Thursday, July 26, 2012

Being Upright with Reb Anderson


When I took the Soto Zen Bodhisattva Precepts at the Zen Center of Philadelphia, my cohort of postulants read several books about the role of the precepts in our lives. On the list were books by John Daido Loori, Robert Aitken, Thich Nhat Hanh, and my personal favorite, Diane Rizzetto. It was a very comprehensive collection, but I wish I could add one title to the list, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts by Reb Anderson. 

This is the second book of Anderson's that I've read and really enjoyed (click here for my review of the the first, The Third Turning of the Wheel). What I admire and appreciate so much about his work is, in addition to his wisdom as a veteran Dharma teacher, his humility. Throughout his exploration of the Soto Bodhisattva Precepts, Anderson touches upon some of his own painful mistakes during his tenure as Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. It takes a lot of courage to do that, and given the book's title--Being Upright, meaning to sit with courage, openness, compassion and love for ourselves and all beings through all that life offers us--his life serves as a wonderful teaching.

My favorite example that he uses to demonstrate Bodhisattva love and action is a not about a Buddhist monk, but about a wildlife conservationist. This man dressed up in feathers to help with the mating process of a finicky whooping crane. When the eggs didn't hatch because they weren't fully developed, the man waited a year (whooping cranes mate only once per year) and then moved in and slept next to the whooping crane to keep her comfort! This time her eggs hatched and the chicks survived, all because of this man's love, commitment, and kindness to the preservation of this wonderful species. That is a true Bodhisattva. 

For Dogen lovers, there are plenty of references to his work throughout the book. I recommend  Being Upright to anyone about to take the Bodhisattva Precepts, regardless of the Zen tradition you practice; it was thorough, thoughtful, and extremely introspective. 

I will close with a beautiful quotation from the book: "The teachings of all the buddhas is the teaching of the entire universe...It is to refrain from all evil, practice all good, and benefit all beings." I found this line very inspiring, and I hope you do too. May this article, like Anderson Roshi's book, help all beings.

Thanks to Linda Cogozzo at Rodmell Press for sending me a copy of the book to review. 


Sunday, July 22, 2012

What do we mean by the word Zen "practice"?

I was reading some Dharma talks by Korean Zen Master Hae Am when I stumbled upon an interesting perspective on Zen practice. The Master used the word "examination" and "re-examination" several times before I realized that he was using them in place of the word "practice," which has to be the most commonly used word in any Zen Buddhist's lexicon.

But what exactly is practice?

I remember the first time I encountered the word in a Buddhist context, I wondered, "Practice what?" Certainly, spiritual practice is different than practicing for a ballet recital or playing the guitar, but what exactly is it? It definitely is not practice in the sense of warming up.

We often hear Buddhists say something like, "Sitting next to my sick child, sharing her suffering, was my practice." I know I've used the word that way.

But is the word "practice" the best word? Intuitively, we all know what people mean when they say, "Sitting in the hot zendo was my practice," but for me that sounds a bit like enduring rather than practice.

Zen Master Hae Am offers us the words "examination" or "re-examination" as alternatives. They might sound a little too cerebral, scientific, or dispassionate, but there's an open curiosity to the wonder of experience that is implicit in the terms that I really appreciate.

Obviously "examination" doesn't have the same ring as "practice" does. But isn't that what practice really is--paying attention to our lives, not allowing ourselves to be seduced by the habit of dualism, and engaging life so closely, so immediately, that there is no sense of "examiner" and "examined"?

Words are important; the Buddha acknowledged their power so much that he included Right Speech in the Eightfold Path. The more we understand our practice, the better we can frame it, I think the clearer it will manifest in our everyday lives.

So please practice, examine your life, examine your practice, re-examine your life as practice, every moment of every day.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Where the Heart Beats

John Cage is probably the most impressive experimental composer of the 20th century. He challenged conventional definitions of music by exploring household objects as percussions, everyday sounds as music, and most famously, silence. Kay Larson, author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, reveals the deeply conflicted genius of Cage as he struggles during the 1950s to find his voice as an artist, how to live as a gay man in a country where homosexuality was still illegal, and how to make his art live as an extension of his spiritual life. What Larson paints is the portrait of a fascinating man, who in true Zen fashion, literally fused his life with his art.

In addition to being a fearless avante-garde composer, in true renaissance fashion, Cage was a writer, lecturer, teacher, poet, and painter. However, Cages is most well known for 4'33". If you have never heard it performed, here it is:


As you can tell from the performance, silence, for Cage, is more than the absence of sound (which he ultimately discovers is an impossibility); it is a void pregnant with creative energy and potential. The connections to Buddhist sunyata, or the Absolute, are immediately apparent. Just as there is Absolute without the relative, there is no silence not bursting with sound.

Cage, as Larson reveals, was a close student and friend of famed Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, whose influence on Cage's work and life cannot be underestimated. This is where Cage gets his Zen inspiration. Some of my favorite sections of the book, in fact, are devoted to the brilliant Suzuki.

As with all aspects of this complex man, Cage was not a Zen Buddhist in any traditional sense. Like Huineng, the 6th ancestor, I don't recall Cage ever meditating, which in no way prevented him from having and then sharing some of the greatest spiritual experiences ever captured in Western art (a la William Blake).

Even though I have no background in experimental composition--I'm an old-school metalhead--I absolutely fell in love with Kay Larson's book. It is brilliantly written; her prose is beautiful and her research impeccable (it took her 20 years to write this book, and it shows). My favorite part is when Cage, inspired by a sudden burst of creativity, experiments with a piano. He stuffs any object he can find--forks, knives, blankets--inside the piano to create a one-of-a-kind sound, literally. One slight movement of the piano would budge a fork and then the whole sound would be lost.

The effect, like life itself, is completely un-reproducible.

Cage's work is a celebration of impermanence and all that it means to be human. Where the Heart Beats brings Cage to life in startling detail. His life, like his art, is beautiful, filled with joy, sadness, love, and passion. The book honors Cage in the best way any book can--by being a work of art itself.

Thanks to Kay Larson for sharing your passion for such a great artist, and to Penguin Press for an advanced press copy.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A life of constant revision


I've finished draft one of my Zen book, Brand Name Zen. I have written novels before, but this is the first book-length non-fiction project I have ever undertaken. It was a new and exciting process for me, one that challenged me on many levels--intellectual, doctrinal, spiritual, and emotional. In order to write the book--a critical evaluation of modern Western lay Zen--I had to delve deep inside of myself for answers. As a result, I felt a deep connection reemerging between me and the Zen tradition I practice.

At times, as I sit in meditation or even watching my children play, I feel the presence of the great Soen masters beside or with me--Seung Sahn, Chinul, and my teacher, Ven. Paul Lynch. "Presence" may not be the best word, but it's about as close as I can get.

Zen is about intimacy, with our teachers, the Dharma, all beings, and the entire universe. Our Buddhist ancestors live on through us, as we try our best to embody the Dharma in our lives. There are no words to express that ineffable feeling of closeness and gratitude we experience when we realize that the Dharma is all around us, and that the ancestors are alive with us, and through us.

I often find myself overwhelmed with love and wonder at all of the Buddhist teachers, who in their infinite kindness and generosity as Bodhisattvas, gave everything they had to preserve and maintain the Buddhadharma for us to live and practice today. I am eternally grateful to all of them.

All of this emerged as I wrote this book, as I tried my best to honor the heart, and not just the words, of their teachings.

It was a very incredible experience, one that has nourished me and my practice.

Now begins revisions. The book is relatively short, maybe 25,000 words, so I eagerly look forward to reengaging the book. For me, revision, like my Zen practice, is a never-ending process. I'm always tinkering and tweaking phrases and adding passages, looking for a better way to express or expand upon a point. It's exciting and frustrating at the same time.

I don't know who said it originally, but "Books are never 'finished'; they are simply abandoned." Having written a few books before, believe that to some extent; Eventually we have to let the books, like children, go off on their own, hoping they can stand on their own and do some good in this suffering world.

But I still have a while to go before I get to that point. In the meantime, I'll be busy revising. Thanks for reading.

This book would not be possible without the help of countless beings. Thanks to all of them, but especially to three great Bodhisattvas: my teacher Ven. Paul Lynch, Seung Sahn, and my wife.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: syntaxoflife.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Walking with the Buddhas


Your mind, my mind, and all of the great Buddhas ancestors' minds, are they the same or different?

When I wake up, I eat breakfast then brush my teeth.

If we allow our heats to open to the Great Way, which is always beyond measure, we can feel the great ancestors walking beside us. They can nourish and encourage us, sustain and enlighten us, for they are never really gone or beyond our reach. They are always with us, in a book, a verse, a flower.

I can feel great Chinul's presence as I practice his Dharma and read his words. I can hear Seung Sahn's friendly voice laughing in my ear. As I look my teacher, Ven. Paul Lynch, in the eyes, I see the entire Dharma ocean where all the ancestors are swimming.

Together we chant the great Bodhisattva's Vow, swallowing the ocean of suffering in one vast gulp. I thank all of the teachers who have helped clear the path for me. I walk humbly in your steps and, feeling our shoulders gently brush, I smile. 

The Great Way is magnificent. All we need is the courage to open our eyes. 

Is my mind the same as the ancestors' or different?

It's early. Go eat some breakfast then brush your teeth.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: ├ó–┬║CubaGallery.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Meditation in action

While writing my book, Brand Name Zen, I stumbled upon a pretty cool idea that I thought I would share. According to Thich Thien-An in Zen Philosophy, Zen Practice, one of the great Chinese contributions to Buddhism is meditation in action. He uses Bodhidharma’s life as an example. 


After arriving in China, the great Indian Ch’an master is famous for wall-gazing for nine years in deep meditative samadhi. It would appear from this example that seated meditation is the hallmark of Zen, after all, Bodhidharma, the monk who introduced Ch’an to China did it for nine years. Thien-An, however, explains that seated meditation is a traditional form of Indian practice, while meditation-in-action is a distinctly Chinese development. 


As Chinese monasteries replaced the wandering Indian monk paradigm in East Asia, emphasis shifted from entirely seated meditation to manual labor as Zen meditative practice. For if the monks were no longer begging for sustenance, as they did in India, someone had to grow, harvest, and prepare the food. They might as well integrate that into spiritual practice, says Thien-An. Hence, Baizhang’s  maxim, “No work, no food.”


I had never considered this possibility. This demonstrates the truly adaptive nature of Buddhism, and how it can evolve to grow in any soil.








Thursday, July 5, 2012

Beyond independence

The 4th of July means different things to different people. For some, it's just a day off, for others it's a day of barbecue, drinking, or shopping, and still for others it's a day of celebrating American independence--a day or patriotism. My parents are indifferent immigrants, so the day has never held any real significance for me.

Yesterday, though, as my family and I watched the fireworks from our seats on the lawn of Burger King (yes, you read that correctly: Burger King's lawn is where we watched the fireworks at Sesame Place, PA), all of the traditional ideas that surround this American holiday--America(n), patriotism, democracy, freedom,  justice--washed over me.

What are these concepts that we wield so often in conversation, that inform our identities and politics, and that people are willing to die to defend or kill to spread?

What are these? Ideas, of course, but "what" are they? I dug my mental heels into the hoatou, the primary form of Five Mountain Zen practice.

What are these? What is this day? Who is experiencing all of this?

As the fireworks crackled in the sky, a garden of sparkles against the dark of night, I was engulfed in Don't-know. My son danced on the lawn, much to our parental chagrin, while my daughter munched on french fries. My wife sat on the Hello Kitty blanket and watched my son with one eye and the fireworks with the other.

America, American, human, self, other? All are ideas that, by nature, categorize and separate.

Only don't know. 

Interdependence, interpenetration, emptiness? More ideas. Zen isn't interested in positing more ideas; it cuts right through conceptual thought.

Are the fireworks inside or outside my mind? More gum flapping.

Only this, thus--don't know.

Just fireworks exploding against the tapestry of the night. Children's laughter, a Burger King sign blazing bright. 

Happy belated holiday everyone. May all beings find peace, freedom, and joy.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: bayasaa's photostream.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

No Logo Zen


Last week marked the beginning of my summer vacation. (I know at least one person is mentally snarling, Those darn teachers with their summers off!) Along with spending time with my kids, prepping the Ma-tsu course I'm teaching at the College of Zen Buddhist Studies, I'm also writing the first draft of my book, Brand Name Zen.


As I wrote a few posts back, BNZ explores the branded lifestyle that modern Western Zen sells us. It's promoted in magazines, websites, and much of the Zen literature published today. I define BNZ (or Zen, Inc.) as the lifestyle obsession that many people experience when they identify themselves as Zen Buddhists. And with that comes all of the Buddhist accoutrements: hip Buddhist lingo (sesshin and metta); subscriptions to all of the Buddhist magazines; staying current on who's who in the Zen world; buying cool Asian eating ware, chopsticks and all, and of course, Buddha statues; and so on.

The way I see it, these are fine endeavors as long as two things don't happen. 1.) We don't get attached to them, as often is the case. We begin to thrive off of the celebrity Zen gossip and make something special out of our practice, zazen and all. We identify ourselves as Zen Buddhists, and while on the train we think, "I'm practicing right now." That's not practicing Zen; that's thinking about practicing Zen.

And 2.), we don't confuse any of that with Zen itself. Zen, as I see it, is about waking up, and staying awake, moment after moment. Most of that other stuff is just decoration; the rest is upaya, skillful means to help us awaken.

Lately, I've been reading Naomi Klein's No Logo, the ultimate anti-consumerist manifesto. It's awesome, I highly recommend it. Although Klein's book focuses more upon corporate and cultural exploitation, it still has influenced my own book, especially in understanding that a brand is more than a name. It's a personality that a company aspires to create, which eventually transcends the product entirely, to the point where it's literally the brand that is sold, not the product.

So that's what Brand Name Zen is about. I'm moving faster than I anticipated, chewing up my material like a lawnmower. I was hoping for the final copy to be book length, in the events that I could get it published, but it might fall short of the required length--usually, 50k+ words. Self-published Epub might be the more realistic route.

Anyway, it's all good. My goal is to help people identify where they're "stuck," so they can then relinquish their attachments to Zen itself. If the book reaches and resonates with at least one person, then it was time well spent.

Have a great summer, everyone. Americans, have a wonderful, and safe, 4th of July. Bows to all.


Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: Davide Schiano.