Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Getting the hang of enlightenment

We may find in the beginning stages of Zen training that it is very hard being enlightened all the time, but unfortunately there's no kind of off-switch. All kinds of things can become bothersome as the difference between what you formerly thought of as "I" and "the rest of the world" becomes perilously narrow. Perhaps there is an unappealing-looking homeless person, or a parent shouting at their children like a slave-trader with a toothache, or else it is the banker spreading his palms as he wonders which of his holiday homes to redecorate. These characters one and all, and this is the sticky bit, they are all you. I can sense the swivelling of cynical eyeballs within incredulous sockets, "what hippyish nonsense" they say. Perhaps if I were to put it another way, and say that between you and they lies not a jot of separation. You can think of time, distance, circumstance or the fact of bone filled bodies as separating us from other folks. But there is no change in facts required, only one of the heart and mind, to see these not as barriers but rather as bridges. Bad news for all you prospective hermits out there: there is no such thing as being alone, not really. It may help, or it may freak you out utterly, to think of all your senses as being analogous to that of touch. I see the bike outside the window because the the light touches between the sun, the bike and my sensory field. Just because of all this though, there's no particular need to go around hugging everything saying "hello bicycle, hello irritated cat, hello pungent street drinker." I mean, you could, and you might, but there really is no need to stick extra ideas of Oneness onto everything. Everything knows this already, and what's more, it acts on it. This is called Life, a grand interpenetrating, multi-centered web of ever-shifting process and relationship. Zen folks long in the tooth may get uncomfortable, irritable even if some character goes about pointing out just how very together it all is, as one wit said:

"These hills and mountains are the very body of Buddha" to which his teacher replied "Oh do be quiet, really I can't take you anywhere."*

*I may have taken some liberty with the translation of the original...

Friday, 3 August 2012

What should my life do with me?

I find that I am really lost in my future at the moment. There are two tendencies which are fighting it out: one is the "do nothing" view, that of being grateful for what is present now and not striving for bigger and better all the time. The other view is that of chasing one's dreams, of fulfilling one's potential in this world. I can spend literally hours planning and scheming, lost in a world of potential. When I have a good idea, a good scheme for a killer novel or a new martial arts training paradigm say, I'm elated: all I want to do is clear my schedule and get to work. But, just as quickly as the super brainwave comes, out it rolls again. The idea loses its lustre, it'll never work, I haven't got the skills, the know-how or whatever. Thus, a whole cycle of creativity,excitement and despondency can take a turn without anything real actually happening. I think I live at least fifty-percent of my life in that world. 
Sometimes though, like this morning, as I wake I know it's not going to be one of those days. It's going to be a day where my relationship with the thoughts in my head, the schemes, the desires, the plans, is like that of the sky to the clouds. Just like that, coming and going. The merest play of light on a brick wall,the sight of a co-worker strolling the corridors, or the hot charms of a cup of tea, is fascinating and satisfying enough for me, without the need to extract anything else from the experience.
I have to say that, on occasion, I feel somewhat guilty for not striving more. I think, even amongst Zen practitioners, there is a tendency to be a little slavish in our work ethic and to imagine that we should be doing good works, especially if we admire the proponents of "Engaged Buddhism" as I do. My mistake is to think that the universe can't be trusted. We have in our tradition great espousers of faith in the world such as Rinzai who said "The principle is: not to try to be anyone special; and to have nothing to do", or Bankei who preached the uselessness of striving with our minds. The famous Zen poem says, "The Spring comes, the grass grows by itself", but that seems pretty subversive in these needful days of eco-plight and humanitarian suffering. As Alan Watts said, sermons on the Bible verse about "having no fear for tomorrow" were thin on the ground even in his hippyish day.
I'm not sure what I can do to help all that. But on these rare days, I can certainly fulfil my job as appreciator-extraordinaire of this life, and perhaps that is the only place to start.

Monday, 2 July 2012

I got me some writin' on the Shambhala Under 35 Project

Want some stuff to read? Here you go, don't ever say I gave you nuthin'...


There are several articles on there by me, and also many other worthy writers so take a look! N

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

I Survived A Sesshin And All I Got Was This Bib-Thing...

An unfinished rakusu like mine 
Sesshins are lovely, uplifting and worthwhile. Sesshins are also awful, heartrending and gruelling. On this sesshin, I took the Bodhisattva Vows. The decision to do this both came out of nowhere, and was something I've been chewing on for a couple of years. I've always felt funny about officially joining the gang, even to the point of not wearing a kimono, which is standard garb whether one is ordained or not. It just always felt extra to me. When I did put one on, my lovely girlfriend said that she felt it put distance between us, which is exactly what I was worried about. Part of the ordination training guided us through the lineage, and it was amazing to trace back through all the Zen people over hundreds of years, and infinitely weird to picture my own name at the bottom of the chart. A cosmic sense of responsibility welled up in me. And again, a sense of separation from others who aren't in the gang, as it were. This is something I need to get  my head and heart around, to remember that yes, taking vows is special and at the same time, totally ordinary and really just an affirmation of what-already-is. To people who know me and may be concerned: I haven't joined a cult. Or maybe I have. But it's a really good one, and it's not expensive and the teachers don't have gold Rolls-Royces or if they do, I haven't seen them. I also will not become a Buddhism-spouting religious geek (apart from on this blog of course). What I have done is to officially welcome the chance to try and live by certain precepts, the most fundamental of which go like this: 1) Don't do harm 2) Do good 3) Do good for others. This just shows how slow I am on the uptake that I even need to be told this stuff...but I do, and need also to be regularly reminded of it.
Despite all the strangeness going on in my head, the experience of the Bodhisattva Ordination was pretty cool, and everyone was very supportive, especially lovely C my girlfriend. Also, because my sewing is slow and bad, I was given a rakusu that had come all the way from Argentina, so thanks to those unknown South American seamsters.  I have to say that I haven't mentioned all this to everyone that I know, because I still feel some strangeness around it. But it feels like I did the right thing, taking the Buddhist plunge. Onto a life of practice then, I guess. Ha! Sounds funny even just saying it!

Monday, 7 May 2012

Kapwing! Saving All Beings! Kapow!

In being Buddhists and particularly Zen ones, part of our modus operandi is about saving all those sentient beings. Or perhaps realising that they are inherently saved anyway. This is quite a weighty proposition for a person whose normal level of responsibility lies in buying in the pastries on Sunday mornings, and ensuring that he wears matching shoes. Well, pretty much. I have tried being an ironic Buddhist, that's to say one who is cool with the idea but doesn't feel the need to do anything about it. It is not an approach that works for me, as I have come to realise that I am a person who likes to be involved, which is quite a shock. The taking of the Bodhisattvas Vows is in some ways a dumb idea: what does it matter to the Universe if you make some sort of promise and get given a mini-robe thing? It doesn't, not one jot. On the other hand, intention is all. Sometimes doing a dumb thing is just what is needed. Sometimes we just have to allow ourselves to be fooled: not all the time, I'm not suggesting we should give up our intelligence, or our reasoning. On the other hand, it's too easy for us to keep our cool-hipster ironic stance on things, whereby we observe and hang back, and comment, but don' t throw ourselves in.Much of our culture is geared towards keeping us at a distance from life. Rituals, oaths, promises: these things confound the normal hands-off approach: "I'm going to do this thing even if I look silly, and turn out to be foolish in my aspirations." This is a leap towards openness. It's my turn to jump, silly rakusu robe and all, into this ridiculous world of vow where I pretend to be Superman, to master teachings and encounter Buddhas and save all beings, and join the ranks of those nonsensical folks from ages past and present who have done the same. Here I come!

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Perfect Zen Student?

"When things are running smoothly, the refrigerator is very much like some people's idea of the perfect Zen student. It is calm, cool, and quiet, and it possesses its own inner light."
- Gary Thorp, "Infinite Winter"
Read the entire article in the Tricycle Wisdom Collection

This above excerpt was emailed to me by Tricycle Magazine, of which I am quite the fan. But stuff like this quote I think really gets people in a total muddle. I spent a few years trying to be the perfect Zen student, and trying to be all those things listed above. I failed, and the reason? Because the above quote is perfect only in one way: it is the perfect caricature of a Zen practitioner. As Brad Warner might say, even whatisname on the front of Tricycle or any other similar mag isn't always cool, calm and illuminated. Many of us may spend very little time being any of these things. That doesn't make us any "worse" than those who fit the above model. To be fair, Mr Thorp does say it's only some people's idea of Zen, but it is quite a prevalent one in my experience...
 Zen is wide enough to include sorrow, rage, annoyance, boredom, pettiness, jealousy and the whole messy gamut of human experience. There's a koan (which I can't source right now) where a Zen teacher is found to be distraught at the death of a friend. "Why are you weeping?" his surprised students ask, "Are you not a Zen master?" "I'm sad, so I'm crying" came his response. Similarly, Natalie Goldberg is equally surprised when she criticises one of Katagiri's Dharma talks, and he displays disappointment. She figured, incorrectly, that he was somehow "above" that. But Zen is to reflect, and to be in the middle of all situations burning cleanly. If you are stuck in the idea of Zen being cool, calm and quiet, sooner or later someone will tweak your nose and you will say "OW!" and then where are your ideas?
The book from which this excerpt comes, Sweeping Zen by Gary Thorp, is pretty good. Just not the section that Tricycle posted to me.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Silliest Spiritual Game in Town

On occasion, Zen practice can give you what appears to be a real kick in the teeth. There are times when the whole game of it drops away and not only do you know it to be pointless, you feel that it is pointless. Absolutely pointless. This leaves you feeling like you are in freefall: one moment you had the Zen game with the sitting and the robes and whatnot, and then you realise that this patch of corporeality that you are pleased to call your body will one day cease operations and you will be dead, and there's absolutely nothing to be done about it. I was grumbling to myself that I don't have a teacher, and that I'd never be able to sew a raksusu in order to take the Bodhisattva Vow and on it went, a real outpouring of sorrow for myself. Then a thought occurred: what difference would a teacher, even the most famous, fierce and accomplished Zen type you could think of, what difference would they make? I'd still sit on my cushion. I'd still have to sew that f***ing rakusu. I'd still, to put it bluntly, have to die my own death. Ha.
Of course, we still like to play the game: I like the Zen game. I like the ritual, I like pretending that I'm connected with something venerable and deep. I like taking myself off to zazen and spending my evening sitting for nothing. I could do other, similar things: I could do vipassana, Insight or Shambhala, one of those modern Buddhisms which seems keen on meditation or Buddhism being a journey or a purification or something. But they don't seem to have the silliness, and I like silliness of the gravest, ancient and most serious sort.