Sunday, May 31, 2009

All Born Together

The past week has been a fairly interesting one for me. Just last Tuesday, while we were sitting, I was starting to develop a mild fever, which over the course of the past week developed into a fairly serious fever that lasted for several days. Something about fevers and Zen monks: they go well together, I think. I often come and talk about our tendency, our human tendency, to want to avoid the things that are uncomfortable. I talk about our habit patterns that arise when we encounter things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable and that how as we sit, as we begin to take up this practice, we begin to let go of, we begin to allow to melt away, drop away our defenses, our protections, the way that we put barriers between what we find unpleasant or uncomfortable and our experience of them.

In traditional Zen practice, there are ways, there are techniques that are used which assist us in more clearly, more crisply, coming into contact with the content of our mind. When I talk about a monastic schedule one of the first observations is: how do you cope with such a little amount of sleep? Really this is part of the point. When we are strong, when we have a lot of energy, when we are getting a lot of sleep, we have a great deal of energy for defending ourselves, for putting up barriers. When things irritate us, we can hide it, we can mask it, we can get away from it. But as the sleep starts to dwindle, we can find that things aren’t so easy to mask. We haven’t got the energy to put on a happy face. We start to get a little bit cranky. I think that anybody who’s had a child experiences this reality of sleep deprivation. I don’t think there’s any more honest time in a relationship than in the first six months or a year of having a baby: "I haven’t got time to put varnish on this; I haven’t got energy to keep up the smile." Who we truly are starts to spill out. And it becomes readily apparent to ourselves and to
those around us. It’s a difficult, difficult time of life.

In many ways for me a fever is very much like this. The energy to keep what’s uncomfortable at bay dissolves, and we find ourselves left in all that is uncomfortable. In a fever we have vivid dreams, visions. We experience emotions, physical sensations that in our day-to-day lives we can tend to just hold back, keep away from. So I’ve always found fevers to be quite a wonderful way to gain insight into how we’re doing in practice. A person who is at peace, at ease when they’re deprived of
sleep, a person who is at ease in the depth of a fever, is a true practitioner.

I guess on this theme, I was feeling a little bit low energy today. I’m just starting to recover and I was buoyed, really uplifted, by seeing an old friend come in the door tonight, someone I haven’t seen for quite some time. Even more so I was buoyed by the news that this man is going to become a father. I think that the last time I was speaking to him, there was some talk about this taking place, this was a while ago, and
I told him at that time that I thought he’d make a wonderful father.

As we were sitting just before the formal sit began, I was just reflecting on my own experience of having children, and really just wanted to acknowledge that for all of the happiness that’s expressed, my experience of becoming a father at the beginning before having a child, was terrifying. I don’t know if there was
anything on earth that I wanted to do less than have a child.

It became a real problem for me in my marriage. My wife began talking to me saying, "the reason I married you was to have children. If we weren’t going to have children, why would we get married?" I was a young Zen monk and for me the idea of having children seemed to run very counter to my idea of practice. I saw it as an obstruction to
practice. It was an obstruction to the development of a community.

Shortly thereafter, I remember very clearly going down to train with my teacher, Sasaki Roshi, and it seemed like the whole sesshin, the whole retreat, was pointed directly at me. The whole time he was talking about having children. I remember very clearly one talk that he gave in which he said: "I don’t really understand why so many young people come here to get sore backs, and sore knees, to eat this second rate food and to sit all day in this hot, hot climate, all so that they might gain some glimpse, some basic understanding, of this teaching of compassion. It’s far easier to have a child. In looking into your child’s eyes, immediately you realize self as other, other as self." By the end of the week I felt like I had been beaten. I came back to Victoria and agreed, said yes, it’s time. I understood that my idea of how I was to progress in practice, was based on
my ideas. And as one teacher said to me: "you don’t know what you don’t know."

The experience of having a child led me to other experiences - some of the darkest times of my life, in fact, after having a child, now I don’t want to scare anybody… The loneliness of a husband
immediately after the family grows, I’ve never experienced anything like it.

Child completely focused on mother, mother completely focused on child, for me, was a very difficult time. But it opened an opportunity for me to truly look at myself, to look at what I was doing, to look at this activity of father and to finally come to acceptance, acceptance of interconnectedness, acceptance of

To truly grasp the role of father is to understand that all things in this vast universe are one. All things in this vast universe are nothing other than our family. And in our family, and in this universe, we have a responsibility. We can try to be all things: mother, father. But in the end, we have to receive, we have to accept that which is our role in any given situation. We have to take up that responsibility, we have to take up that courage, to meet this moment as it is without distinction, without picking and choosing, without coming up with some idea about what’s right or what’s wrong, but letting go of our sense of separate self, manifesting clearly and
appropriately in this moment, just as it is.

My teacher used to say one of the most important koans, one of the most important things to investig ate, is this simple fact that a child is not born alone. At the moment of birth, child is born, mother is born, and father is born. Before there is a child, there is no mother, there is no father. Simultaneously these three come into existence, interdependent. What was before, ceases. So the koan for each
of us (particularly for you, Phil) is: how do I manifest father?

In each and every moment that arises we have to understand that our relationship with things exists. We are not born in isolation. In Buddhism there is a principle called pratityasamutpada, co-dependent origination. And the principle is very simple: all things in this universe are made up entirely of non-self things. We are dependent on everything else for our definition. I am so-and-so’s son, so-and-so’s father, the monk at so-and-so, so-and-so’s student. In fact one koan is: without depending, without referring, without relying on any other thing, who am I?

Investigate this in your practice. Coming to understand this situation, this teaching of pratityasamutpada, co-dependent origination, will change the way that you relate to this universe, change the way that you make relationship with people, with your environment, with objects. It’s not something that you can grasp in your head. This life that we have is an opportunity to investigate, to investigate this universe and its activity. So please, as we say traditionally in Zen, don’t waste time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Transcribed from a talk given Tuesday January 16, 2007. To listen to the podcast of this talk, click here.

Where is it, that we’re living our lives? When we investigate this moment, when we investigate this life that we’re living, where is it that we spend our time? Can you say that you’re truly present, in this moment, fully, doing the activity of this moment, fully? Or are we in the past, reminiscing about how wonderful this was or how awful that was? Are we in the future, fantasizing about how things will turn out, how wonderful things would be if only just... you fill in the blank?

Buddhism teaches us that the content of our lives, the content of this vast universe, is present, in this very moment, just as it is. Not one single thing is lacking in this very moment. And yet we go around spending all of our time, thinking about past, thinking about future, walking into things in this very moment, unaware.

It’s easy to disregard things. It’s easy to think things small and insignificant. It’s easy to create a hierarchy of activities in our lives, and relegate this to important, worthy of our attention, and that to, oh, just go through the motions. There’s a bunch of things that we do this with. Brushing our teeth maybe, making our breakfast maybe. Sometimes even eating breakfast, eating our food, is relegated to this pile of things which is a necessary inconvenience for survival. Where are you? What is more important than the activity of this very moment, which is the content of your life?

There’s a saying in Zen: the tiger kills the mouse with all of its strength. It doesn’t disregard even such a small thing as a mouse. TAAAH! Everything goes into catching that mouse. If we truly appreciate our lives, if we truly appreciate that this very moment is the complete content of our lives, we can live like this. And if we engage in our lives in this manner, it’s clear, it’s radiantly clear to ourselves and to those around us, and when we don’t, this is also clear. An old master called this living like ghosts, clinging to bushes and weeds; bushes in the past, weeds in the future, drifting like an empty spirit.

The form of Zen practice as we engage in this practice is another opportunity for us to engage with the activity of our lives. Even in this formal activity that we engage in on a Tuesday evening, there are things that fall into the hierarchy. What’s important, we think, is the sitting meditation, that’s what Zen practice is. The walking, why that’s just about stretching your legs, feeling better. We need to pay attention to our practice. This moment is the content of our lives. When we think something’s not important, we aren’t taking our lives, this moment, as important. We become a ghost.

Walking meditation has a simple instruction: keep in step, and walk close behind the person in front of you. It’s a simple instruction which we can see is remarkably difficult to follow -- if we even bother to try to follow this instruction. We find that as we move, as we walk, the mind goes this way and that. We look around, we start thinking about this and that. The next time we look down at our feet, we realize that we’ve fallen behind; we’ve fallen out of step.

Walking meditation is the practice of harmonious activity: letting go of the sense of separation, letting go of our self-concern, and manifesting harmoniously with our environment, with our community, as one. Zazen, the sitting meditation, is important, but being able to take that stability, that sense of interconnectedness that we can gain through sitting, that we can experience and realize through the practice of sitting meditation, being able to take that into action, is the function of practice.

We begin with something very simple: keep in step, stay close behind the person in front of you. But we find that our self-concern, our habits of thinking about past and future, make this actually quite a very difficult thing to do. This is why it’s called practice, we need to keep coming back to it. If these concerns, if these habit patterns, if this way of being with others and with our environment prevents us from manifesting harmoniously in a simple activity: left, right, breathing in, breathing out... When we’re engaged in this practice with a bunch of people, with a community that is also engaged in this activity of trying to manifest harmoniously, well, if we can’t do it here, how can we take this out into the world?

We are creatures of habit, of conditioning. Buddhism teaches us to become aware of the activity of cause and effect. What we are practising is walking in harmony with our environment, walking in harmony with our community. This starts very small. Breathing in, breathing out. Left, right. So I encourage you all to engage in this practice, instead of like ghosts, going through the motions, like tigers. Don’t discount any aspect of this practice as being insignificant or any less important than any other part. Because in the end this practice isn’t practice. It’s not an object. It’s not something external. This activity is what you have chosen to expend your life in. This moment is the content of your life. So don’t waste it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

On Taking Responsibility...

Transcribed from a talk given October 16, 2007

Many people take up an interest in Buddhism when they hear about it, when they hear about the teachings in Buddhism of compassion, or mindfulness, or awareness.

Many people come through the Zen Centre as well as the Chaplain's office here at UVic interested in talking about the ideas, the concepts that are presented in the Buddhist scriptures, in the writings.

It’s important to acknowledge, it’s important to recognize, as we come to practice, that this teaching, the Dharma, is not something that was meant to be studied in an exclusively intellectual way. It was not something which was intended to be conceptualized and understood in our minds. This is a teaching that is a practice. It’s something that, if we really want to grasp, if we really want to gain insight into it, it’s something that we need to practise. So we come together in this group.

Many people who have done various kinds of meditation in various kinds of traditions, are sometimes surprised by the formality of Zen practice, they are surprised by the form. For me, I think a big part of this surprise is really the sort of popular culture image that Buddhism is given. It should be acknowledged that the Buddha’s term for this practice was dhamma vinaya which means something like “the teaching and the discipline”.

In Zen practice, as we come into this form, we find that immediately we are confronted. Immediately, the things that we prefer, the ways that we are comfortable, what we like, is bounced back at us and we are asked to sit just this way, we are asked to walk just this way, we are asked to bow, to respond to the bells and clappers. We are asked, in essence, to let go of our fixation with self-satisfaction, doing things our way, and we are asked to manifest harmoniously with our environment, with all things within it.

We find that if we practice in the Zen Centre, Eshu doesn’t talk so much about compassion, Eshu doesn’t go on and on about mindfulness. What I emphasise is practice, practising in harmony with all things. When we engage in this form, we find that immediately we are kind of squished right up against our neighbour. When we are shown into the zendo, there are no spaces allowed from one sitter to the next. Why?

As we practice, we come to experience what it means, what compassion means, what mindfulness means, by bumping up against one another. We find that when everything is so tight, if we gap out, if we are unmindful, we step on the person in front of us. If somebody is unmindful, their cushions and the contents of their clothing start to spill over into our already limited space, and we start to experience how that impacts us. And if we’re sensitive, we start to become aware of how our own awareness, our mindfulness, how our behaviour and how our conduct, impacts those around us. We begin to become aware of our connection through the experience of practice. We begin to practice as a group, we begin to practice as one. We begin to let go of our own concerns. We begin to let go of our concern for ourselves and to experience harmony.

This word compassion—the Sanskrit term karuna—is one of the few words that I actually really appreciate the English translation of—compassion. It means “to suffer with”, to recognize that the suffering of another is not something which is separate from ourselves.

Just the experience of being pressed ourselves, just the experience of being stepped on ourselves, helps us to understand what it is to be pressed, helps us to understand what it is to be stepped on, and it gives rise to mindfulness, awareness. We begin to carry ourselves differently, and we begin to investigate these principles not as a concept—“Ahh, I understand compassion now”—but as a visceral, experiential realization.

No longer looking at myself as something that is separate from my environment, separate from the things around me, separate from the people that I’m in relationship with, I begin to have an inkling, or a glimmer that maybe this assertion of separation isn’t such a good idea.

For many people, the form of Zen practice is a difficult one; the lines are very clear. And for those who engage in the deepening of practice through performing one of the officer roles, one of the challenges is to really engage with such clearly defined boundaries; what is this person’s responsibility? What is that person’s responsibility?

We engage in this practice of committing ourselves entirely to fulfilling our clearly defined responsibility and not stepping over. This is a challenge for a lot of people. Seeing something undone but that lies outside of our personal responsibility is difficult. In training we are asked to allow it to go undone, to allow the person who’s responsibility it is to fulfill it, and if they miss, to be held accountable for it.

When we first start practice, the boundaries are no less clear. We’re given specific instruction on how to hold our hands, how to sit, how to breathe, and how to walk. The only responsibility we have is to manifest harmoniously with the form, but we find that this simple and very clearly defined instruction, this very clearly defined responsibility, really can just rub us the wrong way sometimes—“I don’t want to do it this way. "..."I don’t want to walk in-step.” We find that all kinds of thoughts, and emotions, choices and preferences and dislikes rise right up into our throat. The simple activity of walking in-step, for some people, can inspire downright anger.

Zen practice, this engagement with a formal practice, is sometimes referred to as “the mirror of zazen”, and if we don’t hold that uncomfortable feeling, if we don’t hold those responses, those reactions to practice, at arm’s length, if we are willing to engage them, to embrace them, to recognize them as our own, we are able to use this practice as a mirror, as an opportunity to reflect on how it is that we walk through this world and what it is that we fixate ourselves to, on how strongly we engage in this activity of fixating, of attaching to like and dislike. We can become more aware of how this tendency leads us to suffer.

As we continue to practice, we can learn to let go, to dissolve, to allow these things that we so strongly attach to, to melt away. We can learn to manifest in harmony with our environment, with the situation that we find ourselves in. This isn’t an easy practice. Our habit when we come across something that is uncomfortable is to get away from it as quickly as possible, to distract ourselves, to avoid.

Zen practice asks us to simply sit, just be with that. Don’t try to get away from it, don’t try to avoid it, but also don’t indulge in it. Just simply be with it. Come to know it, intimately. As we continue to do this practice we find that there will be moments where our resistance gives way, where for even a moment, even a breath, we are able to let go of this sense of separation and melt away into the activity of breathing. Breathing with all things in this vast universe, we find that we’re able to drop away, even for a glimpse, into the activity of walking, in which there is no “I am”.

We begin to realize, to experience, that the foundation of compassion, the foundation of mindfulness, is not in the head, it’s not a concept, it’s not a way of working from the outside as an idea that things should seem more connected, but rather working from the experience of the unification with all things in this vast universe and then beginning to live your life based on that experience. So as we continue to practice, please, don’t spend your time in spinning over concepts. Feel yourself sitting. Simply breathe. Be with the person who is sitting beside you. Be with the people that are practising in this room; be with this room. Let go of this sense of separation. Let go of this sense of “I am”, “I want”, “it should be” and experience the completeness of this very moment just as it is.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Live like your head is on fire!

Transcribed from a talk given October 9, 2007.

One of the sayings in Zen is that we must practise like our heads are on fire. What does that mean?

One of the most difficult aspects of Zen practice, when I’m dealing with students just starting into the practice, is commitment. I think that this is a real challenge. I don’t know if it is a recent one in our culture, in our time, but it seems that many, many people struggle with commitment. At the Zen Centre we have a course for students who have completed the introductory course called "The Fundamentals of Zen", and in this course we talk about a ceremony called Jukai, or receiving the precepts. This ceremony of Jukai is fundamentally a commitment ceremony, and I think that in investigating a commitment ceremony, several things arise.

As we go about our lives, I think that many of us develop a great fear. I’ve talked about how each of us holds ourselves as being separate. Each of us takes ourselves as being fundamentally separate, apart from the rest of this world that we live in. We take ourselves as being fixed and permanent, lasting amidst this universe that is changing, amidst this universe which is a manifestation of this fundamental activity of plus and minus, birth and death. As we fixate, as we more and more strongly attach ourselves to this idea of “I”, we start to engage in habits, in behaviours, which enforce, which strengthen, which support this belief.

We live in a culture of abundance, abundance in every aspect—in resources, in opportunities, in everything. Each of us is faced everyday with a myriad of choices, choices about everything—what we want to eat, what we want to drink, what we want to do with our lives, where we want to live. But I think along with these myriad choices, many of us develop a kind of neurotic fear.

As we face each of these choices, we start to worry, “What if I make the wrong choice? What if I make a choice now and then two weeks down the road I don’t like my choice? I’ll be a fool. People will think less of me. I’ll have wasted time.” And bound so strongly by this fear, this concern, many of us never make choices. And we find that there are more and more people in this world who, as we grow older and older, have never settled down, found a home.

More and more people have difficulty maintaining relationships, whether they are friends, or whether they are intimate family relationships. More and more people are finding themselves older and older and still not quite sure what it is that they want to do for a living, for work. Each of us is so plagued by this fear of making a mistake that it virtually paralyzes us. Paralyzes us from going deeper, from doing more than just scratching along the surface.

If we reflect on our own lives, we’ve got to ask ourselves if this is the case—is this the case in how we live? Is this the case in how we love? is this the case in how we work? Commitment is something which I think for many, many people is terrifying. It shows up in all kinds of different places with different people.

I’ve dealt with a lot of young men, who after living with their girlfriends for some time, the girlfriends start to talk about getting married, and the young man starts to squirm. “But babe...we’ve been living together...that’s the same as marriage isn’t it?” But it’s not.

When it comes to practice, we find that in the Jukai ceremony there are a couple of components that I speak about during this fundamentals course, and one is this part of the script in which it says, “I will refrain from following deluded teachings. I will take the Buddha as my teacher from now and into the endless future.” People get all squirrely about this stuff—“Woah! What are you talking about?”

Each of us, in this wonderful culture that we live in, where there is freedom to practice whatever form of spirituality that we wish, make this same mistake. There’s no commitment. Hopping from here to there, we take little bits of this and little bits of that, whatever it is that makes us feel good and comfortable, leaving whatever it is that makes us uncomfortable, that squeezes us a little bit.

I think that most of us by now know that it is in these tight corners, in these places that we don’t want to go, these places where we get squeezed, that we sometimes gain the greatest insights. In Buddhism, from the beginning, it’s important to understand that each of us is free to come and go. Even for a monk, a person is free to come and take ordination, they are free to leave the order. Having left the order they are free to return.

It’s important in practice that we understand that making mistakes is not such a big thing. In fact, if we are alive, if we are breathing, walking on this earth, we will make mistakes. Can you deal with that? Can you be okay with your mistakes? Can you say, “I am sorry"? Can you say, “I messed up”? Can you say, “I will try to do better”?

In the end we find that what is of greater value, greater weight, as we walk through this world, isn’t so much where we make that choice, what it is that we choose to do, who it is who we choose to be with, but rather, how completely we engage in that commitment. In practice we are encouraged to practise like our heads are on fire. This is a very graphic image.

When your head is on fire, you spare no expense to put it out. You don’t pat at it with one hand while you are doing something else. You don’t say, “Oh, I’ll deal with that in a minute.” Completely and fully it captures your entire attention. Just do it! But this encouragement isn’t something that we just talk about for Zen practice. This admonition is one for the rest of our lives.

If you are going to live, then LIVE! Live with your full attention. Wake up! Stop daydreaming! Each of us has as our capacity this fundamental wisdom, Buddha nature. The Buddha said, “Fundamentally, each of us is already awake but we don’t know it.” As we practice, whether we are engaged in this simple activity of breathing, just simply sitting here, whether we are walking through this world doing our work, being with the people that we love, do it like your head is on fire.

There is nowhere else to be. We can spend so much time vascillating, saying, “Well, if I commit to this thing, then I leave everything else out. If I commit to this person, then it means that all of these other wonderful people I can’t be with. If I commit to dedicating an act to a certain group of people, then I leave every other group of people out.” In the end, we find that all we have accomplished is being stingy with our very lives. We can’t save it. It doesn’t gain interest.

Each of us, in every situation that we find ourselves in, has got to live. So, maybe some of you are engaged in a spiritual practice, maybe it’s Zen, maybe it’s something else. Maybe some of you are engaged in getting an education. Maybe some of you are engaged in making a relationship with another person. Maybe some of you are engaged in a type of work.

Please, don’t waste your life. Earnestly consider if you’re really doing it. Shore up the energy and commit. Because in the end, it’s not that you are committing to this job, this education, this person, this religion or this spiritual practice; you are making a commitment to your life.

There’s another quote, from the Mumonkan, case one: if you can’t do this, if you can’t cut off the thinking mind (which thinks, “Well what about this and what about that.”), then you’re just going to live your life like a ghost, clinging to bushes and weeds.

This choice is yours to make, so please, make it.