Questions and Answers
Why do we practice Zen when we already have Buddha-nature?
The Buddha nature which you think you already have within yourself is not Buddha-nature. When you become yourself, or when you forget all about yourself and say ‘Yes!’ that is Buddha nature.
“Why do we practice Zen when we already have Buddha-nature?” was Dogen Zenji’s primary question. After failing to get an answer from teachers in Japan, he searched all over China for a Zen master who could answer it. At the very end when he was about to leave, he met the new abbot at a monastery he had already visited, and this abbot, Rujing, told him that we don’t sit to “get” enlightenment, we sit to express the enlightenment we already have. Just as we immediately become a thief when we steal something, when we sit following Buddha’s example our zazen is itself Buddha.
Do we already have goodness inside us?
“I hear that it is because we have goodness already in us that we can afford to be good but inside me I’m not sure that I AM good. I see my jealousy, my incapacity, my gaining ideas. It’s probably there but I don’t know how to get in touch with it.”
You already are in touch with it. Just the SEEING of jealousy, incapacity and gaining ideas is an indicator that you are working hard with your karmic consciousness. Part of the problem is the word “good.” There is no such thing except in relation to something else. In Buddhism it is said that just seeing and following what our bodies and minds are up to, without judgment, is practice itself. To me it seems like you should just “keep on keeping on,” without any idea of improving yourself or becoming a “good” person. This kind of practice has the flavor of the Way. There’s nothing more worthy of you.
What is the “wish to save all beings” that I hear about as part of the bodhisattva precepts ceremony? How can I do THAT? It seems preposterous.
- bodhisattvas are not about results; they are about practice. You take the vow as an orientation for your practice and make sure, minute by minute, that you do your absolute best.
- Because all beings are interconnected and co-arise dependently with each other, YOU are “all beings.” Don’t forget. It’s a critical point. Worth repeating.
It is significant that we take a vow to do the impossible. Thereupon we are always lacking in the accomplishment that we vowed to make. We regret and repent our failure. All the while we keep trying and re-trying to do our very best. This is practice itself so you are already on to it. It’s good that you are challenging everything. “Being picked by the Precepts” (as some say) is a big deal. Being ready to realize that you have been is also a big deal.
What is nonthinking?
“When I sit, my mind is racing. I don’t think I know what ‘nonthinking’ is. That’s why I feel the whole Zen venture is hopeless.”
Explain “the past and future lives of all beings.”
“I’ve read that the Dalai Lama considers the notion of the past and future lives of all beings an important aspect of being a bodhisattva. Could you comment on this controversial idea?”
I’m a fan of the Dalai Lama and I know that he teaches the Buddha’s explanation of cause and effect which states that no thing arises without cause, that there is no uncaused cause, and no cause that loses its effect. So consciousness is always preceded by another consciousness, and always gives rise to further consciousness. The idea that we live many lives before and many after this present one, the quality of which is affected by our own conduct and motivation, provides the context for appreciating the great rarity and value of life as a free and fortunate human being who alone has the ability to attain enlightenment. Moreover, understanding that all beings have already lived countless lives allows us to accept our interdependence and appreciate that at some time every being has been kind to us in some way. There is no need to buy into this unless it helps your practice. You can just listen and let it go.
What is “The Perfection of Generosity”?
” ‘The perfections of the Bodhisattva do not support me—it is I who support them,’ says Shantideva, the great seventh-century Buddhist poet. I don’t really understand what this means.”
Yamada Koun Roshi (Aitken Roshi’s teacher) often said, “I wish to become like a great tree, shading all beings.” In other words, “I so want to give of myself entirely for the benefit of others that I wish to just stand day and night and give my shade to all passers-by.” Another of our ancestors wished to become a water buffalo selflessly (and constantly) serving people in their toils. By virtue of their generosity both of these beings support (uphold) the “Perfection” of Generosity, the first and foremost of the six transcendent behaviors of a bodhisattva. By virtue of their “enlightened” effort, the Perfection stays alive. Otherwise it is just words.
“By a single act of relinquishment, everything is relinquished.” What does this mean?
It’s an ultimate truth and means because everything is interconnected and interdependent, each behavior of ours is not really ours. It belongs to and expresses all beings. That’s why Shakyamuni Buddha said upon awakening, that he awakened along with the great earth and all beings. It goes both ways. We truly are united, more intricately than most of us can imagine. That said, when one person relinquishes something (gives something up like a habit, a prized possession, an ungereous or angry thought) because of our interconnection, relinquishment is present everywhere. Because it’s an ultimate truth our mind can’t actually grasp this, but one can have a feel that it is so nonetheless. I do.
Frivolity and happiness
“The idea of ‘binding one’s frivolity’ which is usually allowed so much room—does this mean we can never really have a good time?”
Actually, it means just the opposite. Our normal idea about frivolity has some relationship to a heightened state, be it intoxicated by alcohol or drugs, by physical speed, by beauty, by excitement (or whatever) outside the ordinary pattern of our daily life. The shila paramita brings us back to our basic life, fully present with our everyday activities. It’s a special mix that when it happens, you will immediately recognize of proper + correct + lightness + serving others. The normal mode of frivolity is an add-on, like enjoyment in a kind of shell. When you enjoy from your basic self, there is a quieter but deeply resonant feeling that takes up your whole body-mind and truly satisfies.
Dealing with “discursive thoughts”
“I keep hearing that our discursive thoughts separate us from ourselves and prevent us from knowing who we are. Can you say more about how this works? I sort of like my thoughts and don’t see how they get in the way of who I am.”
Patience can mean “wait and see what happens.”
When you see yourself indulge in anger there is a tendency to criticize yourself. Patience means you wait a minute; you wait and see what happens. It means not coming to conclusions too quickly. “But I don’t need to wait a minute. I already know what is going to happen. My anger will not go away. If anything it will grow with time as I feel more and more justified and think less and less of the person for whom I harbor anger. It’s like a righteous thing.”
I’m thinking that this means that you’ve never actually waited a minute. Consiousness is everything. Waiting a minute means allowing consciousness to enter the picture. And then you wait a few more minutes and even more consciousness enters the picture. Now you have several minutes of consciousness and if you allow yourself not to come to a quick conclusion and just go on with your life, the next day you really might have at least a glimmer of youself being like the ocean–whatever happens you cannot be perturbed. You remain the same all the time, which means you keep your inherent equinimity. It doesn’t mean that you don’t care.
Can I practice Zen when I’m not doing zazen?
“I want to ask about sleepiness being an obstacle to arousing the mind of awakening. I am sleepy a lot. Even though I think I am doing the right thing in my life, I still find myself in subtle ways not awake to it. Not alert. Is there anything I can do about that?”
Practice right here, right now
“I heard you say that we don’t consider this practice as a step to something else. This practice is right here, right now, in this situation, to awake to the reality of this self. I find these words very beautiful but I’m not sure I understand the last part–‘to awake to the reality of this self.’ Can you say more?”
Working with the four brahmaviharas—love, compassion, joy, equanimity
“How would you suggest that we work with the four brahmaviharas—love, compassion, joy, equanimity? I love the phrase ‘divine states of dwelling’ but they seem too big. How do I ground them into my daily routine?”
That is a really good question. Most of us sort of nod and agree, but then we forget about them. Honestly, I would take one of them a year and be very intent on manifesting it whenever you have a chance. Take equanimity, for example. “I am the person consciously practicing equanimity. In situations that usually rile me, I target them and study myself carefully.” Keep reminding yourself like this for awhile and try to be equanimious as often as you can. Once your resolve sticks you’ll find more and more pleasure in its practice. Next year you can make a resolution to practice joy. I used to laugh at New Year’s Resolutions but I made three this year and learned that they provide a reference point. “Now, what am I working on? Oh right.” Otherwise, over time, things I’m “working on” seem to go away.
What does “All of Buddhism is but a footnote to zazen” mean?
What is the point of “no-gain Zen”?
What is the difference between a goal-seeking mind and a vow-seeking mind?
Don’t expect helping to be a big deal
” ‘Don’t expect helping to be a big deal. In our everyday life, we can help someone or something all the time.’ This obvious remark somehow was a big reminder for me. The other day I was parking my car in my building’s garage and a woman came running over to me to ask me to open the door because her key’s battery was dead. When I did she was so relieved. It sort of made my day. What if she hadn’t run over to me?”
The best advice for Buddhist social action
“Robert Thurman ended a talk with what he calls ‘the best advice for Buddhist social action I have yet seen’ referring to Dogen’s ‘Four Methods of Guidance’
(which Thurman called the ‘four political practices’)—giving, kind speech, beneficial action, and identity action. That was kind of an eye opener.”
Our life as human beings
“You were saying à la Katagiri Roshi that ‘This is our life as human beings. We always feel somewhat unsatisfied. Whichever is chosen; it does not fit one’s heart neatly.’ I’ve only recently started to be aware of this. Even in the best of moments I feel slightly agitated. It helps to hear that this is normal.”
In what senese is Zen “good for nothing”?
“In some weird way it DOES help to think of zazen as ‘good for nothing.’ Otherwise I put a lot of stock in it and when those things don’t turn out I start losing interest. To do something just for the sake of doing it and not looking for ANYTHING else—accolades, pats on the back, progress, approval—is a relief and let’s things just be. I’m glad about it.”
What is the best way to change our habits of behavior and thought?
Penelope Easten, an Alexander Technique teacher from Ireland has devloped tips for changing default patterns in muscle use and consciousness by thinking the thoughts involved in any specific change regularly. It is easy, she says, to make a change using inhibition, but the brain usually resets quickly to the old pattern, its current “default.” We need to repeat and repeat until the new patterns are taken into sub-cortical layers and become the new default. I notice that some defaults reset easily; others fight you all the way, she says.
This is beginner’s mind—a place of no expectation. EVERY time we want to make a change, we need to inhibit the old desire and then do all the thinking involved in making the change again and again persistently.
It is those small but powerful moments of quiet, sustained attention that change brain plasticity. Alongside changing our movement patterns, think of building new habits of staying conscious and present, of being upright!
Does it really do any good to sit zazen now and then in the midst of one’s multi-tasking life?
Yes it does. Perhaps it’s because our soul so desires it, regular short practices drop into our nervous system and establish themselves in our body. You will begin to want different things, like not to rush, for example, or simply be more careful. That in itself can cause you to make different decisions, even to want to practice more. Even if your “now and thens” don’t become slightly more frequent, you’ve accomplished something.
What does it mean to practice zazen for the sake of zazen?
” ‘We do not practice zazen for the sake of others or for the sake of ourselves. We practice zazen for the sake of zazen.’ I hear this a lot but honestly, I don’t understand.”
This is a really good question because it’s absolutely fundamental. Since we live in the present, not the future or the past, in order to keep our mind aligned with where we are and what is real, we need to “stay present.” Staying present we do things for their own sake. We pay close attention to what is in front of us, e.g., the carrot and quality of our slicing. We stay close to “now” by focusing on HOW we hold and later clean the knife. In this way everything we do, we do for the sake of doing it, not for the sake of ANY particular outcome to which we would be impartial. We are concerned entirely with the quality of our mind each moment during the process, not for any other “sake” including the distraction of our own betterment.
A question about self-kindness
“I actually don’t feel very good about the choices that I’ve made in my life and it’s hard for me to think that I deserve self-kindness. When Roshi says that ‘the purpose of instruction is to encourage you to be kind with yourself,’ I get stuck.”
Since self-kindness is so internal and so personal, no one can tell you what that would be for you. But if being able to be kind, recognizing what that is and what it feels like for you, in both your body and mind, if that is the only thing you “get” from this practice, it would be totally worthwhile. I encourage you to experiment. Don’t forget that the Buddha learned the hard way that food strengthened his body so that he could practice with greater concentration. Use your failures for information rather than for self judgment.
Respect as a form of concentration
“I love when Roshi said, ‘when we respect things we will find their true life.’ Also when he said, ‘when we pick up the chairs one by one carefully, without making much noise, then we will have the feeling of practice in the dining room,’ there is the implication that this feeling of practice will be felt in the dining room even after the cleaners have gone. I myself, entering spaces where people have practiced regularly can feel the intensity of their concentration even when they’re not there. But I hadn’t extended that to spaces where things are just taken care of properly.”
Yes. Respect itself is a form of concentration and you can feel it in the people and things toward which it has been given, as if it’s in their skin now. Plants show it immediately with such gratitude and human beings do also. This means that you can give yourself respect, and others will sense the feeling of practice in you that Roshi is talking about. Isn’t that neat?
“I have a son with whom I need to set some boundaries. He needs to learn to do things for himself and to think for himself. But it hurts. I keep wanting to ‘help’ him. I stop myself because I know that it does not help him. I actually feel I am being warm-hearted but from the outside it might seem cruel.”
Good boundaries are kind not cruel and it takes a warm-hearted mind to make them and stick to them. Boundaries are for automomy. Your son will be stronger the more autonomous he feels. It brings up a really good point though—the difference between genuine warm-heartedness and superficial warm-heartedness. Our society is built so thickly on the latter we tend to lose sight of where to go to tell the difference, e.g. our own mind and heart.
“That lazy feeling you talked about in reference to pushing chairs across a floor in order to clean the floor—I wish I didn’t know so well what that feeling is like. In me it’s half-heartedness. I’m focused on the NEXT thing. This thing feels irrelevant. I sort of want to kill it or get rid of it. It’s worse than disrespect. I’m not sure how to stop it though.”
How community can support practice
“My question is about this idea: ‘If you do not have a friend or a Sangha, it won’t work.’ I’m an introvert. The things that last with me are things, like reading and writing, that I can do alone. The idea of a sangha doesn’t appeal to me though with zazen practice I can see Roshi’s point. Can you comment on this?”
What does Roshi mean when he says there is no need to be aware of our practice?
He means not to make it into a big deal. Just do it, like eating breakfast or washing your car. If you make it into a “thing” you can become proud or you put things on it that aren’t “it.” That’s the smell he is talking about. When it’s clean, meaning just itself unadorned by ideas or attitudes, it burns purely and it’s odorless. So no add-ons. Do it and that’s all.
It’s the same with thinking that you know who you are. Probably you are adding something on that is not the real you. When you “don’t know” that is closer to the real you. We are bigger than anything that can be defined.
Small self-awareness and big self-awareness
“Can you say a little bit more about the connection between a smoky kerosene lamp and ‘When you know who you are, that you will not be the real you?’ I almost get it but not quite.”
There’s a way of being in the world that is very simple, very pure. So much so that it looks like it’s nothing. The person just goes through the day doing each thing included in the day and there is a simplicity and ease, a comfortable-ness in her engagement with her life as if there is no separation between her movements and her life. There is no “her” there but her movements are pure and strong.
It’s like those two kinds of awareness: small-self awareness and big-self awareness. With the former there is smoke; the latter burns clean and pure. It’s the small-self that causes the congestion.
Buddha left this teaching just for you
” ‘Buddha left this teaching just for me, not for anyone else’—these words give me a warm feeling of being seen and loved by the Buddha but my mind doesn’t really believe it, so it’s like I have to enjoy it illicitly. What are we supposed to do with a statement like that?”
Enjoy it illicitly. Ultimate-truth-wise it’s true, as we know from the various ancestors and great sages who have left this for us as a legacy. Emotional truth just oozes out of it. Don’t forget. “Just for me” is not arrogance. It means you have full appreciation of the teaching as your own.
I think you should just really get into it. Exaggerate it. Indulge yourself. It’s like the smile that you put on even if you don’t feel it, but by putting it on long enough, you actually do start to feel it. The truth just soaks into your body.
What did Suzuki Roshi mean when he said, “If I don’t cut my life short, my students will not grow?”
Meaning of “Zen is Zen”
“I have heard or read Suzuki Roshi saying,’when you are you, Zen is Zen.’ Could you say what you think this means?”
On accepting the teaching completely
” ‘Studying Buddhism is not like studying other things. It may take time before you can accept the teaching completely.’ How do we know if we will ever accept the teaching completely and if we don’t, does it matter?”
When Roshi says, “There is nothing to transmit to you,” what does he mean?
Learning without realizing it
“I am about to go back to school after a long break. In school usually you DO know when you are learning whatever, but during the long break I didn’t feel I was learning anything. But actually, just being ready to go back to school shows that I have learned at least something. This isn’t a question really but just to say that learning itself, especially psychological and spiritual learning, feels mysterious.”
“Dogen’s words, ‘Buddha is always here.’ In some way, still, Buddhism exists, and when we really understand what Buddha meant, we are in Buddha’s time. Now I take that to mean when I’m fully present, when I do one thing at a time and in each thing, I am fully present. Is that correct?”
You don’t need to try to understand
“As these talks go on, I find myself losing track. For a minute I am following and then things slip away and I leave with the sense of ‘What just happened? I can’t remember anything.’ Could you say a few words of encouragement?”
About the Four Noble Truths
“I came to Buddhism from hearing the Four Noble Truths—the existence of suffering, the origin of suffering, that there is a way-out, and what that way-out is. How does today’s talk fit into this picture?”
[Today’s talk was about the Sandokai] Here is how Suzuki Roshi introduced a talk on the Sandokai to a group of visiting non-Tassajara students: “The purpose of the study of Buddhism is to have a perfect understanding of things, to understand ourselves and what we are doing in our everyday life. It is also necessary to understand why we suffer and why we have so much conflict in our society, in our families and within ourselves—in other words, to understand what is going on in the objective and subjective realms. If we see things-as-it-is, and if we are aware of what we are doing and have a good understanding, we will know what we should do.” So the Sandokai is also about suffering but it looks at suffering from the side of the one and from the side of the many, e.g. from the side of inter-dependence and the side of absolute independence. The Four Noble Truths are very straight-forward and practical. The Sandokai is more subtle. But both deal directly with Buddhism’s main topic, the suffering of beings.
To practice zazen without seeking enlightenment
” ‘When you live completely involved in the dualistic world, you have the absolute world in its true sense’ AND ‘When you practice zazen without seeking for enlightenment or seeking for anything, then there is true enlightenment’—do these say the same thing?”
The liturgy of everyday life
“I understand that Dogen’s liturgy was the liturgy of everyday life—washing your face, making your bed, cleaning the bathroom, using the lavatory—and that attracts me very much, but I’m not sure how to go about practicing in this way. Please, if you have suggestions, I’d be grateful.”
Meaning of lineage
“I’m interested in the idea of lineage. I sense that it’s important but I wonder if you could say more about what a lineage is? I’m not sure I actually know.”
Is there “devotion” in Buddhism?
Suzuki Roshi said: “When you become yourself, a woman or a man absolutely, you have absolute value always and no one can replace you.” How can I bring this more into my life?
Suzuki Roshi advised, “When you are strong, you should be strong. You should be very tough. But that toughness comes from your gentle kindness. When you are kind, you should just be kind. But that does not mean you are not strong.” Work on kindness. Become aware of when you are or you aren’t kind, and when you see that you haven’t been, try to think of how you might have been more skillful. You can try it beforehand: if you’re about to call the bank to complain about a mistake and you feel you’re going to yell, try to think of a more skillful approach before you pick up the phone. These are called “skillful means.” You can have a whole bag of them. Buddha used at least one in almost every action he took.
I was raised in a fundamentalist family and went to fundamentalist schools all the way through college. Can you say more about Buddhism’s relationship with God?
Suzuki Roshi answered the question this way: “Strictly speaking, Buddhists have no teaching. We have no God or deities. We don’t have anything. What we have is nothingness, that’s all. So how is it possible for Buddhists to be religious? What kind of composure do we have? That will be the question. The answer is not some special idea of God or a deity, but rather the understanding of the reality we are always facing. Where are we? What are we doing? Who is he? Who is she? When we observe things in this way, we don’t need a special teaching about God because everything is God for us. Moment after moment we are facing God. And each one of us is also God or Buddha. So we don’t need any special idea of God. That may be the point.”
(Suzuki, Shunryu. Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai. University of California Press, 1999, pp. 129-130.)
I feel a little intimidated by Roshi’s description of zazen. I feel I can’t do any of it, so why should I try?
Other forms of meditation don’t seem so rigid. I find Zen very compelling but zazen… It’s hard.
Putting your body in the posture of the Buddha in itself provides it with a lot of information. It goes a long way to help you in becoming nothing. We need to become nothing because our biggest problem is thinking that we have a separate, independent, individual existence. Zazen doesn’t feed that untruth. The posture suggests just the opposite even if you are unaware of it. If you find it difficult, there are a variety of adjustments you can make without losing your straight back (see Zazen Instructions). You also can practice for shorter periods of time increasing them as your confidence increases. Think of it as fluid rather than rigid. The most important part is continuous daily practice. Even if it’s just five minutes.
The line “Don’t make up rules of your own” — does that hold for lay people as well? I know in a monastery you should just follow what has been established, but when we want to start our own home practice, don’t we need to make our own rules?
Only you know the inside of your situation and what your household can handle, so of course you must set up your own precedents. That said, let me give you a wonderful example of how it could be done if you’re very serious: John Daido Loori, the now deceased Roshi of Zen Mountain Monastery, tells the story of how he and his wife (who was also a serious Zen practitioner but they had a young child and both worked full time) arranged their daily practice. In their rural and very simple home, they set up a zendo for themselves and in the very early morning they turned on an audio recording he had made of their monastery’s morning sounds, including the wake up bell, the han calling people to the zendo and the bells and drums before and after zazen. Then they opened their oryoki bowls and had a silent breakfast together in their “zendo.” He went to sit at the monastery a few nights a week and had dokusan with his teacher regularly. This sets a high bar I’m aware but whatever you do, it should be set. So that there is the feeling of practice and not just doing something for the sake of your convenience. Once it’s in place, then follow it like a mule or an ass. That would be perfect.
“If you don’t understand the way right before you / How will you know the path as you walk?” If I don’t understand the way right before me what should I do then?
Stop. Do nothing. Wait until the slightest flicker of something, even if it’s something small, but something you think might be right for you, and start there. Notice how you know that this small thing is right for you. What are its qualities? Generally, when a person doesn’t understand the way right before them, it is because they are neither silent nor still enough to hear themselves clearly. Guilt and shame have boisterous vibrations and will often get in the way. So when you stop and do nothing, listen. You are listening for a glimmer of your original basic purity.
My life is very chaotic, working from home with two young children and unreliable help. Can I really approach a “true way” in the midst of what feels tulmultuous? I don’t know how to steady myself even for a morning.
“Yes” practice sounds really intriguing but what is to prevent just doing whatever you want? I could see myself getting scattered very fast and never really finding my real “Yes.”
“Moment after moment we should live right here, without sacrificing this moment for the future.” Is Roshi saying not to make plans for the future?
We all need to have a trajectory for our lives. From that trajectory we know what to do moment by moment. But moment by moment we stay rooted in the moment, being in our moment as thoroughly as possible. That’s the focus. And that’s how we don’t “waste time.” When Roshi says, “I think most people are spending their time in vain. ‘No, I’m always busy,’ they may say. But if they say so, it is a sure sign that they are spending their time in vain,” it means if you’re “very busy” probably you are focusing on a future gaining idea. Even in food preparation it is said that the deliciousness of the food rests in the Tranquility of the mind of the chef.
What does Roshi mean when he says, “Zazen sits zazen?”
Roshi says, “Even before we practice it, enlightenment is there . . . So whatever you do, or even though you do not do anything, enlightenment is there, always.” Wisdom is not something to learn. Wisdom is something which will come out of your mindfulness. It’s the part of you that “sits zazen” even if you don’t like it. The emphasis in “Zazen sits zazen” is about readiness not to interfere with the wisdom in us that is seeking wisdom.
I know people who judge their meditation by whether they could or couldn’t stop their thoughts. What do you think of that?
Before I make a decision I run it by my group of friends. Even then I’m not so sure. It makes me wonder if I’m doing the right thing.
A young woman once asked Roshi after he gave a talk: “Roshi, sometimes when I’m trying to decide what I should do I ask myself, ‘In this case what would Roshi do?’ Should I continue this practice?” Roshi answered, “Then should I also ask myself ‘What would Roshi do?’ Do you understand?”
It’s the problem of going outside yourself. Each one of us must make her own true way and when we do, that way will express the universal way. As Roshi says, “When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything. When you try to understand everything you will not understand anything. The best way is to understand yourself and then you will understand everything.”
How can one work on developing constancy in a world that doesn’t stay the same for an instant?
Could you say more about the “spirit of repetition” that Roshi says if we lose, our practice will become quite difficult?
His word “spirit” is important—that you learn to find an upliftment in knowing what you are going to do, and then just doing it without even thinking about it. You just do it, day after day, and that whole part of your day when you do it develops a kind of rhythm that is comforting and stabilizing and sets you up for whatever comes next. A lot of people identify themselves as someone who “just can’t do the same thing day after day,” but that isn’t really their true nature. They just haven’t yet excavated the stillness in themselves that generates constancy.
Why does Roshi say we should not be interested in “gathering knowledge”?
Since we have limited time in this world we need to stay focused on what is important. What is important is the quality of your mind, body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts and consciousness. Gathering information is external. Sometimes it is just gossip. It sits there unmetabolized and doesn’t really help you deepen your understanding of “who am I?”—who am I before and after whatever clothes or thoughts or knowledge that I put on.
For me, the hardest thing of all is to give myself compassion. Are there any tricks?
The best, not a trick, would be to feel into the deepest place inside you that is sobbing, and, like a moher to her child, see yourself ache for it. From there it is easy to give it compassion.
I never thought of asking questions as a gift. I think of them rather as a nuisance. But you’re right. They can be helpful to more than just me.
I’m re-reading the life of the Buddha by Thich Nhat Hanh. Buddha is extremely welcoming of children and one day he had invited a whole group to visit him at 1:00 in the afternoon. As they were sharing stories about their lives, one little girl said, “Would you tell us about your life?” From that child’s question came the story about Buddha’s life told by the Buddha. So that was a bodhisattva question, a question that benefitted all beings.
No matter how I think about it, I can’t bring myself to say “No” to anyone.
I personally find the concept of refuge, especially in today’s world, very soothing. I grew up in a violent and chaotic household and I think I always, deep inside, wanted to “take refuge” but I didn’t have any place to go. I love the idea that there is a place of shelter and protection that I can access whenever I want. Thank you.
I feel the same way.
I wonder if you could comment on pain. While it is said that in the zazen posture one’s mind and body have a great power to accept things as they are, sometimes the pain—well, I just don’t know what to do with it.
What’s the matter with having a reason to practice zazen?
I know you’ve said that we don’t practice zazen for any reason, but I don’t remember why. What’s the matter with having a reason for practice? It seems important to have a reason to do the things we choose to do. Why is zazen an exception?
What is karmic consciousness?
According to the Yogacara teachings, karmic consciousness is the consciousness stored in the Alaya, the deepest level in the sturcture of our mind. In it is stored a seed from every single action we have ever taken. These are the causes that we have laid down and it is from here that the obstacles on our spiritual path are born. Those of us with serious obstacles can just know that it’s important to pay attention to our actions and especially to have them arise from kindness and compassion as opposed to self-centered thoughts. To my mind, this is the reason humanity’s endless wars are going to continue to be endless. And if that is so, one of the best things we can do is zazen. In terms of the effect of a single person’s imput into the interconnected whole, zazen which is not self-centered, would be very powerful.
I didn’t know Dogen anwsered lay peoples’ questions by writing them letters. That seems so tender. I was surprised to learn that.
Dogen’s students were men and women, lay and monastic, and he made a point of not discriminating. But when he moved to the north country, living conditions were so hard, the practice became suitable only for the most dedicated and determined male monastic disciples. It wasn’t what he had initially set out to do but was a natural outcome of what became available to him. But if you were a lay woman you could write Dogen a letter with your question and he would answer it. And then you’d have Dogen’s personal answer in his own handwriting that you could keep! (That’s my greedy mind working, but generosity and compassion is the real point of Dogen’s practice.)
I’m amazed that Zen teachings equate everyday profane activities, such as teeth cleaning and relieving oneself, with the meaning of the sutras and the teachings of the patriarchs. Can you say more about this understanding?
In the monastery during a practice period which is usually three months of intensive training, each person is given a job to do during the daily work period. The head monk’s job is always cleaning the toilets. Relieving oneself is the other side of eating, part of the wholeness of life. Just as we don’t prefer life over death (theoretically), we wouldn’t preference taking food in over passing its remains out. Having the head monk clean the toilets demonstrates the essence of Zen practice, the non-discriminating mind. It is our likes and dislikes that keep us clinging to samsara, the continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
What does it mean to give away merit?
In Buddhism there is no such thing as an independent individual self such as most of us believe and experience ourselves to be. There is only an interdependent, contunually co-arising network of beings. So “self” promotion or “self” gain, anything featuring one’s self as the primary participant, is delusional. When we do practices such as giving or zazen or caring for others, we should dedicate the merit of those practices to all beings. That way you are not invoved in gaining behaviors. Your meritorious actions will be clean of greed, one of the three so-called “poisons” that keep us continually cycling through samsara. One way to give away merit is simply to say either before or after your deed: “I dedicate the merit of this practice to all beings.” Use your own words. It’s the intention that counts.
What is a karmic retribution?
It is unfinished negative karma that still needs to be requited, like an unpaid debt. Because in Buddhism everything that happens to us is considered a result of causes and conditions that we ourselves have laid down, all of those causes and conditions need to be addressed in some way before we can fully develop. Another way to say this is that by making amends for our past transgressions, we grow spiritually. A good example of this is the disciple who came to Huike (the second patriarch of Zen Buddhism) asking him to absolve him of the transgression that were causing his illness. That was a perfect way to put his request. Instead of asking for healing from his illness, he asked for healing from the causes of his illness. The question in itself showed his deep understanding. No wonder Huike saw him as a candidate for transmission of the dharma.
Why do we vow to accomplish “impossible things”?
The Bodhisattva Vow: “Beings are numberless, I vow to save them/Desires are inexhaustible I vow to put an end to them/Dharma Gates are boundless, I vow to enter them/the Buddha Way is unsurpassable, I vow to realize it”—is all about “no matter what.” Katagiri Roshi points out that we are saying we vow to do what we will never be able to do, and therefore must continually repent that “transgression.” But the attitude—”Even though it’s impossible, I vow to do it anyway” or “because the cause is so great, even if I never finish, I will spend my wholehearted energy trying”—is the same as Dazu Huike’s saying, “I’m going to stand all night in the snow and wait for you to admit me because no matter what, I’m going to be your disciple;” or, we could say that Huike was simply demonstrating that he already was a bodhisattva (he became the second patriarch of Zen Buddhism). The important point is the non-negotiable attitude. I am going to do this. It’s the bodhisattva spirit.
What is the teaching point of the story you told at the beginning of our talk today about Layman Pang and his daughter, Ling Zhao?
Is it wrong to mourn for loved ones who have passed?
I can understand with my mind that life and death are the same but I can’t with my heart. It’s fine to know that we aren’t going anywhere but when my partner dies, or even when my dog dies, this information doesn’t help me. Is it wrong to mourn for loved ones who have passed?
Could you say more about the difference between the bodhisattva path and the non-bodhisattva path? Doesn’t everyone practicing Zen aim to become a bodhisattva?
Yes. Zen is a Mahayana practice and as such its raison d’etre is freeing all beings from suffering. But you don’t need to choose the path of Zen, which is difficult. One way it’s difficult is that a bodhisattva is “homeless.” “Out of compassion, I vow not to enter nirvana, but because of wisdom I am not entirely in samsara.” So a bodhisattva has No Abode; he remains between samsara and nirvana for the sake of all beings. The Mahayana is called the Greater Vehicle because of this, but there is Theravadan Buddhism whose practice leads to the same depth of understanding without the concern for all beings. Because I’m a Zen student you hear a lot about bodhisattvas, but there is another way. Actually, there are many other ways and other vehicles. You have to choose your path.