January 31, 2017

Madison zazenkai report

Our half-day zazenkai (mini Zen retreat) in Madison concluded this past Sunday afternoon with eleven participants. After the opening tea ceremony at 8am, our practice schedule included zazen, dokusan, breath/internal energy cultivation exercises, and chanting. I gave instruction regarding how to use body and breath when chanting to activate the function of okyo, dharani and mantra. We finished with more zazen and a final tea at 1pm, after which we had a wonderful brunch nearby. The ordained folks reconvened for a few hours after that, to review aspects of kuyo (ceremony).

Many thanks to all who joined together to support one another in practice! The next zazenkai in Madison is in March, and we'll have an overnight zazenkai at Korinji in May, followed by our long sesshin in June. Our full event schedule may always be seen at www.korinji.org.

Shoken, jukai, ordination, and inka shomei in Rinzai Zen: Part 1

Note: this is the first in a series of four lectures on these subjects.

I want over the course of a few talks to clarify what is signified by several Buddhist ceremonies, or what I have in the past called “milestones on the path of practice,” that you may come to witness or participate in as a Zen student. Regarding these things—and the names or titles that go with some of them—a great deal of confusion exists. I hope this will help clear things up.

Specifically, I will discuss shoken, which is the ceremony by which we formally enter into relationship with a teacher; jukai, by which we take refuge in the Three Treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and take up the practice of the five lay precepts; shukke tokudo or ordination, which is a commitment to the Zen path as the primary focus of one's life; and finally inka shomei, by which a teacher hands over responsibility for carrying the lineage to another.

First, though, I want to begin by saying that Zen may be practiced by anyone. The things I will discuss express important aspects of Buddhist teaching. But we do not care if you call yourself a Buddhist, and you are free to practice with us even if you never experience any of these things. Zen over the centuries has emphasized a very direct, practical approach to awakening which is not limited by the language or customs of Buddhism, and in fact in our practice we must each eventually transcend “Buddhism” with great freedom. We should keep that in mind.

On the other hand, Zen itself is certainly a lineage of Buddhist teaching and practice. So if we truly grasp the essential point of Zen, we should also be able to express how that point is the essence of all Buddhist teachings. If we truly understand the rationale for practicing Zen in the first place, we will also understand how Zen in fact fulfills not only the ultimate intent of all Buddhist practice, but the highest goals of all spirituality. If we are not able to understand these things, we need to study and practice more.

Because of preconceptions or bad experiences with religion, it does seem that many Zen people—even if they do not have any other strong beliefs or religious affiliations—prefer not to think of themselves as “Buddhists”. That's fine. But then, they seem to have no problem saying they are “Zen students.” In some cases, I think they might not understand that there is no difference or conflict at all between Buddhism and Zen. One label is really not preferable to another.

With that said, again, I would never tell anyone that they must identify as a Buddhist to practice with us. It is not our purpose to convince anyone to believe something, or to adopt some new identity. Everyone is responsible for their own beliefs. What I just want to point out here is that there really is no such thing as a sanitized Zen apart from the Buddhadharma, the Buddhist teachings. But the Buddhadharma also is not something that binds us at all, and it is not a religion in the mold of Abrahamic faiths like Christianity or Islam.

Despite my lingering on these points, it is alright to relax and not worry too much about them. It is enough if we can understand that the essential meaning of Buddhism is encompassed within Zen, and that in Zen training we rely on both our master and those Buddhist teachings to check or confirm our realization of awakening. If we are able to have genuine realization, then labels aren't important. What the Buddhist teachings point to will be manifest clearly here, in our own bodies.

Returning to our topic, then, first we'll discuss shoken. Shoken is a brief ceremony that a student and teacher perform privately. It signifies that the student wishes to follow the teacher as his or her guide on the Zen path. It also means that the teacher accepts responsibility for training the student. Really, it means that they accept responsibility for each other.

During shoken you are brought in to the sanzen room, where you are formally introduced to the teacher and bow three times. In that moment you really are negating yourself in a way: you acknowledge that your practice is not just “yours,” but will be fulfilled within human relationship. You acknowledge that you need others, and are not apart from them. You are inviting the teacher to participate with you in your practice, and so to make it a mutual exploration of wisdom. At this time you also give a small gift to the teacher, perhaps a few sticks of incense or a small, symbolic amount of money. The teacher accepts your gift and gives personal instruction for the first time within the new relationship. And with that, a mutual responsibility to revere and care for one another is accepted, and the relationship is sealed. We can say that a karmic link has been established between you.

After that, there are of course responsibilities and a kind of etiquette to be observed. But what it mostly boils down to is that you should communicate regularly with your teacher regarding your practice, and you should practice exactly as he or she directs you to do, to the best of your ability. From the teacher's side, it is also a kind of self-negation: in the sanzen room, where the two of you will meet often as you strive to explore and manifest the fruition of Zen training, there actually should be no so-called “teacher” or “student” roles at all. Now, traditionally it is said that we should view our teacher as a Buddha. But please don't be confused about this. The teacher is still practicing, just as you are. The teacher is truly a Buddha, but so are you. The entire point of the relationship is for both of you to manifest that. It is certainly important to approach one's teacher with a kind of reverence and care, but actually teachers must approach students in precisely the same manner. It is a mutual reverence.

Shoken is actually a brave thing, a gutsy thing to do. But it is also crucial from a practical standpoint. There are many things in life which are difficult to learn without help from a teacher; if we try to self-learn and self-guide prematurely, we are almost certain to become lost. This is true for Zen. It is also true that without human relationship, the full energetic transmission of Zen cannot occur. In that regard, actually, the teacher needs the student just as much as the student needs the teacher.

So this is the way to approach encounter with the teacher, even if we have not yet fully developed a faith in ourselves or others as Buddha. What the word “Buddha” refers to is something that is constantly shining out from the eyes of both teacher and student as they meet. When conditions are such that this is mutually recognized, we can say that the minds of the teacher and student momentarily mirror one another. This is like a strike of lightning which is followed in the same moment by thunder; or a voice calling out and an echo immediately returning without any gap; or a flint and steel meeting and the spark instantly blazing out. This is one way that we can awaken in relationship with the teacher.

Therefore, if someone says that training with a teacher is like a kind of therapy, or an ongoing casual conversation about practice, they are mistaken. Encounter with the teacher is itself the crucial practice. In one sense shoken is not a big deal, but in another it is the beginning of all possibilities in Zen, and the foundation of realizing that our practice is not for “I” alone. Our practice must encompass and include all beings and phenomenon, and clearly reveal that these altogether are not different from the original face of our own nature. The relationship between teacher and student, of which shoken marks the beginning, is a place where this way of seeing can decisively manifest.

I have to admit to being somewhat lax regarding shoken in the past. I have usually allowed almost anyone to come into the sanzen room right from the beginning to ask questions and make a connection. But later, at least by the time these students were ready to begin working with the wato and koan practice methods, I should have established the formal connection with them through shoken. Often I have dispensed with the ceremony, even though more and more I have come to feel that it is an important thing.

In the future, therefore, I plan to be more careful about this. Anyone who did not get to do shoken in the past and wants to do it, just ask. And since our incense is always burning away, I would be happy to receive a few sticks!

January 11, 2017

Zazen is not concentration

There is a common misunderstanding. I believe, that will hinder zazen (meditation): the idea that it is an
exercise in concentration.

This misunderstanding is common enough that my statement may sound controversial at first. And naturally we do often use words like "concentration" and "focus" when describing the beginning practice of zazen. But there is an important distinction between the usual meaning of concentration, and the true concentration that must manifest in genuine Zen meditation.

According to the usual meaning, we can say that two things are required for concentration: the subject who concentrates, and the object of concentration. If we are discussing meditation specifically we might even say that three things are required, by adding the method used to concentrate on the object, for example susokukan (breath counting).

With this kind of common concentration, many beginners take up zazen. Having been told that they should, for example, count their breaths with great focus, they set about doing precisely that. With effort, they gather up their minds and concentrate entirely on their exhalations, attempting to watch each one with a seamless continuity of attention. They are cautioned not to count an exhalation and then allow the mind to lapse into distraction; rather, they are directed to count the entire thread of each exhalation, as if intently watching a ball which has been thrown into the distance.

This is all fine, and a useful way to begin. However, it is not yet Zen at all. The reason, of course, is that the common kind of concentration is an inherently dualistic exercise: the watching of an object, the breath, by a subject. Furthermore, it is really difficult to maintain such dualistic concentration without exhaustion and cloudiness. Now, if we have been able to have the experience of recognizing our nature, kensho, through the teacher's direct pointing or other means, then naturally our practice could be different than I have just described. We may count the breaths from within that recognition, that is, giving rise again and again to it. But many students do not have such a clear recognition immediately. So here I am speaking in terms of practice before kensho.

This is the place where the physical details of zazen are crucial. Should a student simply do the method described above using the mind alone, with little physical engagement other than painfully sitting hour after hour in the formal zazen posture, little progress will be made even after several years. However, additional instruction is given orally by the teacher according to need, regarding how one cultivates the breath and senses to unify body and mind. Samadhi - meditative absorption - is thus able to manifest, and the student will experience that the separation between meditator-as-subject and breath-as-object becomes less rigid, or drops away for a time. At such a moment, we can say that real breath-counting has begun.

In other words, the common kind of concentration - that is, "concentrating on" something - is not really a factor in this practice at all. The goal is not actually to count the breath or concentrate on it. Rather, the student must manifest with the body a practice of "becoming one with" the count. Body, breath and the method must unify. When the divisions between inside and outside, meditator and object of meditation, are seen through, then for the first time it is genuine practice.

Of course, in general it is the teacher's job to impart the meaning of real zazen using words, the body and other means. A qualified teacher will aim to change the student's state using his or her own, meaning that the experience of integrated samadhi may arise spontaneously within the student, providing an important basis for the subsequent practice. There is not much that can be said about that here. But in terms of words, when teaching the breath-counting method I no longer tell students to "count the breath." Instead I tell them to "breathe the count." There is a subtle difference they may catch from this way of describing it, I think.

It is good to remember that the enso, the circle, is a symbol of Zen teaching and practice. It is not split into two sides, one of which concentrates on the other. We can say it is "one," though this one is not some thing separate from another "one." Instead we just say it is the realization of "not-two." Our breath-counting, or the way in which we kufu (work with our whole existence) to enter into a koan, must be like this.

So I would like to ask my own students to stop concentrating so hard. As Dogen said, "just throw body and mind into the house of the Buddha." Which is to say, breathe the count with your whole body, become the koan with your whole body, become the zendo as you enter, become the person as you speak to them, become the cold or the hot, the pain or the pleasant feelings that arise. In meditation, don't concentrate rigidly on anything, letting your mind fixate and stop upon it until you are exhausted. Relax completely, and dissolve into your meditation method completely with your body.

This requires a certain kind of faith. But if practice is correct, that faith will naturally arise too. So there is nothing to worry about at all.

January 9, 2017

Torei Enji's Zen Practice Advice

Torei Enji's Zen practice advice applicable to everyone, from Shumon Mujintoron (Zen Centre translation, titled Discourse on the Inexhaustible Lamp):

If...your spirit and morale slacken, all the more rely on this vow/aspiration [to practice for the sake of saving beings]. If faith in the heart is shallow and weak, all the more rely on this vow/aspiration. If obstacles are many, all the more rely on this aspiration. If you are intelligent and clever, all the more rely on this aspiration. If you are stupid and dull, all the more rely on this aspiration. If your seeing into the true nature becomes fully clear, all the more rely on this aspiration. If your insight and function become fully free, all the more rely on this aspiration. Right from the beginning, from the first aspiration of the heart to the final end, there is no time when you do not rely on the strength of this vow/aspiration.

Reciting the Four Great Vows, directing them from the mouth outwards, and inwardly ever holding them in the heart, invoking them as a prayer day by day and continuously pondering them, then just like a wondrous scent or an old strange custom, or like fine mist that yet drenches one's clothes, or as the smell of incense pervades and clings, so the awareness of Buddhas and patriarchs will ripen of itself and, benefiting oneself and others, everything will be accomplished.
To state it concisely: by the power of the vow of Great Compassion all karmic obstacles disappear and all merit and virtue/strength are completed. No principle remains obscure, all ways are walked by it, no wisdom remains unattained, no virtue incomplete.
The first requirement for trainees, therefore, is to let go of "I" and not to cling to their own advantage.

January 8, 2017

2017 New Year Dharma Talk

Today in Madison we chanted Ryogonshu, the long dharani from the Surangama Sutra, after which I gave this short New Year dharma talk (slightly edited here for wordiness):

It has been the tradition with some teachers in our Zen lineage to give a New Year's message, and to comment on the kiai [the energetic quality or patterns] that may affect us in the coming year. The lunar new year is shortly coming, and in the Chinese zodiac this will be the year of the Rooster. So looking at things from the standpoint of that traditional zodiac and elemental theory, we might be able to say “this year may be something like this”, or “in this year, it might be best to approach things such-and-such way.”

I don't want to make that kind of prediction today, though. There are two reasons for this. One is that, honestly, I don't have that kind of ability. Someone like the late Tanouye Roshi perhaps did; he had sufficient kan [the intuitive clear seeing arising from deep realization] to say what the coming year might hold. I do not, so it's better for me not to put on airs and try that kind of thing.

But another reason is that, as Zen practitioners, we should not worry too much about the kiai of the year. We talk a lot about kiai, we use that word a lot. We sometimes say, for example, that a place has a certain kiai that is positive or negative; if it is negative, some people will say they don't feel comfortable going there, and will avoid that place. Or we might say that such-and-such person has a kind of kiai which is very bright and powerful, and we want to be around them, or conversely that their kiai is a little off, which means we feel uncomfortable. In this vein we also talk a lot in Zen about “according with the conditions,” meaning that we should clearly see the circumstances of our existence and harmonize with them.

However, there are some problems with all this if we're not careful. It is easy to get hung up on concepts of kiai, or of according with conditions, such that we forget something really important: as Zen practitioners, we should be able to transform the kiai of a place or person. We should be able to arrange the conditions through the power of our awakening. If we are truly Zen practitioners and come to embody a deep awakening, then these things follow us...we do not follow them. Of course that's just a dualistic way of talking, for convenience; the meaning, though, is that we are already not separate from the conditions, not separate from the kiai of a place or person. That being so, what is there to fear?

Nothing is fixed, and if we have power arising from our own realization, we can transform not only ourselves but also people, places and things through a word, through an action, through practice, or even through our simple presence. This is the attitude a practitioner should take, not obsessively worrying about the kiai of anything. I recall that the late Chan [Chinese Zen] teacher Sheng-yen talked once at a retreat about fortune-tellers in Taiwan. He said that the traditional fortune tellers there don't like to make predictions for Buddhist practitioners, because too much can transform; there is no way to predict. That is a good thing to understand!

If we worry a lot about kiai, it is actually just because ours is not strong. If we worry about conditions excessively, it means we have not yet seen through them, and realized self and conditions as illusory.

All of you have taken the Bodhisattva vows. At least, if you chant with us you have, even if you did not know it! The first vow is to save the boundless beings. What does it mean that beings are boundless? There is a deep teaching there, about how nothing binds us at all. You also vowed to cut off your own delusion and obstructions, and to practice all the Dharma gates which are infinite – meaning all the practices, including sitting, chanting, walking, mantra and dharani like the Ryogonshu we chanted today, everything. And you vowed to attain the way of awakening, the Buddha-Way, Butsu-do.

I am sorry if we didn't tell you what you were chanting! But the point is that from the moment you direct your life according to these vows, you have completely changed your existence. You are no longer a common, worldly person...you are a Bodhisattva. Now, it is your job to ceaselessly practice and refine yourself, to help others, to be of use to them. Even with just your presence – your ba, that is, the field emanating from your existence – you can help others if your practice is strong enough. This is the kiai that arises from your body and mind being one, from your embodied realization of the truth that “the entire universe is the True Human Body.” We can be one of those people around whom others feel their burdens lifted, their sadness dissolved – like Toyama Ryusuke, who Omori Roshi wrote about. Ryusuke had tuberculosis, so many people came to see him. But although he could not speak, those visitors felt afterward that a weight had been lifted from their lives. This was solely due to his vibration, the kiai he manifested – the quality of his existence.

People like that may seem unusual, but we can be like that. We should practice to become that...not waste our time worrying about the kiai and conditions which we imagine, in a self-referential way, surround us.

So that is the message I would like to give for the New Year. It is true that the world seems increasingly disordered and chaotic, and I am sure that feeling will increase not only in this Rooster year but in others to come. Actually, humans are not so different from 500 or 1000 years ago: same problems, same delusions. True, things move faster now, and the effects are much greater. It is natural that we are apprehensive about the future.

But for us as practitioners, the question is this: “How should we enter into such a world?” It is not with fear, or with the feeling of being a victim of the conditions around us. As Zen practitioners, we should be able to transform our conditions. Embodying our intrinsic wisdom and compassion, manifesting our intrinsic clarity, we just set about the business of helping others, of being useful to them. We move through the world as Bodhisattvas, even if in some situations there is nothing we can do, nothing we can say, and nothing we can control. Even if all we have to give comfort to others is our presence.

So, wishing all of you a happy New Year, and we will continue to practice together.