June 14, 2018

Buddha Means to Be Equal


There is a retreat with Mike Luetchford in Slovakia next week. When I think about the people going to this retreat, most of us have known each other for about ten years or so. Some of us are married, some divorced, many of us have a different partner compared to when we met. We have shared all kinds of things during our retreats and struggled and made efforts in between retreats. We have asked ourselves or others, or our teacher: What is Buddha? What is awakening? We have read books and found answers or failed to find answers to our questions. We may feel proud or underestimated. We may feel better than in the past or worse. But all in all, we are all perfectly equal.

Buddha Way points to the place where we are all equal. We often forget this. We talk about success or failure, teachers and students, beginners and advanced students,  but all in all, there is no difference between me or you, between a buddha and you. When we all sit in the zendo, saying nothing, all of us dealing with our silly thoughts and imagination, we are the same. When we share the lunch, we are the same. When we go to sleep, we are all the same. And when the teacher speaks, giving a talk about buddhas, we are all the same, teacher, students, we are all dealing with the same thing. We are all on board the same ship. We all wake up together when working in front of the house or when practicing zazen. When Buddha attained the truth, he realized that there is no difference between him and all beings. Essentially, all beings have the same awakening, here and now.          

If you know me personally, you know I was preoccupied with feelings about my value, about how much I mean to others, about my talents and failures, about my ambitions, about feeling odd and not accepted by others, etc. When I practiced zazen, this feeling disappeared for a while and I sank into the state of equality with all beings and things. But it was always very difficult for me to get free from myself. It is difficult for everyone. When we practice zazen, we may get free for a while. When we go hiking or when we cook, or when we clean the bathroom, we may be free for a while. This is very important. We deserve to get this freedom. This freedom is called buddha. It is the awakening that matters. There are no better or worse people in this awakening, there are no superior or inferior beings, no teachers or students, no women or men, no nations, no races, no political parties, no right, no wrong. We all deserve this awakening. And Buddha explained how important it is to experience this awakening. Awakening to equality of all beings and things.

Then, in this awakening, when all things and beings are equal, we can notice the beauty of red, the beauty of white, the beauty of green, the beauty of a rose. Because the intellect with its judgment and comparisons is quiet. When we drop our opinions of ourselves and others, only then we can fully appreciate the beauty of things and appreciate that we can eat, drink, sleep and breathe.

But this does not mean that we should never discuss anything, or have no ambitions or aspiration. This does not mean that our experience is the same as experience of somebody else. There are significant differences between people and all beings. There is a lot to learn from people whose experience is genuine, authentic. It may be a carpenter, a pianist or a chef. The problem is when we forget to reach the point when everything is equal and true. The moment a piano student touches the keys after being instructed - in that moment awakening to equality of things is possible and natural. So we practice zazen and learn the Buddhist philosophy to see clearly that differences matter to a certain point, but our awakening of the original self, which contains no differences, only complete action at this moment, is even more important than understanding and intellectual analysis. Both is necessary, but after all, the single undivided experience matters the most.

We may feel that we have made progress or achieved something within Buddhist practice but the most important achievement is when we realize that it is important to share this universe with others without judging them at the moment of actions like eating, drinking, walking or practicing zazen together. Sharing this universe with respect towards others and their struggles, that is very important. I have to treat my students at school as if I was more important than them, being a leader, a teacher, but they need my leadership. And I don't think I am more important than them at all. Teaching is possible without arrogance or feeling superior. Actually, in Buddhism, this attitude is necessary.

We may have studied Shobogenzo. Master Dogen often mentions great masters and talks about great awakening of different beings and things. But after all, master Dogen points to the equality of all things, that is all things are true and their truth is perfectly on par with the truth of other things, be it a plum blossom, or the full moon. No matter how painful our life is, we can always return to the situation where all things express the truth without stages or levels. We deserve to forget who we are and see the truth that silences our intellect and silences our questions and doubts and frustration and hopes. We are equal and true, essentially, and we deserve to see this and see others and all things as perfectly true as they are. This is the point where we should all meet. And I hope this coming retreat will be a success in terms of coming to equality and authenticity of things and equality and authenticity of our human actions, helping each other experience our true selves.

April 17, 2018

Thank You, Unknown Man...

This afternoon I was sipping coffee and munching on delicious ice cream in a cozy coffee shop in a trendy Prague neighborhood called Karlin, say something like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, only better... I had been thinking about something really silly all day and could not stop. Although it was a beautiful, sunny day and I had about three hours to go cycling along the river, I was considering going home... because I just wasn't in the mood for cycling or enjoying the spring day... As I was not really enjoying the delicious ice cream, being busy with my "agenda", I noticed a couple sitting at the next table who were talking about something familiar. I began to concentrate and listen carefully. The guy was explaining something to the lady. In a nice, patient voice. He was Asian. Ah, he is talking about the clarity of the present moment.  Maybe he was a Tibetan teacher.  I didn't think I was doing something wrong listening to this informal teisho. So I continued. He was explaining something I have heard Mike, my teacher, speak about many, many times, and I myself had tried to explain the thing many many times before. He was talking about the clarity and brightness there is when we let go of our ideas, images, opinions, hopes, memories and worries. There was a beautiful flower in a vase in the window just in front of me. I noticed its beauty. The ice cream finally started to taste delicious. My eyes got misty and then tears started to run down my cheeks. I had been busy thinking about something silly all day, but now I noticed. The flower is wonderful, it is sunny and I am sipping nice espresso here. I quickly glanced at the guy, my cheeks still wet. He was smiling. Of course, I am going cycling now! What else! It is a beautiful day...  

So thank you, unknown fellow, for your teaching. We all forget from time to time, we all forget to notice what is present and wonderful, preferring our own issues and dreams. So although we sometimes say that it is necessary to let go of Buddhist teaching, this specific teaching, which I have heard so many times so far, and which was often helpful, points to something much more interesting than Buddhist teaching. It points to the beautiful spring day, the flowers and ice cream. It is not so convincing when we read about it in books or on blogs like this, but it is sometimes very touching and helpful, when it is given sincerely from person to person.

We have heard a lot of stories about scandalous behavior of all kinds of famous teachers. Although it is important to have a sense of justice and caring, even if one true sentence is said by someone who did wrong things in the past, it is still true teaching. We never know who may be our teacher after all... He or she may have done something really bad in the past.... this guy today may have been in prison for all kinds of things, who knows, but today he has passed a piece of true teaching in a coffee shop. To me, to the lady... to the spring day.

March 22, 2018

How to Do Our Best

Last time I promised I would write an article about the meaning of "doing our best". This story might not be very encouraging, but you are probably a very different person, have very different experience and be much more mature than I am now. I have no idea, but I will just tell you what it was for me "to do my best" for twenty five years of my Buddhist practice.

Ever since I began to practice zazen and study the Buddhist philosophy with teachers, I have seldom  felt  happy about who I was and what my situation was. Except a short time after I returned from the US where I began my Buddhist practice. After my return home, which was and still is Prague, the Czech Republic, I felt like I had brought a new life from the US. The direction I got at the Zen center seemed amazing and it worked great for some time. But soon I started to realize that I was slowly and surely returning into a mindset which I would call "something is wrong with me".  I had started to practice Zen in Kwan Um school, which is based on working on koans, helping others more than oneself and practicing hard with others and for others. I thought that I was one of the most impatient and frustrated students. Then I discovered  a book of Dogen's essays and some interpretation of Dogen's teaching and decided to find a teacher who would teach me in that style. I particularly liked the teaching   that satori (in which I was very interested at that time) is not different from zazen and zazen is not different from satori.  Then I tried two different teachers during ten years, but my relationship with them didn't work and I wasn't sure if they could ever help me to realize who I am actually. In the meantime, I was a loser in relationships with women and I felt like one, as a high school teacher. My life, until recently, felt so unsatisfactory and frustrating, that at one point I hit a kind of rock bottom. I felt like I was not able to continue like this. I felt my efforts and the results of these efforts were so stupidly different that it was ridiculous. I tried so hard to practice zazen, to work, to be a good partner, to write about Buddhism on this blog, but about eight years ago I really felt like it was all going nowhere. You may ask: "If you were so desperate and unhappy, how come you were writing such positive and encouraging essays about Buddhist teaching and practice?" Actually, what I was writing was my experience, to some degree, but I was not just one person, I was two people. Although most of the time I felt like a loser, a silly oddball, I did have a kind of area in my life, where I found satisfaction, clarity, joy, hope and happiness. That was whenever I practiced zazen for more than thirty minutes, ideally an hour or more. Of course, you'll find peace and balance in ten minutes of zazen, but to me, in order to feel balanced and clear, I needed more time on the zafu than that. Nobody should imitate others, as you need to find your own pace and time for zazen, it may be ten minutes a day, maybe three hours a day, everyone is different. Just in my case, I always found one hour or so very helpful for writing essays and feeling all right about myself and the world.  But the way I was unhappy most of the time, there was something sick about it. I don't think it is necessary to feel that bad about oneself. But I did. I never had a relaxed relationship with my current teacher Mike Luetchford,  I mean until last year, I would say. I had struggled to find my role and his role in our relationship. For me, it was very difficult to talk to him, which wasn't his fault, I just took him too seriously quite often. That was painful. I did not know who I was supposed to be. I really did not know if I was doing my best and usually I felt I was not doing my best. This situation seemed to be my fate, to be my whole life. It was painful, but at the same time, you know, we humans get used to such things and consider them common or just the way it is. You get used to it and at the same time, don't want to accept it.

Anyway, last year, last winter, I somehow, not sure what events exactly helped me to realize that, but I somehow realized that the way I am, the way I lived and struggled, how I tried hard, as a partner, as a high school teacher, as a writer, as my teacher's student, as a friend, as a son, etc., I just realized that basically, it would, essentially, never be better. The word "essentially" is important here. Your life can always be a bit better or a bit worse, you may become very lucky one day and extremely unlucky another day, but there is something essential that just never changes. And that is important to find. That which never changes. The you, your self, that is always the same. The buddha nature that is never better, worse or different from somebody else's buddha nature. It is like living in an eggshell you can never ever escape, no matter how hard you try... and you cry and you try hard to get out of the eggshell, but to no avail. Actually, you are trying to escape your buddha nature! Because for some reason, the buddha nature seems to be a prison, not freedom. You think that you do not belong to the eggshell, you feel you should live somewhere better, somewhere nicer, more interesting and show others, that you are not just a stupid chicken trapped in that stupid eggshell. You want to go and conquer the world. You want to show them. You want to go and join the free running chickens. You want to be Somebody. Not a loser, not a chicken trapped in an eggshell. But last winter, during a few days, I slowly realized that I could never escape. I can never escape my life, my weaknesses, my gifts, my quirks, my hopes, my dreams, my experience. I found out that the only thing I could do about myself was to accept who I was and try to use this guy like some kind of dough you use to make bread. You hope the dough is good enough and now you have to make it into bread. Bread should be delicious and balanced, but we humans cannot hope to be made into something brilliant. We can only hope to be the bread we are supposed to be. Some people are more brilliant, some people are less brilliant, but the dough is the same for us. So in my case, as I realized that the dough is given and won't change, I wanted to see what can happen, or what kind of bread will be made. As for living in a small eggshell, just as I gave up trying to escape that eggshell, I found freedom within the small and limited space of the eggshell. I realized that when we just relax, accept both the shit and beauty of our lives, the necessary limits, we can breathe freely. It is the same with zazen. Although you may not move much and you just face this boring wall for an hour, or so, once you accept this sitting still in front of the wall, you may begin to feel free. Free, despite the stillness and going nowhere and getting nothing special.

Ever since last winter, to "do one's best" has meant something different from what it meant to me in the past. I am somehow clumsily living in my little eggshell, without much wisdom or brightness.  Maybe I am just finding out who I am. Maybe it is not all so simple and clear and I may become confused about myself again some time in future. I just think that whenever there is an obstacle or pain, you just have to go straight and deal with the situation. Or take painkillers. When you look back, you may feel you could have done better, but this time, you are not so frustrated. You did your best. Next time you will do your best. People won't be impressed. But little do they know how small your eggshell is.

I am sure zazen is something that makes buddhas out of fools, out of simpletons and out of intellectuals. The path of Buddhas is clear and bright. We can always reach out and open the window to let the fresh air of dharma transform the fool we are and make a buddha. We can let this dharma accompany our lives, no matter if we feel horrible about ourselves or more or less OK.  After all the twenty five years I was struggling, I was also a fine person, I hope, but it was difficult for me  to see it. We are all trapped, and at the same time, we can all meet dharma and find our true home in dharma. Time is not that important after all. When or how much later, that is not so important. Can we do something real today? Can we wake up today, just like yesterday, just like cats and dogs and birds? I am sure we all can.

March 17, 2018

A Strange Wood

There was a strange wood far away in the mountains. All the trees were quite crazy except one.

There was a tree that said: "I don't want to be an ordinary tree. I want to be the most beautiful tree in the world. I want to be decorated with pearls and diamonds and wear a beautiful silk dress. I want everyone to adore me! It is unbearable to be an ordinary tree like thousands of others!"

Another tree said: "I want to be the tallest tree in the world. I want to be above others and see what the other trees can never see. I want to be the closest to the sky and be the one that an eagle chooses to sit on when flying above. It is awful to be just like other trees. I don't want to be an ordinary tree!"

There was another tree that said: "I think it is much more important to be compassionate than beautiful or tall. I want to be the most compassionate tree in the world. I want to offer shade to insects and other little animals and offer my branches to all kinds of ants and bugs and birds. I want all little creatures to come to me and choose me as their home. I don't want to be just one of those trees nobody needs."

There was a tree that said: "I want to be the strongest tree in the world. When there is an orcan, I want to survive, I don't want to break like many other trees that are too weak. It is important to be strong and I want to be the strongest tree in the world. Otherwise, my life is meaningless, really embarrassing."

And another tree said: "All these things you are talking about, trees, are ridiculous. I want to be the wisest tree. I want to teach other trees about the truth. I want other trees to follow me and listen to my wise words. You may be ignorant as much as you like, but I am going to be the one that teaches woods and forests. I hope to be the wisest tree there is. Nobody will laugh at me."

So such were the hopes of these strange trees. Maybe they overheard people discuss the meaning of life some time in the past. Maybe they understood the human speech and were misled by theories and hopes of people. But there was a tree that was different. This tree was not infected by the ideas of people although even it heard and understood such words.

This tree said: "Why do you want to be stronger than you are? Why do you want to be more beautiful? Why do you want to have more compassion? Why are you afraid that you are useless? Why do you need more wisdom? Why do you hope to teach others while other trees know exactly how to be true? You trees should realize that the way you look, the way you offer shade, the way you sway in the wind, the beautiful sound your leaves make in the wind,  and the way you grow is more than enough. You all are strong enough already, compassionate enough, beautiful enough, special enough, wise more than enough, tall enough and you basically don't need to change. Just notice how a storm comes and how you can never separate from the storm. Notice how you let bugs and birds be a part of you. Notice how children are happy when they can freely run in your shade. Notice how squirrels enjoy their meal in your crowns,  how the rain happily falls on you, how flowers bloom under you, how birds sing their love songs for which they very much need you. How can't you see how wonderful you are? How can't you see what the meaning of your life is? Just be a tree, the way you already are, and there will be no worries and all creatures will come to you and will love you as you are. Please, do not waste this opportunity to be exactly a tree!"
                 

February 26, 2018

Zazen Is Not Everywhere


You might have come across the idea that everything is zazen or zazen is everything. People who are not very interested in zazen, but read a lot of books about Buddhism and Eastern philosophy like to say that it is not necessary to follow a particular path, to follow  a certain kind of Buddhist teaching, because to them everything is Buddhist teaching. So zazen is also something universal. To them, because zazen is everywhere, it is not necessary to sit in a certain posture. 

These people are right, but also wrong. They are right because Buddhist teaching is really everywhere and zazen is nothing special, so even if you wash the dishes, zazen is there, too. Zazen has some kind of universal nature, so it has to be found in all kinds of activities. But at the same time, zazen is a particular way of sitting. So it is not just "everything" or "nothing". It is also a very precise way of sitting. If you say that zazen is just anything, it is not very complete, it is quite narrow minded. But if you say that zazen is a particular way of sitting, it is only half of the whole picture. Master Dogen said that zazen has nothing to do with sitting, lying, or standing. It is not a kind of sitting, yet it is a very solid, a very realistic, a very vivid thing. It cannot be replaced by ideas or thinking only. So people who only talk about zazen without practicing zazen cannot understand zazen completely. And the same thing is true about Buddhist teaching. Although it is everywhere, you don't know what is everywhere, unless you penetrate things through and through, not relying on words and ideas only, but relying on your complete experience of things, which are beyond words and ideas. Then, beyond words and ideas, you cannot really say much about reality of things, other than encourage yourself and others to experience reality of things.

Because Buddhist teaching is something fundamental, we cannot say it is only here, in a Buddhist temple, or a Buddhist book, or in the posture of zazen. It is really expressed through all kinds of things. But it is expressed vividly, not in words. So people who have not experienced the vivid presence of things don't know what is so vivid about Buddha's experience.

We should not forget that zazen is really beyond words and categories, so it cannot be limited by a certain kind of posture. But only in this particular posture it is possible to confirm the universal nature of Buddhist teaching. Also, when we hear that right now, at this moment, sitting in Buddha's posture, you already are perfectly a buddha, that doesn't mean it is not necessary to make any effort. It doesn't mean that we can practice zazen just two minutes once a month. If we experience the immediate realization of Buddha, then we lose interest in counting seconds or minutes, and we naturally want to return to the posture of immediate Buddha. Buddha is something immediate, but this immediacy has to be confirmed over and over again, it is never completed. We can never satisfy our desire to return to our Buddha nature. This hunger makes us return to the zendo over and over again. But it is not some kind of frustration or feeling incomplete, it is rather enjoying this opportunity to wake up over and over again. So even if we realize the Buddhist truth at this moment, we cannot wait for too long and want to realize the Buddhist truth again. We always forget what the Buddhist truth is, actually we must forget what the Buddhist truth is, because if we kept the Buddhist truth, we would make it stiff and consequently dead. There is no rigidity in the truth so it has to be forgotten and discovered over and over again. So even if immediately we become a buddha in zazen, it is never enough. It doesn't mean we want to sit in zazen for two, three or four hours trying to accumulate some kind of experience. It mustn't be like that. It is rather sitting as if we forgot what we wanted to do or achieve, so after all we sit without waiting for anything to happen, without feeling proud after some experience or feeling frustrated as if some experience was not coming. We can sit for ten minutes, half an hour, one hour, two hours, but we must always forget how long and where, and always return to the immediate reality of buddhas. So in the world of people, it is necessary to fit our practice, our schedule, into the world of people, to match the sitting with different daily tasks. It is not dying in zazen or falling asleep in zazen or trying hard to attain enlightenment in zazen. It is just practicing zazen every day for some time and doing something very simple, very "not intellectual".  

The universal nature of zazen is important. Without this universal nature of zazen, it is impossible to practice zazen correctly. The essence comes out from the universe, not our thinking or imagination. Because people forget the universal nature of things and being, they have too many problems. But when we realize these problems come from the universal, original clarity of all things, these problems are not so difficult to solve.

We might say there are two floors in the universe. The first floor, or in British English, the ground floor, means everything is perfect and no change or solution is necessary. The second floor, or the first floor in British English, is a floor where almost everything is a problem, there are thousands of mistakes everywhere and people are trying hard to improve things or give up trying to improve things. So when somebody says: "I practice zazen, but I have problems. You don't practice zazen, but you don't have problems. How come?" This is talking about the second floor of the universe. The second floor is always busy and difficult, excited or messed up. It is the law of cause and effect, the karma of the universe. If you practice zazen only on the second floor, you may be surprised how little effect zazen has on your life. But the universal nature of zazen, the fact that zazen is not just a posture, it means that zazen is practiced both on the first floor and the second floor. The first floor is the universal nature of things, the essence of things, which is impossible to find here or there, it is neither mine nor yours, and yet it is both mine and yours. So no matter if you practice zazen or not, it doesn't matter. But to somebody, who has become interested in Buddha's teaching, to say that you don't have to practice zazen, it is very misleading.

Actually, we should always forget what it's like to practice zazen. So we always want to experience zazen again, to see what it's like. To practice zazen with others means that we can leave our personal agenda and join buddhas. Use this particular body and mind and immediately leave this body and mind through this simple action of sitting. This practice won't make us better than those who don't practice zazen, but it will help us match our own efforts of Buddha with the efforts of Gautama Buddha. When you just practice and do not put your practice into any categories, then there is no difference between you and the Buddha, who did not put himself or anything into any categories. Yet he experienced that which is not put into categories and is very lively and bright. 

February 6, 2018

The Mouth of the Universe

Buddhism is not about adding something to your life. Or to your experience. So for example you may expect that through Buddhism you will experience something that you never experienced before. But in fact you do not practice Buddhism in order to experience something you never experienced before, rather to experience completely whatever you may experience. So it would be a big mistake if your Buddhist practice and studies made your life more interesting or entertaining. Or if Buddhism made you a wiser person.

Of course a good teacher may sound wise but that is not the point. The wisdom a teacher wants to convey is very very simple. When you take those famous Chinese zen masters you may believe that actually the words they said made them authentic zen masters. But in fact their own everyday life experience which can never be expressed in words was what made  them authentic zen masters. Because they had true authentic experience of everyday life and at the same time were completely aware of the value and meaning of everyday life experience they could express  in their own words what the meaning of Buddhism is. These days people,  actually anyone can experience the same coldness of cold water and the same warmth coming from a fire that those Chinese masters experienced but it takes a lot of efforts and sincere practice and asking questions before we can fully appreciate the very coldness and warmth of things and even if we can fully appreciate what we experience it is difficult to speak about it if we are too clever or would like to impress others.

 I think although we absolutely need a true teacher who can explain what  Buddhism is and express in their own actions what Buddhism is, it is best to listen to the sound of the fridge or the engine or to paraphrase one Chinese master the sound of the creek in the valley, and find the meaning  of Buddhism there. Actually it is necessary to find the meaning of our own life in the sound of the engine or the dog barking. It is not rocket science but our clever mind doesn't like direct experience of things. So going against our cleverness is one of the challenges of zazen and Buddhist studies.

The most important wisdom of Buddhism does not come from the mouth of zen masters, rather from the mouth of the universe. So it is good to let this mouth speak to us from time to time. Putting aside religion, spiritual teachings, wisdom of masters, it is nice to taste strawberry jam and have some tea. 

December 10, 2017

Dae Kwang's Talk

Today, at the Day of zazen in Prague, I was translating a talk given by Dae Kwang, who was my teacher at the Providence Center in the USA in the summer of 1992.  I would like to summarize the basic ideas Dae Kwang spoke about  in his talk. Actually, he talked about the basic things Buddha found out.

Firstly, Buddha realized that everything and all beings have Buddha's nature, nature of awakening.

Secondly, Buddha realized that suffering is caused by misunderstanding ourselves, by not understanding our Buddha nature.

Thirdly, as we do not understand ourselves, we blame others for our own misery. We have enemies, we hate them and they usually hate us.

Here I added my own comment - of course, criminals are causing suffering to others. In Buddhism, however, we do not respond to the fact that someone causes suffering to us by hatred. Instead, we understand that what this person has caused is the result of his misunderstanding of himself or herself. So again, the suffering originates not from outside, but from internal conditions. While we generally claim that someone has caused us suffering, when we really understand the essence of ourselves and the others, rather than suffering, we can see the character of human conflicts. Like that we do not consider ourselves victims, rather an observer of an unfortunate situation.

Fourthly, when we only read and study the beautiful ideas of Buddhism, it does not have any real effect on our lives. Because Buddhism is not about understanding, it is about our own experience we get in practicing Buddhism, practicing zazen. When we practice zazen, we learn not to hold on to any opinions or thoughts, so we are actually returning to our own awakened nature, and experience our own awakening. Therefore, one must clearly see the difference between understanding Buddha's beautiful ideas and their own experience of awakening. These are two completely different things! There is nothing beautiful or ugly in one's own awakening. There is no room for any thoughts, neither stupid nor wise in waking up.

Here's my last comment. Awakening is not the ultimate solution to our lives. Life itself, moment by moment, experienced honestly and directly, is the ultimate solution. Of course there is no finality here, on the other hand every moment is the last. It is not about living clearly and flawlessly, rather about stumbling over obstacles over and over again, without being afraid that we won't get anywhere. Without being proud about how far we have gone.