March 18, 2012

The Show Called Zen

This is a translation of my Czech article about the pretentious aspects of  Zen in the West.

Today I opened a book by my former teacher Roshi Kwong and in the introduction to the book  one of his students, Peter Levitt writes: "Zen masters live completely. We see it in the way they pour tea, put slippers neatly in front of the zen hall, walk down the street."  I think that this idealistic understanding of Zen masters have affected nearly all of us who have read at least three books on Zen. And it seems that there are Zen masters who really pursue something like that in their life - trying to walk very mindfully, eat mindfully, speak mindfully... how beautiful! (There is nothing wrong with mindful actions, but there is something wrong with a mental guard, mental police that checks all the time how mindfully you eat, walk, speak etc. which means you are two persons, not one, and being two people is not the goal of Buddhist efforts). But what is the real situation? I'll use the method of conversation with myself to try to answer this problem.

It is true that a Zen master lives Zen all the time and that they express something that ordinary people cannot express?

It's utter nonsense. This is our own mind's fallacy. The whole thing is very simple, much simpler than it looks based on poorly understood or poorly written books about Zen. I've thought about it and I noticed how such a delusion, such a trick works. 

It all starts with delusions about something called "enlightenment". The satori or enlightenment is mentioned a lot in Zen literature. It's not that satori would be fiction, or something nobody ever experienced,  but most readers suppose that satori is something that will radically change the quality of their life. If we read quality Zen literature, or if we are lucky enough to meet an authentic teacher, we notice that this radical change is just a return to one's everyday life.

So how can a Zen master impress so much the people around just by acting in his or her everyday life?

We can see how the trick, the magic works and how this magic is absent with some kind of teachers. For example, when you meet with Brad Warner, he is not like  a typical Zen Master.  Absolutely not. At least not the way the popular Zen literature describes such teachers. Even my teacher, Mike Luetchford  doesn't act like a fairy tale Zen master. Rather likes an experienced, confident guy.  So the trick begins when we imagine that someone enlightened experiences or goes through something special. That's nonsense. We have met or read about such typical Zen masters. What is the image of such a person and what is real about him? Let's see. I'll try to describe such a generic Zen master but don't forget it is a mixture of reality and our image. Most people will let the image obstruct the raw reality about that person and that's the problem. This person is most probably a man from  Asia. He has shaved his head, and wears a kesa, a special Buddhist garment, which is not special after all, but anyway. He spends most of the time at  a zen temple, where he plays the role of a master using a stick, speaking little, and has a few assistants who look after his stuff. So far, so good. He is perfectly wise (is he?) and can answer any kind of questions about Zen (really?). When such a person comes to Europe or the U.S., without saying a word, people feel the wisdom and enlightenment of such a person even if he hasn't arrived yet. (Some people talk about such experience, really). People go oooh, aaaah, the master is here, we can feel his presence! Or when you touch him, it deeply affects your own life and your fate is different...(I doubt that). People buy this as we are dealing with someone obviously strikingly different from all of us in the room. When the intellectuals in the room ask him naive questions about Zen he reacts with a joke or laughter or just hits the floor with his stick... his broken English is great for expressing his Zen ideas (is that so?), and he says things briefly (good for him).  All indications are that he is enlightened (more than you?) and completely different than the rest of us wannabe Zen Buddhists. He is definitely not American or British, definitely speaks strangely, is not wearing jeans and a pullover and seems quite upbeat and in a way, stupid. None of us in the room is like that, so there. That's why we call him a Zen master, right? I don't think so. When we spend some time with this person, we notice he really does most things very carefully, completely... which is impressive and that is something really valuable, it is something we could learn from him, but on the other hand Buddhism is not a competition in mindfulness or whose bowls and towels are the cleanest...   

So what is the fake part of this?  

I do not deny that such a Japanese Zen teacher could be an honest man, who for years sincerely studied and practiced Buddhism,  is doing his best to teach Europeans or Americans about true Zen. I am not even criticizing the fact that he may wear a kesa or that he has shaved his head. There is no problem with that. And I have nothing against the Japanese or Koreans, I'm not a racist. But it is necessary to distinguish between what we can see as different or exotic and what is a true Buddhist action and wisdom. 

So how do you know if someone is authentically familiar with the Buddhist experience?

This is the right question! So forget all the show, kesa, bows, incense, Japanese chanting, broken English, hitting stuff with a stick, making strange noises to answer your questions and what is left, look what is left? It isn't so easy to see what is left so let's experiment a bit. Let's strip this exotic Zen guru of his exotic props and we will see what's left. First, we'll change our master's sex. It will be a woman, then we will let her hair grow. Now we have an elderly Japanese woman with long hair. Still looks like a satori, right? Okay, so she will be an American from Nebraska. Her age still seems like wisdom, so she has to be about  30 years old. And the kesa must go. Instead she is wearing a pair of old blue Levi's and sunglasses.  So here we have a thirty-year-old, white American woman wearing jeans, shirt, someone who has a BA or MA and grew up in Nebraska. How much Zen do we have here? Not much, huh? And yet we haven't changed absolutely nothing important about this person! Even working in the office does not prevent someone from having real Zen experience. Now say this woman is sitting in Starbucks sipping her coffee, chatting with a friend. To contrast this situation, let's say an elderly Chinese man, a shaved head, wearing a brownish kesa comes into the room, sits down and has some tea. He is quite silent, looks calm and satisfied and just looks around the room.  Which of these two people will look like a Zen master?

What makes one a true Zen master then?  

What is a dentist's job? Check and drill teeth, right? When you become a professional dentist, how many people will doubt that you're a dentist? Probably no one. When you become a professional Zen Master, someone doing the Buddhist stuff in a temple, wearing kesa and shaving your head, how many people will say that you cheat? Even if you are a mid-aged white American woman, yet wearing a kesa and no hair and doing the Buddhist chores in a temple or a Zen center, bowing. burning incense, waving a stick, giving a dharma talk, etc. people will say, ok, she is a Zen teacher, at least, or a Zen priest. Only if you play a bass guitar in a punk band, wear a tattoo and talk about your broken heart and the pleasures of sex, you will be disqualified by a lot of Zen nerds or Zen fake teachers who think that Buddhism is about what you wear and how beautifully you speak about peace of mind and how quietly you drink tea. This is not my imagination, it is something I experienced many times. Of course, not as a Zen master, but as a student.

And what about Mike Luetchford, your teacher?

He plays absolutely no theater. No show for him. Absolutely none. Therefore, I fully trust him that he is someone qualified to tell people honestly what the truth of Buddhism is. To him, Buddhism (he hardly ever uses the term Zen) is not a show, rather the experience of reality here and now, the experience of our ordinary life without props, masks, games, special clothes. Mike does not have a Japanese accent, he doesn't wear kesa anywhere but the zendo, he has grown a bit of hair and beard, and he just acts normally and makes decisions according to his real experience and age. So there is nothing "zen"about him. Thanks to him I  discovered the trick, which most people take for real Zen. I somehow believed this trick, until I met Mike and also Brad. I only met Brad once at a retreat in Germany, but it was clear the two guys, Mike and Brad have something important in common - they do not play any Zen games.  We must realize that it is very easy and kind of natural to act and look like a Zen master, when we are an old bald Chinese man in patched clothes holding a stick in our hand. Who would fail to act like that once you look like that and sound like that? Actually, such old bald Chinese men who teach Zen with a stick are very, very useful and indeed in the history of Buddhism they are irreplaceable. Thanks to people like Nansen, Baso, Joshu and others, we can understand even these days, in the 21st century, that Zen is not a fairy tale, not a book, but something real, something we can express here and now with a mere stick. That's one thing, a very important aspect. But what is also important is that the image of an old Chinese master is not what makes Buddhism the real stuff it is. The real stuff is when a person, no matter how old or how dressed or how European or Asian, does something wholeheartedly here and now, expressing the Buddhist state and teaching this Buddhist state other people who want to learn about the value of such a state. We are dealing with something real, not literature or images.       Zen is not folklore or tea ceremony or discipline in the monastery, but everyday life, office, road, concert ticket, fines, anything that those old Chinese masters could not live as they just didn't live in the 21st century having credit cards and cars and air tickets. Nansen, Baso, they still experienced essentially the same everyday life we can also experience. We can experience reality completely, no matter what century it is, no matter if we are Chinese, no matter if we wear jeans or drive a family sedan.

Well, perhaps it is the difference between someone who lives in reality, and someone  who dreams about the state of enlightenment?

Well, that's the answer! Exactly that is the only difference between a Zen student and a Zen teacher. The student typically dreams about something, while the teacher has returned to reality and acts accordingly. On the other hand, not everyone who does not understand Zen is a dreamer and not every Zen master, as I have suggested above, lives a real Buddhist life, just an ordinary life without idealistic dreams.  Therefore, the Zen student has two important tasks: First, do not think the truth is somewhere else than here. Second, do not think that the Zen master lives in a different reality than what you live, just do not dream about enlightenment. Therefore, someone who lives normally, more  or less balanced life, practicing zazen every day, lives just like a Zen master. But who can appreciate such a life? Who can find the enlightenment in everyday experience? We cannot find the value of simple actions when we read books, it is necessary to meet a teacher who does not play the show. 

 I am not a Zen master, but I practice zazen in the morning and when I drive to work, I think I drive just like a Zen master, just driving, paying attention and feeling totally satisfied and happy. I can tell if I slept well, if I've had a small breakfast and coffee, and how balanced I am. I don't have to worry about my balance when the balance is there. So when we practice zazen every day we can support this energetic, balanced lifestyle and that's all there is to Zen, nothing else. Even if we fail one day, one week, we can always come back to our balanced state and fine lifestyle that has nothing to do with Zen literature but everything to do with true Buddhism, which is invisible to most people. It must be somehow invisible, otherwise it is only a show.   

March 12, 2012

Master Wanshi: Reality - Cold and Thin

I have come across a text by Master Wanshi, a Chinese master who lived before master Dogen came to China. I've tried to comment and explain what this teacher had to say about the state of realisation.  Maybe you can first read the whole Wanshi's text in italics and later read my comments.  

Empty and desireless, cold and thin, simple and genuine, this is how to strike down and fold-up the remaining habits of many lives.

Although we might not believe in past lives, we may be  sure that our past lives are those lives of our grandfathers and grandmothers whose habits and genes we inherited when we were born. We were taught on the basis of generations to look for luck and happiness, wealth and love… but we were not taught to find the simplicity of truth. So here we are facing the habits of generations who were interested in secular pleasures and forgot to teach their children to find the truth in the simplicity of this moment. How to strike down, how to drop  the mistakes piled up by generations of our ancestors? When we let go of body and mind in the instant of the simplest action where nothing is obviously full and where there is no time for desire, we are cold and serene, just like the winter night sky, we are thin like the moonbeams without emotions, simple and true, and no one can deny the fact of this instant that is beyond intellectual reasoning. Even if this may sound like death or at least complete cynicism, it is this simple fact here and now from where caring and true love springs up. By being himself or herself quite simply and coldly in this moment, the person has saved others and himself or herself from “the remaining habits of many lives”.           

When the stains from old habits are exhausted, the original light appears, blazing through your skull, not admitting any other matters.

When we sincerely act in the present, our old habits give up and when we practice zazen here and now without seeking anything, our old habits give up, too. Both acting in our everyday life and sitting in zazen, which is a simple action, make us drop the old habits in favor of our true self. When all things are dropped, the fact in front of our eyes is clear, not dim anymore, not shaded by all kinds of intellectual notions. That is the original light, the original form of things and as the old person disappears, the fact is bright, so bright that it pushes away all ideas and concepts from our brain.        

Vast and spacious, like sky and water merging during Autumn, like snow and moon having the same colour, this field is without boundary, beyond direction, magnificently one entity without edge or seam. Further, when you turn within and drop off everything completely, realisation occurs. Right at the time of entirely dropping off, deliberation and discussion are one thousand or ten thousand miles away.

This field, this situation, this time, this space, this realm of the essential fact has no limits, it cannot be measured, it cannot be compared to other facts, it cannot be grasped and evaluated, it cannot be seen or heard or explained, it has to be something real, experienced beyond subject and object. It cannot be just yours or just mine, as the usual person disappears in this realm of no categories. This experience, this realization is possible when we drop off all our matters, habits, categories, knowledge, wishes or even wisdom. This dropping off all our matters which is the realization at the same time is not something we can think about, it is done in the instant of a wholehearted action. It is also done in the instant of sincere action of zazen. This is the realization of thousands of buddhas every day, in every country, in every street, every house, but only very rarely people notice the immense value of it. In Buddhism from the beginning to the end, both beginners and masters together study, learn and experience this simple realization through zazen, and everyday life actions. They all learn the limits of words, although we cannot do without them to explain their own limited value, and the unlimited value of reality that is beyond intellectual discussions and idealistic goals. 

Still no principle is discernible, so what could there be to point to or explain? People with the bottom of the bucket fallen out immediately find total trust. So we are told simply to realise mutual response and explore mutual response, then turn around and enter the world.

Yes, there are no principles in the truth, so it cannot be explained. But it can be explained why it cannot be explained. Furthermore, we can say to ourselves and others: Go and sit down, just be active in the present moment. People with „the bottom of the bucked fallen out“ are those who have dropped off their intellectual reasoning without trying to find something external. When we are just our original self, just here and now, beyond thought, the fact, reality is so clear that there is no room for doubt. Do you doubt when somebody punches you in your nose? Do you say: I am not sure whether someone has punched me or not? Although we are not sure what caused the universe to appear or which person is wiser or more stupid, we usually have no doubts about what we just experience here and now. So once you drop all your concepts and ideas, what is in front of you becomes that which is beyond speculation, and immediately you trust the simple fact here and now. The people who do not trust what is right here and now are still deeply lost in their intellectual space. They believe ideas but are afraid to believe what is here and now. They tend to treat ideas as if they were something real and when they encounter something real, they say, „it is just a concept“.  When we just sit down and practice zazen, we don‘t have to worry whether we believe reality or not, whether we have dropped our body and mind or not, instead just by sitting actively we automatically drop our body and mind and naturaly trust the simple fact of Buddhism without having to think about it or understand it. So our Buddhist teachers tell us to „simply realise mutual response and explore mutual response, then turn around and enter the world“. Master Wanshi probably means that we are told to act in the field where subject and object reflect each other, and  experience the state where subject and object reflect each other, in other words we enter the balanced state of subject and object, at the same time we should drop this dualism of subject and object and just enter reality. Nobody really follows these steps, but these several steps happen in one unbelievably short instant of this simple action. And these steps happen over and over again, as long as we act sincerely, beyond subject and object, beyond self and others.           

Roam and play in samadhi. Every detail clearly appears before you. Sound and form, echo and shadow, happen instantly without leaving traces.

„Roam and play in samadhi“. That sounds like we could flee into some heavenly Buddhist realms. But in fact the best kind of samadhi we can ever experience is the pleasure of flushing the toilet or opening the window to get some fresh air. After all, it is not so difficult to feel balanced, to let go of our personal problems here and now, it is the best samadhi there is and we should appreciate it as it was celebrated by hundreds of our Buddhist ancestors and practiced in zazen by them day after day. In this kind of samadhi, „every detail clearly appears before you“ -  the sound of the flushing is rather poetic (as long as you like the dim magic of Jim Jarmush’s films) and the scent of the early spring evening hits our nose directly. „Sound and form, echo and shadow, happen instantly without leaving traces.“ Just what is in front of us, no matter whether it seems nice or not, loud or quiet, close or distant, is exactly present and immeditaly and completely dodging our intention to label it with names and categories. When we try to grasp it intellectually, we only grasp a trace of it. But the traces of reality may serve as a kind of direction. Buddha discovered that which leaves no traces. So let’s discover that which Buddha discovered. After observing the traces of Buddha’s discovery by studying the Buddhist philosophy, we can ourselves sit down and practice that which leaves no traces and act that which leaves no traces.

March 9, 2012

Brad Attacked Again!

It is funny, it happens over and over again, and I am glad as it points to the difference between real Buddhism and some kind of heaven idealistic stuff flying in the sky.

Brad Warner says something critical about something connected to someone famous or very much respected and people start telling him to grow up, wake up, stop criticizing others and stop being a punk or whatever they don't like about Brad. All Brad does is trying to explain what reality is and what dreams are and that reality is more important in Buddhism than our dreams about us, others and Buddhism.

Brad wrote something about how he is suspicious of the "Big Guys in Buddhism". Because Brad knows very well that fame and thousands of devoted followers doesn't make one a true Buddhist teacher. (But you still can be...but lots of those followers cannot really get to know you and only think it enough to see you in the distance and see your halo). You don't have to be in the circle of the Big Names of Buddhism to have enough authenticity to teach the truth. Even a totally unknown Buddhist teacher somewhere in the middle of Montana or Nebraska who has only two students and they practice zazen and discuss Buddhism once a week and nobody knows about them, there will be,  possibly, as much quality and genuine teaching, or more than there is in a huge Zen center in a big city or a huge historic temple where hundreds of fans try to have a glimpse of what that Oh Great Big Father or Mother had to say or do...

Somebody told Brad to point to his supposed mistake: What about Buddha Shakyamuni or Dogen, they were big names. But I think Buddha had no intention to have hundreds of devoted followers. His flower that he just twisted in his hand to show the truth just prove that he was much more interested in showing others the simple truth here and now than becoming a famous teacher or legend. And master Dogen had a small temple, as far as I know, he was not so popular during his life, on the contrary, in a way, and definitely was not interested in fame or having lots of followers.

What is the thing about being a great teacher or having lots of students? We shouldn't mistake a cult, a famous person with the truth itself, the truth itself doesn't need followers or excited audience. The truth is happy sitting in front of your ordinary self today just cleaning its fur or rubbing its eyes. And when you go online to find some great Buddhist quotes, the truth just yawns and falls asleep. When you run around the world chasing the big names of Buddhism, the truth plays with the dust under your bus seat and when you at last meet the Big One Hero in his or her Big Famous Temple, the truth is chasing the bacteria down your asshole having fun, killing time.  And when you ask the Big Enlightened Master whether he or she would be willing to explain the Big Truth to you, the truth just had a heart attack, so much it laughed rolling on the floor.

Because Buddhism is not about how great someone is. Buddhism is about the taste of the pear or the sound of the squeaking door. When we have enough courage or patience to drop all our ideas about Great Masters and Great Enlightenment, we can at last see for ourselves that after all, it doesn't take much to encounter reality. Do you think a great Buddhist teacher's pear tastes better than yours? It does, provided he or she just eats the pear while you are thinking about Great Buddhist Teachers rather than paying attention to what the Pear is teaching you with its taste.

If we are sincerely interested in Buddhism, we need a teacher, someone who will help us drop the idealistic opinions of Buddhism and famous Buddhist teachers. If we cannot believe that  the truth is just turning the flower for which you don't need to encounter a famous master let alone become one, as turning the flower has nothing to do with big names, history, famous temples, masters or hard practice day and night, we desperately need a teacher, someone who knows the value of dust and ordinary daily zazen of ordinary buddhas. Someone who will guide us when we try to see the difference between what we only imagine and what actually sits on our nose causing some unbearable itch.