The other day, I was reading an article on Buddhism Now about life as a monk in a Korean Zen monastery. I found this article interesting because I practice in a Korean school of Zen so there was a bit of familiarity with the descriptions that the monk wrote about. One part of the article really struck me as interesting when he mentioned feeling “full of emptiness”. This is a seemingly contradictory ide: how could one be full of something that is, by definition, empty? However, I found myself nodding in agreement and feeling a glimpse of recognition in his words.
In the past month, I moved about 90 minutes away from where I had been. It’s a temporary move but for now I am not able to attend meditation with my normal Zen Center. Instead, I have been practicing with the Portsmouth Buddhist Center and have been sitting with them on Sunday mornings. It is interesting to spend time with a different school of Buddhism and to see how those differences influence the practice of a particular school. In this case, on Sunday mornings, the meditation lasts for close to one hour without any type of break or transition from seated to walking meditation as it does in my school. This has had the effect of allowing me to have some different experiences on the meditation cushion even though my personal practice is the same (they do a mild “guided meditation” there but I do not follow it and instead, just sit).
The other day, I was sitting still, feeling the cool air against my face and allowing my thoughts to arise as they would and keep an otherwise clear mind. Lo and behold, after about thirty minutes of uninterrupted sitting, I began to feel “full of emptiness”. I was aware of my body and the various pulls and tightness of the muscles in my legs and I was conscious of the cushion underneath me. However, my body was no longer felt like the place where I keep my “self”. The border between me and “not me” had begun to blur as a feeling of oneness with the cushion, the floor, the people in the room and the building we were in began to gently take over. My mind was calm and clear and my senses were no longer impeding my perception. I felt full and empty at the same time.
As often happens on the meditation cushion, once the realization that this was happening came into my mind, it collapsed and I was back to feeling the way I did before the experience. For a few minutes though, I believe I was experiencing samadhi. It has happened a few times before and, I’m sure, it will happen again. The trick is to not go in expecting it when I sit because trying to chase after a goal is a sure way to “fail” when you meditate.
After my realization and subsequent collapse of the experience, I was left with the lines from the heart sutra that “Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form. That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.” stuck in my head. They seemed much more real to me in that moment than ever before because the distinction between them had so recently been obliterated. I was back in a land of dichotomies and differentiations and saw just how troubling making distinctions between “me” and “not me” can really be. A sense of oneness must be cultivated if one is to have compassion for every sentient being. After the hour was up, I got up from my cushion, stretched my legs and went back to my car to drive home through the snow. Somehow, it didn’t seem to bother me too much since I knew, for at least a short while, that the weather was not some other thing that I was opposed to. There was no “me” to oppose it.
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My Zen Center recently posted this on their facebook page.
Once a student went to the Zen Master and said, “My meditation is horrible!! I feel so distracted…. my legs hurt… sometimes I fall asleep. It is just horrible!!”
The teacher replied, “Don’t worry, it will pass.”
A week later, the student came back to his teacher and said, “My mediation is wonderful!! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive. It is just wonderful!!”
The master replied, “Don’t worry, it will pass.”
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This is the second part in a multi-part post about why I started following a Buddhist path.
As I said in my last post, I had left my faith behind but I still had a lot of questions about suffering and the nature of suffering. I was still suffering and was dealing with depression, excess weight, a host of family problems and a general pessimism about life that made living seem almost unbearable.
Cover of Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life
Eventually, I reached a point where I broke down. I could no longer go on living the way that I was. I knew that if I didn’t make some serious changes in my lifestyle that my physical and mental health would deteriorate rapidly and I would find myself dying early. As bad as my outlook on life was, a basic desire for self preservation would not allow this to happen. When I broke down, my wife shared a book with me that she had recently picked up. The book was called Savor. It was written by Thich Nhat Hahn and Dr. Lillian Cheung. The book was looking at the problem of obesity from a Buddhist and a medical perspective. As I read through the opening chapters, I began to see just how important the issue of suffering was to Buddhism. Eliminating suffering was the foundation of the entire Buddhist perspective.
I had studied a bit about the basic beliefs of Buddhism in college as part of a World’s Religions class. I had a basic understanding of what Buddhists believed but this was the first time I had ever seen Buddhist principles put into action. It amazed me at how simple and straightforward the application of the Four Noble Truths could be.
The other thing that struck me at that time was the almost single minded focus Buddhism put on the world as it really is. There was no mystical magic being to relate to. Buddhism always brought things back to your self. In the Buddhist perspective, there is no external world that exists outside of the self. The mind is the final arbiter of the world that we perceive. Everything in the world comes to us through our five (six in the Buddhist view) senses. We then add meaning and context to that sensory information and start to relate to it. This is how we build up the world and this is where suffering begins and ends. Finally, I had found a reasonable explanation for what causes suffering and what can be done about it.
I decided that I should give Buddhism a try. The approach was so simple and pure and the practice was designed to integrate into ones daily life. It was a practice with a purpose. It meant I would have to learn how to meditate but I figured that having tried so many different ways to deal with suffering that one more couldn’t hurt. I did some research and found that in the town just north of me there was a Zen Center so I gave them a call and arranged a visit. My experiences with Zen and what I thought about the experience will have to wait for part 3 of this series. However, before I end this, I’d like to share a quote from Brad Warner in his book Zen Dipped in Karma Wrapped in Chocolate about his experience in discovering Buddhism. He’s a great writer and his words capture my feelings better than my words can.
When I say that Buddhism worked, I don’t mean that it was a magic solution to my problems. Nor do I mean that any miracles happened or that I was able to erase all doubt and fear from my mind through some kind of special power. What I mean is that Buddhism…provided the most truly realistic and practical way of dealing with life. It isn’t spirituality, but it isn’t materialism either…Buddhism does what no other philosophy I’ve ever come across is able to do. It bridges the gap between these two forever mutually opposing ways of understanding reality. It negates both spirituality and materialism yet simultaneously embraces them. And it’s more than just a way of thinking about things. There’s a practice involved — zazen. You cannot separate the philosophy from the practice. If you don’t do zazen practice you cannot ever hope even to come close to comprehending the philosophy.
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I just got back from an early morning 1 mile walk. I love the smell of the air on a crisp winter morning. It’s so fresh and pure up here in Maine and it still amazes me even after being here more than 2 years. Add in the beautiful colors of the sunrise and you have an almost perfect environment for walking. There’s just enough of a bite to the air that you want to keep moving and it’s relatively easy to work up a sweat.
Today as I walked I tried to keep a clear mind and really experience each moment as it happened. The single note of a bird just waking up, the sound of water running through the gully below me, the crispness of the air, the scent of a fireplace from one of the homes that are nearby but invisible because of the woods, the pinks and oranges and reds spreading out over my head in all directions; all of these things became a part of my walk. And I became a part of all of them. I’m not going into a lot of detail about that. Take my word for it. Spend time meditating and studying Buddhism and you’ll see for yourself.
Now, with my body having had its exercise and my mind getting primed and cleared, I’m ready to face what is the busiest day of my week. And now, it’s time for a hot shower and a spicy bowl of oatmeal.
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Last night I had the opportunity to do something I hadn’t done in almost 20 years. I was able to play with Pan Fried Steel, a community based steel drum band based out of Yarmouth Maine. The high school I attended was fortunate enough to have a steel drum band and I spent countless hours practicing and playing those drums. It was some of the most fun I ever had playing music. It was great to listen to and fun to play. Audiences always loved it and it taught me just how amazing music can be. Since leaving high school, I have really missed playing. Now, I have found another opportunity to have this great experience.
I was amazed at how quickly it came back to me. I haven’t read much music since I was forced to stop playing back in college. I still knew every note and all the musical notations felt like old friends. I think the best experience was being able to hold my own on two of the songs. I had no expectations of coming in and being able to play but these two particular pieces were simple enough that after a quick overview of the music and a survey of where the notes were on the drums I was playing, I was able to keep up and feel like I really played and participated in the group. After I left rehearsal, I was lightheaded with happiness. It was like a drug. I’m still smiling as I think about the experience.
I played drums like these
This was an experience I wasn’t planning on having. I didn’t specifically go and seek it out. It was one of those things that just happened. One day, I saw a flyer for upcoming performances at an event hall and noticed that there was a steel drum band from Yarmouth playing. I had no idea how they operated or if I could even participate. On a whim, I contacted them and asked about what it takes to be a member. It turns out, all that was needed was a willingness to play. I’ve got that in abundance so I attended the rehearsal last night and had a blast. As I said in my previous post about learning to play the guitar, focusing on music is an amazing meditative practice. I had a very similar experience to the one I wrote about in that post but much more intense. The single mindedness that comes when playing music is the state that a Zen practice cultivates. When playing music, you are just playing. You are with a group of other people who are of a similar mind and are just playing. It is the most visceral example of what Zen Master Seung Sahn called “together action” that I have ever experienced. While I was playing and reading and experiencing music I wasn’t worried about work, I wasn’t struggling with depression, I didn’t feel the need to stuff my face with junk. I just played and it was the most natural thing in the universe. I lost sight of my “I, my me” mind. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing Samadhi. Now, I am forced to leave that behind as it was in the past. If I try to keep holding onto it, I will only suffer as the rest of my experiences don’t add up to it. I cannot build up expectations of next week’s rehearsal either as it will set me up for suffering if things do not go according to all of the imaginary scenarios I have made. Each practice will be its own experience. Just as each moment is its own moment. Last night I had a beautiful experience and it made me happy. Today, I sit at a computer and type. What is the difference?
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I saw a story over on openbuddha.com about the Occupy protests that have been taking place in Oakland. Obviously, the protests in Oakland have been some of the more eventful ones and there have been things done on both sides of the events there that are inappropriate. Since I’m on the other side of the country from Oakland, I’m not going to attempt to add a lot of commentary about it. My only awareness of what has been going on has been what’s been covered on the national media and I’m sure that means I’m too uninformed to be able to make any type of valuable contribution to the discussion. However, I did see some pictures from the events in Oakland that I found to be very moving and wanted to share them here. These are all available to be seen on Flickr
I found these images to be very moving. There have been a number of times when I have heard Buddhists being accused of not being active in addressing social problems. While I do not necessarily agree with that accusation, I do understand how it can sometimes appear that this is the case. After all, when you see someone meditating, it’s not all that exciting. If you have not meditated, you could ask quite reasonably what is the point of it. However, if you have or have ever had, a regular meditation practice you understand that meditation is a powerful tool for transformation. Through the act of meditation, you are forced to confront your own mind and you begin to cut through the illusions that our minds construct to define the world. The important part is that, when you leave the meditation cushion, you take that clarity and insight with you. An active meditation practice means that you have an active interest in transforming the entire world. When I am more aware of the way my mind works, I am more prepared to deal with others in a way that is less self-serving. I see others in a more positive light and am more concerned for their well being. The clarity that one gets from meditation can and does put you in a place where you want to help everyone possible.
Meditation is powerful action that we can take to bring about change. As you view the pictures above, consider the emotional impact that they have. These two men (there were others meditating also) are making a powerful statement without saying a thing or raising a hand against anyone. I look at this picture and wonder if I would be able to sit in meditation while the person sitting next to me was being arrested, all the while knowing I was next. Probably not.
If you have never meditated, I highly recommend giving it a chance. Find a quiet place and sit in whatever way you are most comfortable. Allow yourself to relax and focus on your breathing. Allow your mind to do what it will. Eventually it will quiet down (a bit). Keep focused on your breathing and clear your mind. Even 5 minutes is enough to get started. Eventually, you will start to see small, positive changes taking place in your understanding and your outlook. Then, you’ll understand just how important an activity meditation can be.
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