Saturday, April 25, 2009

Let me respectfully remind you...

Transcribed from a talk given September 4, 2007.

In formal Zen training, at the beginning of each evening we are summoned to the zendo by a monk hammering on a board called a kaihan, and on the kaihan a verse is painted.

The verse is the same or similar in all traditions of Zen. This is something that predates a lot of divisions. A very simple verse. It says, “Be reminded that this great matter of birth and death is of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes us by like an arrow and opportunity is lost. Each of us must strive to awaken. Don’t squander your life.”

Each time this board is sounded, we are reminded of this verse, we are reminded of this attitude of practice. Each week I speak about this activity, this practice that we’re engaged in, this practice of entering more and more fully into this moment, not being led here or there by our discursive mind, not being pulled around by our desires or chased by what we want to avoid.

This practice that we engage in is fundamentally simple. As I say over and over again, this isn’t a practice of adding something in to make it better. This isn’t a practice of developing skill, getting something, accomplishing. This practice is simply one of entering more fully into this moment just as it is, more fully embracing this moment and all of its contents as nothing other than our lives.

There is no other place to be. Last week I believe I spoke about coming home. For each of us, we can make this moment a place that we really want to avoid. In this moment all of our feelings, all of our thoughts, all of our likes and dislikes can make what’s happening right now the last place we want to be. And when we view it this way we spend a great deal of our time and energy trying to get out, trying to distract, trying to avoid, trying to be anywhere but here.

We can engage in this avoidance in limitless ways in our culture—innumerable entertainments and distractions. We can be fantasizing about the future yet to come, or we can be reminiscing about how things were in the past. But when we sit and stop for just a moment and breathe, if we are honest with ourselves, we find that these reminiscences, these memories of the past, aren’t so accurate, they’re just fantasies, our particular perspective on how things were, how we like to remember them.

When we think about the future, we realize that this too is just a dream, just our desires being manifested in our minds and in our hearts. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we find that we spend an immense amount of our time flitting back and forth—past, future, past, future. In traditional terms, this is called living like a ghost, clinging to bushes and weeds; our feet never touch down in this moment. When people are talking to us, we are barely able to hold a conversation; we can’t seem to make contact or to know them, thinking about this and that.

What a sad thing it is to come to the end of our lives and to realize that we have not spent a moment living, but rather we have spent all of our time thinking about what’s to come, thinking about how it was.

This caution, this reminder that we get each day, is that we each need to wake up to what’s going on in this very moment. Each of us needs to practise this activity of simply letting go of past, letting go of future, letting go of our senses and entering into this moment just as it is. There is nowhere else to be. This moment is not a place, it is not an object, not something fixed that you can place your hand on, but it is a dynamic activity unfolding before us over and over again.

If we allow ourselves to fixate, if we allow ourselves to get stuck on this or that, we immediately begin to think in terms of past and future. And this is our habit as humans. This is how we speak to one another—in terms of past and future. It’s a very difficult thing to take up this posture, to be still, and to commit ourselves to entering into this moment, to waking up to this moment as it unfolds before us. It’s a difficult thing to be born into our lives just as they are—difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable.

This practice of Zen, of Buddhism, this practise of waking up, is one in which we need to be very brave, we need to be willing to let go of our habits, of the ways of being that we’ve established for years and years of our lives, of constantly looking for landmarks, looking for approval, looking for touchstones by which we can judge ourselves, we can triangulate ourselves, we can identify ourselves and hold ourselves.

In this moment we need to have the courage to step forward and be born into the dynamic activity of this moment, to know what it is to be truly alive. The capacity, the potential of this human life, is limitless—this is what this verse reminds us of.

When one is able to enter into this moment fully, to become awake, all things are possible. And each of us, each and every one of us, has this innate potential, this capacity. So this reminder, this verse, asks us, “What are you doing? What are you doing with your time?” We need to take this life very seriously. Appreciate it for what it is, and don’t squander it.

So let me respectfully remind you: life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by like an arrow, and opportunity is lost. Each of us must strive to awaken. Wake up! Don’t squander you life.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Lonely at the top...

Transcribed from a talk given August 14, 2007

Each of us, I think, at one time or another, comes to a place in our lives where we feel entirely alone. Each of us finds ourselves in this position of isolation, where we feel entirely cut off from all other people, from the rest of this vast universe. And each of us deals with this, each of us addresses this experience, differently.

In Zen practice it is important to investigate how this experience has arisen. What is it, what activities, what habits do we engage in which lead to this experience of loneliness? The fundamental teaching of Zen is that all things in this vast universe are one. All things in this universe are interconnected through cause and effect. There is no thing that stands alone. There is no thing which stands independent, unrelated to anything else.

Each of us, as we go through our lives, starts off with a very unified experience. As children, when we start off in this life we have a very strong connection. We have a very deep experience of interdependence. Our lives depend on those around us, on our environment, on our mothers and on our fathers. As we begin to grow, as we begin to experience this interdependence, we begin also to develop “self”. We begin to develop consciousness, or an awareness, of our individuality. And we begin to create an identity which we hold as being separate, independent and distinct from all the things around us.

I talk about this fundamental activity of plus and minus, the activity of arising, manifesting, the activity of dissolving, disappearing, melting away. And as we develop as human beings, this activity of manifesting, defining, becoming independent, unique, tends to peak in our teenage years. We become very strong—“I”. We become very powerfully motivated to separate, to become distinct, to define ourselves, to break away, to do my own thing, to be my own person. And I think as parents, as family members, this is a very difficult time, because as parents we feel deeply connected, we feel intimately involved, we feel at-one-with.

I remember my teacher once talking about having children as being one of the easiest, the most straight-forward, ways to come to understand compassion, because in the simple act of having a child, immediately you know what it is to see self as other. My experience of this was to see my own eyes looking back at me from the position of another person. But this activity—unification, diversification—happens over and over again. And as it manifests in a human being, coming into the teenage years, we find a very strong peaking of diversification, a very strong manifestation of “I”. And as parents I think it can be difficult and it can be painful. But it’s important not to fixate.

It’s important not to look at it as if this is the way that it’s always going to be, that our child, who is wanting nothing to do with us, who is saying difficult and painful things, will always be this way. When we look at the rest of our lives, when we look at this fundamental activity, there is plus and there is minus. When plus manifests itself to the utmost, there is only one direction for it to go. As we inhale, we can’t continuously inhale. We can’t endlessly breathe in. When we reach our maximum capacity, when we feel like we’re going to split, and we're in difficulty, distress, because of our inhalation, quite naturally it follows that we exhale.

This activity is the fundamental activity of all things in this vast universe. I’ve said this over and over again. This activity is something that we can witness, something that we can experience, in this simple activity of sitting and breathing. This activity is something that we can witness and experience in every aspect, in every dynamic, in our lives.

Buddhism doesn’t ask us to believe what somebody says. It doesn’t ask us to put our faith in an external object, in an external person, an external force, but asks us to give rise to the wisdom which knows this activity for itself. It asks us to investigate this activity as it manifests in our lives in this very moment. It asks us to develop experience and to rely, to trust, that experience.

So that as we find ourselves in a difficult situation in which two things have polarized—subject and object stand at distance pointing fingers at one another—we don’t fixate that, we don’t accept it or receive it or expect it to remain the same. Through our experience, through our own practice, though our own wisdom, insight, into this activity, we know that it cannot remain the same. Plus turns and does the minus activity, dissolving away. Minus turns and does the plus activity, arising. The distance dissolves.

Each of us has this experience of feeling alone. It’s important to understand that this feeling arises as a function of plus. As we continue to arise, as we continue to insist on our independence, on our separation from all things, this experience of loneliness also arises. In itself it is not problematic. But as we practice, as the activity changes, we must also follow it. As we dissolve, melting away, experiencing unification, one true nature, each of us as we practice, fixates. And we do this over and over again and I think this is a real difficulty for people in Zen practice.

In the beginning, for most people, fixation with plus, with “I”, with separation and loneliness, becomes the primary issue. And there’s a great deal of focus placed on letting go, dissolving away, melting away into unification. As students become more grounded in Zen practice another difficulty arises: which is fixation or attachment to unification. And this situation is almost as difficult, or as problematic, as fixation with “I”, because in this situation we begin to ignore subjective. My teacher once said, “In this situation we must say, ‘oh, sorry’ to our best friend because we just slept with his wife, thinking, ‘well, we are all just one.’”

The difficulty is not in plus, in identification. The difficulty is not in minus, dissolution, or harmony. The difficulty is in our fixation, is in our absolute assertion that things are one way or the other, or that the way things are now is how they should be.

This practice is not one of letting go of the self permanently, executing the self. This practice is not one of egotism, manifesting self. This practice is the realization, the harmonious manifestation, the realization of this fundamental activity of plus and minus. We must understand that this activity, this universe, this moment, is not fixed, it’s not an object, it’s an activity.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Don't know

Transcribed from a talk given July 24, 2007

I think, perhaps, one of the greatest challenges that we face when it come to practice is our idea of what practice is. It’s that as we come to practice, as we make this effort to sit down and do this practice of meditation, as we sit, we are already completely full of ideas. Ideas about what should happen as we sit, what it is that we’re going to gain from sitting, how it is that we need to change, what it is that we need to see, what we should be experiencing in practice.

There’s a great old story of a western student sitting down with a Zen master and asking him to teach him about Zen. And so the master goes to pour him a cup of tea. And as he pours the cup becomes full...but the master just keeps pouring more and more tea as it spills all over the table. This is our position as we come to practice. We come with a cup that’s already full to the brim, full of ideas, full of hopes and expectations.

I speak about one of the founders of Zen, Bodhidharma, who brought the teaching of Zen, from India into China. One of his famous responses to the emperor at that time was, he was asked, “who is this that stands before me.” His response was, “don’t know” or “no knowing”. And as each of us enters into this practice, each of us, every time we take up this seat in a zendo we have to remind ourselves of this “don’t know”. As we take our first breath in and exhale, as we exhale we should exhale all our ideas about ourselves, exhale all of our expectations of what’s going to come out of this practice, what’s going to come out of this sit, exhale what it is that we think we need to do, need to get, or need to be rid of in order to be happy. Because all of these things, all of these hopes, expectations, assumptions are just ideas. They exist only in the mind.

This practice asks us to step out of the mind, to step out of what we think is happening in this moment, to make a connection with our bodies, to make a connection with the activity of this moment and experience it just as it is. To do this, to engage in this moment just as it is, is something which is very difficult to do because this moment is complete, as I say over and over again. This moment has as its content all things in this vast universe.

When I say something like this, it’s so easy to get lost in ideas. Immediately our mind wanders to all that is pleasant, all that is joyous, all that is wonderful and light. But when I say that this moment has as its content all things it includes the things that we don’t like, that we are uncomfortable with, that we would much prefer to avoid and get away from. So as we come to practice, as we enter into this activity or engage with this practice of “don’t know”, we also let go of all of our distractions, all of those little games that we play with our mind and with our body that take us away from the things in this very moment that we find uncomfortable, difficult or unpleasant.

These things manifest in all kinds of ways as we sit. The most coarse and simple ones are physical sensations. This posture of simply just sitting still even for a short period of fifteen minutes becomes virtually unbearable. I’ve heard all kinds of stories: the sensation of spiders on the skin, strange aches and pains, emotional turmoil, upset, anger, grief, fear. As we let go, as we settle into this moment just as it is, all that we try to avoid, all that we try to distract ourselves from, all that we try not to feel, arises.

This is why it is so very important to find a community of practice. The Buddha taught of three treasures. Many people focus so strongly on the first two: Buddha, Dharma—the teaching, the teacher. But the Sangha is given so little importance in our culture. I think it is cultural because ours is the culture of “me. “I can do this on my own, I don’t need help.” But as we sit, as we engage in this practice, as the mind and body settles and we come into awareness of all that is in this moment, as we deepen in our intimacy with our own sticking points, our own difficulties, we find at times it can be quite difficult.

We find at times we can make lists that are pages long of other things that we should be doing right now other than sitting here. We find that this physical activity of sitting creates such resistance that we want to run screaming from the room. But we also begin to develop the awareness that this practice of becoming aware, of becoming intimate with these things that we want to run from, that we want to avoid, allows us to gain insight into how it is that we go about living our lives.

We begin to see that it’s not just as we sit that we are so desperately trying to avoid these things. But in our day to day lives, in our day to day interactions, in our relationships and in our jobs we make decisions based not on wisdom, not on what is best for all concerned, but on what is going to remove me from what is difficult, what is going to help me avoid what is unpleasant of uncomfortable for me.

As we develop this awareness, and with the support of our friends in practice, as we engage in this activity of embracing that which is difficult, little bit by little bit we become free, no longer running with wide-eyed fear from those things that make us uncomfortable, we are able to enter into this moment just as it is with steadiness, clarity. We are able to manifest harmoniously regardless of what situation arises.

In order to do this however, as we sit we have to let go of what we think should happen, how we think we should be, what we think our practice is. We have to be willing to step off this cliff, letting go of our thinking mind, letting go of the grasping intellect and entering wholeheartedly into the completeness of this moment.

In Zen practice many people come with all kinds of questions—what about the six realms of existence, what about karma, what about birth and death, the twelve links in the chain of causation, the jhanas, what about all this stuff—but from the perspective of Zen we ask that you experience this moment just as it is, realize that in this moment all things are manifest, this moment has as its content all things. Realize this!

These teachings, all of them—causation, birth and death, realms of existence—arise out of the experience of this moment and until we grasp that, until we take hold of that for ourselves, these things are just discussions that take place in the intellectual mind, and they are of no value. We go out thinking we’ve understood something, we go out thinking we’ve gained something, we go out thinking that we’re better for it, smarter for it. But in our day to day interactions, in how we confront the difficulty of this moment, and how we are pursued by our fears and our anxieties, this knowledge makes no difference.

The great challenge that we have in our culture with Buddhism is that this practice is one that is fundamentally simple; we’re not trying to grasp some lofty knowledge which sits on a mountain top somewhere for only the best and the brightest. The experience of this moment is readily available to everyone. The fundamental nature of all things in this vast universe is already awake. But that just seems to simple. And in this culture of facebook, internet, international warfare and intrigue, that we could become liberated from suffering in this moment simply by becoming intimate with the activity of the breath seems an impossibility. And it is in our infinite complexity that we miss it.

So I encourage each of you as we practice together, to let go. As you sit down, fold your legs, straighten your back...take in your first breath. As you exhale, let what you know drop away and simply enter into this moment just as it is.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tathāgata - the activity of plus and minus in Zen

Transcribed from a talk given July 17, 2007

For those of you that have come to the Tuesday evening sit for a number of times you have most likely heard me talk about these two fundamental activities which constitute all things in this vast universe. I often refer to them as the activities of plus and minus, male and female, or the activity of birth and death. And I think sometimes people may wonder where this teaching, where this description of the fundamental activity comes from. We are often surprised to hear this description of plus and minus.

My teacher
often refers to our particular lineage of Zen as Nyorai Zen. Nyorai is the Japanese word for the Sanskrit word Tathāgata. Tathāgata was the term that the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, used to refer to himself. This word Tathāgata has as its content two roots: Tathā-gata, and Tathā-āgata. These words mean, literally, “thus going and thus coming.” The foundation of the teaching of Buddhism is within this single word “Tathāgata.”

It addresses this idea that we come up with, thi
s idea that we hold very dearly; that we are objects, that we are things, that we are fixed, lasting things and that as we go through this life we bump into other fixed lasting things. But this teaching of Tathāgata, “thus coming and thus going”, or as we put it in our tradition, “the activity of plus and minus”, asks that we question this assumption. What is it exactly that we take as being solid? What is it that we’re taking as being an object in this moment? What is it that we call “I” or “me”, that we take as being fixed and lasting and permanent?

When we look at our lives, when we look at the way that we conduct ourselves in business or in relationship, if we look at the way that we treat ob
jects in this world, people, things, environments, we find that we base our decisions, we base our choices, we base our actions on who we think we are, “I”. When it comes time to make a critical decision about whether something is good or bad, almost universally, our judgment is based on our understanding of “I”. What is good is what is good-for "me". What is bad is what is bad-from "my" perspective.

The Buddha taught that there is no such thing as
a lasting permanent “I”. This concept in Buddhism is called, “anatta”—no self. There is nothing which is fixed, or lasting, or permanent.

It doesn’t take us very long to investigate this, at leas
t at a cursory level, to say, “What is it about ‘I’, me, this person that is sitting here right now, that is fixed and lasting and permanent? It’s certainly not my thoughts, it’s not my emotions—I feel differently from moment to moment—it’s not my beliefs—what I believe now is not what I believed as a child.” We can go through every aspect of this "thing"—preferences, choices, relationships, ideas, the physical body—and we can’t find anything to lay our hands on which is of the nature to last.

We find that
we take each and every aspect of this thing that we call a self as solid, we unquestioningly accept the nature of self as being fixed and permanent, when even with a brief examination we find that this assumption is seriously flawed.

Now, to open ourselves up to this realization, to open ourselves up to our own experience that this thing that
we take as being fixed and permanent isn’t there, will have serious implications on the rest of our lives.

I have a background of working with mental health and addictions services, and I remember one time I
was listening to a psychiatrist talk about a definition of schizophrenia, and one of the symptoms that helped to define this illness we call schizophrenia is delusion”. Delusion was defined as “a fixed false belief in spite of evidence to the contrary.” As a monk, sitting there listening to this, it dawned on me that in general, from the perspective of Buddhism, humanity is delusional.

This absolute belief in a self which exists separately, which is lasting and fixed and permanent, is delusion. It doesn’t take much to see the evidence. In fact what I find really i
nteresting is that each of us is very much willing to accept the non-existence of other selves”.

We can accept the imperma
nence of plants, of animals, of cars and of building, of mountains even, even of other people. But when it comes to our perspective of ourselves, we make the exception, “but I’m lasting.” Now, this isn’t always a blatant, outstanding belief that we go about chanting or anything like that, but when we investigate our behaviour, when we investigate how we relate with people in this world, how we treat the things that we come into relationship with, the food that we eat; is our conduct reflective of the fact that we are an activity, or does it reveal our misguided perspective that we are going to live forever?

This fundamental
teaching, “anatta”, is found in all schools of Buddhism. In some ways, it is what defines this Way. When I speak of the activity of plus and minus I am speaking of the activity of arising, the activity of dissolving.

Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, stopped referring to himself by name
, and instead referred to himself as “the Tathāgata. I guess we could understand this as saying, “the person who has come into this moment, the person who now dissolves in this moment.”

How many of us can uphol
d this perspective of ourselves? As we go through our day, as we go through our relationships, as things that we have desired come into our grasp, are we able to enjoy them just as they are, and when the time comes for them to pass, can we release them recognizing this fundamental activity of plus and minus?

Now, perhaps, when I ask this questi
on, “how many of us can do this?” some people in this room think, “Certainly not me! This realization, this way of harmony with the fundamental activity of things is beyond me”, or “I’m too stuck, I’m too fixated with myself.”

Who is it that you are fixated with? Who is it that’s fixated
with it?

Ahh, we’ve been caught! In all of our thinking, “N
o I don’t think of myself as fixed and permanent. No I don’t hold onto a self,” we find that we do. We find that we have these definitions for ourselves: “I’m this kind of person”, or I’m that kind of person. I like this and I don’t like that.” And in experiencing this, in being hooked so to speak, we find ourselves in the heart of practice, for this practice of Zen, this activity that we are doing right now, is not a philosophical endeavour.

Our job isn’t to sit quietly and think deep thoughts, but to investigate this moment, this moment whic
h has as its content all things...this moment, which is nothing other than our lives. We don’t just think about this, but we must investigate with all of our energy, all of our mind, all of our heart, all of our body, this moment-right now.

Where is it that we’re getting stuck? What is it that we’re attaching to, fixating, taking as solid, permanent, lasting? What is it that we’re convinced will provide us with lasting
, permanent happiness? This practice of Zen that we engage in is a means of taking these teachings, the Dharma, taking it out of our heads, taking them off of the page and the history books and breathing life into them.

The Buddha taught first, “Wonder of wonders, each of us is fundamentally awake
, but we don’t realize it.” Each of us is nothing other than this activity of plus and minus, but we mistake ourselves as being something else.

Each of us is nothing other than this activity, and yet we take ourselves as objects. And it is because of this fundamental error, this basic misunderstanding that we suffer.

This teaching, Buddhism, the path of awakening, is not a practice of
trying to make something better. It’s not a practice of trying to add something in, or develop something. It is, just as I’ve said, the path of awakening, waking up, coming to realize this fundamental activity just as it is. Letting go of this deluded notion that there is this "thing" that I can call “I”, which stands fixed and permanent, separate from all other things in this vast universe.

It isn’t a matter of reading the right thing, or sitting for the right number of minutes
, or hours, or days. It’s simply waking up in this very moment to what is. There isn’t a single person in this room...there isn’t a single fibre of carpet in this room...that is not capable of this awakening. These are limitations that we place upon ourselves. It is important to realize that it is we, ourselves, creating this concept of “I” and cutting ourselves off from the rest of this universe. We don’t have to make it a bigger self. Simply let go of this idea and realize that already, you are at one with all things in this vast universe.

This practice is with us all the time. Each of us
, as we go through our day can investigate this activity of plus and minus, breathing in...breathing out, this activity of being born...and dying is as near to us as our breath. So as we go through our lives, when we feel isolated, when we feel cut off, when we feel ourselves having some difficulty, we simply stop holding on to ourselves so rigidly and breathe.

Unify the mind
and body and with this fundamental activity of plus and minus, and just see what happens.