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Evolution

Evolve

 

Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the concept of evolution.  Normally when we think about evolution, we think of fish evolving into land animals or apes evolving to humans.  Tesshin wanted to take a more expansive view of the concept.   Is there a broader process which explains how all phenomena change over time?  Tesshin challenged us to think about the similarities between cultural, social, biological, and cellular evolution.  What is that similar action?  It is nothing more than the absorption and integration of reality.  In biology, life forms absorbs environmental signals and adapts.  Humans also evolve and change over time.  For instance, a baby is born and it is completely helpless.  As it absorbs input from the world around it, the infant grows and matures.  Lastly, this same process happens for an entire society as well.  As new discoveries are made, societies incorporate that knowledge and evolve.  For instance, our country is very different today than it was even fifty years ago.

 

Tesshin pointed that evolution is not about disposing of the past and substituting the present.  For instance, in biology, evolution does not mean a complete change – it means aggregating the new upon the established old.  A good example is that humans have many structures and characteristics which were useful for monkeys in trees a million years ago.  However, these same characteristics are not so useful to us in a modern technical society, but they persist.  A good example is our hardwired response to prefer high calorie foods.  In our distant past, food was scarce and a high fat high sugar morsel was a rare gift.  Today, the situation is different, but those old “circuits” remain.  

 

Tesshin was clear, however, that evolution is, for the most part, a forward moving process of improvement.  Systems integrate new facts from the environment and integrate them to thrive.  Yes, there are times when there are brief periods of “regression,” but these are rare when we consider the scope of biological history or even human history.  It is the same with culture.  We don’t throw away the past, we absorb the new and grow.  Society gets bigger and more sophisticated.  While this year has been challenging with Covid, if we think critically, we must conclude that progress is still occurring.  People are generally living longer and more healthy lives.  Poverty in the world is steadily declining.  Even in our fractious political climate, it is clear that the numbers of people living under absolute tyranny is at an all-time low.   

 

So, what does evolution have to do with our practice?  Tesshin was clear that all wisdom traditions have the ability to speed up the process of personal and societal evolution.  2500 years of history has shown that our path is particularly effective in this regard.  If you take two people and have one contemplate the reality of life and suffering their level of compassion rises over a person not asked to consider that.   It is akin to a person who travels to a foreign land.  Their perspective opens up and becomes much more expansive.  They evolve and become so much more understanding.  If nothing else, they become less certain of their own closely held assumptions.  Simply stated, deep contemplation changes one’s perspective.  Stated differently it accelerates evolution!  One becomes much less certain about things and quickly realizes that reality is not so simple and dualistic.    

 

As we start a sitting practice, we experience pain, distraction, and frustration.  This struggle alone, if taken seriously, naturally builds compassion.  Given time, the evolution grows and expands.  It starts with the deconstruction of our own precious assumptions.  Over time we realize the oneness of everything and a more universal compassion sets in.  We have visited the foreign land and have come back changed.  Tesshin was clear here, our practice is our own personal evolution.  Day by day and minute by minute.  Our job is to participate whole-heartily in this evolution through our practice.  It starts with us and then grows out to the community, country, planet, and universe. 

The Matrix

The Matrix

 

Tesshin used his talk this week to muse whether our existence is nothing more than a simulation.  He recounted a recent discussion by a group of scientists trying to either prove or disprove this theory.  The line of thought is that if you compare the difference in cognitive power between a house fly and a human and then project that to the difference between humans and a super intelligent civilization – it may be reasonable to image a technology which could put us in a simulation.  

 

Tesshin then went on to remind the group that ideas like this have been with us for a long time.  For instance, the “Brain in a Vat” thought-experiment is most commonly used to illustrate a strain of philosophy called Cartesian Skepticism.  We also see ideas like this in the Bible where stories imply that God created multiple versions of life before us.  There are also clear messages in the Bible that we are in the mind of God – which could be interpreted as existence within a simulation.

    

What is the Zen perspective on whether we exist in a concrete reality or a simulation?  Our tradition talks a lot about Karma.  We understand Karma to be the sum of cause and effect which brought you to this very point in time.  Tesshin asked us to consider if this is similar to a “dynamic computer program” in which previous effects control how the program progresses.  In other words, we are being asked to imagine Karma as the main program of a potential simulation.  

 

Tesshin next asked the group if this line of thinking is skillful?  If we were living in a simulation would it affect our practice and path?  The Buddha always said that all he preached were useful practices to alleviate suffering and dispel suffering.  Evidence over 2500 years show that meditation is an effective tool which prepares the mind for deeper insights.  If we are living in a simulation, perhaps practice allows us to tweak the parameters of the model in order to affect the outcome in a positive way?  We can ask a very basic question – does it matter if enlightenment is part of the simulation or is it liberation from the simulation?  If we reflect deeply, we come to the conclusion that it really does not make a difference.  Our “job” is not to see beyond the simulation – our job is to see beyond our own delusions.  Tesshin was clear here – intellectual thought experiments like “Brains in Vats” are fun and interesting, but they are just another distraction along the path.  When the Buddha was about to die, the gathered students asked him about the nature of gods and life after death.  He smiled and stated that these topics are nice to ponder but are distractions from the great matter at hand.  It is the same in the modern world – we can debate the existence of the Matrix, but we must understand that this is “philosophical TV watching.”  Nice to do for a bit, but then it is time to get back to the work at hand.

 

Tesshin wrapped up by relating a story in his own life showing how practice can tweak Karma and actually change deep patterns in our life.  A week ago, Tesshin was doing a fund raiser at his house against hunger and one of the neighbors got upset because he and the neighbor share a common driveway and the neighbor did not appreciate the crowds.  It became a rather large and uncomfortable conflict.  It became clear right away that deep-seated patterns of thought really drive how conflicts occur and are resolved.  Tesshin could think, “How dare some ignorant person interferes with my good deed – after all who could object to feeding hungry people?!”  The natural next step is loud shouting and insensitive statements about the other person.  However, 30 years of introspection clearly told Tesshin that we are ALL the same thing – the neighbor is not evil, broken, or crazy – they suffer too.    This is the change of perspective which changed the Karma!!  According to Tesshin – this is getting down into the “code of reality” and making necessary changes.  Is it the code of human psychology?  Is it the code of Karma?  Is it the code of a nuero-interactive simulation we call the Matrix?  IT DOES NOT MATTER!  What does matter is that Tesshin was able to change the outcome.  This is why we practice.

Breaking Concrete

Breaking Concrete

 

Tesshin is very active in the Boy Scouts.  One of the scouts named Eric Song recently completed his “Duty to God” emblem/badge.  He is a 9th grader at Yorktown Heights highschool.  Tesshin invited Eric to give the Teisho (Dharma Talk) to the group this week.  Below is the transcript of his talk…

 

Good morning everyone, How is everybody doing?

 

So a little bit of an introduction: My name is Eric, and I am in the 9th grade. Half a year ago, I started learning the fundamentals of Buddhism under Mr. Silverman, and since then, these lessons have literally changed my life. I became more confident, more positive, and more understanding of people. These teachings have given me more insight and a deeper understanding of life.

 

Today I want to share with you some of the most important things I learned under Mr. Silverman, the first being looking for the sun beyond the clouds.

 

Optimism is one of the most important qualities to possess in my opinion. Many people today disregard optimism, believing it isn’t as important as many say it is. However, a happier mind leads to a happier life. Instead of focusing on the bad things, always remember that there is a sun behind the clouds. This doesn’t just affect you, but also the people around you. There is a story about a man who was a stock trader. He was always a grouch, he never smiled, and people didn’t like him for this. However, he decided that for one week he would try and smile as much as possible to see its effect. The result? When he woke up the next morning, the first thing he did was smile at his wife and tell her how much he loved her. She was bewildered, this was different from the grumpy man she once knew. She was happy, and he was happy. Next, when he arrived at the trading floor, he noticed something. Whenever he smiled, people would smile back. Not only that, but the people he worked with slowly grew to be more fond of him. This change also enabled him to treat the people around him with more respect, and not to ridicule them. Ever since then, he has made many new friends. 

 

While this may seem common-sense to the people here today, for other people, especially teenagers, this is not as obvious.

 

I’m not saying that people should be happy and cheerful all the time. Sometimes you feel sad and sometimes you feel angry. But in those situations, always remember somewhere behind the clouds there is a sun. Even in the darkest of times, there is a sun. Be optimistic and smile, and I guarantee people will smile right back. 

 

But looking for the sun beyond the clouds isn’t entirely optimism, it can apply to many different things as well! In Buddhism, clouds are a distraction from the sun: delusion. This can be feelings of greed, hate, and anger. Despite these feelings, purity still exists. No matter how thick the clouds, this part of you will never be affected. Buddhism is based on breaking up the clouds to get closer to your purity. It’s like an onion. To get closer, you keep peeling off layers. To get closer to yourself, you need to look for the sun beyond the clouds. 

 

Imagine this: A man comes up to you and says some very hurtful things. How would you feel initially? Most people would feel angry. To many people, everything seems concrete. The insults are very real, the attacker is very real, and you feel like an attackee. This causes people to give in to the anger: possibly hurting the attacker and themselves in the process. 

 

How would one defuse this situation? This is called breaking up the concrete: using wisdom to address these thoughts. Take a look at the words attacking you. In these sounds, where can you find the insult? Do any of the individual sounds coming out of his mouth contain an insult? Keep breaking it apart like this, and you’ll never find an insult. It wasn’t so concrete after all. The insult is part of what the words mean to you, not the words themselves. 

 

Now take apart the attacker. In his physical and mental makeup, where is the attacker? Is it in his face? His jeans? In his many thoughts/emotions that go through his mind? The more you break the attacker up, the less of a bad guy he appears.

 

Finally, where are you? Can you find where the sound waves entered? In which part of your brain did the sound come through? Maybe in your body? Somewhere else? 

 

The more you analyze a situation, you realize things aren’t as concrete as you initially thought. Instead of being things with hard edges, they are actually “loosely organized phenomena.” They are your thoughts, your feelings, and so on. They rely on how you interpret them. By looking at it through a different lens, there is no option for aversion.

 

That’s all I’m going to share today, if you want to share any of your experiences, please feel free to do so.

Punched in the Face

Punched in the Face -2

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week by sharing a few thoughts from this past turbulent week in the United States.  A quick read of the newspapers recounted the president being stricken by Covid, the death of a supreme court judge, continuing economic turmoil, protests, and so on.  How are we to react when events seem to come at us faster and faster?

 

Tesshin first noted that the Buddha constantly reminded students of the simple fact that all beings want to be safe, happy, and secure.  This is always a good touch base to come back to – even when there is so much conflict in the world.  It reminds us that we are all the same “thing.”  This is our common ground!!  We all suffer as events batter us.  We may express the suffering in different ways and have different opinions on the cause – but it is important to remember that we all suffer.  Nobody gets a pass!

 

People on the path can serve as a stabilizing force, however.  We understand that attachments to emotions, fears and expectations are what “amps” everything up.  Tesshin wondered where people can go in the “secular world” to find relief from pain.  One can’t go to the media, or the community, or institutions.  It appears that everywhere we turn there is “an agenda.”  Tesshin exhorted us to be a source of compassion in the chaotic world.  Even if you don’t agree with people on the issues, we must be mindful that people are simply clinging to their ideas like a drowning person clinging to a life ring.    We can be the force of compassion and equinity in the world.  We take vows to save ALL beings – not ones we like or agree with.  We make no conditions on our vows!  Even the most “horrible” person in the world must be saved.  Do you take that seriously or is it just words?

 

Tesshin also reminded us that one of the beings we must save is ourselves!!  We must be conscious of our pain and suffering.  This is why we practice.  If we have no compassion for ourselves, how can we help others?  “Compassion starts at home.”  This is a fact that many of us forget.

 

These are hard times, but it is only in hard times where we learn and grow.  During good times, it is easy to play the part – there is no learning and growth there.  Tesshin gave the example of the Dalai Lama who commonly shows reverence to the Chinese even though they are bent on killing him and destroying his tradition.  Why do this?  First and foremost, the Dalai Lama understands that we must save all beings – even the ones who are out to destroy us.  Next, he also understands that opponents are your greatest teachers.  However, it is also important to remember that compassion does not mean to submit to your destruction.  It is no coincidence that great teachers call life the “Supreme Koan.”   Doing the right thing continuously is hard to figure out – which is why practice never ends.

 

Tesshin wrapped up by providing the story of a public entertainer who was walking down the street of a major city.  Suddenly and randomly, someone walked up and punched him in the face!  There was no reason or logic behind this attack.  It is doubtful that the attacker even knew his victim.  How do we deal with this?  Practice is about dealing with situations like this.  When you got punched in the face, what did you do?  How do you respond?  We are getting punched more and more of late?  What do you do?  How do you express it?  

The House is Burning

Burning

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week with the Lotus Sutra.  This is one of the foundational teaching of Mahayana Buddhism.   Tesshin admitted that the Lotus Sutra can be quite long and dense and reminded us that the Heart Sutra serves as a good distillation.  However, there are many parables in the longer document which can serve as fine teaching tools.  This week Tesshin focused on the story of the “Burning House.”

 

In this story there is a wealthy man who owns a large house with many children inside.  All of the kids are in the house totally absorbed with their toys.  At some point a fire breaks out in the house.  The children do not notice the fire, but the parent does and knows he must save his children.  The father needs to figure out what to do right away to accomplish the rescue!

 

The father’s first idea is to simply go in bodily remove the children.  The problem with this approach is that the fire blocks the way and it would take too long to rescue all the children.  Some kids would still be trapped in the house and would not make it.

 

His next idea is to yell to the kids that there is a fire and to run for it.  The problem is that the kids do not even look up from what they are doing!  They have heard the father cajole them about “important” things in the past – what a ‘killjoy!’  Can’t he leave us alone for a few minutes to play?

 

What now?  The father suddenly has an inspired idea – He smiles and tells the children that outside of the house that are even better surprises than their tired and boring old toys.  This piques their interest.  He continues, that there is a carriage led by a goat, another led by a deer, and a third led by an ox.  The kids are totally surprised and their curiosity drives them quickly outside of the house just before the fire completely consumes everything.  

 

When the kids emerge, they immediately see that the three carriages are not present.  Thinking that this was some trick, they start crying and whining to the father.  They accuse him of tricking them to cut off their play time.  The father smiles again and points at a single bejeweled carriage.  The kids eyes go wide and mouths go agape.  Wow!  They asked – why did you not simply tell us about THIS?  The father states, that you have to see it to believe it.  Words could not describe it!

 

Tesshin then proceeded to explain the symbols in this parable.  

 

The house is samsara or the world of birth and death and the five aggregates of form, sensations, perceptions, mental activity, and consciousness itself.  The house on fire is an allusion to the fact that everything in the phenomenal universe is impermanent – So the house has always and will always be on fire!!

 

The children represent all of us in the pheromonal world caught up in our desires and delusions.  We are so fixated on our ego that we cannot see reality all around us.  So, what are our toys or delusions?  Tesshin mentioned social media as an example.  How many of us stare at our devices for hours to keep up with ‘friends’ we never speak to in the real world?

 

We see the father as the spiritual teacher.  It could be the historical Buddha or any accomplished teacher or Bodhisattva.  However, we could also simply consider the Dharma teaching themselves as the father.  We see in the story the father trying different ways to accomplish this difficult of creating awakening.  The story is clear that direct approaches like pointing at the door or laying out the simple facts rarely work.  If they did, we would not need a lifetime of practice.  The dad is figuring out a way to save the kids.  The Buddha historically talked about Upaya, or skillful means.  

 

So, what is the skillful means being pointed to in this story?  Tesshin implied that impetus to the spiritual path cannot be a cold logical argument.  It also cannot be forced through guilt or anger.  In the story, the father piqued the interest of the children with something they could relate to.  I have better toys over here!  This got the children to “look up!”  Once they were ready to look at something new – the real bejeweled carriage became apparent – this, of course, is the realization of true reality – which is the goal of all of us!!

 

Tesshin wrapped up by asking us to be mindful of the toys which keep us in the burning house.  He asked us to consider those obsessions which our ego cannot let go of.  What keeps you from running out of the burning house?

Intimacy

Dogen-Intimacy

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week by quoting Dogen Zenji who is the founder of the Soto school of Zen.  

“Enlightenment is the intimacy with all things”

What is Zen?  Dogen would say that Zen is everything.  There is nothing outside of Zen.  Intimacy is a deep connection with absolutely everything.  Can we actually achieve this?  If not, why not?

 

Tesshin suggested that we may not have this connection because we are always thinking about other things.  Take something like a sunset – can we be intimate with this one or are we comparing it to every other sunset we have experienced?  Are we too busy posting the sunset to Instagram rather than actually experiencing it?  Zen talks about absolute experience.  The practice asks us to experience something BEFORE the ego puts it in a box or deals with it in some other way.

 

There is a famous parable in Zen.  A Buddhist professor meets a Zen master.  As the intellectual starts talking about the history, theories, and precepts of Zen, the master starts to pour him a cup of tea.  The cup starts out empty, then quarter full, then half, then almost full, then full.  The master keeps pouring and the professor keeps talking.  Pretty soon the table is covered with hot tea which starts to drip onto the talkative professor.  Only when the hot tea touches the professor does he stop pontificating and asks, “What are you doing?  I am getting wet!”  The master states that it is impossible to fill a cup which is already so full!  Tesshin noted that WE are the professor!  We bring so much “knowledge” to every situation that there is no room to authentically experience anything.  Zen is like the hot tea startling us awake – if only for a few moments.

 

Tesshin next wanted to drill into the emotional aspect of intimacy which is so much more relevant in this time of Covid.  He mentioned that it is easy to build intimacy and trust within a group when we meet in a sacred space like the Zendo.  In the sacred space, we set out cushions for each other, serve tea to each other, and we clean up after each other.  Tesshin likened this to what people experience during a Sesshin.  There is no talking – just a group intensively practicing together.  At the end of the Sesshin, there is incredible closeness as you have been practicing with these people 24 X 7 for an entire week!  Tesshin noted that most of the time people know nothing about the other participants – not even their name.  However, in another sense, they know everything about the others as they have been in such close contact.  The Sesshin generates a very special type of intimacy.

 

Tesshin then asked, what about in a Zoom meeting?  Can we approximate the same atmosphere?  Does the technology create a distance?  It may be possible, but it appears that the technology also tends to put distance and separation between people.  People joke that on a Zoom meeting you don’t know if anyone is wearing paints.  While this makes us chuckle – it points out the separation the technology introduces.  So how do we overcome this distance and generate intimacy?  Tesshin reminded us that we all the same “thing.”  We have all felt pain in our past which has put a scar on our heart.  

 

Many people come to spirituality in order to learn how to face this pain courageously.  While we may want to go back and resolve the conflict with the individuals who caused us pain in our past, it probably would not work.  Those individuals may no longer be alive or may not be able to rise to the occasion to resolve the conflict.  However, we can look deeply into what happened and learn from the incident.  Much of our suffering is due to our own attachments and expectations.  We may now find that we lack intimacy for all because we have been scared by situations in our past.  Can we transcend this?  This is what Dogen is pointing to.  Can we look deeply in our past and our present and generate compassion?  Not just for the person who hurt us but for ourselves as well?  Our practice allows us to understand why we do the things we do.  Tesshin exhorted us not to cheat ourselves from the intimacy we deserve.

Dolly Parton’s Dharma

dolly_parton

 

Tesshin opened his talk by recounting a few events from the past week.  First there was the two day Soto Zen teachers conference which was held via a Zoom conference this year due to Covid.  There were lots of interesting conversations among the teachers and Tesshin promised to organize some of the most salient issues and share them with the group over the next few weeks.  

 

Tesshin also talked about his vacation.  This year his family camped at NY state parks with which required a lot of time driving.  During these drives, Tesshin used the time to catch up on some podcasts.  One in particular was called “Dolly Parton’s America” produced by Radio Lab and NPR.   This is a nine part series exploring the question of the “culture” of a Parton concert.  It appears to be a real cross section of Americana.  One will see truckers next to gay couples next to church groups.  Why is this?  How is she able to pull this off in our polarized country?

 

One of the conclusions of the podcast investigation is that when one enters the “Dollyverse” everyone feels safe and accepted.  You become part of a family of fans.  Fans do not care about your political stance, or your job, or anything else.  Everyone is united in the love of the music, history, and gestalt of the Parton concert.  This is why it has such a draw across so many different groups.  There is a very simple but profound teaching here!  

 

Tesshin noted that this teaching can be extended to Buddhism.  First, the Buddha taught that at the core we are all the same thing both in the absolute and relative sense.  At the core, all people are united in the desire for safety and happiness.  We all want to belong and feel accepted.  People are social by nature.  This is why we gain so much more by practicing as a group rather than alone.  In the past, safety in the sangha focused on psychological safety, but now, in the Covid era, it even extends to physical safety as well.  Tesshin reminded us that we all play a part.  Our actions and feeling telegraph to others even when we are not in direct contact.  Our mission is to emit confidence and inclusion.  Others pick up our mental state whether positive or negative.

 

How do we create the sense of safety and acceptance into our sangha, communities, and families?  To illustrate how this can be done, Tessin brought up two examples from this week’s news.  First, there was the magician David Blane who floated high in the Arizona sky with balloons.  Second, there was the rescue in New York of a woman trapped in a high-rise fire by a risky “rope rescue.”  How do the magician and the firefighters perform these dangerous high-altitude feats – safely??  They do it through years of practice and training.  How do we do this in the Sangha? Training and practice, of course!  How does Dolly Parton do it?  – through repetition and consistency.  See, we are all the same thing!  The techniques work across a number of disparate activities.  It should not come as a surprise that something as different as a country-western concert, a magic illusion, and Zen mediation are all teaching the same lesson.  Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that the Buddha always said that the truth is all around you – you just need slow down just enough to actually observe it.  

Charity vs Sacrifice

bull

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week by recounting some issues he has been working through over the past week.  He likened these to threads in a tapestry of thought.  The first thread had to do with the forest fires currently burning out west in California.  He mentioned a Dharma talk given by Bhikkhu Bodhi in Parabola Magazine called the “Fire Sermon.”  (See attached below)   Bhikkhu Bodhi’s point in this talk is that the passion for ego in us burns so brightly it can actually devour us.  Of course, our practice is to extinguish these flames, but Tesshin also pointed out that the key observation of this sermon is that these internal passions manifest in the physical around us.  When our ego compels us to put our own desires ahead of others it should come as no surprise that bad things happen in the world.  One needs only to look at the greed and clinging in all of us and how this translates into wars, hunger, and yes, even forest fires!  How can desires cause fires??  Individuals crave to be in nature, but forget that their actions have effects.  A careless camp fire, an unintended spark, a carelessly parked car all can be the initiator of fire.  All of a sudden thousands of acres are consumed in fire.  However, even here, the story is not so simple.  The egoistic desire to “preserve” our idea of nature is also at play.  Nature renews itself by periodic fires touched off by lighting strikes.  Do we only care because OUR houses are present in the way of this renewal?  It seems that humanity wants nature as long as it is not terrible inconvenient!!

 

Tessin next moved to his second thread.  A young woman asked him about the nature of charity and sacrifice.  She was volunteering at the Garden of Hope and started to think about her motivations for doing the gardening work.  Is this charity, is it a sacrifice, and are these things really the same?  

 

In the Abrahamic traditions the concept of sacrifice turns up over and over again.  We read about animal sacrifices in the bible, for instance.  What lesson is being taught here?  Is sacrificing a bull charity?  Is it the ancient equivalent of community service or dropping a few dollars in a collection box?  Tesshin did not think so.  In ancient times, a bull was extremely valuable.  It did physical labor and it could feed a family for weeks.  Sacrificing such a valuable item at the Temple had serious repercussions.   Tesshin asked the young garden volunteer if she really thought much about her time in the Garden.  She basically stated that working in the garden made her feel good because it helped others, but she pretty much forgot about it after the work was done.  So, there seems to be a qualitative difference between the ancients sacrificing their one bull and a modern teenager doing a few hours of work at a community garden.

 

Tesshin noted that there is a much deeper message, however.  Sacrifice reminds us that we really own nothing in the absolute sense.  How can we when there is really no separation between thins in reality?  Everything comes and goes and nothing is permanent.  Yes, that bull is important, but it does not define your entire existence.  Sacrifice is manifested in our very nature.  It is not a negative thing and it is not a transnational activity.  It is not like “Merit” or “Dana” in Buddhism either.  We do not think, “I will sacrifice something today because I want to become a better person.”  See how the ego flame is still burning.  The soldier does not make a transnational calculation when he jumps on a grenade to save his buddies.  It is an automatic response coming from a very deep place in his being.  A mother does not calculate merit when defending a child.  She does not look for appreciation and respect from society.  When asked, she simply states, “I am a Mother and this is what we do!”

 

Tesshin pointed out that this is where the two threads weave together.  Greed and grasping are not our nature.  The forests burn because we forget this.  The suffering all around us is due to our forgetfulness of our true nature.  In the absolute sense, our nature is sacrifice because we are all the same thing, all the time, throughout all space.  Everything in the universe chants the same song.  Charity is the ego calculating cost/benefit.  Sacrifice is us acting in our true nature.  

 

So, do we engage with a charity mindset or a sacrifice mindset?  Do we practice as a hobby or do we practice as the most important thing in the world?  Does our ego fire burn or do we sing in concert with the entire universe?  How serious are you?  The fires are burning right now – what are you to do?

 

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Bhikkhu Bodhi’s ‘Reflections on the Fire Sermon’ , 2012 , Parabola Magazine 

 

 

REFLECTIONS ON THE FIRE SERMON

Bhikkhu Bodhi

 

From the window of my second-floor apartment at Chuang Yen Monastery, I see down below a pageant of colors celebrating the splendor of this mild October day in upstate New York. It’s nine in the morning. Leaves of red, yellow, orange, purple, and brown flare up like brilliant flames against a background that stubbornly insists on preserving the green shades of summer. Across the road the surface of the Seven Jewels Lake is lightly rippled by soft breezes, forming an exquisite background to the large statue of Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, which juts out above the water. Her elegant figure conveys a feeling of peace, harmony, and gentleness. The surrounding paths are empty, and the scene before me seems the epitome of beauty and tranquility. I could not imagine a more perfect world. 

How could the Buddha say that everything is burning?

 

Yet I don’t remain content admiring the splendid scenery. Before long, curiosity gets the better of me, and I feel compelled to find out what’s going on in the world beyond the gates of this monastery. With a few clicks of the mouse on my computer, I conjure up the morning’s news. The home page springs up and the headlines immediately jump off the screen: “Libyan fighters seize Bani Walid,” “Kenya sends troops to attack al-Shabab,” “Fighting erupts in Yemeni capital,” “UN rights head warns of ‘civil war’ in Syria.” I don’t need the internet to know what is taking place on Wall Street and in other cities around the world. I have visited the Occupy Wall Street and the Stop the Machine occupations in New York and Washington, respectively. I know that these campaigns were triggered by episodes of financial profligacy that have pushed millions into unemployment, home foreclosures, hunger, and escalating debt.

 

So while the scene outside my window bears testimony to the unspeakable beauty of the world, it does not tell the whole story. It does not tell the story of what happens when human beings, driven by very ordinary human motives, prey on one another and on the natural world. It does not reveal how the primal impulses of the undisciplined mind can wreak havoc on populations spread out across the planet, even rocking the foundations of civilization itself. 

The most ominous threat we face is almost too pervasive to be discerned, too slow and gradual in its incremental growth to capture our attention, and thus it remains virtually imperceptible. 

 

The threat comes from the changes being wrought upon our climate, from the slow warming of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. The danger posed by climate change consists not only in forests turned into tinder, nor in accelerating loss of biodiversity—the decimation of countless species of birds, animals, insects, and plants. The danger is not only the vanishing of the glaciers that supply water to the great rivers of China, South Asia, and South America, or more violent wild fires, droughts, floods, hurricanes, and cyclones. The biggest danger is a diminished food supply. At the same time that crop yields decline due to higher temperatures and the assaults of industrial agriculture, the world’s population is rising, driving up demand and pushing food prices beyond the reach of the poor. As the disparity between supply and demand widens, almost inevitably the result will be state failures and social unrest, exploding in regional conflict, violence, and war. 

 

Yet how are we to address this formidable situation? The news outlets report on the flames and the fuel, not on the sparks that ignite the fires. Even the most penetrating analyses of the causes and possible consequences of our current dilemmas sometimes conceal as much as they reveal, leaving the underlying causation on the sidelines. Could a clearer diagnosis be found in an ancient sermon spoken by the Buddha to a group of monks five hundred years before the Common Era? 

 

We shouldn’t be too quick to mock this suggestion. The Fire Sermon is one of the starkest, bluntest, and most powerful expressions of spiritual truth ever uttered. Though spoken long before the Industrial Revolution, before the rise of corporate capitalism and the global financial system, before modern technologies of war emerged, the discourse is astoundingly prescient in its diagnosis of the human condition. The text startles us, sounds a stern warning, wakes us up. 

The Buddha begins straight off by declaring that everything is burning. And without any apologies he takes us straight to the heart of the matter: the world is burning with the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. 

 

From the dawn of history, these primal motives have been at the root of all misery. Yet today they have acquired a potency that in the Buddha’s time would have been unthinkable. In earlier eras, greed, hatred, and delusion were viewed as dangerous because of their impact on the individual mind and on the people with whom one directly interacted. Today, however, these three “roots of the unwholesome” have acquired a global reach. They’ve taken on systemic embodiments—in organizations and institutions, in the formulation of policies, in the rules and protocols by which political and economic objectives are pursued. They exist not only as motives in individual minds but as forces that energize colossal social systems spread out over the world, touching virtually everyone. Thus they are now much more malignant than ever before.

 

The manifestation of greed that should concern us most is not the yearning for simple sensual pleasures but the lust for power, control, and domination. Greed drives the expansion of financial institutions to the point where they become “too big to fail.” It underlies the push for corporate dominance at the risk of people’s health and a viable environment. It widens the divide between the rich and the multitudes, who are pushed down into poverty without adequate social safety nets to catch them. Greed invades our political systems, turning those who should lead into accessories of the corporate interests that finance their campaigns. Greed propels a gargantuan economy that goes on devouring ever diminishing stocks of fossil fuels and other finite resources. Our collective greed blinds us to the future, so that we are willing to bequeath to later generations the task of revitalizing a planet that may be damaged beyond repair.

Hatred today still erupts in persistent wars and violence against those of different nationalities, ethnicities, and religious beliefs. But its most insidious manifestation is callous indifference, a disregard for everyone and everything beyond our own narrow interests. When our hearts are closed, we objectify others by reducing them to mere statistics. We turn a blind eye to the plight of the billion people afflicted with chronic hunger and malnutrition. We ignore the small-scale farmers who helplessly look on when their land is gobbled up by giant agro-industrial firms. We dismiss the killing of innocent civilians as “collateral damage.” 

 

In a similar way, we commodify the natural world so that animals become machines whose sole function is to supply meat and dairy products. We regard forests as nothing more than stocks of wood and paper. We grab hold of land and treat it solely as a source of coal, precious metals, petroleum, and gems. We strip people of their personhood, so that they are no longer dignified bearers of a hidden divinity but mere customers and clients whose being is to be for us. Isn’t this, in a way, just a more polite and refined expression of hatred?

 

Delusion does not only mean sheer ignorance and wrong views. It also means distraction and self-deception. I often wonder whether we refuse to look at our global crises because they are too overwhelming or because other things with more glitter capture our attention. While I don’t discount the former explanation, I’m often amazed to observe, even in myself, how trivial matters deflect us from the critical questions with which we should be grappling, how they shield from view the challenges on which our very survival depends. Is it possible that we are literally “amusing ourselves to death,” letting a flood of hollow forms of entertainment sweep us toward a waterfall? 

But distraction is not the only way that we succumb to delusion. We also engage in deliberate deception, and often we let ourselves be deceived. How do we account for the fact that, when 97% of climate scientists say that climate change is real and that it’s caused by human activity, almost 40% of the U.S. population refuses to believe them? 

Fires rage in California and Texas; tornados strike in the Midwest and deep in the South; fierce hurricanes sweep across the country. And still the commentators don’t connect the dots, don’t dare tell us that these are heralds of even greater calamities to come, that the planet is getting hotter and we’re the ones who have turned up the thermostat. While climate scientists almost unanimously warn us that global warming is real, their warnings are mocked and their motives slandered. Politicians beholden to the oil industry even hold a vote on the question whether climate change is genuine, and by majority opinion determine it’s a hoax. Can a thicker cataract of self-delusion be imagined?

 

In the Fire Sermon, the Buddha says that the way to win release from the fires that devour us is by extinguishing them at their point of origin. This means extinguishing them in the mind, by putting out the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. The specific method the discourse recommends is inevitably framed against the spiritual backdrop of early Buddhism, which stresses personal responsibility for suffering and sees release as an individual attainment. Hence liberation comes about through meditative insight, disenchantment, and detachment. However, given the global and systemic embodiments of greed, hatred, and delusion that today jeopardize humanity’s future, I wonder whether a project aimed at individual emancipation alone is adequate for our needs. 

 

As I see it, there are two trajectories along which human life is moving, and both need to be steered in a different direction. One is the moral trajectory, the other the trajectory of sustainability. The moral trajectory is currently being driven by lust for profit and power, which is ravaging the finite resources of the earth and filling its sinks with toxic waste. The trajectory of sustainability is being propelled by an expanding population expected to increase to nine billion by 2050. At the same time, rising living standards in developing countries like China, India, and Brazil increase the pressure on the planet to provide the resources needed to satisfy the expectations of their newly affluent elites. If these two trajectories continue on their present course, they are bound to converge and plunge us into calamity. 

In my understanding, the only prospect for human flourishing lies in altering these trajectories, a task that requires collective action rather than merely a personal effort. To emerge intact, we have to work in unison to devise ways of mitigating the fires presently consuming our world. 

 

While rooted in the same essential insights enunciated in the Fire Sermon, the approach that I see as mandatory must match the global dimensions of our current crisis. If the fires that are burning up our world today are fueled by the systemic expressions of greed, hatred, and delusion, it seems that the imperative laid on us is to confront these collective expressions head on and curb the commanding roles they play in the systems they dominate. This would mean that our endeavor should not simply be to attain personal insight in order to break the bonds that individually tie us to suffering, but to reshape the structures themselves so that they provide everyone with opportunities for a more dignified and fulfilling life. 

 

If we accept this imperative as our personal mission, it means that we apply the ideal of “the removal and abandoning of greed, hatred, and delusion” to the operation of collective systems. The solution becomes not merely a matter of economics and politics but a deeply moral and spiritual transformation that overturns our fundamental values. The moral trajectory must be bent in the direction of greater social and economic justice. The trajectory of sustainability must be bent away from infinite expansion toward a principle of sufficiency. This entails containing population growth, protecting biodiversity, expediting the transition to renewable sources of energy, and adopting effective strategies of climate mitigation and adaptation. But it also entails adopting new standards of the good life that emphasize contentment rather than consumption, expansion, and novelty.

 

Such a project would revisit the assumptions that underlie the prevailing model of a growth economy, which sees the increase of output as the principal rationale for economic policy. Instead of aiming at quantitative expansion, we must make our social institutions more equitable, generous, and compassionate, so that we can provide all the earth’s denizens with the material and social supports of a decent life. We must also learn to respect the rights of other sentient beings and acknowledge the inescapable finitude of the biosphere. At the deepest level, we are called upon to re-envisage life’s ultimate purpose, seeing it as the actualization of truth, goodness, and beauty rather than the achievement of wealth, power, and domination. 

 

This amounts to nothing less than a complete revaluation of our collective goals, but if we want to survive and flourish as a species, in the end we probably have no alternative.

It is mid-afternoon now. I look out my window and, apart from the interplay of light and shadow, I see that not much has changed since this morning. The sun now illuminates the colored leaves more brightly than it did in the morning. The sunlight shines on the front of the Guan Yin statue, accentuating its delicate features. The paths are still empty, and the same peace and quiet prevails. But I ask myself: “Does there have to be an irreconcilable duality between the quiet of the monastery and the commotion, upheaval, and turmoil I discover when I pass beyond its gates? Can’t we extinguish the grosser fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, so that the world need not be a blazing cauldron? Is it possible to persuade people to live together peacefully and harmoniously, to know simple joys, to treat one another with generosity and kindness?” 

 

As long as life continues, inevitably the “fires of birth, old age, and death” will burn. Thus liberation from the cycle of repeated existence, the attainment of the deathless, still reigns as the final goal. But, I ask myself, can’t we draw a distinction between those fires that are intrinsic to life itself and those that are parasitic on the life process, the fires ignited and fueled by greed, hatred, and delusion? I myself draw such a distinction. Thus, in my own small way, I aspire to help reduce the global and systemic fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, to usher in a world in which justice, love, and generosity will finally prevail.

 

Honrai

Honrai

 

Tesshin opened his talk this week by commenting on last week’s talk about perpetual energy.  He noticed that it is ironic that he was talking about power considering that his house was still without power a week after hurricane Isaicas passed through.  

 

Tesshin next continued by recounting the story of a woman living in Louisiana with dangerous storm approaching.  On multiple occasions the family, friends, and finally the police came by and told her to evacuate.  She tells everyone she is not worried because God will take care of her.  Of course, when the storm comes the first-floor floods she rushes up to the second floor.  Outside her window, a boat passes and a good Samaritan offers to rescue her.  She replies that there is no problem as God will take care of her.  The flood waters keep rising and she moves to the roof.  A helicopter passes by and the pilot offers pull her off the roof.  She calmly responds that there is no problem as God will take care of her.  Finally, she is swept away in the flood and dies.  When she arrives in heaven, she asks God, “Why did you not take care of me?!”  God responds, “I sent an ARMY of people to help you – friends, family, police, boaters, and even a helicopter!! – What more would you have me do?!”  

 

So, what are we to make of this story?  The woman understood the grace of God – are we telling her not to believe?  I do not think so.  Perhaps the woman had a misunderstanding about what faith really is and how it works.  Tesshin provided another example by sharing Case #9 from the “Gateless Gate” Koan collection by Mumon…

 

A monk asked Koyo Seijo, “Daitsu Chisho Buddha sat in zazen for ten kalpas and could not attain Buddhahood. He did not become a Buddha. How could this be?”

 

Seijo said, “Your question is quite self-explanatory.”

 

The monk asked, “He meditated so long; why could he not attain Buddhahood?”

 

Seijo said, “Because he did not become a Buddha.”

 

Here we naturally ask the question – if Daitsu Chisho sat for an eternity (a kalpa is a REALLY long time!) would it not Buddhahood be guaranteed?  

 

Tesshin remarked that there are really two things going on here at the same time.  The first is our day to day existence and the other is the absolute nature of reality.  A common question in Zen is why practice if we are already perfect?  We practice as it focuses our day to day existence and sets us up to gain insight into the absolute.  A simple metaphor may be that any human can lift 200 pounds over their head, but to do that requires consistent training.  We sit because we can change our existential experience.  We are already Buddha, but we do have control over the day to day experience.  We build experiences which eventually lead to deeper understanding.

 

So, our woman had an intuitive understanding of God’s beneficence, but it was a dualistic understanding because she misunderstood its application in day to day living.  It is the same thought when we say we do not need to practice because we are already Buddhas.  Looking at it from the other direction, Daitsu Chisho could meditate until the universe ended, and may still miss the key insight of the unity of all existence.  Doing a physical activity well does not guarantee anything.  Intellectual mastery misses the point entirely!  This is why Zen is a very intuitive and existential tradition and is commonly referred to as being outside of the scriptures.

 

Tesshin next contrasted two topics common in Zen …

 

Kensho:  Is the stage in practice where one finally understands the true nature of reality and the everyday suchness of everything.  

 

Honrai muichimotsu (heart of the truth) is the understanding that this understanding extends to everything, everywhere, and for all time.  This is one of the most famous expressions in Zen and translates to the fact that everything comes from nothing and comes into the universe with nothing – no attachments, no possessions, no preconceived ideas nor prejudices; by nature, having nothing. Tesshin remarked that this is exactly the message in the Heart Sutra. 

 

Tesshin likened this nothingness to the Ocean.  The ocean is always the ocean – year after year – century after century.  However, it also has a phenomenal and existential experience – namely the storms, waves, and currents.    

 

So, looking at the koan again, Tesshin suggested that we swap out the word “Buddha” for the word “Ocean.”  The ocean has been making waves for kalpas, yet the ocean never became the “Ocean” why?  The master would respond that the ocean could not become the ocean because it already is the ocean.  But my understanding of the Ocean is calm waters!!  No!  Ocean is Ocean whether calm or stormy.  However, a sailor on the ocean would have great difficulties contemplating the vastness of the ocean with 40-foot rogue waves slamming into his tiny craft.  This is our practice!!  We try to calm the waters of day to day so as to give us space to contemplate the vastness of suchness!  We strive for Kensho as a doorway to the vastness of Honrai

Desire

Fire of Desire

 

Tesshin opened his talk by showing the group a curious looking device.  He then proceeded to talk about man’s search for the mythical perpetual motion machine.  The universe is boundless so it follows that there must be a super abundance of energy.  If this is the case, why does it seem to take so much effort to do anything?  Why do we have to work so hard to tap into something which is supposedly unlimited?  

 

Spiritual traditions have pondered this question throughout time.  In the west, we talk about the “fall of man.”  The story goes that humanity used to have access to unlimited energy with no effort, but then humanity tasted the apple from the tree of knowledge and everything changed.  We got evicted from Eden!  We now had to expend effort and that was hard!  Humanity has been trying to get back into the state of Eden for as long as there has been history.  We built machines to substitute for muscle force, but nothing is perfect – the machines create pollution and other negative side effects.  Even modern technology is not free of drawbacks.  For example, a solar cell may not emit carbon, but its manufacture and eventual disposal is very harmful to the environment.  

 

At this point, Tesshin activated his “interesting device.”  It was essentially a set of weights and magnets.  While obviously not a perpetual motion machine, it will run for quite a long time.  After a few moments, Tesshin suddenly changed the orientation of the machine and all of the parts shot off in different directions.  He observed that energy, balance, and moderation are important for the smooth operation of the machine.  

 

So how does this discussion on energy and balance affect and relate to our practice.  Tesshin mentioned that It turns out that when people talk about practice, the biggest comment is that it is hard to maintain consistency over time.  This should not come as a surprise!  Tesshin admitted that even he has his ups and downs with practice.  (Something that should hearten all of us when we think we are failures at Zazen!)  So how do we keep practice alive when things get difficult?  Is there a boundless source of energy which we can tap?  

 

Tesshin asked us to consider the following thought experiment.  If you suddenly desired a chocolate bar, how much effort would it be to reach for one in the cupboard.  Not much – after all you desire it!!  Next, imagine it is 8 pm at night and it is time to sit Zazen.  You say to yourself, “I really SHOULD do Zazen now.”  How much effort does that take?  Tesshin wagered that on certain nights, it probably takes quite a bit!   Tesshin mentioned that the science is pretty clear – people have a lot less willpower than they think they do.  So how do we generate the will to practice?  One answer is to ask yourself what do you most DESIRE.  What do you desire more than fame, money, and respect of your peers?  The Buddha realized so many years ago that we are all the same thing – and what we really desire is to be free of suffering and to have equanimity.  Tesshin reminded us that the Buddha taught that one of the best ways to satisfy that desire is the practice of seated meditation.

 

Tesshin paused here to let this sink in.  DESIRE is the perpetual motion machine – the source of boundless power inside of us which can drive our practice forward.  We cannot think our way to enlightenment, equanimity, and happiness.  Desire is the necessary force.  However, he warned us that we have to use this energy skillfully.  Just like the machine, desire without balance causes everything to go flying off in different directions.   In our example, at 8 pm “I SHOULD” do Zazen becomes “I DESIRE” to be happy – as such I need to do Zazen to achieve that goal.  

 

Wrapping up, Tesshin again showed the device and compared it to our lives.  The magnet is desire and the balance is skillfulness.  Our tradition talks a lot about desire being an impediment, but that is normally thought of as desire which is out of balance.  Desire pointed at what we really want can be a boundless source of positive energy in our lives.

 

Tessin Perpetual Motion

(Tesshin with his “perpetual motion” machine)