Ever Mindful

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Detail of the Birth of Siddhartha, mural at Korean Monastery, Lumbini, Nepal

 

“I haven’t seen you in a while, ” said Zen Master Bon Haeng as I sat down for a koan interview at the zen center the other night.

It was true.  I haven’t been sitting with the Open Meadow sangha since I enrolled in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine, about half an hour away from my home.

“Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, huh?  Jon Kabat-Zinn started that.”

This was also true.  Kabat-Zinn began the Stress Reduction Program at the UMass medical school  in 1979 based on the premise that meditation could be an effective tool to help patients manage chronic pain.  A meditator and student of Buddhism for several years at that point, Kabat-Zinn understood that human beings create much of their own suffering.  He had a hunch that by allowing people to become aware of their response to pain moment to moment, they would have an opportunity to change their relationship to their experience.  Decades of research have confirmed that hunch.

“He used to practice here, didn’t he?” I asked the zen master, referring to Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Kwan Um School of Zen, respectively.

“Yes, ” he replied, continuing our streak of saying true things to each other.  He then went on to recall how he and Kabat-Zinn, or “Jonny,” as he referred to him, were students of Zen Master Seung Sahn in the early Seventies, along with another youngster named Larry Rosenberg.  As Bon Haeng explained it, Jonny and Larry had traveled to Asia and decided that “zen was dead there.”  They returned disillusioned, determined that a new, “American zen” needed to evolve from the teachings that had migrated from the East with traditional teachers like Zen Master Seung Sahn.  While they respected his teaching, they no longer saw the point of practicing the rigid, formal, and very foreign forms and rituals that he had brought with him from Korea in 1972.

When they approached Zen Master Seung Sahn with their desire to strike out on their own, he responded that once they had finished their training with him, they were free to do as they wished; to leave before their training was complete, however, would be irresponsible.  The Dharma they passed on to their own students could be misguided, perverted, or, at the very least, incomplete.  They parted ways with Zen Master Seung Sahn anyway, and the trails they blazed have profoundly impacted the spiritual landscape of America for the past 40 years.  Larry Rosenberg joined with Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and Jack Kornfield to found the Insight Meditation Society, and Jon Kabat-Zinn took the practice of mindfulness out of meditation halls and into the mainstream institutions of America.

It’s mindboggling how much a part of the popular consciousness the practice of mindfulness has become, but what is lost when we separate the practice from the Dharma?  Three things, according to Zen Master Bon Haeng: the concept of No Self, the idea of Impermanence, and what Zen Master Seung Sahn called Together Action.  Practicing only for ourselves, both Zen Masters insist, is incomplete practice…

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Together Action

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school children in Kushinagar, India

Last weekend, I attended a workshop on practice forms at the Cambridge Zen Center.  It struck me as an unfortunate waste of time on such an unseasonably warm, spring-like February day; I’d rather have been outside enjoying the weather or inside the Zen Center doing actual practice rather than simply talking about it… Somehow, though, knowing that it’s important to both learn and teach the myriad rules and customs that govern our formal practice, I put my preferences aside and sat in the dharma room as the forms were described and demonstrated one by one.

The forms that govern formal practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen were brought to the United States by Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972, having been adapted from the temple rituals of the Chogye Monastic Order of Korea.  They’ve since been codified as the Dharma Mirror, which serves as the practice manual for the entire Kwan Um School.  It’s edited and updated periodically, and is currently being overhauled by a teacher in the school, and this workshop, which included at least one Zen Master, was a way for that teacher to get some input and get us all on the same page before it goes to press.  In this sense, the Dharma Mirror is sort of a living document, open to amendment and interpretation as time, geography and culture might dictate.

As heartening as it is to be part of this tradition, it’s still tough to sit through extended discussion on such minutia as whether candles should be lit from left or right or from right to left when opening the altar (it’s right to left, I think… our right, not the Buddha’s), whether an offertory bowl of water should be open or closed during special chanting verses normal chanting, and what to do with our feet during full prostrations (the left foot should be crossed over the right; in Korea, it’s considered an insult to show the soles of your feet to another person, so I guess it’s the best we can do to at least cover up one).  As soon as I found myself wondering “what the hell’s the difference?” I knew that this question was at the heart of my practice in that particular moment.  The practice forms themselves aren’t as important as my relationship to them.

Somewhat limited in his English ability when he arrived here, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s slogan was “Just Do It” long before some ad man spun it into gold for Nike.  He gave this brutally simple, straight-to-the-point instruction to his students not only because his linguistic disadvantage precluded more extensive explanations, but because he immensely valued practice, or action, over speech and concepts.  There are always reasons and rationalizations for the things that we do in practice, but it’s all pretty much just ego food.  The real point is to do what Seung Sahn called “together action” with others, free of individual preferences and opinions.

Zen Master Seung Sahn was often asked by students why we chant in Korean if we have no idea what the words mean… He’d answer that the meaning is irrelevant, but the spirit of the chanting is extremely relevant.  We can chant “Coca Cola, Coca Cola” as long as we do it wholeheartedly and with a clear mind, without like or dislike, and without attachment.  He famously said, “When your thinking stops and my thinking stops, our minds are the same.”  This is the point of chanting, and the point of all our practice: together action to attain One Mind.

As I was sitting a week-long retreat at Providence Zen Center a few years ago, I was struck by the realization that the practice forms and rituals of our school are like a vessel that contains the teachings, in much the same way that the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous create the framework that recovery takes place within.  Like the Twelve Traditions, however, the practice forms not only contain the teachings, they are the teachings.  Through these simple, deliberate, together actions, we have the opportunity to get our minds out of the way and let our hearts do what they were born to do…

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Dependent Origination

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Baby goats by the roadside, Bodh Gaya, India

I went to the bookshelf to pull out a copy of The Compass of Zen, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s magnum opus which basically functions as the central text for the Kwan Um School of Zen. I’ve never actually read it from cover to cover, but I’ve chipped away at it bit by bit over the years, and my intention was to chip away a few more bits when a small Kwan Um pamphlet titled “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines” fell out from between the pages. The year before last, I participated in a precepts ceremony at Providence Zen Center in which I formally vowed to keep the second five Buddhist precepts, namely, to refrain from gossip, to refrain from praising self at the expense of others, to cultivate generosity, to refrain from indulging in anger, and to refrain from slandering the Three Treasures of Buddhism. In the Kwan Um School, the adoption of these precepts marks a member as a Dharma Teacher in Training, meaning that one is taking an active role in leading group practice and moving toward becoming a teacher in the school.

I feel as though I’ve been pretty diligent about pitching in and helping with group practice, but I’ve never been really big on studying the formal tenets of Buddhism, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  As the school’s guiding teacher Zen Master Soeng Hyang puts it in the “Training Guidelines” introduction, “it is not a coincidence that the sutras and other suggested readings are in the last section.  This rich tradition insists on live speech, direct understanding: ‘a special transmission outside the sutras.” In other words, practice is far more important than study, but there does come a time in a student’s development where study can inform practice, particularly the practice of helping others. It is in this spirit that a list of suggested topics for study is included at the end of “Dharma Teacher Training Guidelines.”

“Dependent origination” heads the list of topics, and with good reason. This concept represents the core of the Buddhist understanding of the human dilemma, though I’ve never quite understood it. I’ve never taken the time to really look at it, content as I’ve been to assume that the term “dependent origination” refers simply to the fact that nothing exists as a completely independent entity, but rather is dependent upon everything that it is not for its very existence. A tree, for example, depends upon sunlight, air, water, soil, fungi and insects in order to live. Everything in the universe is like that. This, however is a description of “interdependence,” which isn’t unrelated to dependent origination… it just isn’t the whole picture. The whole picture is a view of phenomena as process of interdependence between subject and object.

Spoiler Alert!!! I’m about to answer the most classically unanswerable koan in pop zendom. “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” “No.” It does not. If a tree falls in the forest, it emits waves of energy at a certain frequency. The thing that we call “sound,” however, is the process of those waves striking an eardrum and being interpreted by a brain. No ear, no sound.

You’re welcome.

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The good news here is that I’m a koan-answering genius (oxymoron intended). The bad news is that I’m still just barely scratching the surface of the phenomenon of dependent origination. Reading up on this doctrine a bit led me further down the rabbit hole. Or, more accurately further out of the rabbit hole, as the dharma has a way of guiding us out of the Darkness of Reason and into the Light of Reality…

In his discourse on Dependent Origination, the Buddha shed the Light of Reality on the fact that mind creates the separation between subject and object, and, in doing so, sows the seed of suffering. All phenomena must arise through a process of interdependence between subject and object because it can’t possibly be otherwise; “phenomena,” “subject,” and “object” were never separate to begin with. Before that pesky tree ever fell in the forest (or, more accurately,as it fell), mind created “tree,” “ear,” and “sound.” It is simply a function of our consciousness that we perceive ourselves as individual entities apart from all that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. This consciousness is born of a fundamental ignorance of the nature of reality. There’s absolutely nothing linear about reality, yet we insist on believing beyond a reasonable doubt that all that we survey is “real,” that everything begins, persists for a while, then ends. This ignorance, according to the Buddha, is the first link in a chain of bondage that leads through sensory experience, feelings, and desire all the way to death. So strong have we forged the links of this chain that it’s existence is noted as the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism. Suffering. Bad news. The good news? That would be the Third Noble Truth: there’s a way out.

I’m well aware from my own experience that to attempt to read and interpret a text on my own, will avail me little. “A special transmission outside the sutras,” as Zen Master Soeng Hyang reminds us, is necessary. As such, I welcome any and all comments regarding the readers’ understanding of Dependent Origination, as the last 900 words or so speak a little louder of my own confusion than perhaps I’d like them to.

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Why Practice?

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Pilgrims at Vulture Peak, Ragjir, India

I’m giving an introductory dharma talk at Cambridge Zen Center on Thursday, and I think I’d like to say a little more about practice than I did when I gave an intro talk at Open Meadow Zen a couple of months ago. There’s a section titled “Motivations for Practice” in the Kwan Um School’s quarterly magazine, Primary Point. I always check it out to see what drives other people to bow, sit, and chant, and it’s usually a good read. When we’re describing our motivations to others, we tend to take the high road and speak of the grandest ideals at the root of our practice: to end suffering, to stop the Wheel of Karma, to save all sentient beings, and, of course, the perennially “correct” answer, “I sit for you.”

These are all noble ideals, but if I’m honest with myself, I can see that my true motivation for practice shifts from year to year and from day to day. When I came to the practice several years ago, I had a strong desire to end, or at least lessen, my own suffering. This is not an uncommon reason for sitting, or, come to think of it, for doing anything that human beings do. I want to increase the feelings I like, and decrease the feelings I don’t like. This approach is problematic for two reasons: I’m creating “I,” and I’m creating “like” and “dislike.” As Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Don’t make ‘I.'” Clearly, then, my reason for sitting must include others; it can’t just be for my own sake. Somewhere along the line, I grabbed hold of this idea of practicing for the sake of all sentient beings. “Now I get it,” I decided. “The purpose of sitting is to become a better person and help others.” This is an improved motivation, but still not so good… Wanting to become a better person, I’m still making “better” and “worse,” still creating opposites.

How’s this for a motivation for practice, then? “To see clearly.” Sure, there’s still some “wanting” there, but considering that I’m starting from a place of ignorance, getting caught up in semantics or waylaid by false ideals like “I should sit for no reason because I’m already enlightened, therefore beyond any continuum of logic” isn’t going to help me get off the ground. (Or “on the ground,” more accurately, because that’s where the cushion is, if you want to get caught up in semantics.)

I think that I’ve come far enough in this practice of zen to realize that I’m a bare beginner… I have no idea what I’m doing. That’s the beauty of formal spiritual practice: I don’t necessarily have to know why I’m doing it at any given moment. All I need to do is to continue my practice as my motivation shifts, as my understanding ebbs and flows. Swami Satyananda said that Kundalini yoga is effective because it’s a physical practice; practitioners needn’t worry about what the mind is doing. He advised students to perform their exercises consistently, and eventually, the mind would settle down. Zen practice has that quality. In 12 Step Recovery parlance, “bring the body and the mind will follow.” The glitch here is that the intellect is the seat of the ego, and the ego always wants the kinds of answers that will substantiate its own existence. Ego always wants to know “why.” Considering again, however, that we approach spiritual discipline from a place of confusion, any practice that makes perfect sense at the outset probably isn’t very valuable.

So, although zen isn’t about belief, there is a leap of faith involved. I need to trust that the practice forms have value, even though it may not be apparent all the time. An appreciation of the importance of all elements of the tradition comes with practice, not before practice. There is, I think, a tendency among American Buddhists to want to modernize practice, to strip down traditions to what is essential. The danger here, according to Zen Master Bon Haeng, is that if we start weeding out parts of the form, we could very well lose something that we didn’t even know was important. So it all stays: the robes, the bells, the incense, the chanting… all the stuff that makes no sense.

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