Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

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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Zen Pooh

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A Zen Proverb

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 ...

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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Form does not differ from emptiness
Emptiness does not differ from form
— The Heart Sutra

The first time I encountered the heart sutra was on June 23, 2010. That was the first time I went to the Zen Center to see if exploring Zen would be as interesting in practice as it seemed in my mind. For someone with a mind as analytical and ultra-rational as mine, the above statement reeked of contradiction and absurdity.



When you first read the statement that form is emptiness and emptiness form, how does it strike you? Seriously, does that even make sense? To me, it seems pretty obvious that those two things are about as opposite as you can get. In this corner, weighing in at 300 pounds, we have Form! In this corner, weighing in at zero pounds, we have the challenger, Emptiness! Doesn’t seem like a fair fight does it?

Even with this apparent contradiction thrown at me as part of one of the first activities of the evening, I decided to keep an open mind and allow the contradiction to slide. I figured there had to be some bigger mystical meaning behind it. After all, they really didn’t mean that form and emptiness were one and the same.

It wasn’t until a little later that I learned they really are saying that form and emptiness are one and the same thing. What I dismissed as an apparent contradiction that was obviously some sort of metaphor or deeper statement is pretty much to be taken at face value. Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Deal with it. How am I supposed to deal with that?

This statement forced me to confront my attachments to name and form and to emptiness. In my rational and analytic state of mind, I built up various objects and concepts and things and I categorized each one and put them in their proper place apart from each other. In other words, I was creating a world in my mind where I existed over here and everything else in the universe was over there. In Buddhist terms, this is called ignorance. It is also considered the primary cause of suffering. When we build things up in our mind and think that they are separate from us, it leads to clinging and attaching and to suffering.

I won’t dig any deeper into this subject in this post but it’s amazing how much ink has been spilled over the centuries examining these concepts. However, at some point, the contradictions and confusion about the concepts of form and emptiness went away. It no longer strikes me as a strange concept. I think I really started to get this concept over that past few months when I was really dealing with a lot of depression. One of the problems with depression is a serious feeling of emptiness. I had such an overwhelming feeling of emptiness that I really did realize that it had a form all its own. Emptiness had form and that form was emptiness. I know that this isn’t the assertion of the heart sutra but it was the catalyst I needed to gain the insight into this that made it seem much less a mystery.

What I now understand is that the Buddhist concept that we attach the English word “emptiness” to is not a nihilistic or negative word. Instead, it means seeing things as they really are without constructing a lot of extra stuff around it. If you allow a blade of grass to just be a blade of grass, it’s going to have the form of a blade of grass. However, without a lot of mental baggage about that blade of grass, “it’s green, it’s long, it is the same color as the leaves on the tree” etc., it is “empty” So, even though it appears to be a contradiction at first, the phrase really does capture a deep truth. Brad Warner, writing about this phrase in his book Hardcore Zen had this to say about it and I will give him the last word.

This kind of understanding cannot be expressed symbolically in words used in the usual way. To the extent that it can be expressed symbolically, the phrase “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form” really is as clear as it gets.

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One of the benefits of sitting meditation is that it forces one to face the mind and how it works. When you are sitting quietly, your mind is given unfettered access to your attention. When this happens, it becomes like a little puppy who just wants to run and play and chase squirrels and pee on everything it sees. It’s only after some experience with meditation that some measure of control over the mind is gained. The puppy needs to be trained and learn to heel and not run off and not pee on everything. It’s hard work and often surprises newcomers to meditation just how challenging it can be to sit quietly and keep a clear mind.

Why is keeping a clear mind important? Because all of our suffering can be traced back to the mind as the source for all suffering. Our minds tell us that something is good or bad, pretty or ugly, smells good or bad, is nice or unpleasant or useful or not. Another function of the mind is to act as a DJ, spinning thoughts and memories around and around without stopping. When you combine these two functions, judging everything and looping through thoughts, you end up with an ideal recipe for suffering.

How? It’s quite simple. First, the DJ picks a memory out of its huge collection. It puts it on and gives it a spin, then the judging part of the mind kicks into gear and all of a sudden you’re giving context to the thought: “I like this”, “I don’t like that”, “that was a great experience”, “why did I say that?!”, “I should do that again”, “I hope I never do that again”, “I’m so embarrassed by that”, etc. Before you know it, you’re out on the dance floor and the DJ is going to keep you dancing all night long. As you go through this process over and over and over, it begins to take its toll on you. As you construct scenarios in your mind to replay the good thoughts or avoid the bad ones you plant the seeds of suffering. If you have a good thought, you’ll suffer when it’s over. If you have a bad thought, you suffer because of it. Rinse, repeat.

As you sit in meditation, this dance becomes easier to observe. Meditation allows you transition from being a dancer to a chaperon trying to keep order over the dancers. It’s at this point that the rules that make up the dance become clearer. There are three ways that the mind reacts to thoughts cause the dance to go on. All three add to suffering but understanding how these things work makes you a better chaperon so that you can keep things from getting out of hand.

  1. Checking – This is the process of constantly replaying thoughts. It could be thinking about something you said, or did or didn’t say or do. Regardless of the content of the thoughts, the process is the same. You think about something and then you react to it. Constantly going over things and judging them. Not only do you check your own mind/thoughts/actions but you check others too. It is checking that so often keeps us running around in a circle like a new puppy.
  2. Holding- This is like checking on steroids. The process of checking usually doesn’t last too long. As your mind wanders, you check whatever it comes across. Holding is where you refuse to let something go. If someone did something you don’t like, if you’re upset about something, if you are with someone you like you hold on to these things. Holding is what keeps us stuck in a place of suffering. We hold on to things for any number of reasons. However none of those reasons are ever good ones.
  3. Making – When we get tired of checking or holding we often float into the realm of making. This is the most esoteric of the rules as it is where we construct the “what ifs” and alternate realities that make our present reality so difficult to deal with. Thinking about something you will do or say tomorrow and then constructing a hundred different scenarios that could play out in response is just one example of making. The process of making keeps us from our situation and robs us of the moment we are in. Making is the process of living in the future or the past. It is often the response to holding. As we hold on to something, we try to think of ways to deal with it. We construct elaborate stories about how we handled the situation with grace and style and our prowess was on display for all to see or we know that when we put our plans into action everyone will be amazed at our brilliance and they’ll immediately come over to our side and sing our praises. When compared to reality, who wouldn’t prefer the worlds we create when we are making?

What all of this comes down to is that we make our own suffering. When we check, hold and make thoughts, we experience their effects. The end result of those effects is suffering. That’s why the founding teacher of the school of Zen that I am a part of used to say, “Big mind, big problem. Small mind, small problem. No mind, no problem! Ha ha ha!” Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot of checking, holding and making. It’s been so intense that it has kept me from being able to focus on what really matters. It has contributed to my weight gain and robbed me of my motivation to live a healthy lifestyle. It prevented me from sitting in meditation for quite a while too since sitting meant I had to confront all of the checking, holding and making that I was doing. However, I eventually did begin to sit again in spite of my mental state and I began to see how to get things in order. I saw clearly how my mind was working and I have adjusted to stop the cycle and keep a clear and calm mind. My mind still checks, I still hold on to things and I’m still making, making, making but at least I am aware of it now and I have the ability to stop myself instead of trying to chase the puppy around to keep it from peeing on everything. Without someone to chase it, the puppy gets bored and calms down on its own. At least until it sees another squirrel.

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I’ve been gone for quite some time and am surprised to find that I am still getting visitors to the blog on a fairly regular basis. I’ve been absent for a number of reasons but the short version is that I’ve been going through an extremely painful and challenging period in my life. For the past seven months I’ve found myself in places I never expected to be. To say that my life has been stressful would be an understatement of the highest order. In response to this stress I have seen my weight go up again and I am just now getting to the point where I can think about addressing this.

The scale has sat on my bathroom floor unused and unloved for a few months now. I have an idea of where I am in regard to my weight but it’s just a guess. I know that I am not back to where I was when I started but my weight has definitely gone up since the last time I stood on a scale. Perhaps I’ll hop on tomorrow and see where I find myself.

Regardless of the reasons for and causes of my absence , they are in the past. I plan to leave them there. I am, once again, focusing on the moment I find myself in. Holding on to the past and my attachments to the causes of my suffering will not allow me to move forward. As long as I dwell in the past I will be anchored to it. If I want to move forward, I need to let it go.

Even though I have been through a painful and stress filled period the past few months, I’ve also had some really great experiences. For instance, I took a glass blowing class and learned how to create beautiful cups and ornaments and paper weights. It’s been one of the cooler things I’ve done in a long time. I went on an amazing Zen retreat and got a lot of insight into the way that my mind works and I experienced peace and tranquility unlike I’d had since before my life got turned around. I have started to learn how to play the guitar. That’s been a lot of fun and I have the numb fingertips to prove it. I have deepened my practice and have really begun to see the benefits of meditation and “together action” that takes place within the Sangha.

It’s good to be back. One of  the informal goals I have set for myself in this process of moving beyond this place of pain and suffering is to write on a regular basis. I am also going to be getting back to exercising and eating in line with a healthy lifestyle. Through all of this, I will be relying on my practice to give me the insights I need to get beyond my old habits and patterns. With that in mind, I’ll be back tomorrow. Promise.

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