Posts Tagged ‘mondo’


I was raised with the ideal to be no Respecter of Persons. That is, don’t put somebody to be higher or lower than anybody else, but to treat all human beings as equally valuable.

Zen has that ideal, too:

Keichu was a great Zen teacher. He was the head of a cathedral in Kyoto, called Tofuku.

The first time the Governor went to visit him, he gave his calling card with Keichu’s attendant and asked to be announced. Keichu took one look at the words “Kitagaki, Governor of Kyoto”, and handed the card back to the attendant. “I have no business with anybody like that, tell him to leave.”

After the attendant returned with the message, the Governor apologized for his error. He scratched out his title from the card, and asked the attendant to try again.

On receiving the card again, Keichu brightened. “Ah, that Kitagaki! Yes, I’d like to see him, bring him in!”


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While pursuing goals, it’s important we keep our focus on what we hope to enjoy and experience when (and as) we achieve them. Otherwise, the Idea of the goals can take over, distracting us from what we really seek.

Hakuin was a master of zen, who tried to keep his students focused more on the practice of zen than the idea of zen. Meaning, getting their minds undistracted from the pursuit of something elusive, so they may more keenly observe what was right before them.

To remind them, he liked to tell them about the old woman in the village who owned a tea shop. She was a master of the Tea Ceremony, and understood Zen with her whole self.

Naturally, each of his students eventually went down to the village to see her for themselves. And each time, the old woman recognized them coming, and could tell with just one look whether they came seeking to share her Tea Ceremony, or to ask her to explain her thoughts on Zen.

Compassionately, she had resolved to give each student what they sought. Those who came for tea, she graciously hosted with a truly enlightening experience of peace and attentiveness. Those who came for a teaching, she hid behind the door then surprised them with a sharp whack from her fire poker, beating at them until they fled.

Of all Hakuin’s students, only one in ten enjoyed the Tea.

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While I’m thinking about identity, I wanted to share a Zen anecdote I rediscovered recently.

Fishy Zen

While Chuang-Tzu was walking along a river with a friend, he noticed the fish were swimming about in the clear water. After watching them a few moments, he remarked, “Those fish are having such fun, enjoying themselves in the water!”

His friend scoffed, “You are not a fish, you couldn’t possibly know whether they’re enjoying themselves.”

Chuang-Tzu shrugged back at his companion. “You are not me. How do you know I can’t know they’re enjoying themselves?”

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I was trying to think of a truth that is very difficult to embrace.

What came to me is, “This is all there is.”

I started to think about how that can be a fear, accepting that this present moment is all we really have.  The feeling that accepting this means settling for less than we would want things to be in the future, as opposed to merely dropping our resistance to observing what’s in our present.

I also thought about the idea of what we see, hear, feel, and so on may be the sum total of existence. That is, the perception that there’s nothing beyond these senses of any substance or meaning. And objectively speaking, that possibility really needs to be considered and brought to heart. If we’re forced to stop and accept that our physical life holds such weight, it places a huge responsibility on us to make the most of it. We can’t shrug off that responsibility figuring that there’s better things later we just have to hold out for. There’s a real value to that.

I then realized a third and even more difficult way to embrace that truth. Who, what and where we are: it’s all interconnected. Time, space, the resonance of matter that forms the particles we are now experiencing as our breathing lungs and beating hearts… there’s no hard barrier once you start to follow the threads. On the vast continuum of Indra’s Net, we are holding the space of just one of those dewdrops, reflecting every other bejeweled node on the net.

In this moment, we hold a connection to every other moment.

In this space, we resonate echos of every other space.

In this experience, we enjoy a reflection of all there is.

Those can be easy things to throw out there as words and concepts, but harder to make “feel real” to our own psyche. And if we do let it “feel real”, what does that mean? What potentials are there for us in the here and now? What responsibility do we have to discover and use them?

If this is all there is, what are we obliged to make of it?

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Today, I practiced more at keeping up the discipline of a relaxed and aware mindset. I was feeling a downturn again, and was struggling with things that were keeping me from even starting what I’d planned to have completed first thing in the morning. I kept reminding myself to not think like someone who’s overwhelmed, but like someone who is mindful of the limitations of the day and staying on pace to overcome them.

I had help in this by a story I heard last night.

The Shopkeeper

In feudal Japan, life wasn’t so good to a simple shopkeeper. He struggled to make ends meet, a struggle made harder by taxes, bandits, or even samurai taking some or all of what he and his customers needed to get through the month. The life of a peasant wasn’t worth much, and the life of a shopkeeper wasn’t any different.

Finally, this shopkeeper decided he didn’t want to be such easy prey, particularly for the bandits. So he began training with a master in the martial arts. Without neglecting his shop, he dedicated the remainder of his time to becoming a worthy, and then the finest student of this master. Eventually, he had learned all his master could teach him, leaving only life to test his skill.

His test came when he was walking home with his wife, and they were beset by bandits. Soon they were surrounded, being pushed around and berated for being so helpless and worthless. His wife then cried out, “Stop thinking like a shopkeeper before they kill us both!”

This snapped him out of it. His decades-long training to cower for his life was replaced by his years-long training to protect lives. Soon the bandits lay on the ground, and he walked his wife to their peaceful home.

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I went looking for a koan to write about before bed, and came across this old favorite.

If You Love, Love Openly

In the traditional Zen monastery, it generally wasn’t the done thing for monks and nuns to have relationships. Both monks and nuns shaved their heads, which besides being practical was thought to discourage those heads from being easily turned.

However, this wasn’t the case for a nun named Eshun. Her shaved head seemed to accentuate the beauty of her face and form, and several monks were enamored of her. One of them sent her an ardent letter, insisting that she meet him privately, in secret.

So the next morning after the master’s lecture to the group, Eshun stood up. She turned to the letter-writer and said, “If you truly love me so much, come and embrace me now.”

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The Zhuangzi is considered the most essential taoist text after the Tao Te Ching.  It’s named for the author, who was properly named Zhuang Zhou.

One of his beliefs was that our past shapes the ways we perceive and understand our world. It’s our past that is responsible for the ways we experience and use language and cognition, which are intertwined. We have learned how to name things, and how we are expected to feel and behave with regard to these labels. Any of our decisions or actions might seem terribly misguided, had we experienced a different past.

He also called into question our ability to objectively know what our past truly is. I think you may have heard part of this story before, from the second chapter of the Zhuangzi:

A while ago I, Zhuang Zhou, dreamed I was a butterfly. I was completely absorbed in my butterfly experience, happily flitting about, tasting the flowers, and feeling all the marvelous enjoyment in doing what butterflies do. So absorbed was I, I didn’t even know I was Zhou; I knew only my butterfly experience.

I then woke up, and suddenly realized myself to be Zhou. I didn’t know if I had been a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or was now a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Yet by necessity, there is something that separates man from butterfly. It’s called metamorphosis.

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Hotei happens to be one of my favorite buddha figures, and I know I’m in good company in that regard. He’s the Laughing Buddha, that big-bellied guy with an almost-as-big linen sack, whose belly you rub for luck. (The statues of him, I mean of course.)

Back when he was alive, he wasn’t the sort of zen master who gathered a school of disciples. What Hotei gathered was a playground of children. In his sack was candy and treats that he’d give to children, who loved to play with and around him. Yeah, he was that fantastic.

As I’ve heard it, sometimes someone would come up to him and tell him he belongs in some zen temple or another. He’d respond by telling them to give him a penny. At times he’d come across a devotee of zen, and he’d tell them to give him a penny as well.

Another story is that some zen monk asked him what the whole meaning was to zen. Hotei set down his heavy bag with a contented sigh. The inquiring monk then asked how zen is realized.

Hotei slung his bag back over his shoulder, and merrily went back to handing out treats to children.

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I’m on the path toward reclaiming my space and time, and getting back to connecting to the ways in which I actively connect to and improve myself and my world.  A lot of it was spent spinning my wheels as I was immersed into problem-solving for work and my attempt at a hobby, getting so bad that the more I tried to get out of the mud, the more mired my thoughts and work became.

My biggest breakthrough was in taking a step back and forcing myself to stop trying so hard.  I learned to make myself take breaks and move at a reasonable pace, and to stop grasping so hard for “the perfect” answer so my hands could be freed up to bring about the “right” one.  I think I’ve learned to be not just more effective, but also to have a more receptive perspective.  I kinda feel as though I spent a couple of months in a chrysalis, so it’s time to stretch these new wings and see where they can take me.

I wanted to write down some tidbits of what I’ve learned in the past couple months of forced-contemplation and self-improvement, all I can think of to start with is snippets of a Zen story I heard years ago:

A young monk was learning how to meditate, eager to discover the deep mysteries and truths of enlightenment.  Though his master had told him to center his mind on the Still Point of Nothingness, his first meditations didn’t quite go there.

“How has your practice been,” the master asked.

The monk was truly frightened, and fell to his knees to reply.  “Oh Master, it was terrible!  I turned my mind to meditation as you taught me, and I was beset by horrific demons whose frightening visages tormented me with the threats of hell and suffering for ten thousand years!”

The master just took a deep breath and advised the monk to ignore such distractions and keep his mind on reaching the Focus of Stillness.  When he called the monk in for his interview a few days later, he inquired again about the meditation.

The monk again fell to his knees, this time in adoring awe.  “Oh Master, it was so beautiful!  In my mind, I saw visions of the most beautiful ascended beings, surrounding me with their dazzling glow!  They spoke kindly to me, promising me the pleasures and comforts of heaven for ten thousand years!”

The master was unimpressed.  With barely another breath, he advised the monk to ignore such distractions and maintain his focus on seeing the Formless Truth.

The monk respectfully postponed the next interview, and then the next, until finally at the third appointed date he arrived to again receive the master’s question.

A third time, the monk fell to his knees, more from resigned acceptance.  “Master, I have no new wisdoms, no grand truths to report from my meditations.  My mind drew a complete blank, and the only sensations were the cold draft and the hard floor.  When I closed my eyes, I saw nothing.  When I opened them, I saw nothing but a fly landing on the back of a fellow student’s shiny bald head.”

The master clapped his hands together with a broad grin, then reached down to help the monk up so he could bow to him.  “Then I ask you to teach me to meditate.  When I close my eyes, I still have not stilled my mind to the point of No Thought.”




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I was once crafting a story with someone, and in the voice of the character I was creating, asked why another character was so enamored of being served a dinner every night that had more food than he could hope to eat, with ingredients so rare and expensive that had he instead enjoyed the simple fare she did, a whole lot more food could be afforded and shared with a whole lot more people.

The person I was working with had a response that the character she was speaking to was ready with.  The gist was something along the lines of, “He feels that he does so much for his people, that he deserves to enjoy the finer things.  It doesn’t even occur to him that it isn’t completely fair.”

I’m thinking of this because of a koan I came across today:

Bankei was a beloved master of advanced years.  At one point, a young disciple named Dairyo was made cook for the monastery, and he felt that he should serve only fresh miso to Bankei’ to protect his health, while everyone else would eat the miso that had fermented.

It didn’t take Bankei long to notice that his bowl had a better miso than his pupils.  So rather than eat, he sent for the cook to inquire of him what the deal was.  Dairyo said that due to Bankei’s age and position, he shouldn’t eat the older, fermented miso.

Bankei replied, “Then you think I shouldn’t eat!”  He then went to his room and locked the door.  Dairyo followed and remained by the door, begging his master’s forgiveness.  Seven days went on, with Bankei unwilling to open his door and Dairyo unwilling to leave it.

Finally, one of the other pupils called out to Bankei, “You may be all right in there, old master, but this young disciple here has to eat!  He can’t sit out here starving forever!”

At that, Bankei came out, smiling as he helped Dairyo up.  He told the young man, “I insist on eating the same food as the least of my followers.  When you become teacher, I want you to remember this.”

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