Wednesday 3 June 2020

Zen for even harder times

Suffice to say: right now there is a lot of suffering, plenty even; more than enough to go round.

When it falls to commenting on the turbulences of the day, perhaps we expect Buddhists to speak of peace and calm. But as we know, telling someone who is categorically not calm to calm down is not going to cut it.
I used to think, even as the shabby excuse for a Buddhist that I am, that I ought to be wise at people: dispense words as balm for their suffering souls. What a dick.

I used to also think that being a Buddhist would mean that I could sail above the currents of suffering. I would see suffering around me  and I would actually think (I cringe as I type) "I bet I could handle that better".

This was when I was young, when I had energy and confidence, and was living a pretty untroubled life.

I've taken a few knocks by now though, and seen a few things. Nothing drastic, just a discreet little Buddhist cabaret of old age, illness and death among those close to me. I'm all out of energy. I run on coffee fumes and desperation. And still, my life ain't half bad.

I was recently struck by one of the most famous of Zen koans: the Wild Fox koan, "Hyakujo's Fox" to give its formal name, case number 2 of the Mumonkan.

I won't quote the whole thing. But essentially a Zen monk is condemned to five hundred lifetimes as a fox (foxes were a kind of minor demon in the old Chinese/Japanese way of things) because he denies that he is vulnerable to the workings of karma. That's to say, he thinks he can rise above cause-and-effect, above the system, above the messy entanglement of humanity, and all the rest.

Did you ever see the TV show Quantum Leap? The protagonist Sam would "wake up" in a different person's body each week, and would troubleshoot their lives until he had "solved" the situation, and was moved along to the next scenario, and the next episode. I think the monk in the Fox koan sees himself like Sam.
But to really have the superpower of walking in someone else's shoes is to realise that in those shoes, you would act no different to the original shoe owner. You wouldn't be like Sam, zipping about and sorting out people's lives. You would be caught by the same traps, enmired by the same sorrows, and blinded by the same ignorances as the person whose life you had improbably usurped.

We are all capable of anger, ignorance and hatred. If we don't recognise these things in ourselves, then we will have to spend many lifetimes wandering in the wilds, until we do. 

Sometimes I am to be found in those wilds myself. 

Peace, from a beast. 

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Putting up with Master Dogen- episode 1

"You know Koun, I'm so pleased we moved here to Fukui Province. Back in Edo I really felt that a heron's whiteness against the snow is the milk of the Buddhas, whereas whiteness, heron-ness and snowness surpass all the Dharmas..."

 Koun rolled his eyes at his Master's back, as he did so often when Dogen was getting lyrical...but he replied thus: "Yes indeed master. And there's a lot less in the way of rivers of blood here, eh?"

They threaded their way slowly around the site, a shaded rocky valley with a few patches of level ground here and there. "The Buddha hall could go here, kitchen there, and a nice big zendo right here". The Master had a gleam in his eye.

Koun looked about him. "We shall need funds Master..."

"I have faith. If we turn the Dharma wheel, the money will appear."

Koun thought of the begging letters he had penned in secret and left for the messenger in a bundle, at the last post town they had stayed at. "Well if we don't get funds soon Master, we might have to pop the old Dharma wheel on the fire just to keep warm..."

Dogen turned about, his small mouth cracked a slow toothy grin, "Ha! Very good o'disciple, like Ancestor Tanka burning the wooden buddha! Yes!" The Master unshouldered his load, and produced two meditation cushions, zafus, which looked far too big to fit in the bag they had come from.

 "You managed to bring spares Master?".

Koun tried to mask his displeasure. He needn't have bothered: the Master literally couldn't hear a word said against zazen, the meditation practice of their school. It was rather like people who adore cats, however vile and malevolent an individual feline might be. He didn't look up, but was busy plumping the zafus into life. Koun's knees whimpered, cowed by years of punishing meditation, "Easy boys" he whispered.

Dogen straightened up and rubbed his hands together gleefully, "fifty minutes ought to do it, just a quick one before breakfast. The rock might be a bit hard on the old knees, but we won't let that bother us will we?".

Monday 13 April 2020

The Nut of Our Problems

Zen might be too big a hammer to crack the nut of our problems. And that is fine.

Some of us need some relaxation, a way of grounding ourselves, or perhaps of tuning in with our breath and our bodies. This is all great stuff: practically superpowers, every one of 'em.

But zazen, the meditation practice of Zen, has its beady eye on a different prize.

This is where it gets tricky, because the next sensible question is "oh what's that then?".

I will say "Reality", just for fun, with a capital to show that it's a Thing. Not that what we currently inhabit now isn't Reality. The zazen reality is just the same: it feels, smells, looks and means the same thing...except that normally we aren't looking, smelling, feeling and generally grokking* the Reality we are in now. What's more we're often not very now about it either...Add to this the fact that Zen has some interesting threads of its own to bring to the tapestry of our experience: impermanence, interdependence and co-dependent arising.

Zazen is not looking to tinker on the edges of our being, but to overturn our whole habitual approach to being. Sometimes we are not ready for that. I was ready, or so I thought. Then I wasn't. Now I'm not sure, but I can't seem to stop Zen practice whether I want to or not. Formal group practice has become less influential for me, and a "householder" approach with mostly lone zazen, has taken over.

Charlotte Joko Beck, a thoroughly practical Zen teacher, wrote "Don't practice unless you feel there's nothing else you can do. Instead step up your surfing or your physics or your music. If that satisfies you, do it. Don't practice unless you feel you must." (pp 52, "Everyday Zen".) 

There were a few things for me that still needed exploring: fatherhood, martial arts, writing, trying to get a decent job...

What turned (and turns me still) back onto the road of zazen is a keen sense of mortality, fuelled by some real life encounters, and some good old existential anxieties.

If we do start to practice zazen, we might get a glimpse of just how often life does overturn: it overturns in every instant, in fact it is never not overturning. The trick then is: how are we to live, given this incredible Reality?

We might also come to Zen practice if our usual sense of being has overturned all by itself...

Zazen is a formal practice, a physical way of sitting, with a particular viewpoint on what the sitting is for: strictly we do zazen for its own effect and not to achieve some "result".

But sometimes zazen or something very like it can steal upon us in moments of our day. Perhaps we catch the flicker of a thought just before it leaps into the centre stage of our consciousness, or perhaps we hear a sound, maybe birdsong or the clatter of  a dish, that seems not to come from outside but from an expanded sense of inside...

Like all schools or traditions, Zen likes to make claims for the efficacy of its teachings, "If you do zazen like we recommend then you can claim to be this". And maybe there's some truth to that. I've heard it put like this: awakening is an accident, and zazen makes you more accident-prone. 

But there are always subversive teachings: like that of Nan Chuan who was asked by Chao Chu "What is Tao?". He answered, "Everyday mind is Tao". "Should we try to direct ourselves towards it or not?" continued Chao Chu. "If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it."

So whether we practice zazen or we don't, the very existence of zazen points towards something we could call "everyday mind". As soon as someone says "everyday mind" however, we probably feel a million miles away from it. Ignore it, pretend to ignore it, or strive for it wholeheartedly: who knows the difference?

What I find these days is that zazen is less a seeking for everyday mind, and more an expression of it. But it's not the only one...

It's all a bit mysterious. And perhaps what we may crave (and need) is comfort, rather than some wild goose chase along spiritual or existential lines.

We don't know what the nut of these times needs to crack it. But maybe a goddamned universe-
sized hammer will do the trick.

*word used a lot in the sixties which I think deserves a renaissance which means to understand at a fundamental level, at a the level of immersion...rather like that other sixties word "dig" as in "Yeah man I dig it"...

"Harlan Pepper if you don't stop namin'nuts..."

Wednesday 8 April 2020

The Origins of Zen in China probably...

The following exchange was deciphered from an ancient scroll found in the Dunhuang Caves...

"How's the Silk Road these days?" the Chinese scribe asked as the mules gathered in an exhausted knot. 

The Indian monk halted and clasped his hands flat together by way of greeting, then brushed sand from his ragged robe, "Coo it was packed, you'd think there was  a Mongol invasion the way people are carrying on. I hit traffic by the Persian turn -off, that was a three day wait, trying to keep the mules from the wolves and bandits. Then a cart overturned on the roundabout near the Bactrian border..."

The scribe nodded and tsked in sympathy, "Probably a Samarkandian merchant, typical.  Lets get the mule unpacked,eh? You'll want a rest before you take the others onwards, I guess?".

The monk adjusted his robe over his shoulder, "Onwards brother? No these are all for you."

The scribe peered at the dozen or so beasts of burden, who looked disgruntled and slightly wolved. "Really? These mules are all loaded with the new teachings?"

The Indian looked pleased with himself,"You've got a few hundred scrolls, parchments and pamphlets, and we threw in a few small statues and some bones that might have been Buddha's. Or not: you know how it is with these relics.."

"They told me there were three baskets, not fourteen mules' worth!"

"It was thought that three baskets sounded more poetic".

The scribe sucked his teeth in the time- honoured manner, "Poetic is all well and good but it doesn't get the scribing done...there must be a good decade's work for me in that lot... have you got anything...shorter? For people to get their teeth into right away? Like a digested version?"

"The Nikaya here is only about three scrolls long..?"

"Hmm that's the shortest?"

The monk tapped his chin thoughtfully, "Well there's this..." he sat down in the road, and assumed a position.

The scribe nodded, "That's meditation! I know that! Tricky thing though, the Taoists have that already, I don't want to step on any toes..."

"Does their meditation allow a person to partake of Buddha's mind...?"

"I don't think so. I'm not sure, can't understand most of what they're on about to be fair, it's all "purify red cinnabar" and "mix the jade essence" and whatnot."

"Sounds like my mum's old cough mixture recipe. Anyway, with this, you sit down and then you're Buddha."

"What? Just like that? Well that's nice and simple. What's all that for then?" the scribe gestured at the baggage train. 

The monk looked at it too and shrugged his narrow shoulders. "Folks like a nice text, gives 'em something to look at. Anyway Buddha's words are recorded there, that's spiritual gold-dust that is..."

"Verbatim?" asked the scribe; 

"I didn't touch him" replied the monk.

"I mean, Buddha's words were recorded at the time he spoke them."

"Technically, in a manner of speaking. It might have taken the lads a few hundred years to commit something to parchment, mind..."

The scribe nodded, "I've got a few projects on the back burner myself. Well, shall we get this lot unloaded, kick the mules a bit, then what say we grab a rice dinner, my treat?"*

*of course none of this is verified or even true...

A History of Tripitaka Koreana, the World's Greatest Collection of ...

Sunday 5 April 2020

When the going gets tough, the tough get Buddhist...

Zen Buddhism is more about doing what Buddha did, rather than what he said. Zen is about trying to leap into the mind of Budda as he became enlightened. Which is clearly impossible. But Zen folks are not put off by impossible: in fact one of the most important ideas is that of the Four Vows, all four of which are impossible. This kind of cosmic silliness comes in pretty damned handy when life flips upside down, like what is happening now. 

 I did Zen practice for some years, and I was a utter Zen geek. Then I sort of tried to give it up. I never really stopped sitting on my black cushion and being quiet,and that's the main thing in Zen: sitting quietly. I still did that, but I didn't go to the friendly but small group of fellow sitters which had nurtured my patchy Zen career. I thought I had enough to do with a baby daughter arriving. Fast forward a few years and suddenly I'm all like "jeez I'm not sure I would have survived that without Zen practice". Then my Dad gets ill and my stepmum dies and I'm like "hell I couldn't have got through that without Zen practice". And then coronovirus appears on the scene and I'm sitting everyday and thinking "man I'm glad I know this, how do folks manage without some sort of practice?"

So I'm trying to get back to Zen. If you want a lift there, maybe I can help? And it would really help me out with my vow of saving all beings (that's one of the four impossible vows mentioned above). Desperate times mean desperate measures. Anyway there's only so much time a person should spend on Netflix in a day (is it me or do they have an algorithm that ensures that the film you actually want to watch will not be on there?).

I'm not an expert. I'm not a very good Buddhist. But I've sat on a cushion a bit, I've been on retreats; I've even walked a seven -hundred mile Buddhist pilgrimage in Japan. So I know a bit.

What good will Zen do?

Number one: Zen came about through hundreds of years of folks living cheek by jowl in monasteries, in a really intense way, and trying not to get annoyed with one another. Seriously. A fair bit of Zen mindset is about not annoying other folk. Is that a good skill for the family cooped up in a lockdown style? Yes it surely is. And if we are alone in splendid isolation? Well it'll help us in not annoying ourselves...

Number two: If you don't know what to do in the face of COVID 19 then Zen is perfect: sitting in Zen meditation (zazen) is the embodiment of I don't know but I need to do something. Don't imagine for a second that zazen is doing nothing. Sitting will show you that there is whole jungle of activity going on in that silent world that maybe you've just never had time to notice before.

Number three: There's a lot of mortality and impermanence sloshing about. Zen practice is totally geared up for that. The teachers of old didn't duck the matter of life and death: in fact they knew it as The Great Matter. Facing squarely up to it is a grisly task. But I think it's the right thing to do. 

Listen, there's probably more to say. But I'm planning on being back here regularly, to shoot the Zen breeze. Writing this stuff down helps me to go back to that cushion everyday, even when I'm thinking "this is pointless, aren't there a million other things to do?". So you're helping me out by reading this.

Thanks and Buddhist bows in your direction, N.
photo copyright © C Gill 2008 

Thursday 10 January 2019

Just make like a tree...

Sometimes in life you look at other folks and think "Geez, I'm glad I'm not in their shoes". Recently I have been  firmly jammed into those shoes like an unwilling Zen version of Cinderella: tough times have been upon me, and those that I love. A family member has been dying, and finally died a few days ago.

I saw a blog post by a Buddhist recently. He was observing the fall of the leaves in autumn time, and lamenting that we humans can't suffer change with the grace displayed by the leaves.

He was labouring under the notion that we humans add all sorts of extra worries and notions of ego to our problems, and thereby we make a mess of our suffering. I know that this is kind of a paraphrase of what Buddha taught. I think the Zen view here goes one better though: to take the situation as already being whole, and not in need of fixing.

What our blog writing pal seemed unable to see is that the cries, arguments, agendas, vendettas and dramas exactly are our way of twisting prettily in the wind. The leaf goes dry and crackly, falls off and twirls to the forest floor, there to mulch down into the soil and air as cellulose,carbon and whatever else. We writhe about and write wills and shout at care staff and bicker with our husbands from our death bed. Perhaps some of us won't. It's not even so much death itself that takes over, but rather the very interconnectedness of human existence, which may mean that even if Grandpa Joe is going peacefully into the night, Cousin John is determined to make a goddamned scene about it.

If you think that your death and suffering is going to be as detached and poetic as the leaves falling, well maybe it will be, and that's wonderful. And there are things you can do to mitigate some of the potential dramas.

But if you can only bear your end, and the end of others, as long as it presents a certain way, then you might run into difficulties.

There's suffering either way I suppose though. Buddha said that too.

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...