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 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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thanks for taking the time to read this.

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Posted in zen

“I have pacified your mind” (video)

This is the story of Bodhidharma and his student Huike.

Let me know what you think.

 


Upcoming Events:

8/25/18: 11:00AM-11:30AM

Meditation Mob KC

Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

4525 Oak Street
Kansas City, MO 64111

We are going to meet up on the south lawn of the Nelson Museum and we’re going to meditate in public. I’ll give a little bit of guidance and a short talk and we will sit (in the shade of course) and meditate together with open hearts and awakened minds.

Go like the page Kansas City Zen to get updates for events like this.

9/9/18: 9:00AM-10:15AM

Dharma Talk and Meditation

Tam Bao Buddhist Temple

16933 E 21st St, Tulsa, OK 74134

I’ve been invited to travel to a beautiful Buddhist temple to give a dharma talk. While we’re there, we’ll have the opportunity to visit the largest Buddhist statue in America.

To learn more about this group, click HERE

Posted in zen

Zen Failure?

I ran a Zen sitting group at the Rime Buddhist Center for two years. At least I think it lasted two years…

Anyway, it started right after my divorce. I was a wreck and I asked for the opportunity.

The main reason I did this was so I’d have something to do Monday nights.

I love this old Zen story:

STUDENT: Master, I am feeling discouraged, what should I do?
MASTER: Encourage others.

I was feeling very discouraged.

But also I wanted to see if people in this Tibetan Buddhist community would be interested in something different. As it turned out, not very many of them were interested, but that’s okay.

I want to write now about my mistakes, about how I’d do things differently if I ran a sitting group now.

I’m not going to go into detail about what our practice was, except to say that there was some sitting, some walking, and just a little bit of chanting. And also, bells and banging the wooden fish. You know, regular Zen stuff.

But, what’s significant to me now is what I didn’t do. I led this practice for two years and I didn’t give any talks. I didn’t give any talks and I didn’t open up for questions. I just handed out instructions and introduced myself and we just did the practice and went home. Now it feels like I didn’t even really try.

And that is my regret. I could have been giving talks, sharpening my teaching skills and engaging people.

So why didn’t I?
It starts with confidence. Back then I didn’t have it. I didn’t know, in spite of all my training, if I was good enough. I didn’t know if I was capable. I didn’t have nearly the level of experience that I have now.  Now I’ve given over 100 talks. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

But there’s more, of course.

Two of the people that came to my sitting group are students of a Zen Priest that they travel to go retreat with. And I was glad to have them. They helped me design aspects of the practice and lead chants. They were so very helpful. And at some level I thought it wouldn’t be okay for me to be giving talks because they already had a teacher and it wasn’t me.

Sometimes our minds really lead us down weird paths and when try to follow what we were thinking it’s hard to understand.

Looking back it’s so weird to me that I felt that way because I think they would have liked seeing me give talks. I was just…well, timid, I guess.

And, of course, once I spent a few weeks not giving talks…well, inertia took over. It was too late to change what I was doing. Or at least it felt that way.

Anyway, people would come and not come back. Some of that is, of course, curiosity. But I often wonder if some of those one-time visitors might have come back if they had been able to hear a talk or I had been better in some other way.

Ultimately the group didn’t really grow. There were even some nights where I sat alone. Attendance was not good and it kept getting worse.

And really it’s because I was afraid to teach. I didn’t have the confidence that I have now.

 

So it feels like those two years were wasted. But maybe they helped me prepare in some way.


 

I’m not leading a sitting group anywhere now.

But if you want to see me, please look at my Events Page

 


and if you want me to come give a talk at your event or your temple…please, let me know.

 

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.