Posts Tagged ‘zen master’

It seems that so many people around me are being confronted with how they identify themselves. Things that they have taken for granted as part of their daily lives — part of who they are — seem to be popping up in new ways or slipping out of their grasp. I’m not entirely sure why, but that’s been my observation. It could be a function of the various things that have been going on with and within our world. It could also just be another one of those phases that cultures go through.

I have observed several people (myself included) reacting in various ways to this, with only a few having any real awareness as to just what has been making life so frustrating lately. There has been weariness, there has been anger, hurt, betrayal… resignation. There has also been acceptance, and letting go, and a general sense of hope that we’re finding new parts of ourselves that we’ve been searching for, even if we weren’t sure of what we would find.

I can’t help but think of how scientific discovery keeps moving toward the idea that there is really no such thing as “hard divisions” in material form, just different vibrations and resonances of the same “stuff” of which everything is made. I’m wondering: could the same be said for our minds and selves? Our thoughts, words, actions… personalities?

How much hard division is there between who we are, those who are around us, and that same “stuff” of which everything is made?

Here’s an old Zen quote that offers an answer:

天地同根      Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,

萬物一體      The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance.

Zen Master Sêng-chao/Sõjõ (僧肇 384-414), from Sacred-Texts.com

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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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Today, I did well to follow that old line from a master regarding how to practice zen.  I ate good food when I needed it.  Now, it’s time to rest up.

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Today while playing on the grass, I noticed a tiny yellow flower bud within the “weed” plants that grow in our lawn. I saw there were a few of them in the small area I was looking at, and I paused to really look at them. I thought, if I can stop and take in the beauty of a rosebush, or a stand of wildflowers, can’t I have that same appreciation for these tiny yellow buds?

It made me think about what it means for something to be alive, whether I intended to see it there, or whether I even have any real use for it. Does it matter what I think, when it comes to the pricelessness of any expression of life?

In this vein, here’s the koan I came across while trying to focus my thoughts to write of zen:

Everything Is Best

A monk named Banzan was browsing the market, passing by a butcher’s shop. He wasn’t planning to eat meat himself, but he was close enough to hear a customer tell the butcher, “I want to buy your best piece of meat.”

The butcher replied, “Just look around and tell me what you want. Everything you see in my shop is the best.”

That made Banzan stop to think what it would mean, to perceive that everything he saw truly was the best. Even the dead flesh of slaughtered beings, this was also the best. This shattered his illusions of better and worse, bringing him the experience of enlightenment.

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I’ve been posting fairly late at night, which is why my thoughts have been in haiku a couple of times.  I sort of like the format though, as it has helped me distill my thoughts into just a few lines.  As someone who types extremely fast — almost as fast as her stream of consciousness — I can sometimes use the help in brevity.

That said, I also can tend to assume that people are familiar with things I reference, but maybe a little reminder might help.  Yesterday’s haiku on meeting the Buddha refers to the old koan attributed to the founder of the Rinzai sect:

If you meet the Buddha, kill him. (逢佛殺佛,逢祖殺祖)

Apparently, he has a longer piece on this, as well:

Followers of the Way [of Chán], if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the Dharma, never be misled by others. Whether you’re facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an arhat, kill the arhat. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.[7]

Can you see what he’s saying there? Linji worked pretty hard to help his students let go of the conceptual understandings of their own essential nature, once they had the full concepts down. See, the more we know, the more we start to identify with that information. We forget that knowledge and images and understanding and even letting go isn’t our essential nature. It’s just the fun our essential nature gets to have.

So the “killing the Buddha” bit isn’t about ending a life, it’s about ending a life of looking outside oneself for the most innate truths we can experience. As soon as you see something that appears to be outside yourself, it’s important to find a way to cut through that barrier and recognize how all you observe is a reflection within your own self.

Look at it this way: everything you hear, it’s your own ears sending signals to your own brain to decode using your own filters and understandings. Same with things you see, taste, touch, dream… all that. Any understanding you have is just making connections among your own internal wiring — you must already have the tools and the materials within to create anything for you. Others can help trigger these, sure, but that’s the same thing as coming across new blueprints. YOU engage with them. YOU make sense of them. YOU build further within yourself the plans YOU perceive in them according to YOUR nature.

At its core though, that nature is the same essential nature shared by all. Underneath our etchings and fiddlings with our memories and habits, our core nature retains its purity as the uncarved block. As fun as it is to see things outside ourselves as particularly wise, or beautiful, or sacred, eventually we have to set aside our mask and recognize we aren’t looking at something outside ourselves; we are viewing ourselves through a different mirror.

When you see the Buddha, then, go ahead and bow. Just recognize that you aren’t bowing to a greater or lesser being. You’re bowing to that essential nature that is also you, yourself.

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Today, my moment of zen presence I wanted to mention came while making a left turn. I wasn’t sure if the arrow would stay green as I approached the intersection, so I set Commander Brain aside and simply focused my attention on the condition of the light and safety of the intersection. I tried to just be present in that space, and turn or stop as the situation called for.

Now, I don’t want anybody to think I’m all-out badmouthing Commander Brain. It’s that part of our minds that serves the important purpose of keeping our focus and helping direct our activities and attention through much of our day. However, as I mentioned yesterday, the downfall of Commander Brain is that it tries to take on too much responsibility and authority over ALL of our activities and attention. So before getting into that, I just want to mention a few things that Commander Brain does very right.

Commander Brain can be very good at…

  • Following stories and conversations
  • Learning complex tasks through the initial comprehension phase
  • Writing instructions and guidelines
  • Following instructions and directions
  • Discerning shapes and colors
  • Applying past lessons in cognitive assessment to present situations, to a limited extent

For that last bit especially, however, Commander Brain can only excel at these and other tasks when properly trained. The proper training involves care and attention in learning how to focus Commander Brain’s attention on these tasks, while remaining open not to Commander Brain’s other side-activities, but the input and processing from the other 95% of the brain. If you’ve ever tried to really focus on something without getting distracted by the past, the future, or even concerns about the present, you know how difficult this training can be.

And for me, this is what zen is all about. It isn’t about killing Commander Brain, it’s helping Commander Brain become a skillful manager of our conscious experience. Not the tyrant, not the dictator, and certainly not the martyr, just the “user interface” of our human experience.

I realize some people might consider that kind of denigrating the role of the Ego portion of conscious thought. But the idea of Ego being the UI rather than the central processor of our computer selves seems rather liberating. It frees the part that most embodies self-identification from having to be tied down to the heavy burdens of always having to be in control, of never being able to afford terrifyingly arbitrary mistakes. We still have to be responsible through our Ego selves and strive toward better practice, but this gives us the freedom to do that, creates the space we need to experiment and excel.

It also removes that ultimate threat the Ego most fears: insignificance and death. We don’t have to kill our Ego to attain Liberation and Enlightenment. We just have to learn to align it along with the rest of ourselves into that harmony that sings most true.

That might sound pretty daunting, but like all things, it’s just a matter of practicing a little each day. Over time, we develop our own quirky mastery, if not over life itself, at least in our path of learning to live it.

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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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