Yorktown Zen http://yorktownzen.org/index.html Authentic Zen Practice in the Hudson Valley of New York Sun, 19 Sep 2021 22:00:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 SitePad Returning to Ourselves http://yorktownzen.org/blog/returning-to-ourselves.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/returning-to-ourselves/#respond Sun, 19 Sep 2021 21:32:03 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/returning-to-ourselves.html
Return to Ourselves

 

Tesshin continued the discussion this week on the theme of reorienting our perspective.  Last week he touched on the Jewish tradition of Shmita and the concept of “Beginners Mind” in Zen.  This week Tesshin explained to us exactly to what are we reorienting to and why.

 

Recently, there was a funeral for the Soto Zen abbess Reverend Taihaku Gretchen Priest of Shao Shan Temple.   She was one of only ten teachers in the United States formally trained and credentialed in Japan.  (Tesshin is a member of that august group as well.)   All throughout the service the topic of “return” kept coming up.  So, what exactly is this return that Zen keeps talking about?  Are we returning to our death?  Is Zen nothing more than practicing to die?  Taken literally, this is a bit macabre.  The real message is that we must return to our life as it really is.  The lesson of Death is that “Time passes by swiftly and opportunity is lost.”  We cannot afford to drift aimlessly.  There is a life which must be lived authentically!

 

Tesshin noted that most of us are submerged in the day-to-day struggles of life.  We are responsible to our family and our jobs.  We have bills to pay and things to get done.  Days become weeks and weeks become months and months become years.  Where did all the time go?  Zen is nothing more than a call to us to “Wake up!”  Everything we do in practice comes back to this simple idea.  But what is waking up?  

 

In our practice, waking up is direct experience.  We practice Zazen in order to calm the mind and quiet the internal voice in our head providing a running commentary on everything.  This is not easy, but if we can do this, then the richness of the “Ten Thousand Things” become available.  This is nothing than stopping to smell the flowers instead of trampling them to make it to work on time.  It is slowing down to smile at someone to make their day instead of being defensive.  Stated differently, Zazen is the continual practice of saying, “I AM ALIVE! – I AM AWAKE! – NO TIME TO WASTE!”

 

Tesshin noted that in the past year and half we have been in “Covid Sleep.”  We read every article talking about the number of hospitalizations and people who have died.  We no longer touch or even look people in the eye.  We are lost in thoughts about what is going on and how will it affect us.  While this is understandable in times like this, our practice reminds us to look up from the phone and live!  Tesshin asked us to enjoy the early fall weather.  The leaves will be changing soon and there are other gifts nature will bestow if we just simply remember to look. 

 

Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us to return to our authentic life.  Practice diligently and remember that you are already perfect the way you are right now.

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Reorientation http://yorktownzen.org/blog/reorientation.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/reorientation/#respond Sun, 12 Sep 2021 18:54:21 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/reorientation.html
Reorientation 11-Sept-2021

 

Tesshin noted that as we enter September, we need to take account of many things.  For instance, we are remembering the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.  Summer is ending and fall is just around the corner.  This is also the time when school begins and some of us are returning to work after the Covid lockdowns.  These events all point to the constant changes and cycles we experience in life.

 

Tesshin went on to talk about the Jewish tradition of “Shmita” – or the Sabbatical year which is just now starting.  It is common knowledge that the bible talks about working six days and resting on the seventh.  The Shmita tradition takes this a step farther by having people work the land for six years and allowing it rest in the seventh year.  In addition to agricultural practice, the Shmita tradition calls for debts to be forgiven, private property to be shared publicly, and obligations between people to be released. 

 

Tesshin next asked why would such a tradition exist.  We all have heard about crop rotation where we allow a piece of land to go fallow for a period of time so it can rebuild its nitrogen reserves.  However, how does this relate to wider life and our interactions with others?  Here Tesshin was clear – the concept of “rest” really means reorientation.  Stopping what we are doing and taking a fresh look at our life.  We take this rest to reevaluate our relationships, interactions, and ideas we hold dear.  If we are so busy laboring, gathering assets, and building a life, we will never have the time to stop and examine what our life really means in an absolute sense.  Shmita asks us to release our attachments built up over the past six years and reconnect with the real abiding truth of our existence.  Reorientation is difficult – this is why many religious traditions put ceremonies and liturgies in place to provide repeated opportunities to stop and reassess.   

 

Tesshin next pointed out that Zen is also replete with reorientation practices.  One could argue the main benefit of Zazen is to allow us to stop our daily activities and reorient our mind towards absolute truth.  Our whole tradition centers on reorientation.  Shunryu Suzuki wrote a book called “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.”  The beginner’s mind is not a mind which is empty and ignorant.  It is the mind which is willing and able to reorient itself and see something totally new in daily life.  The beginner’s mind does not memorize facts – it absorbs experience directly.  Tesshin noted that he must have heard a thousand sermons and Dharma talks over his career as a monk – almost all of which he has forgotten.  However, the teachings have been absorbed directly into he being and changed him forever.  This is the direct experience pointed to by beginner’s mind.  

 

Tesshin wrapped up by noting that concepts like beginner’s mind and Shmita exist to allow us to break out of the ruts of our engrained notions.  They call to us to take a rest from that inner voice criticizing and nagging us that success and realization will never come.  Finally, Shmita and beginner’s mind remind us that we can cast away the “junk” in our head and return to our rightful home of peaceful abiding.

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Coming Together http://yorktownzen.org/blog/renewal.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/renewal/#respond Sun, 29 Aug 2021 15:02:45 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/renewal.html
20210828_105645

 

This week we had our first in-person meditation session at the 4th UU church in over a year and a half.  Tesshin was pleased by the number of people coming out and sitting Zazen together.   (Photos on our Events Page!)

 

Tesshin noted that when he was a monk in Japan there was a large 2-volume book which recorded the procedure for every ceremony and practice which could occur at the temple.  The volumes covered everything from how to eat, wash, dress, manage a Zazen session to holding funerals.  However, there existed no procedure to generate enlightenment or to nurture a Sangha through difficult times.  We can look to wise teachers of the past, but at the end of the day, skillful actions must emerge from each of our hearts.    

 

Tesshin next mentioned that every thought and action we take can be imagined as a lotus blooming with a Buddha at the center.  He further explained that this means that our thoughts and deeds can be our greatest teacher – especially in uncertain times like these.  Our first practice together looked different than it did in the past.  For example, we were outside and we still have not really figured out how to the tea service safely.  We can look at this as a challenge, or we can look at our thoughts, expectations, and reactions as a way to understand ourselves and our desires more clearly.  Deep learning is the spirit which we take in restarting our face-to-face practice together.

 

Along these lines, Tesshin asked the group to contemplate our emotions.  For instance, we talk a lot in Buddhism about the poison of anger.  Anger most likely arose as an evolutionary skill.  Do you notice a certain clarity when you are angry?  We may think, “I am right in this and they are wrong!”  There is no gray when we are angry – it is all black and white!  We should contemplate whether the perception of clarity is the truth or just another delusion we suffer.  We typically think after anger subsides that this is not really who we are.  Here our true nature is acting as our teacher.  The focus and energy of strong emotion does bring clarity, but upon further inspection we understand that it also brings delusion.  Tesshin reminded us of this as we experience the strong emotions around Covid and finally coming back together to practice together.

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Ornaments in Space http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ornaments-in-space.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ornaments-in-space/#respond Sun, 22 Aug 2021 15:51:10 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ornaments-in-space.html
You are not what you observe

 

Tesshin opened this talk this week by noting the recent passing of Thomas Cleary who is considered one of the greatest translators of classical Buddhist texts into English.

 

In many ways, Cleary is one of our greatest teachers as his work has provided access to the Dharma to so many of us in the West.  He has translated over 80 works including the Blue Cliff Record collection of Zen Koans and the Avatamsaka Sutra.  It is interesting to note that Cleary’s education at Harvard was centered on science, mathematics, and law – not a normal education for someone who would go on to achieve so much in religion and philosophy.  

 

What would cause such a rational thinker to begin a life’s journey in Buddhism?  According to Tesshin, it all started when Cleary was in his teens and came across some crude translations of Zen teachings.  For the first time it occurred to him that there are some truths which go beyond rational science and logic.  This is a situation which many thinking people encounter.  What is the truth which Cleary found in those cryptic translations?  It is the relation between the absolute and relative – both being totally real and completely interconnected.  Science is very useful, but to only focus there creates a dualism in the mind which clouds the appreciation of the complete truth.  Cleary was able to apprehend this from the crude teachings he found.  However, the translations in circulation at that time obscured the message and limited the potential to disseminate the truth widely.  It is said in our practice that we make the commitment to save all beings.  One way to do this is to make the Dharma available.  In this way, Cleary upheld the vow by dedicating his life to translating some of the greatest work of Buddhist thought and philosophy.  

 

Tesshin next went on to focus on an important teaching about loneliness which came from Cleary’s translation of Dogen.  This is especially relevant in our current age of Covid lock-downs and the resulting stress we are all experiencing.  Is there a difference between being “alone” vs being “lonely?”  There a lot of the pain and suffering in today’s world, and much of it is due to loneliness.  Life is hard and has many challenges around things like health, finances, relationships.  In today’s world, we are often called upon to face these challenges alone and this makes us feel quite lonely.  

 

In one of Cleary’s translations, we see Dogen directly address this issue.  He states that when it comes to identity, most of us are mistaken – our form is not our identity – we are simply “ornaments in space.”  What does that mean?  We might think that this is simply poetics, but to Dogen it is practical truth.  According to Dogen, our body is not our identity, and by extension our challenges do not define our existence.  In an absolute sense, our bodies are not our own.  Our life cannot be reduced to just maintaining our form, position, possessions, and so on.  Dogen is stating that our life is so much more.  We simply keep forgetting this, and this forgetfulness drags us back into suffering and loneliness. 

 

Tesshin mentioned that the most elegant solution to being lonely is Zazen.  When we sit and we breath, and let go of boundaries and let in the expanse of the universe – we are lifted of the burden of thinking that our problems solely comprise our existence.  We forget what should be and become what we really are.  We realize that there is more to existence than the day-to-day personal struggle with problems.  Our physical form is simply a part of the universe at this particular moment.  It is not truly us – we just inhabit this form for a short period of time.  As such, we are simply ornaments in space.

 

Tesshin wrapped up by noting that these precious gifts of the great thinkers of our tradition have been made available though the diligent work of teachers, practitioners, and academics like Cleary.  We should pause for a minute and give gratitude for these gifts.

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Obon Observances http://yorktownzen.org/blog/obon-observances.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/obon-observances/#respond Sun, 15 Aug 2021 15:29:50 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/obon-observances.html
Obon

 

Tesshin mentioned this week that Japan is observing the Obon holiday.  Obon is when many families across Japan come together to honor their ancestors and loved ones who have passed away.  Common practices include maintaining the family grave site, but there are also festive practices such as dancing and special foods.  Tesshin fondly remembered this as a very busy time for monks like himself.  

 

What should a western sangha like ours do to mark this occasion?  Of course, we should take time to contemplate the impermanence of all things.  Specifically, we should cherish the time with loved ones right here and now.  Tesshin suggested that we can also contemplate the life of Siddhartha Gautama, or the historical Buddha.  To do this, he shared another story from the Udana teachings –   “Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta”   This is commonly known as “Buddha’s last meal” and tells the story of how a lay practitioner accidently made a tainted food offering to the Buddha which caused the Buddha’s eventual death.  

 

After reading the story Tesshin explained some of the key teachings.  The first thing we should understand is that Cunda was not of the clergy or the elite, he was a normal everyday lay practitioner.  This reinforces a very democratic message common in Buddhism.  Any person can have direct access to the Dharma.  Teachers are not special, rather they show compassion by pointing the way forward.  Specifically, teachers have no supernatural powers or privilege – even the Buddha.  In the story, Cunda, the smith, sat right next to the Buddha and received the full Dharma just like the monks.  This makes sense from a Buddhist point of view because everyone is already perfect and has everything necessary to achieve enlightenment.  

 

The next point was around the food itself.  There is debate around wither the “pig delicacy” referred to a pork dish or something pigs like to each like truffles.  However, the point in the story was that Cunda considered the dish special and that the Buddha accepted it with gratitude due to Cunda’s effort in preparing it.  Tesshin noted that while in Japan his teacher, Ban Roshi, had the same practice.  The temple would not actively purchase meat for the monks, but they would never consider turning away an offering of meat.  Monks eat what is offered with the sense of gratitude.

 

Next, the story recounts that the Buddha became sick and eventually died from contamination in the food Cunda offered.  Interestingly, the story considers Cunda a hero, and not a villain, as Cunda provided the Buddha with his last meal before he became “unbound.”  Here the story is telling us that intention is paramount.  

 

For a person giving,

merit increases.

For one self-restraining,

no animosity is amassed.

One who is skillful

leaves evil behind

and

 — from the ending of passion,

aversion,

delusion —

is totally unbound.

 

 

The story ends with a vignette describing how Nandha became depressed because his teacher, the Buddha, was dying.  Shakyamuni, in his compassion, did not simply say all would be fine, instead he said he understood the pain and loss and the sadness was valid.  This understanding is deep compassion.  The last thing we want to hear when we are suffering is that it will be “ok” and not to worry.  Life has suffering, and we should never deny this.   However, the Buddha then continued and asked Nandha to consider all the gifts which friends, teachers, and loved ones gave during their lives.  The Buddha then reminded Nandha that these gifts are not removed when the person dies.  In other words, cherish the gifts of the person in your heart.  This is the message of the Obon ceremony and one of the last great teachings of the Buddha.

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The Mucilinda Tree http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-mucilinda-tree.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-mucilinda-tree/#respond Sun, 08 Aug 2021 15:35:40 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/the-mucilinda-tree.html
Buddha and the Snake

 

This week tesshin continued our exploration of the Udana Teachings.    These short stories are from the Pali Canon which comprise the earliest Buddhist scriptures.  This week Tesshin shared the story of the Mucilinda Tree.

 

Thus have I heard. On a certain occasion, subsequent to his attainment of Buddhahood, the Blessed One dwelt at Uruvela, on the banks of the stream Neranjara at the foot of the Mucilinda tree.

At that time, the Blessed One, having sat in an attitude of meditation for seven days, experienced the bliss of Emancipation.

Now it came pass that a great cloud appeared, out of season, and for seven days rain fell, cold winds blew and darkness prevailed. And the Serpent King, Mucilinda, came forth from his hidden realm and winding his coils seven times around the body of the Blessed One, he formed with his serpent’s hood a great canopy above the head of the Buddha, and he uttered these words to himself; “may no coldness touch the Blessed One, nor any heat, may no gadflies or gnats, or winds, or sunheat distress the Blessed One.”

And the Blessed One, at the close of the seventh day arose from that state of trance and Mucilinda, the Serpent King, seeing that the sky was clear and cloudless, loosed his coils from around the body of the Blessed One and concealing his own nature, took upon him the form of a youth and stood before the Blessed One with folded hands, worshipping him. And the Blessed One, in this connection, on that occasion, breathed forth this solemn utterance:

   “How sweet the solitude of the peaceful, of him who has heard and perceived the Truth!

   Happy to be without malice! restraintful towards all beings!

   Happy are the passion-free! Happy he who overcomes Desire!

   To have removed the notion ‘I am’, that is the supreme joy!”

 

Tesshin first pointed out how this “snake story” is very different than the ones we have in the West.  Here the snake is seen as a protector whereas in the West it is a symbol of evil.  Tesshin pointed out that our conceptions of good and evil are just one more dualism and discrimination.  The “snake” is simply a part of reality – nothing more or less.  This is yet another reminder that reality is never simple and cannot be reduced to simple axioms.  (e.g. Snake = Evil)  Our practice disciplines the mind so it quiets down allowing us a chance to really comprehend reality.

 

Tesshin then continued to point out that in this story the historical Buddha continued to meditate even after reaching enlightenment.  The message here is also very clear.  The work of clarity is never done – even for an enlightened being!  Enlightenment is not a destination, but simply a waypoint of the long journey.  If this was not the case, then the Buddha would have simply stood up and gotten out of the rain.  He did not do this because he deeply realized that the work must continue.  The snake is the hero of this story because it understood the criticality Buddha’s work and was willing protect him by blocking out the rain.

 

Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that our work on the cushion is never done.  This is especially true if we happen to get a taste of Kenso.  Early success is dangerous as the ego will attach to it and state – “I HAVE IT NOW!!”  In that very moment all is lost.  This is why whether we see reality or are totally deluded our job is always the same – Zazen!

 

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It Starts With You http://yorktownzen.org/blog/it-starts-with-you.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/it-starts-with-you/#respond Sun, 01 Aug 2021 15:37:49 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/it-starts-with-you.html
Self-Love

 

This week Tesshin used his talk to discuss relationships.  If you think deeply enough you can easily identify the people who can be considered friends or enemies.  There are people who, given any chance, would say something bad about you, while at the same time there are people who will go out of their way to build you up.  

 

Here Tesshin stopped and reminded us that we must not forget the most important relationship we possess, namely the relationship with yourself.  You have the potential to be the greatest help or harm to yourself.   There is nobody more intimate or knows you better than yourself as you are with yourself 24X7.  If you want to do harm to yourself, you will accomplish your goal.  Alternatively, if you want to nourish yourself, you will also accomplish your goal.  

 

Tesshin noted that there are people seem so successful and are willing to spend all day telling the world.  However, is this success real?  Does the person really believe this or are they simply talking to cover over the self-loathing deep in their own heart?  Tesshin recounted a person in his community who recently committed suicide.  He was physically fit, had a beautiful wife, three healthy children, and an extremely successful business.  On all measures society would consider this person successful.  However, this person must have had a terrible relationship with himself.  What level of self-hate could lead someone to take his own life?  We see this over and over again with highly successful celebrities – the very people we admire and wish to become.  Tesshin invited us next to consider the example of Anthony Bourdain.  Here we have an extremely talented and famous chef admired all around the world.   What would cause him to take his life alone in a hotel room?

 

So, what is our relationship with ourselves?  Are we our lover or most bitter enemy?  Anger, hate, guilt, and doubt are a major contributor to bad karma and do us so much harm.  Ask yourself, why do you do good deeds?  Do we do these acts because we doubt our own value and are trying to assuage our guilt?  Our practice allows us to deeply explore the relationship we have with ourselves.  Are our motivations coming from a place of love or hate?  Is the relationship we have with ourselves healthy or sick?  Tesshin asked how can one spread compassion if you refuse to give any to yourself.  Loving yourself causes love in the world.  The Buddha lead a peaceful and serene life because practice taught him the inherent perfection of existence.  If you are perfect then destructive thoughts such as shame, guilt, and resentment have no place and cannot cloud the relationship you have with yourself.  

 

Next Tesshin shared a story from the Udana (explanation) Teachings from the Pali canon.  Tesshin shared the story of “Rajan Sutta:  The King”

 

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Sāvatthī at Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. And on that occasion King Pasenadi Kosala had gone with Queen Mallikā to the upper palace. Then he said to her, “Mallikā, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?”

“No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?”

“No, Mallikā. There is no one dearer to me than myself.”

Then the king, descending from the palace, went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One, “Just now, when I had gone with Queen Mallikā to the upper palace, I said to her, ‘Mallikā, is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?’

“When this was said, she said to me, ‘No, great king. There is no one dearer to me than myself. And what about you, great king? Is there anyone dearer to you than yourself?’

“When this was said, I said to her, ‘No, Mallikā. There is no one dearer to me than myself.'”

Then, on realizing the significance of that, the Blessed One on that occasion exclaimed:

 

Searching all directions

with your awareness,

you find no one dearer

than yourself.

In the same way, others

are thickly dear to themselves.

So you shouldn’t hurt others

if you love yourself.

 

The message of this story is quite simple.  If everyone has a healthy relationship to themselves and everyone knows this, then it follows that people will treat each other better as well.  Basically, it all starts wit you!  A world where everyone has a healthy relationship with themselves is a world which will have more peace and serenity.  Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that our practice on the cushion is a great way to nourish this most important relationship.

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Prajna http://yorktownzen.org/blog/prajna.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/prajna/#respond Sun, 25 Jul 2021 15:46:08 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/prajna.html
Dogen Saying 2

 

This week we discussed the sixth Paramita, Prajna, which translates as the wisdom to deeply understand the nature of all things.  Tesshin mentioned that in Zen Jhana (concentration) and Prajna (wisdom) are deeply interrelated.  This should come as no surprise as the very center of our practice is Zazen which develops the mind for deep concentration.  When we are in deep concentration the state of Prajna is naturally present.  

 

Tesshin went on to reinforce the fact that all of the paramitas work as a single unity.  For instance, when practicing Dana with Prajna is one really being generous?  If one truly realizes the true nature of reality, then there is really nothing to give and no one to receive.  What is really happening is simply the skillful actions of life.  We need the paramita of Dana to guide us because we are not totally realized and thus our unskillful mental states interfere with what should be a natural action.  It is the same with the paramita of ethics.  In the beginning we “think” a lot about the rules and break down our behavior into good and bad.  However, in a state a Prajna, it is understood that all of these rules, regulations, principles are simple discriminations that the mind plays with.  Ethics in a state of Prajna is understood to flow from the pure nature of reality.  Ideally, we must do the things we do because of our deep abiding nature.

 

Tesshin then asked why do we discuss and study the paramitas if the words are nothing more than delusions distracting us from the absolute “suchness” of our existence.  Here Tesshin was clear – the paramitas are the path of the bodhisattvas.  However, remember that a bodhisattva is not the buddha.  The state of Buddhahood is pure Prajna.  The state of the bodhisattva is being in this world – we are on the bodhisattva path so we live in the world of samsara – thus the paramitas serve as a tool for our aspiration towards pure awakening.   

 

All mystical traditions have the concept of Jhana and Prajna.  These are commonly called “spiritual states.”  Many of these traditions have elaborate rituals to enter and maintain this state, however if we look deeply, they all teach to bring the mind into the present and to eliminate distractions.  For Zen, we have Zazen which places emphasis on something we all do – breathe.  This stress on the breath connects us with all the Buddhas and Patriarchs throughout space and time.  Everyone breathes, so everyone can generate Jhana and Prajna.  

 

Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that the goal of the major Zen schools (Soto and Rinzai) is to strip away the complexity of the spiritual path into the crucible of mental clarity.  In Soto we practice “just sitting.”  Here the challenge is to see if we can exist in absolute reality right here and right now on this very cushion.  In Rinzai, we are mandated to solve a puzzle with no solution.  We use every mental faculty at our disposal in a futile attempt to solve.  At some point, the mind melts down and all that is left is pure existence. Different approaches lead to the same outcome Prajna.  

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Concentration http://yorktownzen.org/blog/concentration.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/concentration/#respond Sun, 18 Jul 2021 16:15:31 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/concentration.html
concentration

 

This week Tesshin continued our discussions of the Paramitas with Jnana, which roughly translates as “concentration.”  Tesshin noted that jnana predates Buddhism.  In fact, many of the practices that the historical Buddha explored on his spiritual journey before his enlightenment were considered jnana practices including ritualistic fasting, yoga, and others.  The idea of being concentrated in the moment is really a universal and timeless concept.  Tesshin noted that even “cavemen” in the distant past recognized special states of mind that differed from the ordinary.  Perhaps they were experienced during hunting or during religious rituals.  The single-minded concentration of jnana is a fundamental aspect of being human.

 

Tesshin noted that many religious traditions in the East tend to think of jnana as a “technique” which must be developed in order to obtain insights.  For instance, practitioners can take specific poses in yoga or chant specific mantras, or focus on specific objects for periods of time.  These traditions focus on increasing “skill” over time in their methods in order to achieve a spiritual goal.

 

However, Zen is very different, and this difference is vital to understanding our tradition.  In Zen there is no difference between jnana (concentration) and paramita (insight) – they are exactly the same thing.  So, we don’t say that sitting leads to insight, rather sitting IS insight.  Also, we don’t work hard to improve our sitting “skills” in order to have a better chance at Kensho.  Rather the act of sitting is the epitome of existing – nothing else needs to be done.  Jnana is fundamental to human existence and Zazen is exactly human existence so there is no way that Zazen cannot naturally generate heightened states of Jnana.  Tesshin recounted a Zen story where one master asked – “what is zazen?”  The other master said, “Zazen is NOT zazen.”  How is this?  Because Zazen is reality – it encompasses everything.  To call Zazen a technique is to separate it out as something apart from universal reality.  This would be wrong thinking. 

 

Tesshin told us that in many ways, sitting zazen is an act of radical love.  By this we mean that feeling deep love and gratitude it is not in recognition of a favor – it is not transactional.  We do not feel deep love because our spouse cleaned the kitchen or the husband took out the trash.  Deep love is a state of mind.  It comes from within.  Tesshin likened Zazen to this deep state of mind – it is almost like tuning into the frequency of life.  So much of our life is running around multi-tasking that we are never really in sync with reality.  Zazen is the chance to live and experience profound gratitude and love – which is what life is, after all.  

 

So how do you increase this state of love and life?  It is as simple as coming back to the breath wherever you are.  The breath is our entry to mental serenity.  Once we are there, we can also use the gift of sensations.  Tune into your feelings, smells, hearing, etc.  All of these things bring us into the present.  Come back to the details of your life.  

 

Tesshin wrapped up by stating that none of the paramitas really “breathe” without the power of jnana.  The other paramitas degrade into basic tools and methods without the power of jnana.  Jnana makes the paramitas “who we are” and practice sits behind all the paramitas as the basis of our reality.

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Enthusiastic Perseverance http://yorktownzen.org/blog/enthusiastic-perseverance.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/enthusiastic-perseverance/#respond Sun, 11 Jul 2021 15:34:34 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/enthusiastic-perseverance.html
Perseverance

 

This week Tesshin continued our discussions of the paramitas by focusing on Virya which roughly translates as vigor.  Tesshin noted that translations are heavily affected by the value judgements of the culture making the translation, and this term is no exception.  In the west we look at a word like Virya and virility and physical strength come to mind.  However, as this concept moved into China and Korea the term became more subtle and morphed into perseverance and single mindedness.  

 

Tesshin next recounted that in Japan there is the practice of “Polishing Rice.”  When preparing rice in the Japanese style there is a process of repeated washing until the white color has completely disappeared.  Each time you clean the rice, something always rinses away.  Is the rice ever perfectly clean?  You could keep cleaning until there was no rice left!  So how much washing is enough?  What happens when we completely wash ourselves away?  Virya in the Zen tradition is exactly this practice except that the object of purification is our mind instead of the rice.  We polish over and over again – in a never-ending process.  

 

Tesshin noted that Virya is where the drive to practice arises.  Without this the other paramitas are inert and dead.  Tesshin noted that most western sangha’s are comprised of “first generation” practitioners in that the students were not born into a Buddhist family.  When we start practice, we are all excited with the new forms and ideas.  This is like “spiritual fireworks.”  However, what happens when the excitement wears off?  How do we continue and not lose interest or give up?  We could simply continue to practice out of stubbornness.  The issue here is that pure “grit” will not sustain us during deep challenges in practice when we make little progress and we seem lost on the path.  Grit and determination are the death of spirituality as they turn what is essential and alive into yet another mundane task to be completed.  If we enter the Zendo because we feel it is expected or out of rote habit, we are simply wasting our time.  We need something different – namely Virya.  Tesshin likened this to “Enthusiastic Perseverance.”    

 

How do we manifest Virya in our practice – where does it come from?  It comes from clarity of our understanding of the four noble truths and the deep understanding of suffering in the universe.  Practice is not an exercise in self-improvement, it is an offering to all sentient beings.  This is why the Bodhisattva Vows are repeated again and again in Zen temples.  They serve to remind us as to why we practice and for whom.  This provides us Virya to power us through the vicissitudes of practice.

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