Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Big Let Down

All of us come to Zen for our own reasons. Though on the outside our reasons may seem different, we all have some form of suffering we looking to release. When I could no longer blame others for the anger and depression I was carrying, I found Zen. Some may come to the practice in order to develop a skill to deal with stress, which is getting in the way at work. Others may want to control their mind due to the unpleasant thoughts they are experiencing. There are many reasons.

Whatever the reasons, the gut reaction of the ego is to escape from suffering. To the ego, Zen or the practice of mindfulness seems like an excellent method for this escape. Looking at the story of the Buddha we see this promise. The Buddha left his family, his royalty, the protection of the palace life and the luxuries it provided. Sometimes the desire for escape can manifest in a desire to control. We can look at the Zen story of the Ten Ox Herding Pictures. The little boy looks for the ox only in hopes to tame it, to control it, and this appears to be what he does. But what is really going on in these stories? To answer this we must see what the Ox or the Buddha really is.

Normally when we think of an escape from suffering, we think of a serene way of experiencing life. From the outside it may seem this is what Zen or Buddhism is promising. Look at the statue of the Buddha. He is very calm and serene. But Zen isn't always a serene practice. Sometimes zazen can be pretty challenging and frustrating. I think it would be cool to have a double sided Buddha Statue. On one side a be nice and calm Buddha and the other side would show maybe some sweating or maybe the Buddha pulling out his hair. This would more accurately represent real practice. I say this because to many times I talk to people explaining how discontent they are with the non-blissful states of zazen. One person said to me, "Once in awhile I have a Zen moment, but they are few and far between." This just isn't a true understanding of Zen. This perspective is no different than the one he had before he came to the practice. Actually the training of Zen is to work with that perspective directly. We must let go of what we are wanting to happen, what we are wanting to see and just see what's happening. So I ask you, when do Zen moments happen? To answer this we must discover what Zen is really about. We must arrive to the heart of the Buddha.

I am not saying here that there is no freedom from suffering. I am saying that all to often the negative states are confused as suffering. So naturally we try to escape these negative aspects of life. The truth is we also suffer from the positive states of mind. Suffering is very powerful yet subtle. In fact, here comes the let down, in order to understand how suffering actually happens we must get very close to the negative as well as the positive states of mind.

A friend told once, "I haven't been coming to practice lately because I have been really depressed." "Be more depressed," I said. " Be so depressed that you don't even know you are! Be one with depression!" These days we talk a lot about stress and depression. This focus is actually a simultaneous resistance and attachment. When we are stressed out about something there is another part of us that naturally doesn't want to be stressed. This type of focus on stress becomes an obsession. The obsession sustains the stress. In order to be relieved of these heavy emotions we must merge with what ever it is we are stressed out about. This way we stay with the flow of what is happening and we stay engaged with the present.

Shit happens! How profound.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Plunging into the abyss

Standing at the edge and looking into the abyss is frightening. The body is surged with fear in hopes to motivate a retreat. Why is this? What is it hiding, and where is this fear coming from? Normally I would tighten up and hold on for dear life, but this time was different. I was ready to discover the unknown.

Zen requires us to look deeply into the reality of the present moment. Though it may not always be easy, we must learn to open and accept the present moment for what it truly is. In fact sometimes it can be down right scary. But fear is just one of the defense mechanisms we can face when attempting to be present. We can experience hatred, or doubt, or lust, or even laziness. If we look at the many threats we encounter as humans, as animals, then these emotions all seem necessary. But in zazen, the practice of being present, we see them as hindrances. The closer we look, we begin to see they are moving us away from feeling something. Something we may have been avoiding for awhile now.

In the Open Mind Zen School, one of the methods used to bring us to the present is Zen Dialogue. Zen dialogue is a process of becoming more conscious of the various aspects of the self. In this process we give the different aspects names and voices and one of the voices we dialogue with is the controlling ego. We name the ego as the controller because that's exactly what it wants to do. Though not everyone would want to admit this. The ego would love to have complete control and until we realize this, we have no hope in letting go. See, the ego's controlling nature only really works if it remains a secret. Once the ego awakens to the reality of it not being in control it can then begin to break free of its controlling tendencies. I recently discovered that my tendency to blame was an attempt to shift responsibility. And this was simply because I did not want to experience these certain emotions that were flowing through me at the time. The story of blame and responsibility was just a cover up, a distraction if you will, of something much deeper. This emotion was something I have been hiding for awhile now. So at some time my controller formed. It formed because I felt out of control, and at that time I could not deal with that feeling. The controller was developed in secret and this zen dialogue has given it a chance to tell its story and in doing so, giving my controller the chance to let go.

While I was doing zazen during our retreat at the Osage Forest of Peace this past weekend, I noticed the tendency of tensing up. This would cause a lot of pain after awhile. After some time, watching this pain arise and fade, I began to see that there were times when there was no tension at all. But once I realized this space and flow of energy, I would automatically tighten up. I also noticed a contracting in my chest just before this tension. So I began to work on opening my chest and soon it started to feel as if I was choosing the pain and tension. Along with this space for choice also came a feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability. But the more I moved into the pain it began to change and evaporate. Still this took a great deal of effort. The tightening in my chest was being conditioned by something that was not yet within my awarness.

During retreats with Sensei there is always some time set in the schedule for some alternative methods of practice. On Saturday we had in the schedule some Zen Breathwork. Breathwork is a powerful sustained breathing technique which helps the practitioner experience how energy flows through the body/mind. While I was breathing I noticed the tightness in my chest again. It was restricting my breathing so I decided to put more effort in to the exercise. I would breath harder and deeper. As deep as I could. I began to notice a strong vibration in my body accompanied with heat. Then I started to have these memories of childhood in the form of pictures. Nothing in particular about the memories other than they were of my childhood. The vibration and heat increased. Then I broke into a spontaneous full body cry. I cried like a baby. I can't remember the last time I cried like that. I remember having this sense of freedom, an awareness accompanying the cry. Then with the cue of Sensei I was able to release and relax. I relaxed deeply and my chest was then open and expansive.

With all this I realized that the controlling nature of the ego was an attempt to soften the edge of the reality that control is not possible. A feeling of vulnerability that goes back to infancy. A feeling that I wanted to forget. Something Zen has asked me to remember and merge with. To merge with it so deeply that there is no resistance. When there is no need to control life, there is simply just life and all its wonders. Life is free, so join it. This is how we find freedom.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Tag your it

I was trying to contact Sensei by phone the other day. When we finally connected after missing each other several times and I said, "Tag your it." "Ha Ha," he chuckled. "Yes.... I am it." I didn't catch it until I hung up the phone, but I was impressed by how he used his Zen.

We may think that Zen is about sitting in full lotus, or about wearing robes and chanting. We may be concerned with karma, reincarnation, or how we as humans suffer. I think all these things are worth looking at, but not without ourselves as the primary focus. If we could boil Zen down to its basic ingredient, what would it be? Zen doesn't exist without me, or without you. To me Zen is just a mirror, showing me that I am it. If I am it, what else is there? Sure we can be "mindful," but do we know it is ourselves that is happening? Can we really use our Zen with precision as Sensei did?

I used to practice Mindfulness as a concept, as a tool to move into a different understanding. When we see it as "Mindfulness," that's just what it is. I think this way of practice is very hard. It is as if we are trying to control the present moment, or at least control ourselves. There is something we are supposed to be doing and in turn something should not do. So eventually we slip into the fantasy of we ought not to do. Then we may say,"Zen is freakin' hard," which is true because we are missing the foundation of Zen. We miss ourselves.

Concepts are not necessarily a problem. They are just something we normal adhere to, so naturally we must learn a new perspective. The imprisonment of our own ideas is a road we really don't want to be on anyway. Have you ever done something or said something and in the back of your mind known this is not right? I know I have. That feeling of not having a way out of my habitual tendencies is what can be understood as Dukkha, or suffering. We suffer in a self made prison. We have not left a single gate open to grant ourselves freedom. Zen can be that gate. A way out of our own hell.

When I sit in Raw Mind ideas still happen, but they're not the only thing happening. The broad awareness of Raw Mind includes all things, even the ego. This is how Raw Mind offers freedom. The freedom to live and die. A friend once said to me, "I am tired of living." Then die, I say. Die and be reborn in each moment. This is true freedom. This is how we can use our Zen. I was reading in The Gateless Barrier about how in ancient China it was the custom for Zen practitioners to greet each other through a challenge of the Dharma. In fact this is how Koans have come into formal Zen practice. Truly, when ever we meet someone the Dharma is challenging us naturally. As I have said before, Everything is a Koan. I think it would cool to see a Zen culture like this develop in America, or at least Tulsa.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

For Here, or To Go?

This is a common question asked in America these days and a common perspective that until now I have overlooked. This insight came to me while ordering a cup of coffee. I would normally say to the Barista, "I would love to drink it here, but I have to go." Instead instantly the words jumped out of my mouth, "I will have a paper cup for here. Cause when I walk out and get in my truck, I will be here." Ha. It was a dumb joke but it's worth considering.

For some reason we all share a perspective, to some degree, which agrees there is somewhere else to be or some other thing to have. Yes we need a home, nice paying job, a reliable car, and other necessities. But I am pointing at the emotional level. The place where our satisfaction, or lack thereof comes from. This is a place where our sense of self resides. This is a place where Awakening needs to occur. The rest of us is already Awake. Big Mind is already present, and the ego or small mind thinks its not.

"Hereing" would be a cool word to add to the English language. Usually we say, "I am going to this place or going to that place." Hereing is something we could do. In fact it's all we're really doing. We just don't pay attention to it most of the time. We are normally focused on what we are getting or where we are going. What percentage of the time are we really aware of being here? For me, the majority of the time I am still caught in the world on the go. This is why we call Zen a practice, a practice of being here and it works. The beauty of it is, every time we practice we can be HERE. So we can practice whenever we want, where ever we want.

I was working on this koan the other day:

The Foreigner Has No Beard

Wakuan said, "Why does the foreigner from the west have no beard?"

Mumon's commentary

Training in Zen has to be real training. Satori has to be real Satori. You have to see the foreigner here clearly yourself; then you actually know him. If however, you talk about "clearly seeing," you have already fallen into dichotomy.

So what is REAL training? What is REAL Satori? This means our understanding must come from reality, from our experience, from here. The foreigner from the west is Bodhidharma, who was always known for his beard. This understanding is not needed to see what the koan is pointing at. I like this koan. One must drop the story of Zen in order to see it. Quite frequently, in Zen and in our daily lives, we get caught up in stories. For example, I am a technician, I have four children and a beautiful wife, etc. Our focus is on concepts, definitions, and our achivements. We may think this is the way towards Satori, but we are just recreating habitual patterns. Zen just becomes manifested as a story into another ego, which is why we cannot do this practice alone. We need a teacher who has realized REAL Satori and a Sangha to support our practice.

I was leading a mindfulness workshop the other day at Tam Bao Buddhist Temple here in Tulsa. In this workshop we voice our experience of the present moment while a partner listens. The idea is to be as least conceptual of what one voicing, and express more of what one is feeling. I like this exercise because it makes us be honest with how we are experiencing the present moment. One participant was using the word "struggling" fairly often. I asked him,"What do mean by struggling?""Well the pain and the tension were causing me to struggle," he said. The word struggling has a suggestion of a subject experiencing an object, in this case pain. Truly struggling is just an idea. It's what we think we are experiencing and not REAL experience.

Learning how to be here is what Zen is about. This practice can be very tricky though and can take years to master. But the beauty is we are always here.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Nature of Water

It is said there are three turnings of the wheel of Dharma. The first turn is the Four Noble Truth's. The Second, the teachings on Emptiness. The third is on Buddha Nature. This last truth is my focus for this post.

The nature of the mind is enlightenment. This is like saying the nature of water is clarity. This is an important point for beginners and the experienced. It is important because it sets the tone in our practice. If we bring a mind to the cushion that is seeking something this mind will look for an object from which to find its enlightenment. In essence, the mind is saying, "I am not enough." This may feel right because this is the collective conditioning we face. This voice, is not always a problem. Its the voice that says I need to mow the lawn or to go to work, but getting stuck identifying with this voice is when suffering arises.

I am drinking a cup of coffee this morning while writing. I love coffee. It is a zen practice of mine. I buy the coffee unroasted, green, and roast them myself. Then I brew it in a French Press. For hot water, I use a steel tea pot that I drilled a hole in the top for a thermometer. I heat the water from 198 degrees- 202 degrees, depending on the coffee. I like to experiment. When I drink this coffee, what am I drinking? Its tastes like coffee. But really, I am drinking water mostly, and a little coffee. Maybe only 2% of it is coffee. What are some other ways of experimenting with this cup of coffee so that the cognisance of water is most prevalent? I could look at it. Looks like dirty water. I could touch it. Ouch! Feels like HOT water. I could smell it. Nope, smells like coffee. Mmmmm. I could pour some more into my cup.... sounds like water. What I really would like to do is taste the water instead of coffee. When dealing with coffee its easy. Just pour some water out of the tea pot. What about the mind? What about Buddha Nature? It's a little different with mind then coffee. We are the mind. A mind that thinks it's coffee. Which is only maybe 2% of the truth.

In this case, the ego is the coffee. So, how do we realize we are the water? First it is necessary to believe in our Buddha Nature, but not blindly. Simply use this belief to notice the grasping of objects, which comes from the ego perspective. Then let go of grasping that object. If you can really let go there will be some sort of confusion. This is a good sign. I have had fear come up at this point. If you work diligently, eventually you will be thrown into body consciousness. This is where you can truly see that you are the water. We need to feel the objects resonate within ourselves.

The nature of water is clarity. The nature of mind is enlightenment. Isn't this beautiful!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

No Buddha, No Enlightenment

I was visiting with the Abbot of Tam Bao Buddhist Temple, Thich Duc Tri, here in Tulsa a few years ago. I asked him, "Are you enlightened?" "No Buddha, No Enlightenment", he said. I smiled and just sat there in silence with him a few minutes. His English wasn't very well at the time, but I heard him loud and clear. Zen says all sentient beings have Buddha Nature, an Awakened Nature. Was he contradicting this theory?

I have heard the saying,"If along your path you shall meet the Buddha, kill him!" Though some may take offence to this, it is a profound statement. Putting the Buddha on a pedestal and naming him as this holy object only increases the distance from us seeing our own enlightened nature. The ego wants to understand the Buddha and enlightenment, but this requires us to be separate from it in order to do so. While going through a Big Mind dialogue with my teacher Sensei Al Fusho Rapaport, I was asked to give Big Mind a voice. "I don't know how to speak from Big Mind", I finally said after struggling. "OK, lets stop here. During this retreat I want this to be your koan", he said. After about a day I realized I was trying to see Big Mind while maintaining my ego perspective. Letting go of the ego, is being Big Mind. I was so used to seeing everything through the ego that I had no other option. I was fully identified with the ego.

Controlling our meditation is a way for the ego to understand what is going on. Being aware of controlling is a way for us to know that we are identified with the ego. I hear many say, "I can't get my mind to be quiet. Too many thoughts are going through my mind." "So what is the mind?", I may say. Really what I am asking is, what is the relationship with the mind? Our thinking may slow down while doing zazen, but this is not what we are trying to do. Being aware of our thinking is enough.

Naming is another way for the ego to maintain its object/subject dichotomy. Bringing an all inclusive perspective to the zafu means letting go of naming objects. This means getting down to the bare bones of what mind is. Just experiment with how the name arises instantly, and you'll find a way of letting go of naming. We really need to feel the mind, be the mind. this requires us to be completely honest and accepting with what ever we feel.

There is no Buddha for the ego to understand. There is no ego enlightenment. So if you meet the Buddha, kill him. That is, kill the difference.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Finding freedom in my own skin

Zen talks about liberation, freedom from suffering, nirvana. This all sounds great, but is it true? If nirvana does exist, then where is it? It seems that all religions talk about something of the nature. Some believe it happens when we die, an after life, while others say it takes life times to achieve. They all talk about some sort of opposing hell as well. I sure have no idea what will happen when I die, let alone if I had another life before this one. I have not come to Zen for the use of a belief system, but to learn how to live, to have a healthy marriage, family, friends, to relate to co-workers, and strangers.

When I first embarked on my spiritual journey at the age of 24, I saw that I was the root of my own reality. I had recently been discharged from the Marines, went through a tech school, and was newly married. Also, I might add, I am a musician and was trying to form a band. Suddenly I found myself truly unhappy, nothing was going right for me. Of course I blamed my wife, bless her heart. I don't know why she put up with me. I also blamed band members, and who ever else. Suddenly I found an interest in religion, and was talking to everyone I knew about it. Some of my co-workers introduced me to Christianity. I must say Jesus is a cool cat. I was really into him, and I became baptized. This baptism was a huge turning point for me. I whole heatedly devoted my life to following the teachings of Jesus. But when I went to bible studies, I realized the church had a different interest in him. Intellectually, I didn't quite know what I was looking for, but I sure felt it. I started searching for a church, and dragging my poor wife along with me. I would go from church to church, looking for what exactly? I don't know. Eventually I left Christianity all together, but the interest I had in Christ was still upon me. Every time I came across a book store, I went inside scanning all the books in the religious section. I found this one book, The Second Coming of Christ, The Resurrection of Christ within you, by Yogananda. A commentary on the four gospels. This book offered a new perspective on the teachings of Jesus. This new perspective spun me in a direction to cultivating a practice of meditation, and eventually Zen. This practice of Zen is what has showed me the ground of which I walk on. It's the only thing that put me in check, got me away from the books, and onto the cushion. This is exactly what I was looking for.

If we let go of all ideas of heaven and hell, or any idea about self and others for that matter, what do we have left? Our flesh and bones, and here is the only place to find it. Freedom is found in every waking moment or forever lost. Any time we adopt some idea of gain or loss, we abandon our true self, and fill ourselves with doubt. It takes practice to see the subtle ways in which we have doubt, but not too much practice. We can get caught up thinking we have something to achieve, therefore think we need to practice for decades to find some great liberation, which requires miles of travel to see. "Enlightenment is just over the horizon, keep going and one day you'll find it, one day you'll earn it"...... NOT! After talking with people about their practice, and reflecting on my own, I have come to a conclusion. It is very easy to use this practice to cultivate self doubt.

The practice of sitting with Koans is very effective in getting rid of self doubt. This is because the answers are found in the present moment, where doubt has no existence. Recently I was working on the koan, "What is the sound of one hand?". "I had to rid myself of doubt", I said to my teacher after answering. "That is what it is always about in one way or another", he said. I worked on the koan, "What is Mu?", for six months. The answer was obvious, but the self doubt I had casted a shadow over it. This is what I had to work through. The practice of Zen is not always peaches and cream, but these barriers must be broken through in order for development to take place. There have also been times when I couldn't answer a koan, because the answer, which was staring at me in the face, was not good enough. I would complicate it, and make it harder on myself. How many times do we do this in our day to day lives?

I was at a coffee shop the other day. One of the Barista's had a cool sleeve tattoo of a very skinny man, meditating. "Who is that man in your tattoo?", I asked. "It is Siddhartha, Buddha", she said. "Oh", I said. "Most people think of Buddha as a fat man", she said. "So what does Buddha look like?", I asked. "Well there was a time when he was skinny, like in my tattoo, but then he became healthier", she said. "Or you could just look in the mirror and tell me what Buddha looks like", I said. She looked at me as if I said something rude. Maybe one day she will see that she truly is a Buddha. I hope this is not the direction in which Buddhism is heading, where we fantasize about the story and never allow it manifest within ourselves. I looked for "Enlightenment", for some time in my practice. It's funny, I kept looking for something, but had no clue as to what it was. I was sure I didn't have it, and I was sure I was not a Buddha. Eventually I learned it is the doubt that needs to be let go of.

To realize our Buddhahood, we need to look in the very flesh and bones we live in everyday. Finding freedom in our own skin is what this practice is about. Giving ourselves the space to breath. Opening up to the ebb and flow that everyday has to offer. How else can we be free from suffering?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Profound Negativity

The nervous system gathers and process information, for the sole purpose of surviving and multiplying. In doing so the brain devotes more energy towards the awareness of what is negative, due to the fact that, what is negative is essentially a threat. "If I miss the appreciation of this flower, at least I'll be alive for the next one. But if I miss my enemy, it could be fatal. In order for me to create a safe environment, I would have to eliminate and defeat all negative aspects." If we look at nature we can see this truth. A wild animal, when seeing you, does not come up to you and just hang out. It is not compassionate towards you. Even in areas where wild animals are fed by people. These animals are constantly devoting energy in being aware of threats. In a spiritual practice, how does his play out? If we take a look at our human negativity, compared to an animal's, we could definitely see that humans don't just respond to negativity, but seek to eliminate it. We even socialize this obsession, by creating systems of within our communities. The police force, the military, journalism, etc. In fact from my experience, being in the U.S. Marines, the training is all about refining negativity. While I was enlisted in the Marines, we would have inspections, after inspections, after inspections. All to focus, and eliminate the negative. Yes, we need these systems. My point is at the obsessions within these systems, that turn them corrupt.

My question is, why are we so obsessed with the elimination of what's negative? From my view point, suffering doesn't arise from the negative, but from the obsession with it, or the disassociation with it. We think, for some reason, that this negative energy is not being created be us. We blame others for what we see. I think its perfectly fine to be negative. When I can see that it is me creating this negative energy, then I can use it in a healthy way. But if I am in denial, then a shadow covers my negativity and gets out of control, or turns on the auto pilot.
I am a negative person, and I don't care what anyone thinks about it. You are too, and I don't care what I think about it either!

When we embark on a spiritual path it can be dangerous, in that we can turn our dogma into a military, that declares war on ourselves and others. I see this in all religions. When we arm our egos with these dualistic beliefs, they cover our minds with a shadow. We hardly awaken, but fall into a deeper sleep. In this day and age, with all the multimedia, the rate in which we take it in, our experience simulates a World War III. We don't recognize that it is our religion that is aiding us in this delusion, because when we visit these institutions, we take in less information by the aid of practices, such as meditation and prayer. So this gives us a deeper trust in the institution, then they go and screw it all up by casting shadows with there dogma.

Ideologies will not aid us in Awakening. What we need is more practice. The practice can help balance out our experiences. We also need to turn the light on in our own minds, and embrace the fullness of what we are. Seeing our negativity, and learning to respond to it in a healthy way, to me, is part of the awakening process.