Posted in zen

Be Real and Live Your Best Life – Four Zen Gates

 

I’m going to talk about an old Buddhist teaching and see if I can tie to our everyday life and find meaning in it for us. This is the teaching of the four gates. It’s from Zen Master Bodhidharma. He listed these four things that he thought were important to us as we start on the Buddhist path. I’m going to go through these one by one.

  1. Retribution of Enmity; in our lives we need to realize when we’re wrong. We need to admit our flaws and not lie to ourselves all the time, because we do lie to ourselves all the time. We’re often when think about ourselves either lifting ourselves up and pretending we’re better than we are or tearing ourselves down and thinking very lowly of ourselves. We rarely see ourselves clearly. When we do something wrong we need to admit it and we need to try to make it better. We need to try to be better. I’m trying to learn how to stop saying I’m sorry and instead say “I will do better.” Because when you say, “I’m sorry,” you’re sort of putting an expectation on the other person to say it’s okay. We should try to forgive people, but also we should focus on trying to be better rather than trying to get forgiveness so that we don’t have to apologize again.
  2. Acceptance of Circumstances; equanimity. Our ability to weather the storms of life. To be moderately content with whatever is happening. Sometimes we really let life tear us down, over big things and small things. We’re talking about accepting things and having an even mind, not falling apart when things go wrong. Sometimes one bad thing goes wrong and it ruins everything for us. In Buddhism we often call that equanimity. Sometimes we call it patience too. We’re talking about keeping an even mind with whatever is happening because the truth is life is going to kick us all the time and we need to learn how to accept things.
  3. Absence of Craving; we shouldn’t be giving in to all our temptations all the time. Be mindful of what we’re doing and know when something is not a good idea. I have a habit of giving in to my temptations all the time and that’s something a lot of people struggle with. There’s all sorts of temptations. We might eat all our kids Halloween candy. Or drink too much (alcohol or soda) there’s so many ways we can overconsume and give in to craving. Sometimes we feel like there’s a hole in us that we need to fill. We crave all sorts of things and we pursue them too much. We even think about sex too much. That’s a craving too. We have all sorts of cravings and Bodhidharma is telling us we need to learn how to manage that and not get carried away with our cravings. We’ve all had the experience where we know we shouldn’t indulge something, but we really want to so we do it anyway. I think we can all relate to that. Bodhidharma is telling us we need to reign that in. We need to make the best choices we can instead of giving in to our temptations all the time. Think about what you’re doing and don’t over-do it.
  4. Act in Accordance with the Dharma; to us this line might not resonate very well. So, with all respect to Bodhidharma I want to paraphrase that and say “act to be real” when he talks about being in accordance he’s talking about living our best life and seeing the way the world is and learning about our place in it. Being more aware, attentive, mindful and honest with ourselves. The Dharma is sort of the correct way of reality, of letting life unfold as it should. We should be real, fully real. In a world full of people that are lying to themselves and lying to others and not being authentic, we should be real and genuine in all our relationships and in all our situations. I like to say that is the core of what Buddhism is all about. It’s about being real because it’s very easy to not be real. It’s easy to be fake. So let’s be real.

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Posted in buddhism, ch'an, zen

The Great Way

“The Great Way is Gateless,

Approached in a thousand ways.

Once past this checkpoint

You stride through the universe.”

 

This is the opening of the famous Zen text “The Gateless Gate”.

It sounds like weird hippie nonsense. A lot of old Zen sayings like this are a little hard to unpack because sometimes they seem so weird.

I think it’s worth a second look.

The Great Way is the path we’re on. The path inspired by the Buddha, the cultivating of awareness and compassion. Find your true nature and help others, that sums up the path.

When we say it’s gateless, we’re saying there’s nothing stopping you. It’s right there, like an open door. Your true nature is always with you. It’s never not present. The door is open. Spiritual teachers can point you to the door, but they don’t open it for you. It’s already open. The gate is gateless. We could say teachers are just selling water by the river.

“If you can’t find enlightenment here and now, where else do you expect to find it?” -Dogen

Your true nature is free and awake, you just have to notice that the gate is open.

It’s approached in a thousand ways because we all come to the path bringing different things with us. My difficulty on the path might be giving into temptation all the time or making excuses to not meditate. Yours might be a tendency to give into anger, or to compare yourself to others too much. We’re all a little different and we come to the path for different reasons, so it’s approached in a thousand ways.

But we’re all on the same path.

And once we enter the gate, freedom is on the other side. The freedom to put down our emotional baggage and our insecurities and our fixations. When we can put those down and truly see ourselves as we are, we can stride through the universe.

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” -Rumi

What do we need to do? We need to set our intention. We need to decide we want to go through the gateless gate. That’s the beginning.

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.

 

 

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

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.