of thoughts, a maelstrom of anger and confusion:

"Why is this happening to me?"

"I don't need this crap in my life!"

"This just isn't my problem. Why am I letting this bother me?"

And then silence struck. All my worries dropped away and I sat in complete silence. It wasn't kensho. There was no dropping off of body and mind. I was simply as calm as a sleeping baby.

It was the eye of the storm.

Immediately I was filled with the greatest appreciation for this practice. It's a sacred thing, a tonic in a world of delusion and strife. I honestly have no idea where I would be without it.

It's exactly what I needed last night.
Practice provides a still point from which to view the world. As my life bounces and flounders, my practices remains undisturbed. Non-abiding, I think the Buddha would call it.
In fact, I suspect that practice thrives during periods of instability, because the contrast only serves to highlight the natural stillness of the mind.
And Buddha knows I need some stability these days!
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Dru!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zen kibbutz

I'd like to move out of New Jersey and dedicate my life to Zen. If I could, I would ordain as a Zen priest. If they would have me! My wife, saint that she is, fully supports me. The problem, however, is that there are no Buddhist training centers open to families. At least none that I can find.

I'm envisioning an entire Buddhist community, or a Zen center open for entire families.

Apparently "commune" isn't the appropriate term anymore; its '60s-era connotation of pot-smoking hippies has fallen out of vogue. Now they're called "eco-friendly villages." And there are plenty of them scattered around the country, but none that are specifically Buddhist-centered.

When I told my Zen friend about the idea, he said, "Like a kibbutz." Exactly. A self-sustaining, environmentally friendly community. But with a roshi.

Like Plum Village or Zen Mountain Monastery, but open for whole families. Grow food, practice Zen, open an online business like The Monastery Store to pay the bills, build a retreat center.

I feel that one of the major restrictions for the growth of Zen, or Buddhism in general, in the U.S. is the fact that it's not very family-friendly. It's an adult practice that doesn't allow many opportunities for children or families as a whole.

But we can change that.

If I can't find one of these Zen kibbutz/monasteries/villages/communities, I would like to start one. Recruit a roshi to teach, put him or her up, wave a flag and see who shows up. "Build it and they will come." The problem is, that requires a lot of capital. And I'm an English teacher...

If you know of any existing communities like this, please let me know. Or tell me what you think--is this a possible endeavour or am I just being idealistically naive?

Photo of Providence Zen Center borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Lorianne DiSabato.