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 buddhism

Buddhist Practice

We have a constructed image in our minds of who we are and what the world is. Buddhism 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. Our practice involves learning to quiet our minds and penetrate through these layers of delusion. We are teaching our minds how to sit still.

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

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 buddhism, podcast

Perceptions and Reality: Wonhyo’s Story

 

I gave a talk recently about the power of our minds, the way our perceptions can shape the way we see the world.

You can listen to it here: Perceptions and Reality

In that talk I told the story of a Korean monk from the 600s named Wonhyo. I wanted to write this to talk about Wonhyo a little.

Wonhyo was a really important figure in the history of Buddhism in Korea. He lived in the 600s. His importance in the spread of Buddhism into Korea can’t be overstated and all of the schools of Buddhism in the country view him as an important figure. He wrote hundreds of Buddhist texts. In addition to his own work he wrote many commentaries on classic Buddhist texts from the various schools.

I like all that, but I like him more because he was kind of a weirdo. I like the Buddhist teachers that seemed crazy. Wonhyo did what other Buddhist teachers didn’t do. A lot of his time that wasn’t spent writing was spent out in the streets. He went to public places and taught regular people about Buddhism. Not only did he do that, but he didn’t always wear robes, he actually gave up being a monk to get married. Not only that, but he also included singing, dancing, and other forms of entertainment in his dharma talks.

Anyway, I spent that time telling you who Wonhyo was so that I could tell you his origin story. I like his story and I think that maybe it tells us something about ourselves.

When Wonhyo was a young monk he wanted to journey to China. Like many historical teachers, Wonhyo became convinced that the “real” Buddhism hadn’t come to his country yet. So, he wanted to go to China to find a better and more authentic Buddhism. So, he and a friend decided to take a journey to China together.

They were just walking and it was a long journey by foot.

One night on their journey they got caught in some terrible weather. It was a torrential downpour and they didn’t know what to do. They couldn’t keep walking in it. They found a cave, which they thought was some kind of temple dug into a mountain. They went inside to stay for the night and try to sleep. It was very dark and hard to see in this little cavern.

They slept for a while and Wonhyo woke up in the middle of the night. He looked around a little and stumbled on something round. He assumed it was a gourd and he held it to his mouth.

I guess in those days catching water in a gourd and drinking it was a thing people did.

There was water inside and he thought it was the best water he had ever tasted, it was refreshing and delicious.

The next morning the two friends woke up and discovered that their cave was a tomb. There were skeletons everywhere. Wonhyo looked down at the gourd he had found the night before and discovered it was skull full of dirty water. He threw up immediately.

It’s said that Wonhyo attained Enlightenment in that moment.

Why?

Because he saw that he had an incredible ability to reshape reality with his perception. He thought it was a gourd, and so he tasted really good water. His expectation changed the tasted of the water.

After this experience Wonhyo decided to go back home. He gave up being a monk and started spreading the teachings as a layman.

I think his story tells us a lot about ourselves. We expect an interaction or experience to be a certain way, and then we make it true.

How many times have you thought you’d have a bad day and it turned out you were right?

Is that because you were right? Or because your perceptions made it true?

It’s hard to really know. The hope is that with our meditation practice our minds get better and better at distinguishing things like that. If you can approach your day and just be present in it without predicting if it will be good or bad, I think that’s best.

Our perceptions tend to shape our reality and that causes us to avoid facing the truth.

 

 

 

Posted in interfaith

Buddhism and Religion (Video)

This is a live video I did  in the Tattooed Buddha Community Group.

I encourage you to join that group, which you can get to here:
Tattooed Buddha Community

I explored questions about whether a Christian can practice Buddhism, among other things.

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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 buddha

Bodhi Day

2,550 (or so) years ago today a man sat under a tree.

He saw a really divided world, where people struggled and argued and fought with each other, often over trivial things.

He saw people who valued greed over kindness,

He saw people who valued hate over love,

He saw people who valued lies over the truth.

And he saw that these people were not happy.

 

He saw people not finding fulfillment in their lives. He saw people railing against their own suffering, often making things worse.

 

And he thought, “we can do better.”

 

So he sat under a tree and tried to figure out the nature of the human condition.

 

And he became known as the Buddha. He taught a better way for people to live. A way centered in mindfulness and compassion. We can be better than we are.

 

But Buddhism isn’t about his enlightenment, not really.

 

It’s about yours.

 

The Buddha was right. We can do better.

 

Posted in videos

I’m Trying to Be Openhearted. Don’t Bother Me. (video)

This teaching was recorded on 10/23/17 in my home in Kansas City Missouri. It’s about my experience volunteering with the Rime Center group and some visiting college students at Harvesters. But, really it’s about those experiences in life when we are closed off from the people around us for no reason. Let’s be open instead.

I’m Trying To Be Openhearted. Don’t Bother Me.

Posted in buddhism

Just Try It And See

We don’t engage Buddhist practice because it’s what the Buddha said we should do.

I think people lose sight of that sometimes. There can be a tendency at times to see Buddhist texts as magical truths because they’re Buddhist texts. Instead, we should judge all the teachings and practices based on their own merit. The Buddha said we should judge the teachings for ourselves. But I don’t care that the Buddha said it.

It’s obvious that we should do that.

To follow Buddhism is to do the practices and see what the results are. All that matters is being more aware and compassionate. To see the world and our place in it with more clarity.