Friday, December 26, 2014

No Feeling? Or Tremendous Feeling?

There is a worship of non-feeling, in many meditation centers.  I suppose this jives with the physical appearance of a person sitting, or with the ideas of "calm" or "relaxation, which many people associate with meditation.

But you can at least ask the question:

Which way does meditation lead? Towards less feeling, or toward more?

Meditation isn't really the point.   So, I suppose a better way of putting it is:

In his life, which way did Goatama Buddha go?  Towards a life rich in deep feeling, or away from such a life?

Because, these are obviously opposite directions.

In my last retreat out here in Thailand, the British teacher offered a view on the "flower sermon".  In that story, Buddha, addressing his audience, silently held up a single flower.

That's all Buddha did.

After that, this became known as the "Flower Sermon", with capital letters and everything.

Sometimes the story is told that Buddha's action was in response to a question: What is "insight?" or "what is Buddha?"  Buddha answers this question by holding up the flower.

This British monk her on Koh Samuii has been teaching meditation for 20 years or so.  He is somewhat well known.

His take on the story was that, once you "see things as they really are", you come to understand that the flower is simply a "process of nature".  You are emotionally unmoved.  You see that what we call a "flower" is just a collection of molecules, interacting -- same as everything else.  It is nothing to get excited about.

He elaborated on this view, at length, and used an example of dogs to point out the follies of lesser minds.  Dogs are playful and good-natured.  They have no mental discipline.  Their pleasure-seeking illustrates a low mind-state.

This is always hard for me to listen to.

Do we sit to become Vulcans?  Or, worse, inert, statue-like beings of minimal interest in the world around us?

Who in their right mind would ever wish NOT to enjoy watching two puppies play?

I sit in Thailand because it is cheap.  I offer about 200 baht a day in the monasteries here, during silent retreat -- about seven bucks a day.  That's considered normal, among the Thais.  Some people give more, but I've found that 200 baht a day seems "right", to me.  The places I have visited that set a price for a retreat charge about 200 baht a day, if y ou do the calculation.  That's where I got the number.

I do so many of them.  I can't pay 1000 bucks for a week, like in Europe, or 600 (or so) in the States.

But, like I said, it is hard for me, sometimes, listening to the teachers.

I would prefer if the retreats were completely silent, or if the monks spoke in Thai, so I would not be able to understand.

This British monk never had a real experience.  He never found the true self.  That is obvious from his interpretation of this flower story.

That is OK, I guess.

But what is not OK is this worship of non-feeling -- this view that "real insight" is a state of living death, devoid of intersting of (gasp!) pleasurable sensation, and devoid of happiness or sadness.

This is actually an extremely common view, in the meditative practices.  (see the soldier-like Japanese Zen stoics, always serious, never laughing).

In some places, it is taken to extreme, as though the ideal expression of "selflessness" is a man operating under no emotional process of his own -- a perfect soldier :

"If ordered to march: tramp, tramp or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest wisdom of enlightenment. - See more at:
 "If ordered to march, tramp tramp, or shoot:  bang bang.  This is the manifestation of the highest wisdom of enlightenment"  - Zen Master Harada Daiun Sogaku, 1939
"If ordered to march: tramp, tramp or shoot: bang, bang. This is the manifestation of the highest wisdom of enlightenment - See more at:

I have to mention, again, the corruption in modern Western Zen monasteries, and the stories of the women who reported the monks basically shrugging their shoulders when the women tried to report how their "master" was behaving.   I lived through some of these ugly times.  Maybe this is why I think it is important to write about these things, when I see them, even way over here, in Thailand.

This is a very sad thing, for me -- this teaching of non-feeling, because it is difficult to talk about, and part of the reason it is difficult to talk about is because most people are very removed from their deepest feelings.  Most people have "grown up", and gone on to the ever-important practicalities of (what they call) real life.  The deepest feelings are ignored, and the deepest dreams are forgotten.  For many, that's just part of getting older.

You don't chase your dreams.  Nice thought, but hey, we're adults now.

But, actually, "deepest feelings" is the most important thing, in meditation. The whole point is the feeling, and shining out, of compassion.  There is not another point, really.

People talk about "insight".  But real, heartfelt compassion and "insight" are really the same thing.

Somebody once wrote "Love is knowing what to do".  This is the only way you "know what to do".  This is how the second monk knew to carry the pretty woman across the river, in the old Zen story.   This is how you understand, moment by moment, the real needs of those around you.  This is "selflessness".

Do Not Seek Buddha by Form

"They see something tangible and instantly become attached. If you talk to them about formlessness, they sit there dumb and confused" --  Bodhidharma, Breakthrough Sermon

Bodhidharma, like Lin Chi,  didn't waste words.   In this quote, he is striking at the heart of a very, very big problem. He is saying "hey! don't make this mistake!" and he is lamenting the fact that his warnings go unheard.  People march on, in every direction but the one that Buddha took.

Bodhidharma is also pointing out that this is a difficult point to get across.  No monk speaks up and says "hey wait a second! He is right! I am attached to form!"

That just doesn't happen.  Each is 100 percent convinced otherwise. 

But ask a monk about his "master", and you will hear the same answer, over and over.  You will hear about a lifelong commitment, deep vows, etc.

Always, this commitment to a particular tradition, or "form" is considered to be synonymous with "insight".   Always, there are particular characteristics of a practice that boost this image.  The excessive neatness of Zen is an example.  It is "good", it is "impressive".

There is a meditation instructor in California.  His students claim he has not spoken a word for over a decade. 

Impressive, from a "form" standpoint.

But it doesn't actually mean anything.

In fact, it means the opposite of what people think it means.  The path toward "real insight" necessarily involves a dissociation, or release from interest in such things, beyond what is necessary in practical matters.

The sages made some effort to explain this "formlessness" by example.  Joshu (of MU! fame), and Jesus offered that the true sage resembles an infant child, or a donkey, or horse.

By this, they didn't mean that people of "insight" are helpless, low creatures.  They meant, instead, that the true sage is a man of no act, no overriding intention,  and no guile -- no show.  

On this earth, where do you find such beings?

Lin Chi called it "true man, without rank".

Where do you find such immediate, obvious sincerity?

Children, and animals.  There is nothing beyond their simple, immediate needs.  There is no calculated intention to their actions.  There is no "We are Zen! This is what we do!".

There is no projection, at all.  And, the truth is, this is why they are so automatically lovable!

No "formal".

But, also, no "informal".

So, the true sages were practically-minded, open, helpful, what-you-see-is-what-you-get characters, and this in an extreme sense.

It happens to be the very last thing you might think of when you hear the words "Zen master", or "venerable abbot", or "guru".

You can see -- there is always a form to a tradition. 

Some traditions are exceedingly gentle.  "Gentleness" is what the senior students portray.  That is a teaching, and a following.  Men and women in these places give you a hopeless look if you let it be known that you enjoy watching American football.  You walk on eggshells.  You really have to watch what you say.

Some traditions are new-age, slow motion, with an overabundance of esoteric nomenclature.  Everybody talks the same way.  The elder students repeat the same words, again and again, (and slllowwwwlyyyyyy).  Washing dishes takes a good deal of extra time.  For some reason "slowness" is an idol.    If you wash dishes the way you always have, you will have someone telling you to spend an extra five minutes or so.  You can't laugh, when someone says this.

(p.s.  these places are very boring)

The Japanese Zen tradition,  stresses formality, clockwork-like precision, and  strict instruction regarding the traditional forms.  The elder students seem to consider themselves stalwart soldiers of the tradition.  The senior students shout harsh commands, no matter how trivial the matter.  If you are not one who wishes to shout in a newcomer's face, you are not a "serious" Zen student.

These are just three examples of the big mistake that Bodhidharma is talking about.

If a man or woman of real insight showed up in any of these centers, how will he/she appear?

In the gentle tradition, he will be considered gruff, and lacking control.

In the slow tradition, he be considered careless, hurried, and impatient.

In the harsh, militaristic tradition, he will be considered foolish, weak, and noncommittal.

What are like during the best times in your life?  What are you like when you see a group of friends that you haven't seen for a long, long time?

You help, you give, you share.  You trade stories, and you laugh..  You are relaxed, comfortable, and spontaneous in your conversation.

It is in these memories when people look back and think "That was when I was at my best."

You have no act.  You are without rank

There is no thought of formal, or informal.  Who cares about such things?

This is the expression of your true self.  It doesn't matter it you have "seen" it, or not.

This kind of  love makes you completely invisible, in the houses of form.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Commitment, Or No Commitment?

  "Be passerby" -- Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas
It would be a happy thing to have a meditation practice that encouraged travel, experimentation, and friendly sharing of experiences, rather than commitment to a particular "master", "guru", tradition, or "form".

This would actually be a simple thing to make.  Organizationally, it isn't much of a challenge.

Given the wanderings of Buddha (and Jesus, and Mohammad, and Lin Chi, and Lao Tzu, and Bodhidharma), you would think that it would be obvious that there is a benefit to the kind of independence and inquisitive spirit that such a structure-of-no-structure would invite.

In fact, independence is a requirement of the true path.

There are things you get from travel, and from remaining an "outsider", wherever you go.  You may approach things like a scientist.

You do all the work, and more.  You offer what you can.

But, you are always an observer.

Do this, and the first thing you see is that every teacher, in every tradition, makes the bold claim that his form is the "true" path.  Yet, they all provide wildly different definitions of terms like "sunyata","emptiness", "dependent origination", and so on.

All claim that it is, ultimately, useless for their students to dabble in other traditions, with other teachers.

All present their teaching as something dreadfully important, and support their ideas with claims to lineage, etc.

As an observer, that is a funny thing to see.

Despite what these "masters" say,  Buddha's "leaving home" isn't about leaving your mom's house and moving into a monastery to devote your life to a teacher.

That is a laughably shallow interpretation.  That is just making a new "home" -- a new identity, a new coat, and a new social construct into which one conforms. 

Buddha, instead,  is telling us to "gather no moss". 

Commitment to any tradition will lead to more differentiation, never less.  Show up in a monastery as yourself, and you will be called a layman.  But who holds "monk/layman"?

You will never be called "layman" outside of a monastery. 

It is a very common thing to see a meditation teacher make claims that "commitment" is the most important thing there is, in a meditative practice.

Commitment to what, though?


Commitment to whom?

I knew a woman at SFZC who would ask me about my travels.  She would get sort of wistful when I would answer.  I finally asked her why doesn't she take a trip, and she said her teacher wouldn't let her.  He had told her that if she ever sat with another teacher, he would end her "training".

I never like hearing this sort of thing.

Here, in Thailand, the English monk who now teaches at Dipaphavan often begins his retreats with a discourse on commitment.  He has been with the monastery for 30 years or so.  Sometimes,he laughs at visiting students, while offering his view that they are just there "for a taste", and that there is a "fat chance" of them ever building the resolve to make the type of commitment that is required to make "real progress" in meditation.

Those are his words, in quotes -- not mine.

In Zen, all you have to do is look at the web pages of the "teachers" to see how much they value commitment to form.  16 years, studying under one teacher, is a number I have seen noted, in Japan, and I have seen this number repeated in Denmark and at ZMC.  The idea expressed is that such devotion is required for a student to approach the level of understanding of the "master".

I have to say, I couldn't imagine ever considering that anyone devote their lives to me.  It is just something I would never ask of anyone.  It is something I could never, in my life, wish for, or want.

Think about this:  If a "master" could help to bring you to "real insight", then it is, of course obvious that the "teacher" become less and less necessary, over time.

If a "master" could free you (a claim they all make), then he would delight in the very opposite of this "commitment".  He would delight in your independence.

That is a simple thing to see.

Because of this, I consider it an outrageously selfish thing, this talk of commitment to tradition, or form.

Rinzai Zen Buddhism offers a pretty good example of what has happened.  That 16 year commitment (to a teacher) comes from Rinzai Zen.

But take a look at the three historical characters who, supposedly, served as inspiration for the tradition.

There is Lin Chi, who always "came and went", and who implored his students "if you meet a great Buddha, kill the Buddha" and "Kill your parents"

And there is that independence, again.

Lin Chi, in stark few words, is expressing that one must depend on oneself.  This is a requirement, if one is even going to begin.  Lin Chi recognized a deep need in people -- the need for approval, and the need, and hope, for someone, or something  "above" to provide guidance.   As long as this need is there, a "student" will forever be looking in the wrong place.

Then there is Bodhidharma, the first patriarch, who wandered up the coast of eastern India, and on into China.  Bodhidharma is considered the founder of "Zen", and he too expressed the need for a relinquishing of all "form", and a dependence on one's own capacities.  This is evident from the little regard he gave to the great Buddhist teachers, who devoted their lives to building temples and shrines.  "No Merit", said Bodhidharma.

Lastly, there is the life of Buddha himself, who went from place to place, all his life, until the day he died, and who taught "leaving home".  Buddha never even created monasteries.  His followers would assemble during the rainy seasons -- but only because it was raining!

So Lin Chi, Bodhidharma, and Buddha were saying something very different from the Zen master's "devote your life to me".

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Heart of the Prophets

[An old post, from my old blog, that I found recently on a recovered hard drive...]

Buddha had a strong feeling for others.  This is obvious, just from what we know of the story.  He was frozen, sort of, when he wandered outside his royal palace.  Having witnessed the sufferings of the poor and sick, what could he do?  He couldn't get it out of his mind.

This isn't me rambling.  That's the story.

This is me rambling:  My guess is that it wasn't so easy for him, with the people he knew -- especially there with his beautiful wife.  They probably had a lot of conversations  about why things are the way they are in the world.  The conversations likely ended with his wife telling him he's suffering needlessly, that he should just consider himself lucky that he's a prince, and that all the famous Hindus of the time explained that people ought to appreciate what they have.  Take, for instance, one's beautiful, naked wife.  She probably said a lot of things like that.

But he couldn't get it out of his mind -- the injustice of it all-- why some have so much, others so little -- and how arbitrarily come these divisions.

Me rambling again, about his wife:  I'd bet their conversation, finally,  got a little old.  By all accounts, she was a wonderful, caring woman.   But women sometimes don't respond so well when the focus of a good man's heart shines  out to the world.  It tears them in half.  They love more and they hurt more.  Their notion of stability goes out the window.  Really, I'll bet this was difficult for the two of them.

Eventually, Buddha left.  He couldn't take it anymore.  How could the world be that way? Forget about being a "prince"...  And I'm very, very sorry, lover.  But what about the other people?  What about them?

These thoughts drove him away, and out he went -- away from royalty, family, caste.  And not from lack of love -- but from too much of it -- too much to be held in any particular scope.  He left -- away from religion and tradition -- he saw the same tired patterns there -- similar hierarchies of power and privilege.

Out he went, around and around, and finally, under a tree.

It's the same story for all of them.   It's almost exactly the same.

Mohammad was a businessman -- a trader.  He had a reputation for honesty and fair dealings.  This much is pretty well documented.  He'd be called in, sometimes, to settle local disputes, as each side recognized him as a fair, just man.

But he was troubled by the power of the wealthy -- noticing that they almost always applied said power  to stifle the honest efforts of others.  He saw how good men are so often held back by the unfair practices of those who lord above them.

This ate at him -- the injustice of it.  How can you be an honest man in this world?  Are the qualities of honesty and fairness themselves a curse?  Will it forever be the position of the good man to toil at the bidding of these selfish, deceptive people?  What sort of sense does that make? Why is the world so upside-down?

Must a man sacrifice his true heart to make a decent living?

This was a price Mohammad couldn't pay.  So he was frozen, too.  Like Buddha was.

Off he went, to the caves.

It's the same story with Jesus, who had plenty to deal with.

He had the Romans there, ruling above the people, and taxing them heavily.

But he also had the religious leaders, who would later become the subjects of Jesus's near-violent attacks.

At the time, these religious leaders -- the temple heads -- weren't just a subsection of the local society. Their wealth was far greater than that of anyone else.  They were the upper class, very well removed, in terms of privilege and power, from anyone else in Nazareth, save for the Roman leaders.

Well, we don't know how Jesus felt back then, before he left.  There's no records of that time.

We just know some things he said afterward.  And in these things, you see the same themes -- the wish for fairness, honesty, and justice among people.

He commends the terrible struggles of the solitary true man, acting alone in a society ruled by the depraved.

So it's likely he went through the same thing, back before he took off.  He was frozen too.  Why should everyone work so hard so the few, in their fancy silks, can live a life of ease -- sitting on soft cushions though the day?  How could these people even live with themselves, taking more money from those who are struggling so hard -- and this --  in the name of "God"?

Why do people accept this?  Why do they follow?  Is it because they are just innocent and unaware?  All of them?  All of them not-so-smart?  Or is it because (and this is a terrible thought) , in their service to all these different "masters"  they want the same thing?  That is:  they want the same power and privilege over others?  Is that what they wish for in their lives?  Everyone?  Is that what this life is for?

Where is there a true man then?  There's nobody.  If one, deep in his heart, wishes to live as a true man, how can one just go on, as is "normal"?  If you do that, you are contributing to it all.

How can one live as a true man in the service of such falsehood?  Even as a part of it?

One cannot.

No doubt Jesus saw these things, back then, while he was working as a carpenter.   No doubt he was saddened.  He was frozen.

He took off too, for years.  Finally, like Buddha, Like Mohammad, he found himself alone.  He went out -- to the desert.

I sometimes wonder why people sit.  I really do.

If you look at how the traditions market themselves, you see that they appeal to the wishes of their followers.  Meditation, they say, has all sorts of benefits.  "Insight", say the teachers, is the "ultimate reality".

OK.  Fine.

And, so, a lot of people show up.  People want "insight".  People want "ease" in their lives. People want to "see things as they really are". Etc etc. (Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...)

People want all sorts of stuff.

But, most of all,  people want an "end to suffering".

But whose suffering?  Their suffering.

And that's what the religions and traditions claim to offer -- all of them.   And this is why people go.  It's why people show up at the monasteries.  It's why people become monks.  It's why yoga classes are so popular.  It's why you see so many people reading spiritual (or self-help) books when you are waiting at the airport.  It's why there's such a buzz of chatter around any new writer, or any newly discovered master from the east:  "He is so wonderful!"  "He changed my life!".

People in these places talk about compassion sometimes, but it's kind of like "Yeah, of course that's nice.  Be good to people!"   And then they go back to their cushion or prayer mat, hoping for their personal miracle, hoping for their enlightenment.

But this is completely opposite from the heart of the Prophets -- all of whom were capable men -- none of whom sought, for themselves, comfort, or peace, or ease, or grace.  This much is all too obvious, from their stories.

It's not the sitting, or the prayers.

It's the heart -- the overwhelming wish for fairness, and justice, and well-being for others.

Somewhat paradoxically, this is why it was they who came to walk as truth.

They had hearts for the world.

If you don't have this, or if you are not in the process of developing  it -- if you're not taking the time in your life to stop and look at the world -- as much time as it takes, on your own, just to look -- and if you are not willing to accept the sorrow and solitude that comes with this, then all you're doing is sitting still.

You can do that for 30 years.  What good is it?  Sitting still so much for 30 years!?  Doing what?  Gaining "insight"!?  Why?  You'll end up having to think of ways to convince yourself you haven't wasted your time.  Even if you manage a little glimpse, you'll only hold what you know over others.   It will just be another way of ranking people, as if there were not enough.  Nothing will really change.  You'll need the positions and the fancy clothes and the titles.  You'll need the bows.  You'll need all these things. You'll have to do a lot of talking in front of people  -- else, you'll feel bad.

But, you'll have just wasted 30 years.

Buddha had a heart for the world.  So did Jesus.  So did Mohammad.  They had a strong feeling for others.   Their practice and their prayers only made this stronger.  Compassion for others was a challenging act -- it was something you do, from the heart.   In this way, the heart takes over.

This is why, for them, this world became paper-thin, and bright.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Virtues, and An Unfortunate Misunderstanding

One thing that you read, a lot, if you look over online discussions about scandals in Zen and Yoga, is the idea that the "teachers" have failed the way all humans fail, and that "great insight" is important enough that we should forgive the transgressions, as the good easily outweighs the bad.

This is a common argument.

Even from Zen's most vocal critics, you often hear the idea put forth that "insight" doesn't mean "good character", and that these "masters" of "insight" still have work to do.  We should let them do it, and we should not expect too much of them.

You hear many variations on this central theme.

I find that a very, very sad position.

It is sad because of a false (though prominent) belief that goes something like this:  "Insight" is something separate from what most people might commonly call the "virtues" -- honestly, sincerity, generosity, helpfulness, and so on.

That just isn't true.

This is difficult to explain, because, in order to explain, you have to describe what "insight", as the "masters" speak of it (e.g. a "kensho"), really is.  Despite what the teachers say, this isn't something that can be taught.  It is something that some people see. 

A real Kensho can be described like this: 

Imagine a painting of two people having a conversation.  All your life you believe you are one of the people in the painting, walking around, talking to other people. 

A Kensho shows you that "you" are not the person, but the painting (and the painter, actually).

This makes speaking perfectly correctly very difficult.  Jesus said "pick up a rock, and I am there".

Someone asks you what is Mu? And you toss him your cushion.

Buddha often spoke in the third person:  "The Tataghata says...".

These were all solutions of sincere men, doing their best to speak as the painter, with languages that were built for beings of the painting.

What does this have to do with "virtue"? 

Well, what you see is that there really is no difference between "you" and another "person" -- you are all "painting", and this is actually where the heart of the matter lies.  You have been given a diagram of the truth of the world -- how it is "here".

The thoughts and feelings that "you" harbor are more easily scrutinized, against this diagram.  Between "you " and another, anger doesn't make sense, as it requires a division, a thought-separation between the two of you.  Greed doesn't make sense, as it requires a similar separation.

Pride doesn't make sense.  Dishonesty doesn't make sense.

All of these thoughts create separation -- they require "you" and "me".  They require a relative "measure" of two painting-beings.

There is only one feeling that makes sense, against this diagram, and it is a kind of love.  I say "a kind of love" because love-with-wanting is another thing that, well, doesn't make sense.

It is hopeful well wishes for others, under all conditions, with deep enough feeling that another's pain becomes your own, and another's happiness becomes your own.

So, a true practice, following real "insight" is one of eliminating the dividing thoughts, through meditation and actions that are motivated by this kind-of-love.

And that is where "the virtues" come in -- honesty, helpfulness, friendly familiarity, generosity, and so on -- not as part of any doctrine, but, instead as an expression of natural being.  They are indicators of those who have made their painting-lives paper-thin.

This is really what the true sages were talking about when they used terms like "non-discriminating mind", "no secular/sacred", and "nonduality".  Originally, there was a deep, and strong heart to all of these words.

This is "do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

Even thinking "I am master, you are student" adds weight, actually -- even if you thoroughly believe this is a benevolent thought.  Without real insight, you are peddling ideology.  With real insight, you act without ideology.

Holding any "position" above another adds weight. 

This weight is something no true sage would ever wish to hold. If the masters had real insight, they could not display the arrogance that they do, following their transgressions.  They would at least say "oops!".  They simply could not behave like this, as they would be horrified doing so, based upon what they (claim to) have seen.

So, behaving the way they have means either:
  1. They are lying about their "real insight" or
  2. They have had a real kensho, but are extremely stupid
After seeing the diagram, you can see what adds weight, and what does not.  Nobody would take a pail of animal waste and pour it over their heads.  Nobody would do that. It would be an extremely foolish thing to do.  Nobody would consciously choose to soil themselves this way.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Mish Mash of Mindfulness

“Mindfulness” is a big word, in the meditative practices, and there are a million definitions for it. It is used in all sorts of different ways. So it makes sense to consider what Buddha was actually talking about.

We may as well look over some of the common uses of the word, because I’ve heard everything.

In Japanese-style Zen, sorry to say, “Mindfulness” is used to describe how someone should behave in a monastery, with strict respect to the forms of the resident master. So a master, or a head monk will often say something like “look at that candle! It is supposed to be to the left of the incense! Be more mindful!!!”

I lived for years in Zen monasteries around the world – 8 of them. In Zen, I have actually never heard the word “mindfulness” used any other way. Always, Zen masters and their monks are telling their students to be “mindful”, meaning extremely careful, about some arbitrary form of the practice.

Now this is a laughably shallow definition – albeit one supported by Japanese Zen hero Dogen, who equated perfect enlightenment with an absolute submittal to (his) hierarchical monastic form. So you are “mindful” if you do your three bows to the master in a certain manner – not too fast, not too slow. Scratching your ear while bowing is, of course, not “mindful”.

But this is obviously not what Buddha was talking about. The many ways anyone can refute those who advance this theory of “mindfulness” are so rock simple that they come off sounding arrogant and inflammatory, and Zen students get angry.

So, it is best to say nothing and just dismiss the Zen definition.

But there are other definitions, outside of Zen.

In the Theravaden tradition, and in the Goenka Vipassana tradition, “mindfulness” is its own practice, holding somewhat different form, in each. For both, the “Mindfulness” practice involves careful concentration on the corporeal body – its actions and/or sensations.

If you ask “why?” everywhere you go (which is something that I enjoy doing, just to see how a “master” will answer – almost always, they will not) you will get only a couple of different theories.

The late Mr. Goenka, who calls his practice Vipassana, has his own definition, which I have never heard in a Vipassana meditation retreat other than those of Mr. Goenka’s (or his followers).

In my view, Mr. Goenka’s definition, like the Zen definition, is sufficiently insane to be dismissed on first thought. It involves sharpening the mind to bodily sensation, under Mr. Goenka’s promise that, once the mind attains sufficient focus – a level that (as Mr. Goenka explains) brings one to subatomic sensory precision -- one then becomes a Buddha. Mr. Goenka speaks very little of compassion, but he does talk about morality. Somehow, such keen focus on one’s personal collection of protons and neutrons, according to Mr. Goenka, results in a spontaneous adoption of Buddhist morality.

Insane. Sorry.

The Theravaden definition is the most common, and the one you hear most in other meditative forms (like Yoga). Theravadens claim that meditating on the actions of the body, (while, for example, walking extremely slowly) helps maintain a concentrated meditative state, keeping our minds from wandering into past hurts, future expectations, pretty ladies, and so on. By carefully controlling our actions, and by keeping our attention on what our body is doing at the present moment, we deepen our meditative state. We remain “in the moment”, helping us on our way to “insight”.

This definition makes some sense, in that application of this “mindfulness” may be a reasonable means of maintaining meditative focus during retreat, and one may indeed extend this practice to other activities, such as eating breakfast, or brushing teeth.

There are proven benefits of this practice, too. So says the new generation of psychotherapists and health researchers. Much has been written about the (reportedly) age-old practice of “Mindfulness”.

So you may as well stop reading here, because we’ve found the accepted definition, and there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. It is, universally, the most common definition, and its popularity, as a practice, is growing, extending well beyond the boundaries of the “spiritual” traditions.

But, in case anyone wants to hear a retort, I am going to list my problems with this definition. I have three main problems with it.

The first one is something that I can’t talk about much, except to say that meditating on the corporeal body isn’t a good idea. Sit, find the root of consciousness, and decide for yourself if it is a good idea. All I can say is that I promise you it isn’t.

Secondly, given the central importance of this “body watching” practice in many traditions, it has a remarkable distance from any notion of compassion, or compassionate action. On the contrary, it is possible that its adoption may take one’s attention in quite the opposite direction.

For example, I have a recurring conversation. There are horrible stories everywhere, in the “spiritual” centers. Here too, in Thailand. When these stories come up, I often ask others what they would have done, if they were there at the time of the incidents, and if they knew about them.

In the spiritual centers, I have never heard anybody say “I’d call a meeting to talk about it” or “I’d call the cops” or anything like this. I hear a lot of answers that involve things like “practicing right action” and so on.

On many, many occasions, I get answers beginning like “Perhaps the universe has a plan that I am unaware of. Perhaps it was the womens’ karma…” and going on to emphasize the importance of continued focus on the “self”.

I consider this a sickness in the religions and traditions. This “always focus on me” practice seems to promote a reverence of inaction, which is part of why you see so many people hurt, or taken advantage of.

That is just not healthy.

Third, the body-watching definition of “mindfulness” is, by definition, an exercise of control.

For those who claim “no self”, as many Buddhist teachers do, you can ask if this definition of mindfulness makes sense. After all, who is controlling, and what is controlled?

And, looked at another way:

Best case – very best case, what might we hope for, from our practice? Where does it lead? What will we be like? Where will the promised (by the masters) transformation lead us?

1) To a state of perfect self-control? or
2) To a state of spontaneous, compassionate being and action, devoid of thoughts of control over the “self” (or for that matter, over others).

The truth is, most “spiritual” masters do a pretty good job of the first choice. Most exhibit remarkable control over their actions (well, at least in public…) and this is often an impressive sight.

Yoga masters take it further still, with impressive displays of physical strength and flexibility.

But, obviously, 1) and 2) are very different things.

One might even call them opposite outcomes.

This just means that it is important to take care with whichever definition of “mindfulness” one wishes to accept, as nobody would wish to practice something that would lead them in a funny direction. It just doesn’t make sense to “practice” something that is not reflected in the (eventual) outcome.

In my view, there is no merit, at all, to 1), and there is no reason to revere someone who has achieved an advanced state of self-control. Inherent in such a being, necessarily, is ideology, and judgement.  Also inherent in such a being is a mind that is pulled in two directions, else why the need to control?

On the other hand, 2) presents a natural, compassionate being, transformed from one who was less so. It is a state devoid of ideology, and, therefore, a state of diminished judgement.

That sounds right on, to me.

So on to my personal definition of mindfulness:

I say a reasonable definition of “mindfulness”, as a practice, is the observation of one’s thoughts and feelings. This makes sense, and it is something you can take to your cushion. It doesn’t have anything to do with where you put your toes, or how you chew your food.

With this definition, you take a great responsibility. Where you see anger in yourself, you forgive. Where you see pride, or greed, you change your view. You take all the strength you can muster, for this. You love. You redeem yourself on the cushion. You say you are sorry for your false thoughts.

With this, you change how you see.

You therefore change how you behave, as a consequence.

You lose your ideologies. You lose your religions. You lose the thought-ideas you once imposed on others. You lose your shoulds and shouldn'ts.

You progress toward 2).

Your life has more feeling to it, and more immediacy.

You become a better person for everyone you meet.  

You are mindful of your thoughts, and, in action, you are mindful of the real needs of others.

Chihuahua Zen, and the Gracies

 [Another rewrite from an old post on my old blog]

A long time ago, when I first showed up at Dai Bosatsu Zendo, one of the resident “masters” announced, during morning meeting, that we would be doing something new.

I sort of snapped to attention. In a monastery, there seems to be a great fear of doing anything “new”, no matter the circumstance. So it is a big deal, even to hear the word.

This was Denko Osho. He was sharing the DBZ throne with Eido Shimano, at the time. Behind the scenes, they were in wrestling over it, actually. I didn’t know this though, at the time.

Denko announced that his Karate teacher would be coming to Dai Bosatsu, to give the residents lessons. He talked about the man for some time. The man’s name was “Frank”.

Apparently, the guy was some sort of champion. Denko mentioned the school, or style, of Karate that he had practiced, over in Japan. He went on to say that only a small percentage of those who enter the school stay to the end. It is that grueling – broken bones and things. Denko described this form of full-contact Karate as the world’s most deadly combat art. Denko had practiced with this “master” for a few years.

I was happy at the prospects of some exercise. You don’t get much movement in a Zen monastery. I would volunteer to clean the floors, which at DBZ was done the old Japanese way – by running and pushing a little rag along the floor. I would do this because nobody else wanted to do it and because it is about the only exercise you can get in a monastery.

So this Karate class was a very welcome development, for me.

The words “full contact” had caught my attention. I looked around the room a little. Denko was still talking about the deadliness of Frank’s Karate.

Finally, he paused to let the weight of his speech sink in.

I was thinking about mouth guards when I asked “will there be live sparring?”

There was a pause.

Denko’s eyes widened, and he responded in anger.  He boomed “YOU WILL LOSE!!!!”

The anger surprised me. The whole room looked down at the floor. I had only been at DBZ for a couple of months, at the time. I had no idea what the man was upset about. I was just thinking about the health of my teeth, and how I might protect them.

For much of my life, I was a sport fighter. I hadn’t done much striking, except for a few weeks of muay thai here and there in Thailand. But I was a good competition wrestler in school, and had also competed nationally in Judo. I had success at these sports, but if there is one thing you know about sport, it is this: You don’t get to a good competitive level overnight. You have to take your lumps, so to speak. And, for a fighter, that means you spend a lot of time getting beaten by people who are better than you are. If you include all the practices I’d been to, on all the mats, I’ve lost thousands of fights. That is just part of the game. In sport, it is a good thing to fight someone better than you. You learn that way. If you like sport, then there really is no “losing”, because of this. It is a good thing to get the chance to spar with someone better. It is a gift.

But this wasn’t sport, I guess.

 This was “Zen”.

Like I had mentioned, I was confused by Denko’s anger, so I kind of quietly shrugged my shoulders and said “isn’t that how you learn?”

The room went quiet again. Denko just sat there, glaring at me.

There are a lot of these moments in monasteries, when “masters” glare at you. They are a little uncomfortable. Denko was just sitting there, angry, as if I had said something horrible.

There was still more silence, and there was still Denko’s furious glare. Everyone else was still looking at the floor, so I felt I had to say something.

So I said, a little awkwardly, “I was just asking, because I don’t know. Are we learning to f…?”

Denko interrupted. He had become a few degrees angrier. I had really upset him. He yelled “THIS IS A MONASTERY!!! WE ARE NOT BARBARIANS!!!”

OK. Welcome to “Zen”. A “master” goes on about the supreme fighting deadliness of his martial art, then becomes enraged if you make the mistake of not being terrified.

… and THEN calls you a “BARBARIAN!!!”, just for wondering if anyone actually ever learns to fight, in this supremely deadly fighting class.

Denko was actually making a big mistake – a big Zen mistake, actually, talking about winning and losing, as if that had anything to do with fighting.

But what was the guy up to?  What was with Denko's Karate? 

What was the purpose of it?  To build runaway confidence (arrogance), based on nothing?

To intimidate others?

Really...What is the point of such a class?

Chihuahuas sometimes behave this way, when another dog shows up. They stand as tall as they can, and bark a big bark.

Sometimes it works.

When it doesn’t work, they turn, and they run away, very quickly.

It is a big show, this Karate, this Chihuahua Zen.

So here is a question: What is the purpose of the big show, in Zen? And there is a big show, in all traditions.  There is all that talk of lineage, for example, there are bells and gongs, there is the strict hierarchy, supposedly reflecting a like "level of insight".

But, if someone had “real insight”, wouldn’t this person wish to remove the impediments to his students’ progress? Why create such reverence, or fear?

Why demand it?

Wouldn’t a true sage wish to encourage his or her students to present them with the most difficult questions? And, wouldn’t this person be OK with answering in public?

Really -- why the big show, in Zen?

This brings to mind the Gracie family, of Brazil, and how they changed the fight game forever.

Back in the 70's, Karate was big.  You heard all the stories about how this master could kill a man with his little finger.  There were schools everywhere.  Kids would become black belts at 12 or 13.  They were on television, breaking boards or stacks of bricks.

A lot of people believed this.  Schoolyard conversation was full of Karate stories, back then.

I suppose the Gracie family, of Brazil, was tired of seeing this, over the decades, so they started challenging these martial artists.  They started the UFC, entering themselves as contestants, while inviting boxers, wrestlers, Judo guys, and other champion martial artists.

Royce Gracie won the first few events.  The sport grapplers generally did well, back then.

The Karate and Aikido guys never won a single match.  Decades later, it is still the case.  No pure Karate or Aikido guy has won even a single match.  There have been many thousands of events, around the world.

Back in the 90's, the Karate teachers were forced to change their tune.  The neighborhood shops closed.  You don't hear the fantastic stories anymore.

Amazing how so many school kids could have believe something so completely, based on, really, nothing but decades  of hype.

There is a reality to sport.  There is a basic truth to it.  The truth is something that has attracted me to sport, all my life.  There is no way to weasel out.  You do your best, and you know the truth, by the outcome of the match.  A big show means nothing -- absolutely nothing.

It would be nice to see the same thing happen in Zen. It would be nice, for example, if there existed a period, during each sesshin, where people were to challenge the speaker with difficult questions or new koans.  People could sit in a circle, and students could challenge each other. 

Why not up the stakes?  Why not record it and put it online?

DBZ didn't allow questions of any sort.

Joshu Sasaki also did not allow spontaneous questions.

When this rule is in place, it is not like you can break it.  The other students don't let you, for some reason.  They start screaming if you speak up.

But I always thought that it isn't a very sporting thing to bill yourself as a man of insight, and make a big production of it, and then lord over your "students" as if they are far beneath you, without ever putting yourself in a position where you might be challenged, or tested.

Is there any purpose, at all, to the big show?

In truth, there is not.

When Buddha (metaphorically) threw down his crown, he didn't become a monk, or a buddhist, or anything, really.  He un-became.   It was the big show that he was throwing down.  It was here that he bacme Lin Chi's "true man, without rank".

This is something he threw off, before he even began to sit.

Egely Kloster, in Denmark

 [Most of this was written a long time ago, on my old blog.  Rewritten here]

The last time I was in Denmark, we started a one month Kessei with 5 people. Denko had kicked out 2 by the second week. They were two 19 year old kids who were on break from University. They had decided to spend their break meditating instead of partying – good kids, and good workers. One had kept asking if he could work with me. I was building the guest rooms and the meditation hall.

The kids were paying guests, helping to start the place, for Denko. They had arrived a few minutes late once, to dinner, and Denko had kicked them out, screaming, angrily.  He said “I don't want to waste my time with them”. 

 One of the kids was very, very upset when he left.

I found another woman, sometime in the middle of Kessei, crying out by a pile of wood. She would occasionally pick up an axe and chop angrily and wildly at the wood. I stood my distance and tried to calm her down. I asked her if she wanted to take a little walk. She eventually sat down and talked to me, for a little while.

There is a great deal of sneering, angry verbal abuse, in some Zen monasteries. I don’t know what this woman had been through. She didn’t say.

It isn't "strict zen", or anything like that.  It is real upset.  It is anger.  The master screams "What is the matter with you?  Are you STUPID?  Can't you put a bowl down right?" at a 19 year old kid whose bowl thumped a little too loudly during lunch.

I deal with it OK, because I consider people who scream about little, meaningless things..  unbalanced...

Some people have a hard time in monasteries.  It is my feeling that, because of this, they look for ways to vent, and it is my theory that they choose targets of their wrath by a simple formula:  scream toward those that will bring the least consequence.  That means choose those at the bottom of the totem pole, or choose the youngest ones, or the ones who do not appear as if they will scream back.

This is the sort of thing the woman at the wood pile was having to deal with.  It is like a constant hammer, on your head, sometimes.

For some reason -- in my opinion a very selfish reason -- such behavior is rewarded, actually, in Zen monasteries.  This is pretty well documented, actually. 

It is a hard thing to describe -- what is rewarded is a kind of militant belief, and a willingness to impose this belief on others, without consideration.  In this way, the hierarchy is forever fortified.

Denko sometimes calls this the "hai" spirit.  "Hai" is the Japanese word for "yes".  It differs from "yes" in that is a word that someone can say very quickly, and with fire.  Denko's opinion is that a "serious" Zen student, when given an instruction from his "master", is to say "hai!", then bow,  and immediately set himself to fulfilling the master's request.

Is that a good thing?

Because, it seems to me, that this air of incredible importance and unquestioned loyalty that many teachers foster does much more harm than good. 

Let me put it this way:  If you say "my tradition is extremely important!!!", then, in your  robes,  how are you not saying "I am extremely important!!!"?

After all, who holds this thing people call "tradition"?  And what is it, anyway?  It is different for every single person.  Every "master", and every one of the "master"'s students pick and choose the bits they consider imiportant.  It is different everywhere.

So what is it really?

So if make this great claim, regarding tradition -- if you believe it is "extremely important", this arbitrary little formula you have arrived at, then how are you not practicing to become a self-centered  egomaniac?

How are you not practicing narcissism?

Somebody tell me.

I mean this as a serious question, because it seems to me that the Zen definition of "insight" is a state of robotic non-feeling, where monks and senior students become more and more assimilated into the hierarchical structure, more and more dependent on monastic form, and less and less capable of  (or interested in) thinking for themselves.

Personally, I see that as a dangerous thing.  I find it a stretch to consider that a master might foster such absolute obedience with "compassion" in mind. 

This thought just never made sense to me.  It seems like a crazy thought.  If I like someone, the last thing that I want is their obedience.  Why would I want that?  How could that be compassion?

But I think I am alone in this view.  In my experience, 100 percent of "committed" Zen students witness what happens in these centers, and all of them -- every single one -- believe that the "master" holds "great insight", and that he enforces the traditional form with such fire selflessly -- purely for the benefit of the students.

I've asked people about Eido Shimano's riches, to hear them respond "Roshi  isn't concerned about money.  Deep down, I am certain he hates all his money!  But people keep giving it to him!"

I've asked people about Joshu Sasaki's habit of grabbing women and pawing them during dokusan, to hear them respond "Yes!  How his mind works is a mystery!  With enough practice, hopefully, we will understand!"

And, always, regarding the abusive screaming, there is one response:  "Zen is tough!  It is the most direct path!  The master is keeping us in line!  This is Rinzai's 'expedient means'!"

Personally, I never saw it that way.   There are an infinite number of ways a group of people may sit together -- truly an infinite number of choices people could show up and spend time on cushions. 

So why do things this way?

Why promote dismissive cruelty?

One morning, during a previous retreat, Denko instructed each of his students to "tell on" the person sitting next to him/her  He would go around the room asking each person "What mistakes did so-and-so make this morning?"

There are certain characters who revel in this game.  To Denko, this is "good Zen".  It is "serious" Zen.

Personally, it is a game that I am loathe to take part in.

As such, I found a way out. 

I once asked Denko's wife what she had thought of all of it, and she gave me an answer that I had heard in many Zen centers.

She said that Denko "keeps her in line".

OK, but towards what exactly? 

Could it ever be good "practice" to behave the way some of these Rinzai "masters" do?

I remember reading about the Inka ceremony of one of Denko's Dharma brothers, back at DBZ.  Apparently the newly crowned "master" was head-butting another monk during the ceemony, causing blood to stream from the monk's nose.  Daido Loori, from ZMM, had been there, at the time.

Witnessing this, Mr. Loori had put an end to DBZ's advertisements in the ZMM newsletter.

Is it too much of a stretch to notice  that Japanese Zen appears like a practice designed to brainwash someone into extreme arrogance, where "masters" are led into thinking "Zen" somehow involves their exercising a (perceived) dominance over others.

I've read some interpretations of Lin Chi's sayings, where the writer (usually a Zen monk or master) reads Lin Chi's "bravado" as great confidence, or "nerve".

I have no doubt that such tremendous arrogance would be beneficial in many walks of life.  I also have no doubt that it must "feel good" to many men who practice Zen.

But that isn't "insight".

That is just arrogance.

And besides, I have a very different interpretation of Lin Chi's seemingly gruff behavior.  If you actually bother to read the Lin Chi record, he isn't screaming at his students.  He is getting in the faces of the "masters", challenging them to prove their insight.  The only time he is seen speaking harshly to his students is when he is admonishing them for their blind faith in the "masters".

So, Lin Chi is actually doing the exact opposite thing today's "masters" are doing.  He is doing the opposite of the the monk's interpretation that I wrote about earlier.

He is telling his students NOT to accept a subservient role, to challenge such convention, and to use their time with their cushion to arrive at "insight", so they may, in time, stand on their own.

So, Lin Chi wasn't after arrogance, or confidence.  He was imploring his students to come to their own understanding.  Only then could they see the falsehood of these "teachers".

The Japanese Zen tradition -- even outside of the DBZ sphere -- really seems like a practice designed only to create such a perception of arrogant dominance.  The costumes and the strict formality really puts this on display.  Students prostrate themselves three times before speaking to the "master".  There is an emphasis on seniority, and "lower" students are treated like dirt.  There are a million little things like this.

(By the way, I wrote a post comparing Zen to the empty hype behind some martial arts here).

Of course, I've had many conversations about this.  People don't see it my way.  Always, people seem to believe the "master" is only acting.  He is making a big show, but he "sees through it"

That's not the case, though.

If you have lived in a monastery and you disagree with me, at least consider if you yourself could behave in such a manner.  You would probably answer "no".  Given this, consider the truth of your theory -- that "insight" is something that would compel you to act the way your "Zen master" does.

Does it still make sense?

Head butting a monk?

Come on...

Anyway, yet another woman left in the middle of sesshin. She was just there to sit for a week. I had never spoken to her, but she had come up to me in day four or so, with a couple of cookies and two cups of tea.

I invited her into the little trailer that I was staying in, which had a tiny table and bench, so she could say what she wanted to say. She asked me why I was there, and I told her I just wanted to sit, and I wanted to help others sit.

 Then she said that I wasn’t like them, and she added “They are crazy!”. She went on. She said “They think they are right, but they are wrong!”, and I just nodded.

The woman thanked me for speaking with her. She told me that she easily could have finished sesshin, but she didn’t want to appear as though she supported the place.  She couldn't stomach that thought.  Her leaving was a kind of personal protest.  For her, it was the right thing to do.

These are sentiments that I, too, have struggled with, over the years, in the places I have sat.

Three people had left, including this woman. It was getting to the point where the screamers would have to pay people off the street, else they would have nobody to belittle.

Finally, there came a kind of crisis. Denko was furious, about something. He and the Jiki had been considering calling off the kessei altogether. Denko didn’t show up for the evening sit. People were wondering where he was.

A meeting was called, and we all met Denko in the dining room. He had been alone for a few hours.

It turned out that  was angry because nobody had bothered to move the altar into the meditation hall. In the afternoon, we had all moved it into the hallway. Denko had to go and move it back himself.

At the time, I had actually stopped by the Zendo to sit by myself for a few minutes, because it was a long break. I didn’t sit though, because I had seen Denko setting up the altar, and had asked him if he needed help. He had told me he didn’t need any help.

He had seemed angry then, so I didn’t stick around.  I had taken a walk instead.

Denko didn't respond to me, when I had mentioned this.  He expressed his view that nobody seemed to be taking the practice seriously.  Nobody remembered to move the altar back.  Denko asked everyone to think about what to do.  We were to come up with ideas regarding how to proceed.  We still had half a month left.  Did we even wish to sit?

The next day, during morning meeting, the group was still in crisis mode. Denko wasn’t angry anymore, but had sort of thrown in the towel on the kessei. He asked for the remaining students to offer ideas on how to proceed.

Personally, I don't know what meditation has to do with little Buddha figurines.  I don't consider them important.  I had already watched, in sadness, as students were yelled at and kicked out.  So I mentioned that there was no reason to be angry over (what amounts) to a doll set.

That’s how I saw it --  grown man, having a temper tantrum – a real temper tantrum -- over a little doll set. I added that I don’t like it when people leave, and I saw no reason why people should be screamed at the way they were.

If the doll set is truly so important, to Denko, then he should be happy at the chance to set it up himself, right?

So why the anger?

I mentioned this too, to Denko, offering that everyone there was basically helpful.  If they saw him actually working on something with friendly enthusiasm, they would want to help him.  In the Japanese tradition,  you never see the "master" doing anything.  Things are very formal.  The "master" rarely descends to the level of the "lay students".  For some reason, the "masters" like it this way.

I mentioned that the kids who were kicked out were helpful, and that they were offering to help me build the guest rooms.  Everyone was trying to help, and everyone wanted to sit.  It is just hard to do that if all you hear are insults.  It is hard to do that when the "master" doesn't appear willing to help with the necessary work, himself -- especially if all you see is bad mood.  We were paying students, after all, paying to work 9 hours a day, just so there would be a place to sit in Denmark. 

If you think about it, who, then, can you say, was truly "serious" about Zen?  The "master" or the 19 year old kids he kicked out?

I see it one way, Denko sees it the opposite way.

By this time, there was really only two other people who you could safely call “students”. There was the head nun there too, and the Jiki. That was it.

The head nun and I got along pretty well. She asked that I go for a drive with Denko. On the drive, I asked Denko what he was doing. I asked him if he realized that he was the only one who was upset, and what that meant.

He responded that a Zen kessei is a crucible, and that people need the discipline.

I asked “for what?” and I pointed out that there would have been three more people sitting there, helping build his monastery, without this particular style of “discipline”.

Denko asked me “well, what do you want me to do? APOLOGIZE?”

Denko had asked this question as though it was an outlandish thought, as though it was impossible for anyone to consider that a Zen master might say he’s sorry.

I had recently read "Zen at War".  I actually had it in my backpack, back in the trailer.  I suggested that an attachment to traditional form is still attachment, with the same dangers as attachment to anything else.  I offered Denko the book.

He said, gruffly, "Not interested".

That was pretty much the end of the talk. I didn’t say anything.

Zen is sick. It is difficult to describe the things you see, because people have an idea of “Zen”. They have assembled this idea from phrases they have heard, from kung fu movies they have seen, and from fantastic, serene images they have been exposed to.

If you tell the true stories, you sound like you are attacking. A grown man can spend a month in a temper tantrum, over some tiny wooden carvings, kicking out half the paying group, calling them stupid, and yelling that they are "not worth his time", all in the name of Buddha.

And you are not even allowed to mention it.

 If you do, you lack “perfect serenity”

Go live in a monastery. It isn’t what you think.

I sometimes ask myself if these teachers have the basic ability to see what they are doing.  When they talk about "acceptance", where are they looking?

Whose acceptance are they talking about?

Everyone else's?

I have a little story, regarding this thought.  I'll tell it at the end of this post.

Since the time that I was there, Denko and his wife has changed the "style" of practice.  When websites started popping up about Eido Shimano, Denko's teacher of 15 years, Denko visited a Tibetan teacher, had a new "life-changing experience" and adopted Dzogchen into his practice.

His claim , now, is that his "direct" Rinzai Zen style doesn't suit Westerners.  Westerners, apparently, prefer the "indirect" route of Dzogchen?

The "Dzogchen" style is more popular in Denmark, I guess.  Denko claims that nobody has left his Sangha since his  Dzogchen illumination.

I find this strange.  It feels like Buddhist marketing, to me.  I was never one for the nomenclature.  I try not to talk about meditation.  I find it a little bit of a trial to listen, at length, to someone's comparison of Kundalini vs. Dzogchen vs. Zen vs. Goenka vs. Chakra etc. etc.  The way I see it, if you talk about these words, then you aren't really there to meditate. You are there to put some words on display, for some reason.

Regarding my view on the change of styles, I don't think I am being cynical about Denko's place, especially if you look at the timing of things.  At the moment the online community starts discussing the truth of characters like Eido Shimano and Joshu Sasaki, all of their devoted followers suddenly find compassion.

After 30 years, Ms. Chayat, at DBZ suddenly starts delivering long speeches about the need to protect women.  After 30 years, the monks at Baldy suddenly start talking about how students must think for themselves and confront dishonesty head on.

Denko, after 20 years, suddenly sees the light.

Think so?

Well, I will end with the story I had mentioned.

Are these men even interested in what they are talking about?

It is certainly an important question, especially in the context of Japanese Zen's military style (and direct historical ties to Japan's armed forces).  Such a form demands total, soldier-like commitment, and this is explicitly expressed, in nearly every Zen monastery I have visited.  Most Zen teachers relate stories of the the stark, austere lives they led during the many years they spent practicing under their "master".  The idea is, this type of commitment -- to a particular "master",  is necessary.  The strict form is good.

On to the story, because I can't help seeing things the other way.  I can't help but see Zen as upside-down.  In my view, the "masters" have little interest in actually doing what they talk about.

Once, during sesshin, Denko was giving a teisho about “non-discriminating mind”. A teisho lasts about an hour and a half. An hour of that is talking. The rest is bells and gongs. Denko was talking the way all Zen masters do. “Once you can see, then you will be no different from the ancients.. " etc. etc.

 But, what was funny, was how he ended this “non-discriminating mind” teisho. He was talking about the commitment required to “realize” this mind. He said that, to take up this great effort, one must formally ordain as a monk, and that this wasn’t a pursuit for “just a layman”.

You hear these things all the time, in Zen. You are not allowed to say anything about it. But it is just too much, sometimes…

Like this time.

"Non-discriminating mind" can describe something few people have seen, but there is also a real point to it -- a heartfelt point.  Because in the stream of one's life, it only really matters in the space between you and others.

So I asked Denko “What is ‘monk’?”

The Jiki, the head nun, and another woman started screaming, telling me to shut up.

That’s Zen.

Finally, when they quieted down, Denko took a deep breath and said, solemnly, “A monk is someone who has committed his life to the pursuit of the Dharma”

That wasn’t the question, actually. The question was “what is ‘monk’?” I could have just as easily asked “what is ‘layman’”.

But at least it was an answer, so I asked “what were you before you ever heard the word ‘monk’?”

There were more screams, before Denko said, slowly, and proudly “I am, and always have been, a monk.”

Non discriminating mind.


This is an age old theme.

Actually, in Zen, there really is no older theme.

You could call this idea the birth of Zen.

It is the general form of Bodhidharma’s “no secular/sacred”. It is pretty simple. It is something nearly everybody can understand. But Bodhidharma had noticed something dark way back when. He was surprised by the ones who don’t understand – the ones who never got it, and never will.  He was surprised at the direction the traditional teachers had taken.

He tangled with these people, the Buddhist masters of southern China.

Some things never change.

If you can’t understand “non-discriminating mind”, you don’t need “insight”, you just need a Webster’s dictionary, and an ability to notice, in yourself, when you are making a mistake – when you are straying from the dictionary definition -- when you see one side as "better" than the other -- when you see the divisions as something important.

If you can see the mistakes, then you know that, somewhere in your heart, is “non-discriminating mind”. And, with your sitting, and your life, you just head that direction. That is really all you need. The simple, intellectual understanding is enough. Really, all you need is a dictionary -- that and your own heart, I suppose.  Every decent person has a degree of understanding, with this one.

Everyone but the “Masters”.

Zen Cults

There is a topic on ZFI, where somebody asked whether or not Zen practice (and, in particular, Eido Shimano's lineage) constitutes a cult, or a "cultish" practice.

These postings took place in January 2013 - -a couple of years after the Aitken papers on Eido Shimano were released to the public.  So, to put things in context, everyone in the discussion is very well aware of the extent of Mr. Shimano's sexual predations and backhanded financial dealings. 

You can read the discussion, if you want.  There is the link.

In the thread, two of Mr. Shimano's dharma heirs, Genjo Marinello and Denko Mortensen, discuss the idea of "harm" caused to students.

Denko offers something that you often hear when the subject of a "master"'s improprieties is breached.  Denko infers that nobody is ever really "hurt":

"Indeed: felt hurt or rejected. But that is not at all the same as actual harm - whatever is said by the 'hurt' person."
OK, so here you see it again.

It is the company line.

The idea expressed is that the "regular people", forever enslaved by our monkey minds, are at fault, for falling under the spell of our wild egoic perceptions.  Nobody was actually harmed!  Can't anyone see?  We masters are the only ones who can see!

To me, that just screams "Cult"

I'm not saying that there isn't a perspective from which Denko's statement is "true".

I'm saying WHO CARES?

Most people don't have the insight that Denko is talking about.  Fine.

But does that give a "master" the right to thieve from students, lie to them, molest their wives and daughters, lie about it, and spread false rumor about those who notice?

Hmmmm.... And then portray them as "spiritually immature" if they so much as object to this treatment?

Does this make sense?


That is why you can call these places "cults".  They foster an idealized notion of "Zen", built on the foundations of quizzical saying of long-dead Chinese monks.  They use this notion to suggest that they, as "masters" exist somehow beyond the realm simple, basic social grace.

Ridiculous, if you think about it, to present such an argument in the face of so many scandals, so many deceptions.

And dangerous, if the idea is held, at all, within a group.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The End of Suffering or the End of SUFFERING?

A few times, here in Thailand, I have had to walk away from a conversation with another meditator who has been volunteering at some of the southern monasteries.  The guy, a Canadian, is friendly enough, but we just see things different ways, and this makes for awkward conversation.

An example:  Once, while eating with my girlfriend, the three of us were chatting about reasons for meditating.  The guy kept talking about his teacher on Pha Ngan, and about how nothing bothers the man.  I suppose this model of perfect calm served as central to the man's motivations.

I had mentioned that some things really ought to bother people, and that this is what had drawn me toward meditation in the first place.  Specifically, I remember mentioning some of the economic problems in Europe (my girlfriend is Italian).  I had expressed sadness at the injustices of the world.  I had specifically mentioned the possibilities of older people losing their pensions, after working hard all their lives.

Sad, no?

The man replied "Well, self-pity can be a difficult thing to work with"


I have had a few conversations like this, with this man.  They end this way.  I have to say I get a little annoyed.  It makes me not wish to say anything to the guy.

His view is actually something that I find prevalent in the monasteries -- this interpretation of "The End of Suffering".  The idea goes:  Buddha achieved enlightenment, and walked out from under the tree with a system of meditation and associated lifestyle that, once effected with determination, will rid the individual of delusory thoughts, needful cravings, and so on.

In fact, you can't really blame the students, because this is actually the claim that all the teachers make.  They say, in effect, "I will teach you how to end your suffering".

And people think "that sounds great!".

All religions promise this, in one form or another -- salvation,  paradise, nirvana

But think about it...  Is there any more selfish motivation for meditation? 

Because I can't think of one.

This is another one of those things that is backward, in the spiritual practices.

Are we to turn our back on the world?  Are we to ignore the suffering of others?

Actually, no.

When Buddha looked over the walls of his father's compound, it wasn't his personal suffering that he was interested in.  It was the suffering of others that drove him away from the comfortable life that he was leading.

So it was this empathy that drove him.

Before anything else, there was the heart.

It is our love for others that shows us how to live, and what to do.  It is this that leads us away from the worldly life. 

So, when Buddha was talking about the "end of suffering", he wasn't talking about your personal little nirvana.

Actually, that doesn't even exist.

As per the old Zen story, you don't just sit there, inert, like a happy little plant, when you see a woman who needs help crossing a river.  Another person's true need is your need.  Another person's true pain is your pain.  That is what compassion is.  Your heart tells you what to do.  You react immediately, and spontaneously.

So, Buddha's "the end of suffering" is something much, much greater that any individual's personal liberation.  It is a vision for all the people of the world.  He was talking about what we could be like -- how we could be living together. 

When people learn to live from the heart of hearts,  we share this world.  We act as agents of mercy for those around us.  We do this naturally.

So the world would look very different, if everyone lived this way.

That is what Buddha was saying.

He was saying, to all of us, "the kingdom of heaven is before  you". 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Suan Mokkh International, and Impermanence

Suan Mokkh is going through some changes.   There has been a mini Thai takeover.  The English monk who had been teaching there for 20 years or so has been forced out.  He has been replaced by a Thai Tai Chi instructor, who also leads the Yoga exercise in the morning.  I had heard that the reason for this may have been the English monk's irreverence, with regard to some older (and well respected) Thai teachers.

Instead of a talking human, the Tai Chi instructor plays CDs of the Venerable Ajahn Budadhasa, the original founder of Suan Mokkh.

This is dreadfully boring.

The Tai Chi instructor also inflicts "guided meditation" on the group, where he repeats "just breathe" or "breathe in, and breathe out" again and again, throughout the  meditation period.

Last year, the Tai Chi guy had just shown up when I came in for a 10 day retreat with a friend of mine.  At the time, he was just a volunteer, who had offered his "guided meditation" period.

Leaving the retreat back then, I had a bad feeling.  I told my friend that the Tai Chi guy was exactly the type of character you see taking control of monasteries.  For me it was a bad feeling because I was surprised that someone would think repeating "juuuust breathe" again and again, every couple of minutes, through a silent meditation period would be beneficial to anyone.

Anyway, a year later and there he is, running the place.

He sells his Tai Chi CDs on the side.

But I like Suan Mokkh.  I have always liked the place.

I have been to Suan Mokkh and Dippapavan (a sister monastery on Koh Samuii) maybe 15 times, for 10 day or 7 day retreats.  I like it here, because it is set up for foreigners, and in Thailand, that means travelers.  To me, there is something very pure about sitting with travelers.  It is something I prefer over entering a monastery full of longtime monks.

I prefer it because travelers are, by nature, free.  They enjoy none of the societal status or privileges that monks enjoy.  They are exploring, testing.  They are open-minded.  They have no ulterior motives.  They are there only because they wish to sit.

The truth is, for a lot of monks, in a lot of centers, that is not the case.  For many, if they had some more money, they would be off gambling in Macau (I'm not talking particularly about Thai monks).

Something about the teaching at Suan Mokkh...

The monastery's founder, the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa (this is the way he is referred to, in all printed material) states, in his teachings, that it is beyond the capability of humans to understand the root of consciousness. 

His monks, of course, repeat this claim.

If they didn't, they wouldn't be his monks.

As is the case in all monasteries throughout time, this is a problem, because, once you have a "teacher" who has not come to real insight, he or she will offer an interpretation of Buddhist thought, and he will do so from a viewpoint that is very different from someone with insight.

So, to these teachers, "dependent origination" means a scientific law of nature (unspecified) to be discovered through deep meditation, though having no relation to "mind".

The ideas "Impermanence" and "not-self" means (as you often hear) nothing stays the same forever.

A person who has dropped to the root --even once --  would have a very different definition of these things.

There is no way to "prove" things, in these cases.  It would be nice if things were otherwise, but a differing view is sneered at, or ridiculed.  That means a person with real insight (at least a glimpse) is going to be sneered at, or ridiculed, unless he or she stays quiet.

Generations pass, this way.  People "learn" a concept in one day, from a teacher they respect, and they will defend it to the day they die.  It is a common thing, and you would be surprised at how readily new students accept the teachers at their word.  After one dharma talk, they believe, completely, that it is impossible to dig to the root of consciousness.  So it just goes on and on.

That is too bad, because teachers like those at Suan Mokkh have taken the question away, and the question is the only thing that will lead anyone to the answer. 

If a teacher says "nobody knows...."  you know two things:
  1. The teacher doesn't know, and
  2. The teacher is the type of person who, because he or she doesn't know, claims that nobody knows.

That is not a good thing.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Idol Creators, Idol Destroyers

 What was Buddha really up to?  What did the man wish for us to do, actually?

Something that I like, from a group of theologians of the Catholic religion, is their definition of “idolatry”.  They have the best definition.  To these theologians, an “idol” is something that takes center stage, in the mind, exerting a dominant influence on one's motivations. 

I wish I could remember where it was I read about this, but I can't.   

So I'll just present the definition here, because I like it.

So, today, you can say “wealth” is an idol.  In the West, it is considered "normal" to spend much of one's life in pursuit of wealth.  Such a life is rarely questioned, in America.

And there are others.  “Status” is an idol.  “Power” is an idol.

So these researchers aren’t just talking about golden figurines, light brown cows, or great statues.  When they say “idol”, they are really talking about ideas – always connected  to the notion of “self”. 

And the reason an “idol” is a destructive thing is because, within a society, once such ideas take precedence, the predominant, accepted way of life is a selfish one.  In modern times, it is “normal” to seek the best employment, where “best” means the most money.  That is seen as standard , even if the work is tedious, or worse, even if the work is harmful to others, or harmful to nature.  

To someone who has adopted the idol of “wealth”, or any other “idol’ the motivation is to separate, to be above, to rule, or to be “better” than another. 

They are barrier ideas.  Regarding one's views toward others, they block the shine of the heart – they take its place.

In fact, any barrier idea is an idol.

“American” is an idol, to an avowed patriot, and it can be used to justify war.  America's many recent wars were sold this way.  They were sold to Americans as a means of protecting the "American way of life".

But if you were speaking in any real sense, what does the word mean?  Who is actually "American?"  What would you be if you never heard the word?  You would be the same "being".

So, what are you?

In any case, the blatantly negative ones are easy to come up with, because they are easy to see.  “White” is an idol, for example, to a white racist.

That is why, from the most universal point of view – a view that takes into account all beings – the “idols” are not good things.  They take away thoughts of universal cooperation, and sharing, in the world.   

Always, they separate.   Always, within a group, they are considered "better", "normal",  "practical", and so on.  As such, they are rarely questioned, by anybody.

To those of high caste, in Buddha's time, for example, it was a ridiculous notion to question the caste system.  It just isn't something anybody does.

Of course, like nearly all  people, someone who identifies himself or herself as "Christian" tends not to cast their gaze toward himself, because “Christian”, too, is an idol.    However important the word “Christian” is, to someone, “non-Christian” is equally important – always in a somewhat negative way.

Else, why hold the division at all?

Same goes for “Buddhist”, "Jewish", or even “monk”, actually. 

I like this "mind-meme" definition of "idolatry" because it provides a way of explaining Buddha's true message.  And there really is no difference between Buddha's wish and that of Jesus, or Lin Chi, or Bodhidharma (e.g. "neither secular nor sacred").

The point of life is to rid oneself of one's idols, through the process of compassion and forgiveness.  In this way, the "barrier ideas" are destroyed, and, if done on a mass scale,  man can come to share this world in peace and good will toward all others.

So Buddha (et al) were never talking about what most people think of when they read about "Buddhism".  He was talking about an exercise of the heart, and the internal destruction of one's personal "idolatry".  This is the way of love.

From everyday life, it is a simple thing to see how compassion is, itself, an "idol destroyer".  We are generous with those we love, for example.  "Wealth", as an idol, is destroyed.  We share our meals with friends, and it feels good to do so.  When a guy has a chance to visit with his old friends, he makes sure he buys a round.  He cherishes the time, and he wants to show that.

There are deep feelings to these times.  They are the best of times.  Money means nothing.  "Wealth" means nothing.

The difficult part is to extend this feeling beyond our immediate boundaries.

But is what meditation, and practice is for.

The point of this post is:  There is a very important difference between the way of the religions and traditions, and the true path that Buddha took.  They are opposite directions -- creating idols vs. destroying them.

It is easy to see this, just from Buddha's life.  “Prince”, and “Noble Caste” came to mean nothing, to Buddha.  As a young man, he looked out over the walls of his father’s compound, he witnessed the pain that these ideas inflicted, in the world. 

In great empathy -- in great love for others, he shed himself of these ideas.  He saw the harm they caused.  Of course, he was familiar with the personal benefits -- benefits that included great wealth and luxury.  But Buddha's empathy gave him a universal point of view.  "Caste" and "Prince" play a very real role in the suffering of others.  

And so:  He dropped them from his life.

The compassion was always the point, as there is no other motivation that would lead oneself away from the very things that the vast majority of people strive for every day of their lives.  Buddha was just different from most.  He saw something that most don't see.  He saw his own responsibility in the suffering of others, even while just sitting around, as a prince, sipping sweetened tea.

So all those curious sayings now make sense.  Emptiness isn't the soldier-like stoicism of modern Zen monks, or the slow-motion tranquility of some Yoga teachers you might meet.

It is a friendly, helpful openness, where others are seen as equals.

And this explains the seemingly combative relationships that men like Linchi, Jesus, and Bodhidharma had with the traditional leaders of the time.  Anyone can speak the words.  It is a very rare thing to take up the direction.  It is immediate hypocrisy to gain power, position, and status through the use of the words and stories of the idol destroyers. 

 Idol creators, and idol destroyers.

The two directions are opposite.  One leads to openness, laughing, sharing, cooperation, caring, and good cheer.  For an individual, it leads to all the things that most would consider "virtues":  generosity, honesty, etc.

The other direction leads to division, hierarchy, rule, privilege for some (and servitude for others), deceit, arrogance, greed, control, and aggression.

This is what these men saw, and that is why they opposed the religious leaders.

As if to underscore the point, religious institution has offered us a view of the damage that the opposite direction offers.  There has been great problems in the Catholic church, over the decades.  There have been over ten thousand pedophilia cases working their way through the court systems.

Never has a resolution come from "within" the Church. Instead, over the decades, there have been constant cover-ups, silencing of critics, and attempts to discredit witnesses.

In most every case, the church has defended its actions on the basis of its mission -- the commitment to the service of "god" through their leadership role in the Catholic religion.

The idols are blinding things -- even if they are considered to be "good".  To these men, "Christianity" is more important than the suffering of many thousands of children.

You see this in Zen, too.

Even after all the stories, involving every first generation Zen center in the west,  Zen leaders continue to portray the tradition as pure, even holding it "above" the suffering of  sexual and financial victims. 

It is a remarkably arrogant, self-serving, and uncaring attitude, from these idol creators.