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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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 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.

 

Posted in ch'an

Han Shan on Greed

With one small fulcrum, a lever can move tons of weight. With one greedy thought, years of integrity can be corrupted. A greedy thought is the seed of fear and confusion. It will grow wildly. The material gain that a greedy act brings is a small gain indeed. To act without greed and lose some material benefit is also, therefore a small loss. But to lose one’s integrity! That is an immense loss! The enlightened person stands in awe of the fulcrum.

What do people strive for? Money, or fame, or successful relationships, or the Dharma. Well, one man may become very rich but be hated by his family. Another man may be loved by everyone but not have a penny to his name. Still a third man may be hailed as a hero by his countrymen and then find himself with neither funds nor loving family. Usually, so much effort is put into achieving one goal, that the other goals cannot be attained. But what about the man who strives to attain the Dharma? If he succeeds he has gained in that one goal far more than the other three combined. He who has Dharma lacks nothing.

Han Shan Deqing

So, I don’t really know what a fulcrum is and I think that’s okay. Han Shan is talking about consequences here, how even small negative acts can bring about big consequences. He’s really tearing into the poison of greed.

Greed, along with hatred and delusion, is part of a list in Buddhism called the three poisons.

The three poisons are caused by ignorance of our true nature. Coming from ignorance, these poisons motivate us to make mistakes and act in ways that are outside our own interest and cause harm to ourselves and others.

Greed is our desire, attachment and yearning for happiness and satisfaction from external sources. It is our impulse to always want more. It helps to think about the accumulation of wealth. Money is made up of numbers and numbers never end, so we can chase that forever if we are obsessed with how much is in our bank account.

When we believe that our fulfillment is dependent on what we have, then we come to realize that we don’t really get the same satisfaction we were expecting. We always want more. Greed can affect our relationships, our jobs, and everything else.

Han Shan is telling us that acting out of greed can have far ranging and unexpected consequences. He’s telling us that instead of striving for material gain and making enemies out of everything all the time, we should strive on the path. We should be motivated to become more aware, wise and compassionate, instead of spending all our time worrying about our possessions.

Posted in Striding Through the Universe, tattooed buddha

Han Shan and the Zen Hermits

Fenggan (left) Hanshan (center) Shide (right)

Camping makes me think of Zen hermits.

I sometimes go and live in a tent for a while. If people are around, they come talk to me. If no one is around, then I spend time with the trees and the grass.

There’s a tradition, especially in China, of Buddhist teachers disappearing into the wilderness. These figures would disappear from society and go live in a cave or a tent or a hut and that’s where they would stay. They would give teachings to potential students who came to visit them. Or, if no one came to visit they would just give teachings to the trees and grass, to the animals and the moon.

Famously, Bodhidharma went and lived in a cave for nine years.

The Sixth Patriarch Huineng—just after he received Dharma Transmission—went to live alone in the woods for a while before he began teaching too.

This tradition also exists outside of the Zen lineage. There are Theravada teachers in places like Thailand who went to live in the forest instead of staying in Buddhist temples. There was a big tradition in Tibetan monks leaving to become forest and mountain yogis for part of their lives.

I could write about many different Buddhist teachers, but I’m going to center on one. His name was Han Shan, which means ‘Cold Mountain.’ That’s not his birth name. In that period it was normal for some Buddhist monks to take the name of the place where they lived, and he lived on a place called Cold Mountain in China, the 700s. We don’t know much about him, but what we do know is an interesting story.

(Note: There is another monk named Han Shan who lived centuries later. These two figures are both interesting and can sometimes get confused. I may write about the other one at a later time.)

Han Shan was a government bureaucrat during the Tang dynasty in China. In that period being a bureaucrat was considered one of the highest professions that one could aspire to. There was a rebellion and he decided to leave. I wonder if the pressure of his job during a tumultuous time was too much—who knows? He went, taking nothing with him, and traveled to the cold mountains, where he decided to live.

He became a hermit and a poet. He would write poetry on rocks and on cave walls—mainly things about nature, such as:

“The path to Han-shan’s place is laughable,

A path, but no sign of cart or horse.

Converging gorges – hard to trace their twists

Jumbled cliffs – unbelievably rugged.

A thousand grasses bend with dew,

A hill of pines hums in the wind.

And now I’ve lost the shortcut home,

Body asking shadow, how do you keep up?”

And this:

“There is a Precious Mountain
Even the Seven Treasures cannot compare
A cold moon rises through the pines
Layer upon layer of bright clouds
How many towering peaks?
How many wandering miles?
The valley streams run clear
Happiness forever! “

His poetry has been studied in much the same way that Zen Koans are studied. He was considered a crazy person by the locals, a wild eccentric, and sometimes spent times living in huts and caves around the mountain. And sometimes he just slept outside.

He was considered an oddball by most, not someone that anyone could really learn teachings from. Eventually he got a student anyway, a man named Shih-Te who went and lived with him. And they traveled around together, just living in the woods, teaching the Dharma to the sun and the moon.

Not much is known about Han Shan because that is his whole story. Over 100 poems were found in various places around Cold Mountain, written in cave walls, carved into trees and written on rocks. People collected them and copied them and they’ve been studied for many years.

His poetry served as the main inspiration for the American poets Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac.

No one really knows what became of Han Shan and his student Shih-Te, but it’s said that they became mythic figures even during their lives. There were those that said that Han Shan was an incarnation of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom and his student Shih-Te was an incarnation of Samantabhadra, the Bodhisattva of Practice.

The tradition of Zen hermits is not the same as it once was. People are less inclined to leave the world behind for a while and be alone in the woods or on mountains. But there are still those that do it.

There’s also a tradition of Zen poetry that was probably in no small part inspired by Han Shan. I wish I were a poet, but I’m not. Zen essays have to be enough for me.

I wonder if I could write this on a cave wall.