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…

Calm as a Hindu Cow

I’m two weeks into my month-long Yoga intensive in Rishikesh. I feel as if this incredible unfolding is happening right before my eyes. Actually, the unfolding is occurring behind my eyes. Yoga, combined with a beautifully enriching spiritual community, mixed with the current state of my own path, throw in a small group of friends committed to sharing their own process and exploring the beauty of existence together have all come together at this amazing time in my life.

A cosmic unrolling I will call it, that at moments seems to accelerate change in myself and solidify a connection with the Divine. I’ve shaken off the stagnation that I was feeling at home, processing what I now know was caused by a lack of preparation and lack of energetic defense against the onslaught that is one’s past. I am, to the best of my abilities and intentions, back in the here and now. I plan to write about my time at home eventually, but I am still sitting with various aspects of it. Plus the here and now is here and now. 🙂

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Yoga practice has provided the underlying framework for this unrolling. But I’m not talking about the cartwheel Iron Yogi style of practice we have grown accustomed to in the West. Yoga this time refers to the ancient tradition of spiritual awakening first developed in India that morphed into Buddhism and continues to influence thought and culture in the East.

I was introduced to the Trika Yoga program from my friends Al and Nicole whom I met while traveling in Nepal. They participated in the introductory first month course in January and when I checked in with them to see how it was going, Nicole said “It makes me feel so much like a million bucks that if someone offered me a million bucks to quit I would say no." That, in addition reading this link on Trika’s website (answering yes to the 7 questions as the bottom), and I was SOLD! I still consider myself a Zen Buddhist, but I believe the physical aspects of certain Yogic practices (Zen developed from something called Yogacara (meaning one whose practice is Yoga)) are beautiful complements to my Zen practice.

A bit about the program – it (as many popular programs in India today) was developed by a Westerner who assimilated the teachings of many masters. Trika has a holistic approach that provides insight into several Yogic disciplines, primarily aligned with Hatha Yoga (Ha=Sun, Tha=moon), focusing on balancing cosmic and telluric energies in our energetic bodies through our  emissive and receptive functions (Yin and Yang), respectively. The text from Trika’s website:

An introduction to Hatha Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Laya Yoga, and Tantra Yoga. It also includes theory and practice on techniques from Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Nidra Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga, thus constituting a genuine example of Integral Yoga.

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Information and explanatory lectures are given on a variety of related topics such as: diet in Yoga, healing through natural methods, purification and cleansing techniques, Ayurveda, yin/yang balancing, relaxation, physiology and psychology in Yoga, mastery and transmutation of the sexual energy, Eastern philosophy, mental concentration, the use of music in Yoga, and meditation, to name but a few.

Yoga in general is not dogmatic and the ashram where I practice is dotted with photographs and quotes of masters from all disciplines – many Yogis and Hindu deities of course, but also Christ, Gandhi, Buddha, contemporary individuals who have gained realization in various forms.

One can become quite proficient in this Trika path – undergoing 5 years or so to become a certified teacher. The primary introduction lasts 3 months, with most instruction and practice coming in the first month, what I’ve committed to. The first month consists of a 28 day program, 6 days a week for 4 weeks. Each day is similar – the only difference being the new asana we learn in the morning and a unique lecture in the evening. The schedule is very intense and tiring. I’m in the ashram from 7:30-11:30 in the morning and then 4-9 in the evening. The morning begins with a 45 minute meditation, followed by short instructions on the new asana (posture) for the day. We then proceed to practice for approximately 2 hours. We repeat this in the afternoon, incorporating a series of sun salutations(Surya Namaskara) with devotional chanting to begin the practice in a symbolic act that is a complete surrender of oneself to God. We then proceed with the asana practice and once finished, we take a short break and move into a lecture on various yogic disciplines. Yogi Training 101 I like to call it.

I’ve found that the lectures are hit and miss – for example last nights was on the merits of vegetarianism of which I need no convincing. Some are also very high level morality issues that I’ve already spend a lot of time on in my Buddhist path. However – others, on various cleansing techniques, in-depth discussions on chakras, sublimation of energy, tantric sexuality and others are great. So I pick and choose which lectures to go to, tonight skipping a discussion on Non-Attachment in order to blog!

I pick gems out of the lectures to avoid intellectual overload (there is some contradiction in the teaching method as we are trying to get OUT of our heads and into our bodies and yet we are bombarded with 200 pages worth of techniques and philosophies…), working with these gems in my physical practice. This is where the gold nugget is. Spending 5-7 hours on a Yoga mat each day. Instead of running through 50 postures in 60 minutes like I do in Boulder, flexing muscles and treating Yoga like another competitive sport, we do a small series of Hatha Yoga postures generally holding them for 5-8 minutes each. We are taught about the flow of energy in each of these postures and which chakras are activated and how. For example, Padahastana, the first asana is the simple forward bend, touching your toes while keeping your legs straight. Peace of cake right? Try doing it for 8 minutes. It turns out to be one of my favorite postures as it activates your muladhara chakra (root) with telluric energy from the earth, providing a sense of grounding, security and stability. If my mind is full of chatter during the warming exercises, Padahastana usually drops me right into a place where I can practice.

I could go on forever about the postures but what I want to talk about is the subtle explorations that are going on in practice. The real goal here is to clear and activate all of your chakras, remove blockages, learn to sublimate energy from lower to higher (i.e. root to heart) chakras and ultimately to raise your level of consciousness to higher planes or vibrations. The truth is we all have access to this at any time and realized people don’t need to do a hundred asanas to get there… but for the rest of us it is a path to the destination. Once at the destination you realize you were always there and can drop all of the dissections of practice and chakras and all the rest.

One of the most incredible moments for me was an afternoon where I untied a sanskara, an impression derived from past experiences that form desires that influence future responses and behavior (karma). These are often stored in the physical body, far away from where the conscious mind can act or even be aware of them. While working on the emissive side (right/Yang) of Trikonasana (triangle) which activates aspects of the Manipura (navel) chakra such as inner balance, self confidence and inner harmony I began to be overwhelmed with emotion. We immediately moved into Bhujangasana (cobra pose) which arouses the anahata (heart chakra). At this point I started sobbing uncontrollably. I just let it go. There was no conscious thinking, emotional stimulus or anything at the level of the mind that could have caused this. I’ve really never experienced anything like this before. From experience I have a lot of blockage between my navel and heart chakras and this was just one step of many in the slow process of opening this channel. My mind wants to analyze it to death but I’ve just let it go, knowing that it is unexplainable. I’ve experienced other things that don’t make scientific sense and I’m afraid a little too personal and to share to the world.

I’m learning so much about my body, my impulses , my karma , my relationship to self, to others, to God.

Let the unrolling continue.

Return to the Zendo

This year I decided to do something a little different on New Year’s eve. I sat on my cushion. Literally.

IMG_0802I actually spent much of my week on my cushion. On Monday I traveled to the Zen Monastery in Crestone Colorado to participate in a 3-day New Year’s seminar where Abbot Roshi-Baker led a seminar on the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki Roshi was Roshi-Baker’s teacher and the first teacher of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West.

Generally, most Buddhists are well asleep by midnight, but the 31’st was special – not only was it the final day of the decade, there was also a full moon. I participated in an ancient Buddhist ceremony which consisted of ringing the densho bell 108 times leading up to midnight, as the sangha members practiced zazen (sitting meditation) intermixed with chanting and bowing. We finished with a toast of sake in the kitchen (yes Buddhists can drink!) and as I slowly walked to my room the bright full moon overhead gave me a few minutes to reflect on the transformative days I just experienced.

As many of you know, I spent a week at the Zen Monastery in April prior to leaving for Asia. That week I undertook my first intensive meditation retreat and was introduced to the formal practices of Zen Buddhism and the teachings of Richard Baker Roshi. Despite leaving the country for almost 7 months, returning to this sacred place high in the mountains above the San Luis valley I felt as though I had never left. This week’s seminar was much less formal than a sesshin, which is silent and grueling physically. However, we did sit for 3-4 hours a day, in the morning, evening and prior to Roshi Baker’s discussion periods. There were about 22 of us attending, some full-time residents of the monastery, others of us very new to the practice. What I enjoyed most about this week was time spent talking to others about the Dharma teachings of Baker Roshi. During breaks and transitions I would often find myself walking in the woods or sitting quietly in the main hall with another, talking opening of our experience in relation to the Dharma teachings and themes that were being developed and explored throughout the week. To connect soul to soul with another person, without boundaries, ego and fear, even if only for a few moments, is for me, one of the most precious and beautiful aspects of existence. As I rebuild my life in Boulder, my few days in Crestone helped create a new intention in my life; that is directing my life in such a way that it supports my practice. Practice being the craft of Buddhism, learning to relate to an interdependent, momentary existence.Teachers-Winter_ZENDO

It is often difficult to explain the teachings and my experiences of the week due to the nature of them often being very individual and momentary, but I would like to comment on a few tangible things that I am taking away with me.

First, this week we developed and explored a topic called body fullness, or perceptual immediacy. This is essentially an ancient yogic practice of giving order to the mind through the body. The job of our consciousness is to make the world predictable, and to give us a sense of continuity (ego, existence, memory, etc). But consciousness alone can take you into a place of idealism, fantasy and untruth. Consciousness demands order in a world that is not moving towards entropy. Our practice in this Yogacara/Buddhist manner is to embody teachings, to embody truth, to understand the bodily aspects of every state of mind. This is using a concept or intention to help the body, through the mind, to bring order to the body. Eventually a monumental shift can occur, where you are no longer living in self-referential or continuity-based thinking but finding identity in your immediate existence.

Chew on that for a while 🙂 For me, this is in alignment with the direction my practice was taking towards the end of my travels – getting back into the body, or “establishing a mutual body” with the world, exploring my chakras and intricate workings of my physicality through breath, silence and stillness.

Adjacent to this teaching is the effort to identify ourselves in the world as  activities, not entities. We (especially in the West) tend to view ourselves as distinct entities, separate from everything and everyone else, acting upon or being IMG_0759acted against. A very simple example of this is the use of chopsticks or drinking tea from cups with no handles in Buddhist cultures – the chopsticks serve as an extension of the hands and therefore aid in the activity of eating. As for tea cups, most Asians use both hands, holding the tea cup at the chest first and then raising the glass to their mouths to drink. There is no entity drinking tea, there is simply the action (imagine your experience the moment you raise a mug of tea to your mouth). I don’t think I’m doing a great job describing this – but to return to the chopsticks – we see food, we see a table, we see a fork and spoon and we see ourselves. We then tend to act as an entity to move and manipulate these entities in order to get the food into our stomachs. What I’m trying to do is view the entire process as an interdependent, simultaneously inseparable and yet unique experience of eating.

To take the above to a relationship level – if you relate to someone only through a mental process (as an entity), they will feel contained. We all know what this feels like. Can you relate to someone bodily? I’m not talking about only physical touch, but with your entire being (senses, emotions, posture, etc. Can you relate without boundaries and in the particular moment of existence? This is the beginning of love.

I think that is enough for today. I will end with a quote Baker-Roshi gave us that I thought was quite beautiful ( I can’t recall the author):

"I enter the broken world through the paths of love”

Happy New Year everyone.