Friday, 8 August 2014

Is That a Cushion Under Your Arm? (Or are you just happy to see me?)

I'm a Buddhist, a Zen Buddhist no less, and this is my first contribution here. Since I practice Zen, there is time spent in meditation on a cushion. Do I think I'm going to get all enlightened by doing it? No, no more than it would give me a mirror-like shiny brick (read about Mazu if that seems a totally incomprehensible metaphor). Dogen said that zazen (i.e. seated meditation) is enlightenment, but not in the, “I sit zazen, ergo I am so freakin' enlightened,” kind of way. When fully immersed in the sitting, just sitting, not picking and choosing, not having the conversation in my head, not being perturbed by the noisy car going down the street, but also just noticing the conversation in my head, noticing that I am perturbed by the noisy car, letting the thoughts slide away as quickly as they came, and not placing value judgments on whether having thoughts of any sort is good or bad, or that some thoughts are better than others, it's just sitting, just thinking, just smelling, just experiencing reality as it is at that moment, and then experiencing reality directly in the next moment, ad infinitum.

Zen sometimes is criticized as “quietist,” that the practice is on the cushion, maybe broken up by periods of walking, but largely centered on the cushion. This didn't just come out of thin air, we do spend a fair amount of time on the cushion. I haven't done an empirical studies, but from my own practice, it's probably about three times as much time spent sitting than anything else I do in the Dharma Hall—namely walking meditation, dharma talks, chanting, bowing. Practice in the 21st Century US may be different from a Tang Dynasty monastery in China, at least in quantity of time spent meditating on a daily basis. Although “No work, no food,” may have been the reality of monastic life then, I'm guessing that the work/eat/meditate ratio was probably skewed toward the meditate side more than the others, and certainly more than my own practice allows for today. Not better, not worse, not good, not bad. Just different, especially given the ages we live(d) in respectively.

I heard a priest at my old sangha remark that meditation is one of the few karmically neutral things one can do. So, by that equation, the rest of the day is spent...creating whole bunches of karma. An orchard's worth of karmic fruit, just ready to drop onto my head and become another habit, another resentment, another attachment....Hopefully, while back on the cushion I can get my “mind right,” as Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke might have said. (Wouldn't want to spend the night in the Samsara box, after all). And that leads of course to the whole basis of Buddhist practice, the Middle Path.

The Middle Path was once described to me by another teacher as driving on an unpaved country road. Veer off too wide on one side, end up in a ditch, too much the other, drop off a cliff. I'm clever enough to understand that either of those extremes would lead to various degrees of unpleasantness. And before anyone says, “But the Buddha would have accepted dropping off a cliff with peaceful, calm equanimity,” I'd like to preemptively mention that the metaphor of the road was to prove a particular point, not as a launching pad for Dharmic hypothesis. That point is that the Middle Path will work out better than heading off into either extreme...and that balance is not that brief moment spent in the center of the widely swinging pendulum between excessive indulgence and, “Oh, if this hangover ever goes away, I'll never drink again.” After all, wasn't it total indulgence + total asceticism = no solution that led to, “Better sit under that tree and contemplate this whole birth, old age, sickness, death thing a little further.” And yes, whenever I imagine what Siddhartha Gautama's internal thoughts might have sounded like, he talks just like me! Amazing!

While Dharma as the “Law of All dharmas” includes the reality limited by one's perceptions and feelings and impulses and consciousness, it also includes that which can't be perceived, felt, done or contemplated—the unlimited. So just knowing that there are things out there we know, things we don't know, and things we know we don't know, in addition to things we don't even know we don't know, that enables the Middle Path down the rutted road of “Don't Know” to put it all in perspective. At least the humility and acceptance, the non-egocentric stance that “all I know is what I can see directly myself and the rest of it doesn't exist” attitude that emphasizes “I, I, I, I, I” can possibly be increased by some time on the cushion.

And meditating is a good thing for Buddhists to do, being Buddhists and all. After all, that's what the Buddha did. He sat down Siddhartha stuck in dukkha, stood up awakened as Buddha. So we sit, but with no gaining idea. Just sitting doesn't turn one into a Buddha, any more than chanting, bowing, walking, standing or reclining will. Just like Siddhartha, we're already Buddha, but need to do a little work in order for that to come to the fore. We need to put in the effort to scrape the barnacles of delusion off the raft of awakening.

So if just sitting on the cushion doesn't guarantee “enlightenment,” and neither does much of anything else, then what is there? We can start by taking our peaceful, calm equanimity, our deep samadhi, (whether it feels like we have them or not) and go into the marketplace, the world at large, and the small world we spend so much time in. We leave the cushion in the Dharma Hall, but take the cushion with us. The Bodhisattva vows say we will save all sentient beings, all of them, not just the ones we like, not the ones who can be saved conveniently, all of them. But how? If we take the meditation with us wherever we go, then we are taking something that generates neutral karma in and of itself, so that's not a bad thing, right? But of what practical use is this?

Not doing harm is a good start on taking the Middle Path on the road, but that can be somewhat like not shoving somebody into a ditch. There are a number of Buddhist organizations such as Zen Peacemakers, Engaged Buddhism, temples/monasteries that run hospice programs, groups that bring meditation into schools and prisons and so on. Group work is a wonderful thing, as the talents of a diverse number of people coalesce into collective abilities, and hopefully the ability is put the intention and talent into concrete action. When we're off our cushions as individuals the scope of what can be done may be smaller, but not less effective in this sentient being-saving job of the bodhisattva. Habitat for Humanity doesn't send one person out to build a house, but 150 people aren't needed to comfort a crying child. Only one person saying “Mind is Buddha” may be enough. (Yes, another somewhat cryptic Mazu reference).

And I'm not saying that you have to go out and end all wars, maybe just start by not supporting them or participating in them. Think that vegetarianism would end the suffering of sentient animal beings? Wonderful, now put down the hot dog! Think that vegetarianism isn't a requirement? Wonderful! Don't waste so much food. Think lying was a way to keep out of trouble that started when you were a little kid? The tell the truth! Think road rage an issue? Watch the rage, be fully enraged, then let it pass without goading it on and engaging in conversation with it over tea, and wave that person into the lane in front of you.

If there's a pattern in all this—and what is karma if not a continuation of patterns—it would be that it all involves our thinking, our perceptions, feelings, impulses, consciousness. That's right, all those things that Avalokiteshvara noted as empty in the Heart Sutra. In practical terms, that means my not believing everything I think is reality. If I have an opinion, all that means is that I think it's real and correct, and if yours is different, I think you're wrong. Key words in that sentence: I & think.

One thing Zen teaches is that seeing one's True Nature is Awakening. That doesn't mean that all those superficially nasty things you do, “Oh, that's just so-and-so being him/herself. It's their nature,” are actually your True Nature. That's just yet another noticeable collection of habits, even coping skills and survival instincts that work...until they no longer do. Observing those habits, seeing them for what they are and how effective they are, or no longer are, then have the courage to let them go. It's a start on realizing True Nature. Shedding those layers of greed, anger, ignorance, clinging, aversion and all the rest lead toward that True Nature. But “lead” is a misleading word—there is nowhere one needs to go—it's right here, right now, all the time, just obscured. Because there are clouds doesn't mean the sun isn't shining behind them. Maybe for right now you can't see it, maybe it feels like you'll never see it again, but it's there.

So what is this “it?” What is this seemingly esoteric notion of True Nature? It's just the natural state of metta, that non-attached lovingkindness that we innately have for everyone and everything, but is sometimes so difficult to come out.

May all beings be happy. I vow to do my part to help that happen. Go ahead, cut me off when driving, I won't flip you off. It's a start.


  1. Love love love!
    Wonderful expose on Zen Buddhism and the tricks it sets up and has us face in the moment with loving-kindness!
    Glad to have you aboard the writing team!

    Best Wishes,
    Denis Kurmanov