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.

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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

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 meditation

Is Meditation Boring?

Meditation tends to be a struggle for a lot of people. People come to the path with a lot of expectations.

The practice I teach is called Silent Illumination. It’s a bare bones and simple practice. Well, that’s not true. There’s a lot to it. But the instructions are very simple. We are sitting very still, being very quiet, and doing nothing.

We’re not trying to focus on anything. We aren’t trying to stop thinking (good luck) or trying to redirect our thoughts toward some weird picture or something. We are just sitting very still and being very quiet.

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

It sounds like we’re doing nothing. I’ve had people say, “is that it?” more than once when I present the practice. It sounds like nothing, but what we’re doing is settling into the present moment. When the body is still the mind becomes still of it’s own accord. We’re not forcing anything because we don’t have to.

We may tell ourselves while we’re practicing that nothing is happening…but that’s not really true. There’s never a point where nothing is happening. Things are happening all the time. Wonderful, painful, scary things. There’s never a moment when nothing is going on and life is never really boring. If we really come into our experience we can see that.

 But the truth is that only boring people get bored. What we’re doing with this practice is really learning to pay attention. When we train in attention, we can start to see how not-boring everything is. The world is transformed by our attention.

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Upcoming Events:

5/18/19: 11am-Noon

Fountain City Meditation: Meditation on the Nelson Lawn

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.

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Posted in videos

Living Your Best Life (Video)

This is a talk I gave on an old Zen teaching from Bodhidharma called “The Four Zen Gates.”

In this talk I try to bring an old Zen teaching to life to help us understand it a little better.

Live Your Best Life!

 

 

related articles:

Bodhidharma

Bodhidharma’s Two Entries

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Posted in han shan

Boring is OK

Those who pursue money are always rushed, always busy with urgent matters. Those who pursue the Dharma, go slow and easy. “Boring” you say? Maybe. Maybe it’s downright dreary to stop and smell a flower or listen to a bird. Maybe a glint of gold is really more dazzling than the sight of one’s Original Face. Maybe what we need is a better definition of “treasure”. -Master Silly Mountain

Go slow and easy. We seem to have lost our ability to relax in the modern era. We try hard to keep busy. But there’s something more significant than that. We also don’t want to be bored. Entertainment is so common these days that we’ve come to expect it. By entertainment I mean anything that’s designed to take you away from where you are. Maybe most people don’t think of their phones as entertainment, but that’s what they are. I struggle with that myself. I really don’t want to be waiting in line anywhere, so when I’m waiting in line I’m checking my phone. I’m either scrolling through Facebook or reading emails. I’m always doing this. Where did I get the idea that I should be entertained all the time? And I don’t think that’s rare. From what I can see by watching other people, that thing I do in line at the store is really really common. We should be willing to let ourselves be a little bored. This is advice I really need to take. Go for a walk alone without wearing headphones. Drive to work without the radio on. Just sit on the couch, not checking Facebook, not watching Netflix, no doing anything. Just BE. The truth is there are no ordinary moments. Even the moments that seem boring can be full of wonder. We’re just missing them. Let’s bring back boredom.

Posted in han shan

Master Silly Mountain

Han Shan Deqing (1546-1623)  is an important figure from the history of Ch’an Buddhism who isn’t well known. They called him Silly Mountain(not to be confused with the other monk named Han Shan, who they called Cold Mountain).

He lived in China and is regarded as a great reformer. He spent a lot of time just wandering from monastery to monastery giving teachings and helping spread the dharma. He was renowned as a great lecturer and commentator and he advocated practicing Ch’an and Pure Land practice side-by-side, which is  pretty universal in modern Ch’an Buddhism today.

It has been suggested that he questioned the value of the system of Dharma Transmission, saying that real enlightenment is beyond such things as certificates and doing the right rituals. Even today, in the modern west,  that’s a scandalous thing to say. Throughout much of the Ch’an/Zen community Dharma Transmission is considered beyond questioning.

Han Shan wrote many commentaries, lectures, and poems. He was a great inspiration to Master Hsu Yun and as such he is revered in the lineages that are descended from him, but outside of those groups he’s largely unknown in spite of his great accomplishments. Master Hsu Yun has long been an inspiration to me, but I’ve only recently delved into the teachings of his hero, Han Shan Deqing. (the hero of my hero is my hero? maybe)

You can read the “The Maxims of Master Han Shan” here.

I’ll close with an example of a poem that Han Shan Deqing wrote (source). I think this a profound statement about our practice on the path and requires no commentary from me:

 

“When the bow’s stiff, its string is first to snap;

The sharper a blade is, the easier to chip.

Trouble results from a talkative tongue,

Harmful deeds reflect a hardened heart.”


 

Upcoming Events

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

tam bao

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

“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 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.