Gratitude

The idea, or rather the feeling of gratitude has been growing in me lately. I’ve been wondering if it is something I can write about, determined I probably could not, until reading a friend’s post literally as if it was written to me. How serendipitous!

My gratitude extends far and wide, to the myriad things that have conspired to for me to be right here, right now. And no, not exactly sweating profusely on a rickety old bus in southern Thailand – the greater part of my right now, this entire movement towards a life of Love and Wisdom, Connectedness and Compassion.

My recent retreat focused on the concept of the spiritual heart, moving one’s center of consciousness from the mind to the center of the chest, opening towards a state of nonduality and love. The meditations were partially guided (usually the first 5-10 minutes), and one of the most poetic metaphors that kept coming up was this idea of blowing upon the ember of the heart.  The ember represents the hidden power of the light of the spirit, hidden in the material world of the earth. When blown upon, it ignites into brilliant light and heat, and when many embers are close together they can also erupt into light. Beautiful.

gratitudeI find myself often in meditation giving thanks, being grateful for so much. The cushion I’m sitting on, the Zendo I’m in and the others in it practicing with me. The Buddha, the incense and all those who worked tirelessly to produce such things. The individuals who created the conditions for the Zendo to exist, their teachers and the entire lineage. My life: my parents for their unconditional love, my sister, my greater family, friends, lovers, and even the single serving friends who passed through this existence with me just for a moment or a few hours. I am grateful for all of my teachers, old and new, the many authors and poets who have inspired me. Then there is the great expanse of mother earth, her plants and light that has nourished me, her oceans and deserts and great mountains and streams that have provided countless undulations of inspiration and bliss.  The list goes on and on.

This feeling often evokes several expressions of Dogen’s:

The entire world in the ten directions is the true human body

and part of Genjo Koan:

Conveying the self to the myriad things to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment

 

Thank you Myriad Things…

Embodying the Truth

Last weekend my Zen Teacher was in town leading one of his twice annual seminars at the Chautauqua Community House in Boulder. I’ve attended several of these over the past couple of years and while always very opening and stimulating weekends, this one in particular was very much aligned with my practice and deeply insightful.  Roshi continued a series of teachings on Yogacara that began unfolding during our 7-day sesshin several weeks ago. In an effort to summarize several of the key teachings I thought I would write a little about them.

Embodying the Truth was the title and Roshi began by describing Zen as a Yogic practice of embodiment.  Paraphrasing Patanjali, who is believed to have written many of the foundational texts for Yoga (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), Roshi stated: Yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind, fluctuations also being considered as “thought impulses”.

A powerful observation and distinction he made at this point was that not all mental formations are what we would consider thought impulses.  Basically, thoughts that distinguish the world are very different than thoughts that push us out of immediacy. Distinguishing appearances in the world is very different than comparing them. Comparing them implies a judging observer, and therefore comparing takes is out of immediacy into self-referential thinking.  This is a very important observation. I often hear people describing meditation or Zen practice as stopping all thoughts or thinking, however this isn’t accurate, as thoughts are of the mind as sights are of the eyes. We are simply trying to stop self-referential and over-conceptual thinking, not all thinking.

We then explored immediacy in greater detail, Roshi’s term for what popular Buddhism has coined as Mindfulness Practice. Roshi defines immediacy as the energetic engagement in experience and breaks it up into three aspects:  

     1. Situated Immediacy (Emphasizing Noticing)

     2. Body/Mind Immediacy (Emphasizing Feeling)

     3. Engaged Immediacy (Emphasizing Doing)

For me, this was a helpful tool in opening up the practice of immediacy as more accessible. I think I may have overemphasized noticing as the primary practice of immediacy over the other two.

Next, Roshi posed the question: Are you holding the present (immediacy) that you are receiving?  We have a choice in each and every moment, towards wisdom or delusion. Not a conscious choice, but one cultivated through Yogic practice. To remain in immediacy is the choice of wisdom, to stick to our usual practice of viewing immediacy though self-referentiality is delusion. This is echoed in Dogen’s Genjokoan

Conveying the self to the myriad things to authenticate them is delusion; the myriad things advancing to authenticate the self is enlightenment

For most of us, our concepts of self are so much stronger than our concepts of the situational context or field that it takes time and practice to begin to shift our views.

Roshi then delved deeper into this moment of choice, developing a teaching around the chain of sensation <-–> perception <-–> conception that is our usual way of experiencing the world.  For example, imagine walking down a dirt path in the dark of night with only a small flashlight. In an instant, your flashlight may illuminate a rock in your path. At this moment the rock is in your sensorium, as a sensation. As soon as the light leaves the rock, the rock becomes a perception (oh I better not trip on that rock), no longer a sensation coming through any of your sensorial channel (unless of course you trip on it!). The perception of the rock functions within a concept of going somewhere or doing something (why are you walking in the first place?).

This is a very simple example, but you can imagine countless others: you hear a piece of music, and you immediately conceptualize and start recalling memories. Ooops, you’re no longer in immediacy! What happened to the perception in this example?  Well, the perception is this critical moment of choice as described above. Do we allow our perception to remain in the uniqueness of immediacy, or do we allow it to be conditioned by cognition, leading towards discursive, self-referential thought? The percept in the music example is simply a pleasant set of tones that influence you physically. How quickly we miss this.

Ironically, most often, it is our concepts that influence our perceptions, that actually go on to influence our sensations. This is sort of radical. Many people believe what you see is what you get. But what they don’t realize is that what they see has been completely altered by their cognizing mind and conceptions of the world.

Basically, the moment of percept is where this critical choice comes in: The percept can belong to the senses rather than coming from our conceptual framework.

A Yogic conception is a non-conceptual perception and this we cultivate through zazen practice.  Our adeptness of Yogic practice determines our movement towards sensation or conception from perception. We are cultivating Dogen’s Backwards Step, stepping back from the habit of conceptualization, not labeling sensation, which is beginning to see the world non-conceptually (non-dually), and the basis for realizing Buddha Mind.

We can begin to define our world with sensation more than visual separation, practicing sensorial articulation by separating the senses, practicing with techniques like hearing hearing, seeing seeing, etc.  This is at the heart of Yogacara practice.  An adept practitioner limits him or herself to experienced cognitions, those that proceeded from a sensory –> perceptual input, not those created from other conceptions. 

One of the most profound moments for me was at the end of this teaching, where Roshi reminded us that we also need to not conceptualize the conceptualizer or perceiver.  All of the above can subtly hold an implicit view that there is a self or agent working through this chain of sense->percept->concept, but the light must be turned around to apply the same practice to the perceiver, not conceptualizing the perceiver and resting in sensation…

Off I go…Thanks for listening…

Negotiating the Way

Is what I have been doing for the past couple of months. This is a Buddhist term for balancing our everyday world with the non-dual nature of the universe. Sounds deep but its really what we are doing in every moment. The difficulty comes in remaining aware of this continual negotiation. Negotiating the Way is often described as striking balance between the two truths – ultimate reality and worldly or relative reality. They are not different, not the same, inseparable yet distinct.

medium_diverging_pathsI’ve been home for a little over two months, finding myself swirling around in a state very unlike those of my past. While I was traveling in India I had many ideas and images of what life would ‘be’ and ‘look like’ when I came home. As life tends to do, it destroyed my expectations, wishes and ideas and completely threw everything up in the air when I first arrived home. Its things like this that place one right back to the present reality of this moment. Clichéd, but true. People left my life, others entered, many changed, but one thing was for certain, is that despite the many changes of scenery, the pulse of life is always calling one home.

Despite an urge to remain off the grid, I’ve slowly made some moves to reintegrate into society; I recently paid my first rent check in over 12 months, bought a car and a laptop. There are simple realities of living in America that I’ve discovered are easier to adopt rather than go against the grain.

I started this entry during the middle of my last 10 day visit to my Zen Center in Crestone, Colorado. Today I’m a few days away from returning for my forth week this summer. In retrospect, I would have preferred to spend a single, longer period of time there, instead of multiple experiences of back and forth between a very disciplined life and the one of complete non-discipline, but what this back and forth has provided is very clear insight into certain patterns in my life that are not conducive to awakening.

When I talk about Zen practice I mean much more than just sitting meditation (zazen) or chanting and bowing – ultimately I’ve come to learn that is the easy piece.  The harder piece is practicing compassion with fellow residents when you are exhausted and upset, dropping petty desires and attachments; Addressing subtle shifts in consciousness before they disappear behind attachment or aversion or ignorance; Practicing compassion and patience inwardly, not judging oneself for absolutely detesting the 4:30 wake-up call or 3 hours of work in the hot sun followed by cleaning toilets. A strange phenomenon occurs for me in my drifting in and out of the monastery: despite the absolutely rigorous schedule, lack of sleep and fantasies about how much freedom I will have when leaving and returning home, as soon as I do return home there is a slight sense of deflation, of the volume being turned down on life despite the overwhelming amount of stimulus and choice(“Free Will” available. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it completely, but its as if our world of physical freedoms and choices masks our ability to see our Self or true nature. In a place where you are denied these freedoms, even to the level of your own time and sleep, transformation can take place.

Zen practice provides a framework, not a dogma that so many religious institutions are so quick to provide. A quote from that as I recently read so brilliantly in Hee-Jin Kim’s Dogen on Meditation and Thinking:  “[Dogen] challenged and urged practitioners to critically reflect on how to practice their own religion for the sake of alleviating suffering for all sentient beings in the world.” Zen is notorious for not allowing practitioners to grasp onto teachers, teachings, holy objects or otherwise. It is designed to return you to yourself, to force you back to developing your own religion(or of you don’t like that word – try your own path, process or world view).  Throughout the summer and my weeks at the Zen Center, outside of an occasional discussion group, there is no formal training, but subtly there is a lot going on. Rituals are designed to bring you back to yourself – 3 hours of meditation a day, sutra service, silent breakfast ritual (Oryoki) and probably most important, the support of the resident sangha for your practice. The teaching can be in the form of words, but more often it is by example – watching senior sangha members do dishes, prepare food, work on the property or simply communicate with each other. Speaking from first hand experience in India (and also some observations from home), it is easy to see how one can become too holy (focused on the ultimate reality), neglecting the world, this body, attaching to those things that are unspeakable and supreme. BUT, as the two truths doctrine states, there is a middle way, a delicate balance between these two aspects of our Self.

On a more practical side, I’m now officially considered one of those long-term unemployed you hear about on the news, surviving on a couple hundred dollars a week. I’ve been trying to stay within my means and enjoy the gift of not having to work to put food on the table. Today I’m spending time with my favorite baby Eva, working really hard to count 5 and repeating various animal sounds. Woof Woof!

One would assume with all of this additional time that I’m getting out to climb, doing all of those things that I was unable to while slaving away to Corporate 50 weeks a year for the past 8 years. But I’m not. I’ve dabbled in climbing, Yoga, backpacking. I’ve been very careful about not jumping into any single activity – moving slowly, slowly. I’ve yet to get a gym membership and have not spent much time in the going out scene. While I still love doing these things, several as a wonderful expression of myself, I find that I am dis-identifying with them.  Some my take this as a disheartening approach to life, but I’m taking more of the  “Nothing Special” approach: while certain activities no longer completely consume me, I’m finding that in general all of my daily activities are heightened with more interest: simple time with friends, extra time in the car because I forgot my keys and had to turn around, doing dishes or simply sitting quietly and watching the world go by. Which will lead me to my next blog post – this strange sense of standing still while everything else around me is moving…  But for tonight I leave you with a heady quote from Eihei Dogen (The Great Zen Master from the 13th century):

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In the Shobogenzo, “Bendowa” (1231), Dogen succinctly enunciates his Zen: “The endeavor to negotiate the Way (bendo), as I teach  now, consists in discerning all things in view of enlightenment, and putting such a unitive awareness (ichinyo) into practice in the midst of the revaluated world (shutsuro).” This statement clearly sets forth practitioners’ soteriological project as negotiating the Way in terms of (1) discerning the nondual unity of all things that are envisioned from the perspective of enlightenment and (2) enacting that unitive vision amid the everyday world of duality now revalorized by enlightenment. Needless to say, these two aspects refer to practice and enlightenment that are nondually one (shusho itto; shusho ichinyo). ~Hee-Jin Kim, Dogen On Meditation and Thinking