Posted in zen

What’s Zen?

There’s a famous four line description of the zen tradition that has come down to us. This list is attributed to Bodhidharma and it’s really supposed to be what sets the Zen tradition apart, what makes Zen different from the rest of Buddhism and what we can keep in mind as zen practitioners.

These four lines express what the zen tradition is and why it’s important.

A separate transmission outside the scriptures;

Not dependent on words and letters;

Direct pointing at the human mind;

Seeing one’s nature and becoming Buddha.

This sounds serious but maybe it’s hard to understand. So I’ll go down it line by line.

A separate transmission

This means our practice is in our lives. We aren’t simply studying sutras and talking about how great Buddhism is. We are actualizing the teachings in our lives. Hopefully we are also having a dedicated relationship with a teacher and/or a community that can help us on the path.

Not dependent on words and letters

Buddhist writing (and teaching) points in the direction of awakening, but ultimately these things should be viewed as maps and hints, not really as sacred texts. They are to be relied on only in as far as we’re trying to use them to point the way. Most writings have come out of someone else’s experience, an effort to describe the experience they’ve had on the path. These are useful and helpful. But the important point is awakening and we won’t come to that with intellectual understanding alone.

Direct pointing at the human mind

Our aim in this path is awakening, seeing our true nature. Making efforts to recognize our true nature is the beginning of the path. The fundamental nature of our being is awakening and what we’re trying to do is uncover that, not at some later time or in some later life…here and now. Be here now. All the teachings are meant to point us in the direction of our true nature.

Seeing one’s nature and becoming Buddha

Seeing one’s nature is recognizing your true self. Becoming Buddha is actualizing and embodying that. We don’t practice to get somewhere or attain something. We all have Buddha Nature. We have awakening already. We are practicing because that’s what Buddhas do. We are all Buddhas. We are dedicated to seeing our awakening and integrating it into our lives.

 

The Zen approach takes awakening as the path. As practitioners we strive to give ourselves to our training and follow the path that’s been laid out for us. Hopefully we can rely on teachers and/or communities and truly throw ourselves into the process of awakening.

That’s all there is.

 

 

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Posted in ch'an, zen

Face Whatever Appears

“Separate yourself from disturbance and face whatever appears before you.”

Hongzhi

 

Sometimes our being is described as like a mirror.

There are several conditions that a mirror can be in. A dirty mirror might reflect what’s in front of it in a distorted way. A broken mirror might be even worse.

But a mirror that is clear and clean is going to give you an accurate representation of whatever you put in front of it.

We often see the world in distorted ways. We’re like a dirty mirror. We don’t see things clearly, rather we see everything through the filter of that dirt. We might feel like a cracked or broken mirror if we’ve had some particularly awful traumas in our lives.

We come into every situation carrying disturbances with us. Sometimes that’s okay. If you’ve been struck by lightning it certainly makes sense to be wary of all storms.

But other times it gets in our way.

We’ve all been kicked in the heart and a bad relationship can haunt us forever, making it hard to let people get close to us, making it hard to trust and have an open heart.

Or in the workplace, if you’ve ever had a boss that you really trusted who let you down…well, you know what I’m talking about. That’ll make you look sideways a little at all employers for a while.

And a lot of the time we project our own things onto others. If we feel really guilty about some aspect of ourselves, selfishness for example, it’s really easy to project that on others and see everyone as selfish. Or look for any little clue that might make that argument.

So, with our practice, what we’re trying to is train our minds, so we can learn to see things as they really are. We may not be able to clean the mirror, really. But what we can do is remind ourselves that it’s dirty. In itself, that is a kind of success.

Posted in ch'an, zen

Sit Serenely

“The practice of true reality is simply to sit serenely in silent introspection.”

“Here you can rest and become clean, pure, and lucid. Bright and penetrating, you can immediately, return, accord, and respond to deal with events. Everything is unhindered, clouds gracefully floating up to the peaks, the moonlight glitteringly flowing down mountain streams. The entire place is brightly illumined and spiritually transformed.”

“If you accord everywhere with thorough clarity and cut off sharp corners without dependence on doctrines, you can be called a complete person.”

-Hongzhi *

 

We are sitting quietly and doing nothing. That’s the practice.

It sounds like nothing, but there’s so much in the present moment. When we’re sitting it seems very boring a lot of the time. But if we learn how to really pay attention, then we can see things clearly.

We may tell ourselves, when we’re sitting with the practice…that nothing is happening. But there’s never a point where nothing is happening. Things are happening all the time, wonderful things, painful things, scary things, and beautiful things. There are always so many things happening. And it’s never boring. We have this idea in our heads these days that we have a sort of right to be entertained all the time, that we should never be bored, even for a second. There is so much we have created to help entertain and distract us that even a moment of dullness seems uncomfortable. That makes meditation practice scary, in a way. Sitting and doing nothing sounds like the boringest thing we could possibly do.

Not only am I listening to podcasts during my work day, I’m also listening to them in my car, on the way to my car, when I’m going for walks. Why? Because I want to be entertained.

But the truth is this: only boring people get bored. When we learn to pay attention, when we train in mindfulness, we can start to see how not-boring everything is. We don’t need distractions. We can listen and see and feel and think. These things are only boring if we are boring people. Let’s not be boring.

The world is transformed by our attention. Awareness makes everything bright and glittering. Even the bad parts of life can take on new meaning if we learn how to see them and be fully present with them.

It really is up to us how we see things. We can see our meditation practice as a boring chore that we don’t want to do. Or we can see it as entering the circle of wonder, training in awareness and clarity. The choice is ours.

Sharp corners are those things that stop us from seeing clearly; our emotional baggage, our neuroses and confusion…the things that cause us to close our hearts and build barriers between ourselves and our experience. If we can put down these things once in a while, then we can see the world clearly.

What’s a complete person?

It’s all based on how we feel, I think. When we are filled with delusion and our attention is fragmented…we feel incomplete. If we’re not paying attention it’s very easy for us to feel like we’re not good enough.

A complete person is just one who is aware, who sees the world and their place in it clearly. Pay attention and you’ll be complete.

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*quotes are taken from “Cultivating the Empty Field, The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi” by Taigen Dan Leighton, which you can get here:

Cultivating the Empty Field | amazon

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.

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 zen

Zen Center?

Once in a while I get this wild idea.

I start to think I should start a Zen Center.

Well, that’s not the start of it. The start of it is wishing Kansas City had a Zen Center. Then that goes into wondering why Kansas City doesn’t have one. Then, that goes into wondering if I could do something about it.

I don’t think about this because I have an abundance of free time that I want to commit to it. I don’t think about this because I think I’m enormously qualified to run a spiritual community. That level of responsibility would be scary to me.

The main reason I start to get that idea is because Kansas City doesn’t have one and I think that’s weird.

Smaller cities have Zen Centers.

St. Louis, Columbia, Lawrence, Omaha, and Des Moines all have Zen Centers. I’ve been to some of them and they’re nice.

But why in these smaller cities and not here?

There are a handful of (really small) zen groups here, but there’s no center.

(I’m not talking about a temple. The difference between a Zen temple and a Zen center is that a temple is designed to primarily serve monks and nuns and a center is designed to serve regular people like you and me.)

And I wonder why we don’t have one?

We’re a growing city with a (surprisingly) spiritually diverse population.

 

Kansas City deserves a Zen Center.

That’s what I’m trying to say.

Can someone start one please?

 

 

 

Posted in meditation, zen

Fountain City Meditation: Encourage Others

The world is a crazy place right now and I am scared.

Lots of people’s lives are turned upside down right now by current events and things are really hard to understand and hard to deal with.

This is a story I like to share.

A student went to Nakagawa Soen Roshi during a meditation retreat and said, “Master, I am feeling very discouraged. What should I do?”

And Roshi replied, “Encourage others.”

That story has meant a lot to me since I heard it. I think we’re best at encouraging others when we feel discouraged and it feels like there’s no hope.

I am discouraged. How can I encourage you?

Encouragement is central to this new project and I will not lose sight of that intent. I want to encourage you.

I teach online. I think if you’re reading this you know that. I reach people all over the world and it’s rewarding. I’m trying to figure out if I can serve my local community too.

Right now I’m envisioning “Fountain City Meditation” as a floating community, a group where we come together at different places and different times.

I want to provide opportunities for meditation practice and I want to encourage that practice. There are several meditation communities in town. I want to reach the people that aren’t feeling served by those communities. I know those people exist.

I used to belong to a Buddhist community as a very active member, I was around for years. I saw so many people come and go.  Some people would come once or twice and then go. But others would stay for months and years and then just be gone. I don’t know what the disappearing people needed. I just know they weren’t getting it. I want to reach people that feel like they don’t belong anywhere. I want to reach people that no one is reaching and I want to encourage them.

(if you want to know why I left, just ask. I want to share with others and I want others to feel comfortable sharing with me. There are real human issues in life and no one is perfect)

I also want to reach people that maybe don’t feel totally lost, but are interested in something a little different.

So, this is my invitation to you, if you’re in or around Kansas City. 

If you want a community where none of us pretend that we’re perfect or that we have it all together.

If you’ve ever felt like you don’t belong in a Meditation Center or  Buddhist Temple.

If you’ve ever felt like you’re the only person in the meditation room who doesn’t know what’s going on.

If you really want a sense of community with your meditation group.

If you feel like you can’t meditate, or you’re not calm enough, or everyone will look at you like a fraud.

If you feel alone in a room full of people because no one in the community has reached out to you.

Come join. I want to encourage you.

Facebook Page

Fountain City Meditation

I don’t know how many events we’re going to have, or how often. A lot of that will depend on how much demand there is.

But I’m inspired to serve. I’m here to help.
What do you need?

 

How can I encourage you?

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Posted in zen

What is Zen?

The purpose of Zen practice is Enlightenment, self realization, awakening to the absolute truth of reality. It’s a path of transformation instead of salvation.

We have a constructed image in our minds of who we are and what the world is. Zen is about being in the moment without the constructs. Dropping ego. Dropping the past and our thoughts about the future and engaging with the present moment.

Easier said than done. Our minds want to do anything but stay in this moment. Zen involves learning to quiet our minds and penetrate through these layers of delusion. Zen is teaching our minds how to sit still.

We do this by following a set of principles: meditation, mindfulness, and morality.

Anyone can do it. The path to awakening isn’t restricted to some lucky or noble few. It’s for everyone.

Our true nature is one with everything and the only reason we don’t see that is because we are in layers of delusion. When we meditate we clear some of that delusion. We have to dig ourselves out.

We train to realize our true nature. We investigate ourselves.

We just have to be present to perceive our true nature.

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Posted in zen

Dharma Winds

It feels like I’ve been an independent Dharma teacher for a long time.

I guess I haven’t really been independent because I’ve been teaching online at the Open Heart Project for a few years, but that feels like more of a guest teacher role to me.

Recently I was invited to join an international Buddhist community called the Dharma Winds Zen Sangha, which is a branch of the (not much) larger Order of Hsu Yun. This order is in the Chan (Chinese Zen) tradition and comes from the tradition of Hsu Yun and Han Shan, some of the same historical teachers that inspire me. I felt the need to mention that it’s international because I wanted to make it clear that they’re not here. I, at best, exist on the margins of the communities that are here in Kansas City.

And that’s okay.

I’m sort of a Zen hermit, largely practicing on my own and/or with the people in my household.

I’m still independent, really, but also part of something. I’m part of a tradition. It’s about recognition and connection. And although no one that practices in this tradition is close by, it’s still meaningful.

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I was welcomed into this international order and ordained as a Zen Priest. I’ll have to think long and hard about what it means to be a Zen Priest before I try to explain it in detail. This doesn’t really change anything other than making my relationship to Zen, as a practice and philosophy, more clear. To me it essentially means I’m committed to the path and I’m obligated to share teachings with anyone that asks. I have to meet the world with an open heart and to be as genuine as I can. Maybe we should all be trying to do that anyway. We say “priest” and not “monk” because I am in the world with everyone else living an ordinary life and that is not going to change. I’m not a monastic teacher, I’m a householder teacher. I have a family and a career. And I’m also trying to carry the teachings forward and pass them on whenever I can.

I was given the ordination name QianMing. This translates to “Supreme Clarity”. I’m not sure if I have great clarity. The clearest things to me are usually my own shortcomings. But maybe facing our imperfections honestly is the greatest clarity there is. I’m dedicated seeing myself clearly and sharing what I see with honesty and sincerity.

I believe in a Zen practice that includes all things. All beings that I meet are part of the path. So are the wind and the rain. We’re part of a connected whole. And this path isn’t about going away from the world. It’s not about retreating. It’s about being in the world fully and completely, manifesting authenticity and compassion.

So that’s what I’m trying to do.

I’m not going to try to build my own temple or anything like that.

But I am going to share the teachings with anyone that asks.

 

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