When you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him

This post is in response to the series of posts on Natan’s blog concerning the continual corruption of various Zen communities.

I am always surprised at how people are resistant to learning lessons from history. To wit:

Institutions and organizations are often subverted by corrupt people. Young women are often prey to the machinations of self-interested father figures. People join cults to find an ideal family and then end up drinking poisoned kool-aid (figuratively or literally). A young man promises to love a young woman for ever but he has told the same thing to five other women concurrently. Zen teachers seduce a string of students. Etc., etc. An endless history of avoidable disasters. It isn’t like these kinds of disaster haven’t been written about extensively. Why aren’t they common knowledge? And corruption! It isn’t like we haven’t tried to set up institutions that prevent corruption. And then the institution becomes corrupted. Why are we surprised when these everyday things happen? What makes people ignore all the good advice from the past? Ah, but of course – the old ‘it can’t happen to me’ syndrome. And why do people always trust people who say, “Trust me.” It isn’t a matter of trust. It is a matter of keeping ones eyes open to spot one of the deepest characteristics of human nature: the tendency toward self-interest in spite of the unfortunate effects ones actions might have on other people.

What to do? What to do? In terms of Buddhism the path isn’t about finding a perfectly enlightened teacher who does no wrong. Buddha didn’t find one and he did well enough on his own. The purpose of the path is to become enlightened oneself; it is not to blindly follow the enlightened one. Teachers can only suggest things that might help you; they can’t give you anything except their attention and their compassion. The only legitimate thing a teacher can want for or from you is your enlightenment. The moment they start telling you how to run your life is a really good time to turn on your Sceptical Nature. Why would any teacher want you to do anything except to get enlightened? You can get enlightened any old place. Why exactly are they telling you to do this or that? What is in it for them? What is in it for you? How tricky. No easy answers. Stay on your toes.

Maybe in the case of Zen communities there isn’t enough emphasis placed on the necessary lesson that the teacher is merely another human being with the same problems of life that everyone has. I read somewhere that a Zen teacher, when asked what the difference was between himself and his students, answered that he corrected his mistakes faster than the students did theirs. If the basis of enlightenment is seeing what is, and if a teacher is constantly having to correct their own mistakes, then why would we set any teacher up as exemplars of anything other than people who can admit to their mistakes and who try to correct them? Yes, a teacher can be someone who knows lots about the minutia of tradition and ritual, but minutia and ritual are not enlightenment. Yes, any particular teacher might have great wisdom and experience beyond mere mistake correcting, but maybe not. But how can any of us inexperienced fools (who might be thinking about paying attention to the lessons of history as exemplified by a Zen community) pick a teacher or community that isn’t going to prove a screw up?

Maybe what we should look for is a teacher whose first lesson insists that the student remain sceptical of any teacher’s authority. My Iaido teacher constantly stressed the old saw, “If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.” What I took this to mean is that any person who by their action or words insists that they know what you should do with your life is probably a fraud. When will we learn that the true teacher is one who primarily teaches by the example of their life. Given that we do not know much about other people’s lives, if we only know them only in the short-term, would we not be wise in being circumspect in following them? Where are they going? Where do they want you to go? Listen, reserve judgement, try everything on for size. But always be sceptical of the teacher. More, always be sceptical of what we think we know. Better yet be sceptical of what we think is a good thing for us to do. And if the teacher proves a screw up, don’t follow him/her. Are you sleeping with your teacher. Is your teacher sleeping with others? How are you going to feel if you find out they are? I’m not interested in how hurt you might feel, your situation is after all a common story, although I do feel compassion for the fact that you are a suffering being. But I wonder, what you were thinking to get into the situation? What don’t you know about your own emotional motivations? That is what is interesting.

If I was going to start an institution to regulate Zen communities, I would only institute the following few rules: 1) teachers are required to send their students to other teachers (who are unknown to the first teacher) to avoid the psychological problem of transference (on the part of the student) and the problem of cronyism (on the part of the teachers). 2) students should always be taught to figure it out for themselves using all available information from all sources while remaining sceptical of any authority.

Shop around. Get a little experience. Read history. Pay attention to what is really going on, not to what do you want to go on.


Right Concentration

bald-faced hornet (but really a wasp)

I have mentioned before how it seems strange that the third subsection of the Eightfold Path, Concentration, had stacked inside it the sub-subsection called Right Concentration. After thinking for a while about this sub-sected subsection, I realized that every part of the Eightfold Path is stacked inside Right Concentration. What I mean is that you can’t do anything useful (in terms of Buddhism) unless you concentrate on the exact thing you are contemplating or doing. If you are going to breathe, concentrate on breath. If you are going to dig in the garden dig in the garden. If you are going to contemplate the idea of Right Action, concentrate on it.

But what is concentration? According to the dreaded Wikipedia, concentration is simply turning your mind to the task, and then turning it to the task yet again — and again. If you are breathing, then constantly turn your mind to awareness of the breath. This is necessary to the start of zazan practice. Zazen practice is nothing so much as constantly turning your attention…

To be silly, concentration is the process of concentrating on concentrating on whatever you are concentrating on. The trick in using this technique to further oneself along the path to the ninth and tenth part of the eightfold path (ten parts to the Eightfold Path? who knew?) is that one must remove all objects of thought that are counter to Buddhistic ideas: always limit harm to oneself and others, remove dualist thoughts, refrain from judging, banish biases and prejudices, etc., etc. This is necessary as these types of thought prevent one from seeing what really is. When studying any of the eight parts of the Eightfold Path one has to concentrate, to constantly turn ones mind back to the item of study. The result of all this concentration? Attaining #9, Superior Right Knowledge and #10, Superior Right Liberation. But attainment is complex in the doing because concentration requires you to be cognizant of all eight parts of the path all the time.

When I am digging in the garden I have to consciously try to develop the Right View. And here I do not mean merely the politically correct view. I mean being conscious of every effect that I am having in the garden. When I put bird netting on the cherry tree, the robins had a harder time finding food — until they discovered the raspberries. When I rip out the kale plants because they have gone to seed, I have to know that I am preventing the kale plants from continuing into newer generations. And if you discount a plant’s desire for life and progeny, then consider the effect on the world you have when digging with a shovel. How many worms do I kill? How many worms and bugs do I expose to the ravening appetites of birds? The right view is inescapably that I live and die by helping and by killing. Doing no harm is impossible. All I can to do is minimize the harm I do — and I can only do that by being aware of my harmful actions, concentrating on them (so I can understand them), fessing up, and then trying to limit the harm — and that is a good definition for Right Intention.

Inextricably interwoven with the fabric of life as I am, as I strive for right intention while I work in the garden, I sometimes talk to the birds, the plants, the bugs. I don’t want to get all mystical and magical here, but I want to tell you about the long conversation I had with the wasps in the garden. Big black and white striped things, about the size of the first joint of my baby finger, and I’ve got large hands. Makes your arm swell up, from the finger tips to the shoulder, just thinking about getting stung. In the spring their nest was the size of a quarter, hanging in the lilac tree right over the compost heap. I’d stand there and talk to them as they buzzed me. Talked about how we are all in it together, that our needs did not interfere with each other, that there was plenty of room for both of us, and weren’t they pretty wasps (once you get over the terror of stings). That was in the spring last year. By mid summer the nest was larger than a football, about eighteen inches long (that’s about 40 centimeters for those initiated in scientific reckoning). There were so many wasps that going out to the compost heap was like running across a twelve lane highway at rush hour. Every once and a while one would crash right into me, bounce off. Never got stung once. I’m not saying that talking to the wasps made the wasps tolerate me, that some special bond was formed (don’t need one beyond that which is already there). What I am saying is that talking, right speech, made me not afraid of the wasps. No harm in that. And I did not have to destroy the nest for prevention of stings that never happened. This year the wasps went elsewhere, probably not wanting to be around me anymore. And that is a good definition of Right Action.

Concentrating on right livelihood while in the garden, is noticing the effort it takes to grow things, noticing how much you need to know about general gardening practices, and noticing the things you need to know about your garden’s micro environment. And what is the right view about gardening in general, about gardeners and farmers? Acknowledging our absolute dependency on growers of food! We are willing to give hockey players millions of bucks to play a game while knowing that if hockey disappeared we wouldn’t die of it. But if farmers all refused to grow food? Can you grow enough to feed yourself? How much do the pickers of that necessary indulgence, coffee, get paid? What is right effort if not trying to understand what is really going on and trying to act so that things (oneself) are brought into line with actuality? Keep that thought in your right mind by constantly concentrating, turning your attention, again and again, to what is right there if front of you right now.
source for picture of

Right Mindfullness

sweet tomatoes

Again from Wikipedia.

“Here, practitioners should constantly keep their minds alert to phenomena that affect the body and mind.”

How simple can this be? Oh ya, real simple. So simple that it’s hard to notice that you ever do it. Paying constant and complete attention? Giving full awareness to all the phenomena of mind and body? When do we do that? In this culture we’re trained to pay attention to TV. To money. To who won the World Series, World Cup, Stanley Cup, Miss Universe Contest. The latest traffic accident or robbery. And are all those beautiful people going to make it out of the jungle without throwing up because they have to eat grubs? Oh, the anxiety, the excitement, the suspense! What might happen?!

Right Mindfulness is noticing what is happening to oneself right now. We each do this some time during the day, but we don’t necessarily notice we are doing it. The first step is to pay attention to yourself so you notice those times when you are awake noticing the simple fact of your existence, noticing those times when there is nothing happening in your head beyond simple engagement in what you are doing.

In my case I pay full attention to my existence when I paint and when I garden. Then the only thing going on is the brush against the board or the water pouring over the soil under the tomato plants. The feel of cold as the water splashes my hand as I weed. The green smell as I pick off new growth so the tomato plants won’t grow too big. The snap of picking peas for dinner. The tight hobbling sensation in the small of the back when I get up from a crouch. Bending the upper back backward to relieve the old tendons. Failing at the task of mindful attention every once in a while when I notice how many raspberries are half eaten by the d#@m robins, or worse, when a berry has only been slashed at with a beak. The robins sit on the berry canes and break them with their weight. Whenever I walk out into the garden, those wing-rats give a cry of warning and fly off. As far as they are concerned, I’m the one stealing their food.

But how to take the mindfulness I get while engaged in the small activities in the garden, or at my easel, into my day to day life? There are all sorts of techniques. By now, for old fart me, it is simply a matter of remembering to do so. And I have to remind myself to do it a lot. The hardest times are when I get stressed out, like immediately after the opening reception for my show. That night, about 3:00 pm, my mind just would not stop. Monkey mind, jabbering away. This and that. Who said what and why. Old patterns in my mind reawakened, stimulated by the strange energy of exhaustion. Not one thought important because I didn’t need to make any of it important. But nothing I could do in the situation except just watch the thoughts go by. Sleepless. Here I am awake, I thought. Trying to be awake to being awake.

Here’s a technique I learned in my twenties: in a whisper recite the phrase, “This is what I’m doing now.” Say it over and over. All day long. Quietly, but out loud. Then, the next day, repeat the phrase all day long to yourself, in your mind. After a week or so of remembering to keep saying the phrase, it sinks into your subconscious mind and becomes the observer, watching what you are doing, noticing what you are thinking. Then whenever you notice you are not paying attention to the things right there in front of you, or the things inside you, start saying the phrase to start the observer up again. It’s pretty hard to get distracted when you are reciting a phrase, or counting your breath, or fixing on a mandala or candle (on the other hand it’s pretty hard to focus on a candle or the breath etc)….

And after you get good at bringing your mind back to the phrase, the candle, the mantra, the breath, then the next trick to master is to take your developed, practised focus and generalize it so that it encompasses whatever is happening to oneself at every moment, day to day, so that you become totally aware and awake to the infinite world of your own experience. Right Mindfulness, Right Now.

May you be blessed with a day full of awareness.

The source for above image

Right Effort for Artists.

This blog was inspired by a conversation I had the other day with an artist who complained bitterly about the difficulty of doing art, that all sorts of things got in the way.

Again from Wikipedia, re Right Effort: “The practitioner should … [persist] in giving rise to what would be good and useful to themselves and others in their thoughts, words, and deeds, without a thought for the difficulty or weariness involved.”

So, you’ve chosen the pursuit of Art for your Right Livelihood. Art doesn’t harm anyone and its usefulness is to inspire, inform and enlighten (in a spiritual and emotional manner). It helps you and me along the path. In my case, Right livelihood is painting pictures (and sometimes sculpting). When I was fifty-five years old I figured out how to paint in terms of Right Effort. Halleluiah!

I know a lot of painters, writers, musicians, potters, actors. A problem common to a lot of them, is the ease with which they can be distracted from, or interrupted by, or lack the energy to actually do the work necessary to produce works. According to the Eightfold Path: Right Effort, the only way to produce work is to ignore all the things that prevent you from doing the work and then just doing of it. Of course it helps a lot if you can figure out why you let yourself be distracted. Previous to the age of fifty-five I had too much self-doubt (the other side of the coin is too much ego). Now I know that my value or worth as a painter cannot really be determined by me or by any outside agency. All I know is that if I don’t do any painting there is definitely no worth to the paintings. And, the more I paint the more I might learn about painting.

In order to live in a monastery you have to give up your right to decide what you will do next. You hand the decision over to someone else. Once having made the blanket decision to subsume yourself in the monastic routine, you are forced by that decision to produce. You work at the job assigned to you. You get exhausted. You fall asleep late. You get up early. If you don’t follow the routine then there is not much reason to be there. This is not much different than doing a job of work for a company. You do the work someone else requires of you or you lose your job.

We can get pretty comfortable working at a job, but we have a hard time working at what we think is important to our self. Why are we able to do the work at a job but find it hard, or impossible, to engage the work attendant to our creativity? Why can’t we treat our creativity as if it were simply our job? Safe to say that the most productive and famous painters, dancers, musicians, potters did not wait around for inspiration or energy or time free from distractions and interruptions. They all made their particular creativity their work and proceeded to work at it as if it were work.

If you think that hard persistent effort makes creativity too much like grunt work, lacking in inspiration, I pray that one day you will find that everything in the day to day is inspirational, if you only have eyes to see. Inspiration is something you work at, that you prepare yourself for, that you find in the work itself. Enjoy the grunt work. Remain aware while doing it, awake to the possibility inherent in every moment. Exhaust yourself. Fall down. Pick yourself up. Get lost. Laugh. Refuse to let the idea of hard work fill you with doubt or self loathing. Waiting around for inspiration is merely another way to get distracted, to procrastinate. What can be more inspirational than the mystery of life itself? Engage with it, with work, right now, day after day, no matter if the energy required seems unattainable. Just start. The path is endless. No time to waste.

I guess this post is because I wished I could have said these things to the artist who complained the other day. But I couldn’t do so because that particular artist wouldn’t have been able to hear, being too deep into the pain. All I could do was listen and say that I heard.

the above image can be seen on my website.

Concentrate. Concentrate.

everybody party!

The Eightfold Path is divided into three main divisions: Wisdom, Ethical Conduct and Concentration. Concentration is further divided into Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (interesting how concentration is stacked inside concentration, but maybe that is what concentration is).

One thing has always intrigued me as I looked at the various parts of the Eightfold Path; no matter what part I was concentrating on (there is that word again), all the other parts hover around like ghosts giving advice. If I was focusing on Right Speech, Right View was there as a prerequisite before speech could be formulated. If I was focusing on Right Livelihood, then Right Intention spoke up. In effect, all the parts of the Eightfold Path concern one thing and one thing only. All eight parts are merely various points of view, angles from which one can look at the central problem — the central problem being: how does one become aware, how does one achieve awakening? Notice that the word awakening is not merely a noun; it is more usefully a verb. Awakening becomes a continuous practice.

An illustration: Just last weekend I had an opening for a show of my latest paintings. I had sent out 1000 postcards that invited people to come to the reception. I understand that just because I sent out what in effect was an advertisement, there was no requirement for anyone to come. Many people subsequently came up to me and told me how wonderful my post card was and that they were sure to come to the opening because they did not want to miss it, being curious about what I was doing now. I did not solicit this response. On the other hand, many people said nothing about the postcard or the show or the reception.

The afternoon of the reception: most of the people (90%) who had said they were definitely going to come did not do so. But lots of other people came: people I did not really know and good friends. After the reception I started thinking about the people who did not come and who said they would. I got terribly upset. Hurt. Nobody loved me.

It took me until the middle of the next day to work out why I had stumbled into this suffering. Only then could I let it go. More exactly, as soon as I figured out why I had become upset, the feeling dispersed with no further effort on my part. This is the power of Right View.

What does Right View have to do with this event that caused me so much (relatively short lived) agony? We might think that the Eightfold Path is some large overwhelming process that leads to a state of perfect attainment. But it isn’t really. The Eightfold Path is like a map pointing out a continuous and continual process. Sometimes on the Path you do some work. Sometimes you have conversations. Sometimes the going gets tough and you have to act in extreme ways. But all is the path. I’ve learned this about the Eightfold Path by focusing, by concentrating my attention, while doing this blog. While I studied Right View, I saw everything that happened through the lens of Right View. While I studied Right Speech, I saw everything that I said or others said through the lens of Right Speech. But after a while the lens of Right Speech (or what ever) became indistinguishable from all the other lens of the Eightfold Path. When you speak, you are acting. When you act, you do so from a specific view of reality. Etc. Etc.

A few weeks ago I had an interesting conversation with Lama Mark Webber. He mentioned studying microscopic creatures as a meditation device in order to develop both a larger view of our real place in the order of things and an understanding of the necessary interactive relationship that allows all creatures to exist. For my part I said I liked to look up into the night sky to give scale to my being. Small. Very small. More (than I have room for) can be said about the benefits of looking at the small and looking at the big, of looking outwardly and of looking inwardly. Right View, like the other parts of the Eightfold Path, can be looked at from two points of view. We can cultivate the large view or we can take the small view. Sometimes one takes the small view by looking at oneself.

If I looked at my reaction to the reception to my show in terms of the large view, I could think that the exercise indicated my dependence on lovers of art. But I already knew that to be true to the degree that it was true; the thought could not alleviate my hurt feelings — which at their most extreme became anger at a few specific people. With further working of the large view, I understood that the feelings I was having didn’t really come from the fact that some people did not come. Lots of people did come. My feelings did not have anything to do with the numbers of people. But that was as far as the large view could take me in the instance. I turned inward for the small view, staring at the small feeling that small me was insisting was large and important. Eventually I remembered something that happened when I was a callow youth.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about my school experience. I still have my report cards. The teachers invariably described me as a popular child with lots of friends. What I have to say about my teachers is that being overworked they had no time to see below the surface. They saw that I entertained my class mates, easily making them laugh. I was a jokester, bent towards wit. What kid in school would not laugh given half the chance? What the teachers did not see was that I was not actually liked (the reasons are not important to list at the moment – something to do with sarcasm and a cutting tongue).

What does this have to do with my art opening? I held a party for my class mates one time. No one came — except for one good friend. How fortunate that I had one good friend. The art opening made me relive how I angry and hurt I had been years ago when no one showed up for my party. It took me a day and a half to figure this out, to attain the Right View of the internal specifics so that the hurt feelings (the feeling that I was not loved) could be seen for an old pattern that did not need to apply. By attaining the right internal view, the hurt feeling immediately fell away.

Awakening is not a state. It is a process. Sometimes we become fully awake to old patterns in our feelings and we no longer have to engage them. They no longer interfere. Sometimes we struggle to overcome old patterns that only occasionally overwhelm us. Sometimes an old pattern sideswipes us and it takes a lot of effort to figure it out, to step out of the painful pattern. As we practice, the length of time it takes to correct these mistakes of Right View and Right etc., become shorter. Bubbles of suffering arise and bubbles burst. The Eightfold Path, sometimes looking outward at the big picture and sometimes looking inward at the personal picture, is a great tool to help us sort out the bubbles, popping them more and more quickly.

Barry Briggs made the following (to me) relevant comment on a post in Wake up and Laugh. “”Someone once asked Zen Master Seung Sahn about what distinguished him from his students. He simply replied, “I correct my mistakes faster than they correct theirs.””

source of the above image

The Pause that Refreshes

Emotional Shoreline #1

To anyone wondering where oh where my weekly post has gotten to,

I have just been through a bit of a marathon getting my show at the Insight Art Gallery together (took a full frantic month to prepare). The opening was last night and soon, very soon, after I take a deep relaxing breath (trying to give up trying to comprehend what just happened, trying to focus on the present), I will turn my attention to the eighth of the Eight Fold Path, Right Concentration. But today I will work in the garden.

I hope you are having a pleasant day.

the above image can be seen at my website