February 25, 2021

Mother Universe Breastfeeds her Baby

There is something we call the universe. We sometimes forget that we are always a part of this universe. We cannot jump out of the universe. We don't know exactly what the universe is, but nobody can deny that it is something and that we are a part of it. Most people usually forget that they are not separate from this universe. They forget that they are never separate from that which exists independently on our individual existence. 

When we practice zazen and let go of body and mind, that means when we let go of "myself", this separate "self", then that mysterious thing called the universe, which is something we don't have a clear definition of, this so called universe grabs you and returns you to itself, like a mother reaching for a baby and putting it to her breasts. So when we let go of that individual self while practicing zazen, the universe acts like a mother who takes her baby back to her breasts and feeds it. So instead of  "become one with the universe" we could say "go back to your mother, mother Universe". Of course, when a baby is held at her mother's breasts, the baby is still a baby. At the same time, it becomes one with her mother. So there is nothing special about shin jin datsu raku, letting go of body and mind, it is just like coming back to your mother, and becoming one with your mother. So whether you call it spiritual or not, it doesn't matter. What matters is that you really let go, when practicing zazen, let go of the notion "I am separate, I am individual, I am somebody else". When the baby gets milk, when it is nourished, the baby refreshes and is really happy and alive. That's what we can experience when we practice zazen - we return to our universal mother and get nourishment and then we become alive, happy and balanced.       

To say "I want to become one with the universe", or "I want to have spiritual experience" or "I want to attain enlightenment", is all unnecessary.  Instead we have to let go of that "I" and just sit. Just sit doesn't mean I just sit. it means just sit without I. Shikantaza does not mean "I just sit", it means "just sit". So shikantaza is not individual. When we just sit and let go of "I sit", we naturally let the universe grab us, feed us, look after us and nourish us. 

Kodo Sawaki said "You don't practice zazen, zazen practices you." That means zazen takes care of you, it looks after you, zazen is not something that only you practice, in fact zazen is the essential principle of the mysterious universe. "Zazen practices you" means that the universe comes back to you and looks after you so you don't have to  try hard, you don't have to do anything, you just sit in the correct posture and let go. Like that zazen practices you. 

So instead of attaining enlightenment, enlightenment grabs you. It fills your heart, it fills your body and mind and you become you. You become you because you were willing to let go of the rigid, fixed self  that is separate from the universe. So when we practice zazen and let go of the fixed self, everything returns to its original state.   

February 20, 2021

The Flip Side of the Coin


I have written an article about polarity in Buddhism in Czech and used Google Translate to get a decent English version. Of course, I corrected a few nonsense details, and I hope the result makes sense now. Although I could write a better version in better English, I hope it is sufficient for now. 

When we study and practice the Buddha's path, we sometimes tend to slip to some pole in things that have two sides, without those sides being able to exist on their own. I would like to outline a list (certainly incomplete) of such aspects of the Path that are inherently incorrectly polarized by humans and why it is important that we do not slip to just one pole.


Tradition versus modern science

Buddha Gautama lived about two and a half thousand years ago. Before he was born, various philosophers and people lived in India who tried to achieve some ideal state through practice. The Buddha followed the philosophy that was known in his time and transcended it. He came up with his own philosophy and practice. But, of course, we must realize that thanks to yogis, he learned to practice in the lotus position, and thanks to Indian philosophy at the time, he had material that he could transform, but he was based on that material. He also tried to explain the psychology of man. Today's science knows much more about man, we have much more accurate information about how the body, the nervous system, the brain work ... but even modern science cannot explain everything yet. It cannot explain how the brain works in all its details, it does not fully understand human psychology, nor can it explain the origin or meaning of the universe. So, on the one hand, we have traditional philosophy and practice - we are based on the basic philosophy of how our ancestors understood the Buddha's teachings and passed it on to this day. It is the transmission of tradition - philosophy and practice. On the other hand, this philosophy was constantly subjected to new trials and stimuli from those cultures where the Buddha's teachings spread. So Buddhist philosophy is a living organism that still has the same basis, but is constantly changing - without destroying its essential basis. Science can help us understand how man behaves, how the body works, and how it relates to the traditional philosophy of Buddhism and our practice of zazen. But science is not omnipotent - we also need tradition. On the other hand, if we do not understand that tradition is not a rigid bone, but a living organism, tradition will be useless to us. To this day, some Christians claim that God created the world in six days. What will a believing biologist, a believing mathematician, say? Scientists who happen to believe in God claim that things like God creating the world within seven days is a beautiful metaphor, but nonsense, from the scientific point of view. Some Christians hate Pope Francis because he does not condemn homosexuals. They insist that homosexuality is against human nature. But Pope Francis refuses to ridicule his faith by ignoring facts confirmed by science - so he respects the reality of the present world in its complexity and he respects scientific knowledge. There are Buddhists in Asia who believe similar nonsense – they insist that one cannot be a Buddha ... except after death. This means that a tradition has stiffened and is not alive any more. This is the death of religion. Once a living faith and living practice became convulsions and unstoppable stupidity. Not to mention hatred ... However, we have to start from something. We start from the fact that the Buddha practiced zazen and taught how to attain the truth, ie how to become a real, true person. That doesn't change. The means change - the appearance of the rooms where we practice, what clothes we wear, what languages ​​we express ourselves ... it changes according to the culture in which the Path appears. We must therefore find a balance between a tradition that needs to be valued and a modern, contemporary approach - that is, we must present the tradition in a way that is adequate for the present. What is essential? Zazen and the basic teachings of dharma. People who want to pass on the original teachings of Buddha must depend on the two pillars -  practice of zazen and the basic teachings of dharma. Those are the two pillars – practice and philosophy.


The universe versus what is right in front of me

These are two poles where different people tend to promote each other at the expense of the other. The universe means something universal, so it is something we all have in common. (Latin universum (“all things, as a whole, the universe”), neuter of universus (“all together, whole, entire, collective, general, literally turned or combined into one”), from uni-, combining form of unus (“One”) + versus (“turned.”)  We all come, we all appeared in the background of something universal, something that unites us all, so we all go back to the One. Uni - one, versum - turned. The universe is space that applies to everyone, to every being and to every thing. There is no world, there is not a single grain of dust in the whole universe that can break free from the universe. We people are mostly busy with our individual problems, we want to solve our own lives, our own worries, our own pains, our own samadhi, our own enlightenment ... but we forget that from the universe's point of view we are no more than a random cell that appeared to disappear again in a moment.The Buddha's teaching means that one person does not mean much, on the other hand, what is right now - the moment in which we do something is the only tangible expression of what is universal! So no universe exists without something really manifesting here and now, it has shown. Here and now there is something concrete, alive, but at the same time it is against the background of something that is intangible, because it is completely universal. When we say that nothing matters, because we are basically just dust and transience, we must not forget the second opposite - we are also a concrete form that has appeared in the universe. Except for man, all beings and things in the universe are always in harmony with the truth. They never act out of reality. Only man has lost the ability to remain naturally in harmony with the universe because of his complicated thinking. Therefore, it is our task to return to the core of things and to express and behave in such a way that it is in accordance with the order of the universe. But one cannot exist without the other. When I forget about myself, I remember having to do something for another person. But when I help others with the idea that I am an exclusive, good person, I lose touch with my origins, I forget that everyone is basically good, and I very quickly become a scumbag. When we rely only on ourselves, sooner or later we will be exhausted because we are not drawing energy and wisdom from the universe. But if we only cling to the fact that everything is One and try to attain some states of samadhi without also taking care of the bills, cooking, cleaning, neighbors and their well-being, then we are just a spiritual kind of selfish person. So neither clinging to the universe nor forgetting our origins. A fish that wants to deny that it is part of the ocean would be a fool. But a fish that would try to dissolve in the endless waters of the ocean so that it wouldn't have problems would be the biggest fool in the entire ocean. When we practice zazen, there is naturally a balance between being initially empty and universal, without special qualities or opinions - and being specific people with a particular body and sitting in some particular position - so we are living buddhas, manifesting awakening in such a way that that we return this particular body to its origin without killing it - that's why we can sometimes move easily, we can scratch our noses ... So there is a balance between what is perfect and incomparably deep, and what is our imperfect,  a crooked but completely true body.


Satori versus illusion

Some people think that when they reach the satori, they will understand everything and nothing will deceive them. I do not know of any master in Zen history who claims to have overcome his or her delusions. But especially in Master Dogen's tradition, in our line, the emphasis is not on removing delusions, but on clearly seeing that thoughts arise in our minds that are not reality but mere delusions. We have to see that. On the one hand, there is an unhealthy desire for enlightenment - on the other hand, there is an unhealthy laziness. Just because someone has read somewhere that delusions do not need to be destroyed does not mean that we will not try to awaken to reality in the midst of delusions. The teachings of the old masters and the practice of zazen remind us again and again where we confused a painted cake with a real cake. At any moment, we have the opportunity to replace delusions with reality - instead of thinking, just go and make coffee, or get dressed, or sweep the floor. We do not need any satori for this, on the contrary, such action is living satori, that is, satori that we should be concerned with - not solving our delusions  and enlightenment, but acting awakened - instead of analyzing what dust consists of wipe this dust. Instead of discussing enlightenment, implement this enlightenment in a specific action here and now. So waking up is important - but only if that's what we're doing at the moment. Awakening that does not concern this moment is an unnecessary dream. Satori, which does not directly concern us at this time when we do not have time to think about satori, is living satori. When we forget our opinions, we can notice that nature has perfect satori at every moment. So when we are as real as nature, we will live an awakened life. Awakened life means - because I realize that I basically know nothing and that I create nonsense most of the time, I prefer to go and make tea. This is an awakened life.


Effort and casualness

We can't try to land on Mars tomorrow. But today, at this point, we can take the first small step on the way to Mars. Kodo Sawaki said of himself that in his youth he tried to train harder than his companions and that he tried his best to achieve satori. When he became wise in time, he realized that this was not the way. We wake up in the morning and practice zazen. That in itself is a pretty big effort. Further effort is useless, even harmful. Today we can only do what we can do today. And when we do what we do today sincerely and honestly, we have already achieved our greatest goal - we have become a true part of the universe. On the other hand, when we put it off or say that it is enough to practice lying down or once a year, we do not understand how important it is to devote our hearts every day to practice, the spirit of dharma. Every day is a festival of dharma. If you are a Christian, you may not be interested in dharma, but you can experience dialogue with God every day. This means that you are sincerely trying - it is not about the results, but about how open your heart is, which is reflected in your dealings with other people and the like. However, back to the Buddha - which day do we want to express the truth of the Buddha's teachings than if not today? Which zazen expresses the Buddha's awakening if not the one we are practicing? We can only try at this moment. We can't try tomorrow, we couldn't try yesterday, it's too late. Only at this moment do things happen. If we have faith in the Buddha's dharma, we must realize that dharma is something that is practiced right now. Sometimes we meet at  retreats - to remember what we may have forgotten - the teacher can remind us why we practice and what we practice. When we practice with others, our delusions - which we do not see when we are alone - can become clear. I remember that ├Ąt my first  Zen retreats, almost everyone got on my nerves. And I was annoyed by sutras and the exact way of eating and handling bowls. Korean names for everything got on my nerves. In a few years, I stopped caring, but the master got on my nerves. Later I found a better teacher. He didn't get on my nerves, but I was afraid of him. When you do not come into contact with the teacher, you will not find out what is haunting your head. Is it good to have all sorts of problems and disputes with the teacher - this is a test of your authenticity - are you willing to admit that you are dreaming about yourself or your teacher? A teacher is definitely an ordinary person who tries to live every day over again. That does not mean that he or she never fails. Anyway, each moment is a new chance to do something good.   


Knowledge versus the wisdom of the child

There are people who think that they cannot practice the Way unless they know all the sutras, understand the meaning of all Indian and Japanese Buddhist terms, know calligraphy, be proficient in the tea ceremony, etc. This is great nonsense. We need to have some sort of overview of the basic teachings, but if we confuse the Buddha's teachings with an academic degree, we are completely off the mark. Gautama spoke all the words with a desire for his disciples to be able to become themselves - to be as clean as an unwritten sheet of paper, to be spontaneous and true as a three-year-old girl. Master Dogen exhorts us to respect every being who expresses the truth, because such a being is a true Zen master, be it a seven-year-old girl, or a fox or a stone wall. Yes, even walls and paths and mountains are beings, they are living beings because they are a living system that changes dynamically just like everything that has appeared in the cosmos. So we should study the words of the old masters so that we can break free from the words of the old masters and thus express for ourselves what is true and alive. So let's study with an open mind, let's not draw any intellectual conclusions, but rather make sure you arent late for work. And we can always laugh at ourselves and our stupidity.


Mystery versus recognition  

The Buddha's teaching does not celebrate mystery, in other words Buddha does not claim that we cannot find the truth, nor does it confirm that the truth can be found through reasoning. Still, although we cannot find the truth thanks to reasoning, we can still be a true person. However, the truth, as taught to the Buddhas, will always be impossible to attain through reason. In Czech we say “My reason got stuck as for that.” How do you say that in English? "I am totally baffled"?  When Buddha turned a flower in his fingers to show clearly what his teachings are, no one understood, only Mahakashyapa smiled. That makes us baffled, we might say. What does turning a flower in your fingers mean? What secret did the Buddha hide from us? And what did Mahakashyapa hide from us when he smiled? The two must have been whispering before this famous meeting took place. But Gautama did not hide anything from anyone! He just turned the flower in his fingers! Where is anything hidden here? And Mahakasjapa did not hide anything either – as Buddha’s  turning a flower in his fingers amused him, he smiled. When you tickle the baby on the leg, she starts laughing. If you don't feedd her for a long time, she'll start crying. Where is any secret? Where is the mystery? However, our reason would like to define it somehow, it would like to find some tangible, measurable proof of "truth." Some people say they don't believe in God because God just can't be proven. And at the same time, people who are mathematicians or physicists, for example, say that they do not believe in a God that should be proved - they believe in a God who is mysterious, far from reason ... At the same time, they have a kind of intimate relationship with this God. So we, if we are interested in dharma, we can have a vivid dialog with and experience an intimate relationship with flowers, children, winter, spring,  wind, frost, sun, water ... We can believe that in every single living unit of the cosmos there is hidden secret, the truth. We can keep this secret a secret and enjoy how it manifests itself beautifully to us, as it is shown to us at individual moments of the day. A believer perceives God as shown to her in various manifestations of nature or daily life, or in other people ... If we are interested in the teachings of the Buddha, we must understand that the dharma that the Buddha taught is not something that can be scientifically described. But it is something that can be practiced, sensed, cultivated, perceived, honored, protected, awakened in oneself. We don't have to understand everything. It's enough that it's here alive and kicking. 




October 31, 2020

A glass of Verduzzo

Here is an article I wrote in Czech last March. (As I was working on the translation I changed a few things, including the title, as in English I tend to think a little bit differently and sticking to the Czech original sounded strange. So it is edited and not a word-by-word translation. Plus I  would like to add a short introduction. 

This article was originally called Dharma Is Always Here. What do I mean by the term Dharma? Probably, when you started to study and practice Buddhism, one of the first things you came across, were the categories Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. I think most people know that “dharma” means Buddha’s teaching. But when you study Buddhism for some time, you may find out that dharma also means reality or law or similar things. So when I use the word dharma, I mean Buddha’s teaching in its essence. Not the volume of his sayings or rules or statements, but the very thing, the essential thing he wanted to pass to others, the flower he turned in his fingers. So by dharma I mean the essence of Buddha’s teaching, which is often called simply dharma.

Another thing I would like to say before we look at the article itself is that we have a dilemma in Buddhism. Should Buddhism be explained simply and clearly so everyone can quickly understand what Buddha taught or should it be explained in a lot of strange, sometimes poetic, sometimes mystical images, metaphors, should it be confusing and challenging, should it try to shatter our intellect so in the end we have no clue what Buddhism is? It seems a simple, clear explanation would be best. But why did so many Buddhist teachers in the past use strange images, metaphors, complicated essays, contradictions and sometimes complete nonsense to express the truth Buddha found? I think we cannot naively hope that Buddhist teaching can be summed up in a few simple statements. Even if we sum it up in something like Four Noble Truths, what can we do with such a summary? Will it help us to realise what Buddha realised? I don’t think so. We sometimes need a simple summary. What is Zen? Zen is ordinary life. Simple and clear. But a second after you happily accept this statement, your intellectual mind might come up with a question. What is ordinary life? Is this mess in the kitchen or on the floor my ordinary life? Are my arguments with my wife and children ordinary life? Is trying to make a bit more money ordinary life? Some will say, yes, of course, all these things are real, so I am living a Buddhist life. Great. I don’t think it is as simple as that. In Zen we need to get over our limited understanding of the world and get over our limited self. To understand “my life is difficult” or “my life is amazing” is not enough. I have to shatter such ideas myself every day, over and over again.  Instead of such simplistic understanding of oneself and one’s life, Buddha offered dharma… the truth itself. The Buddhist truth. Now it is not easy to understand what he meant by the truth, let alone practice this truth in our lives. You can disagree. But what I think or what you think is not the point…

Here is the (edited) article I wrote in March:  

There are two kinds of spirituality. One is one that helps us personally. We don't care if the neighbour suffers, especially if we are happy. Of course, doing something for ourselves is not always selfish, on the contrary, but we often do these things primarily to help ourselves. We go to meditation classes, yoga, taichi and similar things to achieve peace and harmony. This kind of individualistic practice is not what Buddha meant. Sorry.

Then there is spirituality, where we must give up trying to achieve something personal, although that does not mean we neglect our essential needs. We eat, sleep, wash, try to maintain our health. This is, of course, very important in a time of pandemic, because our health equals the health of others and vice versa. But dharma that Buddha taught is not here so that we become  happy, harmonious, and enlightened as individuals. That’s why Kodo Sawaki often attacks people who are interested in satori. Personal satori or enlightenment is useless, it is actually something that kills true dharma, it has nothing to do with Buddha’s teaching. You can have a personal breakthrough experience, but if it is useful at all, you will see it is useless unless you clearly see it is not yours or for you, it belongs to the universe and has to be returned to the universe immediately. Because dharma is independent on such personal achievements, dharma is where your personal profit really does not exist at all. So what does Dharma mean to us when it is nothing that a person could profit from? What is it and why should we practice and realize dharma in our lives?

The pandemic shows us that the world of people with their games, desires, opinions, successes and failures is something dharma doesn’t care about. Some people get infected, some don't, some die, some die young, some old. It is something dharma has no opinion of. Dharma is not a god who wants to give us signals or directions. Dharma is perfectly cynical when compared to God. Why should we study and practice something that is not interested in our well-being? Because dharma is the only thing that is left here when we throw away all people's opinions and values. You could lose interest in dharma, because the world of people is full of  beautiful things, values, nobility, wisdom, art, education, problem solving, consolation and pleasure. Should we give up such a fascinating world? There is an interesting paradox. The most wonderful things people created and experience are supported by dharma. But also the worst, the most horrible things are supported by dharma. Without dharma, you get illusions, ideas. In dharma, you get what there is without your opinions. When you let go of illusions and ideas, the beauty is still there, the pain is still there.  But it is free of human mind. It is not your beauty or her beauty, it is not your pain or their pain, it is just pain.  So when we let go of the human aspect of reality, we have genuine reality, intact, this is a kind of freedom you can only experience when you are willing  to let go of everything that comes up in your mind. Then everything is pure dharma.   

The Buddha attained the awakening to this dharma where there is no longer a human evaluation of things, no evaluation of anything, there is no more me versus you, truth versus lie, good versus evil. At this point, there is nothing to say -  otherwise you add horns to a rabbit. Although there is nothing to say about dharma, Buddha decided to teach this dharma and he used a lot of words. He knew the words would never express dharma perfectly, but he needed a method to pass the truth he found. Later turning a flower in his fingers he used an action and it expressed dharma perfectly. So sometimes talking, sometimes acting he taught something we call dharma. Many people mistakenly believe Buddha was enlightened. When Buddha arrived at the truth he could see the truth is just here and now and everyone is enlightened. Now we know this is not so easy to grasp but we need to grasp this fact and express this fact in our everyday lives. We need to turn flowers and lift fingers without imitating anyone or feeling “enlightened”.

When you tell a child that bitter medicine is sweet, you try to help them to swallow the pill - it's for the good of the child. So when the Buddha began to teach others, he could not behave like some Chinese teachers and shout or wave a stick in the air. He was in India. Buddha started very positively. And throughout his work, the Buddha taught very positively. That was his style. When he saw that his disciples were too spiritual, he poured cold water on them (figuratively speaking). When they seemed to have an opinion on the dharma, he refuted it. And so all Buddhist teachers try to give directions to the truth, sometimes talking, sometimes acting, sometimes being quiet practising zazen.

Of course, this does not mean that we will not have opinions within the human world. I have a lot of opinions. But in zazen I flush them down the toilet, I flush myself, I revive myself, I return to the dharma, that which is here without my opinion, and so I am born again and again, every day, hopefully many times a day, whenever my silly ideas don't possess me. When dharma takes over, the whole universe is without a mistake. In that universe, nothing needs to be improved.   But we must encourage people to try and deepen their understanding of themselves and the world, otherwise they will never understand why everything is already perfect. Our ability to get over ourselves and make a bold step into the truth here and now is the most important skill we have. Even if we cannot appreciate this ability yet, we can rely on the fact that essentially we don’t have to add anything to our body and mind in order to become true people. On the other hand, when we let our thinking eat away our awakened energy, the joy of buddhas is imprisoned behind a thick wall.     

Now let's put it into practice: Let's forget what I wrote and have a glass of Verduzzo. Or a glass of whatever you find in the kitchen. 


June 25, 2020

Where can we buy the Moon?

We know that Buddha, after attaining the truth, said that with him all beings and things attained the truth. In other words, he realized that the truth is universal and nobody can say that they, individually, possess the truth, or know the truth. Buddha discovered the truth which is right here and everywhere you go whenever you go. That's why it is so awkward to call this truth Buddhist or Buddha's or enlightenment, if this truth is really absolutely independent on people, or specific religions. We say Buddhism as if there was some kind of specific Buddhist truth that is different from Christian truth or sports truth or meteorological truth. But although the truth is clearly universal and independent on people's opinions and philosophies, we need a language, a Christian language, or Buddhist language or mathematical language to communicate what the truth is so we can maintain the heritage of authentic recognition of the truth, which is impossible without a suitable linguistic system.

Although the truth is universal and everyone's inherent experience, that doesn't mean that everyone can recognize this universal truth. So we definitely need the right tools to find the truth and maintain this experience. Buddhism has its suitable language and tools, Christianity has its suitable language and tools, science has its language and tools.  But languages and tools are only the link between us and the truth. If a religion is a tool, be it, but it can never, the tool, become the truth, as much as a knife cannot become meat and a spoon cannot become soup. If we are warned about religious intoxication, it is a warning not to eat knives and spoons. And we should definitely not replace our experience of the truth with intellectual discussions that only lead to intellectual conclusions. So which is more authentic - to define the truth or pass the spoons? To define mathematics or solve a mathematical problem?  When we speak about buddhas, we have to be careful as not to invent ideas that have nothing to do with our actual experience. Our experience of buddhas is incredibly valuable, but this experience can be easily corrupted with our intellectual discussions about it. That's why intellectual discussions are not encouraged during sesshins, whereas physical work is.

A few days ago I went to a talk given by a Theravada teacher. Someone in the audience mentioned "the truth". The teacher raised his eyebrows and said: "Did you say truth? Isn't that exactly the word that causes wars and bloodshed? Please, don't use that word!"  Of course, the teacher warned the audience that the term truth may be understood very differently by different groups of people and cause hatred and violence. But in our tradition, we are pretty bold and we hope that if we clearly explain that the truth is really nobody's possession and is absolutely universal, then there is no need to argue whose truth is better. Buddha's truth is really beyond mine and yours, ours and theirs, it is not only Buddha's truth, it is the truth we know already. That is the point Buddha needed to clarify. To clarify the difference between his question "What is the truth?" and his actual experience, which is really everybody's original experience. 

We should realize that we are civilized and spiritual beings. By spiritual I mean someone who has realized that there is more depth to life than money, sex and social status, so our spiritual experience means that we have already transcended the level of insects, birds and cows, so we should act accordingly. That means - do not ruin your spiritual experience by making it your private possession.  If your spiritual experience is authentic, then you can see it all around,  and in others, too. This sky, this sun, is it yours or is it ours? If it is ours, nobody can say that they possess the sun. The whole of  Japanese Zen poetry is about observing nature, or noticing one's sadness and loneliness, or one's joy because the water is fresh and the spring has come. There is no need for fame or profit if you are really intimate with nature.

Master Dogen's teaching about fame and profit is beautifully expressed in the very poems of wandering Zen monks. Although they had hardly any money, and nothing to boast, they indeed had much closer relationship with the moon and the stars than the wealthy and successful. Having forgotten their past spiritual experience, the wandering monks enjoyed playing with grass and frogs.

April 23, 2020

The Misfit

I don't understand people. When I was a kid, I used to sit in the corner, alone, not lonely, just sitting alone and observing something. Then I looked at the other kids in the room and didn't understand their games. I didn't fit. But I didn't care. I had my own games. I am 53 years old and I am still the same kid. I love being on my own. Observe things. I go cycling alone. I love to look at people, but keep them at bay. When I start talking to them, something always goes wrong, it is a mess.  I do love people, especially women. Because they make a bit more sense than men to me. But I am always happy when I can be alone again.

When you look at the first paragraph, you will find 14 "I"s. That's because I am so very egocentric. I don't think that is necessarily a bad thing. It is not being selfish. It is looking at the world around me from my own perspective. I love helping others. I am a teacher at high school and you cannot imagine how happy I feel when I can see the kids are enjoying the lesson and are learning something. But I am alone there. They are the bunch, I am the oddball.

When I was a kid I used to watch walls before going to sleep. If God exists, he must have decided to make me a wall watcher. I remember staring at walls for hours, when I was in hospitals, before going to sleep, I would find all kinds of strange shapes and patterns on the walls. So now sitting in front of a wall is so natural for me. But when you practice zazen you don't observe patterns or lines or anything. I don't, unless it is a very long retreat, but I don't go to such long retreats anymore. Anyway, sitting alone, even if you are among other practitioners, is extremely natural for me. I know sitting without moving in front of a wall must feel silly or useless for many people who try zazen for the first time, but for me it is just my second nature. I just sit and feel happy. Of course, I had all kinds of periods during my Buddhist life, looking for something, trying to keep something, trying to prove something, trying to hide something, all kinds of things, but in between it was just that simple zazen that I somehow practiced even as a kid and felt as balanced as it gets. Mike Luetchford says that zazen is practicing balance. To me this balance is the balance of not talking, rather observing, not reaching out, not waiting for something, just being here, in the middle of the universe. Maybe we are not in the middle of the universe, but basically we are. Everything in the universe is always in the middle of the universe. That's the balance, so you don't fall over, into a black hole or abyss or hell. You sit straight, not waiting, not hoping, not escaping, not falling over, not hiding, not seeking, just sitting in the middle of the universe, together with spiders, flies, rocks, stars, galaxies... this is how I felt when I was a little kid. So that's where my egocentric attitude came from. But these days I think practicing zazen, waking up, being a buddha, means we are responsible for the balanced situation in the universe, we are truly in the middle of it and the universe depends on our balance. And we depend on the balance of the universe. When we watch carefully, the universe is always balanced, but then it is our turn to become balanced. So in zazen the universe and I am balanced, together. So everything in the world is balanced at that moment. It is the primary point, the original situation before we were born, and it is also the purpose of practice, to return to that original situation.

You see, the way I explain zazen may be very complicated and philosophical, but after all it is practiced with this crooked body, with my crooked ribs, my feet that go to sleep, my sensitive tendons, my badly curved spine. I talked about the universe, but this body is the real expression of the universe, it comes from the deepest storehouse of the universe. It is as good as a spider's body and as sacred. So let's not let our human mind get in the way. Let's just sit down and see what happens. See where we come from and where we belong truly, before we think about it. I am not very empathetic, I don't understand others. But in Zen, luckily for me, you don't have to understand others, you just have to be truly yourself, whatever you see, you see, whatever you don't get, you don't get. Spiders are not ducks and ducks are not eagles. I am, essentially, the kid that doesn't fit. But I am sure we all fit into the universal symphony. We somehow fit. Everyone fits differently. Even if you feel you don't fit, you do fit. Just don't wrestle with the universe and you will fit naturally. As for society, that is impossible, you may get along with others wonderfully, but there are still people who will hate you. Societies are hopeless compared to the universe. The universe does not judge. So to sit down and stop talking is a way to go back to where we all belong, no matter if we are alive or dead. And if you make friends with the universal silence, you are never never alone. I remember clearly, when I was three or five, I was never alone. In the middle of the bedroom, watching mountains out of the window, I was in a very good company. Never alone.


April 21, 2020

About the Teachings with Mike Luetchford

Some time ago I thought I could do an interview with my teacher Mike Luetchford about things I consider important for someone who is interested in Buddhist practice and study. Mike Luetchford often talked about or at least mentioned these topics in his talks I listened to for more than ten years and I should know his opinions by now, but as for me, I want to learn from experienced people repeatedly - what we knew yesterday may be something we need to learn again today - and the readers of this blog might just want to know my teacher's answers to these questions.

What does Buddhism offer that other philosophies or activities don't?

Increasingly, I feel that the term “Buddhism” with all its religious connotations is not always helpful. For more than 2000 years, the teachings have been protected from dilution and distortion in a vessel that has been called “Buddhism”. But increasingly, that vessel has started to limit what we understand from the teachings, which are about life itself, and not restricted to a religion or to within a particular group of people. Increasingly in today’s world, we are coming to understand what life is about, how the universe is and how it works. And this understanding is no longer restricted to within a limited group of adherents. So I would like to use the term “the teachings” to describe what it is that formed the original teachings and what teachers and students have studied and practiced.

These teachings that have been passed on from teacher to teacher are not exclusive. This means that they don’t teach something that no one else knows about or has experienced. The teachings point to the way things are, and help us to see reality as it is. They emphasise things that everyone has experienced but not noticed clearly. They teach us what is important in living. Although the teachings are ancient, modern science in all its forms is confirming those teachings.

What is the meaning of truth / attaining the truth in Buddhist philosophy and practice?

In English, the word “truth” suggests abstract knowledge about the way things are. In the teachings, the term “truth” is used to point to or label something that is neither abstract nor concrete, but real. Finding out what is real is what is meant by “attaining the truth.”

How important is it to have a Buddhist teacher if we want to study and practice Buddhism? What kind of relationship is it that a Buddhist teacher has with a student? What is beneficial and what is not?

If you want to study “Buddhism” then you need a “Buddhist” teacher. However, the “truth” belongs to everyone, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. Everything is teaching us the truth of life, the way things are. Unfortunately, human beings are very slow learners, and because we have highly developed intellects, we need intellectual explanations to explain and clarify the truth that we are being taught by everything around us at every moment. We need to find another human being who can communicate to us what life is about. If we can find a person or people who do that, we feel that we are receiving something important and valuable from them. So there is some kind of closeness between the person teaching, the teacher, and the person receiving, the student. The most important thing is that the communication between these two people is honest, without pretence and open to verification.

Why is it important to practice zazen every day?

The practice of zazen forms the centre of the teachings. When we sit in the balanced posture of zazen, we make ourselves balanced – both mentally and physically. Or more accurately, we allow the mental and physical aspects of who we are to integrate into the one whole being who is sitting. This balance between mental and physical is what is meant by the expression “the middle way”. And it can be explained in many different ways. Balance between body and mind, balance between love and hate, balance of the autonomic nervous system that regulates our bodily functions. The posture itself is balanced. When we are balanced, our thoughts and feelings settle, and we can access the wisdom that all living beings possess and which is called “prajna” in the teachings. Pra means before and jna means consideration. So pra-jna means before consideration, which suggests the condition in which we are not biased by over-thinking or over-feeling, but we act directly with our whole being. In the West, we have historically not valued acting before thinking. Our culture has taught us to think before we act so that our action will be right. We have given more importance to thinking than to acting directly. The teachings tell us to practice zazen every day to maintain this state in which we act directly out of the balanced state. In our daily lives, we lose our balance frequently, so to maintain balance we need to practice balance at regular intervals, like ringing a bell to keep the sound vibrating.

Does zazen have a goal?

Well, it sounds strange to say it, but the goal of zazen is to give up having a goal. To drop off all thoughts and images in our mind and to sit quietly without a goal. To achieve this goal-less goal, we practice every day.

Are Buddhist monasteries unnecessary in the West?

It must have been difficult for our ancestors to find the time and space to reflect on their lives and practice balance in times when survival itself required all their efforts and energy. In modern times, almost everyone has a certain amount of leisure time in which they can do what they want to do, separate from mere survival. With effort, almost everyone is able to find the time to practice balance and study. It is no longer necessary to live in a monastery separate from society to do this. But if some people are happier living apart from life in society to practice and study, then they can form monasteries for this purpose.

Is it important to study Buddha's original teachings?

It seems that the Buddha’s original teachings were oral, and a written record was not made until around 400 years after the Buddha’s death. In addition, the teachings were first written down in Pali, one of the dialects of ancient India related to Sanskrit. Studying the oldest records of the Buddha’s teachings, known collectively as the Pali Cannon, has been the work of scholars, with good translations into English only appearing within the last 50 years. If you like scholarship, then studying these original teachings can be a way to see how the teachings were communicated in ancient India. And books written by those scholars can tell the rest of us what those teachings looked like. But there is a difference between studying the original teachings, and putting the essence of those teachings into practice in our own lives.

Is it important to study and understand master Dogen's Shobogenzo?

To study and understand Dogen’s Shobogenzo is a lifetime’s work. He wrote in medieval Japanese and classical Chinese. If you want to devote your life to that study, then you can learn what he taught in its original form. Now there are at least seven translations into English and other major European languages, including French, German and Spanish. But what is important is to realise what it is that he taught, and this is different from studying his writings.

The teachings are not what is written. For this reason, the teachings have always been passed from person to person – teacher to student – down through the ages. We cannot learn these teachings only from books because they are about life itself, reality itself. Books can help us understand intellectually, they can point us towards the the truth of life, but without practicing and experiencing, we can never realise that truth in our own lives.

How important are everyday actions and how should we act?

Our everyday actions ARE our life. The story we tell ourselves about our life is just that – a story. Our real life is composed of everyday actions in time present. The fact that we don’t seem to experience our lives like that is because for much of the time we live in the world of our mind, in which there is a past, a present and a future. But in fact there is only the time of our present action. To act in a balanced and sincere way is all we can do. It is not easy to know whether our action in this moment is right, or will have good results, and in fact we can never know this. We practice balance every day so that we can act in this moment in a balanced way, and that is the best we can do. Rather than judging our actions or trying to work out what is best to do, this simple attitude frees us from mental suffering and gives us freedom to act.

How should we approach the numberless spiritual ways we come across in the globalized world? Can we benefit from wisdom ( if there is any) of people who teach these things?

There are many spiritual teachings in today’s worlds, and you can find many spiritual teachers on the Internet. Although their teachings may sound attractive, the criterion has to be – do they work in my life? Reality is not only spiritual. It is the union of the physical and the mental. So teachings that only address the spiritual side of reality are only partial.

What is your opinion of religion in general?

The word “religion” can be broken down into “re-“ which means “again” or “back” and the Latin verb “ligeo” which means “to bind or tie”. So one way of interpreting the word “religion” is “to bind ourselves back again”. Well, if we interpret that to mean “to tie ourselves back to reality” or “to ground ourselves back in reality”, then the teachings are a religion. But most religions are partial, because they are based only in the spiritual aspect of reality. So they are incomplete as a way of living.

What is your opinion of romantic love?

Romantic love is wonderful while it lasts. We feel as if we have found the missing part of ourselves in someone else, and we feel complete, whole, safe and happy. But it doesn’t last. We can enjoy it while we are in it, while we are in love, but sooner or later we will have to climb out again. We don't need to avoid romantic love, but we should notice that it is a wonderful but transient state of delusion.

Is it necessary to see the difference between dreams and reality clearly and is it possible?

The story which we take to be our life is like a dream. Reality is just this moment. So when we are living in our story, we are in a dream. Because we cannot experience the momentary nature of existence within our minds, much of the time we are living in a dream. We practice zazen to experience the simple momentary nature of reality, to come out of the dream. Although we are living in a dream, we are dreaming our dream in this very moment of the present. We can notice that reality is momentary but we live in a dream.

Is suffering necessary in our lives even if we practice and study the Way diligently?

It isn’t necessary to avoid suffering. If we practice balance, then we can see pain for what it is, and live with it. When we are suffering, it is usually because we don’t see the simple situation for what it is. When we see the simple nature of reality and accept how things are, our suffering stops.

What can the generation of new Buddhist teachers offer if they haven't studied Buddhism in China or Japan?

There will always be a new generation of teachers. Teachers have a duty to teach. They may be teaching others or they may be teaching themselves. It's the same thing. To teach something you need to know what it is. Reality doesn't exist only in China or Japan, so a teacher can teach about reality if they know what reality is, whether or not they have studied Buddhism in China or Japan. The only important thing is to know what reality is. And to know what reality is, we continue to practice sitting in reality for many years.

Is there only one kind of Buddhism?

No, there are many schools of Buddhism, and many variations. But there is only one reality. It doesn’t matter what kind of Buddhism it is, it only matters if it teaches reality.

How would you describe what you learned from your teacher master Gudo Nishijima?

To be flexible and not to be proud. To give the teachings freely.

You seem to love people regardless of their faith or practice. What is it that you love about people most?

Yes, without people, we wouldn’t be discussing anything. Without other people, I could not teach. So I love people regardless of their faith or practice. But that is a generalisation. When I meet a real person, I love them if they are simple and honest.

Thank you for your answers.

February 26, 2020

The Minimalist Zen of Kodo Sawaki

I have just read an interview with Kodo Sawaki about his life and practice. I always wanted to hear or read this interview but so far it has been only available in Japanese.  Of course, what he says in the interview is not very different from the quotes you can find in Homeless Kodo, a book of short sayings by Kodo Sawaki, but to read this interview helps me to see why he said the things he said, and where his minimalistic approach to dharma comes from. 

From his point of view, and immediately we have a big problem, because Kodo Sawaki says clearly in the interview that there are no points of view in dharma, so from his point of view, there is no point of view in dharma. To make it more logical, Sawaki understood dharma as a state of things where there are no points of view. This is how my teacher transmitted dharma to me - no points of view, just this very thing right here. So to find this superminimalistic approach to Buddhism in the interview with Kodo Sawaki is no surprise to me, and I have been teaching, wait a minute, I have always tried, after zazen, to convey something that simple, during my talks and when nothing seemed to work, I just rang the bowl we use for beginning and ending zazen.

But we all know, that even Kodo Sawaki, and my teacher and all kinds of teachers, talk, or talked, as in the case of Sawaki or master Dogen, about all kinds of things when explaining dharma. But always, it seems, Kodo Sawaki or master Dogen or my teacher, would, at last, point back to the place where there is no point of view. Kodo Sawaki in the interview even says that we should not try to attain satori. We have been discussing - directly or indirectly, openly or not so openly -  this no satori zen for ages within Dogen Sangha. Kodo Sawaki says in the interview that it is more important to just practice than to look for the truth. Then how can people who practice zazen deal with their innate interest in understanding the truth, or even, attaining the truth? And what kind of realization did master Dogen write about and taught? I think Kodo Sawaki, when telling us to forget about satori, tells us just exactly what master Dogen tried to teach, ie. tell us to get over realization, get over wanting to understand, attain, get, master, and while transcending this "I" that wants to attain something, just practice wholeheartedly, live wholeheartedly. How difficult is that?

Well, I think there are two things to look at. To do something physical, wholeheartedly, that doesn't seem to be the problem with many people, all kinds of people, within Buddhism or without, within a religion or without. We have all seen people work hard and sincerely, completely doing a job, I have seen hundreds of people like that. I see that at retreats, too. But we are talking about people who have little idea how valuable a simple, complete action is. There are also many people, who do scientific work, intellectual, academic work, sincerely and wholeheartedly. That is not a problem, either. But again, how many people really understand the value of such simple, sincere attitude? What master Dogen, and Kodo Sawaki suggest, when it comes to attaining the truth, I think they suggest that if we can see the utmost value, the ultimate value in practicing zazen itself, studying dharma itself, teaching dharma itself, cooking itself, going to bed itself, and when we get over the unnecessary complications of our intellect and just do things, manually or intellectually, we have got over the problem of attaining the truth and actually have attained the truth without saying so, because saying so would be like drawing horns to a rabbit.

So basically, Kodo Sawaki, in a seemingly cold, severe, indifferent way tries to tell us that whatever our limited self thinks about others and oneself, about dharma and other teachings, about life and death, about enlightenment and delusion, about practice an realization, whatever I , the very limited I, one of the stupidest people there are, say about whatever in the world, or write about something, based on my limited views, that has as a matter of fact, no value  in dharma. Which doesn't mean talking about our personal experience is not valuable. Just opinions based on thinking mean nothing face to face to dharma. What I am trying to write here is supposed to be based on that which is not my personal opinion. And no one's personal opinion, in fact.  In other words, Kodo Sawaki suggests that we look at ourselves and laugh. And quickly, he tells us, not only that, not only realize how limited the small self, the small ego is, rather we should immediately put on okesa - or at least something clean and appropriate -  and practice the practice of buddhas and ancestors. So Kodo Sawaki encourages us to forget about our silly ideas and become buddhas immediately by wearing okesa, looking dignified, sit down, clean and balanced, respectfully, sit down, stop talking and just practice that which is not within words or ideas. Just practice that dignity of buddhas, who have nothing to say, but a lot to do.

This world around us, is very strange, and complicated and often silly. And we often find the same mess inside our brains. Kodo Sawaki suggests that we close the door, forget about this strange world, inside and outside, and just practice that which is out of this world, and in accord with the simplest thing there is, dharma.

Maybe we tend to think that what Sawaki suggests is a good idea, but it is really not an idea. It is something that is right here, something to be done completely. It is very difficult to be so simple and beyond that rigid self, beyond this world and beyond oneself, but I am afraid that if we really want to practice the simplicity, the simple truth Kodo Sawaki teaches, we have to realize that our ego -the limited self - is not a good guide. No matter how often it will take over our body and mind, there is an opportunity to let go, wear okesa, or whatever you find dignified, practice a dignified form, and attain that which is impossible to talk about but is possible to do. The most optimistic about this all to me is that ultimately, none of us is someone we should look down to, and no one is someone we should look up to. We just need some help from people who have transcended the self, and found the simplicity of dharma in their lives, no matter how often these people act strangely and do strange things. (Not that it is always OK). This is not about becoming a great person. This is about transcending a person and acting out what is necessary to act out every day.