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Month: April, 2020

The Practice of Questioning

by tendo zenji

Dharma Talk from the April 25th, 2020 Day of Practice at Tahoma Zen Monastery

Meditative Self-Inquiry

The last few weeks in our talks we have been investigating the triune intertwined approach of : Being in the body, Being Outside and Being in Silence each with its many attendant practices. These practices are ones that we can do on our own with positive results.  We should always check any insights with a genuine teacher, but in these times when we have no choice but to practice more on our own, this approach has an even greater vitality.  

Once one is able to truly Be in Silence than this is the ground from which one can do inquiry, whether it be huatou (wato), Koan Study, or Self-Inquiry.  Of these practices only Self-Inquiry can be pursued on one’s own.  The core part of this sort of self-directed practice is to never be satisfied, always look again, always go deeper.

A Natural Practice

In an essay entitled The Seven Tongues of God Timothy Leary postulated that there are seven essential questions that define the religious experience: what is reality, what is life, who is man, what is awareness, who am I, what do our emotions mean and is there life after death .

“Religion is a social system which has evolved its roles, rules, rituals, values, language, space-time locations to further the pursuit for the same goals, to answer these questions subjectively through the revelatory experience. […] A religion which fails to provide direct experiential answers to these spiritual questions becomes secular, political, and tends to oppose the individual revelatory confrontation.”
– Timothy Leary, from The Seven Tongues of God in Politics of Ecstasy p. 13

Religions seem to always begin with the direct revelatory exploration of these questions and then over time codify into a set of prepackaged answers and intermediaries to that direct experience. The history of many religions seems to be one of constant schisms based on eliminating the intermediaries only to over time build them up again.  Leary on the other hand stated that not only could you discover the answer to these questions yourself but that it was our fundamental purpose do so.

Find out for yourself. Seeking. I codified this as looking into ‘What is really going on’. That is what is happening at an absolutely fundamental level.  In essence I was exploring one of the essential Self-Inqurey questions: What is this?

Many people develop these burning questions on their own and pursue them to awakening, even without any practice framework or understanding at all. But combined with a genuine practice it can be a lot more powerful.

Bassui

After I began formal Zen Practice I was listening to Dharma talks from numerous sources and from Roshi Bodhin of the Rochester Zen Center I heard a teisho from Mud and Water: The Teachings of Zen Master Bassui. Bassui felt one had to see into ones true nature before one could engage in Koan Study or other practices. From his youth he was driven question ‘Who is the Master” and strove hard until he answered this and had it verified by a genuine Master. From Braverman’s Introduction to Mud and Water:

When Bassui asks, “Who is the master?” as he did of himself during his own training, and demands that his students pursue this enquiry to its core, not stopping even at realization, but rather, “…throwing out [realization], returning to the one who realizes…” (Kana hōgo), Bassui is pointing to the nature of the Self, which can be understood when one truly learns the nature of “he” who makes decisions, he who moves the arms and legs…. In the words of Rinzai, “…you must recognize the one who manipulates these reflections. He is the primal source of all the Buddhas and every place is home to which the follower of the Way returns.”

In bringing people back to the “master who hears, sees…” Bassui, like Rinzai, is steering students away from the feeling, “I know.”
– Arthur Braverman, from Mud and Water, (pp. 18-19).

In the below talk we delve deep into the core of Bassui’s inquiry based teaching and his rigor and fidelity to the practice.   Lin-Chi (Rinzai) throughout his talks would persistently ask of the assembly of ‘Who is listening to the dharma right now?  This question, ‘Who is listening, right now’, Bassui asked himself incessantly until he truly knew. Thought his teaching career he would bring students constantly back to seeing into their own minds, to answering for themselves “who is listening?”

The Practice of Self-Inquiry

 “To relax your body, first relax your eyes, your facial muscles, and your head. Then, make sure your shoulders and arms are relaxed, then your chest, back, and lower back. While maintaining an erect posture, be sure your lower abdomen is also relaxed. If you can maintain these basic points of a relaxed body, your breath will be smooth and unhindered. However if any part of your body is tense, your breath will be short and constricted. If you relax your body in the manner I just said, your breath will naturally be smooth and unhindered; you will experience the rise and fall of your abdomen, and the breath will naturally sink down.”
– Ch’an Master Sheng Yen, Shattering the Great Doubt:, p. 8

Settle into the body, placing ones attention on anything tense and exhale, until totally relaxed. From here turn your attention upon itself, or upon the totality of the body, or simply stop placing your attention anywhere. Abide in awareness. If thoughts arise, let them arise and fall. If sensations arise, let them rise and fall. If you follow them, notice then and then return simply being in awareness. If you get too distracted, return to the body scan and relax where is tense. Conclude this with resting your attention in the tanden for a few breaths.  Then place your awareness upon itself.  From here you can begin inquiry.

In Ch’an practices are three core forms of inquiry:

Huatou (wato) is an unceasing questioning of the mind leading to ‘Apprehension and Anxiety’ the “Great Ball of Doubt” which one shatters, revealing our true nature.

Koan study looks at things through numerous angles to get to a root question. While there are koans oriented around breakthrough there are numerous other aspects of practice that is being investigated.

Self-Inquiry is asking the question into the calm tranquility of the mind and listening for the response.  It can be more thought of setting the ground, the orientation for abiding in awareness.  

There are numerous question one can inquiry into What is This? Who Am I? are the most fundamental and virtually all others resolve into this.  They are of course two sides of the same coin. But other inquiries can be useful for cutting though our own specific conditioning for getting past attachments.  What is real? What is True? Who is listening? What am I? What is most essential? and so on.

Question the self to see what comes up. Then this must be questioned. Questioning must continue until there is only our true nature remains. This process is why this is such a fruitful practice to engage in in self-directed practice. There is no endpoint, we always can keep question, going deeper. When available, like Bassui, we verify any deep insight with a genuine teacher. But otherwise we continue the questioning, always finding more.

In the talk from this day all of this and more is explored in greater depth.

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Finding ourselves Outside

by tendo zenji

April 19th, 2020, Dharma Talk from Zazenkai at Tahoma Zen Monastery 

This cosmology as dwelling-place provided the context for virtually all poetic thinking in ancient China. Indeed, it was central to all Chinese culture, for wilderness has constituted the very terms of self-cultivation throughout the centuries in China. This is most clearly seen in the arts, which were nothing less than spiritual disciplines: calligraphers, poets, and painters aspired to create with the selfless spontaneity of a natural force, and the elements out of which they crafted their artistic visions were primarily aspects of wilderness. It can also be seen, for instance, in the way Chinese intellectuals would sip wine as a way of clarifying awareness of the ten thousand things by dissolving the separation between subject and object, or tea as a way of heightening that awareness, practices that ideally took place outdoors or in an architectural space that was a kind of eye-space, its open walls creating an emptiness that contained the world around it. There is a host of other examples, such as the ideal of living as a recluse among the mountains, or the widespread practice of traveling in areas of particular natural beauty, which generated an extensive travel literature. And as we shall see, meditation was widely practiced as perhaps the most fundamental form of belonging to China’s wilderness cosmology.
-David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China

Continuing the discussion of the intertwined triune approach of Being in the Body, Being Outside and Being in Silence, in this talk we consider awakening in nature.

When out of doors one is natural in ones body but by being aware of our bodies, centering ourselves in the abdomen we can truly inhabit them. As we move through the natural environment with all of it’s continual change we can become increasingly aware of silence. Behind every sound, behind the incessant activity is a deep silence.  Twilight when birds come to rest and people are generally not out and about you can feel a hushed stillness. This points to the deeper silence.  Paying attention to these conditions  facilitates getting past the self. There are active practices such as empty awareness, or landscape samadhi of the Ch’an Practitioners. 

Within this underlying cosmology, Chia Tao’s poem begins to look quite different, and our reading begins to resemble that of its original readers. It is now recognizable as a poem about the experience of attending to the movements of this primal cosmology. The wild mountain realm embodies this cosmology of natural process in its most comprehensive and awesome manifestation. Its basic regions appear almost schematically in countless paintings from the Chinese rivers-and-mountains (also shan-shui, but universally translated “landscape”) tradition: the pregnant emptiness of nonbeing, in the form of mist and lakes and empty space; the landscape of being as it burgeons forth in a perpetual process of transformation; and then, nestled within this self-generating and harmonious Cosmos, the human. The silence and emptiness that suffuse Chia Tao’s landscape are nothing other than nonbeing itself, and the distilled clarity of his images renders the individuating occurrences of tzu-jan’s unfolding.
-David Hinton, Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China

As an example of awakening out of doors, consider Chapter 2 from Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (pp. 8-15). In this story Douglas is outside with his father an little brother and his true nature sneaks up on him. Hear the whole story in the recording from this talk embedded below the fold.

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WMD Virtual Visit – This World of Dew

by tendo zenji

This world of dew,
is but a world of dew.
and yet…and yet
– Issa Kobayashi

There is an interwoven triune approach that forms the foundation of my practice.  These three core approaches are:

Being in the Body
Being Outside
Being in Silence

Being, is doing a lot of work here. You could substitute embodying, or read it as intended emphasizing the root be. All of my recent talks have been on these practices, investigating them from various angles, their various aspects and tallying them with the teachings. The below talk given in conjunction with Seattle’s Watermoon Dojo investigates these three components. These three elements are simply aspects of a single approach with a myriad of practices that might emphasize one element or another. But the three are always active, always supporting or framing an individual practice.

A core practice of Being in Silence is meditation and in the talk one approach to meditating, that of Silent Illumination, is examined. There are of course many approaches each which offer their own orientation.  When one engages in mediation one roots themselves in the body and in the environment. Thus we can see the triune nature of this practice. As one lets go of feelings, sensations, thoughts and emotions one becomes aware of the silence of our true nature. Abiding in silence, in pure awareness we are rooted and can explore these depths, or engage in inquiry practices.

Likewise when Being Outside one can engage in various samadhi practices, of ways backgrounding the small self. In this case one is again firmly in the body as one walks, or sits out of doors, tuning into the silence behind the roaring surf, the bristling wind, the piercing sun, the cold reach of mountain peaks. There are myriad practices that one can engage in while outside, this talk examines just one of them.

In all of these Being in the Body is the root. If this approach can be likened to an equilateral triangle, the Body is the base. Out of the ground of being the ten thousand things emerge including our bodies.  All of these practices begin by returning to the body, moving away from any sort of feeling that our being, the “I“, is not separate from the body.

See the talk presented below for more on this interconnected approach:

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Zazenkai 04.12.16 – No Nature

by tendo zenji

No Nature. Human societies each have their own nutty fads, mass delusions, and enabling mythologies. Daily life still gets done. Wild nature is probably equally goofy, with its stunning variety of creatures somehow getting by in all these landscapes. Nature also means the physical universe, including the urban, industrial and toxic.  But we do not easily know nature, or even know ourselves. Whatever it actually is, it will not fulfill our conceptions or assumptions. It will dodge our expectations and theoretical models. There is no single or set “nature” either as “the natural world” or “the nature of things.” The greatest respect we can pay to nature is not to trap it, but to acknowledge that it eludes us and that our own nature is also fluid, open, and conditional.” – Gary Snyder, No Nature.

It is easy for us to get past ourselves when we are outside.  Lost in the continuous sound of the surf, gazing raptly at distant mountain peaks, self forgotten among the tangled complexity and glory of the forest. But there is no nature, no nature that is separate from us. It is not a thing that we abscond to, escape to. It is us.  Humans are after all a part of nature and our constructs are merely complicated termite mounds, stone bird nests,  massive cave systems.

In the talk below, I examine taking advantage of this natural receding of the self when outside, to use this as a practice, the practice of being in nature.

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April 5th, 2020 Zazenkai – Our Great Vow as Right View

by tendo zenji

The Buddha said to him, “Subhuti, those who would now set forth on the bodhisattva path should thus give birth to this thought: ‘However many beings there are in whatever realms of being might exist, whether they are born from an egg or born from a womb, born from the water or born from the air, whether they have form or no form, whether they have perception or no perception or neither perception nor no perception, in whatever conceivable realm of being one might conceive of beings, in the realm of complete nirvana I shall liberate them all. And though I thus liberate countless beings, not a single being is liberated.’ “And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva.’ And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”

Red Pine, The Diamond Sutra (p. 71)

In the Diamond Sutra we find the Four Bodhisattva Vows that are renewed every day in Zen temples, monasteries and centers around the world.  The first vow, which is often shortened to “I vow to liberate all beings” is quoted above in full.  When you look at how the Buddha describes “all beings” what we see is that this really is, everything, reality itself.  In essence we are vowing to awaken reality.

When we first start sitting we tend to sit for ourselves. We wish to relieve suffering, be more centered, be happy, find peace and endless other reasons. These all come from the self. If we achieve a breakthrough, a glimpse into our true natures from the perspective, or ‘view’ of the self, then it is easy for the self to co-opt our realization.  We may have a moment of clarity, of unconditioned being, but it quickly becomes part of the self, our ego identities.

This was the great insight of the Mahayana and thus the View, or orientation was changed. We sit not for ourselves, not for realizing our own desires, but to awaken all things, to embody our true nature. This topic as well as more from Ch’an Master Huangbo was discussed in the talk from the April 5th, Zazenkai, which can be found below the fold.

 

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March 29th, 2020 Zazenkai talk – Just sitting in troubled times

by tendo zenji

A difficult practice for many is the practice of ‘just sitting’.  To just sit in awareness and deeply listen. So many of our practices, especially in Rinzai Zen, rely on words in order to to get us beyond language. But it is eminently worthwhile to cultivate sitting in awareness and the deep silence of our true natures. To be able to just sit and let the thoughts come and go without resting our attention on anything reveals this root silence. Not the silence of quiet, but the silence behind quiet, behind the sounds. This silence is an incredible resource. In it we we can let feelings arise and fully unfold. It can take that energy, however powerful. That energy arises from the silence and it can expand as far as may and then will be absorbed back in the silence. Then what remains is peace.

In these troubled times being able to tap into that resource is vital. But we will always be limited in this practice if our orientation is toward our own well being, toward our self.  Seeking solace and peace for our egoic self is of value and worth doing. But to go deeper, into our true nature our aspiration must be one of waking up to our true nature.  We do this for all beings sentient and insentient which means in essence we are doing this for our true nature.  When that is our alignment we find true peace from that place that is immovable and we are able to do what the moment requires of us.

These topics and more are discussed in the March 29th, Virtual Zazenkai at Tahoma Zen Monastery. Below the fold you will find video of this talk and further information.

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