Friday, November 20, 2009

Four Noble Truths & Zazen.

From the perspective of our own Zazen practice, we looked at the Four Noble truths like this:

1. We considered 'Dukkha' as meaning more than just 'suffering'. We looked at the other meanings on it such as 'stress', 'tension', 'unease' etc that most modern people can likely identify with. We considered what 'Dukkha' might mean to us.

2. We looked at our habitual modes of thinking and behavior as the cause of 'Dukkha': our making of the 'me' versus 'other' situation that can cause conflict or friction between 'me' and 'other'; how we often split the situation and set up this sort of scenario with our likes and dislikes, our making things 'good' and 'bad' etc.

3. We looked at Zazen as an opportunity to stop the sort of activity as outlined in 2, as a break from it where we can learn that there's a freer alternative to our habitual activities. We considered how we can just let our reactions and habits go for a while and learn what they really are.

4. We looked at this truth as the traditional means to a balanced life as formulated by the Buddha.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Four Noble Truths (The Buddha’s first teaching).

'The Wheel of Dharma', or the wheel of Buddhist teachings; a symbol of what the Buddha initiated by teaching the Four Noble Truths.

Tonight we talked about the Four Noble Truths. This is said to be the first teaching the Buddha gave after he became awakened or realised under the bodhi tree.

The Four Noble Truths may seem a bit formulaic or abstract; and they have often been adopted in a sort of abstract philosophical or intellectual way. But maybe the original intention of the teaching was to point out something which is real and true about our lives. We can apply these truths to our own real lives and experiences and see if they hold up, if they are realistic and helpful.

These Truths are not discussed much in Japanese Zen Buddhism and are generally more associated with Theravada Buddhism. But they are a nice way to get a feeling for the original teachings of Buddhism and to relate to the Buddha's own life story. Also, we can consider how our own conduct/practice might relate to these four revelations.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

'Stop the War' & Monkeys.

Last night we looked at the old Japanese koan 'stop the war' which appeared recently on John Tarrant Roshi's blog.

What 'war' or conflict is the koan talking about? How does this conflict start? Can we stop it?

The koan came about from a troubled time in Japan's past when there was a lot of actual feudal conflict in the country, but it seems clear that it's also referring to 'war' as a more immediate situation in our own lives.

We also had a look at this story from Peter Rocca Sensei's blog:


Once there was a monkey with two-eyes who lived on an island. One day there was a terrible storm and the monkey got washed out to sea on a log. The monkey drifted on the log for weeks until he was washed ashore on another island far away from where he used to live. The monkey was hungry so he ran up to the edge of the jungle to look for food. At the edge of the jungle he saw another monkey. But the other monkey had only one eye, so the two-eyed monkey was very surprised. But when the other monkey saw the two-eyed monkey, the other monkey began laughing and howling. Then more and more monkeys came to see what was going on. All the monkeys who came had only one eye. When those one-eyed monkeys saw the two-eyed monkey they all started laughing and howling. They all pointed at the two-eyed monkey and said “Look, look, he's got two eyes! He's got two-eyes! Ha, ha, ha, ha...”


...It seems sort of related to the 'war' koan: how do we construct an 'other' in our mind by the way we perceive the other? Even though the monkeys are all monkeys they only see each other in terms of their slight difference when they look at each other.

Someone noted that it's a bit funny that the story turns the norm around: the one-eyed monkeys were the accepted norm on their island while the two-eyed monkey was seen as a freak! Maybe this says something about how we construct our accepted 'norms' and how those norms might be based on a limited, if comfortable and widely accepted, view.
The 'war' or conflict can be very subtle it seems. For example, in Zazen we might notice that we're thinking something like "I'm not doing this right, this is a waste of time!" or something like that. In this case there's already a 'right' opposed to a 'wrong' and a 'me' opposed to what I'm already doing and a 'doing' that is opposed 'time' etc etc etc. We might notice that such a situation, before we let it go, causes a sort of friction or tension that becomes manifest as a feeling or sensation in the real world, in our physical bodies.
In Zazen we can let all our thoughts and perceptions just come and go. We can take a break from that situation where we might latch on to views of both ourselves and others which cause friction or conflict in both our selves and the world.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fukanzazengi X: The Real Dragon?

The closing section of Fukanzazengi begins:

I beseech you, noble friends in learning through experience, do not become
so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the real dragon.

Master Dogen always considers that our own direct zazen practice is the standard of learning in Buddhism. He advocates this sort of effort cautioning that we should not 'become so accustomed to images that you are dismayed by the real dragon'. This phrase refers to the story of Shoko, a person who really liked dragons and had many images of them in his house. One day a real dragon was passing by and thought that Shoko might like him to visit; Shoko completely freaked out when he opened the front door and saw the real dragon! The 'pictures of dragons' are our own concepts and ideas about Buddhism while 'the real dragon' is directly realising zazen ourselves.

Devote effort to the truth which is directly accessible and straightforward. Revere people who are beyond study and without intention.

Master Dogen was a very realistic teacher. He urged us to rely on our own practice/experience and revere those who make sincere efforts in this way.

Accord with the bodhi of the buddhas. Become a rightful successor to the samādhi of the patriarchs.

'Bodhi' means 'enlightenment' or 'awakening'. Master Dogen encourages us to practice zazen and accord with the same experience realised by buddhas. When we do this we are in the same state as buddhas themselves and we become successors to our natural state of awakened balance.

If you practice the state like this for a long time, you will surely become the state like this itself. The treasure house will open naturally, and you will be free to receive and to use [its contents] as you like.

Fukanzazengi ends

These last lines indicate that regular zazen practice has an accumulative effect and that we can gradually come to express the state of practice with our whole life. The 'opening of the treasure house' refers to the state of realising every single thing as a bit of the unhindered truth.

The translation of Fukanzazengi used in this commentary is by Gudo Nishijima and Mike Cross. It can be found as Appendix II of this e-book.

Mike Cross provides and excellent exploration of the meaning of the words comprising Fukanzazengi HERE.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Guilt, Original Sin, Delusion & Buddhism.

People marched in solidarity with victims of abuse. Dublin, June 10th, 09.

At our meeting last night the topic of guilt came up. The conversation quickly turned to Ireland's experience of Catholicism and how the Christian belief that we are originally tainted or sinful was used as a justification for all sorts of horrific acts against vulnerable people: People in positions of religious authority in Ireland (in church/State institutions etc) were able to act cruelly and degrade others using this sort of belief system as some sort of justification or rationale. Obviously this was, and is, very wrong and it seems Ireland has not yet fully managed to address the wounds caused by this negative culture of spiritual domination.

Buddhism does not really posit that we are originally sinful or tainted as such as Buddhism does not accept sin in the same sort of metaphysical way that Christianity does. Buddhism does accept though that we do have the potential to be deluded at all times, but it also teaches that, via our own efforts/practice, we can realise this and stop our habitual deluded activity at any moment: it presents us with that freedom, and so it is really a matter of our own conduct.

One of the Bodhisattva vows reads: Delusions are inexhaustible, I vow to end them.

We can establish this for ourselves in our own practice: when we are sitting zazen allowing our thoughts and feelings to just come and go we are not engaging in the habitual activity of accepting that 'self' as some sort of substantial reality (to do so is delusion). Instead we can realise it and experience it as just what it is (realisation). But the 'stuff' of delusion doesn't cease (thoughts and feelings will just keep coming), instead we realise them for what they are... or we don't! (It's up to us). Practicing zazen regularly helps us develop a deeper and more direct understanding of how we are deluded, of how we make our deluded self.

We can see that there is a sort of mutual relationship between 'delusion' and 'realisation' in Buddhism then and that they are not abstract, absolute, opposing values. 'Realisation' and 'delusion' do not exist outside of our own real and actual conduct at this very moment... and when we're fully engaged in really doing something then at that moment where is realisation and where is delusion?

Heaping the painful delusion of guilt on top of our general deluded state is obviously not considered good practice from a Buddhist perspective: the fact that we have done wrong in the past does not prohibit us from realising and actualising what is right at this moment.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Fukanzazengi IX: Essential Pivot.

Fukanzazengi continues:

In general, [the patriarchs] of this world and of other directions, of the Western
Heavens and of the Eastern Lands, all similarly maintain the Buddha’s posture,
and solely indulge in the custom of our religion. They simply devote themselves
to sitting, and are caught by the still state.

Master Dogen again presents sitting in zazen as the essential standard and custom of Buddhism.

Although there are myriad distinctions and thousands of differences, we
should just practice [za]zen and pursue the truth.

He often recognises the great diversity in the world ('the myriad things') in his writings, but here he presents zen practice as indispensable to the pursuit of the truth within that diversity.

Why should we abandon our own seat on the floor to come and go without purpose through the dusty borders of foreign lands? If we misplace one step we pass over the moment of the present.

The truth is right here/ right now when we realise it in our own practice. We don't need to travel to mystical, foreign places to find it. It's easy to go off on a whim with some lofty goal in mind and miss the truth of the present situation.

We have already received the essential pivot which is the human
body: we must never pass time in vain. We are maintaining and relying upon
the pivotal essence which is the Buddha’s truth: who could wish idly to enjoy
sparks [that fly] from flint? What is more, the body is like a dewdrop on a blade
of grass. Life passes like a flash of lightning. Suddenly it is gone. In an instant
it is lost.
Master Dogen sees the impermanent, fragile human body as an 'essential pivot' as we can use our body to realise the truth in zen practice. He combines this image of a 'pivot' with our 'maintaining and relying on the Buddha's truth'. This is the view of Buddhist practice where this very moment is rendered the essential turning point or 'pivot' where we realise our inherent freedom: In zazen we realise that we are generally deluded by perceptions and thoughts ('body and mind'), and that, in a moment of sincere practice, we can allow them to drop off and realise them for what they actually are and allow them to realise us as what we are ('dropping off body and mind'). 'Sparks flying from a flint' suggests things which may be attractive and distracting but which are ultimately fleeting and not substantial (it suggests life where we are distracted by our thoughts and fantasies).

Impermanence is a universal theme in Buddhism; our lives are short when looked at from a broader perspective. Buddhist masters often seek to encourage us to use our time to realise the Great Matter of our life.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Fukanzazengi VIII: 'What Will They Non-think of Next!?'

Therefore, we do not discuss intelligence as superior and stupidity as inferior.
Do not choose between clever people and dull ones. If we singlemindedly
make effort [in zazen] that truly is pursuit of the truth. Practice-and-experience
is naturally untainted. Actions are more balanced and constant.

In the previous sections Master Dogen has pointed out that effort to realise the Buddhist truth is not a matter of engaging our usual thinking and discriminating activities. For that reason he says here that a person's effort to realise the truth is not contingent on them being some intellectual heavyweight, or a dimwit for that matter.

The crux of the matter is the right sort of effort in practice (i.e. 'dropping off body and mind' or allowing perceptions and thoughts- clever ones and dozy ones alike!- to just come and go).

In this way we can enjoy the 'naturally untainted' balanced state of practice-and-experience where, after a while's sitting, our thoughts and perceptions just come and go unhindered. People often find that this state of practice informs their everyday actions and that, with regular practice, things generally seem more clear, balanced and stable.