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…

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Best. Advice. Ever.

It was the fall of 1982. I was a college freshman, standing in line for one thing or another, back in the days before computers sped us all along. Next to me was a senior, dispensing wisdom and advice.

“Study,” he admonished us, “or don’t. But don’t study and wish you were doing something else, and don’t not study and feel guilty about it.”

At the time, this seemed like a pretty good idea to me. So, I implemented it right away. What I didn’t foresee was the profound impact it would have on my life.

This advice doesn’t just apply to studying. It applies to anything we feel we “should” be or “ought to” be doing. Either do it, or don’t do it. But don’t beat yourself up, either way. As a psychiatrist friend of mine likes to say, “Stop ‘shoulding’ all over yourself!”

Most days, I meditate. I like the idea of doing seated meditation every day. Some days, however, I make a different choice. Perhaps something else is calling for my attention, so my meditation practice gets shortened, takes a different form, or gets missed altogether. And that’s okay!

I consciously choose how I spend my time and don’t regret it after the fact. Do I sometimes wish I had done things differently? Sure. I learn from those experiences. But I don’t wallow in guilt or other unskillful emotions as a result.

I do “this,” or I do “that.” Whichever I choose, I put all of my attention to the task at hand. I don’t daydream about “that” while doing “this,” nor feel that I should be doing “this” while doing “that.” Pick one! I tell myself. Commit! By focusing fully, I’m more productive and have time for more of both “this” and “that.” Instead of trying to multitask (which psychologists report doesn’t work, by the way; our brains aren’t wired that way), I monofocus.

Nearly 35 years later, I don’t recall what else that senior had to say, what he looked like, or why we were all standing in “that good old Baylor line,” but I remember that one piece of advice. It’s served me well.

Posted in Zen Buddhism

Saturday Satori

The other morning, I was lounging in bed, savoring that sweet spot between sleep and wakefulness. And then I heard my neighbor’s wind-chimes.

Time stopped.

The universe expanded.

There were no wind-chimes to produce the sound and no “me” to hear it.

We had merged into the sound, itself. There was nothing else. In that moment, only the sound remained.

The best way I can analogize it is to compare it to the visual effect Sam Raimi made famous, the “push-pull.” (He uses a dolly to move the camera rapidly toward a person or thing, while adjusting the lens so that the subject doesn’t get larger in frame. The net effect is that it appears that the background is moving away from the subject.) Although the experience wasn’t visual. It wasn’t auditory, either, although it was triggered by an auditory stimulus.

Then I realized that “I” had attained something – a moment of full peace – and my “self” came rushing back, ending the moment.

This is what Buddhists call a “kensho” moment, a taste of satori, a foreshadowing of nirvana. This has happened to me more times than I can count over the course of my life, usually when I’m being still. While it’s nice when it’s happening, the trick is not to get attached to it.

When I start grasping and clinging to the moment, when I start wanting it to happen again, I only push it farther away. More than that, I set myself up for disappointment, as no two moments are alike. The Buddha taught that the origin of our unhappiness is wanting things to be other than as they are. Therefore, I try to accept each meditation experience, each breath, each moment, as it comes.

Once I got over congratulating myself on having had this experience, my mind settled, creating space for something new. I had three or four more kensho moments, when my thinking mind fell away and the universe opened. Each lasted for an unknown amount of time, but no more than a few minutes, then dissolved when my thoughts returned.

And that’s okay, as I need my thinking mind to navigate this human existence in the world of form. Eventually, the thought came that it was time to get up and start the day. I used my thinking mind to cook breakfast. Ah…!

 

Posted in Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism

The Four Great Vows

One of the sanghas to which I belong recently became a California non-profit. As part of that process, we wrote our bylaws. And, like our parent organization, the Five Mountain Zen Order, we decided to include the Four Great Vows in those bylaws.

Sentient beings are numberless; we vow to save them all.

Delusions are endless; we vow to cut through them all.

The teachings are infinite; we vow to learn them all.

The Buddha way is inconceivable; we vow to realize it.

Most of us, when reading or reciting these vows for the first time, are struck my the impossibility of actually keeping them. And that’s okay; some vows aren’t meant to be “kept” so much as “attempted.”

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that intention is the key to the spiritual life. I remember Khenpo Ugyen Wangchuk giving a teaching on this in 2013. It can be tricky, because it requires tremendous self-knowledge and honesty. “Oh, I meant well…” isn’t good enough. Mistakes are fine, provided they come from a sincere heart.  But we must be clear about the sincerity and strength of our intentions. If we enter the spiritual life half-heartedly, we’re deluding ourselves that anything will change.

We also need effort, but that flows naturally from powerful intention. Let’s use meditation as an example. I intend to meditate every day. But I still have to follow up my intention with the effort of sitting my butt on the cushion. If I can’t seem to make that happen, then my intention wasn’t strong or heart-felt enough. If my intention is deep enough, if it’s felt in my bones, if I can’t imagine a world where I’m not meditating every day, then I’ll exert the effort and get it done.

All of which means: we’re not off the hook on these vows! We have to try. We help sentient beings whenever we can, from catching and releasing a bug that came into the home, to giving a stranger directions. We look fearlessly at our own spiritual ignorance and attempt to illuminate the dark places through meditation. We read, study, attend Dharma talks, and question everything until learning takes place. And we watch how we keep our minds, moment to moment.

What’s the point, if the vows can’t be kept? First of all, it makes a difference to that stranger who was lost! But even more basically, it’s training in how to keep going, even in the face of impossibility. If we can look at the enormity the Four Great Vows and commit to undertaking them, how much easier is that daily meditation practice by comparison!

May all beings benefit.

Jabo Prajna Chop Small