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Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

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.

emptiness

Emptiness

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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A Good Answer

Cover of "Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: T...

Cover via Amazon

One of the four books I’m reading right now is Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn. It is a great book full of different records of Seung Sahn’s interactions with his students. The title of the book is taken from one of the stories that Zen Master Seung Sahn would tell: one day a big man comes into the Zen Center smoking a cigarette. He blows smoke in the Buddha’s face and drops the ashes in its lap. If you try and stop him from doing this he will hit you. What do you do?

This type of story is called a koan (kong-an in the Korean tradition). Personally, I don’t know what the right answer is but my son seems to have come up with a good one. He saw me reading the book the other day as I was enjoying the cool evening air out on the porch. He asked me what the title meant so I told him the story. When I got to the end and asked him what he would do he looked at me as if it were as obvious as the fact that the book was printed on paper. His answer is one that I think any Zen Master would approve. It was short, direct, concise and absolutely right. It was one simple word: “dodge”.

Now there’s a clear mind at work!

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As I said in my last post, my weekend was spent at the Providence Zen Center where I took my five precepts and formally became a member of the school. The Zen Center is a beautiful place and spending time there was a great experience. Sure, I’m sore from all the bowing and odd movements that my poor, still overweight, body isn’t use to but I can’t complain too much about that. I’ve got a lot to write about this entire experience but I’m still processing a lot of it and I’m sure it will come out over the next few weeks as I continue to write.

One of the more interesting events from this past weekend was an inka ceremony. Basically, this is the way that the Kwan Um School of Zen bestows the title of Zen Master on someone. This is a process that takes years to complete and is compared to earning a PhD. After seeing the ceremony firsthand, I can see why. For 30 minutes, the candidate for JDPSN (Zen Master) status had to sit while one person after another came up to her and asked questions meant to trip her up or confuse her. In Zen studies, these questions are called koans. Watching someone answer koans for 30 straight minutes and hit each one out of the park was nothing short of awesome. After seeing this, I have a much better understanding of why they call this part of the ceremony dharma combat.

After the ceremony everyone filtered out of the dharma hall and down the stairs to the dining room for an amazing vegetarian dinner of sweet potato enchiladas. I found an open seat at a table right next to a sign reading that the tables were reserved for those who could not sit on the floor. I figured I met that criteria as I was already so sore that I was having trouble getting my legs to cooperate with me when I wanted to do things like walk or stand or move them around.

While I was sitting there trying to taste each of the ingredients in the enchiladas so that I can reverse engineer the recipe, the newest Zen Master in the Kwan Um school sat down right across from me at the table. She thanked someone sitting a few chairs down from me for their kind words at her ceremony and started to eat her dinner. A few more people sat down at the chairs around us and, before I knew it and without planning on my part, I found myself caught up in the discussion that popped up at the table. Anne, the new Zen Master, lectures on science and environmental issues among other things. As we sat at the table eating dinner we discussed environmental science, the changing ecosystem in Florida where she lives, alligators and just how cool they really are, and the importance of actions to do whatever possible to make positive impacts on the environment. She had an amazing depth of knowledge about this subject and her compassion for all living things was palpable as she talked about her experiences working with various groups and research teams.

A few other people came to the table and they were not as inclined to discuss science and environmental issues so the conversation drifted to other topics. These topics were much more along the lines of generalized discussion that happens among people at a large group: things like travel plans, how long different people had been at the Zen Center already, the quality of the food, the experiences one had in the various ceremonies going on that weekend, etc. This was where I got to see just how down to earth a Zen Master could be. The fact that she had just been through an incredible ordeal and passed with flying colors never came up in any of the conversations. It was like it never happened. Sure, she was a Zen Master, big deal, there was an upcoming train trip back to Virginia to discuss since driving in the northeast corridor is such pain to do. It was almost an inconvenience when the time came for her to get up from the table to take part in a cake cutting to celebrate her accomplishment.

After we had all gotten our cake (and it was a delicious cake) we were back at our seats and a new person joined us. This was a person with a question about something someone said in the ceremony. It was a line that had not even really made an impact on my mind at the time but the short version of the story was that the conversation eventually led to the realization that Anne has stage 4 colon cancer and she stares death in the face on a daily basis. The ease with which she tossed out the phrase “it’ll get me some day” still leaves me in awe. She deals with the immediacy of her mortality on a moment by moment basis and has learned from it and become stronger because of it. It was at this point I realized just how amazed I was at this person sitting across the table from me. Her attitude and her humility and her courage were unlike almost anyone else I have ever met. Usually, you only hear stories about people like this. This time, I was experiencing it first hand. I was almost consumed with admiration for the person sitting in front of me talking about how she had tried macrobiotics for a while to combat the cancer but didn’t want to spend all of the life she had left in the kitchen cooking foods that meet the very high bar set by macrobiotics.

She was called away shortly after that by a group of people who hadn’t seen her in a while and she went to speak to them. I continued to have some conversations with those around me but I was still stuck mentally in the previous conversation. I had never seen that kind of clarity, compassion, courage and intellect combined in one person so well. I could not help but feel angry with the knowledge that she would not be a teacher and master in our school for as long as she should be because of the cancer. Then, because this was a Zen retreat, I was left with my own thoughts about why I was feeling this way and why I was thinking this way. I did my best to learn from the example she had just set and accept the reality of the situation for what it is and to be present in this moment because it is all we have. Sure, in some future moment she will no longer be a part of our school but that’s the business of that moment. For now, there were plates to be picked up and trash to be thrown away.

A few minutes later as I was cleaning up my dishes at the sink, one of the other people I met this weekend asked me if I enjoyed having dinner with three Zen Masters. At first I thought he was trying to trip me up with some sort of “gotcha” koan. Then he pointed out to me that the other people that I had been sitting with and talking with were also the same people who usually sit up at the front of the room during the ceremonies and that the reason they did that was because they were Zen Masters. Since things were all so new to me and I wasn’t used to seeing these people outside of the ceremonies yet (I had only been there for 24 hours at that point), I didn’t even realize who some of the other people I was eating with and talking with were. How’s that for down to earth and low key? There was nothing to differentiate these Zen Masters from me, a guy who was there to take step 1: the five precepts. As my new friend laughed at me, I let the lesson sink in. I’m still trying to learn from that moment. I have a feeling I’ll be learning from that moment for a long time to come.

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Where I’m At

Despite appearances, I’ve not actually been at my computer this weekend. Last week I thought it would be a great idea if I set up my blog with a little April Fool’s joke. I wrote a post about getting “back to my roots” and found some videos on Youtube that were as non-vegetarian as possible. The one with the steak tartare was particularly amusing to me. I found a bunch of links and other items and scheduled them all to show up on April 1st. With the exception of having everything post in the P.M. instead of the A.M. everything went as planned. Oops, I guess I need to learn how to make sure I’m telling my computer what side of noon I want it to do something.

In reality, I am at the Providence Zen Center getting ready to take the five precepts. This is a fairly standard practice in Buddhism where you promise not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to get drunk and not to act out of lust. Basically all the stuff I’m already doing so this just makes it a formality. The Providence Zen Center is beautiful and I’ll post some pictures once I get them off of the camera.

There’s nothing like a Zen retreat to remind you of just how out of shape your body is. I’m so sore right now from the different motions that one puts the body through that I’m having a hard time being comfortable sitting, standing, laying down, moving or just about anything. Though it may be sleeping on a small futon on an otherwise bare floor that’s doing it too.

In addition to the great Buddhist practice, I’ve gotten to eat a lot of really great vegetarian food. Tonight we had enchiladas with tofu and sweet potatoes. It was amazing. The other great treat was a vegetarian lasagna that didn’t include eggplant. While I have learned to eat eggplant this past year it’s not one of the foods that I have a strong affinity for. I feel quite energized by all this great food and have some wonderful ideas about what to make once I’m home.

I have a lot more to say about what I’ve experienced this weekend but they’ll wake us up at 4:45 so I need to get some sleep.

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A couple of weeks ago, someone rear ended my car. This is a common occurance in a place where the roads are covered in ice for months at a time. It sucks, but it’s the risk we take getting on the road in December, January, Febraray and March. Fortunately, it happened at slow speed and the only damage was to my liscence plate and I was able to flatten that back out. The other driver wasn’t hurt and didn’t even get a dented plate.

Shortly after that, I was run off the road by a semi while driving on the highway. Snow was also a factor in that and I ended up paying my insurance deductible to have the front bumper replaced. This accident was one of the scariest experiences of my life as I did a 360 on the highway and almost got hit by another semi. If I would have been speeding, I would probably have been killed because of the extra momentum the speed would have given me. Fortunately, I narrowly missed ending up under the wheels of a massive truck.

My family has also been dealing with some new information about a medical condition that someone in the family has. This has caused us to have to adapt some behaviors and it’s been stressful to deal with.

You’d think with all of that stuff going on I’d be a mess but I’m doing pretty well. There was one night where I found myself sitting in front of a bowl of ice cream covered in toppings and whipped cream but it was only once instead of again and again. My Zen practice has enabled me to be able to take these things in stride and to cope with them in a way that is healthier and, for the most part, better than I would have done before I began practicing.

Sitting in meditation really does make you aware of the working of your mind. Since I have become more aware of the workings of my mind, I am able to work with my brain to process these things and not get caught up in the worry about the future or replaying the events in my mind with different, usually horrible, alternate endings. Zen has helped me to keep my perspective focused on the now, the here, and keeping my mind from wandering as much as it would have once upon a time.

The big things are what they are and it’s been interesting to compare how I react now to the way that I would have a year ago. What gets me, more often than not, are the little things. When I have to deal with a frustrating but short lived event I am more likely to be caught off guard. If I have to deal with a person who is being completely unreasonable or if there is something that interrupts my routine or if I want to be doing something and every time I begin I get sidetracked by other events is when I find myself wanting to run to the nearest snack machine, feed it a hand full of dollars and stuff my face full of candy and Twinkies. I guess I’m still waiting for the Zen to make its way into the day-to-day routines that make up so much of our lives: that’s the focus of practice after all.

There have been a number of times over the past few weeks where I have mad a dash for the break room at work or where I’ve given in to impulse while at the gas station or supermarket and I’ve grabbed a bag of Reese’s Pieces or a box of Little Debbies. Every time, it’s been in response to something that has happened to upset or frustrate me. Later, when I’m sitting in meditation, my mind wanders back to the moment of consumption and I have to fight the urge to dwell on it and mentally beat myself up over it. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. When I do succeed, the Zen practice breaks me out of the cycle that would cause me to eat in response to the self-imposed stress only to cause more stress about eating in response to stress (aint addiction grand?). When I don’t succeed, the Zen practice usually helps me to break the cycle after only one or two repetitions. Regardless of when/how/why I eat, at least my Zen practice is, sooner or later, helping me keep things focused on the here and now.

I think the reason the little things are more apt to throw me off is because when I encounter them, they are my “here and now” and, truth be told, I don’t want to be in that “here and now”.  Zen practice would force me to remain in that moment and it’s understandable why I have a hard time doing that. After all, what person in their right mind would want to remain in an unpleasant “here and now” if escape from it is easy and quick?  However, Zen isn’t about “right mind”: it’s about clear mind—the mind before the moment of thinking. That’s why I need to keep practicing every day. With continual practice it should, in theory, be easier to find that clear mind even in moments that are unpleasant and escape through the vending machine is only 4 quarters away.

Our lives are made up of little things: short events that, one added to another, make up a life. Very few of those events are big, important, world-shaking moments. That’s why it’s easier to deal with them and process them–they won’t come around again for a long time. It’s what you do with all the rest of the moments, the boring, plain, silly, “normal” things that really make an impact on your life. I guess that means it’s time to practice, practice, practice. Zen before getting out of bed, Zen throughout the day, Zen before sleep: that’s the only way to make each of those moments count. Until then, the little things will keep throwing me and I’ll keep dealing with it. After all, that’s what Zen is all about.

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