Man Up A Tree

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Prayer flags and pilgrims beneath a tree.  Mayadevi Temple, Lumbini, Nepal

 

Eventually we understand that all solutions come to us by themselves, if only we stop trying to control.  – Stephen Mitchell

I’m no good at koans.  Which is as it should be.  I tend to live most of my life in my head rather than fully centered in my situation, and a correctly answered koan is basically an indicator of someone who is completely present in the moment.  Every now and then, the zen master will lob me a softball, and if I’m having a good day, I might be able to clip it off the corner of the bat.  During the ten years I’ve been practicing, I’ve learned to take heart in the humble honesty of demonstrating exactly where I’m at, and after leaving a koan session, I no longer slink back into the dharma room with my tail between my legs and my head full of “I should have saids.”  I’ve attained enough to understand that this is not an intellectual exercise; if I’m trying to “come up with an answer,” then I’ve already missed the ball.  And yet I keep trying to think my way out of koans…

I recently stopped into a new independent bookstore in my town.  In the “Spirituality/Philosophy/Religion” section, I happened upon an enticing volume titled “Zen Koans With Answers.”  I opened to the page titled “Man Up a Tree,” a classic koan that I’ve been wrestling with for years.  As I’d suspected, there was no answer, just a couple of things that clever students could do or say to try to fool the teacher into thinking that they were not clever students.  Things that I’ve already tried, only to be met with a response of “No, thank you” by the zen master.  The one thing that I haven’t done in a while is sitting meditation… not on a regular basis, anyway, and that is most likely the key to “solving” the koan.  Of course, a koan is not a riddle to be solved, but a situation to be held in the cradle of “don’t know” mind.

What does it mean to hold a koan? It does not mean to search for an answer, but to wait for a response to appear, which, for me in most cases, means sitting in that “don’t know” space and becoming comfortable with it.  When I approach a certain anonymous friend of mine seeking help with a problem, he’ll often say “that’s your koan for the week” as he reflects that problem back to me in the form of a question.  This does not mean that he is expecting to hear an answer to the question, or a  solution to the problem, next time we speak, although that might happen.  As Zen Master Bon Haeng puts it, “if an answer appears, then an answer appears.”  If not, then we become more curious about this “don’t know.”  This is good practice.  If I’m actively searching for answers, then I’m in trouble.  As Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Big mistake.”  When I remember that my job is to stay present, then I’m in good shape.  If an answer appears, I’ll be there with a cup of tea saying “nice to see you.”

Master Hyang Eom said, “It is like a man up a tree who is hanging from a branch by his teeth.  His limbs are tied and bound, so his hands cannot grasp a bough, and his feet cannot touch the tree.  Another man standing under the tree asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come from China?’  If he opens his mouth to answer, he will lose his life.  If he does not answer, he evades his duty and will be killed.”  If you are in the tree, how do you stay alive?

from The Whole World is a Single Flower, by Zen Master Seung Sahn

Enough is Enough

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“This is enough” was always true.

We just haven’t seen it.

– Rumi

It’s difficult to see truth, though it’s never hidden.

Clarity is its nature,

obscured only by the din of our desires,

our insistence that THIS is obviously not enough,

that just a little bit more would quench

the ache and restlessness that is

nothing more or less than Truth’s longing to

remember itself…

 

You won’t hear the call that THIS is enough

out of nowhere over the rush of traffic…

you have to listen for it.

Truth does not shout, does not call attention to itself,

it operates on the principle of “attraction rather than promotion.”

Truth does not advertise:

Delusion does.

And it does it well.

 

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The Only Thing You Need to Know…

 

20141005_114106“The only thing you need to know about God is that you’re not Him.”  – Anonymous

This time-tested battle cry of the old-timers of Alcoholics Anonymous echoes down through the ages, reverberating off of the painted cinder block walls of floor wax and bad coffee-scented church basements across New England and beyond.  I’ve heard it so many times over the years that I stopped hearing it for a while, relegating it to the status of a trite, folksy cliche, of which there are so many in AA.  Upon entering more deeply into zen practice and 12 Step practice, however, I’ve come to appreciate and embrace a more boots-on-the-ground, head-where-my-ass-is approach to the whole “spiritual component” of AA, as it is so frequently and oxymoronically referred to.  Spirituality, of course, is not a “component” of anything, but rather the totality of everything.  This notion that spirituality can somehow be compartmentalized is simply a sleight of hand that the ego employs in order to substantiate its own existence and keep itself in control of things.

The “you’re not him” platitude isn’t simply a call to humility; at its best interpretation, which, for the moment, I’ll assume that I’m making,  it is a call to action and an admonition against launching a flight of fancy into the world of concepts.  How easy, how comfortable, how convenient it is to think about God, to ponder Greater Meaning and Higher Power from within the safety of my own intellectual framework, as was so often done during those late nights in the conversation pit, a drug-addled tradition immortalized long before my time by the characters of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, who so often stayed up late into the night talking – wild! – and drinking wine – great!  How useful was that endeavor in my own journey some thirty years after Ray Smith and Japhy Rider graced the bungalows of Berkeley?  To be honest, it was extremely useful insofar as it informed my process of cycling through the seductive labyrinth of ideas and substances to land on the meditation cushion and in the aforementioned church basements.

Buddhism is, to my understanding, less of a philosophy or a religion, and more of a psychology.  It offers us nothing more or less than the opportunity to develop the capacity to look at our own minds.  Not a promise, just an opportunity, an opportunity that holds the key to ending our own suffering,  not forever, but moment to moment. Also known as Forever.  The Buddha offered sort of a bottom-up approach to this problem of being human, rather that the top-down approach that was on the table prior to his enlightenment under the bodhi tree.  The practice isn’t so much about connecting to a Higher Power as it is about connecting to our own experience.  In other words, our heads tend to already be in the clouds, so to speak.  Our work consists of coming back into our bodies.

It comes as a shock to many of us that we create the overwhelming majority of our own suffering.  We seem to believe that we have no agency in that suffering, lacking, as so many of us do, the understanding that it isn’t the circumstances or events of our lives that create suffering, but rather our response to them.  “Pain is inevitable,” I’ve heard echo off of the painted cinder block walls.  “Suffering is optional.”  In other words, it’s how we relate to the pain of our lives that determines our degree of suffering.  It’s our job to decide how we relate to our pain.  The world is full of others who can help us make that decision, but no one else is in a position to take away our suffering.

What is problematic about the “Higher Power” approach to the “spiritual component” is that it feeds the illusion of duality and sets us up to search for a solution outside of ourselves, which is the hallmark of addiction.  Our suffering arises out of this idea of separation, which creates the notion that something outside of me will fix me, fill me, heal me, or complete me.  It’s a fools game, of course, because there’s really nothing “out there.”  The self is looking for itself outside of itself, and guess what?  There’s nothing to be found.

There’s nothing to “get,” which is good news, because both Buddhism and Recovery (which, in this writer’s humble opinion, aren’t different) aren’t about getting things; they’re about getting rid of things.  Getting rid of all the stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of reality as it is in this moment.  And the biggest chunk of stuff that stands between me and the direct perception of this world?  The unfounded belief that “me” and “this world” are two.  Ego will do everything within its power to substantiate this belief.  It’s this desperate attempt to control our experience that gives rise to what the old-timers call “playing God.”

So I can take it as read that I’m not God.  What, then, am I?  Zen Master Seung Sahn referred to this as Great Question.  The first time I sat down for a koan interview with his student, Zen Master Bon Haeng, he asked me, “What are you?”  It’s a no-brainer , I thought.  He’s starting me off with the easy ones.

“I’m a human being.”

He hit me with a stick.

There is nothing to grasp…

p.s. please excuse the gender bias of the old-timers. They are, after all, old-timers.

top photo: summer reflections on a pond, Pisgah State Park, Hinsdale NH

 

Crave On!

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Mountains of sweets for Diwali displayed at a roadside stand, Lumbini, Nepal

“Hi, I’m Jud,” he said, extending a hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Hi, I’m Jeff.” It was all I could think of to say, thrown off by his spontaneous manifestation as I sat reading the book he’d just published. “Do you know if this is any good?” I joked, holding up the book.

“Nah, I wouldn’t believe a word of it,” he smiled, disappearing down the hall.

His full name is Judson Brewer, his title, Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness. His new book is called The Craving Mind, and, according to the subtitle, explains “why we get hooked and how we can break bad habits.” Our sort of strange encounter took place at the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness as we both waited to be interviewed for an upcoming PBS documentary about the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program that was started at the Center some 38 years ago by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I recently participated in the eight-week MBSR course, and Jud, as you know, is the Director of Research at the Center… I’m imagining that he’ll figure more prominently in the documentary than I will.

It’s a pretty interesting experience to be interviewed
for a TV show. In the finished product, I’ll be one of the talking heads sitting next to a bunch of books or a plant or something, not looking at the camera, and apparently talking aloud to no one. The person that I’m apparently not talking to is the interviewer, who sits off camera and whose voice will not be heard. Her job is not only to ask me questions, but to act as a sort of silent coach from the sidelines. If I’m making a point that’s particularly relevant or useful to the focus of the documentary, she’ll smile enthusiastically, nod encouragingly, or make that rotating hands “say more” gesture.

The interesting thing is that I noticed pretty quickly that I liked the smiles, the nods, and the gestures, and that I wanted to say things that would elicit those responses from the interviewer. The even more interesting thing is that I didn’t make the connection between my conditioned behavioral responses and the book that I’d been reading. If I’m honest about my motives, my desire wasn’t principally to contribute meaningfully to the documentary; my desire was to be liked. I was craving approval like a Nepalese boy craves the sweet, sticky cashew balls in the photo at the top of this post (it all comes full circle; the Universe has no loose ends).

What was that craving all about?

I didn’t have an awareness of, or a name for, that craving for approval until after the interview was finished and I had walked out of the Center for Mindfulness. Before starting my car, I paused to read from Daily Reflections, a book of brief selections from Alcoholics Anonymous literature that I usually read from in the morning. Ironically, I had mindlessly forgotten to do so that day. Excerpted from a book titled The Language of the Heart, the reading reminded me that

“this very real feeling of inferiority is magnified by [my] childish sensitivity and it is this state of affairs which generates in [me] that insatiable, abnormal craving for self-approval and success in the eyes of the world.” [1]

This isn’t an easy pill to swallow, a less-than-pleasant defect of character to face in one’s self. The good news is that I’m not alone. So common is the human tendency for approval-seeking that it’s addressed pretty explicitly in the Buddhadharma.

The Loka Dham, ma, variously translated as Eight Worldly Conditions or Eight Worldly Concerns, consists of four pairs of opposite states, among which are Fame and Disrepute. Attraction to Fame and aversion to Disrepute keeps us bound to the comfortable familiarity of Samsara, likewise with Praise and Blame, Gain and Loss, and, of course, Pleasure and Pain. In contemplating these Eight Worldly Concerns, I’ve long felt that Fame is a concern that doesn’t much concern me, as I’ve never been concerned with being famous. Lately it occurs to me, however, that the Fame that the Buddha referred to wasn’t necessarily of the variety that lands one’s face on the cover of the Rolling Stone; it has to do more generally with the desire to be looked well upon by others. That concerns me.

As an anonymous friend of mine is fond of saying, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Holding this thought in mind offers me a glimpse of the freedom that’s available to those who can truly stand in equanimity between the poles of Fame and Disrepute. Awareness of this karmic tendency to crave approval inches me a little closer to the center of the spectrum. Thank God I’ve never wanted to be famous. Hopefully this PBS documentary won’t bring in too many offers…

[1] Anonymous (1990). Daily Reflections, New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., p. 103.

Walk of Life

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Turning prayer wheels while walking the grounds of Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

 

Over the weekend, I got a very strong dose of the “Together Action” that I feared was missing from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the UMass School of Medicine.  Close to 100 participants sat a day-long retreat together at the Stress Reduction Clinic.  The experience was different from any of the retreats I’ve done in the Kwan Um School of Zen.  As with Zen retreats, the retreatants all spent the day in silence, but the five women leading the retreat spoke extensively, guiding us through all of the practices that we’ve been learning over the past eight weeks: body scans, standing yoga, lying down postures, sitting meditation, and walking meditation.  My favorite of these by far was the walking meditation. I’ve tried it by myself at home, and it’s never really grabbed me.  This practice seems to come alive only in the company of other practitioners, and to engage in this activity with so many people was truly a singular experience.

Walking meditation as practiced in the context of MBSR is rather different than the traditional Zen walking that typically punctuates periods of sitting meditation on long retreats.  Here, it was presented as a much longer practice, free-form in nature, different from the in-step, single-file Zen style.  We were invited to walk at a pace that felt natural and comfortable, in a pattern or direction that suited us, and even to leave the room and walk through the lobby and adjacent spaces if we so desired.  The overall effect looked rather like a school of fish moving more or less intuitively as a unit, yet not in unison.  The motion could only be described as “organic,” and what little thinking mind I still paid attention to marveled at the fact that no one bumped into each other despite the fact that most eyes seemed to be cast downward.  This was truly Together Action: I felt not only completely in body, but completely in collective body.  I’m wondering if the prescribed ritual of Zen-style walking meditation frees the mind up to do some thinking while the body does some walking… if perhaps engaging in a more spontaneous, symbiotic experience of group walking meditation more effectively invites the synthesis of mind and body…

I had originally enrolled in the MBSR course in order to see first-hand how meditation instruction was presented in a clinical setting, detached from its association with Eastern spiritual beliefs and from the strong sense of form and ritual that is the backbone of the Korean Zen tradition.  In the past, I’ve helped to facilitate prison meditation groups in the Kwan Um style, but we had a captive audience… literally.  The inmates weren’t deterred by a little bit of chanting or by the grey robes that we wore.  Now that I’m working as an addictions counselor in an outpatient program, it’s imperative that I present mindfulness as a possible tool for the clients’ own recovery without the bias of my own spiritual leanings.  Admittedly, this feels like a betrayal of the tradition I’ve been practicing in for close to ten years.  It felt good to walk into a prison, don the robe and kasa of the Chogye Order, and lead traditional Korean chanting in a place of such confusion and suffering; but a different situation calls for different action.  True mindfulness is recognizing this and responding appropriately.

Together Action is the hallmark of sustained recovery.  As I write, I’m envisioning my clients in the outpatient program mindfully meandering about a room like a school of fish with a single intention and many bodies, and it makes me smile.  It’s a tall order, I know, but I witnessed a huge group of people from all walks of life doing exactly that last weekend, so stranger things have happened…

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Footprints of the Buddha, Mahabodhi Temple

Together Action

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school children in Kushinagar, India

Last weekend, I attended a workshop on practice forms at the Cambridge Zen Center.  It struck me as an unfortunate waste of time on such an unseasonably warm, spring-like February day; I’d rather have been outside enjoying the weather or inside the Zen Center doing actual practice rather than simply talking about it… Somehow, though, knowing that it’s important to both learn and teach the myriad rules and customs that govern our formal practice, I put my preferences aside and sat in the dharma room as the forms were described and demonstrated one by one.

The forms that govern formal practice in the Kwan Um School of Zen were brought to the United States by Zen Master Seung Sahn in 1972, having been adapted from the temple rituals of the Chogye Monastic Order of Korea.  They’ve since been codified as the Dharma Mirror, which serves as the practice manual for the entire Kwan Um School.  It’s edited and updated periodically, and is currently being overhauled by a teacher in the school, and this workshop, which included at least one Zen Master, was a way for that teacher to get some input and get us all on the same page before it goes to press.  In this sense, the Dharma Mirror is sort of a living document, open to amendment and interpretation as time, geography and culture might dictate.

As heartening as it is to be part of this tradition, it’s still tough to sit through extended discussion on such minutia as whether candles should be lit from left or right or from right to left when opening the altar (it’s right to left, I think… our right, not the Buddha’s), whether an offertory bowl of water should be open or closed during special chanting verses normal chanting, and what to do with our feet during full prostrations (the left foot should be crossed over the right; in Korea, it’s considered an insult to show the soles of your feet to another person, so I guess it’s the best we can do to at least cover up one).  As soon as I found myself wondering “what the hell’s the difference?” I knew that this question was at the heart of my practice in that particular moment.  The practice forms themselves aren’t as important as my relationship to them.

Somewhat limited in his English ability when he arrived here, Zen Master Seung Sahn’s slogan was “Just Do It” long before some ad man spun it into gold for Nike.  He gave this brutally simple, straight-to-the-point instruction to his students not only because his linguistic disadvantage precluded more extensive explanations, but because he immensely valued practice, or action, over speech and concepts.  There are always reasons and rationalizations for the things that we do in practice, but it’s all pretty much just ego food.  The real point is to do what Seung Sahn called “together action” with others, free of individual preferences and opinions.

Zen Master Seung Sahn was often asked by students why we chant in Korean if we have no idea what the words mean… He’d answer that the meaning is irrelevant, but the spirit of the chanting is extremely relevant.  We can chant “Coca Cola, Coca Cola” as long as we do it wholeheartedly and with a clear mind, without like or dislike, and without attachment.  He famously said, “When your thinking stops and my thinking stops, our minds are the same.”  This is the point of chanting, and the point of all our practice: together action to attain One Mind.

As I was sitting a week-long retreat at Providence Zen Center a few years ago, I was struck by the realization that the practice forms and rituals of our school are like a vessel that contains the teachings, in much the same way that the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous create the framework that recovery takes place within.  Like the Twelve Traditions, however, the practice forms not only contain the teachings, they are the teachings.  Through these simple, deliberate, together actions, we have the opportunity to get our minds out of the way and let our hearts do what they were born to do…

Time’s A Wastin’

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Bell Rock, Sedona, AZ

I’ve recently been reading Dharma Punx, Noah Levine’s edge-of-your-seat memoir chronicling his life’s journey from drug-addicted California street punk to one of the most visible figures in the contemporary Buddhist recovery movement. At one point in his early recovery, he’d committed himself to the life practice outlined in the book A Year to Live, which his father, Stephen, had just finished writing. The practice is to pretend that you have only one year to live, and to approach your daily life accordingly. Noah threw himself wholeheartedly into this experiment, spending several months in Asia, as he’d often dreamed of doing, then travelling across the United States to visit family and friends to express gratitude and to say all of the things that had gone unsaid. I was so intrigued by the notion of living one’s “final” year as a spiritual practice that I went out and picked up a copy of Stephen Levine’s book to get the info straight from the source, from a widely acknowledged “expert” on the apparently elusive subject of death and dying.

Delving into the elder Levine’s book, I thought, “Wow, this seems like a really valuable practice! I should try it someday.” Immediately, I was struck by the irony of this response, as the very essence of the Year to Live practice is the extinction of procrastination, the destruction of the deeply ingrained notion that I have the luxury of postponing living until some hypothetical future point when the conditions are ideal.  Am I really so arrogant as to believe that death will wait patiently until a time that is convenient to my schedule?  As John Lennon so eloquently put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  He knows better than anyone that most of us don’t hear a warning buzzer or get the courtesy of a terminal prognosis along with the gentle admonition that it would be wise to get our affairs in order.  I began the Year to Live practice, however timidly and however vaguely, on February 22.

What would you do if you only had a year to live?  It’s a huge question that means different things to different people. It certainly means something different to me now that I’m in recovery than it would have years ago.  Before, a one year terminal prognosis would have been a clarion call to recklessness and irresponsibility; today, it’s the polar opposite.  Rather than saying, “What the hell, it doesn’t matter because I’ll be dead in a year anyway,” I’m saying, “Oh my God, it totally matters because I’ve only got a year left to do the work I’ve started in this body,” namely, to clear away the obstacles that stand between me and direct perception of reality.  The practice isn’t a “bucket list” proposition, although it may take on an element of doing stuff I’ve always wanted to do.   Zen Master Seung Sahn said, “One day you will lose this body, then what?”  I don’t think he was referring to the loss of our ability to go sky diving in the Grand Canyon; I think he was referring to the imminent loss of this precious human incarnation as a tool for awakening.  All good teachings point us toward the fact that the time for awakening  is Now, not in some imagined future that, by its very definition, never actually arrives.

What’s interesting about this Year to Live practice is that it’s brought me the realization that one day I’m going to wake up and it will be the first day of the last year of my life. What’s even more interesting is that I’m not going to know it when it happens. The most interesting thing of all, of course, is the fact that it may already have happened. It’s a bold assumption that I’m going to live long enough to complete this experiment, and, like most assumptions, it’s completely ungrounded.

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Parinirvana Temple and Stupa in Kushinagar, India, where the Buddha died.