Sunday, April 22, 2018

The suchness of Earth Day.

Seeing things as they truly are, without delusions or bias, is a serious challenge to world survival. The Buddha referred to himself as the Tathāgata, which is a derivative of the East Asian term Tathatā: the true basis of reality. Ordinarily, if we think of it at all, we think of spiritual awakening as some sort of magical state of mind. According to the 5th-century Chinese Mahayana scripture entitled Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana, the state of suchness/tathatā manifests in the highest wisdom with sublime attributes and is thus the womb of the Buddha.

In the world of today, living in a state of denial represents a threat of massive proportions, not only to those who choose to stay blind, but to us all. Putting ones head in the sand of ignorance does not insure safety. On the contrary, closing our  eyes to the very real consequences of a warming climate accomplishes nothing more than insuring the ultimate end of a world that enables life. 

On this day (Earth Day) we have an opportunity to do our part to find our voice of courage and speak up to insure, not only our own survival but the survival of our own progeny, not to mention all sentient beings. What we all need to recognize is that every step of human progress, from the very beginning, has been contingent on having a livable environment. And unless we wake up soon we will find ourselves in an environment so hostile that life will no longer be possible. The signs of this progressing devastation may already be experienced as indicated in this article that reveals everything from growing allergies to ultimate destruction.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The One for whom we search.

artwork created by Hsiao-Yen Jones
Identity is something the entire human race seeks for their whole life, only to end disappointed in what they find. Traveling to the ends of time and space we hope to find springs of self-knowledge, thinking that by drinking of the elixir that bubbles forth, a dawning of unique personhood will quench our thirsty souls and change us into someone of unique self-worth. 

We are, in large part, shaped mostly by matters in childhood that send us on journeys trying to understand or validate those early messages in ways that resemble the game of pick-up sticks; the art of arranging pieces of wood into complete constructions without removing the very stick that brings the construction crashing down into a pile of ash. So we begin once more only to be forced to discard the initial elements and start with nothing but the ever-flowing river of life: fluid and morphing moment by moment into shadows and phantoms.

In our quest, we often allow ourselves to reduce the work by depending on others whom we assume must have done the heavy lifting. So we form shared identities that belong to those who radiate semblances of authenticity and seem to have earned what we long for. Yet after a time, we fall short of our desires, for senses of peace, tranquility, and fulfillment. But finding instead a belt too tight that squeezes out what constitutes our hidden internal truth. Thus we become as birds sitting side by side on telephone wires sharing common habits and shallow skins, never feeling real or satisfied.

Time after time we try and fail to discover the one we are truly so we can claim self-assurance as solid and immovable as the granite shaping the mountains that grow mere inches over the span of eternities. But instead, we often resign and become as dictated by initial configurations that belong to someone but not us. And there we remain precarious and fearful of what we imagine lurks in the depths of unknowing.

The fortunate, only after failures too vast to recount, realize that at the core is a nothingness around which is shaped, without any effort or attempt, the true person we are. There is no true identity that defines with limitations; only one that unites. For to be a fabricated somebody, simply results in isolation from others not like us, and means we will live forever in bondage as fabricated beings we invent to feel at home with others who likewise invent themselves as other beings just as artificial and hollow as we ourselves have become.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Where are we going?

Any road to nowhere.
When you cut through the extraneous and get down to the fundamental issue, knowing where we are and where we’re going is kind of important. And I’m not referring to your next business or vacation trip. I’m referring to the ultimate destination if there is one. That’s a rhetorical “if” statement. Obviously, we are here and just as obviously we will die, at least the physical house within which we live and have our being.

If we’re unsure of our ultimate destination then the Cheshire Cat (see image above) is quite correct: any road will take us there. On the other hand, if there is an ultimate destination then we are either heading for it by what we think and do or we aren’t. Many are persuaded there is no ultimate destination so it doesn’t matter. Any road will get them to nowhere.

However many are persuaded they will go either up to a heaven in the sky or down to the bowels of Hell. Consequently, these folks make an attempt to do what they can to hedge their bets against some nasty brimstone (call it an insurance policy against unknowing) by doing their best to be agents for good, which is not necessarily a bad thing but the motive is questionable. They kind of know they haven’t met the requisite conditions to get where they want to go, but just maybe it will happen anyway.

Such thinking overlooks the possibility that there is nowhere to go other than where we are. Yesterday is a dream and tomorrow is speculation. So the trip destination is like being inside a giant room, unaware that you are, and thus desiring to be in that room. Of course, this room is an unconditional one and as such can’t be either here or there, tomorrow, today or yesterday. And why would that be? Because it is beyond conditions (unconditional). And if it is unconditional then we don’t have to wait for the grave to get there. We’re already there. And why is that? Because its unconditional.

All sentient beings have consciousness—ever-present yet without any defining properties. It is always here, and there—everywhere yet nowhere. And the true nature of consciousness is Shunyata (emptiness). The ultimate nature of the mind is empty like it states in the Heart Sutra: “Likewise, consciousness is Empty, and Emptiness is also consciousness. So, natural Tathagatagarbha is the emptiness of the mind.” There is nowhere to go where it is not so why go anywhere?

Granted this perspective is not your ordinary view, which says that our earthly life is separated from both the good and the bad future places, and which way we go depends on thinking and behaving our way into one or the other. This view has a name: duality, which is the anathema of religious thought. Of course, this idea would contradict the fundamental dogmas of religions, which splits the matter into separate departments. This latter would indeed keep us separated from our source and make our union dependent upon the impossible task of never making a mistake, or miming a formula that has changed over time that requires you to admit that you’re a bum and incapable of satisfying the necessary conditions. So what’re your options? Letting our source do what it does.

But if IT is unconditional (and hasn’t gone on vacation) then he/she/it lives within us, outside of us, beyond time and circumstances. And if that is true then we’re in for a very short journey because our destination is right back where we started.

As unlikely as you may think, this outlandish idea is precisely what the parable of the Prodigal Son, taught by Jesus says, or if you prefer the Zen version, it is what Hakuin Zenji, one of the most influential figures in Japanese Zen Buddhism, taught. The following is from his famous Song of Zazen

“From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice, without water no ice, outside us no Buddhas.
How near the truth, yet how far we seek.
Like one in water crying, ‘I thirst!’
Like the son of a rich man wand’ring poor on this earth, we endlessly circle the six worlds.
The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion.’”

So where are you going? And are you sure? In the end, it matters little whether youre sure or not because what we believe has no bearing on what’s real. But knowing certainly makes the non-trip more interesting.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Things are not what they seem.

Baobab Tree 
One of the most challenging spiritual matters to comprehend is the relationship between matter—which is clearly discriminately conditional, governed by the law of discernment, and karma, with a beginning and an ending—and spirit which is unified, whole without a beginning or an ending, and not subject to karma. How, we wonder, are these two dimensions NOT dual? Obviously one is conditional and the other is unconditional. Two very different natures that are somehow joined into an inseparable, single reality of unity. 

The Gita helps us to understand by grasping the philosophy and language of the time when it was written. From that frame of reference, two words/concepts are important: Purusha, (spirit), and Prakriti, (everything else). Prakriti is the field of what can be known objectively, the field of phenomena (perceived through the senses), the world of whatever has “name and form”: that is, not only of matter and energy but also of the mind.

Purusha, on the other hand, permeates and infuses Prakriti. It is everywhere present but unseen. From that perspective, the notion of duality disappears since Prakriti emanates (grows from) Purusha. Think of the relationship between the two as the perception and functioning of the strange giant Baobab Tree from Madagascar. If ever there was an odd part of Prakriti that illustrated the relationship this tree would be the perfect example. The trunk is clearly not divided yet the branches are, and they grow inseparable from a unified trunk. Obviously, neither could exist alone, both grow out of an unseen subterranean root system, unseen, beneath the ground and the spirit of the tree (sap) flows freely throughout.

The illustrated example is close except for one thing: both are phenomenal versions of Prakriti. To complete the picture (still only approximate) we need to add a dimension of reflection. In the same way that the Lotus reaches upward, originating from beneath the mud of the unconscious, and emerges into the light from the shimmering waters as discriminate form, so too we can add the waters of graduating clarity. While we can’t see into the mud of the unconscious we know it is still a version of consciousness, and by penetrating into the depths we can release the spirit until it enters the world of Prakriti.

And how exactly would that penetration be accomplished? Here again, the Gita guides the way: Samadhi. Two schools of thought exist, sudden and gradual enlightenment. Ordinarily, samadhi can be entered only following a long period of meditation and after many years of ardent endeavor. But in one verse of The Gita (5:28) a significant word sada, “always” is portrayed. Once this state of deep concentration becomes established, the person lives in spiritual freedom, or moksha, permanently. 

The enlightenment experience is a singularly intense experience which tells one his or her place in the scheme of things. This is more often than not a once and for all experience which will cause the experiencer never again to doubt his or her relationship with or to the Self, others, the world, and whatever one may believe is beyond the world. This experience is enormously validating or empowering and is unlike any other experience one can have. 

Since non-dual reality cannot be divided into incremental parts, it cannot be grasped little by little as the gradual enlightenment approach implies. The non-dual must be realized all at once (suddenly) as a whole or not at all. As sada, is always present, once Purusha is experienced it can never again come and go, as Prakriti surely does. The right vs. wrong of Prakriti becomes right and wrong of Purusha. “Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”

Monday, April 9, 2018


The secret of happiness.
Rich man, poor man, Beggar man, thief, Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief.—The limerick, reflecting a child’s wondering: What will I be when I grow up? Every child thinks about that question. Every adult continues to wonder. It seems like a game of chance. The more important question; the one that is never asked, is not what but how. The “what” presumes the “how” but it rarely works out the way we imagine. We really ought to think more about the latter and less about the former.

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness….” So wrote Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

Every time I contemplate those words an image pops into my mind of a mule trying to catch the carrot on the end of a stick attached to his head. The faster he goes, the faster the carrot moves away. Everyone wants to be happy yet the pursuit takes us further and further away. The carrot is never eaten and the mule starves in his pursuit.

It seems axiomatic that the fruit of whatever work we choose should result in happiness, if not immediately then certainly after a time of diligence and perseverance. It’s the bargain we make with life, yet more times than not the bargain goes adrift. Could it be we are looking in the wrong direction? Forwards? Backward? Which way? How about within? And just maybe we need to first answer a more fundamental question of being because until we know who and what we are, we’re all chasing shadows and thinking all the while that happiness is a reward.

The greatest wisdom says otherwise. This is what Krishna tells Arjuna in The Bhagavad Gita: 

“You have the right to work, but never to the fruit of work. You should never engage in action for the sake of reward, nor should you long for inaction. Perform work in this world, Arjuna, as a man established within himself—without selfish attachments, and alike in success and defeat. For yoga is perfect evenness of mind.

Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness. Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill.”

Thich Nhat Hanh ends a talk in The Art of Mindful Living (Sounds True, 1992) with this: “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. There is no way to peace, peace is the way. There is no way to enlightenment, enlightenment is the way.

All good words yet none of them will take us to happiness until we unveil our essential Selves (Atman). “Those who mistake the unessential to be essential and the essential to be the unessential, dwelling in wrong thoughts, never arrive at the essential. Those who know the essential to be essential and the unessential to be unessential, dwelling in right thoughts, do arrive at the essential…We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.”The Dhammapada. 

Until such time as we awaken to our essence, our thoughts will be wrong, we’ll dwell on the unessential, happiness will remain a figment of our imaginations and we’ll continue to chase the carrot.

Saturday, April 7, 2018


This post is particularly relevant in light of the present day problem of opioid addiction. Our common-coin manner of understanding addiction is too limited. When we think of someone addicted we see images in our mind of drug addicts or derelicts who were unable to overcome excessive opioid consumption. Maybe we’ll even go so far as to include someone who can’t control his or her consumption of food or sex. Whatever object is chosen—another person, drugs, alcohol, food, the greed for money or sex, becomes the god we must have to fill a sensed emptiness. Rarely, however, do we consider the average person exhibiting expressions of addiction, and that’s the problem.

Addiction, properly understood at the fundamental level is craving: an excessive desire. Everybody falls victim to that. We either crave what we like or resist what we hate. Both are forms of craving (excessive desire). To get to the bottom of this dilemma we need to ask, “which part of me is craving and why?” Someone who is complete doesn’t crave anything, so it must be the incomplete part of us—the part of us that says, “I need that to experience myself as complete and satisfied, and without getting that I will suffer”.

Meister Eckhart said, “To be full of things is to be empty of God. To be empty of things is to be full of God. Man’s last and highest parting occurs when for God’s sake he takes leave of god. St. Paul took leave of god for God’s sake and gave up all that he might get from god as well as all he might give—together with every idea of god. In parting with these he parted with god for God’s sake and God remained in him as God is in his own nature—not as he is conceived by anyone to be—nor yet as something yet to be achieved, but more as an is-ness, as God really is. Then he and God were a unit, that is pure unity. Thus one becomes that real person for whom there can be no suffering, any more than the divine essence can suffer.”

A while ago I heard a man say, “I can understand how Christ can be in me, but how is it possible for me to be in Christ?” Clearly, this person had a rather limited view of both himself and of Christ and apparently didn’t believe what his own scripture tells him about the nature of God. It says there that the nature of God is omnipresent. If this man truly believed this, the answer to his question would be clear: there is no place that God is not, so how is it possible for anyone to not be in Christ? The entire sea in which we swim is God. Fish are in the water and we are in God.

In our ignorance, we imagine that we are separate from the fullness of our creator, that we are not a unit and this, in turn, leads to a deep desire to become what we are already, thus we suffer. The Buddha also spoke in the Nipata Sutra about what happens due to ignorance.

“What is it that smothers the world? What makes the world so hard to see? What would you say pollutes the world and threatens it the most?’ ‘It is ignorance which smothers’ the Buddha replied, ‘and it heedlessness and greed which make the world invisible. The hunger of desire pollutes the world, and the great source of fear is the pain of suffering.” 

All people fear the pain of suffering and this makes us blind to the suffering of others. While locked in the grip of our egos, we think we’re the only ones at risk, and in that state of mind, we become greedy and uncaring. At the center of suffering lays this idea that we are separate and incomplete and that leads to the craving for what we have already.

The ancient Daoist admonition applies here, “Resist nothing and embrace everything today. The perfect day and night are within you. Let it all unfold like a blossom.” Picking and trying to retain only the good, while resisting what we imagine will darken our day, is the true addiction and that leads inevitably to suffering.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Hindsight is 20/20.

Looking in the rear-view mirror is advantageous to looking ahead. The past tells you from where you’ve come but it doesn’t necessarily tell you where you’re going. It may, however, enable you to see a vector pointing forward. And what if that backward view says, you’re on the wrong road and heading for an abyss? This dilemma was best conveyed by Robert Frost in his poem The Road Not Taken.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Frost’s poetic foray into the unknown could be seen as foolhardy unless that vector was fraught with doubts about your life and where it suggested you were going next. That was certainly true in my case. As I looked back over the span of 40 years I could see abundant evidence that I was on the wrong road and had come to the inescapable conclusion that something very serious was wrong. But what? At that critical juncturethe dividing of paths forward, I felt absolutely without value and was in a state of existential crisis. When every indicator says continue on with fear and tribulation, leaping into the unknown isn’t as foolhardy as it might otherwise seem.

Without a clue, I was a ripe candidate for what I later learned was called the Southern School of Chan (sudden enlightenment)The way began by Shenhui, a disciple of Zen Master Huineng all the way back in China during the 7th century CE and developed into what is now Rinzai Zen. As I look back, taking the right fork in the road, seems providential and maybe even coincidental. At that time I didn’t even know about the roots of Rinzai or how it was different from Soto. It has taken me almost that long to become educated about that leap. All I knew then was what lay behind me was self-destructive, and unless I found a better path forward, my goose was cooked.

As it turned out my teacher was the blend of both Soto and Rinzai and his dharma name was Eido (the combination of Eisai/Yōsai Zenji and Dōgen Zenji)The two Zen masters responsible for fostering Soto and Rinzai Zen in Japan. I can say, without any hesitation, that under his guidance my life was transformed and I came to experience my complete worth. It took me the first 40 to reach the point of sensing utter worthlessness and nearly as long to mature into utter worth. If there was ever a proof of dependent arising I would be it. 

In the 8th century CE an Indian Buddhist philosopher by the name of Śhāntideva said that in order to be able to deny something, we first have to know what it is we’re denying. The logic of that statement is peerless. He went on to say, “Without contacting the entity that is imputed you will not apprehend the absence of the entity.” The value of first knowing vacillating despair made it possible to know the firmness of fulfillment.

During the years following our meeting, Eido Roshi fell into disrepute for sexual misconduct. I can’t condone what he did in that respect but I will forever be grateful for what he did for me. The founder of the Rinzai Zen (Lin Chi) used the idiom “True Man of no rank” because, within our ineffable, transcendent sphere, there is no conditional right nor wrong. Eido lived, as he taught—on two levels at the same time. The level that erred is the same level we all endure. That level is flawed but Eido’s “True Man of no rank” was without blemish. And this is true for us all.

It is not up to me or anyone, to judge and condemn his actions. The Buddha said, Do not be the judge of people; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments about others.  Sage advise we should all take to heart.

Eido Roshi died February 18, 2018, at Shōgen-ji, Minokamo, in Gifu Prefecture, Japan and will be buried at Dai Bosatsu Zendo (where we met so many years ago) on Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Gassho Eido!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Transcendence and the Middle Way

“The Middle Way” is a hallmark of Buddhist thought yet the term is often short-changed or converted into a sort of formula for advancing toward enlightenment—A pathway. Over the vast expanse of time since Buddhism became established, this pathway was been adorned with many different embellishments, not all of which are helpful.

Initially The Middle Way meant “not this, not that; not not this, not not that”—both a negation and an affirmation at the same time: a position (or non-position) between all opposites, but especially between permanence and impermanence. During the epoch of The Buddha, Indian philosophy was wrestling with these two opposites. One school argued in favor of an absolute, the other school argued in favor of complete nihilism. Upon his enlightenment, Gautama realized that neither school was right, nor were they wrong—thus The Middle Way.

And while this enlightened conclusion may have philosophically resolved the matter, the real power is to transcend the entire issue, in fact, to transcend ALL opposition or sameness. In Western thought, something is momentarily one thing or another at any given point in time and space. A “white” object is only a discrete white object and nothing else. A “good” thing is discretely a good thing. One set of beliefs are right and others are wrong. If a person is considered to be a Democrat they can’t be a Republican; if a Buddhist, not a Christian. We enshrine such exclusive labels. Given the passage of time, space and circumstances one thing may (or may not) transform from one discrete thing into another. The problem with this way of thinking is that it moves backward into the same argument that was resolved by Gautama more than 2,500 years ago—“not this, not that; not not this, not not that.” Sometimes it seems that we are doomed to keep repeating the same error endlessly.

For The Middle Way to have any usefulness (beyond philosophy) transcendence is required: to simply move beyond all opposites and do away with such views. To adopt view “A” (while excluding all “non-A” views) gets us stuck, or to use a Buddhist term “attached” which The Buddha taught is the nexus of suffering. Practically speaking, hardly a moment passes when we don’t find ourselves taking up a firm stance on something. We almost regard this way as virtuous. My country right or wrong; love it or leave it. My ideology is right. Yours is wrong. And we demand that our leaders embrace this hardened, bunker mentality. This way of taking up inflexible stances is wreaking our world. How can we remain being open without being considered wishy-washy, or a fence straddler? In the West, it is very difficult.

To answer that question it is necessary to seriously consider this matter of “transcendence.” The truth is that everything has two-interdependent states vs. discrete, independent states. A “white” object can only be that way because it contains all other colors. Scientists proved that long ago through diffraction. Okay, then you would argue that the opposite of white is black and for sure is not in the light spectrum—it is the absence of light. This “view” would be correct and not correct—not this, not that, not not this, not not that. Why? Because light and not light arise together just as a mother can only be a mother by virtue of having a child, or a child can only be a child by virtue of having a mother: the chicken and egg thing. This interdependent acknowledgment has a name in Buddhism. It’s called dependent origination which has been central to evolving Dharma (e.g., truth) teachings.

There have been many enlightened Zen masters but one of my favorites is Huang Po. Here is what he had to say about this issue. “Once you stop arousing concepts and thinking in terms of existence and non-existence, long and short, other and self, active and passive, and suchlike, you will find that your Mind is intrinsically the Buddha, that the Buddha is intrinsically Mind, and that Mind resembles a void.”—From the Wan Ling Record. Huang Po is very succinct and cuts to the heart of the matter. He is talking here about transcending, just canning all conceptual matters and allowing your mind to rest with the understanding that there are no valid, exclusive positions and when we adopt a position (any) we are trapped like a monkey who reaches into a jar to get a goodie and won’t let go, thus imprisoning himself. We do it all of the time and pay a heavy price when we do.

At the core of each and every one of us, there is a place of peace—a void, without this vs. that. Call it what you will: Buddha, One Mind, Dharmakāya, The Absolute, whatever. The label doesn’t matter. When we move away from that central place we run the risk of creating karma (either good or bad). At the core there is no karma because this is the realm of the Transcendent Middle Way—“not this, not that; not not this, not not that.” Yet this core space can’t exist without the jar and if we try to grasp it we’ll get just as stuck as the monkey. But maybe Huang Po would say just forget about jars and what’s inside. Just let it all go.
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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Pearls of Wisdom

Arjuna and Lord Shri Krishna
The Bhagavad Gita is unquestionably considered a profound masterpiece of Eastern spiritual literature. There is a wide range of views on the exact time of writing, authorship (traditionally ascribed to the Sage Vyasa) and historical occurrence. Upon reading, these difference in opinion fade in comparison to understanding the human mind and relationship to the divine. 

For those preoccupied with such details, they may explore here and beyond. I leave these matters to the scholars and other “experts”, some of whom post here in Google+. My interest is how the wisdom expressed in The Gita impacts the lives of all humankind, any time, anywhere.

So beginning today, from time to time, I will post excerpts from The Gita, as translated by Eknath Easwaran. In his words, “The Gita’s subject is ‘the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious’, and that ‘The language of battle is often found in the scriptures, for it conveys the strenuous, long, drawn-out campaign we must wage to free ourselves from the tyranny of the ego, the cause of all our suffering and sorrow.’”

The setting of the Gita in a battlefield has been interpreted as an allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of the human life.

“In profound meditation, they (e.g., the ancients) found, when consciousness is so acutely focused that it is utterly withdrawn from the body and mind, it enters a kind of singularity (Throughout Eastern spirituality this known as Samadhiin which the sense of a separate ego disappears. In this state, the supreme climax of meditation, the seers discovered a core of consciousness beyond time and change. They called it simply Atman, the Self.”

Easwaran Ed., Eknath. The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality) (Kindle Locations 227-230). Nilgiri Press. Kindle Edition.

Love and suffering.