Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mazu’s White and Black: Case 6, Book of Serenity

DMZGH friend Jane Jasper kindly re-posted onto Facebook this Red Cedar Zen offering of a Norman Fischer talk from the 6th Zen ancestor, found in the Book of Serenity.   It’s about how all of our unhappiness comes from our incorrect views of reality.  Norman makes the case that all our views actually are not true; but no one can effectively tell us or teach us this.  This emptiness realization must emerge through our own experiences and investigations in life, which hopefully will eventually let the heart fall open.

Quote from Norman’s talk:

“The only thing that’s real is the fluctuation, the interaction, the mixing of ourselves with one another  . . .  Living together, and dying together, and communicating with one another, affecting each other’s lives – that’s the teaching.”

Here’s the link to the Red Cedar Zen website:

Wishing you a lovely Sunday –

:D  Russ

Russ’s birthday

Monday, February 20th, was my birthday, and Desert Mirror had a little special event in my honor.  After zazen, we adjourned to the guest house/reception area for a sumptuous repast of snack supper items.  In addition to the veggies, chips & crackers, smoked oysters and crab, people brought delicious, homemade vegan cupcakes, birthday cards and little presents, and we watched the movie “Happy,” which seemed to have an inspiring, uplifting effect on the watchers.

The movie presents the latest research about what we think will make us happy, what actually seems to produce happiness, and what fails to.  “The Happy Movie” seems to be part of an interesting new, growing, worldwide movement that I want to be part of.  (That I have been part of for a long time, though it hasn’t necessarily been so apparent to an outside observer.  But I have a feeling that soon it will become more so.)

Here’s another part of the worldwide movement that I want to be part of:

Sending blessings and well-being wishes to all!

Love, Russ


Robin’s Fb page offering of the Beatles’ Happy Birthday:

Last night was the final Monday evening public program of Desert Mirror’s 2011 calendar.  Tomorrow Joe emerges from his cloistered monastic practice period at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, and I’ll be there to meet him when he arrives back up at San Francisco Zen Center’s city temple.

Three months is a long time to be separated from your sweetie!  For months we’ve been planning that our first dinner as a reunited, happy couple will be celebrated in Hayes Valley, just a few blocks from Zen Center, at the restaurant known as Bar Jules.  Everyone raves about the place, so I’m really looking forward to it!  After a couple of days in San Francisco, we’ll go down to Santa Cruz to visit family, and then we’ll be back relaxing at home in Albuquerque for the last few days of the year.

Yesterday afternoon I went out on an errand in Albuquerque and came back to find that we’d had a power outage in our neighborhood.  At first I thought nothing of it.  I assumed that it was probably associated with some of the seemingly never-ending road construction work going on in our area, and I assumed that the power would be back on very soon.  Within two hours, though, the temperature in our poorly insulated house had dropped by 5 or 6 degrees, and it was getting chilly.  It was also getting on toward the end of the business day, so I figured I’d better call the local utility company and check to be sure they were actually working on restoring our power.  PNM’s automated voice mail system said there were no major outages reported in my zip code.  (Teaching note to self: With any experience, the significance level is in the eyes of the beholder!)  But they provided an automated process for reporting the outage, and the system then estimated that the power would be back on by 5:00 pm.

By about 5:30 pm, when the power still wasn’t back on in my house, it was getting dark enough to notice that nearly everywhere else around me did have power.  The church across the street, the big, neon-lit diner down on the corner, even my next door neighbor to the east, all had lights on.  But my neighbor to the west’s home was dark, so I called her.  She confirmed that her house was without power, and that she had also reported the outage to PNM’s automated system.  Plus, she said she’d spoken with another neighbor who was without power, and PNM had now estimated that our power would be restored by 8:00 pm.

This would have been merely an interesting sociological experiment on any other evening; but being a Monday, this was public program night at Desert Mirror, and I wasn’t sure what to do about that.  It was dark, cold and probably fairly slippery outside, after snowing all day, melting and refreezing, and then the temperature dropping sharply.  So maybe I should try to cancel Desert Mirror’s public program.  But we never know in advance who’s coming to our programs, and we probably don’t have phone numbers even for the ones who we’re pretty sure are likely to show up.  So I pretty quickly decided I should just push onward and normalize the experience of the evening.  I hunted around for the bag of candles I had purchased for the zendo recently, and I pulled out quite a few little glass votive holders, which I’ve collected from garage sales over the years in anticipation of exactly this scenario.  I found the Strike-Anywhere stick matches, and I started preparing our home, property and guest house to be warm and hospitable, even while temporarily off the grid.  Which turns out to be a time-consuming task the first time around!

Not that this is exactly headline news, but it was interesting to very concretely notice how many ordinary needs of daily life are associated with fossil fuels power consumption.  And, accordingly, how many needs one would have to find an alternate way of meeting if said fossil fuels stopped being delivered in their normally reliable fashion.  (Note to self: Even though we’re no longer in an earthquake zone, emergency preparedness is still a prudent planning priority.  Get on it!)

We were lucky — and I was mystified by the fact — that the gas heater in the guest house was still running, even though it relies on a thermostat to tell it when to go on.  (Probably battery-operated rather than electrically, right?)  The beautiful and startlingly-expensive-to-run gas fireplace in the main house provided a cheery and warming focal point for a while; but then it suddenly went out with an audible FOOMP.  Hmm.  I wondered whether that FOOMP meant that the unit had just had a certain amount of fuel already in the lines leading up to the burners, and after that already-in-the-pipeline gas had been consumed, no new fuel was arriving to the house.  Or perhaps there was still gas coming into the pipes and burners, but a particularly strong gust of wind had blown out the flames and the pilot light.  Or maybe there was some other explanation entirely . . . After about fifteen minutes of wondering about this while wandering around, lighting and distributing candles to light the path for our congregation, I suddenly realized that if there was even a possibility that there was still gas coming in to the fireplace, it probably would not be so good to be striking matches and lighting candles in its vicinity.  As I headed for the fireplace’s on/off toggle switch and flipped it to the off position, I visualized the headlines: “Mindfulness teacher, home and property blown to smithereens in gas leak.”

When the first sangha member (meditation practitioner) arrived, he mentioned how delightful it was to have driven up and seen the one lone, flickering candle on the edge of the flower bed in front of the house.  When he saw it, he thought, “Oh, look, there’s a candle.  I bet there’s another one around the corner.  Russ has prepared a lovely, special holiday offering of lights for us!”  Which was true, of course, though not for the reasons he had assumed.  But I had set little votive candles along the edges of the driveway path and garden, to light the way toward the back yard and the guest house, and they did look quite charming.  The zendo was too cold to sit in, so we held the meditation and talk in the guest house.

After first arriver Kevin had nearly taken a tumble on his way up the driveway, he and Robert shoveled the snow and ice off of the driveway, and spread some road salt on the icy areas, so that no one else would slip.  Then the three of us went into the guest house living room and sat in the dark together, two small candles providing just enough light to illuminate each other’s shadowy faces.

Metaphors abounded!  The relative absence of light that did not hinder our practice; the beauty and potential danger of the dark, cold and slippery pathways; the relatively small but still strikingly helpful light of the tiny votive candles.  Even the fact that, while occupying more or less the same space and reality, some people’s lives were fully illuminated, and some were sitting in the dark – all these images figured in the little talk I gave after our sit.  It was a pretty “meaty” talk, and Kevin suggested that it be saved and given again, when more of our group are present.  So I will save the talk itself and post it on another day.  Just considering the themes of darkness and light – especially during this season of lots of both – is enough for today.

I think it would be interesting and useful if the Albuquerque-area Desert Mirror sangha had an emergency-response plan as a community.  If you are a part of this community (either as an active zendo participant or a virtual online supporter), and you’d like to ponder this logistical challenge together, please be in touch to let us know of your interest.

Thank you for your good intentions in the world!  Please continue your practice, please be alert for opportunities to “turn up the heat” just a little bit, and please let us know if we can help support you and your practice.

Sending love and light, and good wishes for an ever-ascending New Year for all,

Russ and Joe

Tuesday, 11/8/11

Last night Beate Stolte, co-abbess of Upaya Zen Center, was scheduled to come to Desert Mirror to practice with us and give a talk; but a sudden snowstorm prevented her coming.  And there were 16 people in the zendo!  So I shared Joe’s latest letter from Tassajara, and then read from a talk by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Joe’s and my teacher.

The talk was about the benefits one derives from practicing with Zen forms, about which there are always legitimate questions.  (Sometimes — particularly in moments of high resistance — it seems as though this tradition must have been established by people with obsessive-compulsive disorder!)  The talk, while somewhat lengthy, really lays out the case for Zen forms, and how this practice benefits us and our world over time.

If you have time for only a taste right now, below is an excerpt from the talk.  And in case you might want to read it in greater depth later, I’ll post a link to the whole talk as well.

Love, Russ


About Zen forms (our ritualized, stylized, very specfic way of doing things), Norman says:

If our primary focus of awareness practice were just awareness on our cushions, then we might get the idea that awareness is an “inside” matter.  In other words, something that had to do with meditation, with states of mind, or with our inner condition.  But if we extend our awareness not only to what is going on inside of us, but also to how we are walking, how we are standing, how we are holding our hands, how we are eating our food, and how we are chanting or striking a bell … if we extend awareness into all those other places in our living, we begin to get the idea that meditation is not just something that happens on our cushions.  It is not just an inside job.

Awareness should be extended into all the times and places of our living.  Our life is a totality, and not just about what is going on inside of us.  It is about our whole lives — where we meet one another, as well as where each one of us is separate.

The price of this, which is all the mistakes that we make, actually turns out to be worthwhile in itself; because every time that we make a mistake, we learn something about ourselves.  It is a challenge, and we grow from those miscues.  So that is the first reason why I would say that the Forms are important: so that we can develop and extend our awareness, [and learn from our mistakes and our reactions to our mistakes and others’].


Here’s the link to the whole talk:


Our basic habit is to turn away from what is difficult.  When we encounter something that is difficult, our first line of defense is to try to change the situation.  If it’s a problem with a person, we may try to mollify them, or we may simply remove ourselves and avoid the person.  If it’s a problem with physical pain, then we of course want to heal.  We want the pain to go away.  If it’s a problem with ourselves, maybe depression, we can simply try to distract ourselves or numb the pain with drugs or alcohol.  Most of us are in fact quite good at this and can lead lives with relatively few difficulties on average.  After a while, though, something comes up that thwarts this strategy.  Chronic pain and illness, long-term depression, persistent difficulties with people in our lives, broken relationships.  We may find that our strategies simply don’t work on some problems, or we may find that a life of distraction and avoidance is shallow and impoverished.

When we begin a meditation practice, we do something that’s really pretty extraordinary.  Instead of turning away from the difficulty, we turn toward it.  Instead of trying to avoid the problem, we look at it closely, with some precision and curiosity and openness and gentleness.  By bringing our attention to the present moment, no matter what’s happening in that moment, we come into contact with something that is fundamental to our life, something that brings real vitality to our lives.  It’s not always pleasurable, but it’s real, and we may discover that it’s better to live our real lives than it is to lead a partial life.  And in this way, we see that what is, whatever the actual situation at hand, is the foundation of our lives.  What else could it possibly be?  The present moment is something you can rely on, and you gain the confidence to be with the difficulties because you know that they won’t knock you over.

Simply being present with whatever is going on actually addresses the root of our problem.  It’s like this:  you have a problem.  Maybe a co-worker who is really difficult, or terrible, chronic pain, or, worse, a loved one who is dying.  These are real problems, and there may not be much we can do to change the situation.  But so often, our response to the situation becomes an additional problem.  We get wrapped up in office dramas, we feel so angry or frustrated at our bodies for not healing, or we panic when a loved one needs us.  So now we have two problems: the original situation, and our response to it.  By simply being present, though, we can easily avoid the second problem.  And it is in this way that our practice is really directed at the root of suffering, which is clinging or aversion.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines radical like this:

(1) Characterized by independence of or departure from what is usual or traditional; progressive, unorthodox, or innovative in outlook, conception, design, etc.
(2) Of, belonging to, or from a root or roots; fundamental to or inherent in the natural processes of life, vital; spec. designating the humour or moisture once thought to be present in all living organisms as a necessary condition of their vitality;
(3) Relating to or forming the root, basis, or foundation of something; original, primary.
(4) Directed against the root or cause of disease, esp. towards the eradication of tumour or infection; curative, as opposed to palliative; spec. (of a surgical operation) involving extensive resection of tissue, esp. in order to remove a primary tumour and sites of actual or potential local spread and metastasis. Freq. in radical cure.
(5) going to the root or origin; touching upon or affecting what is essential and fundamental; thorough, far-reaching.
So, in every sense of the word, zazen is a truly radical practice.  It is a departure from our usual way of being in the world, and it brings us into contact with what is fundamental to our vitality.  It directly addresses the root cause of suffering.  And being present with this moment is going to the root, it touches upon what is essential, and fundamental.

Now, what I am describing here isn’t a matter of intellectual understanding.  There aren’t really stages or gradations of attainment.  There’s just practice, just this moment, and each moment of practice is complete and perfect.  There’s no possibility of some sort of partial understanding or imperfect practice.  Practice is in this sense absolute.  There are no qualifying words that we can attach to it.

    As some of you know, I will be spending the next three months at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, our lineage’s monastery in the mountains of Big Sur in California, for a formal monastic training period led by Sojun Mel Weitsman and Myogen Steve Stucky.  During this practice period, we will be studying ‘Denkoroku: The Transmission of the Light’ by Keizan Zenji, who was a couple of generations after Dogen.  The Denkoroku is a series of stories in which the teaching is transmitted from teacher to student, from Shakyamuni Buddha up to Keizan.  The spirit of these stories is that the teaching is passed ‘warm hand to warm hand’ up until the present day.  It’s a lovely idea.  We know now that much of the list of ancestors is apocryphal.  These stories probably didn’t literally happen, but it does seem clear that the practice has indeed been handed down from the time of Shakyamuni to today in an unbroken chain.

One famous example of a transmission story is from Bodhidharma, the legendary ancestor who brought Buddhism from India to China, to his disciple Huike, and it’s told here:

The Twenty-eighth Ancestor (Bodhidharma) addressed his followers, saying, “The time is coming.  Why don’t you say what you’ve attained?”
  At that time, the follower Daofu said, “My present view is, without being attached to the written word or being detached from the written word, one still engages in the function of the way.”
    The Ancestor said, “You’ve got my skin.”
  The nun Zongchi said, “My present understanding is, it’s like Ânanda seeing the land of the Buddha Akshobhya:  seen once, it isn’t seen again.”
  The Ancestor said, “You’ve got my flesh.”
    Daoyu said, “The four great [elements] are originally empty; the five aggregates are nonexistent.  My view is that there’s not a single dharma to attain.”
    The Ancestor said, “You’ve got my bones.”
    Finally, Huike, after making three bows, stood in his place.
    The Ancestor said, “You’ve got my marrow.”
    Consequently, [Bodhidharma] made him the Second Ancestor, transmitting the dharma and transmitting the robe.

The conventional interpretation of the story is that while all of Bodhidharma’s students had good understanding, Zongchi’s understanding is a little better than Daofu’s, and Daoyu’s understanding is a little better than Zongchi’s, and Huike’s understanding is the best of them all, so this is why Bodhidharma gives him transmission.  Traditionally, the dharma is transmitted to one disciple.

    Dogen, as always, turns this story around, and argues that no one’s understanding is deeper or shallower than anyone else’s.  No one’s practice is shallow or deep.  There is only practice.  He describes this in his fascicle Katto, or ‘Twining Vines’, written in the year 1243.  Here’s an excerpt of a translation by Carl Bielefeldt:

We should study this.  The saying of the First Ancestor, “You’ve got my skin, flesh, bones, and marrow,” is the saying of an ancestor.  His four followers have all got it, have all heard it . . .  Those without the correct transmission think that, since the understandings of the four disciples are familiar and remote, so the “skin, flesh, bones, and marrow” spoken of by the Ancestor differ from shallow to deep.  They think “skin and flesh” are more remote than “bones and marrow” and say that the Second Ancestor received the seal, “you’ve got my marrow,” because his understanding was superior.  Those who talk like this have never studied the buddhas and ancestors, and lack the correct transmission of the words of the Ancestor.

We should understand that, in the words of the Ancestor, “skin, flesh, bones, and marrow,” there is no shallow or deep.  Even if there are superior and inferior in the understandings, the words of the Ancestor are just “got my.”  The point is that both the indication “got my marrow” and the indication “got my bones” have no adequacy and inadequacy in “for the person, engaging the person,” “picking up grass, falling into grass.”  They are, for example, like “holding up a flower”; they are like “transmitting the robe.”  What is said to the four is equal from the beginning.  While the words of the Ancestor are equal, the four understandings are not necessarily equal.  While the four understandings may be “in pieces,” the words of the Ancestor are just the words of the Ancestor.

We should realize that, even in speaking to the Second Ancestor, he could say, “you’ve got my skin.”  Even though [he were to say], “you’ve got my skin,” he would have transmitted the treasury of the eye of the true dharma [to Huike] as the second ancestor.  “Got my skin” and “got my marrow” do not depend on superiority or inferiority.

Again, in speaking to Daofu, Daoyu and Zongchi, he could have said, “You’ve got my marrow.”  Although [he said,] “my skin,” he could transmit the dharma [to them].  For the body and mind of the Ancestral Master, skin, flesh, bones, and marrow are all the Ancestral Master.  It is not that the marrow is intimate and the skin is remote.

I have come to see that behind Dogen’s rather dense way of teaching is an incredibly open and expansive vision of practice.  The liberation of our way is always available to everyone, truly without exception.  Your practice is complete practice.  Your understanding is complete understanding.  When you make your effort in zazen, that effort, right there, immediately, is complete effort.  Do you believe that?


When we first start a meditation practice, we are often really surprised to see how active our minds are.  There’s this cacophony of thought that’s always sort of in the background, and as we get to know our minds through meditation, we see how this continuous flow of thoughts shapes much of our moment-to-moment experience.  After a while, we start to develop some skill at being aware of these thoughts even when we are off the meditation cushion, and that gives us some flexibility in how we respond to events.  It’s quite powerful, and it has the potential to fundamentally re-shape how we relate to others.
Even after many years of meditation, though, I think many of us still have a little bit of an idea that our minds should somehow be quieter than they are.  We may think, at some level, that zazen is only what happens in the quiet spaces between the thoughts.  When we’re thinking, maybe that’s somehow not practice, but when our minds are quiet for a few seconds, then that’s when the practice occurs.

The point of our practice isn’t to clear out our minds, or to stop thinking.  At first, our practice is just about getting to know the habitual patterns of thought that are always bouncing around in our minds and to find a little space so that we aren’t just completely tossed around by our mind.  And at a deeper level, we may come to understand what is meant in the Heart Sutra: ‘form is emptiness, emptiness form’.  We may come to understand that this means that the very thoughts that are always spinning around, habitual and anxious, and that we think we need to change, are themselves a complete manifestation of Buddha’s life, right here, immediately, with no need to change much of anything.
This idea is described in a really interesting recent essay by the poet Christian Wiman in the magazine ‘The American Scholar’.  He talks about this idea from a Christian perspective, and I wanted to talk about it a bit tonight, and how his ideas relate to our Soto Zen practice.  Here’s what he has to say:

During a dinner with friends the talk turns, as it often does these days, to the problem of anxiety: how it is consuming everyone; how the very technologies that we have developed to save time and thereby lessen anxiety have only degraded the quality of the former and exacerbated the latter; how we all need to “give ourselves a break” before we implode. Everyone has some means of relief—tennis, yoga, a massage every Thursday—but the very way in which those activities are framed as separate from regular life suggests the extent to which that relief is temporary . . .

THE GREATNESS of James Joyce’s Ulysses is partly in the way it reveals the interior chaos of a single mind during a single day, and partly in the way it makes that idiosyncratic clamor universal. However different the textures of our own lives may be, [Leopold] Bloom’s mind is our mind; the welter of impressions he suffers and savors is a storm we all know. And that is the book’s horror too: some form of this same fury of trivia is going on in the mind of every sentient person on the planet. How much cruelty is occasioned simply because of the noise that is within us: the din is too great for us to realize exactly what we are doing to others, or what is being done to others in our name. Thus an offhand remark, which leaves us as easily as a breath and which we think no more of than a breath, cuts a friend to the quick. . .  Life has accelerated greatly since Joyce’s time, and now, as our selves scatter into bits and bytes, and our souls, if we are conscious of them at all, diminish to little more than a vague wish for quiet, even the linear associativeness of Ulysses can seem quaint.

HOW DOES one remember God, reach for God, realize God in the midst of one’s life if one is constantly being overwhelmed by that life? It is one thing to encourage contemplation, prayer, quiet spaces in which God . . . can enter the mind and heart. But the reality of contemporary American life—which often seems like a kind of collective ADHD—is that any consciousness requires a great deal of resistance, and how does one relax and resist at the same time?

. . . the Catholic nun, Sara Grant, speaking about, and quoting from, the Kena Upanishad (said): “Brahman is not ‘that which one knows,’ but that by which one knows, as though a crystal bowl were aware of the sun shining through it. ‘When he is known through all cognitions, he is rightly known.’” But . . . you could quote Christ himself in support of this idea: “To believe in me, is not to believe in me but in him who sent me; to see me, is to see him who sent me.”

This is emptiness in form.  All specific, mundane things are a manifestation of the ultimate.  Can you recognize emptiness through all cognitions?  Can you see that all things are embodying Buddha’s life?

I do think, though, that both the problem of, and the solution to, our individual anxiety is a metaphysical one. . . It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music in the background of our lives, music which, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things. It is not hard to hear this music, but it is very difficult indeed to learn to hear it as music.

THE MEANINGS that God calls us to in our lives are never abstract. Though the call may ask us to redefine, or refine, what we know as life, it does not demand a renunciation of life in favor of something beyond it. Moreover, the call itself is always comprised of life. That is, it is not some hitherto unknown voice to which we respond; it is life calling to life. People think that diagnosing the apostle Paul with epilepsy or some related disorder nullifies any notion that God might truly have revealed something of himself on that road to Damascus. But God speaks to us by speaking through us, and any meaning we arrive at in this life is comprised of the irreducible details of the life that is around us at any moment. “I think there is no light in the world / but the world,” writes George Oppen. “And I think there is light.”

THERE IS A DISTINCTION to be made between the anxiety of daily existence, which we talk about endlessly, and the anxiety of existence, which we rarely mention at all. The former fritters us into dithering, distracted creatures. The latter attests to—and, if attended to, discloses—our souls. And yet it is a distinction without a difference, perhaps, and as crucial to eventually overcome as it is to initially understand, for to be truly alive means to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence, to feel one’s trivial, frittering anxieties acquiring a lightness, a rightness, a meaning. So long as anxiety is merely something to be alleviated, it is not life, or we are not alive enough to experience it as such.

AT FIRST, attending to the anxiety of existence can seem like a zero-sum game. Any attention turned toward the truth of the spirit is attention turned away from all we have come to think of as “life.” Thus we parcel out our moments of devotion—a church service here and there, a walk in the woods, a couple of hours of meditation a week—all the while maintaining the frenzy of our usual existence outside of those moments. This is inevitable, for the initial demands of the spirit are intense, but it is not sustainable, for the soul is not piecemeal. We are left with this paradox: only by hearing the furthest call of consciousness can we hear the call of ordinary life, but only by claiming the most mundane and jangling details of our lives can that rare and ulterior music of the soul merge with what Seamus Heaney calls “the music of what happens.”

Our practice of Soto Zen Buddhism includes both form and emptiness.  It is through the form of our practice – the way we sit in the zendo, how we bow, how we walk, how we chant – that we realize emptiness.  It’s not that there’s something special or magical about the postures or the schedule, but because we don’t realize emptiness in form in our daily lives, we need to do something special to remind us.  Over time, we may start to experience our spinning minds and our busy daily lives with a warm feeling in the heart, a feeling that maybe we could call meaning, but it’s a sense that, at least maybe, this life really is Buddha’s life.


I was recently in Boulder, Colorado for work.  I love visiting Boulder – it’s really beautiful, and I have many friends from work and from the Zen scene, so I always have a nice time when I’m in town.  When I was in Boulder last, I visited the newly expanded Whole Foods.  If you know Boulder, and if you know Whole Foods, then you know that the two demographics are a perfect match.  The old Whole Foods was pretty nice, but the new one just really knocked my socks off.  Aisles and aisles of gorgeous organic food.  All sorts of delicious and healthy prepared foods.  A food court with anything you might want.  A bakery with hearty fresh-baked, whole-grain breads and tempting cookies and cakes.  Fresh chocolates.  Perfect organic produce.  It was really impressive.  And the people!  Everyone there seemed to be young, healthy, athletic, and good-looking.  Even the music was fantastic (they were playing the new Paul Simon album).  Pretty much, wherever you looked, there was something pleasing to look at.  Everything smelled wonderful.  You were surrounded by pleasing sounds.  Every sense organ was being pleasured simultaneously!  It seemed like a place designed to ensure that no one – at least in the rather limited demographic of Boulder – could possibly be unhappy.  How could you be?  Everything you might want is arrayed before you!  This is the realm of the gods or the devas, where everything is bliss.  It’s very nice!

Of course this reminded me of the story of the Buddha who, as a child, was sheltered from anything that could cause him unhappiness.  He was surrounded by wonderful foods, beautiful people, and pretty sounds.  We know how this turned out.  Shakyamuni’s parents couldn’t keep old age, sickness, and death at bay forever, and the young Shakyamuni eventually saw that life isn’t just about surrounding yourself with pleasing sensations.  When he realized that everyone will grow old, get sick, and die, he dedicated himself to understanding the nature of suffering, and we still practice in the way that he taught 2500 years ago.

But I picked up another feeling at the Whole Foods in Boulder, an underlying tension, a sense of grasping, almost a sense of desperation in the midst of all the beauty.  Many of the people in Boulder are extremely accomplished.  It’s home to some of the world’s top athletes and scientists (many of the top athletes in Boulder are the top scientists, too), people who have worked very very hard to get where they are.  So some of this feeling seemed to be an intense level of competitiveness to get ahead and powerful grasping to keep what had been achieved.  This is the realm of the Asuras, or Jealous Gods.

Do you know about the Six Realms of Existence in Buddhist cosmology?  These are traditionally presented in terms of things like gods and demigods and ghosts, but they really are about different states of mind that we experience.  I have found them to be a remarkably useful framework for thinking about my own life and the different ways we all experience our lives and our practice.  I have described the first two realms.  In the realm of the gods, life is so good and blissful, we may not feel much need to practice Buddhism.  Why bother when life is so good?  Unfortunately, everything is impermanent, even the realm of the gods, so eventually we will fall from this blissful state into one of the lower states.  In the realm of the Asuras, life is pretty fantastic, but we’re always a little paranoid, a little freaked out, that we are going to lose what we have.  I’ll come back to this one in a bit, but I want to at least summarize the other realms.  Each one is well worth studying.

We can be in any of the six realms, but the human realm, the next on the list,  is where most of us are most of the time.  Here, life is quite variable and it is considered the ideal place to practice the Dharma.  In the human realm we are suffering and grasping, no doubt, but we are not so wracked with misery that we can’t practice.  In the human realm, practicing the Dharma is considered to be especially efficacious.  We have just enough difficulty so that our practice can gain some traction.  Then there’s the animal realm.  Here we are driven primarily by instinct, or even by addiction.  There’s very little opportunity to practice here because there is simply no space between impulse and response.

Just below the animal realm is a very important state called the realm of the Pretas or Hungry Ghosts.  This is a very important realm in our modern society.  The hungry ghosts are beings who suffer from intense hunger and thirst that can never be satisfied.  Traditionally they are drawn as beings with enormous bellies and very narrow necks.  They are tormented by desire and are unable to do anything to soothe themselves.  This idea of the Hungry Ghosts does not just apply to physical hunger or thirst, of course.  It also refers to the whole variety of ways in which we are unsatisfied and simply can’t get our desires met.  In a world filled with advertising, we’re all always in touch with this realm, at least in the West.  We crave wealth, we crave love, we crave attention, but no matter what happens externally, we can never fill our bellies, we’re never satisfied.  It’s a very sad state, and it’s one that is all too familiar to many of us.

Finally, there is the hell realm.  It’s not quite the same as the idea of hell in the western tradition.  This is a state based on longstanding, deep-rooted hatred.  Hatred of another, of oneself, the world, society.  Practice is probably not really possible as an option here, but the good news is that, like all of the other states, it too is impermanent, so there is at least the possibility of some space or gap in the hatred into which the thought of enlightenment may arise.

Now that we have laid out the six realms, I wanted to go back a bit to the realm of the Asuras because it’s one that I think is important in our society and it doesn’t get a lot of attention.  America is a nation of immigrants: someone in our family, a grandparent, a great-grandparent, or maybe even ourselves, left their home in another country to seek a better life.  So many of our ancestors came to America, worked hard, and managed to get ahead.  They were able to make a life for their children that was better than what they had experienced in their native homes.  This was the American dream.  But the downside to the American dream was the problem of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.  Sure, we have plenty, but our neighbors maybe have just a bit more.  So instead of feeling satisfied with our efforts and with the nice life we have created, we get anxious that we’re not keeping up.  This is the anxiety of the Asuras.  It’s the anxiety that we’re going to lose what we have worked so hard for, and it’s endemic in American life.

Henry David Thoreau describes this anxiety beautifully in his classic book, Walden:

The incessant anxiety and strain of some is a well-nigh incurable form of disease. We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us! or, what if we had been taken sick? How vigilant we are! determined not to live by faith if we can avoid it; all the day long on the alert, at night we unwillingly say our prayers and commit ourselves to uncertainties. So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life, and denying the possibility of change.

We Asuras are committed to taking care of things through our own power.  We have been so successful in getting what we want through our own efforts that we have very little capacity to let go and allow events to develop.

But there’s always been a strain of American thought that has suggested a better way, a way in which, rather than giving in to habitual, continued striving, to simply let go.  Thoreau talked about this in the 19th century and after the Second World War, the Beatniks and then the hippies talked about something similar.  And this was the context into which Zen was introduced in the late 50s and early 60s.  In the realm of the Asuras, our suffering is caused by the very striving that helped us to get where we are.  To a point, such striving can be effective, but beyond that point, it can create a lot of suffering.  Many people, from the time of the Buddha through Thoreau and into the present time have decided to step away from their privilege and seek a different kind of success, a different kind of freedom, the freedom that comes from letting go of striving.

I will conclude again with Thoreau, beautifully describing this in a way that sounds a lot like zazen:

Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails. Let us rise early and fast, or break fast, gently and without perturbation; let company come and let company go, let the bells ring and the children cry — determined to make a day of it. Why should we knock under and go with the stream? Let us not be upset and overwhelmed in that terrible rapid and whirlpool called a dinner, situated in the meridian shallows. Weather this danger and you are safe, for the rest of the way is down hill. With unrelaxed nerves, with morning vigor, sail by it, looking another way, tied to the mast like Ulysses. If the engine whistles, let it whistle till it is hoarse for its pains. If the bell rings, why should we run? We will consider what kind of music they are like. Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvion which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is, and no mistake; and then begin, having a point d’appui (point of support) below freshet and frost and fire, a place where you might found a wall or a state, or set a lamp-post safely, or perhaps a gauge, not a Nilometer, but a Realometer, that future ages might know how deep a freshet of shams and appearances had gathered from time to time. If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality. If we are really dying, let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities; if we are alive, let us go about our business.

So as we go forth this week, let’s try to spend at least a little time every day taking up Thoreau’s invitation to let company come and let it go, to let the bells ring and to let the children cry.  If we can open up a little space for this in our lives, then maybe we can begin to let go of the anxiety of the Asuras.


Saturday, 7/23/11

Last weekend I did something that I don’t usually do.  I played with guns.  Real guns.  With live ammunition.

We were in Texas, celebrating Joe’s dear mom Sonia’s 80th birthday, and on Saturday we all needed to come up with some fun activities that would address the broad demographic range within the family.  Most of the Democrats went to see the movie “The Tree of Life.”  And ordinarily I might have done that, too.  But for some reason, I decided to buck the stereotype, and I went to the shooting range with the Republicans and the one other trend-bucking liberal.  I’m sure that my conservative Texas father-in-law and brother-in-law were both surprised that I decided to go with them.  But I was just balancing out the group dynamic, along with my fun-loving, Illinois biologist brother-in-law, and the biologist’s 11-year-old son.  (That really smart boy knows all about guns, and he owns and is training to use a compound bow, of the type that has to be registered with the state as a lethal weapon.)

So last Saturday I somehow ended up at Red’s Indoor Shooting Range.  I had never been to a shooting range before, and for an overly sensitive pacifist with an exaggerated startle response, such a place takes a fair bit of getting used to.  But once I had made the initial BIG cultural and sensory overload adjustment, I noticed that the folks who ran the place actually had an aura of real mindfulness about them.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by that; after all, it would quickly become a bleak venue for The Darwin Awards if shooting range managers did not embody and foster an attitude of mindful presence.  Still, it was eye-opening for me to notice their mindfulness, especially given my casual, unexamined assumptions about gun-toting Second Amendment types.

Father-in-law Harry had brought his Sig Sauer 9 mm, and Andy brought his Beretta 387.  I shot both guns a few times.  On my second shot with the Beretta, the hot bullet casing ricocheted directly and perfectly into the tiny space between my glasses frame and my face, lodging there securely.  The burn mark is still visible a week later; but I set the gun down carefully and mindfully before I started jumping around, yelling and clawing at both my protective safety glasses AND my normal vision glasses.  (Being kind of a reactive-nervous-system type, I hadn’t been really sure that I could actually be trusted to even be safe around guns; so I was glad to note that I treated the gun carefully even when in sharp pain reaction mode.)

The guys had already fired several times each by the time Andy’s Beretta was passed to me, and the target had bullet holes all over it.  So instead of clustering my shots in the same center area that everyone else had been aiming for, I pointed the gun at a diamond-shaped sub-target in the lower left corner of the printed target sheet.  I thought that several new holes appeared in the immediate vicinity of that diamond, and I was pretty sure those were my shots; but I couldn’t say for absolute certain that those holes hadn’t already been there when I took the gun.  “How can you tell whose holes are whose,” I yelled to brother-in-law Sam.  He disappeared briefly, and reappeared with a fresh, new target just for me.  They put the target up in Harry’s shooting slot, and I changed places and switched to Harry’s 9 mm.

As I took my TV-cop-show firing stance, Harry stood behind me and put his hands gently on the backs of my shoulders.  (I was quite touched by how sweet and supportive he was being; but he told me later that he was just making very sure that he was well out of the way, in case I shot wildly.)  I lined up the two aiming marks on the gun, breathed in, and on the second half of my out-breath, I gently squeezed the trigger.  The major recoil nearly knocked me over, but I just barely managed to absorb the shock and remain steady on my feet.  I paused, adjusted my stance, aimed carefully, and brought my focus of awareness to my breathing again three more times.  “Oh my God!” yelled nephew Isaac, sounding shocked.  “Aunt Russ is a really good shot! ”  On the fresh, new target, there were 4 bullet holes, all within just an inch or two of the circled heart.  My father-in-law seemed to look at me with new respect, and he remarked several times that day about my shooting prowess.  Somehow I felt very validated by that.

Going to a shooting range was really a marked departure from my usual type of activities.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether the folks there would have been as friendly to me as they were if they’d known who and how I really am in my normal life.  I happened to be wearing a dorky fishing vest with a lot of pockets that day, so, at first glance, I might have almost passed for a person who routinely carries bullets around in her pockets, just like the guy behind the counter.  But I knew how different our world views were, and I was actually kind of nervous about just being around people who were so into guns.

However, after shooting those big pistols, I could really feel at a visceral level how target practice, and maybe even shooting in general, could be really appealing.  There’s a certain mindful stillness that’s really required in that activity.  Maybe that’s how the folks I think of as “Second Amendment types” get in touch with that side of their nature.  Maybe meditation and shooting actually kind of appeal to a somewhat similar impulse in people.  I don’t know for sure.  But it’s an interesting possibility to consider.

:D    Russ

As many of you know, in my day job, I am a professor of Earth Sciences at the University of New Mexico, where I study Earth’s changing climate.  I just got back from a two-week long research expedition to the Peruvian Andes to study the Quelccaya Ice Cap, which is the largest glacier in the tropics.  It’s rapidly melting, and we were there as part of a larger set of projects to study the processes that control the melting of the ice cap.  I won’t say much about the science, but during the trip, I thought a lot about our Soto Zen practice, and that’s I wanted to talk about tonight.

First, I want to say a bit about my personal experience of the trip and then I’ll talk in a broader way about what came up for me in terms of how our practice might relate to the very difficult issue of climate change.  For me personally, the trip was extremely physical, pretty much entirely a bodily experience rather than an intellectual experience.  For most of us, most of the time, climate change is a set of ideas floating around in our heads, or maybe in the blogosphere, that are subject to all sorts of spin and debate and excitement, and really in this sense climate change pretty much exists only from the neck up.  This trip took place entirely from the neck down, and the mind was just along for the ride.  The ice cap we were studying is at an altitude of 18,600 feet, so most of the trip was about physically acclimatizing to the altitude.  We drove from Cusco, Peru, up to a final camp at 15,000 feet, where we spent two nights, then hiked up to a high base camp at 17,000 feet for another few nights, and then up to the summit at 18,600 feet.  In addition to altitude sickness, there was a nasty stomach bug going around (not uncommon), so most of us were pretty sick for several days.

We were working with some very professional mountaineering guides and their job was to make sure that we were staying relatively healthy and comfortable.  Every day, they would come around and look closely at each of us and ask “How are you feeling”, and they really meant it, it wasn’t just small talk.  And they would very gently lead us on simple acclimatization walks, often leading so subtly it wasn’t clear that they were doing anything except chatting and strolling with us.  They encouraged us not to push too hard, and early on I recognized that the way we were going to climb the mountain was simply by following the schedule that we had previously set up.  So many days here, so many nights there, so many hours for a particular hike.

Following the schedule is one of the hallmarks of Soto Zen monastic training, and we get a little flavor of that here.  We have a schedule of zazen, kinhin or soji, service, lecture, and so on.  The idea is that you don’t pick and choose what parts of the schedule you follow, you just do what everyone else is doing, and don’t worry about getting anywhere in particular with it.  Just sit this period of zazen, chant the Heart Sutra, just do this particular hike or take this rest day, and you’ll get there.  But of course the point isn’t really to get to the end.  The point is just to be present with what’s unfolding now, whatever that is.

I was pretty sick on our hike up to the base camp, and none of us could walk at a normal pace because of the altitude.  If I tried to walk too fast, and certainly if I focused on when we were going to reach camp, I would completely lose my breath and would feel rather overwhelmed by the difficulty.  Instead, I found that if I basically practiced kinhin, I could walk at a steady pace, and that if I let go of thinking about the goal and just focused on this step, I could keep going.  It was really quite a revelation for me because I was so clearly doing kinhin – this hiking was practice!  As I was walking, I kept thinking of the verses from the Sandokai:
If you don’t understand the path as it meets your eyes,

how can you know the way as you walk?

Progress is not a matter of far or near,

but if you are confused mountains and rivers block the way.

I humbly say to those who study the mystery:

Don’t waste time.

When we hiked up to the summit, several days later, I was impressed by the stately, mindful pace that the guide set.  It was exactly the same feeling as when we do outdoor walking meditation at, for example, Upaya – faster than kinhin, but definitely slow in a follow-the-leader sort of way.  That hike was on snow and ice and the altitude made it quite challenging, but the practice was the same: just take literally one step at a time.  When I scanned the horizon for the summit weather station and camp, I would start to despair a little bit, but I just returned to the coordination of breath and body in walking.  This step.  Now this step.  The world just shrank down to the path, the guide, and this step, this breath.  Later on, I talked with the guides and my fellow trekkers about how much this reminded me of Buddhist walking meditation, and the guides (who had no Buddhist training) knew exactly what I was talking about.  So it seems that mountaineering and Zen practice take us to the same place, somehow.

So this was the physical experience of the trip, and you will note that I haven’t said anything about the research, or about climate change, or the appropriate societal response to greenhouse gas emissions.  This trip was really not about those things, which were very vague, not very relevant.  What was relevant was body, breath, and walking.  That was it.

What about this melting glacier?  What about climate change?  This is a big concern for many of us, but it’s never been completely clear how our meditation practice relates to this issue.  I think this is primarily because, as I mentioned earlier, we mostly experience climate change as an abstract, intellectual issue.

I was lucky to be able to spend most of a day by myself at the margin of the glacier, where ice meets bedrock, about a half-hour’s hike from the base camp.  This ice cap, even though it is rapidly melting, is immense, many many miles across.  And the site is essentially silent.  So the overall experience of being in the presence of this glacier is one of immensity, stillness, and deep deep silence.  Sitting there, you see that the glacier is really not involved in our spinning, busy ideas about climate change and greenhouse gases and who’s a republican and who’s a democrat.  The glacier is clearly melting, for sure, but I really experienced it in terms of the most basic Buddhist teaching of impermanence:  all conditioned things arise, abide for a time, and pass away.  As far as we can tell, this particular glacier has completely melted and re-grown many times over the last hundreds of thousands of years.  This impermanence is also very impersonal.  It doesn’t matter what we think about it, or how we feel about it, or how we vote, or what we drive.  This impermanence is simply the nature of things.  In fact when we say ‘things’, what we really mean is ‘impermanence’.  It is awesome.

Unfortunately, we usually don’t see this fundamentally flowing, impermanent nature of things, especially things like mountains and glaciers that seem like they should be more reliable.  When we sit in zazen, we can start to see how this flowing quality is the nature of our own minds, but can we see that this is really the nature of absolutely everything?

This is exactly what Dogen discusses in his fascicle Sansui kyo, the Mountains and Waters Sutra.  Normally we think of a sutra as being the words of the Buddha, a teaching about the dharma, but in this case, the mountains and waters are the sutra: the mountains are expressing the dharma directly.  And in this text, Dogen talks about how the mountains and waters specifically express impermanence.  In this section, Dogen talks about mountains ‘walking’, as a metaphor for impermanence:

Preceptor Kai of Mt. Dayang addressed the assembly, saying, “The blue mountains are constantly walking. The stone woman gives birth to a child in the night.”  The mountains lack none of their proper virtues; hence, they are constantly at rest and constantly walking. We must devote ourselves to a detailed study of this virtue of walking. Since the walking of the mountains should be like that of people, one ought not doubt that the mountains walk simply because they may not appear to stride like humans. . .Those outside the mountains do not sense this, do not know it. Those without eyes to see the mountains, do not sense, do not know, do not see, do not hear the reason for this. To doubt the walking of the mountains means that one does not yet know one’s own walking. It is not that one does not walk but that one does not yet know, has not made clear, this walking. Those who would know their own walking must also know the walking of the blue mountains. . . We can have no doubts about these blue mountains walking. We do not know what measure of dharma realms would be necessary to clarify the blue mountains. We should do a clear accounting of the blue mountains’ walking and our own walking . . . Do not slander mountains by saying that the blue mountains cannot walk . . . It is because of the baseness of the common person’s point of view that we doubt the phrase “the blue mountains walk”; because of the crudeness of our limited experience, we are surprised by the words “flowing mountain”. Without having fully penetrated even the term “flowing water”, we just remain sunk in our limited perception.

For sure, change is the nature of all things, including Earth’s climate, but does that mean we should just fatalistically accept man-made climate change?  If all things arise, abide for a time, and pass away, doesn’t that apply to the human race as a whole?  Why make any effort on this issue if it’s hopeless?

Recall our Bodhisattva Vow:  Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to save them.  Set aside for the moment the idea of whether or not mountains and glaciers are sentient beings.  Don’t be too concerned for the Earth, which is of the nature of continuous ongoing change, or for the glacier, which has come and gone many times in the past and will likely do so into the future, but for sure, we should be concerned about our fellow humans.  As people, we are capable of a great deal of suffering and climate change is likely to create a lot of suffering for people.  I think that’s where we should place our emphasis in terms of where practice intersects climate change.  Yes, the glaciers will melt, and for sure there will be suffering.  What can we do help ease the suffering of our fellow humans?  It certainly may mean engaging with society with the aim of ameliorating suffering – it may entail passing legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions so that the glaciers stop melting and so that people have enough water.  It may mean working with local communities to ensure stable water and food supplies.  For sure, it means, as practitioners, being present with the difficulties that arise in each moment with kindness and compassion, and responding with a full open heart to whatever is going on.  For sure, it means not using climate change as a stick to beat others with.  Don’t use climate change as a wedge against others or to create difficulty for others.  There is enough suffering in the world without our self-righteousness.  As Kurt Vonnegut wrote:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ ”

4th of July, 2011

“Happy Interdependence Day!”  The past few days I’ve been offering this blessing as a goodbye when parting from friends, and at the conclusion of ordinary, brief interactions.  You know, like instead of saying, “Have a nice day” as I leave the grocery clerk’s line, I’ve been saying, “Happy Interdependence Day!”  Some people actually register the fact that I’ve said something slightly different than what’s expected.  Of those who notice, some look momentarily puzzled, and some smile as though we’ve shared a private joke.  (Anything that breaks up the monotony is probably fine with most retail clerks.  That constant processing of objects and people is a really advanced mindfulness challenge!)

On this day of celebrating our nation’s independence, I’ve been considering “independence” and “interdependence,” and thinking about them as locations on a continuum of possible world views, intentions, even raw survival capability.  Independence vs. interdependence.  Is there a real distinction here?  If so, how can it help us have a happy, balanced life, develop and maintain a less reactive outlook, interact in productive ways with our friends, loved ones, and associates?

Maybe we can think about the independence/interdependence continuum as a line between the poles of utter dependence/merging (such as newborn infants experience) on one end, and complete alienation (being cut off physically and emotionally from everyone and everything) on the other end.  On such a continuum, when circumstances permit, I think it’s good to locate oneself somewhere in the middle.  Modern psychology says we emphasize independence in early periods of self-development (childhood and adolescence), and then we gradually shift to recognizing and cooperating with the fact of interdependence as we mature (raising a family and/or working for the greater good of the community).  It seems to me that to continue to emphasize separateness long after a healthy ego identity and boundaries have been established is to remain in a state of arrested development.  And this seems to be true for both individuals and countries.

So how can the distinction between independence and interdependence help us to be happy, healthy, contributing members of society?  Maybe every now and then we just stop for a moment and notice where we currently seem to be located on the continuum, and – if necessary – nudge ourselves gently toward the center.  Away from total merging with or over-dependence on others (or their resources or approval), away from complete separation and alienation from others (neither offering nor accepting any form of support).  Back toward the center — toward a healthy recognition of the fact of complete, mutual interdependence of all life, back toward considering the consequences of this reality, back toward the intention to try to guide our own lives with interdependence in mind.

As my gift to you on Interdependence Day, here’s a link to an interview with Norman Fischer.  It’s not particularly associated with today’s theme, but it just crossed my radar and I thought I’d share it.  (Whatever Norman has to say on any subject is always interesting and worth considering.)

Happy Interdependence Day!

Love, Russ

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