Posts Tagged ‘zen master’

So I had a bit of a disappointment over the weekend. Nothing major, just something I’d planned is just going to have to wait another few weeks, but it was still a disappointment. As hectic as things have been, it weighed on me just a little more than it otherwise might — but if life has taught me anything, it’s taught me a small bit of patience.

After a weekend of trying to play catch-up, it was still a bit on my mind. So I came in to work and saw the last two quotes I’d been saving to share, and they both go together with my thoughts. So here they are:

To enjoy the world without judgment is what a realized life is like.
Charlotte Joko Beck

It takes a certain maturity of mind to accept that nature works as steadily in rust as in roses.
– Esther Warner Dendel

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So what is Zen, anyway, and why is there so much hype about reaching it? Or Tao, for that matter? What do all my little ramblings have to do with them?

I think these questions are rhetorical here, cause I think you all know what I’m talking about. But I post these up on WordPress with the Zen and Taoism tags and I’ve been nudged over whether my random thoughts about living in this world really belong with those tags. So that’s what’s on my mind today (and also that I haven’t had a thought in days!)

I personally think that if you really experience Zen and Taoism in the way that I understand it, the question’s rather ridiculous; the whole point of studying Zen and the Tao is to realize how it’s all just a matter of expressing Inner Nature. Outer Harmony. As best we can. And my natural harmonic is less sitting zen and more working zen. Not so much silent zen, as laughing zen. There’s little room for dust in my Tao.

Not like there’s any one Way to the Way, and also not like all the most celebrated old poets are more stodgy than we are. Today’s quote on my calendar:

How boring to sit idly on the floor,
not meditating, not breaking through.
Look at the horses racing along the Kamo River!
That’s zazen!

– Daito

(I’m not positive, but I think it might be this Daito:
Jan 21: A religous debate between Tendai and Shingon priests on the one hand and Zen priests, led by Daito Kokushi (1282-1337) on the other, was held in Kyoto in 1324. The debate, which was judged by emperor Godaigo and assisted by ex-emperor Hanazono was won by Daito. )

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I’ve been talking with some friends recently about giving feedback, advice or even ‘admonishment’ to friends or strangers. The issue was how much really needs to be said, how harsh a comment the situation might call for, and how to tell the difference. I’m still not sure I can really tell the difference, but I do know that as a rule I’ll tend to err on the side of few words as possible, until it’s clear to me that more would be both needed and helpful!

I’ve got a mondo / zen story that illustrates my idea that sometimes, just making sure a situation is acknowledged can sometimes be enough:

There was this meditation master named Sengai, and as usual, his students were expected to keep a pretty solitary and contemplative life inside the temple walls. And, as usual, there was one student who just couldn’t stand sitting that still.

So several nights a week, this guy would sneak over the back wall and head into town for some forbidden fun. One of these nights, Sengai was inspecting the dormitory and found both the empty bed and the tall stool against the back wall. It didn’t take a zen master to figure out what was going on, so he moved the stool and stood in its place, just waiting.

It was well after midnight when the student snuck back to the temple and hoisted himself over the wall. He had already had his feet on Sengai’s head and was jumping down before he realized what was going on. He then stared at his master, speechless.

Sengai just quietly said, “It’s very chilly out this early in the morning. Be careful that you don’t catch a cold.” And that was the end of it. The student never snuck out again.

Yeah, it’s not always that simple. But among friends and family, sometimes just a hint will be enough to bring things back together. 🙂

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I couldn’t quite get together a coherent, non-technical-related thought this morning, so I thought I’d look up the Hacker Koan entry in Wikipedia for inspiration. A Hacker Koan is a “koan” made up by computing enthusiasts, especially network and AI programmers, particularly at MIT. One of the examples there I really like, and since they’re recent (and won’t really benefit from my paraphrase-telling), I’m just going to copy/paste the “koan” form, and the original story it was based on. Both have meaning.

Uncarved block

In the days when Sussman was a novice, Minsky once came to him as he sat hacking at the PDP-6.
“What are you doing?”, asked Minsky.
“I am training a randomly wired neural net to play Tic-tac-toe“, Sussman replied.
“Why is the net wired randomly?”, asked Minsky.
“I do not want it to have any preconceptions of how to play”, Sussman said.
Minsky then shut his eyes.
“Why do you close your eyes?” Sussman asked his teacher.
“So that the room will be empty.”
At that moment, Sussman was enlightened.

Unlike most traditional Zen koans, this koan has a possible concrete and correct answer: just as the room is not really empty when Minsky shuts his eyes, neither is the neural network really free of preconceptions when it is randomly wired. The network still has preconceptions, they are simply random now, and from a random rather than a human source.

Interestingly, this particular koan seems to have been closely based on a real incident; the following text extract is from Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (chapter 6):

So Sussman began working on a program. Not long after, this odd-looking bald guy came over. Sussman figured the guy was going to boot him out, but instead the man sat down, asking, “Hey, what are you doing?” Sussman talked over his program with the man, Marvin Minsky. At one point in the discussion, Sussman told Minsky that he was using a certain randomizing technique in his program because he didn’t want the machine to have any preconceived notions. Minsky said, “Well, it has them, it’s just that you don’t know what they are.” It was the most profound thing Gerry Sussman had ever heard. And Minsky continued, telling him that the world is built a certain way, and the most important thing we can do with the world is avoid randomness, and figure out ways by which things can be planned. Wisdom like this has its effect on seventeen-year-old freshmen, and from then on Sussman was hooked.

—Steven Levy, HACKERS: Heroes of the Computer Revolution

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Today’s thought is just a Zen koan that says pretty much what I have on my mind:

Gasan was a Zen monk who was pretty well known for his practice. One day a college student visited him and asked if he’d ever read the Christian bible. Gasan said he hadn’t, and asked the student to read it to him.
“No, read it to me,” said Gasan.

The student opened the bible and read from St. Matthew, “And why take ye thought for rainment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these… Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.”

Gasan replied, “Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man.”

The student continued reading. “Ask and it shall be given you, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”

Gasan then said, “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.”

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Like any school of thought, Zen can become pretty dogmatic.  What was once a nice way for some people to try to reach their inner being can be turned into an overly rigid set of structures that help prevent generations of followers from ever learning to be their true, spontaneous selves.  And of course, this has been happening throughout the world for millenia.

Dogmatism breeds more than just stagnation, though.  It also breeds people like Ikkyu, an infamous Zen poet from Japanese history.  His life and work bucked against tradition, expressing joy and mischief as beautifully as possible.  Everywhere he turned, he saw an abundantly lovely world, and he seems to have tried to express that to whomever he could.  It turns out there’s even a cartoon out there about him, as children of course love his irreverence and how it triumphs over the stodgy teachers and shogun.

I think he’d have been great fun to meet.  Barring him actually showing up in person, though, I think he gives us a pretty good insight into what it’s like to be around him through his surviving poetry.  This one pretty well sums up, I think, what it’s like in his world:

Every day, priests minutely examine the Dharma
And endlessly change complicated sutras.
before doing that, though, they should learn
how to read the love letters sent by the wind and the rain, the snow and the moon.

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Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — the American guarantee, huh?  The problem is that it doesn’t seem to be an American assumption that we will actually BE happy, only that we’ll pursue it.  Some people say that might account for a lot of the economic storm going around now, that the economy was built around consumerism, a pursuit of things, without making sure there was enough substance in the here-and-now to back those purchases.  And now the sandy foundation is giving way, toppling things over.
Now I’ve got a lot to say about consumerism, but what’s important here is that it’s built on this whole system of “get people to spend” that actually has to keep us from seriously examining what really and truly makes us happy.  After all, you can’t BUY a breath of summer breeze.  You can’t SELL a baby’s laugh.  There’s no profit to be made off of inner contentment.  So they have to manufacture newer and shinier products and newer and shinier ads to convince us that all we need to be happy is their products that’ll give us a newer and shinier life.  (And, by extension, we must be miserable without them.)

But deep down, we know that’s not right, that fulfillment isn’t in what we’ve bought so far.  Yet if we’re caught in the communal daydream then all we can think of to do is try to find the next thing we need to buy to fill that void…
The real secret is that happiness isn’t a thing to have, a place to be, or even a person to be with.  All these things can trigger feelings of happiness, but only if those feelings are inside us already.  And those feelings are things we need to cultivate for their own sake, because we’ve chosen to be happy.  Each morning, we have to greet the day saying, “Today, I choose to be happy.”
Actually, try that for a while.  Practice it.  There might be things you want and things you’d like to be rid of, but that can’t prevent you from being happy inside yourself, simply because you are alive.  Taisen Deshimaru said it best:

“If you are not happy here and now, you never will be.”

Once again, we can only ever be “here”.  We can only ever be “now”.  We can’t keep projecting wishes of having happiness in the future because we will never live in the future.  We live now.

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I couldn’t find the website I was thinking of to pull out a random zen/taoist story, so I’m going to paraphrase one of my favorites.

Now, one of the main points of a zen master’s instruction to his pupils is to get them to quit getting hung up on whatever the heck it is that keeps them from speaking and acting spontaneously.  The idea is that each of us has the inner nature that is utterly in the flow of everything, and the whole trick in life is to declutter all the noise that keeps us from just going with that flow.

There’s lots of different meditations and puzzles and tasks and whatnot that can get out there as “Zen practice”, but really, they’re all just various approaches to get people to snap out of the daily daydream and connect with that flow.  Because of that, the other point of a zen master’s instruction is to test them now and then, not only to see how close they are to their true, spontaneous nature, but also as a chance to help them understand how they can get closer.

So one night it was raining, and the small country house this zen master and his three pupils lived in had a leak in the roof.  The master looked at the water drip, and then suddenly called out to his students, “The roof is leaking and the floor is getting wet.  Quick, quick, do something!”

One of the students shot up and out of the room while the other two looked at the master, looked at the floor, then started scurrying about trying to find a pot, or a bowl, or something to catch the water.  By the time those two had reached the kitchen, the first ran back in to the master to hand him what he’d grabbed… a sieve.  The other two came back in several moments later and laughed at the first student, calling him an idiot.

The master shushed them though, and admitted it was a test and only the first student passed.  Yes, what he brought back wasn’t going to stop the water, true.  But as soon as the situation called to him, he got up and acted on his first impulse and DID something about it, rather than wasting time being worried by the emergency and dithering about it.  Maybe next time he’ll even be more in tune and his first impulse could even be a helpful one, but the important thing was that he was ready to give up the mental noise and just ACT.

So, whatever you do today and this weekend, don’t waste time worrying and dithering.  Take a look at what you can do and then just do it.  Sure, take an extra moment to make sure you’re grabbing a bowl rather than a sieve, but fretting about the leak won’t stop the water.

Though really, when it stops raining, maybe it’d be possible to fix the leak…

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