Posted in ch'an, zen

Zen and Zen Stories

What we call the Zen school is really a mix of a few different things.

It includes the original teaching of the Buddha, which I call First Turning Buddhism, and the spirit of Chinese culture at the time. What we call “Zen meditation” is a method for training the mind that is practiced in First Turning Buddhism and in what we call the Great Way, Mahayana Buddhism.

The original word is Dhyana, which means “concentration” or “quiet meditation”. So, when we talk about the Zen Tradition we’re really talking about “The Tradition That Practices Meditation”. But if we’re honest, a lot of traditions practice meditation, although that wasn’t the case when the Zen Tradition started. The Zen tradition is also sometimes called the Mind School, or the Prajna School, which I think might have been a cooler name. This is because the tradition is all about training the mind in order to engage our true selves.

But, while the tradition started out as a get-back-to-meditation, kind of bare bones approach…it’s slowly deviated from that, sometimes moving away from the it’s roots, as traditions often do. In plenty of Zen circles you won’t see anything resembling a bare bones approach.

 

Anyway,

The earliest Zen teachers really wanted to set Zen apart. There were a lot of Buddhist traditions in China at the time and some of them said the path to Enlightenment was very easy.

The truth is beyond words. It’s about practice and not study. That’s the important point that the Zen teachers were trying to emphasize. They thought too many people were into studying Buddhism and not very many were into actually practicing Buddhism.

Zen isn’t something you learn about, it isn’t something you study, and it isn’t something you are. It’s something you do.

That’s how Zen teachers started telling stories. Stories are words too, though. Obviously they are made up of words. The Zen stories are words that tell you how to go beyond words. Stories about people who were attached to words and had that attachment shattered. Kind of silly an circular, if we really think about it.

Stories are helpful because they can be used to illustrate a point. Sometimes the difference between a successful religion and one that struggles to find followers is based entirely on which religion has better stories. We love stories.

Here’s a story.

The Buddha stood at a place called Vulture Peak in front of a bunch of people. There were monks and nuns and also regular people like you and me. It’s said that there were a million people, but that seems far-fetched. It’s said that spirits and celestial beings were there too, but I don’t believe those are real.

People were expecting a teaching and the Buddha just stood there, not saying anything. Everyone was just sitting there waiting, looking around awkwardly. I’m imagining what it would be like to go to a concert and see the band just standing on stage not performing.

Then, the Buddha held up a pretty flower and twirled it, showing it to everyone.

So, still everyone was standing around awkwardly.

And one guy who they call Kasyapa the Elder just smiled.

 

That’s supposed to be the beginning of the tradition. They say Kasyapa was the first Zen teacher. They say the teachings were entrusted to him because he understood the truth that’s beyond words. There is as much truth in a pretty flower as there is in a teaching. Enlightenment is right here. It’s everywhere. That’s the message.

I once heard someone say, “Just because it’s made up doesn’t mean it’s less true.”

Kasyapa was a real person and was considered one of the best monks in the early sangha. The point of the story isn’t “this really happened” or maybe originally that was it’s purpose but we don’t have to pretend it really happened now. (no one wrote about this or, as far as we can tell, told this story until hundreds of years after the Buddha’s lifetime)

The point is it tells us something.

Talking about Buddhism is great. Learning about Buddhism is great too. But sometimes life is about paying attention and noticing little things. Sometimes it’s about looking at a pretty flower.

Stop and smell the roses. Don’t attach to words so much, even Buddhist words. The truth is right here.

That being said…now I wonder if people in the Zen Tradition are becoming too attached to stories, if they’re thinking of them as IMPORTANT rather than as useful teaching tools. I hope we don’t forget that the tradition came from teachers who wanted a simpler, back-to-basics approach to Buddhism.

Zen is full of stories like this, of some teacher pointing the way in a creative way. That’s really what sets Zen apart the most. The teachers are still pointing and we just have to look.

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Posted in ch'an, zen

Addiction to Preferences

“The Great Way Is Not Difficult for Those Who Have No [Addiction to] Preferences” -Sengcan

Have you ever had the experience where someone says, “Where should we go eat?” and you say, “I don’t know, what do you want?” and you really mean it?

Sometimes this is a frustrating situation, one of the little things that really bothers couples. I want to apply that to “those who have no addiction to preferences”. Can we apply this sort of attitude to other areas of our lives? Can we reduce our preferences and stop having such strong opinions all the time? Or at least stop holding them so tightly? I think we can.

We cling tightly to our preferences, so much so that if something goes wrong, we obsess about it at times, instead of trying to work through whatever the problem is. We sometimes tend to think that if we got the right job, the right situation, or the right spouse…then we can finally be happy. Ironically, that kind of thinking can tend to stop us from being happy. It can stop us from taking opportunities and it can stop us from appreciating what we have.

When we’re self-obsessed, when we’re thinking too much and too often about the ways we wish our lives were different, that makes us unhappy. But we get caught up in those feelings. It’s really similar to feelings of “I’m not good enough.” We get so wrapped up in these things sometimes that we don’t even see them.

But, if we can learn to relax, to stop thinking about controlling things so much, then we can find a sense of ease. There is a lot of comfort in just relaxing and waiting to see what happens. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to improve our situation or better ourselves. Of course we should. But I wonder if, with practice, we can hold onto our preferences a little more loosely.

 

“When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised.”

When we pay attention to our preferences, we begin to realize that we’re trapped. We’re pulled around by these preferences, even when they don’t make sense to us. The mind distorts the way we see the world and keeps us obsessed with preferences and delusion. If we can bring some equanimity to the situation, then things can become more clear to us.

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* quotes are taken from “Trust in Mind” by Mu Soeng

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Want to come meditate with me?

Here’s your chance.

6/17/19: 7pm-8pm

Monday Night Meditation

Nelson Atkins Museum – South Lawn

4525 Oak Street

Kansas City, MO

This is a public event. We’re meditating on the lawn of the Nelson Museum, just south of “The Thinker” statue. I’m going to give a short talk and a bit of guidance, then we will sit together. Tell all your friends.

Facebook Event

Meetup

 

Posted in ch'an, zen

Your Mind is Moving

Huineng came upon two monks who were arguing. They were having a silly argument to try to prove how smart they were. They were watching a flag rippling in the wind.

The first monk said, “The flag is moving.”

The second monk said, “No, the wind is moving.”

Huineng saw them having this ridiculous debate and he said, “It’s your minds that are moving.”

We often don’t see things as clearly as Huineng. We are confused. Our neuroses and our baggage shape the way we perceive the world. We get distracted and have trouble being present in our lives. Because we don’t see things as they are and because we aren’t present in our lives, we suffer. We also suffer because we struggle to accept the realities of impermanence and change. Everything is always changing and there’s nothing to hold onto.

Our goal is to learn how to see, how to really see the world as it really is. Another goal is to learn how to be more real, more genuine and authentic in our lives. We’re trying to put down our delusions. We’re trying to turn our minds so that we can engage the world as our true selves. Our true nature is awakened and good. If we engage the world as our true selves, then we can see things as they really are. That’s when real change happens.

We don’t see reality as it is because we often come from a state of mind that I call I-Me-Mine. This state of mind mis-perceives the world because we don’t recognize that it’s all changing. We address all of this by turning our minds around. The way out is in.

The purpose of this path is to engage the world as our true selves and to see things as they really are.

The Chan Sect was created by two great historical figures; Bodhidharma and Huineng. Their teaching was essentially this: “Rid the mind of egotism! Free it of defiling thoughts!”

The path lies before us. We can awaken to our true selves.

Posted in ch'an

Small Successes

Great accomplishments are composed of minute details. Those who succeed in attaining the Whole have attended carefully to each tiny part. Those who fail have ignored or taken too lightly what they deemed to be insignificant. The enlightened person overlooks nothing. -Han Shan Deqing

 

Every little success matters. It can be easy, especially in our meditation practice, to think we aren’t getting anywhere. We spend so much time on the cushion, trying and trying and trying to still our minds. It can be maddening at times.

We can set the timer, sit down on the cushion, and just wait for time to pass. We are sometimes not engaged with the practice at all. Sometimes we sit there and after a while we start to think “has the timer broken? It must have been fifteen minutes by now!” We all experience this sometimes. I can’t tell you how many times someone has found out I’m a meditator and said some version of, “I wish I could get my mind to calm down and settle long enough to meditate.” When someone says something like that, they don’t understand that it’s something we all struggle with, that it doesn’t come easy and it takes a lot of work to really settle the mind in any meaningful way.

All of that being said, I’m here to tell you one simple thing.

Trying to meditate counts as meditating. We don’t do it to have some great successes. We do the practice just to do the practice. And when we do it over and over, there are small successes for us to notice if we pay attention. Maybe you’re a little more attentive when your child is talking to you. Or when you’re changing lanes on the highway, or when you’re noticing a sunset.

These are little successes. Little successes are what the path is made of.

People come to the path and expect big successes right away and that doesn’t happen. It’s the little details that we have to notice. Celebrate small successes.

 

Posted in ch'an

Han Shan on Greed

With one small fulcrum, a lever can move tons of weight. With one greedy thought, years of integrity can be corrupted. A greedy thought is the seed of fear and confusion. It will grow wildly. The material gain that a greedy act brings is a small gain indeed. To act without greed and lose some material benefit is also, therefore a small loss. But to lose one’s integrity! That is an immense loss! The enlightened person stands in awe of the fulcrum.

What do people strive for? Money, or fame, or successful relationships, or the Dharma. Well, one man may become very rich but be hated by his family. Another man may be loved by everyone but not have a penny to his name. Still a third man may be hailed as a hero by his countrymen and then find himself with neither funds nor loving family. Usually, so much effort is put into achieving one goal, that the other goals cannot be attained. But what about the man who strives to attain the Dharma? If he succeeds he has gained in that one goal far more than the other three combined. He who has Dharma lacks nothing.

Han Shan Deqing

So, I don’t really know what a fulcrum is and I think that’s okay. Han Shan is talking about consequences here, how even small negative acts can bring about big consequences. He’s really tearing into the poison of greed.

Greed, along with hatred and delusion, is part of a list in Buddhism called the three poisons.

The three poisons are caused by ignorance of our true nature. Coming from ignorance, these poisons motivate us to make mistakes and act in ways that are outside our own interest and cause harm to ourselves and others.

Greed is our desire, attachment and yearning for happiness and satisfaction from external sources. It is our impulse to always want more. It helps to think about the accumulation of wealth. Money is made up of numbers and numbers never end, so we can chase that forever if we are obsessed with how much is in our bank account.

When we believe that our fulfillment is dependent on what we have, then we come to realize that we don’t really get the same satisfaction we were expecting. We always want more. Greed can affect our relationships, our jobs, and everything else.

Han Shan is telling us that acting out of greed can have far ranging and unexpected consequences. He’s telling us that instead of striving for material gain and making enemies out of everything all the time, we should strive on the path. We should be motivated to become more aware, wise and compassionate, instead of spending all our time worrying about our possessions.

Posted in ch'an, zen

Silent Illumination

In complete silence, words are forgotten; total clarity appears before you.” -Hongzhi

Silent Illumination (mozhao) is a formless meditation practice.

It’s an approach to practice that emphasizes our true nature as fully enlightened. The practice of Silent Illumination is a fundamental practice of Tsaotung Ch’an Buddhism.

Silent Illumination is what’s called an objectless and still meditation. It’s said that in this practice we can step outside of duality and experience enlightenment manifesting itself.

The practice was introduced by Hongzhi Zhengjue in the twelfth century. It was referred to derisively as a heretical teaching by a master in another tradition. “Silent Illumination” was meant to be a derogatory term, but Hongzhi decided to take the name as a positive thing.

In the practice of Silent Illumination we aren’t striving for an Enlightenment experience. We are just trying to enter a state beyond thought where Enlightenment can manifest on it’s own. We’re just being here now with what is.

Silent Illumination is distinct from other forms of practice because there is no point of focus. We aren’t following the breath or a mantra or anything else. In Silent Illumination we are simply paying attention to our experience as it is.

Posted in ch'an, faith in mind

Faith in Mind

“Simultaneously practice stillness and illumination. Carefully observe, but see nothing, see no body, and see no mind. For the mind is nameless, the body is empty, and all things are dreams. There is nothing to be attained, no enlightenment to be experienced. This is called liberation.”

-Sengcan

Faith In Mind is a long poem about Enlightenment. It was written by the third Chan Patriarch, Sengcan. We use the word ‘faith’, but of course it’s not about faith in some external thing. It’s about faith in our own minds, our inherent Buddha Nature. I think we could substitute the word ‘confidence’ instead.

Most of the large Chan texts were written after the time of the great sixth patriarch. ‘Faith in Mind’ is one of the rare exceptions.

Sengcan lived in the late 500s and early 600s. He’s said to have written this poem and passed it on to his student, the fourth patriarch.

This poem comes down to us as a guide for meditation. It’s significant not only because it’s a very concise guide, but also because it inspired so many later works. One of the things I like to do is explore these earliest texts, to get a feel for where things came from.

‘Faith in Mind’ has an important meaning. It’s really emphasized in the Chan tradition. Faith in mind is just a grounded belief that our true nature is Enlightened, that we share the same basic essence as all things, that it’s only our delusions that cause us to perceive separation. In the midst of our delusion we don’t see our true minds.

Sengcan tries to show us, in this poem, how to take our minds and turn them, turning them away from delusion and toward our inherent Enlightenment, which is always with us and has been with us the whole time. He is going to tell us how to go from the shore of suffering and defilement to the shore of awakening and freedom. We get there, of course, by realizing we’re already there.

You can go over to my column at Patheos to read about this text.

Beginning the Practice

Unifying the Mind with Silence

Comparisons and Anxiety

Being Natural

Oneness and Duality

Rest and Suchness


 

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Posted in ch'an, tattooed buddha

The Teaching of Huineng

(a version of this article originally appeared on The Tattooed Buddha)

Huineng was the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism.

Chan is called the Meditation School. It was created as an effort to focus more on the core teachings of Buddhism: the cultivation of mindfulness and awareness. Chan Buddhism is focused on this life, here and now. Our true nature is something that’s always present and not something we have to wait for. We can all dwell in wakefulness right now, in this life, not in some future one.

Huineng’s importance to the tradition cannot be overstated; all of Chan Buddhism comes from what he taught. His teachings are collected in the Platform Sutra, a sacred text of the Chan School. It’s the only text that is recognized as a Sutra in Mahayana Buddhism that isn’t claimed to be directly from the Buddha.

The Sutra is a collection of Dharma talks by Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. It includes a long series of teachings that present Chan philosophy, and it also includes Huineng’s own life story.

Huineng was a poor person, not someone with any connections or any great learning. And it’s said that he attained enlightenment under the Fifth Patriarch Hongren and quickly became a great master. He came from nothing and inherited leadership of the Chan School. His story really tells us that we can succeed on the path too. If he can, anyone can.

The time of Huineng’s life was said to be the Golden Age of Buddhism in China. It was during this time that the different schools were spreading throughout China and growing at an exponential rate.

Huineng is known for his teachings on “Sudden Enlightenment.” The basic idea is that we can become enlightened in this life. In some schools of Buddhism they emphasize a practice where you are trying to get better and better in each life, so hopefully some day you’ll be reborn in a life where you can attain enlightenment (lots of people don’t believe in rebirth at all these days, me included). Huineng taught that we could attain enlightenment in this life. Later, Buddhists in some other sects would work with the same idea, but it seems to have originate from Huineng.

He’s also known for teaching without relying on a lot of words or writing. He did a lot more showing students how to practice than telling them.

During and after Huineng’s life, many great Chan masters became teachers and the Chan School spread. In this time a lot of other schools of Buddhism were founded, and they lived side by side, without conflict. Some even shared the same temples, so you’d see Chan students meditating right alongside Huayan students and Pure Land students. Rather than fighting, as religious sects might do today, these schools benefited from being around each other. They influenced each other a lot too.

It may have been Huineng’s “Sudden Enlightenment” teaching that drew many Buddhists to his school. It was a new idea at that time, and it really inspired a lot of people.

That’s what I believe in. Enlightenment is right here with us. It’s not some far away goal for us to chase.

It’s right here. We just have to turn our minds away from delusion and toward wakefulness. Easier said than done, of course. But the message of Huineng is that we can do it. All of us can.

 


 

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Posted in ch'an, zen

Our Empty Nature

Form is Emptiness,
Emptiness is Form.

That’s what the Heart Sutra said. Emptiness is all, from the very beginning.

We have to dig through and penetrate all of our delusions to really get at the truth of things. We have to put down our baggage and habitual thought patterns. We have to let go of who we thought we were. Because that’s not who we are.

Only then can we dwell in our true nature, which is emptiness.

Our true nature isn’t our history; we aren’t what happened to us.

Our true nature isn’t our weaknesses; we aren’t defined by our flaws.

Our true nature isn’t the circumstances of our birth; we aren’t defined by our heritage, status, or nationality.

Our true nature is emptiness, the source of all things, a vast field of boundless possibility that transcends all of the dualistic filters through which we see the world.

When we sit and develop awareness: settling our thoughts, stilling the mind, we can dwell in wonder and wakefulness. We can engage our true nature right now.

 

Posted in ch'an, zen

Hsu Yun: Empty Cloud

 

“Set the time of sitting! Make it just as long as it takes one fragrant incense stick to burn down.

In that time we can thread the basic principles of Buddhism into a lovely string of pearls.”

~ Hsu Yun

Ch’an Master Hsu Yun lived to be 120. He lived from the mid 1800s until the mid 1900s and never traveled to the West—but many westerners traveled to the East to learn from him and his influence is felt here.

As a child, he saw monks performing a funeral service for his grandmother. Seeing these monks gave him inspiration; he started tracking down and reading sutras and he fell in love with the Dharma.

At the age of 19, he ran away from home to become a monk. This means he spent 100 years studying and practicing the Dharma full time—that’s longer than any teacher I can think of.

His teachings helped Ch’an Buddhism survive into the modern age. He is given credit for keeping Ch’an alive in a time when it could have easily fallen apart.

Hsu Yun’s philosophy is heavily characterized by three things.

One, he was a strong proponent of the Hua tou, or what’s this, method of meditation.

Two, he was known for giving the same amount of respect to layman as to monks. He said that laymen were as capable of attaining Enlightenment as monks. In some lineages of Buddhism, there are those that disagree, that think that monks are the only ones capable.

Three, he talked about Enlightenment. In many Buddhist traditions, discussing the actual experience of Enlightenment is frowned upon. Master Hsu Yun wanted to guide people to awakening to their Buddha Nature and he didn’t think there was a problem with talking about it in simple and direct ways.

He actually described his own experience of Enlightenment with two gathas:

“1 – A cup fell to the ground
With a sound clearly heard.
As space was pulverised,
The mad mind came to a stop.

2 – When the hand released its hold, the cup fell and was shattered,
‘Tis hard to talk when the family breaks up or someone dies.
Spring comes with fragrant flowers exuberating everywhere;
Mountains, rivers and the great earth are only the Tathagata.”

He didn’t talk about Enlightenment as something we have to achieve, however. Rather, he said that Enlightenment was something that was with us already, we just have to realize it.

From his Enlightenment at the age of 54 until his death, Xu Yun traveled around the countryside teaching sutras, transmitting the precepts, building temples, and starting seminaries for novices, Buddhist associations for laymen and free Buddhist schools for children.

In the 1930s, when he was in his 90s, Hsu Yun decided that spreading Ch’an to the West was a good idea. So, he asked his lay student Charles Luk, to translate as many Ch’an teachings into English as possible. (Charles Luk was very prolific in these translations and many of them are available online.)

A lot of the Japanese style, Zen, has come to the West. Quite a bit of the Korean style, Son, has come to the West as well, but very little of the original Ch’an Buddhism has come.

As a result of his long life and lack of scandals, Hsu Yun is revered in China and is slowly becoming known in the West.

He spent his life rebuilding temples across China and visiting other Buddhist teachers; it is thought that Chinese Buddhism might have died out without his century of work preserving it.

Thanks to Master Hsu Yun, a transmission of Chinese Buddhist teaching has spread from China out into the rest of the world.

Thanks to Master Hsu Yun, there are authentic Ch’an lineages that are growing and spreading.

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