Dharma Talks

Red Clay Sangha is a peer led buddhist community. Each Sunday morning a member of the community gives a short prepared dharma talk followed group discussion on the topic. In this way, our community continues to find its voice and each is respected as a student of the dharma.

We hope you enjoy these talks as much as we do!
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  • 22 Sep 2013 3:20 PM | Cherry Zimmer (Administrator)
    During today's dharma discussion there were questions about the original precepts, centering on the difference between the five lay precepts and the extras given to ordained folks. 

    The Pali Canon lists 5 lay ("Don't kill, steal, misuse sex, lie, intoxicate"), and 8 ordained (which are often celebrated by lay on moon days). The extra three we weren't quite so sure about, they are Don't eat at the wrong time, sing and dance, sleep on high beds.

    We also mentioned the Vinaya (rules for monastic conduct) which are typically used by Theravada monastics, but reputed to have been rescinded by Buddha on his deathbed, except for the major ones. The Theravada decided to be safe and keep them all, the Mayhayana typically use the 16 Bodhisattva precepts which we renewed this morning (plus specific rules within each community). 

  • 06 Jan 2013 10:15 AM | Cherry Zimmer (Administrator)
    The tenth and final Grave Precept of Zen Buddhism is “Know intimacy with all things – do not defame the Three Treasures.” I recently was asked to avoid breaking this precept (since it was by a zen teacher, we should be very careful of its meaning). It does, however deserve careful and frequent attention as do all precepts. (Therese Fitzgerald remarked on the language of “defame” – as in remove fame from. I think that's another talk.)

    The positive part of this precept – “Know intimacy with all things” – reminds us to wake up to the fullness of the universe in every moment. Not separating ourselves from life, and thus creating the self that creates suffering for itself and everyone else. This part of the precept also is an encouragement to us on the path of awakening: the promise that we and everything in the universe are an interconnected union. Just as with the other nine Grave Precepts, this part resides more in the realm of practice-realization than everyday life, and so may need to wait.

    The prohibitory part of this precept – “Do not defame the Three Treasures” – asks us to remember our refuge in those Three Treasures that are the first three of the 16 Bodhisattva Precepts. It seems silly that we might defame that which we take to be our refuge, our place of safety and our True Home of ease. But as will all the other precepts it seems that it is necessary to keep reminding ourselves of our true intention.

    Let’s look at each on its own and then together within the context of The Three Treasures.
    What is this “Buddha”? In Sanskrit, buddha literally means “awakened one”. Buddha also is the name used to refer to Siddhartha Gautama following his awakening. I usually like to explain it as inspiration, but I also think it should be looked at as aspiration as well. Although especially in Zen we are trained to avoid seeking anything and that we are foolish if we think we can become a buddha, who is really striving on that cushion for nothing.

    How could we then defame that Buddha? We could become too attached to it (easy answer) and thus merely conceptualize awakening instead of walking the path of awakening in each moment. We also can lose faith in ourselves and stop trying. We can lose sight of our aspiration. Worst of all, we can allow our ego self to become more important that our Buddha Nature and Bodhi Chitta, thus believing that the path is done. We can decide that it is too hard, or that it is wrong.

    What is this “Dharma”? Dharma literally means “carrying” or “holding” (thus the Three Baskets of teachings). Dharma also is taken to mean the Law of the Universe (the way things are). Dharma is the teachings of Buddha. Dharma is also used to refer to the actual manifestation of the real things in the universe. Dharma is used to refer to The Truth. I usually explain it as guidance, be it from a teacher, the universe or experience. This guidance should be looked at from both the perspective of receiving and offering as well.

    How can we defame the Dharma? We are told by Buddha not to believe any of his teachings unless we have verified them to be true. We are reminded not to take anything on face value. We do, however, have a strong tendency to love ignorance, even when we are seeking the Truth. To refuse to see the truth and choose to remain in ignorance is to defame the Dharma. It is amazing to see how often people look away when the truth is right in front of them or easy to find. I am reminded of the large number of women who won’t have a mammogram for fear of finding something.

    What is this “Sangha”? Sangha literally means “crowd” or “host”. Sangha is conventionally used to mean community of practitioners of the way.  Sangha historically (and still by some) only refers to the monks and nuns and novices who practice Buddhism. Sangha also refers to all beings. I like to explain it as support. And of course it must work both ways.

    How can we defame the Sangha? Primarily by allowing any of the other precepts to be broken. But also by failure to cherish all those who follow the way. We defame the Sangha when we do too little. We defame the Sangha when we do too much. We defame the Sangha when we allow any member to be defamed. We defame the Sangha when we hold too tightly to form and forget about meaning or when we hold too loosely to form. And we defame the Sangha when we believe we are separate from them. When I know that everything I do impacts the entire Sangha, how can I not take care?

    I’ll close with Dogen’s turning around of a well-known koan (from Dogen’s Extensive Record, Okumura and Leighton):
    Polishing a Mirror 
    Nanyue asked Mazu, "Great worthy, what is your intention in seated meditation (zazen)?"
    Mazu said, "I intend to become a buddha."
    Nanyue picked up a tile and, in front of Mazu's hermitage, began to polish it with a rock.
    Mazu asked, "What are you doing, teacher?"
    Nanyue said, "I am polishing it to make a mirror."
    Mazu said, "How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?"
    Nanyue said, "How can you become a buddha through zazen?"
    Mazu said. "What shall I do?"
    Nanyue said, "Like someone riding a cart that won't go, which is right, to hit the cart or to hit the ox?"
    Mazu did not reply. [Nanyue] further gave instruction saying, "Do you study sitting meditation, or study sitting Buddha? If you study sitting meditation, meditation has nothing to do with sitting or lying down. If you study sitting Buddha, Buddha has no fixed form. Within the Dharma of non-abiding, you should not pick and choose. If you do sitting Buddha, this is simply killing Buddha. If you cling to the form of sitting, you will never reach the truth."
    For Mazu, hearing this admonition was like drinking delicious cream.

    Two poems: 

    Polishing a tile to make a mirror is effort in practice.
    How can people plan to take a mirror and make it a tile?
    The point of deceiving each other is completed within clarity.
    Square and circle mold their forms, using themselves as models.
    Even when called the iron man, how can you be a tile or mirror?
    Even before killing Buddha is born, the sitting Buddha descends.
    Sitting, lying, and walking meditation are all just right.
    Clouds arise south of the mountain; rain falls on the western river."
  • 18 Nov 2012 6:30 AM | Gareth Young (Administrator)

    Buddhists talk about compassion a lot and aspire to manifest it in our lives.  We do so because we know it’s right, we know it will help us and others, and because we know it’s hard and we need help.  At face value it’s hardest when our own lives are difficult, but I am going to challenge that belief, and will assert that it is precisely when times are tough that it is most important we work on compassion, and it is also then when the practice can do usundefinedand the worldundefinedthe most good.

    Let’s begin by refreshing ourselves on what compassion means.

    According to the online dictionary I use, the word “compassion” means, “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”  It comes from the Latin “com” meaning “with” and “passio,” the past participle of “pati” which means suffering or submission (unrelated to the English “pity” whose root is “pietat” meaning piety, affection or duty).  This understanding of “passio” is the root meaning of the passion of Christ, a word which represents His suffering. 

    With this understanding of the word compassion, it has a very Buddhist resonance, since our practice has at its very heart an understanding of the existence and nature of suffering, and an intentional practice for its relinquishment.  To relinquish suffering, whether one’s own suffering or that of others, one must first really understand it, one must really be with it.  Etymologically this is precisely what compassion means.

    Compassion is not limited to Buddhism teachings and practices, though.  It is a universal virtue.  Compassion exists across all the major world religions and philosophies.  In the Christian Bible, Christ says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," and he tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan to exhort his followers to ideal of compassionate conduct, which is to extend love to all, even one's enemies.  In Islam the believer recites several times during each of the five daily prayers, “Bismillah Rahmanir Rahim,” which crudely translates as “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” reflecting that compassion and mercy are foremost among God’s attributes.  And in Hinduism it is one of the three central virtues along with charity and self-control.

    I take all of this as very reassuring, for it confirms that the central premise of Buddhism, namely the existence of suffering and the possibility of its cessation, is valid.

    We talk a lot about compassion, but we also talk a lot about the advantages of sequestering one’s self from lay life if one is to advance one’s practice.  While there may be benefit in such removal from the world to help one in practice, that is a very different thing from living in a monastic setting and living a truly compassionate life, and I’d like to talk about this possibility for a bit.

    There is a tendency to idealize that which is external, especially when it is something we actually know nothing about.  I know nothing of the monastic life, having never lived one, but when I think of this I imagine a secluded, quiet and peaceful environment conducive to meditation practice.  I fully expect there to be lots of hard workundefinedgardening, cleaning and buildingundefinedand for there to be challenging studies, but equally I expect all of the work to be directed, and for the environment to be fundamentally capable of meeting my human needs of food, clothing and shelter such that I am without real worries.  And I also expect it to be an environment conducive to quieting of the passions, meaning sexual desire, gluttony, and the like.

    This is an idealized environment, and I am confident that life in a monastery is not really like that.  I am confident that a monk will find that despite the environment, human passionsundefinedand remember this comes from a Latin root meaning sufferingsundefinedwill arise.  But if the imagined environment actually did exist, I do not believe it would permit compassion, for it would be an environment without passion.  How can one share or be with suffering if there is no suffering?  I suggest that to live in such an environment is, in Buddhist cosmological terms, to live in the realm of heaven.  Such an environment does not facilitate waking up, since it is precisely the coexistence of suffering and intelligence in the human realm that makes this middle realm the optimal existence.

    So I suggest that the very idea of compassion requires us to leave such ideals behind and throw ourselves into a world in which we fully accept that we will suffer greatly.  To experience real compassion requires us to experience real suffering, for how else can we understand and be with suffering, whether directly with our own suffering, or empathetically and in understanding with the suffering of another.  By this logic the greatest opportunity for compassion is when we are in the greatest adversity.

    So how do we do this?

    Buddhist practices across centuries and nations have developed enormous diversity and offers us many ways to cultivate compassion.  For most of my time as a Buddhist my practice was sitting in shiken taza, sitting in silent awareness and staring at a wall without direct attention on compassion, but like many of this sangha I found that when times got really tough for me, this practice did not work.  Dogen famously stated, “to study the way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self,” and while I fundamentally agree with this, it is important to use the right tools in that study.  When the internal anxiety levels are high, it takes a remarkable person to forget the self when simply sitting in awareness.  Have you ever responded to the news that a lover or spouse is breaking up with you, that you have been fired from your job, that you have to someone who is really angry with you and in your face, by sitting down in shiken taza?  For me, even after more than a decade of practice, in when the core of my self-existence is challenged with this intensity, I find this a very hard practiceundefinedI might honestly say an impossible practice.

    Here at Red Clay Sangha we have recently explored other Buddhist teachings and practices around compassion: we have talked about them a little on Sundays, and a lot more in our Tuesday evening reading group.  The other practices we’ve explored are mainly the aspiration to live life for the purpose of saving all beings, manifested by adoption of the Bodhisattva vow, in Tibetan Buddhism, and the metta practices of the Insight Meditation Group.  Using language Wade brought back to us from his Korean training, Zen has taught us to concentrate our minds, and these other practices give us something to do with our them.

    And for me they work.

    I want to talk a little about why and how they work to allow us to explore whether this is a good thing, and either way to give a sharper edge to our practices.  I want us to look at these and see how they align with the idea of practicing compassion in adversity.

    The Bodhisattva Vow and metta practice intentionally focus our energy on happiness, whether by vow or mantra.  With the Bodhisattva Vow we jump directly to the release of suffering and the happiness of all beings, whereas with metta practice we are encouraged to begin by cultivating happiness and peace within ourselves before extending that wish to others; this is consistent with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching that if one cannot feel compassion for one’s own suffering, one is certainly unable to truly feel compassion for the other.

    I have been playing with these practices for some time now, and I have found in the focus on happiness a kind of breakthrough in understanding.  The Dalai Lama has said, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion."  I have come to the provisional conclusionundefinedand remember in Buddhism all teachings are provisional, expedient means, and not to be held on to or rejectedundefinedthat it is all about happiness.

    This happiness, though, is not what we might at first think.  It is not the pleasure of a nice bowl of ice-cream, or a hug from your kids.  It is not the release from suffering of estranged kids coming over for dinner.  It is not even of a glass of water in the desert.  It is the experience Socrates was directing us towards when he encouraged us to examine our lives, eudaimonia in Greek, the word for “happiness,” or more accurately, “the flourishing life” or “the good life.”  Socrates did not mean an emotional state or pleasure, but rather a fulfilled life, one that is lived in accord to our deepest values and aspirations not just for ourselves but for our families and community.

    The happiness I am talking about is a happiness not dependent upon circumstances.

    A lovely little book I lightly read, “The Untethered Soul,” was what most recently alerted me to this way of thinking, a way of thinking that has been reaffirmed in many places since.  The author, Michael Singer, makes the assertion that we actually only have one decision to make in our lives:  “Do you want to be happy from this point forward for the rest of your life, regardless of what happens?” he asks, and continues,  “You just have to give an unconditional answer.  If you decide that you’re going to be happy from now on for the rest of your life, you will not only be happy, you will become enlightened.  Unconditional happiness is the highest technique there is.  You don’t have to learn Sanskrit or read any scriptures.  You don’t have to renounce the world.  You just have to really mean it when you say that you choose to be happy.  And you have to mean it regardless of what happens.”

    Noah Levine in “The Heart of the Revolution” expounds the same philosophy, and asserts strongly that our happiness is not related to pleasure or lack of pain.  “Pleasure is fleeting.  Period.  If we make pleasure the source of our happiness, we are happy only a fraction of the time.”

    Think about it.  We experience pleasure in smoking a cigarette, in the act of sexual intercourse, in eating a nice meal, but such pleasure must end.  And regardless of how hard we try to avoid it, we will experience the pain of stubbing our toe, of the death of a loved one, of our own sickness and old age.  There is nothing we can do to change this.  If we can cultivate strength of understanding and of will that prevent the vicissitudes of pleasure and pain governing our happiness, why would we not make the decision to be happy regardless of conditions.  And would this decision not give all of our practices a sharper edge?

    This, then, is what I mean when I assert that exercising compassion is not harder when our lives are hard, and that it is precisely at that time when working harder on compassion can be of most benefit to self and other.  It is at this time that we are most able to empathize with suffering, for it is at this time that we best understand it, and can therefore truly relate to others’ suffering.  And it is at this time when we can truly work on the happiness that is independent of conditions.

    True happiness is the precondition forundefinedis the realization ofundefinedDogen’s “forgetting of the self.  True happiness is the precondition for and the realization of a state of true compassion for self and other without separation.  True happiness is possible regardless of conditions, regardless of whether one is in pleasure or pain, whether one is in adversity or not.  And I believe all of the practices of Buddhism and the other great world religions are simply tools and techniques to cultivate this experience of unconditional happiness, for it is only when one is truly happy that one can manifest as joy, equanimity and compassion in the world and truly be able to help self and other.

  • 21 Oct 2012 10:00 AM | Cherry Zimmer (Administrator)

    I was on a five day retreat last weekend and at the end I felt nourished and refreshed.  Whole as it were.  Not the typical stiff and sore and sleep deprived.  Just really me at ease.

    Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo fascicle devoted to the retreat is titled Ango which literally means “peaceful abiding”.  This chapter begins with a lovely poem by Tendo Nyojo:

    Stacking our bones upright on the flat earth,
    We each dig a cave in space.
    Directly we pass through the gate of dualism,
    And grasp hold of a black lacquered tub.

    This sort of settling in, stacking my bones and digging that cave without drama and rigidity allowed me to flow through some of my delusion of identity, being only me without painted additions and expectations.  I sat, I walked, I slept, I awoke, I ate and I peed. That was all and that was everything.  The depths of silence allowed my concept of identity to flow through.  No one to identify me. Pillow-sit. Food-eat.

    The weeds and spent peppers go to compost.  The squash is chopped.  Many wonderful Zen poets, ancient and modern were appreciated. Formality minimized into silence. Great weather opened the doors of the hall to individual afternoon sitting in the meadow.  Mockingbirds fight with themselves.  The stones form a circle. 

    Each of us has a space without definition and identification which can be accessed with ease and care by simply allowing oneself to settle into the present reality, without expectation or judgment.  A place where existence is.  It requires only the effort of not looking for it.  Not knowing what it should be.  And not willing oneself into existence.

    Siddhartha Gautama and his disciples retreated into the hills and caves during the summer rainy season.  Now we make a ritual treasure out of this practice even though we have boats and no rain. 

    The remainder of the chapter is protocol.

    “That Little Tree”

    Spared by the builders,
    From bulldozer and saw,
    A scrawny little tree.
    Paired with the oak behind the deck.

    Started from a seed within the forest.
    After clearing the smothering pines,
    That little tree starts to prosper.
    It catches my eye.

    Close to the feeder,
    The little birds perch in it,
    To wait their turns,
    And crack their seeds.

    I become curious,
    And find that its name is “Tupelo”.
    The book that gave me its name,
    Gave its character as:
    “Desirable landscape tree, well formed shape”.
    I find this disappointing,
    I liked it better as just:
    “That little tree”.

    The birds seem not to care either.
    Given light and space it has made berries,
    Covered by robins at summers’ end,
    They stock up for their flight south.

    Spared little tree,
    It grows strong and tall,
    Fit partner for the oak.
    Both beautiful for itself,
    And for the birds!
    I Love that little tree.

  • 07 Oct 2012 8:48 PM | Gareth Young (Administrator)

    According to the Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, Anatman means, “non-self, nonessentiality…that no self exists in the sense of a permanent eternal integral and independent substance within an individual existent…in Hinayana this analysis is limited to the personality; in Mahayana it is applied to all conditionally arising dharmas.”

    I talk a fair amount to people of other faiths, and of all of the distinguishing features of Buddhism, anatman is the one that seems to be the one that presents the greatest difficulty.  People can come to understand emptiness by way of analogy to quantum mechanics, can revisit their prejudice that the Buddhism is a cult obsessed with suffering when the ideas of compassion and joy and the four immeasurable minds are explained, and can even come to recognize non-attachment as the corollary of universal love.  But anatman, no soul, is a big one.

    “So where do you go when you die?” people ask, then realize they have to rephrase the question as, “So what happens when you die?” and they start to squirm.  In a recent talk I tried a familiar tack and told the questioner that this was the wrong question, but it was later suggested to me by their spouse in the friendliest way that he heard this as cutting off conversation.  Why is understanding anatman so hard for non-Buddhists, and why does this principle set Buddhism so far apart, the only religion in the interfaith gatherings I regularly attend for which the prayers and statements of gratitude to the universal deity don’t work?

    I have long looked outside myself and my religion believing I needed to find a way to educate the world about a concept which has been so useful to me, but am increasingly revisiting my approach.  As a general truism, if I am in a room with a thousand people who all experience life one way, and I experience it a different way, perhaps I should stop and look at what I am experiencing to see if I am missing something.  I have concluded that as it relates to my understanding of anatman, for me this is the case, and suggest it is time for Buddhism to do the same.

    This sounds radical and perhaps arrogant, but I hope that if you spend a few moments reflecting on this, you’ll conclude that this is more ordinary than it might at first seem.  After all, Buddha was a radical and revolutionary whose entire teaching challenged the normal ways of thinking in his world, and he admonished us not to believe a word he said, but only to examine our own experience, which he challenged us to examine very closely.  I think his very teaching told us to constantly reexamine and not get caught in paradigms and concepts.  If we are truly to believe in anatman then this concept, too, should be open to scrutiny and examination, and we should acknowledge the possibility that over time we have become stuck.

    In my understanding the person whose teachings became the new tradition of Buddhism had no aspiration of forming a new religion; rather he was a reformist Hindu.  And what he was reforming was pretty simple: over thousands of years the teachings and culture had become calcified, and Buddha was particularly offended by the caste system and the objectification of the Hindu gods.  (As an aside, this brace of objections by a radical teacher is analogous to those of Jesus Christ.)  So Buddha worked to create a model society without caste and threw out the practices objectifying the soul and the divinity with his doctrine of anatman.

    This model of throwing out a teaching in order to reform it is a familiar one.  I believe it was Tokusan who burned all his monastery’s copies of the Blue Cliff Record collection when he achieved his awakening for he realized the monks were reifying those teachings. We do this with our children to take them away from a partial truth on which they have become stuck. And it is my belief that this is what Buddha was doing when he threw out the idea of atman.

    In Buddhism we practice the Middle Way between extremes, which can be really hard, for it is our human tendency to veer from one extreme to another, getting stuck and then correcting.  We are all familiar with the conversations of the relative and the absolute, and of how easy it is to misunderstand and miscommunicate about these, of the danger of falling on one side or the other.  I have read of them as being like the opposite sides of a carpet, inseparable parts of the same reality but apparently completely different and distinct, and impossible to see simultaneously from the normal human viewpoint.  I would posit that atman and anatman are simply different words or perspectives on this same point.

    I am going to analogize emptiness with evolutionary theory or the laws of physics and the Big Bang.  Evolutionary theory does a wonderful job of describing the mechanic of differentiation of species and offers great predictive powers – the hallmark of good science.  Similarly the laws of physics and the Big Bang theory give us a great model of how the world works and allow us to build refrigerators, rockets and atom bombs.  But neither of these explains “why,” let alone “what.”  Evolutionary theory cannot deal with the emergence of life any more than the laws of physics can give us any idea why there are quarks and leptons and the like, of what they really are, or why the important constants of relationship between them are just right for the emergence of life – why we live in a Goldilocks universe, if you like, where everything is just right for us. 

    Bringing this back to anatman and emptiness, we have created great explanations in Buddhism for the way the world works, for cultivating an approach to our life in which we come to terms with our non-self and interconnectedness with all.  But in throwing out atman I wonder if we haven’t thrown out the baby with the bathwater.  In moving away from atman we have moved away from an appreciation of what is, from the miracle of creation, of where the world came from and what it is, and we focus on the emptiness of things.  We tend to concentrate our practice on the dark side of emptiness rather than the bright side of beauty and wonder.  When I stop and really reflect on the existence of space and time and the Goldilocks universe, I realize my Buddhist practice has a wide, gaping hole.

    In Hinduism, where the concept of atman arises, there is lower-case-atman, the individual equivalent of a soul, and upper-case-Atman, the universal. I once heard Brother Shankara, the resident priest at the Vedanta Center in Tucker, say, “Atman is that in which all exists,” and a light bulb turned on.  I realized that this is just the other side of anAtman – and I’m saying the upper-case version.  We do have this in Buddhism – we call it Buddha-nature – but we tend to put this aside as incapable of examination.  I don’t deny that emptiness is true – in fact I emphatically agree with it – but for me it is only one side of the truth, and to remain here and only here is to risk missing the beauty and wonder of life, the universe and everything.

    In Islam, “Allahu Akbar” means “God is greater,” meaning that no matter how great we conceive Him to be, He is always more than that.  I understand that many of us recoil from the ideas of worship, deity, and prophets, but why?  When is the last time any of us really looked at that aversion?  For me aversion generally comes from fear, and often from fear that I might be wrong.  I have prayed with Muslims many times in the last few months, and have received so much from this practice that I am learning the prayer ritual to incorporate it in my own daily morning practice.  I am finding that something miraculous in this ritual practice of submission, which is the root meaning of the faith name and the core of its practice. 

    In Buddhism we cultivate insight and wisdom, believing from our own experience and that of our ancestors that as this leads to the dissolution of the ego we will reach truth.  But we also read of Zen sickness, of those who follow this path and fall into emptiness, losing touch with the world.  If our path takes us to that place and only years later brings us back into the world, it suggests to me that it is a lop-sided practice.

    The approach of Islam is to surrender the ego five times daily, to recognize that we do live in the relative world as mortal human beings who get sick and grow old and die, and to focus on that side of existence.  This feels to me like one approach to the other side of the universe.  I am finding that the practical application of the principles of emptiness and non-ego in this relative world lead to a deep and spiritual recognition that the existence of this universe and each life within it is incredible, dare I call it a miracle, and that we are powerless in the grand scheme of things.  This approach to non-ego leads to a radical surrender of self and requires a self to surrender and the principle of a Divinity, a Creator, an Atman to whom to surrender.

    I believe Buddha threw out the idea of atman simply because the people of his time had become overly attached to deity worship and were using divine creation to explain the mechanic of the world, not because they were wrong about the wonder of the universe.  I believe this is why he did not throw out the stories of deities and he continued to subscribe to the idea of reincarnation.  But in the seventh century Shankara reincorporated Buddha’s principles of Buddhism into Hinduism – and in particular the practice of Advaita – and Buddhism died out in India, not so much because it was cast out, but because it no longer had reason to exist separate from Hinduism. 

    I have experienced something akin to Shankara’s turning around in my own practice.  It has manifested in part through the ideal of the bodhisattva in Shantideva’s classic work, and in part through the metta practice of Sharon Salzberg, but it is more than either of those.  These two are practices that bring me back to the relative world of real people and real suffering, and they help me see my relationship with myself and with others, but they aren’t designed to give me an appreciation of what the world actually is, to cultivate a sense of humility and wonder.

    My view of anatman, then, is that it is absolutely correct but incomplete.  In the same way we, Red Clay Sangha, as a community, have been discovering the wonder of cultivating compassion and giving and joy, I have found great happiness in cultivating a sense of the relative world and taken great joy in really getting to know it in all of its diversity and beauty.  The opportunity to know the world in this lifetime is too precious to squander.

    I am coming to realize that a world without this richness of experience is no more real than a world without the recognition of emptiness, and it is important for me that my practice is as intentional about cultivating and experiencing this as it is of cultivating insight into emptiness, personal happiness and compassion for others.  It is time for me to take to heart the words of Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” and to live a life of deep appreciation and experience of this world of wonder.

  • 02 Sep 2012 8:36 PM | Gareth Young (Administrator)

    "Not Knowing Is Most Intimate" is a koan from the Chinese Buddhist collection, "The Book of Equanimity." (It is number twenty in that collection.)  The koan is as follows:


    A Profound talk of entering the Principle derides the three and rends the four.  The Broad way to the capital runs seven vertically and eight horizontally.  Suddenly opening your mouth to speak decisively, and lifting your foot to tread firmly, you should hang up your travelling bag and howl and break your staff.  Tell me, who is such a person?

    The Case


    Master Jizo asked Hogen, “Where have you come from?”

    “I pilgrimage aimlessly” replied Hogen.

    “What is the nature of your pilgrimage,” asked Jizo.

    “I don’t know,” replied Hogen.

    “Not knowing is the most intimate,” replied Jizo.

    At that Hogen experienced great enlightenment. 

    Capping Verse

    Right now, investigation replete, it’s the same as before

    Utterly free from minute obstacles, one comes not to know

    Short’s short, long’s long.  Cease pruning and grafting.

    According with high, according with low, each is even and content.

    A family’s manner of abundance or thrift is used freely according to circumstances.

    Fields and lands excellent, sportive, one’s feet go where they will.

    The manner of thirty years’ pilgrimageundefined

    A clear transgression against one’s pair of eyebrows.

    This koan has come to mind a lot recently, I think because it brings together two ideas that have been coming to mind a lot: the first is, “I’ll allow the old Barbarian knows but not that he understands,” and the second the importance in my practice, my life, and my happiness of intimacy.  So it was time for me to return to the study of, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

    The superficial point of the case is that as soon as we know something it becomes separate.  Not knowing comes before knowing, and not knowing is closest, most intimate.  When we fall in love, when we are a father or a mother, when our hair stands on end as we watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon, that is before we start thinking and “knowing.”  If we start to think, to analyze, to come to know, then we start to let ideas and mental constructs replace the reality and create separation.

    But to “grok” the koan – to pass it – we need to go deeper  and apply it to our lives and our world.

    We are all human beings and it is in our nature to try to survive, to seek safety, to seek comfort.  Learning how things work, putting labels on them and correlating patterns and relationships and predictability allow us to function more effectively in the world.  But we take from these behaviors more than that.  When we know answers we feel safe, and so we fool ourselves into thinking that if we know more answers we will be safer.   

    But ultimately we are not safe – we are all going to suffer, to get old, to die.

    We go through life accumulating knowledge and letting “knowing” sink deeper and deeper into us until it has become habit.  We “know” without even realizing anymore that that we know.  We mistake the instinctual knowledge that is ingrained in our mental and muscle memory as being the way things are, rather than a representation of the way things are.  This is knowledge that will help us put food on the table, to follow the behavioral rules of our society and to not crash the car, but it is not knowledge that will help us with the things that really matter in life: it won’t help us avoid suffering; it won’t prevent us growing old; and it won’t help us avoid death.  And it won’t, to relate this to the book we are currently reading on Tuesday night, help us be happy.

    Happiness is a big one – maybe the big one – but I will leave that topic for a few weeks and return to it when we explore metta practice.  Instead there are two other spaces I want to focus on where our entrenched knowing is a problem.  The first of these relates to the lines from the verse, “Let it be short, let it be long.”  

    There is an idea in Zen that we variously label the absolute, darkness, and one-ness.  And many more things besides.  It is a really important idea and a representation of a truth, but it is just an idea.  And like all ideas, we tend to look at them and turn them into knowledge.  We can accept - maybe with our own modifications and tweaks to personalize the truth - and let it become knowledge, destined, like all knowledge, to sink into the subconscious library on which we draw every day.  Alternatively we can resist or reject this idea, as some do.  But in reality this resistance is no different, for it simply creates a different idea.  And actually the mental processes that accompany rejection and formation of a rebellious idea can be even more powerful than acceptance and can create tenacious ideas of their own that often wrap in a lot of self-identity. 

    The line “Short’s short, long’s long,” in the verse points to the reality that this oneness is not sameness.  As an ancient said, “we do not add to the legs of a duck and cut down the legs of a crane.”  This oneness has nothing to do with eliminating differences.  Rather it is about connectedness, interdependence, recognizing that one cannot exist without the other.  It relates to the story I like to tell that if a knife were slammed through the back of my left hand, my right hand would naturally come over to remove it, recognizing its innate oneness with the left hand.

    In my own practice this currently relates to equality in society. 

    We all have ideas from childhood, from our environment, and from the media that establish what we “think” equality means, and we build stories rationalizing our beliefs.  My parents were both in some measure racists and misogynists, and so those are influences in my life that I can’t avoid forming ingrained beliefs that I have rationalized.  No amount of unlearning will ever eradicate fully what I learned.  My Dad covered up his racism with humor and with the stories he wove that it was important to be able to talk openly, though he never recognized he was not listening.  A typical recent story that springs to mind is a politician who got into trouble for using the word “niggardly” which means “picky.”  Dad defended the right of the individual to use a word that has been around “forever,” but was blind to the other side of the story and the people who had never heard the word in the context he learned it and therefore found it offensive.  His misogyny he denied completely, citing practical reasons for me riding in the front of the car with him from age 13 while my mother and sisters rode in the back. 

    I will be working on these prejudices in my practice for the rest of my life and will never fully eradicate them.  Hopefully they will become, in the language of the verse, my “minute obstacles,” but I will never be totally free of them.  The person who says they are without obstacle is a fool or a liar.  But as I work on them, I will hopefully be moving towards a state of more intimacy with the people of the world.  I will be moving to seeing people of all colors, sizes, races, genders, and sexual orientations as just people.  All totally different and yet still people, and in their individuality and uniqueness part of oneness.  

    In personal relationships I am also working on showing up without first judging what is good or bad about me, what I should or should not bring to the table.  I am working hard on showing up completely without barriers and without reservations.  This showing up without self- judgment is the other side of intimacy.

    Oneness to me points at equality and at the mess we have made of equality in a society ridden with prejudice and hate.  Whether it manifests on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or whatever other arbitrary basis of “knowing” we choose to impose, prejudice is a violation of oneness.  It is important to me, though, that we do not, as a society, fall into the trap of the Zennie who wrestles with the idea of the absolute, affirming or denying oneness, but that we recognize oneness for what it really is.  This is, of course, beyond words, but since words are all I have for today, I will do the best I can with them.  For me oneness in humanity is embedded in the golden rule, in the admonition of all of the world’s spiritual traditions to see the basic humanity of every person and to treat them all with equal respect, a respect that is no more and no less than your own self-respect as a human being. 

    But to bring this back to the koan, “Not knowing is most intimate.”  The reality is that what is really happening is deeper than the ideas that I have just articulated.  As I attend jumma at mosques and Shabbat at synagogues, as I interact with people of all races and colors and creeds, I am finding that I am unlearning more every day and am more aware of each person I meet as a beautiful , radiant manifestation of the same reality that manifests me, not different and not the same.

    The second way I want to look at this koan draws from the first line of the verse and informs the idea of equality in humanity.  The line reads:  “Right now, investigation replete, it’s the same as before.”  This idea comes from the same place as “Before enlightenment mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers; after enlightenment mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.”  Only they are not the same mountains and rivers.  Everything is the same, but it shines and shimmers, analogous to the cascading digits of Neo’s insight in the matrix.

    A quote from the commentary on the koan runs, ‘Nansen said, “The way is not in knowing or in non-knowing.  Knowing is false consciousness, not knowing is indifference.” Now when people hear it said that not knowing is most intimate, and that this is where Fayan was enlightened, they immediately go over to just not knowing, not understandingundefined“just this is it.”’  We need to go beyond not knowing to non-knowing.  When we affirm, we should totally affirm but not settle down in affirmation; when we deny, we should totally deny but not settle down in denial.  

    Another quote runs, ‘Master Cizhou said, “In walking, is sitting, just hold to the moment before thought arises, look in to it, and you’ll see not seeingundefinedand then put it to one side.”’  As human beings we are given the gift of our senses and of our minds, and there is nothing wrong with using them.  But we can learn to use them more sensibly, and the training that Master Cizhou offers allows us to do just this.

    In going beyond not knowing, in seeing not seeing and putting it aside, we are interacting with the world as it always was, as we always knew it was, but doing so without our categories and labels.  We are seeing a mountain not as a “mountain,” but just as it is.  And in doing so judgments of better or worse, useful or harmful are not so much put aside, but they don’t even arise.  It can be this way too in our interactions with people.

    An ancient said, “In the eyes it is called seeing, in the ears it is called hearing, but tell me, in the eyebrows what is it called?”  After a long silence he said, “Everybody knows the useful function, but they don’t know the useless great function.”

  • 15 Jul 2012 8:32 PM | Gareth Young (Administrator)

    The title of this talk alludes to a koan - a non-logical story, typically a conversation between a teacher and student in medieval China - used in Zen practice.  There are two versions in common usage: the first, in the collection of koans called the Gateless Barrier, is brief and pithy; the second, in the Book of Serenity, is longer.  It is that version of the koan I am centering this talk on, and which I will begin by reading you.


    The bodhisattva appearing as a maiden on the banks of golden sand was a special spirit.  Stuffing pastries in a crystal jar, who would dare to roll it?  Without going into the frightening waves, it's hard to find a suitable fish.  How about one expression of walking relaxed with big strides?


    Changsha had a monk ask Master Hui, “How was it before you saw Nanquan?"

    Hui remain silent.  The monk said, "How about after seeing him?" 

    Hui said, "There couldn't be anything else." 

    The monk returned and related this to Changsha.  Changsha said,

    The man sitting atop the hundred foot pole:

    Though he's gained entry, this is not yet the real.

    Atop the hundred foot pole, he should step forward:

    The universe in all directions is the whole body.

    The monk said, “Atop the hundred foot pole, how can you step forward?”

    Changsha said, “The Mountains of Lang, the rivers of Li.”

    The monk said, “I don’t understand.”

    Chang said, “The whole land is under the imperial sway.”


    The Jade man's dream is shattered - one call from the rooster

    Looking around on life, all colors are equal.

    Wind and thunder, with news of events, browse down to the hibernating insects;

    Peach trees, wordless, naturally make a path.

    When the time and season comes, laboring at the plow,

    Who fears the spring row’s knee-deep mud?

    In his abridged translation of and commentary on The Book of Serenity, Gerry Shishin Wick gives a lovely and simple recap of the intent of this koan.  “Here Master Chosa [the Japanese form of Changsha] is encouraging us to take a step forward from wherever we may be.  Each of us is stranded on a hundred-foot pole. We may have climbed up for the view, or we may have fallen to it from another perch.  No matter where we are in our Zen practice or our life, we’re always standing on top of a hundred foot pole.  But we must not rest there.  We must step forward into the unknown void in order to experience the boundless life.

    I’ve probably said enough already.  In fact in his commentary in the Book of Equanimity, Tiantong  tells us that “Changsha said, ‘If I were to wholly bring up the Chan teaching, there’d be weeds ten feet deep in the teaching hall.’”  It’s probably best to shut up.  But call this an intent at what the masters called grandmotherly kindness: I’m going to keep talking!

    “Without going into frightening waves it’s hard to find a suitable fish.”  What a wonderful line.  But the it’s really important to not hold onto the fish, or the idea of a fish.  This is not the same as my mother’s, “Anything worth having is worth working hard to obtain.”

    “The monk said, ‘I don’t understand.”  How marvelous.  This is already it.  I’ve used many times the line out of the Blue Cliff Record, “I’ll allow the Old Barbarian knows, but not that he understands.”  This “not understanding” is critical.  Perhaps for me stepping off the pole is really about letting go of my desire to understand.  From understanding it’s a short step to wanting to control.  But since I can’t control anything that really matters – the sun rising, the rain falling, my birth as a privileged male in the most privileged of times – what kind of delusion is this control.  Truly, not understanding is best, second only to intimacy.

    “The man sitting atop the hundred foot pole: though he's gained entry, this is not yet the real.”

    Tiantong in his commentary says, “This and Yantou’s saying to Xuefeng that "Deshan didn't know the last word" are troubled about the same thing.  I always tell people that it's much like someone having taken their grandparents house and business, and their relatives themselves, and sold them off on the same ticket, then put it in a crystal jar which you keep with you wherever you are, guarding it like your eyeballs.  Don't let me see!  I'd surely pick it up and smash it, making your hands-free, folks joyfully alive with no taboos."

    Being joyfully alive with no taboos is wonderful.  But from a zen standpoint, this is arrived at after studying and forgetting the self, and not something taken on casually out of ignorance.

    Again, quoting from Tiantong, “A man with views attached to his bodily self came to the patriarch Upagupta and sought initiation. Upagupta said, “The rule of seeking initiation is that you believe in my words and don't disobey my instructions."  The man said, "I have already come to take refuge with you, master; I certainly will obey your command." Then Upagupta magically produced a precipitous cliff on a mountain soaring high with big trees on it, and made him climb up a tree, and under the tree also he produced a chasm thousand cubits wide.  Then Upagupta bade him let go his foothold.  The man did as he was told, and let go; Upagupta bade him let go one hand, and he let go a hand.  Finally Upagupta bade him let go the other hand; the man replied, "if I let go the other hand, I'll fall into the abyss and dark."  Upagupta said, "Before, you promised to do as I instructed – how can you disobey me?"  At that moment the man's love for his body vanished; he let go his hands and fell – he didn't see tree or of this anymore, whereupon he realized the fruition of the path.”

    This sounds hard, maybe even radical, but it sounds doable.  There are two important warnings, though.  The first is to remember that the pole is a place of solitary insight, not a place of ignorance.  It’s easy to think we’ve stepped off the pole into freedom, but to have missed the point.  My son loves the old NBC show, “Friends,” and we were watching an episode – well, actually three episodes, back to back.  In one of these Chandler was crazy about the girl with the terrible laugh, but when she put her chicken on his plate and helped herself to his vegetables, he freaked out and wanted to run away.  This was a level of sharing that was too much of a commitment.  He consulted with his friends and Joey counseled him, “It seems to me it’s like everything else: you have a fear of heights, you go to the top of the building.  You have a fear of bugs….get a bug.  In this case you have a fear of commitment, so I say you go in there and you become the most committed guy there ever was… Jump off the high dive, stare down the barrel of the gun, pee into the wind.”

    So Chandler jumps off the pole and shows a level of commitment that is beautiful and which he finds really liberating.  But when this terrifies and pushes the object of his desires away, he falls into misery.  He languishes with Jennifer Anniston and Courtney Cox in misery, being fed ice cream.  He stepped off the pole, but wasn’t really ready to step into liberation and immediately found himself stuck again.

    The second warning is precisely what happened to Chandler.  It is Gerry Wick’s point when he tells us that wherever we are in our practice we find ourselves on top of the pole.  We can’t expect to step forward once and be done.  The ego is pernicious and won’t let us get away with that.

    Cherry talked to us almost a year ago about the gift of fearlessness, and this is an important part of stepping off the one-hundred foot pole.  Be not afraid.  Just do it.  If we cultivate insight by sitting, by practicing mindfulness, we gradually become more aware of where we are and what we need to be doing.  We might still be hiding from it, but we are in needs to be done.  This is the insight we cultivate, and stepping forward from this place is very different from stepping forward out of ignorance.  It is when we step forward from this place that we can manifest the stories of the vigorous engagement of the Chinese and Japanese ancients, not caring what others think, and experiencing the whole universe as my body. 

    This act of stepping off the pole is the same as returning to the marketplace with bliss-bestowing hands.  It is letting go of all our puffed-up ideas of zen-this and enlightenment-that.  It’s truly relinquishing the last vestige of ego and seeing all others, the entire universe in the ten directions as none other than ourselves.  It is recognizing that to care for others is just the same as to feed and shelter ourselves.  I’d initially framed the end of this talk in terms of how it is important to remember – or stay in touch with – the responsibility that freedom brings, and the compassion that is the manifestation of that freedom, but I realized as I was writing that this does not get it.  Stepping off the pole can have no vestige of this thinking or remembering.  It is a step into the purely instinctual world where we already know – but don’t understand – that we are none other than everyone and everything else, and from this place there is no alternative but for true compassion to arise.  This is the compassion that comes from the root meaning of the word, passion with, sharing with, being one with.  If I am free to act, if the whole universe is my body, then the responsibility to care for the whole universe as I would my own eyes arises naturally.

    But this is not easy.

    “It’s like being stuck in a dream from which we cannot awaken.  To awaken we need to have trust to let go."

    The Book of Serenity commentary also alludes to the koan of the buffalo passing through the window.  This is a ganto koan, one of the last koans for a mature student.  The whole buffalo gets through the window except for the tail; the question for the student is how to get the tail through the window.  This is the same question as how to let go of that last hold on the pole, how to let go of the fingerhold on the cliff.  It is the story in the Mumonkan of the monk holding onto a branch by his teeth.  It about seeing and avoiding the small indulgence, that “one little thing” that we assure ourselves is okay.  It’s the old habit patterns that reassert themselves.  Seeing and letting go becomes ever more difficult as the residues that return become more subtle in manifestation, and the ego’s desire to survive becomes more crafty and manipulative.

    As Joey said, “Pee into the wind.”

  • 01 Jul 2012 10:00 AM | Cherry Zimmer (Administrator)

    Last week I had the great honor of speaking at the memorial for a friend who took her own life. Writing a eulogy is a very good exercise in practicing the sixth Grave Precept*: “See only your own faults: do not discuss the faults of others”. This was made somewhat easier because she was a person who truly embodied that precept. Please be kind to my faults while I attempt to discuss this precept.

    This precept does a very good job of illustrating some general characteristics of precept practice. First, that it is not really something anyone wants to do (if one thinks about it just a little), but we do it all the time anyway. Second, that it can be really harmful both to ourselves and to others. It demonstrates dualistic thinking. It demonstrates ego-centered thinking, and helps to further separate us from others instead of bridging the gap. It is universal. And finally, it is simply good advice.

    When I say that it is not really something anyone wants to do what I mean is that there is no question in my mind that practicing not fault finding in others will enhance my quality of “daily life” – or speaking in the relative. We all know people who spend so much time seeing others’ faults that they become bitter and cynical. We also know that in order to effect meaningful change it is necessary to look at that which we ourselves control – i.e. our own faults. We know all too well when we are the victim of faultfinding how much it hurts.

    None the less, we all do it. Social psychologists suggest that this behavior is learned in childhood, as one can become the friend of a common enemy by sniping behind their back. Too sad, and yet how often does it happen? It is so easy to slip from conveying information to judgment. I’m reminded of conversations I have with my sisters – usually there is some bit of information passed along about the one not in the conversion at the time and before we know it we’re gossiping.

    The practice of this precept is stopping yourself and asking why you are doing it before it happens. It can reveal important aspects of how your incorrect view of that person may be getting in the way of real connection. It may also reveal how your incorrect view of the world is getting in the way of your life.

    The interesting question for me is how we can use this precept to examine ourselves and see the repeated way that we separate ourselves from each other by blaming and not accepting our own faults. How we separate ourselves from life by seeing it as flawed. How we see only fault and not possibility.

    Oddly, taking the blame for problems does no more good than looking for others to pin it on if there is no real understanding of the error. The ugly head of “should be” still rears itself along with the ugly head of self. Talking about your own faults is of no use unless you are looking for help dissolving them.

    When helping someone learn a new skill, this can easily become confused. It is important to look closely at why the other person has misunderstood your instructions in order to be able to clear up the misunderstanding and allow learning to happen. To do this requires that you view the process as a partnership and view the other person’s viewpoint as valid. To teach, you must learn to see things the way the other person does.

    When Diane Rizzetto discusses this precept (in “Waking Up To What You Do”) she speaks of the attitude of meeting each other as strangers, not the ‘other’ conditioned by our past experience of that person, but open to the possibilities represented by the that person. In this way, we avoid the dangerous internal conversation about that person’s faults that separates us from them and the possibility of intimacy with life.

    Another particular difficulty with this is that it requires me to be OK with the fact that you are different from me, disagree with me, have different capabilities than me, etc. In short, I must look face-to-face with the fear that I am not “the best” and “the only”. Fortunately, this also can lead to learning to meet oneself as a stranger and being open to the possibility that I might be something other than I had always thought.

    This is freedom.

    * Alternate wordings:

    • I vow not to slander.
      In the Buddhadharma, go together, appreciate together, realize together and actualize together.
      Don't permit faultfinding.
      Don't permit haphazard talk.
      Do not corrupt the Way.
    • See the perfection - do not speak of others errors and faults.
    • I take up the way of speaking of others with openness and possibility.
    The full sixteen zen Bodhisattva precepts are here.
  • 22 Apr 2012 3:45 PM | Gareth Young (Administrator)
    We hear the word “refugee” a lot.  In dictionary.com we learn that “a refugee is aperson who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.” The word is used to describe those who are suffering from a Sudanese famine, who are fleeing the Iraqi genocide in Kurdistan, or who are fleeing personal persecution by their government, be that the old USSR, Myanmar, or North Korea.

    But the root of the word “refugee” is “refuge”, so a refugee is really just one who takes refuge.  I believe that when we take the refuges we become refugees, and I’d like to look at what it means to think of us in these terms.

    A refugee takes refuge from personal danger: what is it that we take refuge from as Buddhists?

    We are trying to leave Samsara, to find a new home led by a system or a person who will give us comfort and security away from the suffering that is our world.  And if we look close enoughundefinedwhich as a society we condition ourselves not toundefinedwe will see we are also taking refuge from death.  As Shantideva says in The Way of the Bodhisattva:

    Don't you see how, one by one,
    Death has come for all your kind? 
    And yet you slumber on so soundly,
    Like a Buffalo beside its butcher.


    And when the heralds of the deadly king have gripped me,
    What help to me will be my friends and kin?
    For then life's virtue is my one defense,
    And this, alas, is what I shrugged away.

    In the same way that a political refugee looks for a government and society that can save him from a life that he finds unsatisfactory, we, too, are looking to be saved from the horror of suffering.  We have tuned into the basic human desire for happiness.  We have realized that the forms of escapism into which we can so easily fall ultimately cannot work, that salvation requires not more artificial joy, but something completely different. We have realized, in a manner analogous to that of the political refugee, that the structure of the society in which we are living is somehow not conducive to the life of happiness we seek.

    We are also all refugees from other religious traditions, mostly Christianity, which we fled because the particular savior we found there did not work for us.  We did not find the Christ a satisfactory solution to our need to be saved from suffering, our need for joy.

    Many Buddhists find salvation in the Pure Land, a place physically separate from this world where we might go and live with all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, free from suffering.  This is similar in my conception of it to the freedom promised by Christ in the next life.  This might seem superficially completely antithetical to what we are seeking, which is release now, but I believe that the distinction is not what it appears to be, and I’ll return to the point later.

    For now, though, I’ll turn to Zen Buddhism, the tradition and practice of meditation which we all came to, the practice where we all experienced a glimpse of a better life, the possibility of release from suffering.  The practice to which we return, the practice where we sit and take the refuges.
    The Uttaratantra Shastra, which I’ve talked about before, is a wonderful Tibetan text that expounds on the Three Treasures and the act of taking refuge in them as of paramount importance.  It talks of the refuges as being on three levels, with Buddha being the Big One, the highest refuge that trumps the others.  I’d encourage you to read this text, since it really does emphasize the power of the refuges.  In Tibetan Buddhism the act of taking refuge is the point at which one formally becomes a Buddhist, and I’d suggest you look closely at your own practice, for I am pretty sure that whether or not you take the formal recitation of the refuges seriously, you are sincerely taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in your life as your path to release from suffering, to finding joy, to salvation.

    So looking at the refuges in the Shastra’s reverse order, I’ll begin with Sangha:

    We all take refuge in Sangha when we come and sit together on Tuesdays and Sundays.  But more than that, by knowing that our sangha is sitting on those days, it is there for us to take refuge in whether we show up or not.  The sangha is always a phone call, an email, a lunch date, or even just a thought away, and we all stay in regular contact.  Taking refuge in sangha is all about connections and relationships and the quality of them.  True sangha relationships are loving and caring and generous.  Whether monastic or lay, they are comfortable and intimate, places of safety.  In our community we have focused much of our practice intentionally on creating an environment in which those relationships can flourish as a resource to us all.  These relationships require cultivation and nurturing if they are to offer benefit to self and other, and we are intentionally working on that together.  In sangha we find real community, real connection, real compassion both given and received.

    What does it mean to take refuge in Dharma?  It means to recognize the teachings as something in which we can find safety and release.  It means to study Buddhist texts and through them find a deepening of our understanding that will allow us to see cut through our suffering by identifying its causes and seeing more clearly what is really going on.  There are risks in all practice, and the refuges are no exception.  One of the greatest I see is when we take refuge in dharma, for it is here that there is a tendency to become attached to a teacher.  I recognize the enormous value of a teacher in helping us to penetrate the dharma, but I am troubled by our human tendency to identify with a teacher, to place on a teacher a responsibility for helping us, and perhaps ultimately to turn our teacher into our savior.  This will ultimately fail both teacher and student.  It is critically important that we remember the Buddha’s teaching on this: each of us is responsible for our own salvation.  We cannot look to others, not even to the Buddha, to deliver us from samsara.

    So from this standpoint, what can it mean to take refuge in Buddha, the highest of the refuges?

    In the first instance we are taking refuge in the Buddha’s teachings and in the second we are taking refuge in his example, which is another form of teaching.  But this is all taking refuge in the Dharma, which we have already discussed.

    Taking refuge in the Buddha is about taking refuge in Buddha nature, seeing clearly the reality of the world as it is and taking refuge in this reality.  In many of the texts we read the Hinayana Buddhists are disparaged for running away from this world, for seeking release from suffering without caring for others, and I think this not only as failing to recognize the cultural context within which the teachings occurred, but also a failure to recognize the Buddha’s teachings and the reality of the world in which we live.

    Buddha taught that there are two truths: the first is the truth of Indra’s net, that we are all composed of the same stuff, that we come from and return to the same place like drops of rain, and the second that although we are just drops of rain, nonetheless we exist as such in relationship with other drops of rain and with the ground on which we fall.  This is not something we get to choose, it is just the way things are.  We can no more avoid our separateness and our interbeing with other life than we can intentionally avoid breathing.  It just is.  So distinguishing between those who return to save all beings and those who seek to escape is to me rather silly: we cannot avoid being here and ultimately other beings.  The Bodhisattva Vow is not so much a commitment as a statement of reality. 

    If we are to follow the teachings of the Buddha, I believe that compassion, love for other, and intimate connection with the world is unavoidable, for what else can we do when we see Buddha nature, see ourselves in the eyes of another?  More, I believe that it is not only unavoidable, but it is precisely in this activity that we have the opportunity to really take refuge in Buddha and truly find our own salvation.  It is not in cultivating silent wisdom away from the world that salvation is to be found, but in engaging with the world in love and care and compassion.  Returning to the salvation of the Pure Land and Christianity, I believe they are also pointing in this direction by creating an environment in which the practitioner is able to transcend the suffering of the world of samsara, and to live a good life for the benefit of othersundefinedwhether motivated by purifying karma to attain a high rebirth or in the Imitation of Christ.  These traditions point at practices which embody what the Buddha taught: they admonish us to see and experience our connectedness with all of creation and to act with deep empathy and compassion.

    There is a perceived risk in opening up to the level of intimacy that comes with Guan Yin taking on the suffering of the world, but like so many risks it is misunderstood and actually we construe it backwards.  It is in opening up and giving ourselves to others that we find ourselves.  Anyone who has children knows this in their bones without even thinking.  But this selfless giving offers possibilities way beyond family, and it gives back to us 100-fold in the joy we can feel.  Compassion is the best cure for us, and it is here that we can find our deepest joy.

    Many refugees recognize the wonder of their new life and become the very best of citizens, committing themselves to the political and social processes of their new nation, working hard and contributing more than their fair share: it is no accident that they are also among the most grateful and the happiest of citizens.  As refugees, I would suggest that we, too, should look at our new nation and see the opportunity through giving freely of ourselves in compassion, love, and gratitude to truly find ourselves and to find joy.  And we can remind ourselves of this by taking the refuges.
  • 25 Mar 2012 5:38 PM | Gareth Young (Administrator)
    This is a talk inspired by the latest book club reading by Perle Besserman and Manfred Steger.

    It is a book about charismatic individuals who broke with the establishment and did had very different approaches to zen.  They each seem to have found a way to true Zen practice, and their stories point to sincerity, truth, real zen.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about how these stories are relevant to America today.

    In the introduction which sets up these stories as being “different” the authors say:
    “The tendency of students…[is]… to revert to dependence on gods, the Buddha, and the “holy” scriptures persisted…This book is not concerned with scandal.  It focuses on those religious Zen geniuses whose training, commitment and realization experience led them to a free life, unconstrained by religious etiquette, rules, or hierarchy.”

    “We are encouraged by the Crazy Clouds’ [the authors’ general name for the rebels] commitment and hard training and by the true realization of emptiness that prompted them to take their experience out into the world and live as compassionate bodhisattvas.”

    I’ll spend some time looking at my own favorites from the book and then draw some conclusions and look at what this means for my own practice.

    Layman Pang – He famously refused to become a monk and never gave up family life.  But even Layman Pang visited monasteries and spent a year early in his career with Sekito.  Eventually though he gave up the bureaucrat’s comfortable life and the monastery and left the world.  Like many Zen masters he wrote poetry, one of his most famous poems is:

    My daily activities are not unusual
    I’m just naturally in harmony with them
    Grasping nothing, discarding nothing
    In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict
    My supernatural power and marvelous ability
    Drawing water and chopping wood

    He took his daughter as his traveling companion and in a sense as his disciple, and they settled in a cave.  One of my favorite stories about him happened two years later when Pang decided it was time to die.  He sat down in zazen and instructed his daughter to go outside and come back to inform him when the sun reached its zenith.  She went out and later rushed back in saying, “It’s already noon and there’s an eclipse of the sun.  Come and look.”  The Layman rose and went to the window to look and his daughter jumped onto his seat, crossed her legs, and died.  The stories have him delivering a smart-arsed Zen comment, performing a seven day funeral rite for his daughter, then with another pithy comment passing away, and of course they have his wife, on hearing of their deaths, making another smart-arsed comment.

    Rinzai – Studied with Obaku for three years before he could even meet the master in personal interview.  After many years studying with Obaku, he grew his hair long and traveled for a year testing his enlightenment with many other teachers.   Started his own temple and throughout he shocked the religious and political establishment with boisterous practices, such as grabbing priests and officials by the lapels, hurling insults and yelling at them and hitting with stick.  He urged students to slay the Buddha, ancestral teachers and their own parent.  To become Rinzai’s student you had to relinquish the world and become homeless.  There was no monk, no meditation, no Buddha, no notion even of enlightenment.  He was a major reformer, founding one of the two main remaining zen lineages. 

    Ikkyu (He called himself Kyoun, Crazy Coud) –Illegitimate son of emperor, constantly under threat of being killed.  He spent many years desperate for enlightenment, wandering from teacher to teacher.  But when a teacher finally declared him enlightened and gave him an inka certificate, he threw it on the ground and left the room.  He refused to take on a temple, but nonetheless he ended up with a group of followers – women, bums, beggars and prostitutes were his students.  And famously he ate meat, drank alcohol, and made love to women.  He went further, and in the brothels and geisha houses cultivated the connection of his human life and body to death through the red thread of passion and created “Red Thread Zen” with similarities to tantric Buddhism.  And he celebrated all of this in his large body of poetry, such as:

    sin like a madman until you can't do anything else
    no room for any more

    My naked passions, six inches long.
    At night we meet on an empty bed.
    A hand that's never known a woman's touch,
    And a nuzzling calf, swollen from nights too long

    In his seventies he met Lady Shin the blind singer, composer and musician who has been called his missing female self and was to become his passionate companion.  And in his eighties the emperor gave him the task of rebuilding Daitokuji, which I understand is a big deal, and he committed the last years of his life to this task, returning to and rebuilding the establishment colored by his own unique style of Zen

    Hakuin.  Stories are from a young age showed extraordinary religious ability (though I’ve never known what that means) and expounded long sutra passages from memory.  Childhood anxiety on hearing of the agony of the eight burning hells.  Went to lots of teachers, then read a book with Joshi’s mu and tried to understand in meditation.  This led to his first satori, great doubt of practice leading to great death, the sudden expansion of consciousness and then great joy of nonseparateness and overwhelming love and joy.  He went on to found modern koan practice.  He also used imaging practices in and around the body to induce healing and bring balance for others as well as himself (some inspired by Daoist practices).  He came to see the body as important as a vehicle for enlightenment and the exercise of compassion, and therefore something to be treasured – though this was completely at odds with the practice that almost killed him.  And he developed a considerable reputation and a large temple.  He is said to have seen koan practice as the only way to be brought to genuine insight.  Like many of the rebels and reformers, he is famous for his art and poetry

    Nyogen Senzaki.  He was born of a Japanese mother who either abandoned him or died in childbirth, and an unknown father believed to be Russian.  He was adopted by a Kegon Buddhist and given a good education, studying with DT Suzuki, then spending two years in Southeast Asia studying Theravada Buddhism, and becoming abbot of Engakuji at 33.  But when he read the works of the German educational reformer and founder of the kindergarten system, Friedrick Froebel, he left the monastery to form a nursery school which he called Mentorgarden.  Eventually he left not just the monastery, but Japan, and came to the states, where he led practice without money or home, and founding practice and community based on mentorgarten, living together and practicing together without teachers, associating with his sangha regardless of sex, etc.  Two quotes I especially like are:
    “When my master was alive I asked him toi excuse me from all official ranks and titles of our church and allow me to walk freely in the streets of the world.  I do not wish to be called Reverend, Bishop, or by any other church title.  To be a member of the great American people and walk any stage of life as I please is honorable enough for me.  I want to be an American Hotei, a happy Jap in the streets.”
    “If anyone makes demarcation foolishly, thinking that he alone has the right view of water, who should not pity him for his ignorance?  There are many schools, monasteries and sects, each considering their own teaching a lake, rather than a bay, forgetting the inlet to the ocean of Dharma, the universal truth.

    Common themes
    -          Childhood tales – some miraculous; others, like Dogen, of great doubt; yet others of brilliance and instinct for Buddhism: “the language” of these stories
    -          Path began with fervent desire for enlightenment
    -          Training in the institutions
    -          Spent time with many teachers and wandered wide
    -          Then woke up and “went rogue”
    -          Concluded the institutions are bankrupt
    -          Decided their practice was correct
    -          And later went back to lead big monasteries
    -          Not just accepted but welcomed back by the institution
    -          Not just sitting
    o   Soen: “Meditation is not Zen.  Zen is meditation, but it is also thinking, eating, drinking, sitting=, standing, shitting, peeingundefinedall of these are nothing else but Zen...Zazen is sitting Zen.  But this is not the Zen.  Don’t be mistaken on this point.
    -          Compassion
    -          Living, being in the world
    -          Embrace humanity
    -          Embrace the dirty stuff – sexuality

    What does this mean in the present day?

    We talked a lot in the book club about this, but as I’ve thought about it I’ve reached a different conclusion.  I don’t have a good answer to any of this for the universe at large, and even if I did have, I am always conscious of Thich Nhat Hanh’s screensaver, “Are you sure.”  But I can tell you what it means to me.
    -          I actually have little use for rebellion per se, though this might just be semantics.  Looked at from the outside a rebel does something different from the rest of society, but from the inside a rebel just does what is natural.  Living out of alignment with who I am supposed to be is rebelling against my own nature.  Giving up rebellion and bringing myself into line with myself will make my behavior more natural.
    -          On to reform: to me Buddhism is so small in the US, and Zen a diminishingly small fraction even of that, as well as a very young one, such that reform is not a relevant consideration: rather we are in the process of “forming.”
    -          The only thing I have to reform is my own life.  I remember a family vacation a few years ago when one of my sisters came outside onto the patio, said, “Hmm, there’s a dog turd by the BBQ, and went back in leaving others to clean it up.  I have been sitting on a fence for too long and looking the other way.  For so long, in fact, that the ground beneath the fence has been eroding, so the drop has been getting greater and it’s been harder to climb down.  I am making conscious strides to change that.  I am making big decisions and taking deliberate actions in my life to come into line.  It is no longer okay for me to talk about peak oil and Occupy Wall Street and the prison industrial complex and then turn the other way and work my ass off to earn money to live in my big house.  I must reform in what I do, the way I live, the way I hold relationships.  I must allow myself to come back into alignment.
    -          So to radicalism.

    Radicalism is probably the big one.  To live a radical life is to discard all views and live a free life.   Quoting Layman Pang again:
    My daily activities are not unusual
    I’m just naturally in harmony with them
    Grasping nothing, discarding nothing
    In every place there’s no hindrance, no conflict
    My supernatural power and marvelous ability
    Drawing water and chopping wood

    Zen is radical.  It does not exist in institutions.  To be radical is to live such a life.  It is for each of us to find out what that is for us.  It may be as a monk.  It may be the radicalism of living Way of the Bodhisattva of Shantideva, which I have previously talked about as truly radical.  It may be in the daily activity of Layman Pang, in his family life.  It may be freely following one’s calling to found Mentorgartens or Occupy Wall Street.  It may be to live it in the Red Thread of Ikkyu, embracing sex not just as natural, but as a wonderful and beautiful part of this human existence.  It is probably some combination of all of these and more.

    But to me that is the core message not just of this book, but of Zen itself.  Zen is not in the institution, whether that it be the national religion supported by the emperor or a tiny, parochial club in Amnerica, but rather in seeing the world as it is, living a life in harmony with whatever you are doing, open and connected and without hindrance or conflict.  What a beautiful thing that would be.

    For me this is about stepping off that fence and realizing that the ground I thought was receding such that it would hurt even more when I hit does not even exist.  It is allowing myself to enter that natural free fall of simply being without resistance. 
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