Archive for July, 2009

Zengetsu’s Advice For His Pupils

Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of a true Zen student.

When witnessing the good actions of another encourage yourself to follow her example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.

Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest.

Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.

Poverty is your treasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.

A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.

Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven of themselves as does rain or snow.

Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbours discover you before you make yourself known to them.

A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are as rare gems, seldom displayed and of great value.

To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. Time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory nor shame can move him.

Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong.

Some things, though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognised after centuries, there is no need to crave an immediate appreciation.

Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe.

Pass each day in peaceful contemplation.

July 8, 2009 at 12:26 pm Leave a comment

Life Is Contradictory

In his commentary on How To Cook Your Life, Kosho Uchiyama Roshi gives a very profound analysis of two contradictory ways of contemporary life. He begins by quoting two passages from the Soto Zen Master Dogen. The first is a passage about the impermanence of life,

‘Since everything is impermanent, there is nothing that can be relied upon. Like a dewdrop on a blade of grass along the path that vanishes quickly, who knows when this life will end. This body is surely not my possession. Life, changing in time, does not stop even for an instant.’

The second passage is about karma, the law of cause and effect,

‘Ultimately, the law of cause and effect operates clearly and impartially apart from my will. Without exception one who commits evil action falls, while one who performs good, prospers.’

Uchiyama says that these two views are completely contradictory. The one on impermanence says that since everything is constantly changing, it is impossible to accumulate anything, whether it be wealth, health or children,. If you have these things as your goal, life will be disappointing. The law of karma says that a good cause will yield a good result and a bad cause a bad result. The result of one action influences the next one. How does he interpret these two and find a satisfying solution?

To illustrate he gives a very melodramatic example of someone following the path of impermanence. A young man who thinks that life is short, is going to end in death and there is no life after death, may decide to just have as good a time as possible and not worry about the future. Since life has no purpose or meaning, he sets no direction, and just follows a desire to sample as much of life’s pleasures as he can. In Uchiyama’s story the young man eventually runs out of money, gets VD and tuberculosis, and in desperation, decides to commit a robbery. He is caught, gets sent to jail, and on release is a wrecked man.

Uchiyama points out that although this man decided to live a life constructed from a belief in impermanence, it was the action of the law of karma that came along and destroyed him. His health, finances and crime all resulted from his own actions. From bad causes came bad results.

Uchiyama then gives an example of someone who decides that the law of cause and effect is the basis of life. This person may well follow a path of acquisition, seeking wealth, power and health as the way to ensure security and longevity. But this person may die in a car crash. No matter how strong and wealthy you are, impermanence can come along in an instant and wipe you out. Or cause and effect can work out in some weird and unexpected way, since life’s variables are greater than our mind can imagine. So this path is also not the answer.

Both of these views- impermanence and karma – are both one-sided, and it was the understanding that they were contradictory that brought about the idea of the Middle Way. The Middle Way means that you learn to accept this contradiction of impermanence and cause and effect in your own life. As Uchiyama says,

‘To accept this contradiction means to forbear and overcome it without trying to resolve it. At its very essence life is contradiction, and the flexibility to forbear and assimilate contradiction without being beaten down by it nor attempting to resolve it is our life force.’

What this means is that you can’t project future goals for life without becoming disappointed when they don’t come true. At the same time you need to have a direction in life to avoid becoming completely hopeless. As Uchiyama says,

‘Much too often we go about our lives holding on to some future goal without thinking much about our present direction, or about the direction of our lives as a whole. When we stop projecting goals and hopes in the future, and refuse to be led around by them, yet work to clarify our lives, that is, the direction of the present, then we will discover an alive and dynamic practice.’

July 5, 2009 at 6:13 pm Leave a comment

MEDITATION FOR STRESS – An article I have just written

Meditation has been used for thousands of years as a contemplative and healing practice. Its use has been more prevalent until now in the East rather than in the West, since it forms the bedrock of teachings as different as Yoga, Buddhism and Taoism. However its use in the West, particularly among Christian monks and nuns, was also widespread in the middle ages. Presently I imagine there are more people meditating in the West than in the East, most for spiritual reasons, and some for healing.

What is meditation? There are innumerable kinds of meditation, each designed to do a specific job, but what they all have in common is the attempt to still the ‘monkey mind’, the ever active conscious mind that accompanies our every waking hour. When we are at work, or walking, or eating, we are not aware of how insistent, persistent, chaotic and dreamlike this conscious mind is. Only when we sit down in meditation do we find out how difficult it is to penetrate beyond the thoughts, feelings, bits of song lyrics, and images that our mind constantly assails us with. This endless barrage feels like it will never slow down or stop, and many people who try meditation soon give up because they believe they will never be able to control their mind and quieten it. There is almost an impish quality to the mind when it realises that you are serious about slowing down your thoughts. The mind then becomes an internal voice telling you that meditation is a waste of time, or that you are doing it really badly and should stop, or that there are too many chores to do instead of sitting down like this. All of this is the ego defending itself from a threat. Having run the castle of the mind for so long the ego reacts with all its wiles to the threat of regime change – a new way of functioning.

If, at the same time as this battle of the mind is raging, we try to sit cross-legged in meditation, this also proves difficult for many people, leading to cramped legs, feet falling asleep, and pain in the hips or lower back. Add this discomfort to the difficulty of calming the mind and it’s no wonder that many people give up meditation after a short while.

This is a pity, since meditation, like most body or mind practices, takes some time to get used to. It is a training of the mind, and as with all training, time must be spent in order to get accustomed to it. One solution is to use a posture that does not require the legs to be crossed. It’s possible to meditate sitting at the front of a chair and thereby keeping your back upright. Another way (and one I prefer) is to lie on your back in the yoga posture sivasana, with the arms and legs held out at a small angle from the body. With a small pillow under the skull it’s possible to stay in this pose for long periods of time. It is also a natural relaxing pose.

When we begin to meditate, if we close our eyes, we can feel our breath begin to slow down. The breath gets deeper and longer and since the breath is the link between body and mind, this calmer breathing has a positive effect on our entire being. The mind does slow down, which is why the thoughts that come up seem so loud and insistent. Other than the breath, and the proprioceptive feeling of the body lying on the floor, there is nothing else going on. Our universe has been reduced to the three elements of breath, body sense and thoughts. Life has become simpler.

The relaxation associated with the breath, particularly the exhalation, which is a form of releasing or letting go, allows the nervous system to calm, and with that we feel our body sinking further into the floor as the muscles relax. As the mind relaxes, so too does the body. Our thoughts slow down, but if we continue to react to them, as we do in normal conscious living, then we are taken on a journey far away from the present moment and the meditation is lost. The trick is to allow the thoughts to come and go, and not to react to them. This is the part that takes quite a lot of practice, because we are so wound up with our thoughts that our habit (both of body as well as mind) is always to react to them as soon as they arise. In fact all emotions and many thoughts bring with them a specific muscular and bodily reaction. But if we can let these thoughts pass by without reacting to them, then they begin to slow down even more, and we begin to ‘sense’ or ‘know’ or gain awareness that there is another reality behind the thoughts, a presence that is still mind, but a different mind, a spacious mind of clarity and peace. This is the mind that we want to find in meditation, because we feel that it is somehow our original mind or our true mind, and the truth that we embody can be found in this open spacious sense of awareness.

When we are stressed or anxious, we are in a completely opposite state. We suffer from a mind assailed by confused and chaotic thoughts, a body altered by stress hormones, and a breath that is as choppy and confused as our mind. How can meditation help in such a situation? Anxiety seems to leave us no way of avoiding the painful thoughts that tumble through our mind, constantly invading, revolving and threatening. With our mind so full of problems, all we can do is seek temporary solutions that will take us out of our minds for a short period of time, like drinking, or drugs, or going to the movies. But when we come down from our high or get back home, we are back exactly where we were before.

Meditation is a great healing practice for stress because of three reasons. Firstly, by allowing us to gain some control over our breath we are able to initiate the relaxation response, which helps us to get out of the panic state, and calm the system. This we can do anytime we feel stressed and it only takes a few minutes. Secondly, if we can gain even a glimmer of that mind beyond the mind, we understand that there is more to our life than just the thoughts that are currently threatening us and causing pain. We gain an expanded consciousness, even if that expansion is only enough to see that there is life beyond our problems. We can then learn not to react through habit, but to respond spontaneously to the events that arise. Thirdly if we can slow our minds and find greater clarity to our thinking, we may be able to discover new solutions to our problems, or at least gain enough confidence to know that dealing with our problems is the only real solution. Meditation works; it only requires some discipline or dedication.

If people are unable to find a meditation teacher or attend a class, a guided audio meditation can help, especially one that is fully instructional, and which takes account of the needs of beginners. Meditation has been with us for thousands of years, and has proven itself as an aid to spiritual development. It’s good to know that we continue to have access to an ancient practice that is so effective in healing 21st century problems.

July 1, 2009 at 12:27 pm 1 comment

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.