Posted in Uncategorized, Zen Buddhism

“Don’t Know” Mind

“The gift of a beginner is fresh eyes.

“The longer you’re in a field, the harder it is to perceive new truths. Your mind is biased toward refining what you’re already doing instead of exploring fresh terrain.

“Take your expertise and apply it to something new.”

– James Clear 

Clear is the author of “Atomic Habits,” a book I highly recommend. I wonder whether he knows he’s talking about what Seung Sahn called “don’t know” mind – that state of remaining teachable.

Either way, that advice is Zen AF.

Posted in Zen Buddhism

The Buddha’s Enlightenment Day

December 8th is the date generally agreed upon in Zen to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment or awakening. The Buddha lived on the lunar calendar, so the actual date on our solar-based calendar would move every year. (Think of Passover or Easter – they move because they’re based on the lunar calendar.) In Japanese, Bodhi Day is called “Rohatsu.” It literally means “eighth day of the twelfth lunar month.”

Traditionally, the way to celebrate or honor the day would be to sit in meditation from sunset the night before until sunrise on the 8th. This is what the Buddha did. Today, in Zen monasteries around the world, the monks and nuns sit for the entire week leading up to Bodhi Day.

Householder Practices

As people with jobs and families, we may not have the time to sit for an entire week, or even overnight. Here are some ways to mark the occasion, going from the simple to the more elaborate.

Just Sit

Meditate more than you normally do. If you don’t sit at all during the work week, and December 8th falls on a workday for you, sit for five minutes. Go out in your car if you have to, but find some quiet and do it.

A Note About Posture

Sit however your normally sit: on the floor, in a chair, it doesn’t matter. Get comfortable. Do not allow any physical limitations to keep you from the task at hand.

Sit Under a Tree

The Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree, a Ficus religiosa or sacred fig. If you don’t have a fig tree, any old tree will do. If you have a Christmas or Yule tree set up, you can use that. The Buddha preferred to meditate outdoors (and I highly recommend that), but if the weather isn’t to your liking, you can stay indoors.

Review Your Precepts

If you’ve taken Buddhist precepts, this is a good day to read through them and check in with how you’re doing upholding them. Ideally, you are reciting your precepts every full moon and new moon. But who are we kidding? Householder life gets in the way. So if it’s been a while, do it now.

Read

Read something the Buddha said. Or read something by an historical or modern Buddhist teacher that resonates with you. If you have time, contemplate what you read. To retain the information better, read it like you’re going to teach it within 24 hours, then corner a willing friend or family member, and tell them all about it. Or you can journal about your reactions to the reading.

A Note on Journaling

I strongly recommend handwriting a journal as opposed to typing one. The reason is that it’s slower. And recording our thoughts more slowly slows the brain down. The ideas become richer. Don’t take my word for it: try it for yourself.

Practice Gratitude

The Buddha, born Siddhartha Gautama, went on an arduous, six-year quest to find the answer to his burning question: why is there suffering in the world. I’m grateful that he did that. But he didn’t do it for me; he did it for himself. What I’m most grateful for are the next 45 years: the time he spent walking and teaching anyone who cared to listen. When I deeply ponder the effort he expended on behalf of all beings, I am moved nearly to tears.

Then I consider all the additional people who taught in a direct line from him to me (82 of them), and the tears come. So many selfless people! So many obstacles overcome to share the Dharma! I am overcome by thankfulness.

Go Deeper: Write it Down

It doesn’t matter if you ever go back and review what your write. The fact is that writing about something engages a different section of your brain than merely thinking about it. So now you’ve recorded the information in two different places in your brain, doubling your chances of it having a long-lasting effect. Plus, writing slows down your thoughts, allowing them to expand in unexpected directions.

Personally, I’ve kept a gratitude journal since 2010, even during my cancer journey. Every day, I answer these three questions from M.J. Ryan’s book Attitudes of Gratitude:

  1. What am I grateful for?
  2. What did I enjoy today?
  3. Where do I feel satisfied?

Or you could use this list from Seventeenth Century Dutch Rabbi Baruch Spinoza:

  1. Who or what inspired me today?
  2. What brought me happiness today?
  3. What brought me comfort and deep peace today?

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”

Meister Eckhart, 13th Century German Catholic mystic

Decorate

You can decorate your home for Bodhi Day. Adding lights to a tree is one traditional method, and with Christmas and Yule trees readily available, it’s easy enough to do. I have a number of Buddhist-themed holiday ornaments that I put on our tree each year and leave up until the tree comes down right after the new year.

You can also display images of the Buddha, especially statues.

Creating an Altar

There are many articles on the Internet about setting up an altar according to different Buddhist sects. Here’s a really simple one.

  • Place a statue of the Buddha on a riser, like an upside down bowl. (Use the nicest bowl you have. Drape a doily or napkin over it if desired.) If you don’t have a statue, print out an image from the Internet and lean it against something so that it’s upright.
  • Burn incense in front of the Buddha as an offering. Personally, I say “Thanks, Sid,” when I do so. (Yes, the Buddha and I are on a first name basis.)
  • If you wish, add two candles, one on each side of the Buddha. White is good, or use your favorite color.

Take the Day Off

This one requires some advanced planning and isn’t available to everyone. But if you can, take a personal day or vacation day from work and spend time in the Dharma. When I was a college professor, I used to swap days with one of the Jewish professors: I’d cover their class on the first day of Hanukkah and they’d cover mine on Bodhi Day – with our supervisor’s consent, of course.

Summing It All Up

Chose what works for you. Buddhism, like life, isn’t “one size fits all.” Here’s the core of what I do on this day:

  • Remember,
  • Be grateful,
  • Practice to honor those who came before and for the sake those who will come after.

Happy Bodhi Day! May all beings benefit.

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Transmission

Nearly five months ago, I became a Zen Master.

Or should I say a Zen “Master.” What, exactly, does that mean?  Have I now “mastered” Zen?  What does it mean to attain mastery over a body of knowledge?  And can a philosophy as rich and varied as Zen be ever fully comprehend by a single human brain?

I don’t think so.  Rather, I think of my new title more as a sign that I have received the respect of other teachers.  My teacher, himself a Zen Master by decree of his teacher, felt that I was ready to accept additional responsibility in teaching the Dharma.

Because with this title comes certain ethical obligations.  While there are no requirements per say, and no one supervising me any longer, there is an expectation that I will share what I have learned. I’m rather reclusive by nature, so this challenges me to step outside my comfort zone and put myself out into the world rather more than I might otherwise choose.

Here are some of the ways in which I’m going to do that. First, I’ll be starting a podcast, hopefully in February, to host a discussion with other women religious leaders. By sharing our stories of practice, challenge, and success, I hope to break the way for the generation of women coming up behind us. And men need to hear this, too, because like it or not, they’re going to need to make room for us. I hope we can all be wise and compassionate in the transition.

I’m also starting a local course to teach people how to teach meditation. I’m taking an inter-faith, at times secular, approach since Buddhism does not hold the monopoly on meditation. I’m doing this through my business, Open Door Yoga, and I am charging for it. Here’s why: first, I have expenses in the design, production, and teaching of the course. Second, people value what they pay for. (Trust me. When I offer a free event, no one shows up. The more I charge [within reason], the more people come.)

I plan to host half-day retreats about three times a year. We just had our first one for Bodhi Day, celebrating the Buddha’s Awakening, in early December.

I will continue to teach weekly in Claremont, CA and monthly in Riverside, CA, both for free. I will accept invitations to teach the Dharma whenever I am available, also for free. And I will continue to meet with students one-on-one, in person or via Zoom, when I am asked to do so.

So what is a Zen Master? Definitions.net says,

“Zen master is a somewhat vague English term that arose in the first half of the 20th century, sometimes used to refer to an individual who teaches Zen Buddhist meditation and practices, usually implying longtime study and subsequent authorization to teach and transmit the tradition themselves.”

Here’s my definition: an experienced Zen teacher who is of service to others. I hope to embody the highest and best in Buddhism and in myself. May all beings benefit.

Posted in Quote, Zen Buddhism

On Grief

One of my students lost a beloved pet two nights ago. She wrote me that she is taking refuge [in the Dharma], but she still misses her companion. She understands impermanence and yet remains effected by loss. 

I’ve always thought Buddhist priest Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) expressed this apparent disconnect best. He wrote this haiku on the occasion of the death of his daughter:

This world of dew
is a world of dew.
And yet…

Neil deGrasse Tyson on how death helps us live more fully:

“We fear death because we are born knowing only life…

“It is the knowledge that I am going to die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive. The urgency of accomplishment. The need to express love now, not later. If we lived forever, why ever even get out of bed in the morning? Because you always have tomorrow. That’s not the kind of life I want to lead.”

Death Is Part of Life

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the moment.”

– Unknown (attributed incorrectly to Lao Tzu, but still a brilliant idea)

Fake Lao Tzu Quote

Posted in The Spiritual Life

Keep Calm and Don’t Multi-Task

My Trip to Asda

Have you ever been waiting for the minimum-wage earning, high school student at the window of the fast food place to make your change while he or she is taking the order of someone behind you? And you just know the employee is going to get it wrong?

This is because our brains don’t actually multitask, according to the current research. They’re not built to. It’s no wonder is when the kid at the drive-thru makes a mistake. (The wonder is when he or she gets it right!)

Yesterday, VTH (that’s “Venerable The Husband”) and I did some grocery shopping. We’re in London for the summer and needed to stock up the flat. None of the grocery store chains here are familiar to us, so we simply went to the nearest one. While the checker was ringing up the person in front of us, a man came up to the empty check-stand behind her and started helping himself to the plastic bags. The plastic bags that the store charges 8 pence each for.

The checker asked him, politely at first, what he was doing. He went on about how the bags should be free. Honestly, he wasn’t making much sense. She shoo’ed him away and went back to what she was doing.

Then it was our turn. The man comes back, this time in front of her at yet another register. Now she’s yelling at him. He’s not stopping. So she’s shouting for the manager. “Hamet! HAMET!” All the while continuing to scan my groceries.

I pay with my debit card in the little machine. “HAMET!” she’s screaming. She’s pressing buttons on her register. She has Hamet’s attention now, and is yelling at him about the man stealing the 8 pence bags. (At the current rate of exchange, that’s 10.8 cents US per bag,) I finish my transaction and wait on the checker.

VTH says, “Hit okay.”

“I already hit okay,” I say. “I’m waiting for her.”

The checker hears me and presses a button. Hamet is chasing the bag thief away right behind me. The checker is watching the drama, occasionally offering her two cents. The little machine says “approved,” and I wait for my receipt.

“Are we ready?” asks VTH, who’s got one eye on the drama behind me.

“I’m waiting for my receipt,” I tell him.

“I don’t know what happened,” says the checker. “It should have printed. HAMET!”

I know what happened, I think to myself. You’re trying to do two things at once, and you messed one of them up. The checker is trying to get me to re-run my card. I decline because I’m concerned about being charged twice. Now I’m about ready to scream for Hamet.

Hamet shows up. “I don’t know what happened,” he says in precisely the same tone of voice the checker had used. I’m starting to think it’s part of their official script when something goes wrong. He wants me to rerun my card. There’s quite a bit of conversation about this, not rising to the level of argument due solely to my Dharma training.

Finally I agree to rerun my card provided Hamet gives me a phone number to call in case I get charged twice. Even this is long discussion, because he wants me to come back into the store if that happens. “You might have noticed from my accent that I’m not from around here,” I explain. “Coming back might not be an option.” I’m thinking I could be back in the US before my bank shows the extra charge. Hamet eventually agrees and provides me a phone number.

This whole scenario, from the time it was our turn with our roughly 15 items, took over 10 minutes. There was a long line of angry, fuming people behind me.

There are two take-aways from this experience. First, don’t multi-task. It doesn’t work. After that experience, I’ll never shop at an Asda again. With plenty of other choices, there’s no reason for me to give them a second chance. I’d be willing to bet that at least one of the people in line behind us won’t be back, either.

Multi-tasking isn’t efficient. The Buddha knew it over 2,500 years ago. Had the checker stopped scanning my items to deal with Hamet and the bag thief, then resumed when she had Hamet on the case, it would actually have been much faster. And I might shop there again.

It’s okay to pause one activity while focusing on another. In fact, it’s not just okay, it’s necessary.

Second, just stay calm. The whole situation could have been much worse had I reacted in an angry way. For the sake of complete “transparency” here, I was mad as hell. I just didn’t act on my anger. I never raised my voice. I didn’t cuss. I just looked Hamet in the eye and said, “I’m NOT happy.” Hamet was already having a tough day dealing the bag thief, and there was nothing to be gained by yet another person shouting at him.

When I was younger, I might have enjoyed telling him off. I might have felt a sense of righteous indignation. Then I encountered the Dharma and learned a more skillful way. I no longer enjoy inflicting my negativity on others.

And thank goodness. I’m much happier this way. And I think Hamet is probably happier with me this way, too, even though he doesn’t know it.

“When we speak of meditation, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity, as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, “space cadet,” cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is. It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely, the path that is your life.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn, from “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life”

On Meditation

“There is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”

– Martha Graham

You Are Unique