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The Poor Monk’s Robe

monk's robe

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week by recounting a koan in which a poor monk ask a senior monk for some clothing.  Before giving over the clothes, the senior monk asks “Who were you before your parents clothed you?  The poor monk said nothing.  Why was the poor monk silent?  Is he stupid?  Is his practice worth of the alms about to be given by the senior monk?  What is this koan trying to teach?

 

Tesshin mused on the need for silence and openness in life and in our practice.  Most of us want to be active – we want to improve the world right now.  Our tradition is all about saving all sentient beings, after all.  What is the best way to do this?  Tesshin challenged us to slow down for a moment and be silent.  Can we open ourselves long enough to allow the ‘suchness’ of the world to fill us?  He asked how it would be possible to accomplish anything when we are running around so fast with cluttered minds?

 

Buddhism is commonly accused of being a “passive” tradition.  Practitioners are accused of “navel gazing” when they should be out actively bending swords into plowshares.  Tesshin was emphatic in stating that Buddhism is not passive.  Making the effort to slow the mind and open up to other people is totally necessary if any meaningful improvements are to be made in human relations and welfare.   We must first generate compassion and empathy for all beings before we can take action.  How could it be any other way?  In archery, we would not fire the arrow and then try to aim – it is the same here.  We must first stop and understand before we rush about “doing things.”

 

Tesshin next cited the Diamond Sutra which described the concept of the Bodhisattva.  Such a being will never rest until every sentient creature is delivered from suffering.  This is anything but passive!  What sets the Bodhisattva apart, however, is that it holds no preconceived concepts.  The Bodhisattva is pure empathy and compassion personified.   The Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, commonly advises students to “drop your story and simply listen.”  The great Zen master Dogen Zenji advises us to forget the self in order to be actualized by the ten thousand things.  Throughout its history, Buddhism has been clear about this “active observation” – we must slow the mind and allow the unfiltered reality to enter.  Only then can one act skillfully.

 

Think to your own life – do you judge who should be helped?  Do you make distinctions between the deserving and undeserving?  Are all your actions tied back to your own opinions, likes, and dislikes?  Tesshin reminds us that in the unity of existence we are all flawed and as such all of these conceptions and values we hold are flawed?  All we really have is unity which means that in the absolute sense, you are me and I am you.  As such, I can feel empathy for you and you can feel empathy for me.   This is the way of the Bodhisattva.

 

 

So the first monk asks the second monk, who were you before your parents clothed you?  What could he say which would not totally contaminate his deep understanding of the unity of reality.  Anything he uttered would disgrace his practice.  Our poor monk has dropped all concepts – even the Dharma- and was clearly reflecting all of suchness in his holy silence.  He was clearly on the path of the Bodhisattva.

The Teaching of Things

Organized Things

 

Tesshin began this week’s talk by mentioning the Japanese consultant Marie Kondo.  Her contribution is the particularly Japanese way of “Tidying Up.”  (For those interested, her website is https://konmari.com/)  What is most striking about her method is the practice of picking up each object and asking – “Does this object spark joy?”  If the object does, we keep it otherwise we get rid of it.  Most importantly, however, even the objects we decide to “part ways with” we are encouraged to THANK!

 

So what does it mean to thank an inanimate object?  Do “things” have anything to teach us, and if so what?  Here Tesshin was very clear – your reaction to the inanimate objects says quite a bit about the state of your mind.  Do you find thanking a ski pole found in your basement untouched from your college days ridiculous or do you find it inspiring?  Tesshin reminded us that Buddhism stresses the interconnectedness of all things.  The practice of taking the time to relate to objects is a teaching tool, or skillful means, of reminding us of this power of connection.  At some point in time you made a connection with that ski pole – enough of a connection that you acquired it.  Now, perhaps in your current circumstances, you no longer need it.  (Buddhism teaches us not to cling, after all!)  So discarding objects we no longer need is OK; however there is real power in thanking the pole before letting go.  In essence, you honor your past and realize that in some small way this object was part of that.  After the thanking simply let it go.  Keeping the pole beyond this point would be a form of clinging – which we know is not skillful. 

 

Tesshin next mused about how objects are part of your past and why the connection to time and place is so important.  Objects form part of the “gestalt” of a place and time.  This gestalt is critical to a well lived life free of suffering.  Think about well-functioning places – perhaps a zendo or a well-designed office.  Every object in that space is working together to achieve a specific purpose.  In the Zendo we prize simplicity so that we can focus on the mind.  We may have a simple Buddha statue to remind us of the Dharma, cushions to support our zazen, and a teacher at the front to help us when we stray.    In the office, however, we would have desks, chairs, computers, and bright lights.  These objects would not be useful in a zendo as they would be a distraction.  The most skillful thing to do would be to remove them from the zendo.   Like place, we see the same thing at various times of our life.  In youth, certain objects were critical for our joy and happiness.  Later in life, the cast of characters change.  Our practice, and what Marie Kondo is hinting at, is to simply recognize this and make sure we part ways with objects no longer bringing us joy by thanking them and then letting them go.  This should be a happy, grateful, and somewhat “wistful” experience – not one filled with pain and anguish.

Tesshin wrapped up the talk by reminding us about the “Buddha Nature” in all things – sentient and insentient.  There are many koans which test the student on this exact point.  He again reminded us that how we relate to the things all around us goes a long way to refining our understanding of life, reality, and the Dharma – the exact lessons which all these koans are trying to teach us!

The Meditating Reptile

Meditating Reptile

 

Tesshin began this week’s talk musing about how our current “addiction” to technology and social media are affecting society.  He recalled a recent program where he was teaching mindfulness to Boy Scouts.  Many of the boys were really challenged by sitting still for ten minutes.  Even the parents could not believe their children could go for a few minutes without touching their phones.  We must begin to wonder if we are all losing the ability to focus and concentrate with the constant distraction of our tech tools.

 

Tesshin next asked the group if we thought this was a new phenomenon?  Of course it is not!  Social media, video games, and even TV are simply a new manifestation of a problem which has been with humanity since the beginning.  The Buddha saw this problem 2500 years ago – long before any of our modern “conveniences!”  Back in those days, the Buddha intuitively realized that the mind was susceptible to distraction, emotions, fear, greed, and lust.  He also understood that with proper training these urges could be integrated and managed into a properly “enlightened” mind.  

 

So what truth did the Buddha realize all those years ago?  At its simplest, we now know that our mind is affected by the Limbic system (aka “reptile brain”) and other structures in the brain which drive powerful emotions and urges.  The Buddha did not believe that these urges and drives were “evil,” but he did understand that they needed to be integrated, managed, and understood within the context of a deeper understanding of a well-balanced existence.  He understood that that a well-trained mind is able to resist every distraction and is able to delay gratification and reaction long enough to see the larger picture of existence.   

 

The Limbic system is our early warning system.  It is focused on survival of one particular being – YOU!  It is all about understanding what is “me and mine” and protecting that from everything and everyone else.  It is from this deep place where dualism arises.  The limbic brain is designed to react quickly in a “Flight of Fight” reaction.  Of course, this is totally necessary in some situations – if you stick your finger in a socket, the limbic system is not concerned with broad issues in electrical safety – it is only concerned with eliminating the pain for you right now. 

 

Our practice, then, is about how to integrate the fight or flight urges coming up from the limbic system with our desire to understand the unity and integration of all existence.  We want to leverage the limbic system where it makes sense, but we also do not want to be led by it.  We don’t want to be the slave of every distraction or urge which arises in the mind.  Tesshin mentioned that there is another brain structured called the pre-frontal cortex which performs this exact function.  This part of the brain brings things and concepts together into wholly integrated systems.  In our practice, we are trying to develop this part of the brain while at the same time denying “energy” to the more primitive limbic system.  Tesshin mentioned that studies of the brains of accomplished meditators show significant structural differences from the general population – specifically structural differences in the pre-frontal cortex.

 

Accomplishing the goal of training one’s mind and changing the brain takes a lot of focus and effort.  This goal is not an easy one as one needs to develop focus while dealing with all the urges and distractions which our two hundred thousand year old “reptile brain” keeps sending our way.  This is why our practice is not an instant solution, but rather a journey which takes a lifetime to complete.  There is no final accomplishment in Zen – there is only the path.  We incrementally improve the mind which means we develop the pre-frontal cortex while diminishing the limbic system.  Every day on the cushion, we move the needle just a little bit.  One can compare this with work in the gym.  Showing up one day does not make you physically fit, but showing up every day for years pretty much guarantees the desired outcome. 

 

So, put your reptile brain on the cushion.  Meditate every day to deny it power to run your life.

Happy New Year

Bell

 

Tesshin began by welcoming everyone back from the holiday break and wishing everyone a happy new year.  He then posed an interesting question –   What is the process of celebrating a new year?  In the US we generally have a party, drink champagne, and ‘watch the ball drop.”  Introspection tends to be limited to a few new year’s resolutions which we quickly abandon a few weeks later.

 

In Japan, there is a very different ceremony.  Temples will ring their bells in the last hour of the year 108 times to reflect on the 108 weakness one must work on to reach enlightenment.  Tesshin recalled when he was an abbot of a rural temple he could hear the bells from many temples resonating off the mountains.  It was almost like the temples were singing to each other.  (This link provides a nice summary of this tradition.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQb1xFOoIbs)

 

Buddhism also reminds us about the concept of non-duality during the new year.  Monks in Japanese temples commonly eat noodles right at the stroke of midnight.  They will end the prior year eating a noodles, and start the new year still slurping the same noodles.  The prior year and new year are the same thing.  Interestingly, after the noodle practice, the monks were allowed liberal amounts of Sake to celebrate the new year.  The following morning the monks make the rounds in the community to bless the people in “somewhat less than ideal condition.”  Tesshin recalled that this custom of the stumbling monk is a well-known Japanese tradition.

 

So for people practicing the path, what does the new year signify?  Why do temples ring their bells 108 times to recognize the 108 flaws of the soul?  Tesshin reminded us that these are rituals of atonement.  Now, in Buddhism atonement is a very different concept than what we understand in the west.  It is said that it is really AT-ONE-MENT – in other words we come to grips with who we really are and why we act the way we do.  It is less to apologize than to come to terms with the karmic impact of our actions.  We do not want to cover up our actions, but we also do not want to endlessly fixate on them either.  The goal is to recognize our poor choices, understand them and their root causes, (namely ignorance, greed, and anger)  and then let them all go. 

 

Negative actions are not really our true nature, so eventually letting them go is absolutely essential.  Tesshin was emphatic here, our true nature is perfection.  Our job in practice is simply reconnecting with this fact.  We do this by recognizing where we do not act in our true nature, understand why, and then let that “garbage” go.  The new year acts as another reminder that this is the core of our practice.  Unlike the west, however, we do not only do this once per year.  We do not make empty promises and then quickly forget them.  We commit to our practice every day, every year, and for an entire lifetime.  The practice is continuous improvement of ourselves with the eventual goal of meeting the standard of our true nature which is perfection.

 

 

Happy New Year and Tesshin wishes everyone great achievements in their practices for 2019.

The Bodhisattva Vows

Bodhisattva Vows

 

We were very lucky this week to have Tesshin chant for us the Bodhisattva Vows (Shigu Seiganmon).  These verses are commonly chanted four times in Buddhist temples at the end of a sitting session.  It was quite a moving experience!  

 

Below is the English transliteration and translation of the chant…

 

Shujô muhen seigan do, 

Bonnô mujin seigan dan, 

Hômon muryô seigan gaku, 

Butsudô mujô seigan jô.

 

However innumerable all beings are,

I vow to save them all

However inexhaustible my delusions are,

I vow to overcome them all

However immeasurable the Dharma Teachings are,

I vow to fathom them all

The Buddha’s Path is endless,

I vow to follow it to its very end

 

After chanting, Tesshin expounded on what these lines mean and how we can apply them to our practice and daily life.  

 

 “However innumerable all beings are, I vow to save them all

Here we mean that we need to consider and care for everything.  It is not just about helping myself or my family.  It is about looking at the bigger picture.  It is commonly said in Zen that we must care even for inanimate objects as even they have something to teach.  How does one save all beings?  Why would we make such a vow?  It is nothing more than changing our perspective from “me and other” to “oneness.”  Sound familiar?

 

 “However inexhaustible my delusions are, I vow to overcome them all

This vow is around modesty and determination.  We are deluded creatures!  It is said that knowing that you have a problem is the first step in addressing it.  Buddhism talks about the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and ignorance.  It is said that from these all of the delusions of the mind arise.  Knowing this gives us a tool to start figuring out how to overcome delusions – even if we have many!

 

However immeasurable the Dharma Teachings are, I vow to fathom them all

Tesshin has said many times that the practice is not easy.  There are no short cuts on the path.  The teachings are about reality and that is limitless.  We cannot simply reach a surface understanding, declare success, and move our attention to the next “bright shiny object.”  This is a life-long project – and even after a lifetime, we will not be done!

 

The Buddha’s Path is endless, I vow to follow it to its very end

This vow states that even if we save all beings, learn all the teachings and really know reality, and discipline the mind and dispel delusions we are still not done!  One may ask, why bother if we are never done?  This is why Buddhism is a religion.  At some level we simply have to believe.  The Buddha Path is endless and without bounds.  It is reality in and of itself.  If we want to truly understand then we must follow it to its very end!

 

Tesshin next discussed how we can take these vows and apply them to our everyday life.  First, he suggested that it would be beneficial to chant this every morning after meditation.  The idea is to renew your vows and give your day purpose.  If you internalize what the vows are trying to teach it will affect all of your decisions throughout the day.  For instance, If we vow to “save all sentient” beings in the morning it will be easier to help a colleague in the afternoon when they ask for help – even if it is inconvenient.  Furthermore, if we have vowed to save everyone, perhaps we will be less distrustful of someone who does not share the same set of beliefs.  (We really need this in this day in age!)  Lastly, if we really vow to save everyone – this means everyone.  (At this point we had a brief discussion about how Buddhism could open up more to minorities and we discussed ideas for next year about potential outreach.)

 

Next, Tesshin also reinforced the idea of commitment.  These vows are not meant to be easy.  Making big vows teaches us to commit to something and then work to accomplish it.  Learning all the teachings of the Dharma is a huge task.  It is not something to be done casually – it must be taken seriously.

 

Tesshin wrapped up by wishing everyone happy holidays and a happy new year.  He also suggested that we use the holiday time to reflect on our practice and these vows and challenged us to come back recharged for a great 2019.

The Sabbath

Sabbath

 

In addition to leading our group, Tesshin is also a Boy Scout leader and chaplain.   On a recent scouting trip he asked the boys if they could name all of the Ten Commandments – and unfortunately none of the boys could.  (Could you from memory??)  Why would a Buddhist abbot talk about the something from the Abrahamic faith tradition?  It is because all faiths have important messages to share about the nature of mankind and how one should live.

 

The fourth commandment states that we should celebrate the Sabbath.  Throughout most of history, religions only held “things” as sacred.  Sacred objects could be a mountain, the sun, or a statue.  However with the concept of the Sabbath, we are told to hold TIME itself sacred.  This is a critical innovation as it is clearly exhorting us to stop our everyday rush and make time focus on what is truly important.  No other organism on Earth has the ability to stop and simply reflect.  Reflection could be prayer, meditation, or simply spending time with one’s family.  The main point is that we are clearly taking a break from the struggle for survival for something much more important and much more sacred.  This is why, according to Tesshin, the Sabbath is such a gift to humanity.

 

We know that in Islam the Sabbath is Friday, and in Judaism it is Saturday, and in Christianity it is Sunday.  Does Buddhism have a Sabbath?  Tesshin told the scouts that every day is the Sabbath for Buddhists.  Every time we take to the cushion it is the Sabbath for us.  Every time we stop and sit and open our mind to the absolute reality of the universe it is yet another chance for us to touch our true humanity.  This does not make Buddhism better than other faith traditions; it is simply that Buddhism puts an emphasis of this path of discovery.

 

Tesshin next described a recent article in Time magazine called “The Club.”  This club has as its members parents who have lost a child to gun violence.  What was striking is that even after the loss of the child, the parents continued performing childcare tasks – even the ones they found particularly tedious.  When the reporter asked why a parent still did things like washing the child’s clothes and sheets they said that the chores formed the “heartbeat and rhythm” of my life.  Tesshin asked us to reflect on this fact for a moment.  What does it mean when the everyday things are the heartbeat of our life?  Should this come as a surprise?

 

NO!  Everyday activities give our life meaning and purpose.  This is why many people struggle when they retire.  This is also why the parents kept caring for their child even after they died.  There is a certain sacredness in everyday these activities.  There is an old Zen saying  “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water”    In our day to day rush, we do not see this and understand the meaning of our lives.  When we pause – whether for a formal Sabbath or during meditation – we generate gratitude and insight for the opportunity to have life and purpose.  This is the teaching that the Sabbath and meditation are trying to convey to us.  Have gratitude for everything!  Have gratitude for life!

What is Your New Identity

WhoAreYou

 

Tesshin welcomed everyone back from the Thanksgiving holiday and continued the discussion we started last week on Gutei’s finger.  To recall, in that story, a student was attempting to look accomplished by mimicking Gutei’s tendency to raise his finger when asked about the nature of enlightenment.  The teacher was having none of this and cut the student’s finger off.    Tesshin explained last time that this story reminds us that we must have our own authentic practice and not copy authority figures.  The understanding must be ours.

 

This week, Tesshin continued this theme of us having our own authentic identity.  He started by noting that today many people look to “social media influencers” to figure out what to stand for.  We “glom” onto celebrity opinion in order to build our own persona.  This can never be sustainable and it leads to a hollow life devoid of any real meaning.

 

Tesshin next considered the identity of an entire nation.  He used the American holiday of Thanksgiving which we just celebrated as an example.  This year there has been some controversy about the original story – namely Native Americans joining with and helping Pilgrims survive in the harsh northeastern climate.  There have emerged new narratives which paint a less rosy picture of what actually happened those many years ago.  However, Tesshin was less interested in the Pilgrim’s story, and more interested in how the actual holiday of Thanksgiving was started.  It actually started by President Lincoln after the Civil War as a way to bring people with differing opinions together over food to talk out differences.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving_(United_States)

So what does this mean?  Is there any value to the pilgrim story?  Tesshin asked the group to consider how that story and other holiday stories affect how the country builds its “persona.” 

 

What does it mean to be an American?  What are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and how does this affect how people live?  Tesshin is in a unique position having spent much time both in the United States and Japan.  In Japan, the ideal man is considered “serious” and the country’s “ethos” is hard work.  This narrative allowed the country to build an economic miracle out of the desolation of World War II.  In the United States, our ethos is freedom and rugged individualism.  This allows the United States to be one of the most innovative countries on the planet.  However, these stories which we tell ourselves only go so far and have their challenges as well.  For instance, Tesshin mentioned that in Japan it is now recognized that all of this seriousness and hard work has made the country extremely inflexible.  This is a serious impediment in the 21st century where economic success is measured by innovation.  In the United States our freedom narrative can morph into a cold disregard for people who are less fortunate. 

 

At this point, Tesshin reminded the group that personas are useful up to a point, but we must always be willing to redefine ourselves as the need arises and circumstances change.  To get stuck in an old story is to become stuck in the past, and is a form of clinging.  This is what our practice attempts to do – namely break us out of set ways of thinking.  Our practice allows us to renew ourselves and our perceptions each day.  It reminds us never to become “attached” to an identity, but rather to exist in THIS very moment and react authentically to what is in front of us right now.

 

 

So what is your new identity – What is your new story?

Gutei’s Finger

gutei

 

First of all, we would like to welcome Tesshin back from his successful sesshin in Japan.  He encouraged all of us to try to attend next year.  A sesshin provides the opportunity for deep practice away from the daily distractions of life.  We will also be planning a sesshin here in New York sometime in 2019.  

 

Tesshin’s talk this week centered on a koan from the Mumonkan – namely case #3 “Gutei’s Finger”  The case goes as follows…

 

There was a Zen master named Gutei.  When he was asked what he teaches, he would raise a single finger.  (What does that mean?)  One day a visitor asked Gutei’s attendant what the master taught.  The attendant too raised a single finger.  Hearing this, Gutei called in the attendant and without any warning cut off the attendant’s finger!  The attendant starts screaming and runs away.  Gutei calls out to him, and when the attendant turns around, Gutei raises a single finger.  At this moment, the boy becomes instantly enlightened.  When Gutei was about to die, his last words were “I obtained one-finger Zen from master Tenryû and used it all my life but still did not exhaust it.”

 

First, Tesshin said that he would not cut any fingers off in dokusan. J  He next explained the koan to us while warning us that explanations of koans are never the same as fully realizing them.  

 

So first, what does it mean when Gutei holds up a single finger?  It is not what you think?  If you believe it means that all is one – you have missed it.  If you think it means stop thinking thoughts, you have also missed it.  All that can be said is that the finger is beside the point – if you put a meaning on the finger then you have attached to a man’s finger and learned nothing.

 

So along comes the attendant who does not really understand what Gutei means by this one finger, but he thinks it is kind of cool and mystical.  When the visitor comes he simply “apes” the master in order to look accomplished.  How many of us have “played Zen master” on TV to impress our friends?  Gutei realized that the attendant was aping the finger and had become attached to a hand gesture.  He had to “cure” his student of this affliction of the mind right away.  As such, he calls the student in and suddenly cuts off the student’s finger!  Now the attendant is in piercing pain.  Pain like that is not thought about – it is not rationalized – it can only be experienced right here and right now.  Gutei understood this and raised a finger to the student.  Why did Gutei do this?  Gutei was clearly saying THIS IS IT!  The student immediately understood and was enlightened.  There were no books, no talks, and no fancy treatises.

 

Tesshin next mentioned Gutei’s final words about never exhausting the “one finger Zen.”  Tesshin’s point here is that true authenticity or finally seeing “suchness” can never be extinguished.  Academic understandings from a book can only take you so far, but full understandings last forever.

 

 Tesshin wrapped up the talk by wishing everyone a happy thanksgiving and reminded us to be cognizant of all the things we have to be thankful for.

 

We would like to give a special thanks to thezenuniverse.org for this week’s image.

The Bone

Kotsu

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week by describing the different “sticks” used in Zen training.  There is the large stick which he taps us on the shoulders with.  This is called the Keisaku or the “encouraging stick” and is used to increase our energy during a meditation session.  However, this week, Tesshin focused on the smaller “teaching stick.”  In Zen, this is called Kotsu or the “Bone” – why is this?  

 

If we look at this stick when Tesshin holds it during Taiso (Dharma talk) we can see that it looks like a spine with a head atop it.  The message is clear!  To do Zen, we really need nothing more than a spine (right posture) and a head (right mind).  Everything else is optional.  

 

On a deeper level, the Kotsu is another reminder that we must cut to the bone in our practice and eliminate everything which is a distraction and not necessary.  Zen commonly talks about getting to the “marrow of the issue.”  Which issue is this?  Namely the issue of life and death and why we are here in the first place.  It most Zen temples there is a “Gatha” or saying which is read every night…  

 

Let me respectfully remind you

Life and death are of supreme importance

Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost

Each of us should strive to awaken

Awaken!

Take heed, do not squander your life.

The bone in the teacher’s hand is clear reminder at what is at stake and not to squander your precious life with distractions.

 

Tesshin next used Zen archery as another example of getting to the marrow.  In Zen the act of shooting an arrow is a metaphor for the entirety of life and the crucible of practice.  It is commonly said that there is “One Arrow – One Life”  All the practice, preparation, and training leads up to the one moment when archer, target, and arrow become one.  Everything happens in this one moment.  Do not look to the future, do not look to the past – just this one moment!  

 

Tesshin next noted that this concept is also very common in Japanese culture.  When people meet, there is an idiom “Ichi-go ichi-e”  This roughly translates into “One Meeting – One Opportunity”  It describes the cultural concept of treasuring this very moment with the person you are with.  Tesshin wondered how many of us think about everything BUT the person we are with in normal social situations.  The Japanese consider the meeting as the most important thing in that moment as they may never meet that person again.  

 

Tesshin wrapped up the talk by stating that all of these symbols serve as a reminder to be present in this moment.  Meditation is all about training the mind so that we can control it and put it where it needs to be in every moment.  Stop wandering – stop regretting the past and worrying about the future.  The moment to act is NOW.