Author Archives: Warren Lang

Day of Mindfulness With Jack Lawlor

The Buddha, Mindfulness and Love in our Lives
A Day of Mindfulness
Led by Jack Lawlor
Dharma teacher in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Date: Saturday, February 21, 2015
Time: 8:00 AM gather, 8:30 AM start, 3:30 PM end
Location: Simply Dunn, Downsville, Wisconsin (6 miles south of Menomonie)
Sponsored by: Red Cedar Buddha Sangha, Downsville Wisconsin

This mostly silent day of mindfulness will cultivate awareness and compassion and include walking and sitting meditation, a dharma talk, small group discussion and a mindful meal. Jack Lawlor , leading the Day of Mindfulness, was ordained by Ven. Thich Nhat Hahn as a Dharma Teacher in 1992 at the Plum Village monastery in France. Jack has been practicing consistently in organized Zen meditation groups since 1975, and leads Evanston, Illinois based Lakeside Buddha Sangha and regional retreats for communities of mindfulness in the upper Midwest.

Meditation instruction will be provided. There will also be an opportunity to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Please bring a bag lunch, meditation cushions or bench. Chairs are available. Space is limited. Registration fee is $25. Scholarships available. Please register by Mon., February 16.

For registration form and questions, please contact Red Cedar Buddha Sangha at 715 235 5686 or email warrenlang@charter.net.

The Heart Sutra – Thich Nhat Hanh Translation

The Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore

Avalokiteshvara
while practicing deeply with
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore,
suddenly discovered that
all of the five Skandhas are equally empty,
and with this realisation
he overcame all Ill-being.

“Listen Sariputra,
this Body itself is Emptiness
and Emptiness itself is this Body.
This Body is not other than Emptiness
and Emptiness is not other than this Body.
The same is true of Feelings,
Perceptions, Mental Formations,
and Consciousness.

“Listen Sariputra,
all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness;
their true nature is the nature of
no Birth no Death,
no Being no Non-being,
no Defilement no Purity,
no Increasing no Decreasing.

“That is why in Emptiness,
Body, Feelings, Perceptions,
Mental Formations and Consciousness
are not separate self entities.

The Eighteen Realms of Phenomena
which are the six Sense Organs,
the six Sense Objects,
and the six Consciousnesses
are also not separate self entities.

The Twelve Links of Interdependent Arising
and their Extinction
are also not separate self entities.
Ill-being, the Causes of Ill-being,
the End of Ill-being, the Path,
insight and attainment,
are also not separate self entities.

Whoever can see this
no longer needs anything to attain.

Bodhisattvas who practice
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
see no more obstacles in their mind,
and because there
are no more obstacles in their mind,
they can overcome all fear,
destroy all wrong perceptions
and realize Perfect Nirvana.

“All Buddhas in the past, present and future
by practicing
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
are all capable of attaining
Authentic and Perfect Enlightenment.

“Therefore Sariputra,
it should be known that
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore
is a Great Mantra,
the most illuminating mantra,
the highest mantra,
a mantra beyond compare,
the True Wisdom that has the power
to put an end to all kinds of suffering.
Therefore let us proclaim
a mantra to praise
the Insight that Brings Us to the Other Shore.

Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!
Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha!”

Heart Sutra Lecture One

Warren Lang

The Heart Sutra – Lecture One – 2 Nov. 2014 – Red Cedar Buddha Sangha

The Heart Sutra is one of most important Mahayana Buddhist texts, chanted and discussed in Mahayana centers world wide. As translator Red Pine says, “The Heart Sutra is Buddhism in a nutshell. It covers more of the Buddha’s teachings in a shorter span than any other scripture, and does so without being superficial or commonplace.”

The Heart Sutra is a teaching on Emptiness. But Emptiness points to our essential freedom. So, I would say that The Heart Sutra is a poem of True Freedom, freedom from suffering and confusion.

While it can be helpful to have explanations of a text such as The Heart Sutra to allow one an entrance into it, ultimately it is meant to point to that which is beyond explanations or concepts. My teacher, Steve Hagen, has said that when he first encountered The Heart Sutra, he would read it on the bus to and fro from work. Just that. Read it. Just take it in. Let it become part of you and open itself up to you.

In its early history, The Heart Sutra was known as a “dharani”, a kind of magical text to protect and comfort people. I have recited it to myself when I was feeling badly and it did bring me to a place of ease, of equanimity.

No one knows who authored The Heart Sutra, but it is thought to have originated in Southern India in the early centuries of the Common Era. Between 100 BCE and 100 CE a group of texts appeared called Prajnaparamita, that is, wisdom that goes beyond. They may have arisen to correct misconceptions some saw in the view of the Sarvastivadin school, a prominent sect at the time (though it no longer exists).

The Buddha taught that nothing has self-existence, that all phenomena exist only in relation to each other, interdependently—or, as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, interbeing. The Buddha taught that what we call the self like all other phenomena, has no substantial basis. To help people understand this, he taught that the self exists only as a combination of the five skandhas or aggregates: form, sensation, conception, inclination, perception or consciousness. They are the elements that together make up what we call a “self.” Form refers to the body and the senses; sensation refers to feelings that arise, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral; conception refers to our placing of our sense data into categories (cat, dog, house, etc.); inclination refers to what we are inclined to do in relation to our sense data (e.g., try to avoid something or try to grasp it, etc.); perception or consciousness refers to our basic awareness of a sense object and is classified according to the sense involved (e.g., visual consciousness, aural consciousness, etc.).

The Buddha taught that these ever-changing elements account for all of what we do or are as human beings. There is no “self” we can find beyond them. Belief in a self, the Buddha taught, is the root of our suffering. To see through the self is to free oneself from dukkha and be awake and free.

After the Buddha’s time, followers created what is called the Abhidharma, (the term means the “higher dharma” or “teachings about dharmas”). The Abhidharma broke down human experience into units called dharmas. Studying these dharmas and understanding their relationships would guide one toward nirvana.

The Sarvastivadins continued this tradition by categorizing their own set of 75 dharmas. However, the Sarvastivadins came to believe in the reality of these dharmas—that is, they believed the dharmas—including the five skandhas— were irreducible units of existence, much like early atomists who thought that the atom was the irreducible unit of matter. It is true, they taught, that all empirical phenomena are illusory, have no substance. However, the finest constituents that comprise these phenomena, the dharmas, do have substance.

The Heart Sutra, as all the literature of the Prajnaparamita—introduces Emptiness to refute the idea that anything—dharmas included—has self-existence. This is no mere philosophical matter. If there is anything we feel is permanent and we attach to it, we suffer. The Buddha’s entire teaching is aimed at pointing us toward liberation from suffering.

With that as background, let’s enter the sutra. First the title: Mahaprajnaparamita Hridaya Sutras. “Maha” means great beyond compare, Ultimate Reality.

“Prajna” can be broken down into “pra” which means “before” or “preceding” and “jna” meaning knowledge. So, prajna means that which is before knowing, a knowing beyond our concepts. The Mahayana schools focus on prajna or wisdom while previous Buddhist schools emphasized jnana or knowledge.

Paramita has two possible meanings: perfection or gone beyond, as to the to other shore, as in we live on the shore of samsara, confusion, delusion and the Buddha’s teachings are the raft to transport us to the other shore of nirvana.

Hridaya means heart, the essence, the core of something.

Sutra could be derived from a root meaning to sew and meaning a thread that holds things together (as in suture). Or it could be derived from a root meaning “wise saying”. It is usually applied to texts that are said to be the direct teaching of the Buddha.

So taken together, the title can be translated as The Great Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra or the Great Heart of the Wisdom of the Other Shore Sutra. It can also suggest that the Perfection of Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Other Shore, activates the heart, moves it to compassion for all beings.

The Sutra begins with Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion. The name Avalokiteshvara means one who hears the cries of the world. Avalokit. is often depicted as having a thousand arms with an eye on each hand of those arms, ready to see, hear, and reach out and help all those who suffer. (Marion and I saw statues of Aval. in Vietnam.) He (later she in China and Japan) is the embodiment of the quality of great, unconditional compassion. Fa-tsang says about Avalokiteshvara:

This name is given to someone who has the power to see without being obstructed by concepts or objects and whose power to see how to aid those who hope to be rescued is also unobstructed. The first explains his wisdom, the second his compassion.” (Red Pine, p. 48)

It is important to note that, as Fa-tsang says, Compassion and wisdom are not separate. By having the embodiment of great compassion speak about wisdom, the Heart Sutra points to the truth that compassion and wisdom arise together—great compassion is wise; great wisdom is compassionate.

A bodhisattva is an awakened being (Bodhi=awake, sattva= being) who forgoes full entry into nirvana to remain in the world until all beings are enlightened.

So, Avalokiteshvara is “practicing deeply the Perfection of Wisdom.” What does it mean to practice the Perfection of Wisdom? It means, simply, to be present moment to moment as we practice in our sitting meditation or in any other moments in our lives when we are truly present. The Perfection of Wisdom, the Wisdom of the Other Shore, is true seeing, experiencing Here and Now Reality directly, beyond words and concepts.

Fa-tsang, an 8th c. commentator on The Heart Sutra says,

Prajna is the substance and means ‘wisdom,’ which is the spiritual awakening to the subtlest mysteries and the wondrous realization of the true source. Paramita is the function and means ‘to reach the other shore,’ which is to use this marvelous wisdom to transform sansara until one reaches completely beyond it to the realm of true emptiness. (Red Pine, 54)

Another 8th c. commentator, Chih-shen says, “To practice means to proceed according to the principle of suchness thought after thought without stopping for a moment” (Red Pine, 55). As Dogen says, “If you want to attain Suchness, you should practice Suchness without delay.”

So, Avalokiteshvara is doing what we do when do our sitting meditation. He then sees that “all five skandhas are empty”. TNH talks about mindfulness and concentration bringing about insight. Aval., through his focused practiced of mindfulness has a deep insight: “all five skandhas are empty.”

It is important to note that Avalokiteshvara doesn’t reach his insight through philosophical analysis, but rather through insight that arises from practice. So, The Heart Sutra begins not by arguing logically with the Sarvastivadins, but by pointing to direct experience beyond concepts as the origin of the insights that populate this sutra.

Aval., through his deep insight, has “perceived” or “discovered” that “all five skandhas are Empty.” The Heart Sutra is primarily a disquisition on Emptiness. The term “Emptiness” in Buddhism, does not mean “nothingness”. As TNH says in his commentary on The Heart Sutra, when you say empty, you need to ask, “Empty of what?” The answer is empty of self-existence. Empty of enduring substance.

TNH goes on to talk about a cup that has no water in it. We say that the cup is empty. But, though it is empty of water, it is full of air. Because we are empty of self-existence, we are “full” of everything. We don’t exist as isolated, separate beings but we “Interare” with all beings. The condition for our existence is all other beings. The condition for the existence of all other beings is us.

This is not small matter. If we truly “see” this—not just accept it intellectually—we will, just like Avalokiteshvara, be “saved from all suffering and distress,” “overcome ill-being.” This realization is complete mental freedom. We are freed of the burden of self and find ourselves swimming in the sea of all beings.

Next, Avalokiteshvara addresses Shariputra. Shariputra was one of the original disciples of the Buddha, known for his wisdom. If he is known to be wise, why is Aval. addressing him, in effect, instructing him?

There is a historical reason for Shariputra to enter the poem in this way. The Sarvastivadins considered Shariputra to be the author of the Abhidharma texts that they held to as the basis of their understanding. So, by instructing Shariputra, The Heart Sutra sends the message that the basic understanding of the Sarvastivadins—that dharmas are real, have self-existence—is faulty, that Shariputra’s understanding is incomplete, that he has not brought wisdom to its perfection.

Aval. then points out to Shariputra that “form does not differ from Emptiness.” This is one of the most famous and fundamental formulations of Mahayana Buddhism. “Form”, the first of the five skandhas, is the same as Emptiness. Or, in TNH’s version, “The Body itself is Emptiness,” What an astounding statement. The Sutra continues: “Emptiness does not differ from form” (in TNH, “Emptiness itself is the Body”).

The first statement—that form is Emptiness—tells us that form is not separable from the indivisible Whole; there are no entirely separate entities. In fact, form is none other than this indivisible Reality.

Yet we can’t dismiss form or the body. The next statement is that “Emptiness does not differ from form.” So, form does “exist” but only as Emptiness. We can’t say, then, that form does exist or that it doesn’t exist. As my teacher has often said, it’s clear that something is happening. Reality is one, indivisible on the one hand, yet we can’t ignore the appearance of difference. This is a seeming paradox. Yet, we see with the eyes of a Buddha, it is clear. The nature of Reality cannot be put into a concept.

TNH gives the example of a piece of paper. TNH says that when he looks at the piece of paper he sees clouds, trees, earth. The paper, he says, is made of non-paper elements. “Paper” is just a convenient designation we put on this object. There is not such thing as “paper”. The paper is made of wood and water. But the paper also wouldn’t exist without the lumberjack who cut down the tree or the machines that process the wood or the people who run the machines. And these people wouldn’t exist without their parents and grandparents and so on until the entire universe is seen as part of the paper. Form is Emptiness. Emptiness is Form.

These statements point to the error in the formulations of the Sarvastivadins, but more importantly they point us toward Truth, Freedom, Awakenness.

Next, the Sutra says that the same is true of the other four skandhas. In other words, you can also say “sensation does not differ from Emptiness and Emptiness does not differ from sensation” and so on through the rest of the skandhas.

So, Avalokiteshvara cleanses our mental slate from anything to hold onto, any tiny bit of “self” to cling to.

The Heart Sutra

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
When practicing deeply the Perfection of Wisdom
Perceived that all five skandhas are Empty
And was saved from all suff’ring and distress.

“O Shariputra, form does not differ from Emptiness;
Emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is Emptiness;
That which is Emptiness, form.
The same is true of sensations, conceptions,
inclinations, perception.

O Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with Emptiness;
They do not appear nor disappear,
Are not tainted nor pure,
Do not increase nor decrease.

Therefore in Emptiness, no form,
No sensations, no conceptions, no inclinations, no
perception;
No eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body,
no mind;
No color, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch,
no object of mind;
No realm of eyes and so forth until no realm of
mind-consciousness;

No ignorance and also no extinction of it, and so
forth until no old age and death and also no
extinction of them;
No suff’ring, no origination, no stopping, no path;
No cognition, also no attainment.
With nothing to attain,
The bodhisattva depends on the Perfection of Wisdom
And the mind is no hindrance.
Without any hindrance, no fears exist;
Far apart from every perverted view the bodhisattva
dwells in Nirvana.

All Buddhas, past, present, and future, depend on
the Perfection of Wisdom,
And attain unsurpassed, complete, perfect
Enlightenment.

Therefore know the Perfection of Wisdom
Is the great transcendent mantra,
Is the great bright mantra,
Is the utmost mantra,
Is the supreme mantra,
Which is able to relieve all suff’ring
And is true, not false.
So proclaim the Perfection of Wisdom mantra,
Proclaim the mantra that says:
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate! Bodhi! Svaha!”

Happiness – talk by Chick Lindsay, 19 Oct. 2014

 

Part I ‘Ezra Bayda on Happiness’
Part 2 Discourse on Youth and Happiness
Discourse on Happiness

Part I ‘Ezra Bayda on Happiness’
Start†with†Happiness†Discourse

‘Happiness†seldom†alights†upon†the†desire†that†calls†for†it’…†Marcel Proust†

My understanding is that Proust was known for his hypersensitivity to pollen allergies, but more importantly, perhaps he is best known for his sensitivities and reflections on the passage of time.

Perhaps Proust could be corrected to say that ‘ Happiness never alights upon the desire that calls for it.” What strikes me about this passage is that his statement is another way of noticing that we are mistaken if we believe we can summon forth the conditions to bring about our happiness.

Ezra Bayda The Authentic Life

Here is a portion of what Ezra Bayda says about happiness:  One behavior
that always increases our suffering is our ‘expectation’ that we be happy; he calls this the ‘happiness problem’ saying the source of much suffering is that “we†firmly†believe†we†should†be†happy.” Then he uses the word ‘entitlement’… that really hit home, I know how quickly I go to anger and discomfort when things are not as I expected them to be… when things are as they are.

Let’s be reminded that whatever arises from moment to moment, whatever we judge to be good or bad, is fodder for realizing the way — as opportunities to see things as they are, and to see how ‘desire’ works in our mind’.

I woke up thinking about the time I sacrificed yesterday to try to implement a tech-based learning tool. I spent a lot of time castigating myself for the hours I worked on the task. After thinking I had ‘wasted’ precious time, I then realized that when I labeled time as ‘wasted’, and connected to the feeling of regret …†this reaction was akin to shooting the second arrow.

Had I been successful in making the time work to my desired outcome, I may have had a different reaction and attitude. But as it was, I felt unhappy, disappointed, exasperated—annoyed with the sense of having burned too much time. With further insight, I remembered Ezra Bayda’s reflection that I, as is conditioned, I have a sense of entitlement to having things ‘go my way’, of having things go as we plan them, or go ‘as we imagine they should go’. This is the unhealthy sense of entitlement to outcomes as we imagine them. This is part of the significance of Warren’s oft repeated phrase “weeds flourish despite our loathing, flowers fall in our grasping.” When weeds flourish despite our loathing, we feel ripped off. We think something is wrong. …. But really… things are as they are.

All of which reminds us that our real happiness can never depend on external conditions…conditions we don’t have any control over.

We’ve repeated this refrain from one of the Mindfulness trainings countless times: “Happiness†does†not†depend†on†external†conditions.” Happiness does not depend on controlling†outer conditions.

Too often, I have a felt sense of entitlement when living life amidst all its stressors and demands and suffering, that I am entitled to happiness now, well, at least after I do all that work, after I do something for you. After I do all this preparation for…preparing for whatever needs to be done. Maybe I expect a pay-back in happiness. … I expect things to be different than they are.

Part 2 Discourse on Youth and Happiness

I want to share a sutra I found on a webpage offered by a Montreal Sangha. The sutra offers a teaching on how the link between desire and happiness is misunderstood, and leads to unfortunate consequences for us all. LINK

Discourse on Youth and Happiness

{Near the Bamboo Forest Monastery, in the time of Buddha} there was a bhikshu who, in the very early morning, came to the banks of the river, took off his upper robe and left it on the bank, and went down to the river to bathe. After bathing, he came out of the river, waited until his body was dry, and then put on his upper robe. At that time a goddess appeared, whose body, surrounded by light, lit up the entire bank of the river.

The goddess said to the bhikshu, “Venerable, you’ve recently become a monk. Your hair is still black; you are very young. At this time in your life, shouldn’t you be perfumed with oils, adorned with gems and fragrant flowers, enjoying the five kind of sensual desire? Why have you abandoned your loved ones and turned your back on the worldly life, living alone? You’ve shaved your hair and beard, donned the monk’s robe, and placed your faith in monastic practice. Why have you abandoned the pleasures of this moment to seek pleasures in a distant future?”

The bhikshu replied, “I have not abandoned the present moment in order to seek pleasures in a distant future. I have abandoned pleasures that are untimely for the deepest happiness of this moment.”

The goddess asked, “What do you mean?”

And the bhikshu replied, “The World-Honored One has taught: in the joy
associated with sensual desire there is little sweetness and much bitterness, tiny benefits, and a great potential to lead to disaster. Now, as I dwell in the Dharma that is available here and now, I’ve given up the burning fire of afflictions. The Dharma is available here and now. It is outside of time, and it always invites us to come and see it. It is to be realized and experienced by each of us for ourselves. That is what is meant by abandoning untimely pleasures in order to arrive at the deepest happiness of the present moment.”

The goddess asked the bhikshu again, “Why does the World-Honored One say that in the untimely pleasure of sensual desire there is little sweetness and much bitterness, [and] its benefit is tiny but its potential to lead to disaster is great? Why does he say that if we dwell in the Dharma that is available here and now we are able to give up the flames of the afflictions that burn us? Why does he say that this Dharma belongs to the present moment, is outside of time, always invites us to come and see it, is available here and now, and is realized and experienced by each of us for ourselves?”

The bhikshu says he is too young to answer this, so he suggests they go see the Buddha.  (So they goto  see the Buddha.)

The World-Honored One immediately offered this gatha:

Beings produce wrong perceptions
concerning objects of desire.
That is why they are caught in desire.
Because they do not know what desire really is,
they proceed on the path to Death.

The Buddha then asked the goddess, “Do you understand this gatha? If not, please say so.

The goddess addressed the Buddha, “I have not understood, World-Honored One. I have not understood, Well-Gone One.”

So the Buddha recited another gatha for the goddess:

When you know the true nature of desire,
the desiring mind will not be born.
When there is no desire, and no perception based on it,
at that time, no one is able to tempt you.

Then Buddha asked the goddess, “Have you understood this gatha? If not, please say so.”

The goddess addressed the Buddha: “I have not understood, World-Honored One. I have not understood, Well-Gone One.” So the Buddha recited another gatha for the goddess:

If you think you are greater, less than, or equal,
you cause dissension.
When those three complexes have ended,
nothing can agitate your mind.

Then Buddha asked the goddess, “Have you understood this gatha? If not, please say so.”

The goddess addressed the Buddha, “I have not understood, World-Honored One. I have not understood, Well-Gone One.”

So the Buddha recited another gatha for the goddess:

Ending desire, overcoming the three complexes,
our mind is stilled, we have nothing to long for.
We lay aside all affliction and sorrow,
in this life and in lives to come.

Then Buddha asked the goddess, “Have you understood this gatha? If not, please say so.”

The goddess addressed the Buddha, “I have understood, World-Honored One. I have understood, Well-Gone One.”

Samiddhi Sutta, Samyukta Agama 1078

(Corresponds to Samyutta Nikaya 1.20. Also Taisho 99)

When talk gets too philosophical
I vow with all beings
To recall that challenge of Buddha:
What is life? What is death? What is this?
–Robert Aitken

Discourse on Happiness

 

Red Cedar Buddha Sangha Fall/Winter Schedule

RED CEDAR BUDDHA SANGHA CALENDAR

 FALL / WINTER 2014-2015

OCTOBER

Oct. 5 – Five Mindfulness Trainings

Oct. 12 – Fall Tea Ceremony – Meditation followed by Tea Ceremony – Please bring a poem, story, song to share

Oct. 19 – Dharma Talk – Chick

*SAT. Oct. 25 – 2:00- 4:30 PM Norm Randolph, Dharma Field, Visiting Teacher

Oct. 26 – no meeting

NOVEMBER

Nov. 2 – Heart Sutra – Warren (first in a series of three talks exploring this powerful teaching)

Nov. 9 – Day of Mindfulness – 8:00 am – 3:30 pm (details to follow)

Nov. 16 – Mindful Meal

Nov. 23 – Heart Sutra – Warren

Nov. 30 – by agreement via email

 

DECEMBER 

*WED. Dec. 3, 6 pm – Dharma book sharing & potluck at Lang’s

Dec. 7 – Dharma Talk – Marion

Dec. 14 –Heart Sutra – Warren

Dec. 21 – Winter Solstice Tea Ceremony – Meditation followed by Tea Ceremony – Please bring a poem, story, song to share

Dec. 28 – by agreement via email

JANUARY

Jan. 4 – New Year Celebration (Candlelight Intention Ceremony and pot luck meal .

Jan. 11 – Dharma talk – 4 Noble Truths – Warren

*WED. Jan. 14 – Sangha evaluation and planning, 7 pm, Lang’s

Jan. 18 – Dharma talk – Marion – 4 Noble Truths

Jan. 25 – Five Mindfulness Trainings – led by a sangha member


FEBRUARY

Saturday, February 21- Save the Date

Day of Mindfulness led by Jack Lawlor a Dharma Teacher in the tradition of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and leader of Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, IL

There will be an opportunity to take the vow of the Five Mindfulness Trainings and if you wish, to receive a dharma name.

 

 

 

Dharma Talk: Just Sit Down

Warren Lang

Just Sit Down

 One of my favorite Zen stories concerns a monk who is tired of the rigors of monastic practice and wants out of the monastery. He goes to the teacher and this dialogue ensues:

“I can’t take this anymore. I want out.”

The master said, “Okay, then leave.”

He started for the door, and the master said, “That’s not your door.”

“Oh. Sorry.” The fellow looked around and spotted another door. As he headed for it, the master said, “That’s not your door.”

“Oh!” He looked around for another door, and as he headed for that one, the master said, “That’s not your door!”

Bewildered and exasperated, the poor fellow said, “What do you mean? There’s no other door. You told me I could leave, but there’s no door I can leave by.”

“If there’s no door you can leave by,” said the master, “then sit down.”

The master isn’t playing games with the monk. The master is pointing to something deeper, something basic about our lives: there’s no way out. Though the monk could leave the monastery, he can’t leave his life. He can’t always avoid what he finds unpleasant; nor can he always have what he finds pleasant. Life, inevitably presents us with things we don’t like as well as things we do. Dogen says, “Flowers fall amid our longing; weeds flourish in our loathing.”

There are no doors, no exits out of Reality. Years ago, I remember there was a musical called “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.’’ I also remember someone saying, “There are no timeouts in the universe.” There are times all of us would like to “get off” the world or take a timeout. But life simply doesn’t work that way. As the title of a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us, “Wherever You Go, There You Are.”

If you lose your job, at that moment, there you are.  If you’re stuck in traffic, there you are. Whatever is happening is happening. The present moment is as it is. You can’t change it or escape from it, no matter what you do. Reb Anderson says, “Once we realize that there is no alternative to the present moment, we are on the path to Buddhahood.”

Reality is stubbornly before us no matter how much we want out, no matter how wealthy or powerful we are, no matter what level of spiritual development we attain. If you recall the life of the Buddha, on his search for a way out of suffering, he studied with many of the teachers of the day and achieved very high spiritual states. But those didn’t satisfy him. No matter what lofty spiritual realms he visited, he always came back to the suffering of his life. Wherever you go, there you are.

Of course, our minds are such that we try very hard to escape. We distract ourselves with TV, the internet, video games; our minds go over and over situations, regretting what we wished we hadn’t done, worrying about what will happen, and on and on. We have this belief that somehow, some way, we can “beat the odds” and win the jackpot of a trouble-free life.

But just like the monk in the story, we cannot leave. Ultimately, we are still faced with the realities of our lives. No matter how hard we try to avoid them, we are still faced with life’s ups and downs. Moment to moment we are in our lives.

Besides, do we ever really know whether what happens is good or bad? If we lose our job, might we get a better one? If a spouse leaves us, might we start to develop our independence? There’s a well-known story about a farmer which speaks to this point: [story of farmer and neighbor]

We project futures—either positive ones or negative ones—and believe in our own projections. So, we will either worry about or joyfully anticipate something that may or may not happen.

Recently, I had a door handle come off my car. I took it to my auto repair people and they fixed it. When I got it back, however, the automated locking system no longer worked. When I discovered this problem, it was too late to go back to the repair place. This gave me a whole evening to fret.   What had the repair people done? Had they broken something? Would they take responsibility? Would it cost me a fortune to get it fixed? I did my best to let go of these worries.

The next day I took the car back in. They discovered the problem: a blown fuse. They fixed it for free.

My guess would be that nine out of ten times, what we worry about or fear never comes to be.

So, if we can’t escape what is, what are we to do? We should just sit down. “Sit down” can refer to sitting meditation, zazen. So the teacher is telling the monk to continue his practice. And what is our practice? Paying attention. When we do zazen, we follow our breath and let thoughts and feelings come and go. When we forget our breath, we come back to it, return to awareness. Or we might do the practice of shikan taza, just sitting, coming back time and again to awareness. Literally, just sitting.

Zazen, is stopping and taking an honest look at what’s going on in our minds without avoidance, grasping, or judgment.   But zazen isn’t limited to the cushion. Dogen says, “Sanzen has nothing whatever to do with sitting or lying down.” Practice means paying attention, being mindful every moment whether we’re sitting, standing, lying down, talking, working at our job. Just as in formal sitting, when we get lost in thought, we come back to whatever we’re doing whether it’s washing the dishes, talking to a friend, solving a problem—we just return. In fact, what we call “practice” is not some technique, an overlay on top of our lives; it’s actually living our lives fully and wholly.

Our usual way of living—believing our thoughts are reality—is actually putting an overlay on our lives. We miss experiencing what is in front of us and, without even being aware of it, we overlay our thoughts and feelings, our likes and dislikes on top of actual experience.

We’re always in a struggle with experience because we always want it to be a certain way, our way. This struggle is what the Buddha called “dukkha”, basic dissatisfaction, suffering, the First Noble Truth. What would it be like to let go of all our defenses and just be with what is?

What if you believed you had a pet unicorn and you imagined having it on a leash and taking it around town with you? What if you showed it off to people? How would people react? Some might go along with the illusion to humor you or get rid of you. Others might deny there was a unicorn or even make fun of you. How would you react? You might get angry, hurt, perhaps even seek revenge on others who you saw as offending you. In any case, it would be a constant struggle.

This is how it is with us. We all take around our imaginary unicorns and want them to be accepted. How would seeing through this illusion feel? Would you be relieved?

On the other hand, what we really “have” (actually are), we fail to recognize or we think is unreal—our buddha nature. We all already are whole and sane and clear. We lack nothing. But we ignore this wholeness and continue to go with our pet unicorns.

Consider the story of Enyadatta:

Enyadatta was  a princess.  One day–for unexplained reasons–she didn’t see her head in the mirror.  She panicked and ran around crying “I’ve lost my head!  I’ve lost my head!”  Her friends were afraid she would harm herself, so they took her and tied her to a pillar in her house.  They spoke to her, trying to convince her that her head was there.  Enyadatta half-believed them and began to calm down. Finally, one friend gave her a clout on the head saying, “There’s your head!”  Enyadatta was overjoyed and ran around proclaiming, “I have a head!  I have a head.”

It’s crazy to think we don’t have a head. It’s crazy to think we don’t have a buddha-nature.   We must have some sense of this or we wouldn’t stick with the practice at all. Doing formal zazen, we can more easily touch into this, return to our True Selves and begin to truly see.

How would it look to drop our war with life? Karen Maezen Miller says every war is with ourselves and advises us to “lose all wars,” drop our defenses, let the world in. Rather than feel defenseless and frightened, we would realize that we and the world are not separate. We would realize that we “Interare”, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, with all beings. Dogen tells us that,

To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be confirmed by all beings.

“Confirmed by all beings.” We change from believing ourselves as separate walled off beings—we are in “here”; everything else is “out there”—to seeing that we live the life of all beings. Our minds and our hearts open up; there’s no longer any reason to close them. It would be as if we lived our lives in a house shuttered from sunlight, afraid to open the shutters or even believing that we weren’t able to. Then, one day, the shutters open and the sun streams in; we hear birds sing and see the leaves flutter in the breeze.   We realize that there’s never been shutters or even a house at all. What joy and contentment we would feel!

Of course, this doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be times that would be painful. All is impermanent. We and our loved ones are subject to old age, sickness, and death. Things will go very badly for us at times. But if we truly see, we recognize that the hard times as well as the good times will pass, but our True Selves remain.

A story about the Zen ancestor Hakuin is a wonderful example of awakened action in the midst of difficulty:

Hakuin, was a Zen teacher known for his purity.  The parents of a girl living nearby found that the girl was pregnant.  They demanded to know who the father was.  The girl named Hakuin.  The angry parents sought out Hakuin and berated him.  His only reply was “Is that so?”

When the child was born, it was brought to Hakuin to care for.  By this time he had lost his reputation.  Nonetheless, he took good care of the child.  After a year, the girl finally confessed that the father was actually a young man who worked in the fish market.

The parents went to Hakuin, apologized and took the child back.  All Hakuin said was “Is that so?”

Hakuin didn’t hesitate to take the baby even though he knew that the girl was lying and that his reputation would suffer. Not only does he take the child, but takes good care of it. Equally, when the girl confesses, he readily yields the child. He never argues or shows resentment. His mind is clear and his heart is open. All he says is, “Is that so?”, merely recognizing the situation without judging or criticizing. There’s no indication that Hakuin suffered from his situation. The story suggests he was peaceful, content. Would we be so open-hearted?

All Hakuin was doing was just sitting down in the situation. Just being present. This is all that is required of us. Just sit down. In actuality, we are always “just sitting.” Life seems to be whirling around us at all times. From the point of view of our usual reality, relative reality, that is indeed what is happening. But from the point of view of our True Selves, nothing ever changes. Everything is always “thus”. We are always “at rest.” “Everywhere you go, there you are.”

Nonetheless, we are required to act. Not acting is just another action. But when we act, we should act out of mindfulness not out of self-centered motivations. We will no doubt do so imperfectly. But we need to make the effort. Right Effort, part of the Eight-fold Path, is ultimately the effort to be awake moment to moment to moment. To act out of awakeness is to act out of the Whole, rather than out of our partial views.

If there’s an accident scene and the parties are giving testimony to the police, the people driving the cars will only have a partial view. If someone, however, saw the accident unfold from a distance above, they would be able to give a view that would take in the whole picture.

Simple practices help us on our path. Sitting meditation is basic. It is a wonderful opportunity to do nothing but pay attention and to find out what that means. Karen Maezen Miller calls it the courage to do nothing.

But the Buddha, in the Eightfold Path, also prescribes Right Action, Speech, and Livelihood.   I decided, a few years ago, to make a point of really listening to whoever was speaking to me. Right listening is part of Right Speech. When I listen, I make the effort to just listen. All sorts of replies, judgments arise, but I try to come back to what that person is saying. Isn’t it as rude to not pay attention to someone in your mind as it is to interrupt or stare at your smart phone?

I have also found the practice of mindful eating beneficial. When you eat, just eat. Attend to the tastes, smells, textures, sight of the food you are taking in. In our sangha , we have a silent, mindful meal about once a month. Food never tasted so good.

Those are just two specific practices, I have especially worked on. But whatever I do, I try to be mindful. I fail more often than I succeed, but I go on making the effort. Some days I feel an ease with whatever or whoever shows up. I feel as if I am operating out of an open, compassionate place. Other days, I can feel down and have a hard time seeing beyond my gloom. I know that the darkness will pass, but find it difficult to stay with it. Either way, it’s my life and I have to just sit down in it.

This may sound like a kind of resignation: “Yes, that’s the way it is. I have to go through it.” But, in fact, great happiness and peace arise when we face our lives and cease from torturing ourselves by trying to get things the way we want them. Thich Nhat Hanh says we “have more than enough conditions to be happy.” We have the blue sky and clouds, green leaves, flowers, the white cover of snow in winter; we have the wonder of our bodies functioning so beautifully without our conscious effort; we have our breath, that slender thread that keeps us alive.

The Buddha told the parable of the man being chased by a tiger. The man comes to a cliff and has to swing down holding onto a vine to prevent himself from falling. Below he sees another tiger; two mice gnaw away the vine that he’s holding to. He sees a luscious strawberry within reach. He plucks the strawberry. How good it tasted.

So, no matter where you are and what you’re doing, just sit down. Just be present to what is. Likes, dislikes, judgments, fears will arise. Recognize them for what they are: phantoms, clouds passing in a windy sky. Forget about finding a way out. It’s never your door. Once you realize that, you will never leave your seat.

I’d like to close with a poem by Katagiri Roshi that speaks to this kind of effort:

From my human eyes,

I feel it’s really impossible to become a Buddha.

But this “I”, regarding what the Buddha does,

Vows to practice,

To aspire,

To be resolute,

And tells myself, “Yes, I will.”

Just practice right here and now,

And achieve continuity,

Endlessly,

Forever.

This is living in vow.

Herein is one’s peaceful life found.

 

 

Visiting Teacher Oct. 25

Norm Randolph, Senior Teacher at Dharma Field Zen Center, will be visiting Red Cedar Buddha Sangha to give a talk on Saturday, Oct. 25, 2:00 pm.  We will gather at 1:45 and have a half hour sitting meditation before the talk.

All are welcome.  No meditation experience required.  Instruction provided.

Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage

Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage
(Soan No Gin or Soanka)

I’ve built a grass hut where there’s nothing of value.
After eating, I relax and enjoy a nap.

When it was completed, fresh weeds appeared.
Now it’s been lived in covered by weeds.

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
Not stuck to inside, outside, or in between.

Places worldly people live, he doesn’t live.
Realms worldly people love, he doesn’t love.

Though the hut is small, it includes the entire world.
In ten square feet, an old man illumines forms and their nature.

A Great Vehicle bodhisattva trusts without doubt.
The middling or lowly can’t help wondering;

Will this hut perish or not?
Perishable or not, the original master is present.

He does not dwell south or north, east or west.
Firmly based on steadiness, it can’t be surpassed.

A shining window below the green pines—
Jade palaces or vermillion towers can’t compare with it.

Just sitting with head covered all things are at rest.
Thus, this mountain monk doesn’t understand at all.

Living here he no longer works to get free.
Who would proudly arrange seats, trying to entice guests?

Turn around the light to shine within, then just return.
The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.

Meet the ancestral teachers, be familiar with their instruction,
Bind grasses to build a hut and don’t give up.

Let go of hundreds of years and relax completely.
Open your hands and walk, innocent.

Thousands of words, myriad interpretations,
Are only to free you from obstructions.

If you want to know the undying person in the hut,
Don’t separate from the skin bag here and now.

—Shiht’ou (700-790 CE)

 

Home Leaving, Home Coming

Reading “Buddhism Plain and Simple” the other day, I was struck anew by the story of the Buddha’s life.  You might recall that the Buddha was the son of the king of a small kingdom in northeast India, but gave up a life of royal privilege when he became aware that his wealth and pleasure could not protect him from old age, illness, and death.  Reading the story this time, I realized that the Buddha’s insight into the human condition must have been a deep one to motivate him to give up his very pleasant life.

Contemplating this story, I became aware for the first time, that the story of the Buddha’s home leaving actually applies to my life as well.  While I am not the son of a ruler, compared to many—maybe most—people in the world and, perhaps, even compared to the life the Buddha led, I do lead a life of luxury.  I don’t have human servants, but I do have technological ones: lighting, heating, computers, radio, TV, movies, automobiles, easy access to food and so on.

Do I see as deeply as the Buddha did that all these luxuries are never going to fully satisfy, that I need to face the realities of illness, old age, and death?  Do I have the depth of insight necessary to give up my attachment to the way I am able to live?

While I have been practicing according to the buddha-dharma for a long time, I can see now, how I attached I am to the fleeting pleasures of my life—and, ultimately, to my idea of my self.  So often I ignore the realities of my life and mindlessly allow my mental habits take over.  If I’m feeling uneasy, maybe I should do a crossword or watch a basketball game or check my email or maybe indulge in some good old-fashioned self-pity or criticism.

Now, let me back up a minute.  I don’t mean to say that enjoying oneself with friends, family, a good movie or book, going to a party, having a good meal—even watching the next episode of Downton Abbey—are bad and to be discarded.  The Buddha himself discovered that denying all sense pleasures—whether—asceticism—is extreme, harsh and futile.  It’s just the other side of the coin of the equally futile indulging in sense pleasures.

The key here is attachment and our mental habits.  If we hold to these pleasures believing that they will ultimately bring satisfaction, then that is dukkha, suffering, dissatisfaction.

To develop the insight of impermanence, we need to mindfully examine our lives.  In doing so, and understanding the truth of impermanence, we will see for ourselves that pleasures—and pains— continually arise and cease  and we will naturally stop attaching to them.  We can enjoy them as they pass.  As William Blake wrote:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun  rise.

It’s often said that we should practice as if our hair were on fire.  The Buddha recognized the urgency of the problem of suffering, that his “hair was on fire.”  I know now that I need to take a deeper look at life, to mindfully examine what arises for me and begin to see more clearly for myself the truth of  impermanence.  Only by making this insight my own, will I be able to “leave home” as the Buddha did and discover the source of true happiness within.

Though the Buddha physically left home to discover Truth, we don’t have to physically leave our homes and way of life to discover Truth. We do, however, need to leave the false “home” of our all too comfortable mental habits of avoidance, denial, and attachment.  By doing so, we actually find our True Home, our True Selves which we have never been apart from and which is our only solid source of ease, freedom, and happiness.