Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Ugly Truth


In truth, Being is very simple; it's the only uncontrived, unplanned, unconditioned thing we do. And we do it without doing anything. We Are without Being anything. In Being we are all one and the same — both figuratively and literally. Being is the basis, the foundation, for our existence. It flows naturally, without preferences, without hopes, without regrets. As the sounds flowing from the oboe simply appear as long as the player provides the breath on which it rides, as long as breath flows through our lungs who we are appears and affects all those around us. Being is beauty in all its graces and all its purity. Being is everything. It is nothing. Yet it is all we "truly" are.


Part 2
Part 3

In fact, though, life isn't that simple. Life and Being are two separate animals. Life has its ups and downs, its peaks and valleys, its beautiful clear days and its dark stormy nights, peace and violence, harmony and dissonance, love and hate.

We all know this, every last one of us, yet not all seem to understand that it is our choice whether we live in the valleys or on the peaks, whether we focus on the ups or the downs, whether we we live for the clear days and see the dark ones as only temporary, or expect it to be overcast and are amazed when the sun comes out.

It's our choice whether we bring harmony to the dissonance of our lives. It's our choice whether we live on the surface or find the silence, the still point, around which that surface swirls. It's our choice whether we focus on the beauty that Being is or the chaos that Living can be.

Don't get me wrong, Living and Being are not two separate issues. They are, but they aren't. As Dōgen pointed out, spring and the beauty of the cherry blossoms are separate, yet without one you couldn't have the other. Does spring herald the coming blossoms or do the blossoms herald the fact that spring has come? Neither. And both. The beauty of the blossoms is spring and spring is the beauty of the blossoms.

Life implies Being. Being implies Life. Even though frightened out of our gourds as the roller coaster plunges down and around another curve we have the ability to hold our hands high in the air and shout in exhilaration — fully alive; not as the conditioned person you have become but as the Being that you are.

Treat life the same. Accept the twists and turns. Accepts the climbs and the plunges. Accept the thrill and the devastation. Search until you see the common denominator in that silent, still point found between your thoughts. There is always beauty to be found amongst the chaos.

Friday, November 26, 2010

String Up The Preacher

To completely steal, rip off, copy with no regard for rightful ownership, the words of my hero Musō Soseki:

The sounds of four strings whisper the Buddha's sermons.
       Don't say that the deepest truths come only from one's mouth.
Millisecond by millisecond, stroke by stroke, countless myriad sutras arise
       one after the other,
            while in fact not a single word is spoken.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eight Words

Dale Carnegie, in his book How To Stop Worrying And Start Living, said:

A Few years ago, I was asked to answer this question on a radio programme: "What is the biggest lesson you have ever learned?"

That was easy: by far the most vital lesson I have ever learned is the importance of what we think. If I knew what you think, I would know what you are. Our thoughts make us what we are. Our mental attitude is the X factor that determines our fate. Emerson said: "A man is what he thinks about all day long." ... How could he possibly be anything else?

I now know with a conviction beyond all doubt that the biggest problem you and I have to deal with—in fact, almost the only problem we have to deal with—is choosing the right thoughts. If we can do that, we will be on the highroad to solving all our problems. The great philosopher who ruled the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius, summed it up in eight words—eight words that can determine your destiny: "Our life is what our thoughts make it."

Thoughts are not mere things
Things entertain, thoughts give life
I am so so screwed

Monday, November 22, 2010

Playing The Edge

This chapter, "Playing The Edge", has for a while been my favorite chapter of Erich Shiffmann's book about yoga, Moving Into Stillness. I admit that i waffle back and forth to other chapters every now and then, but this chapter is about so much more than just stretching our physical bodies that it's impossible to miss it's lessons for how we should live our lives.

To show you what i mean, it starts with these words:

A large part of the art and skill in yoga lies in sensing just how far to move into a stretch. If you don't go far enough, there is no challenge to the muscles, no intensity, no stretch, and little possibility for opening. Going too far, however, is an obvious violation of the body, increasing the possibility of both physical pain and injury. Somewhere between these two points is a degree of stretch that is in balance: intensity without pain, use without abuse, strenuousness without strain. You can experience this balance in every posture you do.

This place in the stretch is called your "edge."

We have edges in the way we think, in the way we interact with other people, in how far we willingly go to interact with strangers, people outside our normal circle of acquaintances, how much we are willing to speak in public, how often we are willing to try new foods, or listen to new music, or view new types of art, how much we are willing to open ourselves to others, how deeply we will let others into our hearts, or our minds. We have edges for how far we will push our bodies and with what physical exercises, edges on how long we will sit still in meditation, edges for how much we will push ourselves intellectually to learn new subjects, even if unnecessarily, to learn to play/sing music, even if no one will ever hear it.

We have edges around every single aspect of our lives. As Erich points out in this chapter, how successful we are at any endeavor depends in large part on how we play those edges. And the same applies to Life, with a capital "L." To fully live it we need to see, understand, and play with our edges. Slowly but steadily finding where the stretch begins, and working past it one breath at a time, allowing our lives to expand into what it can become.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Empty Tea Cups

This afternoon i watched the Japanese movie Tea Fight. While the movie was pretty bad, i enjoyed it because it was Japanese (no surprise there) and because it had to do with one of my favorite subjects: Ocha, green tea. And to prove that even the worst movies have at least one worthwhile point that you can take away, this one offered this near the end:

The soul of tea is Emptiness. The tea room is a place situated far away from the common world. The scoop and water are just like the flowing of a stream. The voice of stirring is just like the echo of an empty valley. The tea mat is just like boundless space.

For those that don't drink ocha, or those who only see it as warm drink, maybe those words seem like a bit of hyperbole, but i don't believe they are.

The soul of tea is Emptiness.
To say,

shiki fu i kū
kū fu i shiki
shiki soku ze kū
kū soku ze shiki

[form is not different from emptiness
emptiness is not different from form
form is exactly emptiness
emptiness is exactly form]

as does the Heart Sutra, doesn't mean that form is empty, that it doesn't exist, that the world as we see it is only in our heads. It's not that the world doesn't exist, it just exists differently than we have been led to believe it does. The soul of Tea, that which enlivens every cup, which is at the very heart of what it is, is this concept of emptiness. Understand that, and a cup of tea will never taste the same again.

The tea room is a place situated far away from the common world.
This has nothing to do with place, location, or anything physical, it is all about what's going on in your head while sitting in the tea room. Throughout the day we live in a world of thoughts, daydreams, fantasy, hope, fear, and desire. We live in a world that is anywhere but here and now.

With even a little training on your meditation cushion anyone can learn to spend more and more of their time in the here and now. But you still live in the common world, even though in a much more honest and awake state. The tea room demands more of you, it demands that you make the effort to go one step further, to take that final step into that "place" where even the borders of here and now dissolve — and that's where you'll find emptiness.

In this "place" you are free to Be, no more and no less. You are free to be absorbed into the sight of the steam rising above the tea, the sound of the simmering water, the smell of the tea and tatami, the taste of the tea on your tongue, the feel of the tea cup in the palm of your hand. You are free to share all of this with your co-conspirators in this adventure. To share, not because there are different people in the room experiencing it, but because you see that there is only experience, manifesting as the room, the tea, the people sharing, and every other aspect of the adventure.

No, the tea room is no common world.

The scoop and water are are just like the flowing of a stream.
Musō Soseki pointed to the same thing when he said,

The sounds of the stream splash out the Buddha's sermon.
     Don't say that the deepest meaning comes only from one's mouth.
Day and night eighty thousand poems arise one after the other,
       and in fact not a single word has ever been spoken.

Too often taken for granted as nothing more than tools used to get the tea from its container into its finished liquid form for someone to drink, the scoop and water also have messages for those willing to hear, for those with the patience to train their minds to be able to hear.

If the stream doesn't flow, it dies; it is only with movement, flowing, that it continues to live and its message continues to be spoken. The flowing is the lungs and larynx of the steam; without it nothing is said. Likewise the scoop and the water — without them the tea is simply dead leaves in a pretty container, unable to release their message. The scoop and the water releases the message, which the server then places in a cup.

The voice of stirring is just like the echo of an empty valley.
What do you hear when you listen to echos in an empty valley? Do you hear nothing? Or, do you hear the emptiness that is continually echoed back to you, the emptiness that made the first shout? As you sit on the tatami, listen to the stirring of the tea. What do you hear? Can you hear emptiness shouting at you: "Here. Here. I'm here. Open your eyes."

The tea mat is just like boundless space.
Boundless space has no limits, it is nothing, yet it contains everything. Just so the tea mat for a master who's sole focus is the preparation of an Empty tea cup, for No One to enjoy. Outside the boundaries of the tea mat nothing exists. The tea room is outlined by here and now, but by unrolling the tea mat you take that one extra step.

Make some tea and then find a quiet room and a comfortable cushion to sit on. If that's not possible, simply find somewhere out of the way to sit. It's not the external environment that needs to be quiet, it's that interior world. Once you get settled, then slowly, ever so slowly, let yourself expand through all five senses into that boundless space of a cup of tea. I think you'll then agree with me that none of this was hyperbole.

At The Edge

Standing at the edge
The view is magnificent
Gassho, bow, then sit

Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's A War Out There

Since i mentioned the Tibetan Lojong (Mind Training) teachings the other day, and because the weather was bad this morning, i spent most of the late morning and early afternoon today watching a Dalai Lama teaching on the subject online. After that i decided to pull Pema Chodron's book Start Where You Are, which contains her teachings on each of the 59 slogans, off the shelf to read through bits of her wisdom, and found myself dilly-dallying on this quote:

"...[O]n the path of the warrior, or bodhisattva, there is no interruption. The path includes all experience, both serene and chaotic. When things are going well, we feel good. We delight in the beauty of the snow falling outside the windows or the light reflecting off the floor. There's some sense of appreciation. But when the fire alarm rings and confusion erupts, we feel irritated and upset.

"It's all opportunity for practice. There is no interruption. We would like to believe that when things are still and calm, that's the real stuff, and when things are messy, confused, and chaotic, we've done something wrong, or more usually someone else has done something to ruin our beautiful meditation. As someone once said about a loud, bossy woman, 'What is that woman doing in my sacred world?'


"This is where the heart comes from in this practice, where the sense of gratitude and appreciation for our life comes from. We become part of a lineage of people who have cultivated their bravery throughout history, people who, against enormous odds, have stayed open to great difficulties and painful situations and transformed them into the path of awakening. We will fall flat on our faces again and again, we will continue to feel inadequate, and we can use these experiences to wake up, just as they did. The lojong teachings give us the means to connect with the power of our lineage, the lineage of gentle warriorship."

Which reminded me of something i was reading the other day in the "Patience" chapter of Stephen Batchelor's The Bodhisattva's Way of Life the other day:

Having found its fuel of mental unhappiness 
In the prevention of what I wish for 
And in the doing of what I do not want, 
Hatred increases and then destroys me. 
Therefore I should totally eradicate 
The fuel of this enemy; 
For this enemy has no other function 
Than that of causing me harm. 

Whatever befalls me 
I shall not disturb my mental joy; 
For having been made unhappy, I shall not accomplish what I wish 
And my virtues will decline. 
Why be unhappy about something 
If it can be remedied? 
And what is the use of being unhappy about something 
If it cannot be remedied? 


Even when the wise are suffering 
Their minds remain very lucid and undefiled; 
For when war is being waged against the disturbing conceptions 
Much harm is caused at the times of battle. 

The victorious warriors are those 
Who, having disregarded all suffering, 
Vanquish the foes of hatred and so forth; 
(Common warriors) slay only corpses. 

The enemy, the real enemy, is inside. The battles are vicious, the trenches are mud pits filled with lies made of sugar, and the war is long and hard, but it can be won. It can be won.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Banana Republic USA

An interesting Op-Ed piece in the New York Times: Our Banana Republic.

As he says, "So we face a choice. Is our economic priority the jobless, or is it zillionaires?"

Too bad a good article like this won't be thought provoking enough to too great a number of people.

It's All In Your Head

I have a Yahoo! email account that i use only for what i call my "junk" email. That's not spam, in the strict sense of the word, but all the newsletters, daily emails, etc. that i sign up for related to self improvement, get rich with this scheme, The Secret, manifest your desires, and all that other "stuff."

I don't know why i like to read all those emails (they come in boatloads every morning); the vast majority are, for all intents and purposes, nothing but spam but i voluntarily sign up to receive them. In a way it's similar to another quirk i have — i refuse to watch violent movies, will not support the portrayal of violence as a valid way to solve problems, YET, i love and do watch "kung fu" type movies (unless Jackie Chan is in it). Can't explain it, but i won't give those up. Weird, i know.

Anyway, in today's mail there was one promising to give you a free video that will show you exactly, step-by-step, how to sell yourself as an expert in any subject and to make millions (MILLIONS) in just a few years getting paid to speak at seminars, consulting, and writing about your new found expert-level expertise in the area of your choosing.

The more i thought about it the less i doubted that this was a bogus claim. People will believe anything. People can be convinced to believe anything if that something allows them to reinforce the picture they have of themselves in their head.

The question that came to mind as i thought about it, though, was why don't more people acknowledge that truth and voluntarily decide to train their minds in better, more meaningful ways? How have greed and materialism become the defining attributes of a successful life?

I will always call Zen my home, but love Tibetan Buddhism for many of their teachings. For me, Tibetan Buddhism is like running to the library: Want to know more of the theory and philosophy behind buddhism? Look to the Tibetans. And one of their great teachings is the method of Seven Point Mind Training.

All buddhists acknowledge that "it's all in your head," that our problems come from our minds and how we use them (or don't), that if we clean up our internal mess we can clean up our lives and see reality as it really is. The Tibetans, though, actually came up with a list of proverbs, slogans, aphorisms, whatever you choose to call them, that when practiced help you train your mind and keep you on the path. I keep a list of them on my computer where they are always just a click away, but there are numerous web sites dedicated to them. A few of them are here, here, and here.

In total there are 59 slogans and if you accept a practice of working with one a day, forever, 'till death do us part, you come to see that the mind can be trained, your view of life can be altered for the better, your view of yourself, the world, and the inter-relationship between the two can be clarified. It really is an amazing practice.

And then maybe, just maybe, if you memorize all of them you can get that free video and sell yourself as an expert and make a million bucks.

Friday, November 5, 2010


Just before the temperatures dropped here and it got too chilly to work outdoors, i managed to complete the last of my planned outdoor projects. The front porch is now complete, two window sills have been repaired, all of the windows on the south and east sides have been repainted, a new maple tree, some mums, and more lilies have been planted, and the two birdhouses have been painted. When i painted the house about 7-8 years ago, i painted over the red and green trim around the windows, only to find i really missed it.

And even though i know the woman who taught me calligraphy for a year when i lived in Japan back in the '80s is turning over in her grave at how bad my penmanship is, here's a closer look at the finished front porch.

There are rumors floating around that the temperatures could climb back up into the 60's next week. If they do, i will try and sneak back outside and paint the windows and door on the garage. Next spring i'll get the walls themselves, along with the house. I hope.

And now that i'm back indoors, if i can figure out what i want to say, i hope to start writing for the blog more often.