Not-Self in the Park

bench-forest-trees-pathWalking slowly and evenly in the park, a bench along the sidewalk invites rest. Time to sit, but not to stop looking and seeking. And so the meditation continues.

A lady walks by with her dog, a boxer, a lovely animal. It pees in front of me and, while peeing, turns its head with a look of relief.

Another person, a man, older, walking slowly for a morning breath of fresh air, passes by me while I sit on the bench. As he walks by he raises his hand, extends a finger towards his cheek, and begins to scratch what might be a mosquito bite. As I sit and watch, I almost raise my hand and finger as if to scratch, perhaps my cheek, perhaps his cheek, perhaps the invisible cheek between us. But then I wake up: what is this urge to scratch a possible mosquito bite that isn’t affecting me?

And here is a small taste of not-self and self as they mutually inform experience. The man’s desire to scratch his cheek is his, not mine. And so I don’t enter into any relations with his desire to scratch. His desire is not-self to me. My morning desire to eat that affects me and urges me to food is mine, not his. I enter various relations with my hunger: sometimes I act on it, while at other times I wait it out. This desire is self to me and not-self to the man passing by.

And so how can I practice not-self to me? Easy – the answer is right there before our eyes with each passing person and with each of their passing desires, thoughts, and feelings. Just as the man’s desire to scratch is not-self to me, so too can my desire to eat be not-self to me if I practice it as such. Why practice it as something to engage and so as mine or self to me? Why not practice it as something that is not-mine, as something to watch, but not engage, just as I watch the man scratching his cheek?

And just as I practice self to my desires and not to others, why not practice self to others’ desires that are outside this body and mind? If a friend is hungry, then why not act on her hunger as if it were my own? Cook some food, take her out to eat, or wait it out; letting the situation guide, why not practice self to her desire to eat as I usually practice self to my desire to eat?

And why stop at the people we know? There is hunger, fear, and anger out there that is not in this body/mind – why not practice self towards those physical/mental states and work to relieve them as we would our own hunger, fear, and anger? If we do so, we are practicing not-self by practicing self beyond this very body/mind.

The practice of not-self is easy and not easy. It is negative (letting go) and positive (taking on beyond this body/mind). It is in this moment and enough to fill lifetimes of practice. So what better place to start than wherever and whenever you are?

 

Readings II – Life of the Buddha

sermon_in_the_deer_park_depicted_at_wat_chedi_liem-kayess-1(Intro from Previous Post…)

I recently put together a bibliography of readings that I studied during my seminary years and beyond. Since study is an important part of Buddhist practice – yes, even for Zen practitioners, and definitely for those of us that did not grow up in Buddhist cultures – I thought I would put that list up here.

I will break the list down into various units and post separately. This list is incomplete on many fronts – more on that in a later post. If you have extra reading suggestions, please add them in the comments!

Life of the Buddha

  • Bhikkhu Nānamoli, The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon, Pariyatti Publishing, 2003
  • Nakamura, Hajime, Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts Volume I, Kosei Publishing Company, 2001
  • Nakamura, Hajime, Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts Volume 2, Kosei Publishing Company, 2005
  • Schumann, H. W., The Historical Buddha (tr. M. O’C. Walshe)

Readings I – General Buddhism

monk_examinations_bago_myanmarI recently put together a bibliography of readings that I studied during my seminary years and beyond. Since study is an important part of Buddhist practice – yes, even for Zen practitioners, and definitely for those of us that did not grow up in Buddhist cultures – I thought I would put that list up here.

I will break the list down into various units and post separately. This list is incomplete on many fronts – more on that in a later post. If you have extra reading suggestions, please add them in the comments!

For now:

Readings on General Buddhism

  • Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed., In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon, Wisdom Publications, 2005
  • Thich Nhat Hanh. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation. Broadway Books, 1999.
  • Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught: Revised and Expanded Edition with Texts from Suttas and Dhammapada. Grove Press, 1974.

A Tale for the Time Being

I recently finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and it is a must read. Not only does Ozeki weave a captivating tale, but her themes are necessary to discuss in public: bullying, suicide (teen and adult), shame, developing a moral conscience when the world conspires against you, and more. And since Ozeki is a writer and a Zen Buddhist priest, the novel is written against the background of Buddhist culture (in this case Japanese Buddhist culture) rather than Christian culture and shines a light on how that difference informs all aspects of storytelling. Such a powerful novel – check it out!

The Mindful Schools Two-Step: A Dangerous Path, but for Whom?

In a blog post for the Huffington Post’s Education section Candy Gunther Brown, PhD, suggests that secular mindfulness meditation practices in the public school system should be treated similarly to theistic prayer practices in the public schools. Insofar as those theistic practices are forbidden, so should the Buddhist practices, no matter the name by which you call them. I am deeply sympathetic to her suggestion, even though I myself am both a public school teacher and an ordained lay Dharma teacher. But Dr. Brown’s rhetoric around the matter is misleading, partly because the people promoting these secularized practices are themselves confused about what they are saying and doing.

To clear some of these muddy waters, let’s start with an analogy that we are all familiar with, whether we are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Satanist, Secularist, or Nihilist: walking. Most of us walk, some of us more than others, and some of us not all that much. Some of us not at all because of disabilities or other features of our bodies that push us to move in other ways, and I do not mean to exclude you from this conversation, so please substitute your method of travel for walking in the following discussion. For those of us that walk, the following should sound familiar.

Continue reading “The Mindful Schools Two-Step: A Dangerous Path, but for Whom?”

Changing the World, One Scrap at a Time

So, instead of posting here, I recently wrote a post for the Crazy Wisdom Journal that is published by the Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tearoom in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The post is a response to a recent article they published about Haju Sunim and the Sangha at the Ann Arbor Zen Temple.

You can find the post by clicking here: Changing the World, One Scrap at a Time.

If you are ever in Ann Arbor, check out Crazy Wisdom and the Ann Arbor Zen Temple!

A Rose Not Called ‘Rose’ Would Smell As Sweet – Unless You Forgot to Smell It! (On The Name Of Our Pracitce)

What is the name of our practice, the practice that descends from the lineage of Bodhidharma back to the Buddha, not a lineage of genes or bloodlines, but a lineage of no-thing, the only thing that can be transferred without loss and without gain from body/mind to body/mind?

The question is easy and difficult. Easy because naming is easy and those that have come before have already named. Difficult because with naming comes a fertile ground of delusion, where ignorance spreads like wildfire.

Case in point: try ‘Zen’. If we practice in this lineage that descends from Bodhidharma back to the Buddha, do we practice Zen Buddhism?

No. Zen is the Japanese branch of this lineage. There are questions of historical and spiritual importance that only apply to (Japanese) Zen Buddhism. One example is illustrated by this post over at Wild Fox Zen. Are Shikantaza and Koan practices compatible or mutually exclusive? Is Koan practice part of Dogen’s teachings or rejected by him? These questions (and many others concerning (Japanese) Zen Buddhism) do not arise for (Korean) Sŏn Buddhism or (Chinese) Chán Buddhism; they are not, in a sense, of spiritual importance to practitioners of those schools and need not be of historical importance either.

Yes. Since practitioners (myself included) in this loosely knit set of practices trace their lineage back to the Buddha through Bodhidharma, they must continually and sincerely confront the heart-essence of that lineage, the lineage of no-thing, the only thing that can be transferred without loss and without gain from body/mind to body/mind. If (Japanese) Zen Buddhism has developed responses to the ineffable song of the heart-essence, then the (Korean) Sŏn Buddhist or the (Chinese) Chán Buddhist ought to listen deeply. Intentionally not doing so reeks of delusion.

So the situation is complicated, to say the least. But when our discourse lumps all of this into Zen Buddhism and acknowledges the other practices by occasionally using their names, if at all, we are sowing seeds of delusion among potential practitioners and seasoned ones alike. For example, Buddhadharma says, “We are fortunate to have the support of Editorial Advisors who represent a wide variety of communities and traditions—Theravada, Zen, Pure Land, and Vajrayana.” That is not a wide variety by any means, if you take into account the diversity of responses to what drives practice. However, if Buddhadharma were genuinely sensitive to the diversity of the real world (and I have no reason to doubt the people there are sensitive in this way), they would run out of ink and room to print! Remember, the situation is complicated, to say the least.

So what is the point? Our words have karmic effects on those around us. When we speak, we shape the body/minds of those who hear. When we speak in a way that is out of tune with reality, the body/minds that listen are also out of tune with reality. When we speak in a way that is in concert with reality, the body/minds that listen are also in concert with reality. Our responsibility is to be careful with our words because that is being careful with awakening – our awakening as one body, one mind.

Recognizing the limitations of our names because of their historical existence is liberating in at least two ways. It is liberating because when we get hung up on a problem that seems of utmost importance, we can remember that it is of no importance and move towards easing our body/minds. At the same time, it is liberating because getting hung up is how we move forward with practice; knowing the how and why of our hangups illuminates the path forward. In a sense, these two ways are not two, yet as Uisang says in the Ocean Seal they are “not confused or mixed, but function separately.” [1]

For my own part, I will try to use Sŏn/Chán/Zen Buddhism when I hope to write about our practices in general. When talking about a particular lineage, I will use the name for that lineage. And I will fail most of the time at accomplishing what I hope to say.

For example – the astute reader will be asking about (Vietnamese) Thiền Buddhism. And the fact that we who practice Sŏn/Chán/Zen Buddhism do not all share the same lineage back to Bodhidharma, so the differences are even more extreme than we make them out to be. And that the lineages sometimes have wholes in them, gaps between generations of teachers and masters and nuns and monks. And more. Oh the doubt and the unknowing mind that permeates the heart-song of our practice!

As Juliet says of Romeo in Skakespeare’s play: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose // by any other name would smell as sweet” (Act II, Scene II). Yes, oh Juliet, how true the words. The rose would smell as sweet were it called ‘horse’ or ‘manure’. But call a rose ‘manure’ and you might find unsuspecting lovers walking up to piles of manure suspecting that something is not so sweet about the smell.

Call it Sŏn, Chán, Zen, or Thiền and you still have the same sweet smelling practice. But be careful not to lead unsuspecting practitioners to piles of manure. And be careful to smell the practice, whatever the name, before you put your nose in it.

Endnotes

[1] This excerpt is from Uisang’s Ocean Seal of Hwaom Buddhism as translated by Steve Odin in Process Metaphysics and Hua-Yen Buddhism. You can also find the Ocean Seal in the (free and online) Collected Works of Korean Buddhism, Vol. 4, p. 103.