Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wonhyo's yellow watermelon

Wonhyo is a legendary 7th-century Korean Son monk. He is most famous for his journey to China, one that he never completed. The story goes that one day, exhausted and exposed to a terrible storm, he sought shelter in a cave. Fumbling through the darkness, he satisfied his terrible thirst with a cool bowl of water that he found in the cave.

The next morning when he awoke, Wonhyo realized that the water he had drank--so refreshing and pure the night before--was in fact a brackish pool inside of a human skull.

Vomiting in disgust, he had a profound Awakening. The mind, he learned, has the power to transform all experience. Phenomena are empty; it's our minds that create good and bad, delicious and rancid. To quote Hamlet, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Indeed.

After that, Wonhyo abandoned his trip to China, turned around, and returned to Korea.

It's a great story. I had a similar experience the other day, nowhere near as profound, but similar.

My wife cut up a fresh watermelon from a local farm. I eyed it curiously before taking a slice--the insides were yellow, not red like I was accustomed to.

Now I'm not a picky eater, so I was willing to give this a try. I tossed a wedge in my mouth and chewed. It was good, not quite like "regular" watermelons, but sweet and juicy nonetheless.

Later my wife asked me how I liked the watermelon.

"It's good," I said, "but not as sweet as the red kind."

She pursed her lips skeptically. "You know, I think it tastes exactly like the red. It's the yellow color that makes you think it tastes different."

I stood silent. I tried another slice, this time with my eyes closed, and sure enough, it tasted like red watermelon. Holy crap, she was right!

Here's the trip: the moment I opened my eyes and saw the yellow watermelon, my mind and tongue reinterpreted the flavor, like a placebo effect. My mind couldn't accept the fact that yellow watermelon tastes the same as red.

It was just like with Wonhyo. Our mind determines the tone and flavor of our experiences. I wasn't tasting the watermelon as much as I was tasting my expectations.

It was a pretty humbling experience. I'm just happy mine was with a yellow watermelon and not a skull.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: DailyCraft.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Zen Master Ta Hui

Busy as I am these days studying and completing assignments for the Five Mountain Seminary (a great program, by the way), I managed to slip a great read in there--Ta Hui's Swampland Flowers, translated by J.C. Cleary.

Ta Hui, in addition to being Yuan Wu's student--Yuan Wu compiled the seminal The Blue Cliff Record--is one the greatest ancestors in the Korean Zen lineage, and thus the Five Mountain Sangha's as well. Last night I learned that Chinul, legendary Korean Son master and founder of the Chogye order, was reading The Record of Ta Hui when he had his final great Awakening. This helps explain why the hwadu technique is so popular in Korea; Ta Hui implore us to stop attaching to words and sutras and find our true self, by asking the hwadu, "Who is reading this?"

His words are like razors, cutting through delusion and dualism. My favorite quote, reminiscent of Dogen's is, "Once you have the intent to investigate this Path to the end, you must settle your resolve and vow to the end of your days not to retreat or fall back so long as you have not yet reached the Great Rest, the Great Surcease, the Great Liberation." It's a great passage to hang above a Zen center door.

Even if you think that you aren't familiar with Ta Hui's legacy, you are. He wrote a book called Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Sound familiar? It should. Two generations after Ta Hui, Dogen borrowed the title for his magnum opus, Shobogenzo.

Swampland Flowers is an incredible collection of Ta Hui's lectures and letters, many of which were written specifically for lay practitioners. Even thought the book was written in the 12th century, it felt like Ta Hui was speaking directly to me; that's how relevant his writing is. You can't ask for anything better than that!

If you're interested in the works from the Chinese Ancestors, by all means pick up Swampland Flowers. Ta Hui is one of the Greats.

Thank you Rev. Lynch for sharing your knowledge of Ta Hui and Chinul with me.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back to School

We're almost halfway through the summer, which means I'm almost halfway through my first quarter in the Five Mountain Buddhist Seminary program. Things are going great. I love the program and really enjoy the teachers and other students. My midterm is due on Thursday, so I'm busy working on that. As a high school teacher, I'm totally out of shape write academic essays. I'm used to grading them, not writing them! I feel like Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School.

"Mellon, we need you!"

But I have a post coming soon about Zen Master Ta Hui. So stay tuned.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Dean+Barb.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Land of the Two Buddhas

I just watched The Land of the Disappearing Buddha, a documentary from '70s about Buddhism in Japan. It was a fascinating piece, featuring Zen master Omori Sogen, amongst other Buddhist figures. I think the video is part of a series, becasue when it began the narrator was in Sri Lanka, discussing Theravada Buddhism there.

He posed a fascinating question that kept gnawing at me as I watched the video. It's one that I've considered before, but not as articulately. The narrator asked, "If the Buddha from Sri Lanka met the Buddha from Japan, would they recognize one another?"

The standard answer, I suppose is yes, Zen or other forms of Mahayana Buddhism employ upaya, or skillful means, to teach the Dharma, in the same way as the Buddha himself did. Zen practice may appear different from Theravada Buddhism, but at their heart, they're the same.

Just as easily, I can imagine someone asserting the opposite--that Zen or Pure Land or Vajrayana are different. Personally, I dislike Buddhist hierarchies, but there are plenty of people who don't.

It's an interesting question, one that has surfaced many times during my practice.

Would these Buddhas recognize one another?

Tell me what you think.

Also, don't forget to watch the video; it's very well done.

Thanks to Rev. Yuanzhi Daoqing for sharing the video. I really enjoyed it.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Attachments for sale

Like I said in my last post, we had a garage sale this past weekend. Our main items: kids stuff. Now anyone with children knows that this is just inviting disaster. Selling a child's toys is the quickest way to instigate a meltdown of epic proportions. Surprisingly though, my four-year-old daughter handled it pretty well. She just kind of sulked by the window as she watched my wife sell her baby toys.

Now I know what you're thinking, why did I torture the poor kid? Why didn't I bring her to the park or somewhere else to distract her?

The answer: because I'm an idiot. It wasn't deliberate cruelty, just plain old male dumbness. I make no arguments to the contrary.

As Buddhists, we're no strangers to the role that attachment plays in our lives. It's right at the center in Buddhism. Our attachment causes us to suffer.

So I knew how my daughter felt. We all do. We grow attached to objects, emotions, experiences, and situations; to the point where it physically hurts to see them go.

I watched painfully as she wrestled with her attachments, and understood how awful it must feel to see something that's yours--even if you never play with it and have long forgotten all about it--being sold right out from under you. How frustratingly powerless that must feel.

But that's the nature of life, isn't it? The human heart is fickle, and wants what it can't have.

I get that way with books. I'll go months without so much as glancing at a title, but the moment I think about selling it, my attachment slams on the brakes. Whoa, whoa, whoa--I love that book. Don't even think about selling it. Who cares if I've never read it; that's all the more reason to keep it!

It's a natural human response, one familiar to us all.

The garage sale was a learning moment for me. I watched all of my own childish dramas played out in my daughter's situation. I'm a 33-year-old, 200 lb. kid.

I soothed her, told her that we would buy her new toys, which cheered her up a bit. But deep down inside I knew that the toys weren't the issue. You could buy a child a thousand toys, just like you could buy me a thousand books, and it will never be enough. The human appetite for consumption is infinite. Just take a look at greedy billionaires who will never be satisfied.

It's not the toys or money or books that are the problem; it's our attachments. It's easy to sell the toys and books; they move real fast. It's our attachments that take a lifetime of practice to get rid of.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: CEThompson.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What church do you go to?

My wife and I had a garage sale on Saturday and we did pretty well. As things were winding down, a neighbor from two blocks down stopped by. He was in his late 40s, dressed casually, with a t-shirt that read: "Tim, The Man, The Myth, The Legend." I was going to tell him that my father-in-law has the same shirt--his says, "Poppy"--but thought better of it.

Later, when I mentioned Tim's shirt to my wife, she chuckled. "What?" I asked.

She shook her head. "He tried to get me to come to his church."

What! I did a double take. "Huh? How did he do that?"

"Well, he introduced himself and then asked me what church we went to."

Talk about spiritual pickup lines! What a way to entice non-religious folk, or poach Christians: "Oh, you should come to our church!"

"So what did you say?" I asked, leaning closer.

"I told him we were Buddhists."


"He said, 'Really?' Like he didn't get that reply often."

He probably didn't. I'm sure he had his share of stock replies for Christians and non-Christians alike, but not for Buddhists. At least other religions believed in God. Don't an idol?

We live in a Judeo-Christian nation, and the average assumption is that either you subscribe to one of the major theistic religions or are an atheist. Buddhists don't really fit into these categories.

Deciding to raise my children Buddhist has really awakened me to the prevalence of these expectations and the public's overall ignorance regarding Buddhism.

I can't help but hope that some time in the near future there will be fewer reactions like Tim's about Buddhists. Like I said in a few posts ago, I think we need to kick start a cultural revolution in this country. And Buddhism is just the way to do it.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Eastlaketimes.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Zen liturgy

Liturgy often falls by the wayside as a form of practice. Many Americans have an aversion to religious rituals of any sort, perhaps the result of negative religious experiences in their past. But liturgy--chanting, bowing, and prostrating--are excellent opportunities to broaden one's practice.

I think at some point we've all had the "Why am I chanting? Everyone else seems to be so absorbed. Why can't I be?" experience. I distinctly remember feeling that way the first time I chanted the "Heart Sutra" in Sino-Japanese.

"What the heck am I doing?" I thought, eyeing the door for the first chance to bolt.

But that's a great opportunity to practice. Uncomfortable feelings mark boundaries of fear and desire to have life be other than the way it actually is. That's where we dig in. As we settle into the anxiety, boredom, or anger, we not only experience the emotion in its fullness and emptiness, but also become intimate with the beliefs that created the feelings in the first place. Like, "Life should be fun--ALL THE TIME." Or "I hate people telling me what to do." Or my favorite: "This is stupid!"

Be the barrier, Daido Roshi always said. Be the resistance. And there's plenty of that in Zen, especially while chanting.

Part of the problem, I think, stems from our expectation that bowing or chanting should be some kind of heavenly, transcendental experience instead of aching backs, hard wood biting into our knees, and dry mouths. But that's the way life is. Our addiction to special effects and sugar buzzes is most noticeable when we're sitting and staring at a wall for three hours, or chanting in unison when we'd rather be lounging on the couch and munching on chips.

Be the barrier. Be the doubt, the impatience, the aching back. Zen training and liturgy has been masterfully designed to wear those edges down.

I just finished reading Daido Roshi's Bringing the Sacred to Life, an excellent little book about how to incorporate liturgy into Zen practice. Do it with your whole heart, mind, and body, Daido instructs in the true spirit of Master Dogen. Liturgy is an opportunity to make the invisible visible, to give life and body to the spirit of our practice.

Liturgy is a living, breathing embodiment of the Zen tradition. We should cherish it just as much as we do our zazen, because at it's heart, chanting and bowing is no different from zazen. It's all practice, all an opportunity to wholeheartedly engage life as it is.

We can then extend this care and attention to other aspects of our lives--eating, driving, excercising. Liturgy is a way of consecrating the everyday, of realizing the Absolute within the Relative, which is the ultimate goal of Zen.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Big Mind Zen Center.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

All storms pass

We have so many thunderstorms in my town that sometimes I feel like I'm living in a horror movie. The other night I was awakened to a peal of thunder that sounded like a cannon. Nervously, I rolled over. Any moment I expected the enormous Sweet gum tree in my neighbor's yard to come crashing down on my house. I live on the second floor, so if it ever comes down, I'm a goner.

Luckily, it didn't.

The storm raged for another half hour, whille I restlessly tossed and turned.

Then something amazing happened. Well, not quite amazing, but pretty cool. As the storm was passing, rumbling in the distance, I heard a bird call. It was a clear, sharp note in the early morning, playing against the rolling thunder in the background.

My wife later joked, "The bird was saying, 'Is everyone all right?'"

I like that. For some reason I find it comforting.

For me the storm was an apt metaphor for the turbulence of our lives. We are stricken with storms all time--emotional, pyschological tempests where the very foundations of our lives seem to be ripped from their moorings. We wonder if we can somehow survive this suffering, as everything we have come to know and rely upon is uprooted before our eyes.

But if Buddhism teaches us one thing, it's that everything is impermanent. All storms pass. Just like the thunder that night.

No matter what the circumstances are, they will inevitably change.

Maybe we won't all be greeted by the pleasant notes of a bird song or its equivalent, but all storms pass. They must.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: -Qualsiasi.