Thursday, September 29, 2011

Chanting, here and now

Chanting has never been a large part of my zendo practice. Sure I chant with the sangha, and try my hardest to stay present--aware of my voice and the voices of others. But I have never really engaged it at home, by myself.

At the end of each sit, I chant the Bodhisattva's Vow, but it's more like intoning than chanting. So the other day I stood on my cushion, opened a copy of the Heart Sutra, and began chanting. I was amazed at how fully engaging it was. Since I was the only one chanting, there was no other voices to distract me.

The experience was...I don't know, crystalline?

There was only my voice chanting.

But that doesn't quite express it quite well either. For I wasn't conscious of my voice. There was only...

Don't know.

I can't believe that it's taken me this long to engage chanting, but better late then never, I suppose. Now I look forward to it at the end of each zazen session.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva doing deep prajna paramita clearly saw...

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: xcode.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Type O positive

Here's a little Buddhist humor for you:

If you asked me three days ago what blood type I am, I would have said B positive. That's what my mother told me and what I believed up until two days ago.

Then in the mail I received my blood donor ID card and, to my surprise, I discovered that I am in fact O positive. My mom must have gotten mixed up somehow.

Now, in case you don't know, O positive is the universal blood type, which means that anyone can use it, regardless of their blood type. Pretty cool.

Reading the card over my shoulder, my wife said, "You see, all that Buddhism is paying off: you changed your blood type from B positive to O positive! What a Bodhisattva."

Ha!--if only. But how cool would that be?

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: MShades.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stuck in line

If there were an award for most impatient person on Earth, I think I'd win by miles. I fidget in line at the gas station, counting each precious second lost. In line at the supermarket, I try to stand patiently while my mind runs through a laundry list of all the things I could be doing if I had only chosen the right line.

For some reason, I always seem to choose the wrong line. You know, the one that looks shorter but has that annoying customer who insists on paying in change. Maybe I have slow line karma or something.

Anyway, so I was waiting in line at the farmer's market when I overheard two women talking. Both were in their sixties, and dressed in their Sunday finest.

The one in the line opposite me said, "I think he's waiting outside."

The woman behind me leaned over my shoulder to glance out the plate glass window. She shrugged, as if to say, "Oh well."

A few seconds passed as it occurred to me that perhaps these women were in a hurry and, since I wasn't, I turned around and offered the woman to take my spot.

"No, no, no," she said. "That's okay."

Suddenly all of my tension melted. The moment I started to think about someone else's needs, my own obstinate insistence on speed disappeared.

It was amazing. Sure, I've read all about the Bodhisattva's Vow and dedicating oneself to saving others, but here I actually felt it.

Now, I'm not comparing what I did to saving a busload of kids from a fiery inferno--far from it. But it was an amazing experience, nonetheless, as I literally felt my priorities shift from "me, me, me" to someone else. I was no longer consumed with my own worries, because my sphere of experience opened to include others.

My sense of self, I suppose, broadened.

I'm sure this has happened before, but I have never been so conscious of the shift. It was so simple and yet so remarkable.

Thanks ladies, you taught me a lot. More than likely, they were Bodhisattvas!

Image borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Wesley Fryer.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Sometimes it feels like I'm amassing an army of Buddhist books and knowledge. I'm a total book junkie, and the moment I spot a title I don't own, I snatch it up. For many months, I would devour one Buddhist title after another. Once I discovered an aspect of the Dharma that I wasn't familiar with, it felt like there was a gaping hole in my heart and the only way to fill it was to read another book.

Something tells me I'm not the only one who feels this way. Chalk it up to American consumer culture, human nature, whatever, it's a prime example of dukkha, what the Buddha identifies as the universal human condition. A pervasive dis-ease, as if something is wrong, but is so subtle that we can't place our finger on it. Whatever we are doing, wherever we are, it's either the wrong activity or the wrong place. We yearn to be doing something else somewhere else with someone else.

That's how it feels when I'm reading Buddhist books. Whichever titles I'm currently engaged in feels banal (usually, although there are time when the book is exceptional and I wished it were 100 pages longer) while the next book on my menu stares seductively at me from my bookshelf. If only I could finish this damn book and move on to the next one, because I know that one will be....

The great irony of course is that I have turned Buddhism--the path to Awakening--into another project. Zenterprise, I call it. And if you open a copy of your favorite Buddhist magazine, you'll see pages promoting just that--adding another head to the one you already have. We swap one obsession for another.

My teacher recently pointed this out to me when I mentioned the next book I wanted to read. He asked, "Why do you want to read it?" I was struck dumb. Why did I want to read another translation of The Gateless Gate? It was such a simple question, but for some reason I couldn't answer it.

Well, that's not exactly true. I could; I just didn't like the answer. I wanted to read another Zen book because that's what good Zen students do, right? They meditate, stay mindful, and study. But in reality I was trying to amass a body of Zen knowledge so that I would be prepared in the God-knows-when future to answer God-know-what question.

I had made a project out of Zen. Zen isn't about how many books you've read, how many sesshins you've attended, and it sure as hell isn't about how much you know. Now there's nothing wrong with these things, so long as we don't get hooked by them. And hooked I was/am.

To my mind, Zen is about how you live your life. Are you awake in what you do--not only on the cushion but during the other 16+ hours of the day? Are we compassionate? Do we act skillfully, with wisdom? Or do we get caught in unnecessary dualities of self and other, good and bad?

It's so easy to get sucked into the Zen politics and forget that Buddhism is a medicine. When you're sick, you take it; when you're not, you stop. Don't get attached to the medicine. The forms, rituals, and practices of Zen are skillful means to help us awaken. But if we're not careful--as I haven't been--then we can get addicted to the very medicine created to set us free.

But every moment is a new one. We can wake up at any time. Now, thanks to my teacher's help, I see what I'm doing, how I've replaced one mental construct for another. First it was my obsession to become a fiction writer, then it was to become the model Zen student.

Does this mean that I'm abandoning Zen? Hell no! It means I'm going to practice even harder, to stay even more vigilant. The mind is a sticky thing that will attach itself to anything; it's a master of co opting and turning anything into an object of desire. That includes Buddhism itself.

If the path to Awakening means letting go, that means letting of go Buddhism too. It's tough, painful and disconcerting at times, but a necessary step, I think. Or at least it is with me.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week.

Deepest thanks to Rev. Lynch for his insight, patience, and help. You're a true Bodhisattva.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Bradley.Johnson.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Karen Armstrong's "Buddha"

To keep ahead of the game, I read one of the books for my "The Life of the Buddha" course starting in October. It was Karen Armstrong's Buddha. The book is written from a religious scholar's perspective, as Armstrong pieces together a loose biography of the Buddha's life. I didn't know what to expect from Armstrong, a comparative religion scholar and former Catholic nun; but I was pleasantly surprised by her treatment of the subject.

Her tone and style is (professionally) distant and academic, but not overly so. I found the writing accessible and engaging. The book is filled with interesting facts about the Buddha's time, including Vedic culture, plausible explanations for why the Buddha rejected the caste system, and even why Buddhists sit retreats. The book is short--187 pages total--and well worth the time. I saw a copy of her Mohammed biography at my local bookstore and, based on Buddha, I will definitely pick it up.

If you get a chance, give Buddha a read.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The garbage truck is coming, the garbage truck is coming...!

I'm the kind of person who wants to take off his clothes and toss them in the washer when he's doing laundry. When the trash is at the curb, I will literally carry each new item of garbage to the cans at the curb, rather than dispose of them inside. Weird, I know.

I think it has to do with some craving for finality--the need for closure. As if this might be the last time I ever have to throw out trash again. Silly and unrealistic, I agree.

So, two hours ago I was meditating when I heard the garbage truck approaching. My first impulse was to race downstairs, grab the kitchen garbage, and toss it with the rest of the trash outside. That is, until I remembered where I was and what I was doing. I was meditating, for crying out loud, and there I was ready to bolt outside and empty my garbage can!

It's Thursday; the next garbage pickup is Monday. It's not like I have to wait weeks for the garbage truck to come back. How much garbage could I possible accumulate in three days?

Anyway, there I was sitting on my mat, feeling the urge to dash outside. So what did I do? I sat and opened myself up to the impulse. It was a nervous tension motivated by some blind belief that I had to throw the garbage out. So I sat with the physical sensations and investigated the unstated thoughts that were prompting this.

What was interesting is that the more I examined the sensations, the less powerful they became. The emptier they felt. The same for the beliefs. I saw right through them. They were self-induced. There was no law in the universe demanding that I take the trash out; that impulse was coming from me.

And with that understanding came freedom. I didn't have to act on these beliefs; in fact, the more aware I was of them, the less control they had.

The whole scenario may sound silly, but I appreciated the experience. It taught me that I am not bound by my conditioning. Change is possible, and so is freedom.

Peace to all beings. Have a great weekend!

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Salim Virji.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Trasmission of Light

I'm currently reading Transmission of Light (Denkoroku), translated by Thomas Cleary. Compiled and written in the thirteenth century by Keizan, Zen master of the Soto school, TOL chronicles the enlightenment of 53 masters, beginning with Shakyamuni and ending with Ejo, Dogen's chief disciple.

What fascinates me most about this collection is that, despite it being a key Soto text, all of its stories emphasize satori in some way. In fact, someone might argue that the stories themselves are vehicles for relating the Masters' enlightenment experiences.

Cleary addresses this in his introduction: the fact that in some modern Soto circles, satori or kensho is considered secondary, whereas in Transmission of Light, satori takes center stage. To use Cleary's own words, "Indeed, it is a rather well publicized fact in Japan that satori generally has been lost in the dominant sect of Soto Zen." He continues to explain that the claim "that enlightenment is identical to the Soto training system [is] based on a fragmentary selection of bits and pieces from Dogen's writing." What Cleary is suggesting is that Dogen's writing has been appropriated for institutional purposes--to maintain tradition, ritual, and all of the other accompanying religious accouterments.

Very interesting, to say the least. Give the book a read and tell me what you think.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Batman rides tonight

Admittedly, this has absolutely nothing to do with Zen, but in the wake of a hurricane and an earthquake, I figured a little humor could do us all a bit of good. I was waiting at a Stop sign in town when I saw the car below. It's a Ford Escort converted into the Batmobile! The guy driving it was in his 40s and had on a Batman baseball cap. When I gave him the thumbs up, he saluted me. I swear I laughed for at least two minutes straight, the equivalent of three traffic lights. Hope you get a laugh out of it too.