Friday, March 27, 2015

Shunryu Suzuki on Zazen

Shunryu Suzuki (鈴木 俊隆, 1904-1971)
Today I am sitting in Los Altos. Tomorrow morning I shall be in San Francisco. There is no connection between the "I" in Los Altos and the "I" in San Francisco. They are quite different beings. Here we have the freedom of existence. And there is no quality connecting you and me; when I say "you," there is no "I"; when I say "I ," there is no "you." You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our zazen. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between Zen practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish.
A wonderful painting is the result of the feeling in your fingers. If you have the feeling of the thickness of the ink in your brush, the painting is already there before you paint. When you dip your brush into the ink you already know the result of your drawing, or else you cannot paint. So before you do something, "being" is there, the result is there. Even though you look as if you were sitting quietly, all your activity, past and present, is included; and the result of your sitting is also already there. You are not resting at all. All the activity is included within you. That is your being. So all results of your practice are included in your sitting. This is our practice, our zazen.

(The above is excerpted from ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ by Shunryu Suzuki. A review of this incredible book can be found here.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #5

Dhammapada, Verses 11 & 12:

Those who mistake the unessential to be essential
And the essential to be unessential,
Dwelling in wrong thoughts,
Never arrive at the essential.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the unessential to be unessential,
Dwelling on right thoughts,
Do arrive at the essential.

Two concepts & their opposites dominate these two verses – The first is sare (essential) & its opposite asare (unessential); the second is samma-sankappa (right intention, translated as ‘right thoughts’ above) & miccha-sankappa (wrong-intention). Understanding these terms is crucial in understanding these verses, so this article must initially resemble something of a dictionary entry so that it has a sound foundation upon which to build. As the verse suggests, distinguishing the essential from the unessential is dependent upon our intention (sankappa), so it is with the idea of right-intention that we will begin.

Right-intention is the second aspects of the noble eightfold path (ariya-atthangikamagga), and with right-view (samma-ditthi) forms an aspect of the path known as wisdom (punya). Right view, put simply, involves viewing experience in the light of such teachings as the three characteristics (tilakkhana), which describe all things as impermanent (anicca), stressful (dukkha) & not-self (anatta). Right intention, which complements right-view and sets the mind up for moral & meditative training, involves setting the mind up in the right direction for such endeavours. It is sometimes translated as ‘right-thought.’ In the early texts, Buddha says, “What, now, is right-intention? It is intent free from lust (nekkhamma-sankappa), intent free from ill-will (avyapada-sankappa), and intent free from cruelty (avihimsa-sankappa). This is called right-intent.” (Digha-nikaya 22, Pali canon)

Being free of lust, ill-will and cruelty is to establish the mind in a state where it will be more able to facilitate a morally-positive lifestyle (which comprises a further three aspects of the path). All this helps to create a peaceful mind free of negativity & its associated guilt, thereby allowing a successful meditation practice to lead to calmness & wisdom, and eventually, enlightenment. Caught up in wrong intention leads to suffering & ignorance to the way things are, and makes progression along the Buddhist path impossible. Right-intention, therefore, is a crucial aspect of awakening or enlightenment.

The term essential (sare in Pali) can be looked at in two in ways. The first is explicit in the meaning of the verses as explained above, defining the essential as having right-intention (and by extension, as they are inextricably linked as the training in wisdom, right-view). That is, to practice the noble eightfold path and awaken to our true nature we need right-intention; it is essential if we wish to awaken to the way-things-are and live from this wisdom. The other way we can understand the word essential is implicit in the above verses’ meaning, and it is see to that which is essential to our being – and therefore essential to our ability to awaken.  This essential aspect within us is not a teaching or doctrine, but rather the essence of what we are, right now, when we take the time to actually look and see. Shall we look, then? Why not?!

Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?

•          Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.

•          Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but whatsoever!

•          All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now are occurring in this invisible no-thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?

So, you see, the essential isn’t merely a specific teaching or intent, but it is also that which can be experienced in this very moment as the essence of what we are. Merely seeing this doesn’t mean that we’re enlightened, however; it is a glimpse of what lies beneath our everyday facades, and it requires all the intent & effort summed up in the noble eightfold path to deepen and make permanent our experience of true nature. So, to “know the essential to be essential” can be understood and applied in these two, complementary ways. We need right-intention & right-view (the latter of which includes the above insight) to light up our lives with the living Dharma of Buddha and reside in the essential.

The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ajahn Brahm on Wisdom in Meditation

Ajahn Brahm (1951-present): A happy meditator

When people meditate they often use too much force; they just keep bashing away at the same place. Lack of progress isn’t always due to insufficient effort or motivation, or too little time spent on the meditation cushion or the walking path. Sometimes it’s just that the wisdom isn’t sharp enough to get through the problems, and if you only had a bit more wisdom, you would suffer less and achieve deeper states more quickly. Thus cultivating the factor of wisdom is extremely important.
The first of the noble truths as expounded in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta is the truth of suffering (SN 56:11). You have to focus your wisdom faculty on that suffering. Suffering just is; it has nothing to do with whether or not you’re trying to avoid it. Suffering is the nature of the world, the nature of the body, the nature of the mind. Things don’t always go the way you want them to. Occasionally they do, but never as often as you’d like. The suffering that comes from being frustrated with meditation practice – being bored or feeling stuck or whatever – is an aspect of the first noble truth. Disappointment, not getting what you want in life – basically the five khandhas – this is all suffering. So don’t force the issue and say, “This isn’t right; it shouldn’t be this way; I’m doing something wrong.” Instead, stop, focus, and remind yourself that this is just the nature of things. If meditation doesn’t go the way you want it to, or if the body is aching or the mind is sleepy, remember: that’s just the nature of the body and the mind.
A wonderful thing happens when you get wise to the nature of the body, the mind, and life itself. When you realize that it’s all just nature, just a process of cause and effect, you also realize that it’s not your problem anymore. You see that detachment comes from the wisdom of recognizing the nature of suffering in life: you can’t do much about it, so you leave it alone. When you leave it alone, you develop the mental attitude that is aware and alert, that watches but doesn’t get involved. If you don’t arouse the doer in the difficult moments, you’re actually turning a bad meditation into a source of future calm. In fact, the whole job of meditation practice is putting effort into how you’re experiencing things, not worrying about what you’re experiencing. Focus on how you’re aware of the hindrances, the desire and ill will, the boredom and frustration. What’s important is your attitude toward the situations you come across in meditation and how you react to them, rather than the situations themselves.
To establish the right attitude, we need to use our wisdom. When we realize that our experiences are just nature, we don’t react by feeling afraid, guilty, frustrated, or disappointed. We don’t lose our confidence, thinking, “I can’t do it.” Of course you can’t do it! I can’t do meditation either. Every time Ajahn Brahm starts to meditate, he messes it up. But I’ve got enough wisdom to know that if I step out of the way, a beautiful, clear space appears between me and what I’m watching. Then there’s no frustration or boredom. If those feelings still linger in the background, you just leave them alone. You don’t get involved or create more problems. You just watch and gather the data.
(The above is excerpted from Ajahn Brahm’s brilliant book on meditation called ‘The Art of Disappearing,’ a review of which can be read here.)