Sunday, October 18, 2009

Zazen - 'Finding Your Inner Stillness'

My Zen is not Japanese, or Korean, or Chinese, or Indian, or American.. I practice a formal type of Zen in an Order that Originates most recently in Japan, but which arrived there from India via China, and ultimately arrived in the west. I originally began my training haphazardly, by reading books and trying to emulate what I had read, but what I honestly did not really understand. My formal training began in Korea, and has continued as I traveled from place to place. My Zen is not a ‘thing’ that I can touch.. it isn’t really something that is easy to discuss, though I shall try. As a human, I am bound by words. Words can easily trap us and confuse us, however, and we soon find ourselves hopelessly tangled up. Although I spent some time living in various monasteries, I now live in a small cottage, a hermitage, if you like, which is squarely situated ‘in the world’, and not secluded and isolated from it. My vocation is a running ‘towards’, rather than a running ‘away from’, though I am sure that most monastics are not truly running away from anything. So, I am an odd duck, more or less; I am a monk who lives and breathes and moves about in a mostly secular world. Well.. secular to the lay folk.. but always a monastic world from my own point of view. I face some unique challenges living this type of lifestyle, and I am often forced to make critical decisions, often to make a number of not so wise decisions, but, eventually (I like to think), I slowly begin to correct my path... and this is my own personal Zen. Every day life, that is constantly being corrected and finely tuned. Everyday mindful life.

My practice of Zen is my response to the questions that have arisen from the depths of my being. It is my constant struggle to attain and pass through the gateless gate of freedom in each and every breath-moment. It is my way of using my mind in the clattering, cacophony of the hectic outpouring of my life in a very complex time, and in an increasingly complex world.

My Zen is not an esoteric tradition that has meandered from India through Asia to the West. It is not a code of ethical conduct. It is not a religion. It is not a psychology or a philosophy. It isn’t anything that one can pin down. Although I do follow a formal practice, in a formal monastic order, and although I have formal teachers under whom I pursue my studies; my Zen is not any of these concepts or things that I have listed. There is nobody to emulate, nobody to follow, nothing to consult, no one who watches, no one who cares. There is only me. There is only my practice. There is only my silence. There is only my Zen.

I live as a monk, following my practice, keeping to my precepts, and doing my level best to negotiate the pitfalls and obstacles that life graciously gifts me with in order that I may improve. I fall flat on my face on a regular basis, and I choose each time to get back up, to stand squarely upon my own two feet, and to face the difficulties, the annoyances, the discomforts, and the setbacks, and to continue on. I make this choice with each in-breath.. I make this choice again with each out-breath. I do this primarily due to my own personal conviction that my life has only the meaning that I choose to inject into it by way of my focus, my choices, and my actions. I do this in order to live my life to the fullest extent possible with total authenticity, first hand pure experience, and uncompromising honesty. My Zen is fierce, sometimes brutal. My Zen is gentle, and kind, and has no limit to its compassion in teaching me how to come to know my own true nature.

I make no judgement concerning other people’s chosen life-path, but simply retain focus on my own present moment, as mindfully as I am capable of doing, and carefully take the next step.

I am not wise, or particularly knowledgeable, nor am I the face or the voice of Buddhism, Zen, my order, or even my own Zen center. I am constantly learning, and constantly evolving, and my responses and answers have most likely changed very much over the course of my journey, and no doubt will continue to do so. So, please take this into account, and understand that like any other human being, I am prone to misperception, faulty reasoning, out and out blunders and all of the other weaknesses and foibles that humankind is rife with. In short, what I say in this journal is just that; what I say. Don’t trust in what I tell you, or what you hear elsewhere, or what you read.... unless you have first applied it to your own life, your own circumstances, your own reality and filtered it in the light of your own intelligence and reason and found that it has passed the test. I am only me... and I am trying to address my own questions. You must form your own questions, and formulate your own answers. If you have no question, clearly there can be no suitable answer at all. If my questions, and the corresponding responses happen to gel with your own, and my practice assists you in some way, I am glad. But, your practice is entirely your own, your Zen is entirely your own... and your life is entirely your own, as mine is my own. In truth, my Zen, my practice, and my life are one and the same. I am more likely trying to formulate my question than I am trying to provide an answer... and what I set down here in this journal is simply my own method of ordering my thoughts, and allowing the fruits of my experience and contemplative efforts to be documented for later reference (and, undoubtedly embarrassed comparison) as my practice (hopefully) progresses. Any errors or inaccuracies are, of course, entirely my own.

As in all things, there must be a beginning, a middle and end. And, wisely, it is best to start at the beginning. Zen training uses a number of modalities or types of training in its training matrix. Many teachers who are much more knowledgeable, experienced and competent than I have categorized them and set them down in various treatises and guides, however, I will try to simplify things somewhat; All Zen training can basically be said to fall under one of three general types:

I. Meditation (one form is Zazen (seated Zen). There are various other types which incorporate movement or other techniques.)

II. Koan Practice – Koan means ‘public case’ and essentially is a formal recreation of a set of circumstances which led a practitioner to attain some degree of understanding, or, more to the point, to realize that they already possessed the understanding. Koans (Kong-an in Korean) are often called ‘Zen Riddles’, however, I tend to disagree with this translation as there is nothing to ‘solve’ in actuality. I will address this form of training in more depth in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say it is one of the three major categories of Zen training.

III. Everyday Life: Zen is useless if it is only able to be put into practice ‘on the cushion’. Therefore, the mental state that is attained via Zazen practice is incrementally brought ‘off the cushion’ through an incremental series of small steps, beginning with simple activities such as walking, drinking tea, chanting, and bowing... to simple work tasks... to more complex actions such as more difficult work tasks, body practice, art practice, and other forms of ordinary daily life.. until it has been incorporated and integrated to the extent that there is no discernible difference between Zen and normal day to day living.

In order to channel my own efforts properly, with some degree of order and direction, and, admittedly, in part at least, to allow you, the reader (if anybody actually reads this .. which is astounding to me, to be truthful!) to have some understanding as to what this 1000 day retreat is based upon, what I am actually doing from day to day, and where it may be taking me... if anywhere. Also, to help to direct the practice of anyone out there who may be ‘bumping up’ against Zen, or who may be formulating or refining their own practice. I am not sure whether I will be a help or a hindrance, but, I will do my best.

I will focus on each of these three major categories in a series of posts, while simultaneously introducing the eight ‘muns’ or ‘gates’ of Zen training and practice.

The ‘gates’ or ‘facets’ of training are;

1. Zazen/Meditation.
2. Zen Study (with a Zen Teacher).
3. Academic Study.
4. Zen Liturgy.
5. ‘Right’ (social) Action.
6. Art Practice.
7. Body Practice.
8. Work Practice.

Each of the gates fall under the three general categories of training, though at times the lines between the categories may tend to become somewhat blurred.

In this post, I will address the first of the gates; Zazen.

In studying Zen, we start with practice. The ‘guts’ and essence of Zen practice is Zazen. Now, while it is equally true that Zen is necessarily concerned with apprehending the nature of the mind, or of the self, it must, therefore, contain an element of philosophical speculation, or contemplation.

While a philosopher may mainly rely upon such speculation and reasoning, in Zen, when practiced properly, we never allow ourselves to become separated from our practice. This practice is carried out using the body, mind, and emotions (or spirit – interestingly, The English word "spirit" comes from the Latin spiritus, meaning "breath", and so, one might, if it is a preference, think of spirit as ‘breath’. No breath – no life. So, in this context, breath = ‘life’. In my context, spirit includes not only breath, but also will, emotion and temperment) in equal measure.

In Zen training, we seek to dissolve or ‘extinguish*’ the self-centered, individual ego, but we cannot accomplish this simply by just thinking about it. It is by way of our integrated body/mind/spirit practice that we may actually experience what may be referred to as ‘pure existence’ (i.e., experiences that have not been filtered or changed by our preconceived notions and opinions or objective thinking.)

In our ordinary day to day life, our human consciousnesses tend to work relentlessly to protect or to maintain our personal and material interests. This habit of utilitarian or pragmatic thinking – of viewing the world as an array of tools and resources to be used to ‘get what we need’ or ‘get what we want’ or perhaps ‘get what we deserve’ or is ‘rightfully ours’ reduces the entire cosmos, in our minds, as being little more than ‘equipment’, which should strike one as being inaccurate at the least... and disrespectful to at least some degree. We steal the essence of life and of being by perpetuating this inherently unskillful and delusional way of thinking. Naturally, financial solvency is a key component in our overall well-being and happiness... we have physical bodies, and we have physical needs, after all. But, there is more to ‘being’ than ‘getting’.

The world, and our lives is much, much more than a series of objects that are only viewed in the light of how they can be made use of. This habitual way of consciousness is distorted, and results in great suffering for humankind. This is so because any person who views and treats the world in this fashion and most likely comes to view and treat himself or herself as well as others in much the same way, which leads to a mechanical way of thinking that is self-centered, unfeeling, unkind, reactive, and unskillful. In a way, it is a form of mental illness that we all fall victim to by way of our habitual methods of perceiving and thinking. Zen practice aims at overthrowing this distorted view of the word and of the self, and zazen is method by which we manifest this change.

Zen training continues. Endlessly. There is no destination... only a journey. This is because the ego-self (petty ego) has a tendency to insidiously creep back into one’s mind and way of thinking, over and over again. The long habit of notional thinking and distorted consciousness is implanted so firmly in our mind that we are haunted by it perpetually to the extent that it is nearly impossible for us to control or inhibit these unskillful thoughts before they arise. As we continue our training over time, however, we become incrementally liberated from this ‘small self’ or ‘petty ego’. We don’t accomplish this through oppositional thinking, but by simply ignoring these seemingly random thoughts as they arise.. or, more accurately, by simply acknowledging these thought-forms for what they are... and letting them pass away... like so many bubbles or waves. They come. They go. Just like us. (The Historical Buddha was also known, incidentally, as a ‘tathāgata’ or, the ‘Thus come, thus gone’ one, who has gone beyond all comings and goings.) Since the occurrence of an unskillful or unmindful thought is a malady; *not* to continue it is, by force, the remedy.

This choosing ‘not to continue’ – this stilling of the mind, is a state that is reached by practicing zazen over time. (Kung Fu, or Gung Fu, by the way, come from two Chinese ideographs kung or gung – ‘功’ and fu or hu ‘夫’ (literally ‘spouse or husband’ from time (to do something); synonym for 工夫.) So – Kung Fu means, quite literally a ‘skill or accomplishment achieved by applying effort or energy over time’. One may have ‘Kung Fu’ in anything... this Kung or Gong/Gung, incidentally, is the same Gung in our term ‘Gung Ho’ – which means working (effort) together!).

By practicing and applying mindful effort in zazen practice over time, we may hope to develop a skill or achieve some wondrous accomplishment.

This accomplishment has been called by many different terms, but it is essentially indescribable in words and very difficult to communicate. It is an extremely personal and above all, experiential thing. It is truly a pure experience in which all sense of subject and object disappear! In a way, it is as though the mind and the body have ‘fallen off’. So, I suppose if I must attempt to describe it, I must do so by calling this experience an experience of ‘mere being’ or ‘just being’, and nothing else.

This condition of ‘mere being’ however, is accompanied by a remarkable mental power, which can best be termed a ‘condition of extreme wakefulness’.

This may seem strange to you, as a reader, perhaps even more so when I tell you that at the time that it takes place, the experiencer is not aware of it due to a lack of reflecting activity in one’s consciousness – which, in retrospect, may explain the difficulty in describing it.

It is essentially, an extraordinary mental stillness.. a pure existence.. perhaps the most simplified form of human existence.

We have this pure experience, and then.. we come back into the world of conscious activity to find that ‘being’ appears transformed to us.

Once one has experienced this form of pure existence, one’s view of the world, and of existence executes a complete about face and nothing ever seems quite the same.. and yet; being a human being, we cannot escape the inevitable return of living as a distinct individual entity with all of the differentiation, preferences, desires and aversions of common human existence.

So, we are now faced with a new previously un-encountered dilemma which causes at least some degree of internal conflict.

In order to deal with this effectively, we must continue practicing, continue to train our mind in conjunction with our body and our emotions in order to learn how to avoid such instinctual discrimination while simultaneously living in the world of differentiation.

Basically, the task set before us is to learn how to exercise mindfulness and non-attachment while working through attachment and reactive thought-habits. We do this primarily by cultivating immobility.

The easiest way to practice this is through physical immobility. Why? Simply because immobility of the body encourages and cultivates immobility of the mind and of the spirit, so, immobility is the first essential goal of zazen practice.

Since immobility is much more easily achieved through sitting than by standing, we begin at the earliest stages of Zen practice by sitting. Thus, the ‘za’ (sit) in ‘zazen’ (sitting zen).

Sitting is one of the four dignified postures: walking, standing, sitting, and lying down. Whereas, Zen is one of the six stages of spiritual perfection: dedication, precepts, perseverance, progress, meditation and wisdom.

To practice Zen is to become stable and then quiet, to become peaceful after becoming quiet, and to engage in careful quiet contemplation. The four dignified postures and six stages of spiritual perfection therefore all arise from quiet contemplation.

The aim of this practice is to eventually integrate the subjective and objective self to such an extent as to become completely unified. Once this integration has been accomplished, or perhaps even transcended, it will not matter what the surroundings may be any longer; the Zen practitioner will remain in a state of deep samadhi (which comes from sam (together or integrated), a (towards), and dha (to get, to hold). Thus the result might be seen to be to acquire integration or wholeness, or truth – in essence, then; ‘a state of equilibrium’.)

It has been said that “Zen is to transcend life and death (this means ‘all dualism’), to truly realize that the entire universe is the “True Human Body” (true self, greater self, true nature, Buddha nature) through the discipline of “heart/mind and body in oneness.” – in short – Zen is a form of Yoga practice. (Read further on in this post for my explanation/diatribe on Yoga/Yoke joining, etc.)

Note on the above text: *Nirvana = extinguish: (Nirvana, incidentally is often mis-interpreted in the West to mean ‘paradise’ or ‘unending happiness’, however, though it may result in a cessation of suffering, the word has a very different meaning originally from what is commonly considered to be the meaning. In sramanic (A shramana (Sanskrit śramaṇa श्रमण, Pāli samaṇa) is a wandering monk) thought, Nirvana (Mandarin: ‘涅槃’ niè pán, Japanese: ‘涅盘’ nehan, Korean: 열반 ‘涅槃’ (yul-ban), Sanskrit: निर्वाण, Nirvāṇa; Pali: निब्बान, Nibbāna; Prakrit: णिव्वाण; Thai: นิพพาน, Nípphaan) is the state of being free from suffering. It is an important concept in Buddhism and Jainism. "Nibbāna" is a Pāli word that means "blowing out" — that is, blowing out the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. Nirvana is a compound of the prefix ni[r]- (ni, nis, nih) which means "out, away from, without", and the root vâ[na] (Pali. vâti) which can be translated as "blowing" as in "blowing of the wind", and also as "smelling, etc".

Zazen (坐禅) Practice: Zazen, 'sitting meditation' (I have seen this also translated as 'sinking into thoughts', 'opening the hand of thoughts' or 'holding a mirror to one's thoughts'. To the best of my knowledge, the Chinese ideograph '坐' simply means 'sit' and the ideograph '禅' is the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term 'Dhyana ( ध्यान )' (Pali ‘Jhāyana’) which is a cognate of the word 'Zen'. all meaning, ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation’. (In Chinese it is pronounced, roughly, 'Ch'an', in Korean 'Son' or 'Soen' (pron: Sun), and in Vietnamese ‘thiền, thiện, xèng’. Essentially, the original Pali word Jhāyana went through a morphing to Dhyana, Ch’an, Soen, Zen, thiền and so on.. but, it is all the same word, or various mutated forms of the same word as it passed through different languages and cultures, each version with the same meaning. So, as far as I can see, Zazen means nothing more than ‘seated meditation’. That being said, Zazen can be practiced seated, standing, lying, moving, walking, working, or sleeping... or at least a form of it. Zazen takes place in the mind ultimately... though the body must connected to the mind.. or ‘yoked’ (from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root word ‘i^eu-, i^eu^ə-, i^eu-g- meaning to yoke, tie together (the inference being ‘with the supreme spirit’). Interestingly, some other English words that are cognate with this same PIE root word are;

jugular (jugulum "collarbone, throat, neck," diminutive of jugum "yoke," related to iungere "to join");

syzygy (conjunction of a heavenly body with the sun," from syzygia, (Greek) "yoke, pair, union of two, conjunction," from sysygein "to yoke together," from syn- "together" (synonymous! synchronize!), + zygon "yoke"

zeugma (refers to two or more words in a sentence - (from the Greek - lit. "a yoking,")

zygote (from the Greek zygotos "yoked," from zygon "yoke")

inchoate (from the Latin inchoatus, inchoare - alteration of incohare "to begin," originally "to hitch up," from in- "on" + cohum "strap" (cohort!)

subjugation (from the Latin subjugationem (nom. subjugatio), from Latin subjugatus (subjugare) "to subdue", lit. "bring under a yoke," from sub "under" + jugum (see jugular)).

juxtaposition (coined in France (17c) from the Latin juxta "beside, near" + French "position". Latin juxta is a contraction of jugusta (adverb which is a superlative of the adjective 'jugos' "closely connected," from stem of jugum "yoke," from jungere "to join".

combine (French combiner, from Latin combinare "to unite, yoke together," form Latin com- "together" + bini "two by two," (binary, bi- "twice")

join (from French joindre, from jungere "to join, yoke".)

conjugal (from the Latin conjugalis, from conjunx (genetive conjugis) "spouse," from conjugare "to join together," from com- "together" + jugare "to join," from jugum "yoke" (see jugular).

span ("two animals driven together," from Dutch 'span, from spannen "to stretch or yoke," form Middle Dutch 'spannen' which is cognate with Old English 'spannen' "to join" "distance between two objects," "distance between the thumb and little finger of extended hand," borrowed from the Latin 'spannus, hence Italian spanna, Old French 'espanne', French 'empane'. from PIE base *(s)pen- "to draw, stretch, spin"

boy (boie "servant, commoner, knave, boy," possibly from Old French. embuie "one fettered," from Vernacular Latin. *imboiare, from Latin boia "leg iron, yoke, leather collar," from Greek boeiai dorai "ox hides." But it also appears to be identical with Early Frisian boi "young gentleman," and perhaps with Dutch boef "knave," from Middle Dutch boeve, perhaps from Middle Low German buobe.)

ox (Old English oxa (plural oxan), from Proto-Germanic. *ukhson (compare Old Norse oxi, Old Frisian oxa, Middle Dutch osse, German Ochse, Gothic auhsa), from PIE *uks-en- "male animal," (compare Welsh ych "ox," Middle Irish oss "stag," Sanskrit uksa, Avestan uxshan- "ox, bull"), said to be from PIE base *uks- "to sprinkle," related to *ugw- "wet, moist." The animal word, then, is lit. "besprinkler." Oxen is the only true survival in Modern English of the Old English weak plural. Ox-bow "semicircular bend in a river" is first recorded 1797, American English (New England), in reference to the shape of the piece of wood which forms the collar for an ox YOKE ( ! ) (so called from 1368). )

acre (Old English æcer "tilled field, open land," from Proto-Germanic *akraz "field, pasture" (compare Old Norse akr, Old Frisian ekkr, Old High German achar), from PIE *agros "field" (compare Latin ager "field, land," Greek agros, Sanskrit ajras "plain, open country"). Originally in English without reference to dimension; in late Old English the amount of land a yoke of oxen could plow in a day, afterward defined by statute to a piece 40 poles by 4, or an equivalent shape (5 Edw. I, 31 Edw. III, 24 Hen. VIII). Original sense retained in God's acre "churchyard." Acreage is recorded from 1859.)

As you can see... there are many connections between our thoughts, our languages, our actions, and our inner and outer worlds. Zen in general, and this ‘Ferocious Effort’ in particular are about finding and tracing these connections... strengthening them... and, ultimately, transcending them entirely.

Next time I will discuss Zen Study, and the relationship between student or disciple, and teacher or master.

Please continue your practice!

Yours in the Dharma,

Bunan Unsui

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

One Thousand Days... The first day..

My 1000 Days of Ferocious Effort has begun. Over the past few weeks, beginning around 20 September, I began to fine tune my diet in order to better practice the integration of body/mind/spirit by improving my nutrition and eating habits... one of the many facets that this practice will address. I have shed 14 pounds of excess body weight in this time, and have cut caffeine, refined sugars and carbohydrates, and non-nutritional foods from my diet entirely. Over the first week or so, my body responded to the change in fuel with shock... followed by gross fatigue... and a severe headache (which I suppose was due to caffeine withdrawal) that lasted nearly a week. Happily, that part is over and done with, and I am feeling lighter, much more energetic, and my general emotional level has settled into a calm, even state.

This retreat will focus primarily upon silence, solitude, meditation, work, and contemplation. This will be augmented by cultural (art, music practice), physical (body practice; i.e., physical exercise), and spiritual (liturgy, ritual) practices throughout. Unlike a normal Sesshin*, however, I also plan to incorporate academic study into my days.

This is the 'loose' plan for the next thousand days.... I am sure that it will re-shape and refine itself as the retreat takes place. I will do my best to maintain a journal of my experience during this practice here.

I am not setting out with any particular goal or result in mind. I am simply going to fully practice keeping my focus in 'this breath-moment' and experiencing it as fully and completely as I am able. That is all.

Before my first sitting... I shall have some tea!

*Sesshin: Jap., lit. “collecting [setsu] the heart–mind [shin]”, “concentrating and unifying the mind”; also interpreted as “touching, receiving and conveying the Mind”; formal Zen retreat; days of especially intensive, strict prac­tice of collected mind (zazen) as carried out in Zen monasteries at regular intervals. A sesshin training period usually lasts not less than three days and not more than seven.

The normal daily routine in a Zen monastery includes, in addition to several hours of zazen prac­tice, long periods of physical work, begging rounds, and other forms of service to the local Buddhist community. However, during a sesshin, which is con­sidered the high point of Zen training, the monks devote themselves exclusively to meditation. Com­plete silence is observed.

Long periods of zazen are interrupted only by a few hours of sleep at night, Sutra recitations, a short period of work (samu) and short rest breaks after the midday and evening meals. However, concentration or collectedness of mind in relation to the particular practice that the monk has received from the master (koan practice) should continue as much as possible without interruption during all these activities.

Special inspiration and incentive for the monks during the days of sesshin are provided by the teisho (Dharma talk/teaching lecture) of the roshi and the individual instruction (sanzen or dokusan) that monks often receive several times a day.