Monday, May 25, 2020

What we don’t know can hurt us.

The realm of reality.
Many, if not most, of the problems we encounter as humans are due to what we either don’t know or refuse to know. Such a lack has a way of catching us off guard at the worst possible moments, usually late in the game when there is little we can do to stop, or at least slow the progression toward disaster. The coronavirus pandemic is a case in point. So long as we can be aware of the sign-posts, we can prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Hope, however, must be realistic and in line with those sign-posts, or it remains pie in the sky. What we don’t know can, and many times does, hurt us.

Without knowing, we live in two realms at once: The realm of rational conditions (the mortal one) and a realm beyond conditions, where immortality lives. Think of the realm of immortality as the ground from which our mortal lives grow. It is very much like growing a garden. If the immortal soil is full of nutrients, then the odds are better, the mortal produce will be nutritious.

The realm of mortal conditions is our ordinary realm, where one thing stands in opposition to another. Mortally we have a beginning and an ending. In this realm, differentiation is the criteria and is based on the senses that tell us how we are all different. Our sense of sight says to us, light is different from darkness. Our auditory sense tells us that sound is different from silence, and so on—each of our senses discriminates one thing from another different sensory thing.

The immortal realm is the realm of unity, where everything is the same. And unlike what grows, the immortal ground has no beginning nor end. That’s the good soil and is the unconditional realm of the spirit: the ground of all being—the well-spring of all. And these two realms are irrevocably joined together in perfect harmony. Should one realm disappear, the other would disappear. When one appears, the other appears. They define one another, and without an opposite, neither can be understood, just as without light, darkness would have no meaning. One is an abstraction—an illusion that appears to our senses as real, whereas the other, while invisible to the senses, is reality itself.

To our collective misfortune, the ordinary realm (e.g., the conditional) is what governs our world and is the root of all woe. It is because we imagine our life will end that we fear death, never realizing that genuine life never ends. Mortality segues into immortality, and life goes on. However, when we think we get only one shot, we see ourselves as distinct, separate, and different only. Then the mortal realm becomes a place where tribal wars of opposition rule the day, where nobody genuinely “reaches across the aisle,” and compromise becomes impossible, except as disingenuous lip-service.

It is within the silence of the mind where we discover our true, immortal worth. When all thinking ceases, it is there we find our true nature. Yet, as The Buddha taught, in emptiness, there is no mind and no self, so we call them both by abstract names to become aware. Without abstraction, only silence prevails, but it is within silence where we become enlightened to that which is the source of all awareness.

To most of the western world, Zen is a strange and confusing matter, most often utterly misunderstood. The founder of Zen (Bodhidharma) defined Zen as “not thinking.” And the great master Huang Po taught: “Whatever the senses apprehend resembles an illusion, including everything ranging from mental concepts to living beings. Our Founder—The Buddha, preached to his disciple's naught (e.g., nothing) but total abstraction leading to the elimination of sense-perception. In this total abstraction does the Way of the Buddhas flourish; while from discrimination between this and that a host of demons blazes forth!” The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, (The teacher of Zen Master Rinzai).

If westerners had lived in the eastern world, Zen would not seem strange. Instead, the odds are favorable that Zen would be understood as the means The Buddha employed to experience enlightenment. Many in the western world have become aware of the practice of mindfulness meditation in helping to quiet the mind, leading to less stress and improved health. However, what has not yet become well established is the next stage beyond mindfulness. Quieting the mortal mind is a sign-post on the way to what follows. First, the chatter must be regulated and brought under control. Then, and only then, is it possible to move on to the deeper stage of Samādhi attained by the practice of dhyāna (e.g., the ancient name given to the practice of Zen—the last step in the Eight Fold Path, otherwise known as Right Concentration). The preceding step (the seventh) was known as Right mindfulness, the level that is now so popular. There is nothing wrong with mindfulness. But there is more beyond that sign-post on the way, but following that, the going gets tougher.

The great Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa said, “My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and is too demanding. I suggest you ask for your money back and go home. This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you. So, it is best not to begin. However, if you do begin, it is best to finish.” The beginning would be more aligned with Right mindfulness, whereas Right Concentration is more aligned with finishing up the journey.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Dreams and delusions.

Chuang Tzu's Dream of reality.
The expression, “You are living in a dream world” is understood to mean you are out of touch with reality. I know, as a result of conversations with my friends, that during this pandemic, dreams are becoming more frequent and seemingly real. I, too, have experienced the same thing. This could be the result of being forced into isolation and the resulting anxiety we are all experiencing. What dwells in our subconscious is coming out of the closet, perhaps as the result of limited input.

The great Taoist master Chuang Tzu once dreamt that he was a butterfly fluttering here and there. In the dream he had no awareness of his individuality as a person. He was only a butterfly. Suddenly, he awoke and found himself laying there, a person once again. But then he thought to himself, “Was I before a man who dreamt about being a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly who dreams about being a man?”

Many people don’t know what the term “Buddha” means. It means “awake,” and within the context of  The Buddha, it meant “awakened one, or enlightened one,” which is not limited to The Buddha, Buddhists, or any other restrictively defined persons. The means The Buddha pursued toward awakening was intimately linked to the practice of Zen—the pathway that encompasses long periods of draining the swamp of the delusions living in our subconscious. Hardly anyone is aware of such delusions for a simple reason: They reside in consciousness at the unconscious level which naturally come out at night, sometimes in very strange ways that seem very real, like being a butterfly. Only when we come out of a sleep state are we able to realize what we experienced were dreams. And sometimes even then we are not quite sure if they were real or not.

Modern-day psychologist and psychiatrists, for the most part, agree that whatever is rooted in our subconsciousness can, and often does, disrupt our waking lives since we have been programmed by prior experiences and learning (some of which produce biases, preconceived beliefs, and dogma) which then become dominating forces that filter our sense of “what’s real.” All of us are affected by what we can perceive and nobody (ordinarily) can perceive the source of perception that bypasses these powerful, embedded delusions that shape our lives.

Zen provides that avenue, the means, to plunge into the depths of consciousness, through and down to that source. And when you arrive at the source you “wake up” to suchness—things as they are without the delusions that control our lives, most importantly who we are and who we are not (an ego). Only then do we experience, and realize, that pure consciousness is identical in every sentient being. That is the place of ultimate union with everything—a place of unconditional connectivity, liberated from the controlling force of delusions. It doesn’t mean you have necessarily completely drained the swamp. Some obstacles are too deeply rooted and can come out to “play” in destructive ways.

The father of Zen (Bodhidharma) said: “The mind is the root from which all things grow. If you can understand the mind, everything else is included. It's like a tree. All of its fruit and flowers, its branches and leaves, depend on its root. If you nourish its root, a tree multiplies. If you cut its root, it dies. Those who understand the mind reach enlightenment with minimal effort. Those who don’t understand the mind practice in vain. Everything good and bad comes from your own mind. To find something beyond the mind is impossible.”

Understanding that prescription is one thing, experiencing it is another. The prior is intellectual, while the latter is real. The experience of waking up is the ultimate form of clarity, serenity, and hope. Without that, we are all in a prison of the mind and have no clue.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Politics of fear.


I first wrote this post some years ago and reposted it again during the 2016 run-up to the Presidential elections. Some conditions have changed significantly—such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the concomitant global economic disaster—and others have not since that first post. From time to time I revisit my posts to see if any have legs that continue to walk. This one does so I’m reposting to remind myself and others of the basic issues at stake.

My primary focus in writing is spiritual, and purists resist the notion of mixing that focus with political commentaries. I’m not a purist but rather of the opinion that if spirituality is of any worth it must integrate with changing conditions otherwise, it will remain a matter of navel-gazing, good for the gazer but not much beyond that. I am committed to sharing the wealth and honoring the responsibility of a Bodhisattva.

So what are the basic issues at stake? In a few words: freedom, liberty, and equal justice. Those are the principles that underpin, not only our republic but are also the principles that all freedom-loving people desire, wherever they live, throughout time and space. Without those principles, it is questionable if any form of spiritual practice can prevail very long. Historically religious and spiritual leaders have been the keepers of moral standards that must guide any ship of state to ensure it steers clear of the rocky shoals. 

So then we come to the matter of before or after. Do spiritual leaders have an obligation to proactively influence captains, crews, and occupants of the ship before it ends up on the shoals? Or must they react only once the ship is wrecked? And what obligation, if any, do the occupants have to the captain, or to the ship? Those are penetrating questions that must be thoughtfully considered. Human history shows examples of both the before and the after, but perhaps the most poignant statement came from Edmund Burke, the 18th century Anglo Irish political philosopher“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

As you will see from the link provided above, some question remains about the exact wording of that quote and who said it but the spirit is the same. Today good men and women are being bullied and subjugated into cowardice conduct by a man who is incapable of leading the free world, but is talented in divide and conquer. He is a master of instilling fear, not only into the hearts and minds of the occupants of the ship but also the lieutenants who are critical to keeping the ship off the rocky shoals.

 Unless you’ve been away on a distant planet, out of communications with people here on earth, you know that awhile ago an equivalent of “deep throat,” from within the Trump administration, warned of the hazards of his leadership. In effect, this amounts to an administrative coup that could very likely make the man even more paranoid than he is already, increasing the hazards instead of the opposite. As of the present moment he holds millions of our citizens' hostage, using them as political pawns in a deadly game of getting his way at the expense of their lives by demanding our economy reopen while the coronavirus still flourishes. 

Years ago another New York Times article appeared written by Tom Edsall—professor of journalism at Columbia University and political commentator writing on events inside and outside of Washington. He grappled with controversial perspectives from a cross-section of social scientists who are researching the matter of “genopolitics”: the premise that we are hard-wired to see life through defined prisms that determine our political perspectives and affiliations. His article was inconclusive but ended by saying, “With so much riding on political outcomes—from default on the national debt to an attack on Syria, to attitudes toward climate change—understanding key factors contributing to the thinking of elected officials and voters becomes crucial. Every avenue for understanding human behavior should be on the table: how do we evaluate our goals? How should we judge trade-offs? And just how do we actually make decisions?” I couldn’t agree more with Edsall. Indeed every avenue for understanding human behavior should be on the table, and that takes me to the focus of this post.

So long as we remain ignorant of the fundamental basis of being human, geopolitics or not, will make little difference and I (and many others) will continue to spin our wheels. The only relevant question is this: What is the fundamental basis of being human? And the related question: What happens when we fail to understand this central issue? The answer to that last question is painfully obvious: We continue on with the same failed behavior, dictated by fear, and as always—we fight over differences, to our mutual destruction. All of us are riding in the same boat, enlightened together with the unenlightened. There are not two boats, only one, and how we collectively behave determines the outcome of us all. And to the first question, the fundamental basis of being human: Unity. Underneath all is our unity. As wise men and women have noted in the past—when water is subjected to the freeze of negativity, it turns into divided ice crystals. Heat ice with the warmth of unity and it turns back into indivisible water. We are all fundamentally water. After that, nature and nurture can and do shape us into divided conclaves. During this time of isolation from one another we are being forced to see the value of unity. It is essential, as it has always been, but ordinarily it is not as evident.

We are the only animal on earth that has to learn how to be human. Ducks know, without being taught, how to be ducks. The same for every other animal, except us. We have to learn what it means, from the depths of our souls outward what it means to be “good men and women,” and until we do, evil will reign.

Friday, May 22, 2020

The road to nowhere and everywhere.

There are some essential differences between spirituality (particularly Zen) and religions, one of which is Buddhism. To ensure we are beginning on the same page, since we are coming from such a broad spectrum of backgrounds and experiential differences, I need to start off with a few pedantic definitions, the first of which is abstraction. The definition of abstraction that seems most germane to my purposes is considered apart from concrete existence,” or “difficult to understand, such as an abstruse concept.” Abstraction is thus an image or idea about something but not the something itself. It’s a representation that may be interpreted in a variety of ways by anyone who considers the image or idea. When we consider any idea we all bring with us our own biases, preconceived notions, beliefs, experiences, and points of view, which serve as potent filters that govern our understandings and alter our sense of reality. All of these factors shape our thinking that may shut or open the door of our minds and you can notice these filters functioning when you have a conversation with anyone. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this sense of beauty (or ugliness) is determined mostly by these tightly held preconceived ideas. Birds of a kind find birds like themselves and reject birds not like them, based on such filters.

Some time ago I wrote a post called The Man in the moon: a whimsical expression about the discriminatory impact of labels, which causes us to make inappropriate judgments about others. Those labels serve the purpose of forming filters that quite effectively close that door of our minds and keep us trapped within dogmatic thought processes where we convince ourselves that such and such is true, simply because we have been conditioned by those biases, preconceived notions, beliefs, experiences, points of view and reinforced by agreements from our bird friends.

Contrast this process of filtering against a fundamental aspect of human nature of which we remain mostly unaware: suchness—things as they are cleansed of these filters. This term, suchness is not your everyday term, but mystics have used it across the ages to articulate a state of seeing that bypassed, or transcended bias. The Buddha used this term, and he considered it to be essential to awakening to the true nature of reality as being non-dual. To mystics, all things have a foundation in pure, uncontaminated awareness: a state of elementary or undifferentiated consciousness, which came to be known as Buddha-nature (sentience). And sentience means reflexive, mirror-like awareness, a state of consciousness prior to perception or thought. In essence, sentience=emptiness; there is nothing present in elementary or undifferentiated consciousness, just as there is nothing in a mirror until an image appears before it. The mirror doesnt move, but what appears in the mirror comes and goes. The reflected images are transient.

Perception plus bias produce abstraction, clouding things as they are.  At that very instant, the universe appears as dualistic: there is what is perceived and one perceiving—a false self that is imagined as the seer seeing objective things. This state of sentience is thus an indefinable subject: who we are truly, prior to any cognitive processes. Thoughts are abstractions: illusions. The Buddha called these illusions “dreams,” and said that he had awakened from the dreams and experienced sentience. He thus referred to himself as the Tathāgata: the Sanskrit name that means beyond all coming and going–beyond all transitory phenomena/objective forms. Consequently, he recognized that every conceivable perceptible form or subsequent idea was grounded in sentience, which has no beginning, ending, or limitation of any kind. Sentience has no definable properties and, as such, is without conditions (thus unconditional)—exactly the same among all sentient beings. Therefore it is the ground-of-all-being, which is the place of non-discriminate unity.

What is transitory, however, are the perceptions and ideas that appear before our empty faculty, and consequently, The Buddha said there is no difference between form and emptiness; they are one and the same. Without sentience there could be no perception at all and consequently these two: perceptible forms and empty sentience dependently originate each other. All things emanate from that empty source. The images look real, but they are just transitory phenomenal images. Since we remain unaware of our true source, the only reality we can grasp is transitory images, to which we cling, and by which we define ourselves. Since the images are here one moment and gone the next, our sense of self/ego rides the waves of suffering and bliss.

Uncertainty and instability.

The winds of change.
At the current time, conditional uncertainty and instability are running rampant throughout the world, and this is causing big problems for business maintenance and expansion. Few companies know which end is up, where to locate their facilities, to close a factory (or not) in order to quarantine workers due to rampantly spreading viruses never seen before, how many employees to hire (at what price) or fire, when, if ever, trade wars will end and bring stability back to a manageable level, to invest (or not) in productivity measures—which reduces their short-term P/E ratio if they do invest, and thus reduces demand by investors to purchase their public offerings. All of that has no geographic restrictions since the entire world is going through the same turbulent conditions at the same time, increasing the odds of a global recession (or worse yet, a sustained depression). Not only is “no man an island,” but “no company is an island.”  

While we may wish to Make America Great Again, we might as well wish for Santa Claus, so long as we believe such a thing is possible, at the expense of other nations. The notion of making a nation great (at the expense of other nations) has about as much chance of success as making yourself great at the expense of your partner. Being self-centered, whether with a partner or other nations, is doomed from the outset.

There has never been a time like this in history where trade is more interconnected than now. And this interconnection has become common-coin with people around the world, due to the Internet. Conditional interdependence is now perfectly obvious (to those who care to see the handwriting on the wall—some don’t—which is amazingly puzzling).

We are creatures of habit, holding onto “the way things used to be” and paying mightily for our ignorance. Now we are fighting for survival against a coronavirus we have never seen before. For reasons not universally obvious, there are those who choose to attempt to bulwark the ever-changing tides of life and prefer to see life through the lens of “never change” instead of “ever change.”

Many years ago, when I first began my Zen practice and inquiry, my entree primer was a book written by Alan WattsThe Wisdom of Insecurity (catchy title) that did indeed captured my attention, and I thought, how is insecurity “wise?”. After having read that book I began to see how wise insecurity actually is since Watts spelled out what was, and is, perfectly obvious (every conditional thing is changing all of the time, whether we notice it or not). The wisdom is to not hold onto stuff that changes because it creates suffering, in two different ways: Either because we hold onto what we like and love (assuming it will remain static, but it doesn’t) or we resist what we don’t like and love, but it comes upon our shores anyway. Now we have invented a slogan that captures the essential idea: “What goes around, comes around.” And some people refer to this pattern as karma—an essential aspect of understanding the dharma of the Buddha.

However, as said previously: We are creatures of habit and learn slowly, most vividly through suffering. Nobody enjoys suffering yet nobody can avoid it. The very first truth of the Four Noble Truths is “life is dukkha”—translated into English as suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, etc. When first I read this truth I had not yet understood (or even been exposed to) the difference between conditional life and unconditional life. Consequently, I digested this first truth as an inescapable death sentence, which of course it is so long as we see life as purely conditional—everything is changing and dukkha is unavoidable. What a bitter pill to swallow! As the saying whimsically goes, “Nobody gets out of here alive.” 

But then an amazing and unexpected thing occurred: I experienced the unconditional realm, didn’t grasp the profound significance, and subsequently spent the next 30+ years attempting to understand the ineffable mystery. I could not pretend the experience never happened, try as I did, but instead was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery (Note: There is no bottom; no top; no East nor West; no anything in the realm of unconditionality). Yet how does anyone pretend an experience, that never ends, did not happen? It is impossible, and when it happens you have a simple, yet profoundly difficult, decision to make: To either take the money and run, or learn as much as humanly possible and then share the wealth—inadequately and poorly defined as it must always be.

That experience is the other truth, beyond the first, that Nagarjuna expressed roughly 400-500 years following the death of The Buddha. What Nagarjuna said filled in the blank of my understanding. He said:

“The teaching by the Buddhas of the dharma has recourse to two truths: The world-ensconced truth and the truth which is the highest sense. Those who do not know the distribution of the two kinds of truth, do not know the profound ‘point’ in the teaching of the Buddha. The highest sense of the truth is not taught apart from practical behavior, and without having understood the highest sense one cannot understand nirvana.”

This came to be known as The Two Truth Doctrine and can be simply stated like this: The pathway to the highest (unconditional) truth must go forward along the path of conditional truth, the latter of which is provisional (e.g., temporary and changes). And these two are interdependent, neither of which can exist without the other. This relationship is known in Buddhist vernacular as dependent origination,” and when properly understood informs three important matters that help us all to understand every dimension of the world in which we live. The three matters are (1) absolutely nothing has independent existence (e.g, self-contained, separate or existing as an island), (2) everything is inexorably linked together, and (3) The poles of these two truths are utterly opposite in nature—One side is conditional, always changing, and full to overflowing with suffering, leads to saṃsāra and the other pole is unconditional, never changes and is Nirvana itself (śūnyatā—emptiness/utter bliss).

Uncertainty and instability are the never-ending dimensions of the conditional world in which we live and will continue to disrupt planning for the future, be that from an industrial perspective or any other conditional perspective. We have codified this dilemma with sayings such as, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” On one level, we all know this is true. But on a higher level, the opposite is true, and that latter truth remains unknown. Too bad, because this other truth is where solace from the winds of change resides. There is no solace within a conditional and crumbling world. It is there that suffering prevails. And the only way out of misery is to awaken to both truths.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The bird in your hand is the true doctor.

It is our nature to esteem credentials, accolades, and titles. More times than not you’ll rely on the opinion of a doctor over that of an uneducated man, because the assumption is that a man of letters has earned his stripes and is better educated (e.g., he knows more). 

Mark Twain once said: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”  There’s a lot of subtle wisdom inherent in that statement. Once I had a friend who was studying for her Ph.D., and she asked me, “What do you call a person in the doctorate program who graduates last in the class?” I thought about what that might be and then she told me the answer: Doctor.

Unfortunately, our system of education is lacking. The emphasis is on rational analysis and communications (e.g., reading, writing and number-crunching, critical thinking, and rationality). All of that is fine, but it doesn’t train our trans-rational capacities: the wellspring of all thought and non-thought. Consequently, we have become a very rational, stressed out, fear oriented violent species. We can, and do, justify the most egregious behavior possible and then feel righteous about our words and actions, never realizing we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

Has that disparity ever crossed your mind? It is a puzzle, but shouldn’t be. The problem is simple (yet profound). The problem is, as expressed in the contemporary vernacular: We are not cooking on all cylinders. Translation⎯We’re out of balance and living in a dream world. We are rational, but lacking wisdom. Being educated does not necessarily make us wise, and without wisdom, rational thought, only, leads us all astray and into the conflict between the opposite quagmires of right vs. wrong.

One of the foremost examples of a wise yet uneducated man was the sixth patriarch of Chan (Chinese Zen). Huineng was born into the Lu family in 638 C.E. in Xinzhou (present-day Xinxing County) in Guangdong province, and since his father died when he was young, his family was poor. As a consequence, Huineng had no opportunity to learn to read or write and is said to have remained illiterate his entire life. Nevertheless, Huineng is recognized as one of the wisest Rinzai Zen masters of all time.

That’s the first point. The second is misleading labels. If The Buddha were born into today’s world, he would undoubtedly be called “doctor” (appropriately so). He was, and remains, the most profound doctor of the mind of any time or place. The sort of doctor he would most closely approximate today would be “psychiatrist.” However, modern psychiatrists function within a presumed sphere of science, meaning measurable matter, despite the truth that the true mind can’t be found, much less be measured.

Some years ago, I read a book by neuropsychologist/philosopher Paul Broks. The book was titled, Into the Silent Land. In probing the layers of human physiology and psychology, Broks leads us through a haunting journey. It is hard not to be stunned by reading his dissecting view of what it means to be human. We take so many things for granted. That, which is inanimate “meat,” animates with consciousness, cognition, imagination, feelings, and every other aspect of our condition, and seems to float by as a given. This fundamental mystery is so ingrained into our being that it goes unnoticed, but not by Broks.

He asks alarming and provocative questions such as “Am I out there, or in here?” when he portrays an imaginary man with a transparent skull, watching in a mirror at his own brain functioning. He notices, for us all, that the world exists inside the tissue residing between our ears. And when the tissue is carefully examined, no world, no mind, no ego, no self, no soul, no perceptual capacities, nor consciousness—nothing but inanimate meat is found. Unable to locate, what we all take for granted, he suggests that we are neither “in here” nor “out there;” maybe somewhere in the space between the in and the out, and maybe nowhere at all.

Indeed, as so many mystics and seers have noted: The true mind can’t be found, and none of us can study what is beyond measuring and defining. Nevertheless, it is the true mind (which can’t be found) that is the foundation upon which everything is based⎯the source of wisdom, harmony, and the lack of stress. Speaking from intimate personal experience, I can state without equivocation that once you experience your true Self-nature your world will turn over.  And why would that be? Because stress is the result of craving what you have already. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to obtain what lies ever within your hand. So long as we believe we don’t have what we need, we will forever remain anxious, frustrated, disappointed, ill, and full of stress. And that makes us all sick, not to mention very, very tired.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Guests and Hosts

The road to nowhere.
Imagine the relationship between a guest (who checks in and out) and a host who accommodates the guest. These two are essential to one another. Without a host, the guest would have nowhere to stay. And without guests, a host would go broke due to a lack of revenue. Thus they are two aspects of a quest that are intended to lead to the desired destination.

Now about the quest: Why does anyone go on a quest? The obvious answer is to move towards a goal, often symbolic or allegorical. Thus the precondition that motivates such a journey is to find what is presumed to be somewhere else, but for sure not here. Clearly, there is no justification or purpose to journey far and wide if the treasure is already in hand. What if the desired treasure IS already in hand but the traveler remains unaware? In that case, the treasure will never be found, because it is not located “far and wide”.

Now about the host: Unlike a guest, the host never moves anywhere, any time. If the host did move, how would the guest find a place of rest and nurture? In that case, the host would be a moving target. Thus the host is fixed and permanent, and the guest is always on the move and impermanent. In fact, the guest can, and does, have a beginning and an ending; is born and dies. Not so for the host; no birth, no deathpermanent and eternal. And one more thing: The desired treasure is a “bird in hand,” not in the bush, only that bird seems to likewise fly in and fly away. Try to catch the bird by closing your hand and the bird flies away before the hand is closed.


The treasure we all seek is already within, and in Zen literature, the treasure (the host) is called “Buddha-Nature:” our essential nature—who we all are at the core. The problem is the traveler is unaware. The presumption is a quest will lead to a distant goal that is already present, and thus we are “…like someone in the midst of water crying out in thirst, like a child of a wealthy home wandering among the poor.” We, the travelers are the water: fluid and forever moving. The host is ice, solid, and unmoving. The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.Rabindranath Tagore. Wherever the traveler goes, the host comes along, like a shadow that never leaves.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

A Dried Shit Stick

{{de|Bodhidharma }}Image via Wikipedia
Google Analytics tells me the following post is THE all-time favorite. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell me why, so I’m left to guess the reason. Nevertheless, I’m reposting since it has now been many years since the first posting. Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, toilet paper has risen in the value of relative things and the post may rise even more.

For some time now there has been a burr growing under my saddle which I have hesitated to acknowledge—the manner whereby we obscure clarity with holy robes. In Zen circles (and well beyond) this apparent piety takes many forms. We chant with an aura of mystery and a special tone of voice. We use archaic language from cultures now dead. We employ a sort of pecking order or stature structure within our sanghas—toward what end? Such means are normal and accepted as standard everywhere, and yet it is disturbing when this happens among folk who should know better.

In ninth-century China, Chan Master Yúnmén Wényan (known in Japan as Ummon Zenji) made quite an amazing impact by deflating all such forms of piety. His most famous one-liner stemmed from a question posed to him by a monk. The question from the monk was, “What’s the Buddha?” His answer: “A dried shit-stick.” If that doesn’t strip away holy robes it is hard to imagine what would. And how should such an obvious statement of seeming disrespect be understood? The modern-day equivalent of a ninth-century “shit stick” would be Charmin toilet tissue used to wipe excrement from your anus and then flush it down the toilet. Getting rid of our egos is a most useful endeavor but once that is accomplished we need to resist attaching ourselves to the means and just flush it down the toilet. And this is true for all endeavors: Once a task is completed we need to move on and let go. Wearing a badge of superiority to broadcast accomplishments is a sure sign of egotism.

This principle of non-attachment applies even to what is believed to be the Buddhist truth. “Before we understand, we depend on instruction. After we understand, instruction is irrelevant. The dharmas taught by the Tathagata sometimes teach existence and sometimes teach non-existence. They are all medicines suited to the illness. There is no single teaching. But in understanding such flexible teachings, if we should become attached to the existence or to non-existence, we will be stricken by the illness of dharma-attachment (inflexible truth—dogma). Teachings are only teachings. None of them are real.”—Chi-fo (aka Feng-seng)

Recently I was privileged to watch a talk given by a modern-day Zen Master—Roshi Shodo Harada. It was one of the clearest, unpretentious talks I have ever heard about the Zen path and it directly confronted this issue. What he said was simple: that the goal of Zen is to root out and penetrate beyond the ego down to our pure nature. His message was gentle and naked. He made no attempt to mystify his message and because of this, it was perfectly obvious that this was a man of great depth with no need to spin anything.

I wasn’t around in ninth-century China and thus didn’t hear Master Yúnmén’s talk so I can only guess about his meaning, which resonates with statements made by other Zen Masters such as Bodhidharma in his encounter with Emperor Wu. When asked what measure of merit he would garner for his support of Buddhism, Bodhidharma said “None at all.”

The point of Bodhidharma’s response; the point of Master Yúnmén and the point of Roshi Harada is the same—At the level of our pure nature we are all equal, and short of that depth we are all trapped in the ego-delusive thought that we are someone special who deserves exalted stature or reward. There are no clothes, or robes of piety—however grand, that sufficiently dress up the ego. All such clothing is nothing more than a “dried shit stick.” And once we arrive at the truth of ourselves it is time to let go and move on with insight, freed of badges, and the baggage of dharma addiction. If you want to grasp this in other terms, consider the words of Ch’an Master Lin-chi: Being a true man (or woman if you prefer) without rank.
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Emptiness ain’t empty. Fullness ain’t full.

Anything in here?
We, Westerners, are severely short-changed. In the past, we were ignorant of Eastern wisdom due to distances that took weeks, if not years, to traverse. That is no longer an excuse since, in less than the time of this writing, communications can zip around the world several times. Or, if you like, put the dilemma in the words of Mark Twain: “A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

So what’s our excuse? Arrogance? Close-mindedness? Your guess, but for whatever reason, we do need to do a better job. Our lives depend on doing better. With just a few realignments, we could improve upon the situation. Notions such as emptiness and interdependence could make things vastly better.

And a good place to start is by bridging the gap with a fundamental grasp of some words and concepts—for example, the word Sūtra. We have no problem in grasping the word scripture, since, by and large, our culture has been shaped by Western civilization, the Bible, and either Christianity or Judaism. But a Sūtra comes from the East, and we get a bit hung up with foreign words, but it isn’t that hard if we cared.

A Sūtra is a rule or aphorism, mostly in the Sanskrit literature (from India), and Sanskrit is an ancient language, no longer used, just as Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament) is no longer used. There are hundreds of Sūtras, without an accepted grouping such as a canon. Some are short (as short as 300 lines) while others are composite collections of Sūtras, under a shared roof. Examples are the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, or the Mahāratnakūṭa, which contains 49 sūtras of various lengths. Maybe the longest (and my favorite) is The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.

Short, or long, they are all crammed full of wisdom. And the one claimed as the standard-bearer for the perfection of wisdom is the Heart Sūtra (short for PrajñāpāramitāhṛdayaThe Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom). So why is that one considered sublime? Because it boils down the essence of Eastern wisdom into a short package on emptiness. In Sanskrit, Śūnyatā refers to the tenet that all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature, but may also refer to the reality that all sentient beings share a common, indiscriminate nature called “Buddha-nature” or primordial awareness. In essence, at the core of us all is a primordial, un-awakened nature (a sleeping giant if you will). And right off the bat, we have a vast cultural disconnect.

This, at first anyway, is a mind-blower (literally). The teaching means that there is absolutely nothing that has an intrinsic, independent, stand-alone nature. All things are thus empty. They are instead interdependentone thing dependent upon the opposite. That is one half. The other half is that emptiness is itself empty. It, too, is interdependent. But the question is, with what is it dependent? 

Before I address the last half, let’s look at the first half and the profound implication. An example is up and down. Neither up nor down can be understood (much less exist) without the other. In an indivisible flash of time, when up comes into existence, so does the opposite of down, and just as fast, they disappear as pairs. 

So what? You might say. Why is that such a big deal? Simple, (yet not self-evident). It is profound when we realize this example pertains to all things. There is no “absolute right” without an “absolute wrong.” No “goodness” without “evil.” All things have an opposite dimension that defines it. And the implication? Self-righteousness stops being an absolute, and so does bigotry or any other matter of maleficence. And that alone is wise understanding.

Now the second half: Emptiness is not empty. The absence of things (e.g., “nothing” or “no-thing”) is just as glued to the opposite as anything else. “Everything” is interdependent with “Nothing.” In truth, you, I, and every one of us is (internally and externally) empty of an intrinsic self-nature that is uniquely and distinctly “me.” The “me” we think we are is not “me.” It is “us.” You and I are identical at the core. At that level of consciousness, we are unconditional (even though the outside is conditional). Externally, we are, of course, distinct, unique, and different, but not at the core. The external can be perceived. The internal cannot. Our inner core is “un-awakened” until we come to our senses, but our outside cloak is asleep (but thinks it is awake). At that level of primordial existence we are self-aware, but not in a perceptible way. Our awareness, at the core, is invisiblelike Harry Potter’s cloak. The thing of it is, the unseen part of us all is the part that is doing the seeing. And what that aspect of us sees, is incapable of being seen. That internal eye cannot see nothing. It can only see something. And the something we see is, of course, different from what we see in others.

That is both a problem and an opportunity, at the same time. Why? Because of the unreal (yet perceptible “I”ego) is proud, arrogant, and self-absorbed. It must play to a loving audience, all of the time, to feel worthwhile. That part hates with a passion (just as strongly as it adores a loving audience) criticism and questioning. That is the problem. The opportunity is to “awaken” to what lies beneath the image-of-self (ego) to the part that can’t be seen. The outside, perceptible, the non-full ego, is interdependent with an opposite imperceptible, full, true selfthe sleeping giant, which is otherwise called “Buddha-nature.” We are, in the most real and profound way, sleeping Buddhas. And we will remain asleep until the false self (ego) steps aside. 

But that is a near-impossible scenario. It is like asking a blind man to tell you what he sees. The ego firmly believes there are no eyes, except his own, and believe me, beauty is in the eye of the beholder with the ego looking through rose-colored glasses. Or looking into a mirror and asking, “who’s the fairest one of all?” The mirror doesn’t want to get smashed, so the mirror lies and thereby strokes the deluded ego. So what’s the answer? Time and indisputable evidence that being a monster is a failed proposition. Eventually, an egomaniac screws up (and gets terrible press) so many times that it becomes obvious even to a doormat. The truth will out; eventually. But there may be lots of damage done along the way, to others and finally one’s self. Remember Adolf?

The bottom line here is simple (yet requires some solid thinking, employing a few fundamental principles that can’t be refuted). We are perfect, united, joined at the hip indiscriminate, at the core, yet living inside a shell with opposite characteristicsimperfect, disconnected, and very, very discriminating: Needing to put others down so we can feel up. 

Sound like anyone you know? Emptiness ain’t empty. Fullness ain’t full.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Zen philosophy?


Philosophy is oftentimes regarded as an artificial covering, at best-reflecting approximations. One Webster definition is “...a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means.” Another is “...a theory underlying or regarding a sphere of activity or thought.” To many—especially Westerners—Zen is seen as an esoteric philosophy, with little relevance to actual life. This view hasn’t changed much since the Buddha walked the earth 2,500 years ago and perhaps for a good reason. Theories about life rarely match reality. They may be useful in limited mapping situations, but it is impossible to develop a theory or philosophy which fits life perfectly.

Theories and philosophies should always be measured against the standard of reality. Knowing something as a bone-embedded fact always wins the day against speculation. The proof of such comparison thus comes down upon how reality is understood. Are our senses to be trusted? Do we see clearly (without bias or distortion)? Do we know what is real? Seeing from within a cloud of obscurity is not the same as a vision on a clear day, and for this reason, the practice of Zen is concerned with clearing away the ego-mind to reveal our untarnished original mind.

In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha and a bodhisattva named Mahāmat spoke about these matters and said...“To philosophers, the conception of the Tathāgata-womb seems devoid of purity and soiled by these external manifestations. Still, it is not so understood by the Tathāgatas—to them, it is not a proposition of philosophy but an intuitive experience as real as though it was an amalaka fruit held in the palm of their hand.”

The Tathāgata-womb is self-evident. The Sanskrit word used is Tathāgatagarbha, which is rendered as the Buddha womb. The term Tathāgata means—one who has thus gone (Tathā-gata) or one who has thus come (Tathā-agata), the import is one who has transcended the ordinary view of reality. Is this birth-place in some distant place? Zen teaches that it is ubiquitous; there is no coming nor going since it is impossible to be where it is not.

This is, of course, a difficult thing to embrace. When we think of the exemplary and pure nature of a Buddha, and compare this incomparable state to our own, it seems impossible to accept that we too contain this nature (e.g., Buddha-Nature) but that is what Zen teaches. But it is one thing to think such a purity resides in us, as a philosophical consideration and quite another to experience it intuitively. When the latter occurs, all doubt goes away, and you are transformed forever. Then only do you truly know yourself as one who looks into their own heart and finds eternity.

In this sense, Zen is not a philosophy. It is opposed to speculation and philosophy of all kinds. The preeminent focus of Zen is to intuitively experience the purity and clear vision that comes from our very own being. And when that happens, reality is seen in a radically new way.
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Saturday, May 16, 2020

Ologies and ersatz ologies.

Getting real
Ology comes from the Greek word meaning to study. We have a wide variety of ologies: things we can measure.  All matter can, of course, be measured because of a simple fact—matter has measurable properties. Thus science properly concerns itself with such areas of study as biology, meteorology, physiology, geology, cosmology, etc., all of that, and more are accepted as legitimate science, and anything objective is continuously changing. Some times these changes are subtle (as in the case of quantum changes), and other times they are sudden and undeniable (as in the case of a hurricane). But whether we can detect and measure such changes does not alter the fact: matter changes. Little disagreement arises over that issue unless a person stays locked into egotistically vested interests or remains in a state of denial and refuses to accept clear scientific givens. There are, and have been times, when politics, vested interests, and other biases have dominated scientific evidence.  Such was the case before Galileo, while humans insisted that the earth was the center of the universe and believed it was flat. It applies now when people (for vested political reasons) refuse to acknowledge that we affect environmental conditions.

The question is, can something imperceptible, immeasurable and unchanging properly be an ology? If I were to write the sentence, “I see myself,” according to grammatical construction, “I” would be the subject, “see” the verb and “myself,” the object I see. But if we should flip that sentence around so that it reads, “Myself sees I,” we would agree over the absurdity of the statement and properly ask how can an object (the measurable me) possess consciousness? It is assumed that while a subject (the immeasurable me) is conscious, my skin and bones are not, without the union of subject and object.

This same analogy applies to our supreme creator, the apparent object of study in theology: the study of God. The necessary presumption in this study is that God can be transformed into an objective entity, convenient for exploration. Does that presumption stand the proof of an ology? Any intelligent and unbiased person will quickly answer that theology can’t be anything other than an ersatz science. Even among religious radicals, there is the agreement that God can’t be contained, limited, or measured. So who is fooling whom? Nevertheless, theology continues as it has for centuries based on the assumption that we can know God as a biologist knows about matter.

Without question the presence of God can be experienced but that can never be a matter of proof. All agree on that score, so just perhaps it is time to face the truth and change theology to thepístis (pístis being the Greek word for faith): thus faith in God. So long as we continue to label this area of interest an ology we engage in pretense and continue to fuel the fires of radicals who claim things that can only be a matter of speculation.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Rules, guidelines and the real teacher.

A large statue in Bangalore depicting Shiva me...Image via Wikipedia
When we are lost—such as now during the global COVID-19 pandemic—it’s normal to think about finding our way. In such a frame of mind, the first order of business seems to be formulas, techniques, and guidelines that will help us. Once we do find our way, interest in such things falls away. Our natural tendency is to focus on the immediate crisis and ignore looming ones. Thus knowing whether or not we’re lost determines how useful these measures are.

Conventional wisdom suggests that we are all lost and can’t manage without the provision of rigid beliefs, firm rules, oppressive laws, and harsh punishment. We have become crippled by the notion of inadequacy and thus require the crutch of constraints and dependencies. Rather than develop internal resolve and strength, we creep along shackled by abstractions. As a human family, we are quite fearful that civilization will collapse into a state of immorality and anarchy without these guiding forces. The evidence of living, however, contradicts this view. The fact is that we are overflowing with legal constraints, rules, and guidelines, yet society becomes more debased every day. Prisons abound, and wars have become common.

How very different this conventional view is from genuine insight. In the 18th stanza of the Tao Te Ching, it says this...

“When the great Tao is forgotten,
Kindness and morality arise.
When wisdom and intelligence are born,
The great pretense begins.

When there is no peace within the family,

Filial piety and devotion arise.
When the country is confused and in chaos
Loyal ministers appear.

Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,

And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.

Give up kindness, renounce morality,

And men will rediscover filial piety and love...”

On the surface, this seems bizarre, but the disparity between these two views alone deserves further consideration. What Lao Tzu is pointing out here is the difference between presumption, expectations, and reality. When we aspire to rules for changing conditions, the assumption is that we lack such wisdom. The aspiration toward transcendent wisdom and intelligence produces the opposite. By relinquishing the notion of lack, we discover fullness. Anything at all—Sainthood, wisdom, peace...even the Tao—when held at arm’s length denies us of the very thing we seek.

The danger here, however, is thinking that insight is automatic. It isn’t. What is missing is the fruit that grows from the experience of awakening to our abundant, already adequate, true nature. Henepola Gunaratana clarifies the matter this way:

“There are three integral factors in Buddhist meditation—morality, concentration, and wisdom. Those three factors grow together as your practice deepens. Each one influences the other, so you cultivate the three of them together, not one at a time. When you have the wisdom to truly understand a situation, compassion towards all parties involved is automatic, and compassion means that you restrain yourself from any thought, word, or deed that might harm yourself or others. Thus our behavior is automatically moral. It is only when we don’t understand things deeply that we create problems. If we fail to see the consequences of your own action, we will blunder. The fellow who waits to become totally moral before he begins to meditate is waiting for a ‘but’ that will never come. The ancient sages say that he is like a man waiting for the ocean to become calm so that he can take a bath.”

So are we really lost? Maybe we’ve just swallowed the message that we are inadequate and in need of formulas when what we really need is to awaken to the reality of our unified nature and inherent abilities. Lao Tzu shares with us a rare jewel—an insight that transcends conventional wisdom. In our desire to secure a better world, we place too much hope in perfect conditions without an appreciation that out of chaos comes order; out of family discord comes piety and devotion, and by renouncing the abstraction of kindness and morality, we rediscover what we think has been lost. When we seek a teacher, we stop looking for the real teacher—ourselves and our response to life.
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