Yorktown Zen http://yorktownzen.com/index.html Authentic Zen Practice in the Hudson Valley of New York Sun, 02 May 2021 15:31:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 SitePad Imagination http://yorktownzen.com/blog/imagination.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/imagination/#respond Sun, 02 May 2021 15:15:39 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/imagination.html


Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss the topics of imagination and creativity.  During this past week he was doing some art work and asked various people what they thought of it.   Some people looked at it, rolled their eyes, and stated that they did not get it.  Interestingly, his nine-year-old daughter “got it” right away.  Tesshin paused and wondered why children apprehend things so much faster than adults.  Could it be beginner’s mind?  Could it be that they have not built up a layer of cynicism yet?


Along these lines, Tesshin related a story of a friend of his who works as a prop designer for the theater.  One would think that this is a very creative career.  However, the friend mentioned that the job has lost its allure and has really become just another job – no better than flipping burgers!  Everything is a deadline and it is always about keeping costs down.  Tesshin wondered if adults tend to turn everything into dollars and cents and deadlines.  There seems to be so little time to just stop and experience.


At this point, Tesshin remarked that many Zen practitioners are also active in the arts.  Do you think this is a coincidence?  Zen teaches us to slow down and see the creative spark in all things.  It seems to be a counter to what the set designer is experiencing.  When things become mechanical, creativity is the first thing to suffer.


Tesshin next shared with us a quote from the English poet, Taylor Coleridge.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Taylor_Coleridge)


The Imagination then I consider either as primary, or secondary.  The primary Imagination I hold to be the living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am.  The secondar I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.  It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.  It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.


Tesshin remarked that Coleridge believed the primary imagination springs is the “living power and prime agent” of human perception.  It is the special ability of humanity take in the world through sense perceptions and build something totally novel in their consciousness.  The secondary skill is to take this integrated consciousness and actually do something with it in the physical world.  In other words, to create something.  Stated differently, Coleridge believed that humanity is special because it can perceive things from the outside world and recombine them into new forms.  We call this imagination and creativity.  


Tesshin next remarked that there is nothing inherently good or evil about imagination and creativity.  The top inventions and creations throughout history are a product of the imagination.  Einstein did not discover relativity by reading every book in the library.  Once he had mastered the basic physics of his day, he did “thought experiments” in his head to work it out.  The Wright brothers had to have imagination to believe that an object heavier than air could actually fly.  However, history is also replete with disasters and tragedies caused by human imagination.  Communism killed over one hundred million people.  This was nothing more than intelligent people imagining how existence could be improved.  Nazi Germany imagined a peaceful and prosperous country secured with a racially pure population.  


What do these examples tell us?  Nothing more that our imaginations are very powerful tools.  However, these tools must be tied to something greater than ourselves or they can easily be perverted to disaster.  It comes as no surprise that Zen reminds us that everything we do must be in the service of compassion and the alleviation of suffering!  


Tesshin stated that Zen is full of imagination.  You have no chance with the Koans if you read them literally!  Dogen knew this, and he knew that he was not just teaching his own students, but teaching all students throughout space and time.  One must use the imagination to reach all sentient beings with the Dharma!  


Tesshin wrapped up by asking how can we develop the necessary imagination to make progress in our Zen studies.  Not surprisingly, the answer is Zazen!!  Our practice of meditation allows us to open our mind and move beyond literal sense perceptions.  We see more, feel more, experience more.  This opens up our imagination to all possibilities.  Zazen is imagination, and imagination is one of the most radical acts of healing.  There is a place where rationality cannot go?  How do you recover from loss?  There is not formula or protocol to do this.  One must imagine their way to a better life.  Zazen gives us the mental tools to do this.


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The Bamboo and Banana http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-bamboo-and-banana.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-bamboo-and-banana/#respond Sun, 25 Apr 2021 15:48:49 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-bamboo-and-banana.html
Tall Bamboo


This week is our third and final week reviewing the painted cake talk from Dogen. 

There is a translation at:  https://villagezendo.org/site-data/uploads/2020/06/Painting_Rice_Cake.pdf


In this third and last section, Dogen opens with …


Yunmen was once asked by a monk, “What is your statement about going beyond buddhas and surpassing ancestors?” 

Yunmen said, “A sesame rice cake.”


Dogen then tells us to “quietly examine these words.”  Tesshin noted that typically the group of monks would stop here and potentially meditate on that phrase for days!  Tesshin next noted that the statement about going beyond buddhas and ancestors is nothing more than gaining enlightenment – or in other words, understanding the ground truth of reality.  Dogen tells us that Yunmen has encapsulated all there is to know in his answer.  Although it is only four words – it could take a lifetime to unpack it and really understand it.  This is our practice – which is why Dogen would normally stop his students right here and exhort them to really examine the words.  By examining, he does not mean an intellectual understanding of the individual words, but a much deeper understanding which go way beyond simple utterances.  Another translation of Dogen states this even more clearly …


“You should just shut up and take a clear look into this.”  In other words, stop talking about it and let the ramifications of this pervade you completely.


One may think that contemplating all of reality in a rice cake will lead to instant enlightenment.  However, Tesshin commented that Dogen does not subscribe to this view.  Dogen believed that enlightenment could be instant, but in most cases, it developed out of a very specific process of training and discipline.  Practice is a lifelong commitment and a journey.  


Dogen continued by stating …


Rujing, my late master, said, “A tall bamboo and a banana enter a painting.”

Things beyond measure are actualized together.  


Tesshin stated here this is all about ending discriminations.  A bamboo is tall and a banana is not.  It is all “this and that” and “yin and yang” – but at the end of the day, both share the same painting.  Is it just two things in this paining?  Of course not – everything is in the painting – it is just that you cannot see everything, but the universe is in there – everything!  Again, Dogen is telling us not to be dualistic in our thinking.  Stop trying to break everything down into its constituent parts.  Doing that is simply our ego trying to reassert control.  Dogen is telling us to stop for a moment and experience “it.”  Can you do that?


Tesshin mentioned that wherever there is a glimmer of understanding in our mind, Dogen looks to blow it up!  Why is this?  It is because crystalizing an understanding is our ego trying to rip up the painting of reality in our attempt to split the bamboo from the banana in the painting.  We are again trying to take reality apart and layout the parts.  Dogen patiently tells us no, no, no – the tall bamboo goes far beyond anything we perceive.


Dogen continues …


Know that the entire heaven and earth are the roots, stem, branches, and leaves of the tall bamboo…

A banana has earth, water, fire, air, and emptiness, as well as mind, consciousness, and wisdom as its roots, stems, branches, leaves, flowers, fruits, colors, and forms …


Tesshin noted that a banana has all elements along with mind and wisdom.  He then pondered, what is consciousness?  Do you need a human mind for any of this?  Dogen said NO – a banana has it.  What is a mind and what is consciousness?  Is consciousness as we understand it – really consciousness?  Does a banana have it?  It is interesting to note that many of our brightest scientists are now pondering this exact issue with regards to machine intelligence.  Dogen brought up this exact issue eight hundred years ago!!


Dogen finishes up the essay by stating that the painted rice cake MUST satisfy all hungers.  He goes on to state that the banana and the bamboo are reality, but also a painting.  Those who experience enlightenment by the sound of bamboo (this is a phrase from a famous koan) are all really just painting reality.  Human existence appears from a painting.  Since this is so, there is no remedy for satisfying the hunger other than a painted rice cake.  Without painted hunger you never become a true person.  There is no other understanding beyond painted hunger.


Tesshin wrapped up by telling the group that if we were sitting in front of Dogen, he would caution us that none of the above is a “language game” or poetic language.  Do not take that easy copout!!  The above is total truth.  If you do not understand, Dogen would invite you to sit on it a bit more!

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Painting Reality http://yorktownzen.com/blog/painting-reality.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/painting-reality/#respond Sun, 18 Apr 2021 15:25:27 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/painting-reality.html
Pale Blue Dot


This week Tesshin continued his discussion of Dogen’s Painted Rice Cake fascicle.


(The entire fascicle can be found here)


In this part of the chapter, Dogen states that …

“In painting a rice cake, you use the same materials as you would to paint a landscape. You can use blue pigment to paint mountains and rivers and powdered rice to paint a rice cake. The work of composition is the same.”


Dogen goes on to state …

“There is no difference between paintings, rice cakes, or anything at all and you should understand that these rice cakes in front of you that you are about to eat are all “painted rice cakes.”  If you are looking for these “painted rice cakes” anywhere else you still don’t know how to eat a rice cake. Sometimes they appear as rice cakes, sometimes not.”


Continuing …

“When you paint a landscape, you might use blue paint. The pigment of the blue comes from many ingredients … “Painted cakes” are also painted through the interaction of many elements.  You paint a human being with the five aggregates… “

“In painting a single scroll of green mountains and white snow, Great Awakening is revealed. All movements and conditions are painted like this, and all our present activities are nothing other than such paintings.”


Tesshin stopped here and chuckled and said – “Simple – right?”  He then went on to try to explain what Dogen meant.


In our normal life we are focused on the variety of things.  We spend much of our time distinguishing attributes and assigning special meaning to characteristics.  We also collect attributes which we believe will make us different from everyone else or which will make us special.  Think about your own life – you may focus on your physical attributes, or your job, or even your bank account.  These are attributes about you which you believe make you noteworthy – but are they really your true essence?  Taken more broadly, Tesshin and Dogen are asking us to consider if we are really so different than everyone else.  This thought experiment is not to say we are unimportant, but rather it helps us not to separate from everything else in the universe.  


Tesshin provided an example of this from the world of modern physics.  If we did a deep dive into the atomic structure of matter world, it would be impossible at the subatomic level to identify a particular object.  Everything would be quarks and leptons.  At this fundamental level it is all the same thing.  The world of “this and that” is imposed on this generic matter at a higher level.  So, one can say that at this level there is no difference between a painted rice cake and a real one.


Tesshin then flipped the perspective and stated that there are no countries when we look at the Earth from space.  Furthermore, if we looked at the Earth from Mars, it would just be a “pale blue dot.”  Everything we know and care about and every aspect of life we have so carefully categorized and distinguished would be a single totality when viewed from the perspective of a Martian.  Such a Martian would not be able to distinguish a pained rice cake from a “real one.”  All they would be able to say is that is all an aspect of Earth.  The “suchness” of Earth and everything we know can be summarized as ‘Pale Blue Dot.”  


Tessin, then went on to say that if you pulled back even further our entire galaxy would be a blip of light when seen from thousands of light years away.  One can continue this until all of existence is just a totality.  Now you are beginning to see what Dogen understood all these years ago.  What is a rice cake when contemplating the totality of reality?  Is there really a big difference between a “painted” and “real” rice cake?


So, at all levels everything is everything.  Eating something does not change anything.  The “Hunger” is universal.  The painted rice cake is everything – and the act of painting the rice cake is the painting of all reality.  We are trained early on to distinguish and discriminate, and to some extent and in many situations, this is skillful to do.  However, we must understand that these collected characteristics are nothing more than a narrative in our own mind – this is not the real truth.  The real truth is the totality of suchness experienced in this very instant.


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Painted Rice Cakes http://yorktownzen.com/blog/painted-rice-cakes.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/painted-rice-cakes/#respond Sun, 11 Apr 2021 16:15:29 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/painted-rice-cakes.html
Dogens Pained Rice Cake


Tesshin used this week’s talk to continue the discussion of Dogen’s Shobogenzo.  Specifically, this week we worked on Dogen’s Gabyo or “Painted Rice Cakes.”  

(The entire facile can be found here)


Tesshin called out some of the key passages for us…


All buddhas are realization; thus all things are realization. Yet, no buddhas or things have the same characteristics; none have the same mind. Although there are no identical characteristics or minds, at the moment of your actualization numerous actualizations manifest without hindrance.


Do not use the measure of oneness or difference as the criterion of your study. Thus, it is said, “To reach one thing is to reach myriad things.


To reach one thing does not take away its inherent characteristics. Just as reaching does not limit one thing, it does not make one thing not separate. To try to make it not different is a hindrance.


An ancient buddha said, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger.”


Tesshin remarked that this passage is a commentary Dogen was applying to a much older Zen story.  Tesshin wanted to provide his commentary on Dogen’s commentary to help us to understand.  At this point, Tesshin chuckled as he wondered out loud if he could really add anything to Dogen and if layering commentary on top of commentary really helps anyone achieve true understanding.  


So, what is Dogen trying to convey in the above passage?  According to Tesshin, Dogen is trying to get us to look at the absolute “ground truth” of reality.  The statement, “A painting of a rice cake does not satisfy hunger” is a common rejoinder in Zen.  It means that the teachings only point to reality and are not reality themselves.  It is similar to the Zen warning that one should not to focus on the finger pointing at the moon, but rather at the moon itself.  


Dogen is not content with this Zen cliché, however.  He is pushing us to go further, and clearly notes in this facile that most monks and masters have not really deeply penetrated this issue.  Tesshin commented that Dogen is clearly stating that making a distinction between the painted rice cake and the real rice cake is dualistic thinking.  Dogen states that, “All buddhas are realization; thus, all things are realization. Yet, no buddhas or things have the same characteristics.”  (Buddhas meaning phenomena in this case.)  So Dogen is stating that we must begin to see the painted and physical cake as the same thing.


You may be thinking at this point – “Whoh!  How can a picture of a rice cake be equivalent to a real rice cake?”  If you are feeling tension at this point, that is good because you know that the original koan Dogen is writing about is starting to work upon your consciousness.  It is that same message again and again.  It would not be a surprise if MU made an appearance in your mind at this point.  


Dogen is clear that he is not just talking about “real” and painted rice cakes.  He notes that there are many different kinds of rice cakes, teachings, phenomena, and so on.  Each “thing” is different, however if we look deeper and deeper, we begin to see the sameness of all things.  We also see this in the spiritual studies.  We study one school of Buddhism and think we have the “truth.”  As we practice more and more, we realize that all schools, and in reality, all philosophies and religions are trying to convey the same truth.  At a very practical level, this must be the case as they all arise from the mind of humanity – how could they be radically different?  


Next, Tesshin read another quote out of the facile…  


“Know that a painted rice-cake is your face after your parents were born, your face before your parents were born… All rice-cakes actualized right now are nothing but a painted rice-cake. If you look for some other kind of painted rice- cake, you will never find it, you will never grasp it.”


Zen normally asks what was your face before your parents were born.  This is to get the student to understand that there is no point in discriminating between this and that.  Your true nature is universal and is part of an enduring suchness.  Dogen doubles down, however and states that the rice cake is your face both BEFORE and AFTER you were born.  Do you see it?


Tesshin moved on to state that in many religious traditions, there is talk of the spiritual plane and the conventional plane.  We hear this commonly in Zen as the “Ultimate vs Relative.”  There is a misconception that the ultimate plane is reality and the relative plane is delusion.  The thinking is that meditation allows us to get to the Nirvana of the Ultimate.  Dogen is warning us that this is WRONG thinking.  The ultimate and relative are the same thing and there is no place to get to.  THIS is the key message of this facile – specifically there is no difference between the absolute and relative.  


Tesshin wrapped up by asking us to watch/stream a movie called “Being There” by peter sellers which came out in 1979.  It is a story about a man who is a complete “Tabula Rasa” –   he knows nothing of the world.  The story is about how is moves through the world and people “paint” on him what they want to see in him.  Tesshin wanted us to watch this movie and we will discuss it at our next program.

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Suffering and Redemption http://yorktownzen.com/blog/suffering-and-redemption.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/suffering-and-redemption/#respond Sun, 04 Apr 2021 15:12:12 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/suffering-and-redemption.html


Tesshin wanted to use his talk this week to contemplate Easter and Passover and what lessons they could impart to a Buddhist sangha.  He stated that there is a common theme in these holidays of suffering and redemption.  For instance, Passover recounts the story of a people enslaved in ancient Egypt.  The rituals of Passover spend a lot of time recounting the types of suffering endured.  It is not just the pain of hard physical labor, but the loss of self-determination which makes the slavery so bad.  In the Easter story, we encounter Jesus’s suffering on the cross.  Again, the depth of the suffering is not the pain of crucifixion, but feelings of doubt and abandonment.  Jesus’s words were clear – Oh God, why have you forsaken me?  


We all know that suffering is also an enduring theme in Buddhism.  We all have encountered deep suffering as living beings – there can be no denial of this.  Tesshin though at the core of most religious belief is the understanding of the reality of suffering.  For instance, Jesus already knew and understood about the gnawing fear of abandonment.  As a rabbi, he would have known about Psalm 22 which begins ….


My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

    Why are you so far from saving me,

    so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

    by night, but I find no rest.


The Israelites also suffered this feeling of abandonment many times while wandering in the desert.  It should come as no surprise that in a moment of weakness they crafted a “golden calf” to pray to.  People will go to great lengths to alleviate deep psychological suffering like abandonment.


Tesshin remarked that all is not lost, however.  Both Passover and Easter counterbalance the suffering with redemption.  In the Passover story, the Israelites eventually enter the land of “milk and honey.”  Easter goes even further with the resurrection of Jesus.  It is clear that in all suffering, there is always the promise of redemption.  


Tesshin next remarked that we can also apply the concept of suffering and redemption from a Buddhist perspective.  Buddhist theology has spent a lot of time trying to understand suffering.  Suffering is understood to be a universal phenomenon.  It comes as no surprise that the first line of the core beliefs of Buddhism state that “Life has suffering!”  However, Buddhism also recognizes that universal suffering provides a gateway to compassion.  Why is this?  It is precisely because we all suffer.  This universal suffering allows us to empathize with other sentient beings.  We deeply understand what they are experiencing because we all are fundamentally the same thing.  We do not have this feeling for our car when it breaks down because at a deep level, we understand a car with a broken timing belt does not suffer.  


Tesshin next noted that pain and suffering is the birth of great movements in human history.  He asked us where do we think the notion of justice comes from.  One cannot have justice without deep empathy for the suffering of others.  If we look into history, justice tends to break down when we try to dehumanize the “other.”  However, if we recognize ourselves in the other, then justice and fairness is the only actions we can take. Tesshin remarked that is the deepest teaching of suffering and why our tradition spends so much time on the teachings of suffering and redemption.


Tesshin wrapped up by noting that cultivating this deep understanding of suffering and redemption is possible by consistent and diligent practice on the cushion.  When we practice, our sense of suffering shifts from being overwhelming to being alleviated in some small way.  If we can cultivate the mind, we can cultivate our wisdom and can see the true nature of suffering and the possibility of redemption.  We do not become a slave to suffering.  Instead, we begin to generate compassion and love for all beings.  Love and compassion are what we contribute to the world.  Each minute of practice is like a small addition to the total love in the world.  

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Fundamental Beliefs http://yorktownzen.com/blog/fundamental-beliefs.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/fundamental-beliefs/#respond Sun, 28 Mar 2021 18:09:06 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/fundamental-beliefs.html
Zen is Not


Tesshin used his talk this week to recount a conversation he recently had.   He has been working on a new education outreach project and recently brought on a technology partner.  One of the areas that this partner organization specializes in is finding and training new software engineering talent in traditionally underserved communities.  In the conversation, Tesshin asked how do they identify who would become a great software engineer from a population where most have not even been exposed to any type of computer programming.  The CEO of the organization commented that they have a rather unusual assessment tool just for this purpose.  


Tesshin was very interested in this assessment tool.  How does it work?  One would think that the tool would test for specific subject matter expertise.  However, that would not work in this case.  This tool, by contrast, focuses on behavior and tries to understand how the candidate deals with challenges and puzzles.  At the end of the discussion, Tesshin asked if the assessment tool showed any common pattern to determine who would be successful.  The answer was quite interesting – the number one predictor of success was the set of beliefs which the candidate exhibited while taking the assessment.  For instance, how did the candidate react when encountering a puzzle with no obvious answer?  Did the candidate believe that they could solve a difficult problem or did they simply leave it blank and skip to the next question?  Did the candidate toss out a sloppy or incomplete answers figuring that they were too incompetent to answer complex questions due to their background?  


Tesshin was impressed by the logic behind this assessment tool.  He commented that deeply held beliefs determine so much in our lives.  These beliefs determine how successful we are in life, what our political beliefs are, who we marry, and so many other things.  It also affects how groups of people work and play tougher.  It should come as no surprise that there will be friction in teams or groups when people have radically different belief structures.  We need only to consider the last family gathering where people argued over politics!  


These mostly unconscious fundamental belief structures could be likened to the operating system in a computer.  Computer operating systems are complex pieces of software which control all aspects of computer processing, but are mostly hidden and invisible to the user.  In a similar way our fundamental beliefs are mostly hidden but affect many aspects of our behavior, reactions, and outcomes in life.


We can ask the reasonable question of whether fundamental beliefs can be modified in ways to improve our life.  Tesshin commented that for most people, these beliefs are so deep-seated that it is difficult to really understand what is going on.  Have you ever wondered why you behave the way you do?  Why you instantly like or dislike someone?  Why you are generally an optimist or a pessimist or liberal vs conservative – and why these traits are so hard to change?  So can these beliefs really be changed?


Here Tesshin stopped and commented that there is one way for us to get at our fundamental belief structures – practice!  Our practice is all about steadying the mind and digging past superficial things.  Our practice is about mining the gold of our true nature.  As we do this necessary work, we begin to see and understand our fundamental beliefs.  However, we must also never forget to go beyond those beliefs to the reality of suchness where “this or that” has no meaning.  


Tesshin next asked what is our fundamental beliefs with respect to the act of practice itself?  Do you believe you are already a Buddha?  Do you believe that you are already a perfect being?  Do you really believe in the Heart Sutra – “no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body mind?”   Do you?  This is why Zen is a religion and not simply psychology.  If you do not fundamentally believe in the perfection of reality, you will never really achieve you goals in practice.  


Tesshin wrapped up by asking us to consider our fundamental beliefs?  What do you really fundamentally believe in?  He encouraged us to do the hard work during practice to get at our core beliefs and understand them.  This will allow us to truly understand life instead of wandering lost in the dark.

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Ethics http://yorktownzen.com/blog/ethics.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/ethics/#respond Sun, 14 Mar 2021 14:50:52 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/ethics.html


Tesshin used his talk this week to contemplate a personal issue of ethics.  The situation arose when his wife mentioned that many of her friends are obtaining the Covid vaccine even though they are not in an eligible group.  Tesshin brought this situation up in his interfaith clergy group.  The debate quickly moved to the status of the clergy themselves.  Are they essential workers and should they be vaccinated sooner or later?


On the one hand the clergy are essential because they need to give comfort to the sick, preside over marriages and funerals, lead services, and support their communities.  Needless to say, they cannot do this effectively until they are vaccinated.  Tesshin could not get away, however, from his Bodhisattva vow which exhorts us to help all beings before helping ourselves.  So should the clergy be working to get others vaccinated and focus less on their own situation?  As with many issues in ethics, there is no clear or simple answer.


Tesshin commented that these two issues are really the same.  What makes someone essential?  A father is essential to his family and a priest is essential to their community.  So, maybe not all of the wife’s friends are in the wrong and perhaps not all the clergy are as essential as they claim.  Who really is essential and who goes first when vaccine is still scarce?  Tesshin mentioned that difficult questions like this is why it is so important to have spiritual and philosophical training.  There is no elegant mathematical equation to perfectly solve issues like this.  


To make things a bit more complicated, there are also other people who are lying about their condition or their essential nature in order to ‘jump the line.’  For instance, they may say that they have a heart condition when they do not.  They may claim to have a public facing position when in reality, they have been working from home for the past year.  One may quickly assume that these people are clearly and completely in the wrong.  After all, we have a person who should wait pushing to the front of the line denying a legitimately vulnerable person the vaccine.  However, even here it is not an open and shut case!  What happens if someone cannot make their appointment and the vaccine dose will expire – should someone who would not normally qualify be given the dose?  Would it be better to give the dose to the liar than to simply throw it away to make a point?


So, from an ethical point of view – how do we decide?  Tesshin stated that it is all about intention!  If the priest’s intention is to protect the self, we have an unethical situation even if the result is good for the community.  The healthy father who is caring for an elderly mother and is worried sick that he may transmit the virus to her is on a stronger footing ethically – even if he lied about his condition.  


Understanding intention is where our practice can really help.  Once we have mastered the mind, we can look deeply into our intentions and clarify them.  If we can do this, then we have a chance to make ethical decisions.  We practice this every day.  We know through deep meditation what is skillful and not skillful.  We understand that we don’t always do what is skillful, but we have the presence of mind to know the difference.  This is the difference.  There is nothing worse in a spiritual life than self-delusion!


Tesshin wrapped up by reminding us that ethical decisions are never easy and clear cut, however once we train the mind to be calm and see reality as it really is, we can start making better decisions for ourselves, our family, and our communities. 

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Compassion http://yorktownzen.com/blog/compassion.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/compassion/#respond Sun, 07 Mar 2021 16:13:37 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/compassion.html
Compassion 6-mar-2021


Tesshin used his talk this week to discuss Case 89 from the Blue Cliff Record known as “The Whole Body is Hand and Eye”  


Tesshin first provided some background on the ‘players’ in this case.  Here we have two Dharma Brothers who are students in the same lineage.  It is important to note that the students don’t necessarily need to be at the same level of understanding.  Generally, one may be more senior than the other.  In this case the “senior” brother is  Daowu Yuanzhi (769-835) who was a disciple of Yaoshan (751-834). Yunyan Tansheng (780-841) was also a disciple of Yaoshan and was the “junior” dharma brother in this exchange.


Tesshin first read the opening verse …


When the entire body is the eye, while seeing you do not see; when the entire body is the ear, while hearing you do not hear; when the entire body is the mouth, while speaking you do not speak; when the entire body is the mind, while thinking you do not think. Putting aside the entire body, if there are no eyes, how do you see? If there are no ears, how do you hear? If there is no mouth, how do you speak? If there is no mind, how do you think? If you are familiar with this point, you are in the company of the ancient Buddhas. However, putting aside being in the company of the Buddhas, with whom should you study Zen?


Next, Tesshin read the main case …


Yunyan asked Daowu, “What use does the great Boddhisattva of Mercy make of all those hands and eyes?”

Daowu said, “It is like a man straightening his pillow with his outstretched hand in the middle of the night.”

Yunyan said, “I have understood.”

Daowu said, “How do you understand?”

Yunyan said, “The whole body is hand and eye.”

Daowu said, “You have had your say, but you have given only eight-tenths of the truth.”

Yunyan sai, “How would you put it?”

Daowu said, “The entire body is hand and eye.”


Tesshin reminded the group that a Bodhisattva is a being who has achieved total enlightenment but will not pass into Nirvana until they help every other being achieve the same awakening.   Buddhism is filled with many such beings, but the most famous one is the Bodhisattva of Universal Compassion.  This Bodhisattva goes by many names which include:  Avalokitesvara, Guanyin, and Kannon.  In some traditions this bodhisattva is depicted as male, but in others it is depicted as female.  (For our discussion, we will use the Japanese name of Kannon who happens to be female.)


Kannon achieved enlightenment by apprehending the connection of all pain and suffering in the universe.  However, realizing all of this pain comes at a terrible cost.  We can begin to understand this because we act like this when we empathize with another’s suffering.  What would happen if we could do this with EVERYONE’s suffering?  For Kannon, this became overwhelming.  Tesshin recounted a parable where all the pain in the world entered through her eyes and ears and literally caused her head to explode!!   However, the parable continues and after the explosion Kannon evolved into a form where she had many arms and eyes in order to more skillfully take on the suffering present in the universe.  Tesshin called our attention to an image of Kannon where each of the multitude of arms carries a specialized tool to alleviate suffering.  The message here is that compassion is not just feeling someone’s pain – it is the active application of skill to alleviate that pain.  We go to a doctor not because they will have sympathy for our suffering, but because they can do something about it.  Kannon reflects both the desire AND the skill to eliminate all suffering everywhere throughout time.


So Yunyan asked Daowu what are all the hands and eyes of Kannon are used for.  Daowu says it is like groping for a pillow at night.  What does that mean?  Groping for a pillow when asleep is a reflexive action.  It is like this for Kannon.  Every molecule in her being is dedicated to compassion – there is no other conflicting thought.  There is so much in that one statement!  First and foremost, we can see this as Kannon having a single point of focus in compassion.  This is the “Bodhisattva Ideal” which we can aspire to even if we can never achieve it.  


Tesshin thought that this koan should stop right here.  However, Yunyan “screws up” and states that he understands what Daowu is talking about.  This is NEVER the right thing to say in a Zen exchange!  Saying that you understand something means that you have nailed it down and separated it from everything else.  How can you understand nothing?  Daowu sees this and challenges his younger Dharma Brother – he asks, exactly what do you understand?  Yunyan says that all over Kannon are the hands and eyes.  Daowu responds – “Close but no Cigar!”  Daowu states that THROUGHOUT the body exists hands and eyes.  There is no place where it does not exist.  This is only slightly different than what Yunyan said, but it is a universe of difference!  Do you see it?


Tesshin next noted that in many sutras about Kannon there is no mention of compassion and healing – why is that?  It is not said for the same reason we don’t ask for “wet water” in a restaurant.  Water is wet.  There is no separation – it is wet by its nature.  If you separated wetness from water you would not have water – it is the same with Kannon.  What is interesting is that Tesshin noted that this is not just with the Bodhisattva, but it is also with all beings!  One does not “become” Kannon when being compassionate – we are already compassion.  Yes, sometimes we ‘forget’ this – just like we delude ourselves that we are not already enlightened and perfect.  Our job in practice is, as always, to get back to this ground truth of being.  This is the message which Daowu is patiently explaining to his Dharma Brother.    

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The Teacher’s Last Lesson http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-teachers-last-lesson.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-teachers-last-lesson/#respond Sun, 28 Feb 2021 17:27:31 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/the-teachers-last-lesson.html


Tesshin opened his talk with a conversation he had this week with a leader of a spiritual organization going through many transformations and challenges.  Their teacher had passed away and the organization needed to chart a new direction.  While this organization is not Buddhist, it got Tesshin thinking about the concept of a Sangha and how it can help with our practice.


In this case of this particular spiritual community, the teacher had left behind quite a large history, community, and set of teachings.  The critical question now is what happens to these things when the leader departs.  What does the next “generation” do with these teachings?  We have seen many times that members become “attached” to the forms and the tradition quickly becomes stale.  Yes, it is said that “we stand on the shoulders of giants” but implicit in that is the challenge to keep things fresh and relevant.


Tesshin also noticed that when a teacher passes, the relationship between the other members of the group necessarily changes and could become strained.  This challenge is not new and has really existed since there have been great teachers and spiritual communities.  One can say that one of the last lessons a great teacher provides their students with is how to deal with their passing.  Tesshin noted that ego is very much wrapped up in the relationship with the teacher.  Who did the teacher think was the most accomplished?  Who should become the next teacher?  This is also a very common problem in Zen traditions with its strong tradition of student/teacher relationships.  Here we begin to see the value of this “last lesson.”  Tesshin commonly states that he is the “least important” person in the Zendo.  The message, like everything else in Zen, is meant to get your ego out of your way.  The teacher passing away does not mean practice ends – it is just another event on the long path!


Tesshin next noted that traditionally Zen teachers were happy to pull in wisdom from many other traditions.  Tesshin asked how other traditions can help us with the ego attachment we have to practice, our teachers, and to Zen itself.  He cited the example of Martin Buber who was a famous existential philosopher of the 20th century.  He worked in an area called the ‘Philosophy of Dialog’ and wrote a famous essay called “I and Thou.”  At its core this essay is about relationships.  Buber talks about two main classes of relationships…


•Between the “I” and the “It”

•Between the “I” and the “Thou”


The relationships between the I and the It tend to be very bounded and well understood.  Tesshin gave the example of the relationship between you and your car.  It is an important relationship, but it is bounded to things like maintenance, filling it with gas, and trips to work and the grocery store.  You can explain it to anyone, and if they have a car, they will completely understand.


The relationship between you and some other being – the “Thou” Buber talks about is something totally different!  This relationship is unbounded and constantly changing.  You can explain your relationship with your child or spouse to a co-worker, but they will never completely understand it.  Buber is stating that there is something very precious and special with this type of relationship.  


Tesshin asked how the relationship between the ‘I’ and ‘Thou’ can help us remove ego from our practice.  To help us, Tesshin pointed at the Zen Koans.  He mentioned that Siddhartha gained enlightenment (understanding of true reality) while meditating.  However, in the Koans, most insights came from the relationship and interplay of the student with teachers, other students, and common people.  Tesshin paused here and noted that this was a very interesting insight.  Why is this?  It is exactly because of what Martin Buber was talking about.  The interrelation between you and another sentient being automatically weakens the ego.


The clear message is that Kensho does not happen in isolation for most people – it happens in relationships.  This is why relationships and Sanghas are so important to practice.  It is the Sangha which provides the strength to practice.  Tesshin noted that relationships are complex and messy.    However, it is this work and suffering which can open us up to the dissolution of the ego and open us to enlightenment.  


Tesshin wrapped up by noting that the lesson of “I and Thou” is a teacher’s last great gift.  It reminds us to subdue our individual ego and work with others along the path to enlightenment. 

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Time http://yorktownzen.com/blog/time.html http://yorktownzen.com/blog/time/#respond Sun, 21 Feb 2021 15:20:54 +0000 http://yorktownzen.com/blog/time.html
Zen and Time


Tesshin used his talk this week to explore the concept of time – definitely not a small topic!  How does the concept of time affect our practice and how does our conditioning affect our perception of time?  Tesshin mentioned that we have been conditioned to think of time as having intrinsic meaning and value.  We commonly measure what we have accomplished relative to a time period.  We even do this in Zazen.  For instance, how many minutes did you go until you noticed your mind was drifting?  Is this fixation on relative time a stumbling point for our practice?  Tesshin invited us to carefully examine this.


Tesshin next mentioned that our relationship with time has changed over the past year with Covid and the resultant quarantine.  For many, time has slowed down as our lifestyles have changed and potentially slowed down.  In the absolute sense, nothing has changed with time, but in our day-to-day relative life much has changed.  This tension between the relative and absolute should come as no surprise to those committed to practice.  Tesshin reminded us that this tension will continue long after Covid fades into the mists of the past.


Tesshin next provided some examples about how time plays a big part in our understanding of progress and achievement.  For example, he cited the Perseverance probe’s “7-Minutes of Terror.”  This is a precisely timed sequence of steps from when the lander first hits the Martian atmosphere until it is safe on the planet’s surface.  Tens of thousands of labor-hours were invested in complex hardware and software to pull off this feat.  The entire process can only succeed with timing down to the second.  “7 minutes of terror,” sub-second timings, ten thousand labor hours.  Do you see how we are conditioned to bring time into everything we do?  Tesshin invited the group to think about how we do this on a day to day basis in our own lives.


Tesshin next noted that this attitude is opposite to our work on the cushion.  There is no time in meditation.  There is no meaning and achievement in Zazen.  Stated simply, “Time is Ego!”  Everything we attach to time is our ego wanting to be in control.  We have an opportunity on the cushion to be free of the tyranny of time.   We have all had the moment during sitting when we wonder when the practice bell is going to ring.  If we are honest, that kind of thinking is missing the opportunity which Zazen provides to us. 


Tesshin wrapped up by asked if we can we liberate ourselves from time and ego.  When we see time popping up during our sitting, we need to realize that the ego is reasserting control.  What to do?  Unsurprisingly, Tesshin recommended coming back to the breath!  In a way the breath is an absolute.  Siddhartha breathed, the patriarchs breathed, you breathe.  We all share this thing independent of time and space.  The breath is our best connection to transcend time and ego.

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