Yorktown Zen http://yorktownzen.org/index.html Authentic Zen Practice in the Hudson Valley of New York Sun, 19 Mar 2023 16:07:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 SitePad Seeds of Consciousness http://yorktownzen.org/blog/seeds-of-consciousness.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/seeds-of-consciousness/#respond Sun, 19 Mar 2023 16:02:19 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/seeds-of-consciousness.html
storehouse consciousness


Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion of the Thirty Verses of Vasubandhu over the past two weeks.  He started by remarking on the power and usefulness of having a Sangha when trying to understand Buddhist literature.  Roshi remarked that when he first studied Vasubandhu’s verses, he found it to be way too esoteric to be useful in his personal path.  However, over time he has come to appreciate Vasubandhu as he has discussed and taught the material over time.  


It is an interesting aspect of spiritual literature that what is originally seen as esoteric and non-therapeutic changes as it settles into the mind.  Roshi remarked that this is why we study the literature our whole life.  It is not about mastery and memorization, rather it is about revisiting an old friend.  We note how the passage changes – not because the text changed, but because we have changed. 


After the introduction, Roshi read a few of the opening verses.  It is important to note that when Vasubandhu the term “consciousness” he is not talking of something mystical.  Vasubandhu is very concerned about the day-to-day issues of our life.  His teachings are meant to be very practical.  With that in mind, Roshi read the first few verses to us…


1. The metaphors of “self” and “events” (dharmas) which develop in so many different ways Take place in the transformation of consciousness (vijñāna): and this transformation is of three kinds: 

2. Maturation (vipāka), that called “always reflecting” (manana), and the perception (vijñapti) of sense-objects. Among these, “maturation” is that called the store-consciousness (ālaya-vijñāna) which has all the seeds (bījas). 

3. Its appropriations, states, and perceptions are not fully conscious, Yet it is always endowed with contacts (sparśa), mental attentions (manaskāra), feelings (vedanā), cognitions (saṃjñā), and volitions (cetanā). 

4. Its feelings are equaniminous: it is unobstructed and indeterminate. The same for its contacts. Etc. It develops like currents in a stream.


At this point, Roshi chuckled and admitted that the language was a bit dense.  In essence what Vasubandhu is stating here is that everything we experience is the expression of karma.  We are only here at this moment in time by virtue of our “Karmic Package.”  Roshi also mentioned that it is not just our individual karma, but our parent’s karma, and their parent’s karma.  If we really think about it – everyone’s karma throughout all space and time have affected us and brought us to this particular spot.  We are connected to everyone, everywhere, and everywhen via karmic traces.  Nobody stands outside of this web.  This is the “no-self” which Vasubandhu is trying to get at.  It does not mean we do not have self-consciousness.  It simply means that this consciousness is connected to everything else.  All these karmic “seeds” end up in our “store-consciousness.”   Perhaps this is what we mean in when we use the term “collective unconscious” now-a-days.


Vasubandhu next talks about “Projection” of sense objects on our consciousness.  Here Roshi notes that the things we think are so real are processed through our senses.  However, this processing is very much affected by our current state of being – both physical and mental.  Roshi asked us to consider whether a fly and a human would perceive a strawberry in the same way.  So if a sense experience effects our consciousness in such a powerful way, it stands to reason that each sense has its own consciousness.  Note, this does not mean your eyes have their own sentience – rather it practically means that the way your eyes are constructed directly affects your consciousness.  It is the same with all your senses.  Imagine that you were a dog with 1000 times better smell than a human.  Your conscious state of being would be totally different.  To test this simply walk a dog!  You will notice that their head is close to the ground smelling everything.  The dog is probably thinking that humans are so foolish to walk past so much valuable information!!


Vasubandhu also adds two more consciousnesses beyond the five senses.  These are Perception and Mental Volitions.  Simply stated, in addition to how you sense the world, your karmic store colors everything you experience.  Your history, your culture, your past triumphs and defeats – everything affects your consciousness.  All of this is in the “store house” or our consciousness.  


Roshi stopped here and asked us to consider the value of all of this theory of Vasubandhu.  To help us see why this is important, Roshi related a situation which occurred this past week when he received a call from a clergy colleague facing some deep challenges in their life.   This person was totally despondent and no amount of praying really seemed to help.  Roshi applied the practical teaching of Vasubandhu and told his friend that they are in the situation they are not because of a single “sin”, but due to many decisions taken by the person and others in their life.  It is important not to focus and fixate on one particular action.  The only way to fix the problem is to forget about past actions and start making new decisions.  In other words, to change your situation, you need to change your karma.  


The following week Roshi continued his discussion of Vasubandhu.  The next set of verses talks about the obstructions of our consciousness.  This includes…


•View of Self

•Confusion of Self

•Pride of Self

•Love of Self


Roshi noted that all of these obstructions have the “self” as a common thread.


Roshi next noted that sense stimulus affects our consciousness through mental attention.  This is why Vasubandhu notes that this is as important as our sense consciousness.  If we are not attentive to the world around us, there nothing happens and there can be no transformation.  In our modern culture, people think Zen is all about “zoning out.”  This is exactly the opposite of what is really going on in Zazen.  In meditation, we are open to everything around us.  We are not relaxed or in a trance – rather we are at peak awareness.  This awareness includes feelings and emotions.  We do not practice to become robots – rather we need to connect with our feelings and understand them in context to the wider arc of karma.  If you are suppressing your feelings, then you are not practicing Zen!

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All in the Mind http://yorktownzen.org/blog/all-in-the-mind.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/all-in-the-mind/#respond Sat, 04 Mar 2023 16:43:15 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/all-in-the-mind.html
All in the Mind


Tesshin Roshi started this week’s talk by describing the part of the morning service in a Zen temple where all the names of the ancestors are chanted.  The list is pretty long and the chant can go on for over 10 minutes.  During this chant, the main goal is to read out all of the names without messing up any of them!  Roshi reminded us that each of these names represents a great master.  If we were to study the teachings of these teachers it would take decades and decades and we would only be scratching the surface.


The message clearly is that our tradition is broad and deep.  How should a student get their arms around such a deep body of knowledge?  To help, Roshi related the story Hillel – a great Jewish teacher.  A student once challenged him to teach the entire Jewish tradition standing on one foot.  Hillel responds that the entirety of the faith is doing good to others – everything else is commentary.  The commentary is important, of course, but we should never lose the key message when studying everything else.  It is the same thing with Zen, of course.  Our tradition is all about the elimination of suffering for all beings– everything else is commentary.


Roshi reminded us, however, that it is still important to study the tradition and understand the nuance and commentary.   Over the next few weeks, Roshi will explore one of our most famous teachers – Vasubandhu.  Vasubandhu was a Buddhist monk and philosopher, born in Peshawar (in present-day Pakistan)  Vasubandhu is one of the founders of the Yogācāra school of Buddhism, and his many philosophical and religious works have been highly influential in Buddhist thought including Zen.  One of the works of Vasubandhu is called the “Thirty Verses.”   One thing to note about this teacher is his heavy usage of the term “Consciousness.”  This term was not really used commonly in Buddhist thought before.  


For this week’s talk Roshi explored the first verse.  In this verse, Vasubandhu states that …


The metaphors of “self” and “events” (dharmas) which develop in so many different ways take place in the transformation of consciousness (vijñāna): and this transformation is of three kinds


What does he mean by metaphor and in the transformation of consciousness?  The thing about a metaphor is that it is always in context.  Roshi gave an example.  “The world is a pale blue marble.”  This only works if you know what a marble is.  In a very real way, a metaphor is a tool, but it is not real.  It is like the finger pointing to the moon, but not the moon itself.    


Roshi remarked that Vasubandhu is saying the same thing about the metaphors of “self” and “events.”  They all take place in our consciousness.  They are useful tools, but are not real in any sense.   We are born instinctually to use these tools, but our practice reminds us that they are simply metaphors to help us.  The world is nothing other than the constant transformation of our consciousness.  In a very real sense, this is a gift as it reminds us that our suffering is mainly in our mind and as such, we have a concrete way to overcome it for ourselves and for others.  


Roshi finished his talk by noting what distinguished the great line of teachers was their willingness to not just teach but continuously practice.  The great teachers of our lineage understood the key message of Zen which is that there is suffering and that our practice can eliminate that suffering.  They practice first and foremost – the teaching emanated naturally from a life of practice.  Vasubandhu is one of these great teachers.  He reminds us that suffering is in the mind, and as such, if we practice we can get control of the suffering, and if we can do this we can serve as an example to others.

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Wash Your Bowl http://yorktownzen.org/blog/wash-your-bowl.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/wash-your-bowl/#respond Sun, 12 Feb 2023 16:20:14 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/wash-your-bowl.html
Wash Your Bowl


This week Roshi led the investigation of Mumonkan Case 7 “Wash Your Bowl”  The case is short and is provided below …


A monk said to Jõshû, “I have just entered this monastery.

Please teach me.”

“Have you eaten your rice porridge?” asked Jõshû.

“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.

“Then you had better wash your bowl,” said Jõshû.

With this the monk gained insight.



After reading the koan, Tesshin Roshi commented that Soto Zen in the us is heavily dominated by highly educated white men, and noted that more work needs to be done in bringing in women and diverse ethnic groups into Zen.  As an aside, this is important for Zen study because the Sangha operates best when all the different “karmic packages” people bring can be explored and understood.  Our practice is about existence in all its multitudes.  


Roshi next mentioned that the typical Zen student in the US has been conditioned for “getting stuff done.”  Our culture rarely rewards one for simply sitting still – rather it rewards “achievement.”  As such, we rush from challenge to challenge always trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else and potential failure.  However, all of this motion does not help us to really understand who we really are.  This is where Joshu comes in!  Joshu is telling the monk to focus on the simple things in life.  Not everything we do is grand and will make the history books.  There is value in the simple day-to-day activities of life.  These day-to-day things are what actually makes us human.  Wake up, wash your face, make a meal, clean up, smile – this is your true self!  These are the activities when you are not putting on a mask and trying to impress anyone.  It is often said that one’s true nature comes out when nobody is looking.  Do you keep your bowl clean? – even if nobody is around?


Roshi next continued on this theme of needing to be the “expert” in all situations.  We tie our identity to what we know and on how we are better at certain things than other people.  In this koan, our monk has some accomplishment.  He has been accepted as Joshu’s student, after all.  Perhaps Joshu will give him the keys to deeper Zen practice.  He will become an expert – perhaps the next roshi!  Well, Joshu does give him the keys – “go wash your bowl!”  Luckily our monk did have the seeds of realization and his ego was punctured and he realized Joshu’s message.  Do we realize Joshu’s gift?


It is said that Zen praises the “Beginner’s Mind.”  This is the mind which says that knowledge is not our identity and it is safe to be curious and not to know.  When your ego needs to believe you are the smartest person in the room, there is no room for the immediacy of experience.  The only thing that matters is protecting the ego’s reputation.  In our modern culture this is called the “imposter syndrome.”  It is when we are so scared of being discovered as not knowing something, we are afraid to even try.  How can we progress if we are too scared to take chances.  Again, here is where Joshu comes in.  “Wash your bowl!”  Exist!  Be yourself!  Do the day-to-day things as best you can and you will be surprised how far you can go.  


Roshi wrapped up the talk by reminding us that it is our practice which trains the mind to focus on the immediate lived experience.  Zazen allows us to quiet the ego and worry less about preconceived notions of success.  Zazen conditions us to find the magic in every moment.

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Zen and Creativity http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-and-creativity.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-and-creativity/#respond Sun, 05 Feb 2023 16:39:43 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/zen-and-creativity.html
Creative Zen


This week Tesshin Roshi used his talk to discuss Zen and the arts.  Does an artist use Zen practice to bring out their art or does Zen evoke an artistic desire in the artist?  As the group contemplated this, Roshi noted that it is both simultaneously.  


One modern example we can explore is that of Leonard Cohen who started his musical career in the late 1960’s.  Roshi suggested that we watch the Netflix documentary “Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song”   It has said that in his early career, Cohen suffered for his art as he worked quite a bit but never really achieved the huge success he desired.  During this time Cohen also struggled with the deeper meaning in his life.  His traditional orthodox Jewish religious background seemed not to provide what he was looking for at this time.  During the 1970’s Cohen started exploring Buddhism and became an ordained Rinzai monk in 1996.  What is interesting is that his study of Buddhism reinvigorated his music and strengthened his Jewish faith.  Roshi stopped here and noted that studying the Dharma does not mean someone has to walk away from their career or their religious upbringing.  In fact, if Dharma study and Zazen are working properly, these aspects of your life can actually be strengthened.  We can look at Cohen’s experience as an example of this.


What is interesting about Cohen’s later career is that even after his business manager stole all of his wealth, and Cohen had to significantly increase his grueling live tour schedule, he actually became happier in life.  Many music critics actually state that this was the most prolific time in his career.  Why is this?  Could it be that the time on the cushion taught Cohen how to let go of adversity?  Could koan study have taught him how to hold opposing ideas in his mind without getting upset?  Can you have a major reverse in your life, but still find and accept happiness?  Can you be exposed to new ideas without throwing away your old ideas and beliefs?  Can we accept each new event, idea, and person with love and equanimity?


Roshi next discussed a TV series called “McCartney 3,2,1”  in which the famous music producer, Rick Rubin, interviews Paul McCartney.  They discuss McCartney’s early life, work with the Beatles, Wings, and his 50 years as a solo artist. The series also covers the songwriting, influences, and personal relationships that formed McCartney’s songs.  Roshi noted that Rubin looked on his profession not to create commercial success for his clients, but rather to find their creative expression.  Roshi next recommended that we read Rubin’s Book “The Creative Act: A Way of Being”  for some insights from Rubin.


Roshi read some passages out of the book and asked us to compare what he wrote to what we work to accomplish in practice.  For instance, Rubin tries to …


“…[create] a space where artists of all different genres and traditions can home in on who they really are and what they really offer. [Makes] a practice of helping people transcend their self-imposed expectations in order to reconnect with a state of innocence from which the surprising becomes inevitable”  


We should stop here and see how this is exactly what we do in practice as well.  We practice to understand what we really are.  We strive to transcend our conditioning to achieve a state of openness from which many surprising things can happen.  Rubin is not a Buddhist or a Zen master, but his writings on creativity would fit neatly in any book on Zen practice.


So, the relationship between practice and creativity flows in both directions.  We practice being present right her, right now.  We practice Rubin’s “innocence.”  As we mature in this practice everything opens up and spontaneous creativity naturally flows.  It could be a new song, but it could also be a creative solution to a problem at work or a tasty new dish for dinner or even a way to commute to work faster than before.  The possibilities are limitless!     

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Aeonic Fire http://yorktownzen.org/blog/aeonic-fire.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/aeonic-fire/#respond Sun, 29 Jan 2023 16:40:53 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/aeonic-fire.html


This week Tesshin Roshi continued our koan study with case 30 from the Book of Serenity.  The case is called Dasui’s Aeonic Fire.  The case is short and is provided below …


A monk asked Dasui, “When the great kalpa fire bursts out, the whole universe will be destroyed. I wonder if IT will also be destroyed or not.” Daizui said, “Destroyed.” The monk said, “If so, will it be gone with the other?” Daizui said, “Gone with the other.”

The same monk later asked Longji, When the great kalpa fire bursts out, the whole universe will be destroyed. I wonder if IT will also be destroyed or not.”  Longji replied, “Not destroyed.”

The monk asked, “Why is it not destroyed?”

Longji replied, “Because it is the same as the Universe”


Goroshi next wanted to provide the background story for this koan and ensure that we understood some of the key terms.  First, the term ‘aionic’ means “lasting for an immeasurably or indefinitely long period of time”  In fact some translations of this koan use the Tibetan term “kalpa” which is measured as the total time in any “universe system.”  So basically, a really, really long time!  Second, Roshi pointed out that the monk keeps asking about a specific “IT” – this “IT” is key to our understanding what is going on in this case.


Roshi next mentioned that koans are typically based on an interaction between masters and monks or on sutras.  In this case, it is the latter as this case is based on a very old Hindu sutra dating to a time before Buddhism.  The sutra, or teaching, describes a benevolent king who desired to safeguard his kingdom.  One day a Hindu god approaches him and states to preserve the kingdom, the king must sacrifice one thousand nobles and lesser kings in his territory.  Desiring nothing more than safeguarding his people, the king rounded up all the lesser kings and nobles and prepared them for execution.  One of the lesser kings pleaded for a single day reprieve to take care of some important business.  This was granted, and during this one day, this lesser king gathered one hundred dharma teachers and fed them.  Feeding monks is a time-honored tradition.  During the meal, one of the holy men chanted the phrase, “In the raging fire the entire universe is destroyed.”  The host was so impressed by this “turning phrase” that he chanted it as he was led to his execution.  However, the high king was also impressed and impacted by the “turning phrase” and decided at the last minute that the cost of executing one thousand people was not worth the cost to gain the promise of safety.  In fact, at this point, the king renounced his kingdom and became a mendicant monk.  Why would he do this?


At this point, Tesshin Roshi stopped and observed that this ancient sutra is very relevant for us today.  There seems to be so much violence in our world today.  We have this belief that we can utilize violence to protect those who are important to us.  We see this in individual interactions and in the interactions between countries.  This cycle of violence has been going on forever and forever.  Is there another path?  Can we break this cycle?  Our practice and this koan offer a clue as to how we can do this.  


Roshi continued with the koan.  The monk asks the first master that at the end of the universe does “IT” also get destroyed?  The “IT” is bare existence or suchness.  Dasui says that it is in fact destroyed.  He goes to another master and askes the exact same question and that master says not destroyed.  Huh?  Is that not a contradiction?  It is no surprise that this sounds very much like another case discussing the Buddha nature of a dog.  That is a clue!


We may ask which master was right and which was wrong?  Right/wrong is missing it.  This is why the masters give differing answers.  It does not matter.  The answer at any moment is based on our karma.  All we do is think and think and try to solve the problem!  “Blah, Blah, Blah” we flood our mind with ideas which break everything down into tiny fragments, all the while existence marches on while we are distracted.  


The high king in this story was fixated on safety.  He was willing to sacrifice one thousand innocents to this idea.  Do you see the delusion?  Do we die?  Do we not die?  Mu!  Can we be safe?  Mu!  We are willing to kill and kill our own lives for some sense of security.  This is a hopeless endeavor.  The only thing which matters is our experience right here and now.  Wake up, stop wasting time, transcend your fear, and live your experience!

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Restlessness and Doubt http://yorktownzen.org/blog/restlessness-and-doubt.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/restlessness-and-doubt/#respond Sun, 22 Jan 2023 16:37:29 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/restlessness-and-doubt.html
Restlessness and Doubt


This week Tesshin Roshi continued our discussion of the Five Hinderances by discussing Restlessness and Doubt.  We first started with the hinderance of restlessness.  This is a very common hinderance in our modern world with so many technological distractions.  We never have to stay with our challenging feelings because it is so easy to get lost in a new “bingeable” streaming shows or endless videos on the Internet.  Basically, technology allows us never to get uncomfortable with our discomfort!  In Zen, on the other hand, we need to be with ourselves and our discomfort.  This is a key aspect of our practice.  However, this is not easy.  


Our practice is about sitting long enough with ourselves to begin to understand those things which make us uneasy.  This is really the opposite of our restless distracted modern life.  The practice asks if we can slow down long enough to really get to know ourselves deeply and face these uncomfortable truths.  If we can do this, we start to gain perspective on our suffering.  We begin to understand that many of the challenges we are avoiding we really have no control over.  Does it really help anyone to lose sleep of large “megatrends” like global warming and wars in far away places?  This does not mean we do not care, but we need to ensure we are bringing the right energy and perspective to solve these issues.  Roshi noted that it is totally ok to get involved and effect change, but building up a distracting restless nervous mind helps nobody – it simply drains one’s energy and effectiveness.  This is what this hinderance is getting at.  All of our actions need to come from a calm and mindful foundation.  How can I be skillful in this moment?


The next hinderance we discussed was doubt and lack of trust.  Roshi noted that this does not mean distrust of the practice and the Dharma, rather it points to lack of trust in ourselves.  We may experience a totally distracted session of zazen and become discouraged at our prospects of gaining a breakthrough experience.  We are constantly plagued by feelings of inadequacy.  Here Roshi emphasized that we should not run avoid these negative feelings, but rather experience them and try to put a proper perspective on things.  It is much better to have a bad session on the cushion than no session on the cushion.  Everyday is something new.  Some days will have great progress and other days will lead nowhere.  It is all good as it is part of the practice of life and of Zen.  


Roshi then reminded us that all of the hinderances come from our own mind and never from external factors.  Again, he reminded us not to avoid or suppress the emotions and feelings which arise when experiences the hinderances.  We need to face and experiences everything, including the hinderances.  The power of our practice is building the skill to deal with these things properly.  Instead of generating restless angst or the despair of distrust, Roshi counseled us that practice is about sprinkling “love” on all of our experiences.  We can look at this as going easy on ourselves and realizing that the hinderances are part of what it means to be alive.  Do not be so hard on yourself and others when things do not go to plan.  So, you had a bad day at work.  So, you cannot concentrate on the cushion.  It is all ok!  Give yourself a bit of love.  Give someone else a bit of love.  Turn down the temperature and give yourself enough time to really appreciate the perspective of the challenges you face. 

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Ill Will and Sloth http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ill-will-and-sloth.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ill-will-and-sloth/#respond Sun, 15 Jan 2023 17:29:53 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/ill-will-and-sloth.html
Ill Will and Sloth


This week Tesshin Roshi continued our exploration of the Five Hinderances.  Before beginning, Roshi reminded us again that the hinderances are never about external things, rather they are all about what is going on in our own mind.  Studying the hinderances is all about training our mind with the overarching goal of alleviating our suffering and the suffering of others.


Last week, we went over the first hinderance which was sensory desire.  This week Roshi moved on to the second hinderance which is commonly translated as “Ill Will.”  The first thing to realize when thinking about Ill Will is that it is not simple anger.  If we stop and think about it, anger is part of our human nature and part of nature in general.  Anger is generated when our sense of safety or security is challenged.  In many ways, it is a survival instinct.  We see this in the natural world all the time.  Animals will compete over limited resources such as food or mates.  Animals will fight if they feel that their security is at risk.  Anger is a natural emotion which primes the body for “flight or fight” responses.  


So how does ill will differ from anger?  Well, if we go back to nature and imagine two rams locking horns over a mate.  One male will eventually dominate the other male and “win” the competition.  After the clash, there is no scheming or planning for revenge.  This emotion of resentment and revenge is very much a human feature.  Think to your own life.  How much time have you plotted revenge against someone who has done your wrong?  It could be a boss at work or a friend who has insulted you.  Here is where the hinderance occurs.  We humans spend so much energy in resentment, antipathy, and hate!  It causes wars between countries, destroys relationships, and creates so much suffering.  


Roshi stopped here to emphasize the point.  Anger can be a healthy and natural reaction.  It is a natural reaction when our being is threatened and action is needed.  Ill will, however, is a hinderance as it is so corrosive to our own mind.  Many religious traditions have recognized this fact.  This is why in Christianity it is said to love your enemy.  This does not mean do not protect yourself.  It does mean, however, not to blow up a conflict into a raging hate far out of proportion to the threat.   Our natural mode should be love and compassion – even to people we do not agree with.  We do this to first lesson our suffering and then the suffering of others.


We then moved onto the third hinderance which is Sloth and Torpor.  Generally, this is understood to be a condition of low energy and depression.  To make this clearer, Roshi described what typically happens during a week-long meditation intensive retreat.  At first, students come in all excited that this retreat will give them the breakthrough experience.  They will meditate intensively on the first day for 12-14 hours.  They will end the day exhausted with no progress.  On the second day, the mind starts with all kinds of unhealthy thoughts …  “Why am I here?  I am making no progress … This is not for me!”  Suddenly in the middle of the retreat, all the enthusiasm drains along with all the energy and fire to practice.  This is the “torpor” which the hinderance points to.  Notice, nothing changed in the body or in the external conditions.  It is all in the mind.  Roshi mentioned that the “secret magic” of the retreat is that the student has nowhere to go and nothing to do but keep powering on.  After everything has broken down, the student must simply sit with no expectations.  If the student can transcend the torpor and despair, by the end of the retreat they can begin to feel light and potentially have a great breakthrough.


Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that all of these hinderances are only about us and what happens in our mind.  Combating these hinderances is not easy, which is why we train and why we practice.

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Happy New Year http://yorktownzen.org/blog/happy-new-year-2.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/happy-new-year-2/#respond Sun, 08 Jan 2023 16:32:09 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/happy-new-year-2.html
A kimono woman heading for a New Year to the temple on the day when the New Year is coming.


Tesshin Roshi opened his talk this week by wishing everyone a happy new year.  He reminisced about his time in Japan where every practice center rang their big temple bell 108 times.  The sound would reverberate all across the countryside and it was almost like the mountains were talking to each other.  Roshi remarked that the number 108 symbolizes the “Bono” or passions and imperfections that human beings are said to possess.  Attached HERE is a short article on this.

Also attached HERE is a talk Roshi gave a few years back on this topic


Roshi next remarked that one of the fundamental differences between early Buddhism and Abrahamic faiths is that the later focuses on stories where as former focuses on lists of items to memorize.  If we think for a second, Buddhism is overflowing with lists.  4 Noble Truths, 8-Fold Path, 108 Bono, 5 Aggregates, etc.  This started to change, however, with teachers such as Rinzai and Dogen.  The introduction of the Koan meant that stories and parables started to be introduced into the Buddhist tradition.  In fact, one of Dogen’s key teachings was to stop talking about what ‘Zen’ is.  If you say that this list or this concept ‘is’ Zen, then you are excluding everything else.  In Dogen’s conception, there are not only 108 Bono, there are an infinite number.  Also, there are not simply 8 gates in practice – there are an infinite number.  According to Roshi, what this means is that our practice is very practical.  What action can we do today to reduce suffering for ourselves or another – that is Zen!  The gates are infinite!  This is quite encouraging as it exhorts us to get out into the world and actually be a force for good rather than worrying about doctrinal details. 


Does this mean there are no lists?  Of course not!  Lists are Zen as well!  As such, Roshi wanted to start focusing on the Five Hinderances for the next few talks.  Again, our practice is all about the alleviation of suffering.  We know “intellectually” that we are already perfect and have Buddha nature.  So, why do we suffer?  We suffer because of the five hinderances.  For this week, Tesshin Roshi started by describing the first hinderance, namely “Sensory Desire”


According to Buddhism, sensory desire is craving or fearing external stimuli.  This can be described as pleasure or pain occurring from senses such as sight, hearing, tasting, touching, etc.  To be clear, we cannot avoid external stimuli and the physical effects they have.  Rather, the hinderance is specifically what happens in the mind.  For instance, seeing something beautiful and enjoying it is healthy.  What is unhealthy, however, is constantly craving the experience again and again.  An example may be simply enjoying a wide-open vista in nature.  Where it becomes problematic is if the simple enjoyment becomes an obsession to get the perfect “Instagram” picture.  How many tourists do we see missing the experience of something to get the perfect “selfie”?  We need to understand that events are but fleeting things to be enjoyed and then let go.


We don’t just cling to positive stimuli; we obsess over avoiding negative stimuli as well.  Do we hide from the bad news?  What we should strive to do is embrace the suffering.  This does not mean to enjoy suffering, rather it means to deal with the suffering “straight-up” in mindfulness.  For example, getting negative feedback at work is never a pleasant experience, but what is so much worse is all the catastrophizing which comes after the feedback.  “Am I going to be fired?”  “Why does nobody like me?” “Why do I always fail?”  What would be so much more useful is to listen to the feedback and make the necessary improvement!  The message here is clear.  Yes, you will suffer, but do not magnify the suffering by having unskillful thoughts about the suffering.


Roshi wrapped up again by wishing everyone a happy new year and encouraging everyone to refocus on practice in 2023.

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Bodhi-Bot http://yorktownzen.org/blog/bodhibot.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/bodhibot/#respond Sun, 25 Dec 2022 15:47:47 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/bodhibot.html


Roshi continued his discussion this week of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it relates to our practice.  There has been a lot of talk these past few weeks about AI language models rivaling human abilities.  Some examples include writing essays which would be accepted in an undergraduate college course, generating complex computer code from English requirements, and even writing poetry.  To test the latter, the sangha asked an Internet based AI to write a Haiku of thanks for Roshi.  This following was presented after the talk and Roshi was actually impressed by the quality of the poem.


Gentle guiding hand 

Leading us to new horizons 

Thank you, dear Roshi


Goroshi asked the question – what does AI have to do with our practice and could a computer ever realize Buddha nature?  To really consider this, we need to think about the nature of data, knowledge, and wisdom.  If we think along a continuum, on one side we have data and on the other extreme we have wisdom.  Between these two we have knowledge.  Data is simply individual facts stored in isolation.  “Albany is the capital of New York.”  Our initial response to a fact is always, “so what?”  This is because there is no context to this fact.  Humans take data and use it to generate new knowledge.  For instance, knowing that Albany is the capital of New York, we can infer that there are many politicians in Albany.  We can next infer that if we want to lobby for a cause, we may wish to travel to Albany instead of some other city in New York state.   In essence, humans can take data and apply it to solve problems.  This turns data into usable knowledge.  


When we consider modern computers and the Internet, we understand that AI has access to much more data than any single human.  In fact, we can assume that the largest AI models have access to the entire corpus of the human written word.  Networked computers also have access to enormous amounts of computational power.  It is this power which is now allowing AI’s to begin applying data to potentially generate knowledge.  Roshi pondered whether the emergence of real knowledge from AI computer systems would apply economic pressure to “knowledge workers” in a similar way to how robotics applied pressure to factory workers.  He also wondered if this is why there is so much uneasiness about this new technology.


However, our issue is not economic, it is about the other end of our continuum – namely wisdom.  Could an AI computer system leap from generating knowledge into having true wisdom?  Roshi started out by stating that this is a very hard question.  For instance, at its heart, AI is a simulation technology.  This means that given enough data and computational power, an AI could “simulate” wisdom.  This already happens crudely today in therapeutic chatbots.  In situations when there are not enough therapists to serve all clients, an AI chatbot could be used to help people.  These bots work by looking at transcripts of millions of therapy sessions.  If the patient presents with ‘X’ complaint, the bot knows that ‘Y’ answer has had good results in the past.  However, Roshi noted that the bot itself has never really suffered the problem which the patient is presenting with.  It is a useful simulation, but is it really wisdom?


Roshi stopped here and brought up an interesting point.  An AI cannot choose to be a Bodhisattva!  The computer has not experienced the first noble truth and it never can.  It does not have a body which feels pain or a mind which experiences the existential dread of mortality.  The Bodhisattva mind arises because we humans have experienced these things and we see this in other sentient beings.  Because of this we generate compassion and through this compassion we generate true wisdom.  Roshi reminded us that the advent of AI clearly shows us our humanity by what AI essentially lacks.  Because we suffer, we come to practice.  We come to practice to wrestle with the irony of existence and once we have mastered it, we commit to spread this wisdom to all beings.  An AI can simulate this, and someday very skillfully.  However, there is no karma in a computer, and thus no deep compassion, and thus no deep wisdom.  That is the realm of humanity.  


Roshi wrapped up by wishing everyone the happiest of holidays and a happy new year.

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Do Zen Androids Dream of Electric Buddhas http://yorktownzen.org/blog/do-zen-androids-dream-of-electric-buddhas.html http://yorktownzen.org/blog/do-zen-androids-dream-of-electric-buddhas/#respond Sun, 11 Dec 2022 17:21:43 +0000 http://yorktownzen.org/blog/do-zen-androids-dream-of-electric-buddhas.html
Zen Robot


Goroshi used his talk this week to ponder the meaning of Artificial Intelligence from a Buddhist point of view.  This week saw the release of yet another advanced “language model” which allows a computer to simulate human conversation, writing, and even art work.  Some of these new systems could even conceivably pass a Turing Test.  The Turing test simply states that if a person cannot tell if they are talking to a computer or human, then we must at least entertain the possibility that the computer is conscious in some way.  Attached below are some general articles on AI “chat bots” for background.





Roshi pondered whether a super advanced AI could achieve enlightenment.  Can we consider that the machine would have already transcended the aggregates (form, sensation, perceptions, mind, consciousness).  Our machine can also scan the vast trove of Zen literature and hold the combined wisdom of all the sages.  Is this enlightenment?  We could ask the AI system about dogs and Buddha nature and we would get back pretty sophisticated answers.  Could we even use a system to build a Zen master?  Imagine if we could put a Zen master in everyone’s pocket.  What are we to make of this?  According to this link, this is already being done in Japan.


Can we build an enlightened computer?  The first step for us is to understand how the AI works.  At a very simple level, the AI can use the internet to scan every available document on a topic.  It then builds word associations.  (e.g. it has seen many times that the word “dog” and the word “mu” are associated.) This is very similar to how autocomplete works in modern email programs.  If you ask the computer a question on a topic or form a sentence, if knows, on average, what an answer is or what text comes next because it has looked at billions of documents.  At one level, what we have is a super genius academic student who has read every book in the library and has perfect memory.


Roshi then asked us if such a person is enlightened?  Here he was clear – this person is an expert on Buddhism and Zen but this person has no more chance of being enlightened than anyone else.  We need only to remember the story of the sixth patriarch of Zen who reached enlightenment as an illiterate by hearing the Diamond sutra being chanted.   This realization was instant!  It was “magic!”  It cannot be calculated.  Something in the Diamond sutra unlocked Huineng.  This is different than breaking the sutra apart and building mathematical and statistical word associations.  


Someone in the group asked why even bother considering AI when thinking about our own practice.  Roshi thought that pondering this subject was useful as it gave us another skillful means to explore what it means to practice?  Does a machine have karma?  Does a machine suffer?  Does a machine feel?  What about us?  Do we really suffer?  What is suffering?  Trying to ascribe these phenomena to a machine gets us to think more deeply about these things.  


A machine can simulate wisdom and realization, but it is just that – a simulation.  We need only to consider the Zen proverb that “Painted rice cakes do not satisfy hunger.”  In the same way, collecting the literature of Zen and putting a clever program on top of it is may not be our definition of realization or enlightenment.


However, things are never so cut and dried in Zen.  Does a dog have Buddha nature? – Mu.  Does a computer have enlightenment?  Why would you answer this question differently than the dog?  Are we falling back into picking and choosing?  Roshi wrapped up by reminding us that the real question really has nothing to do with computers and AI, rather it has to do with coming face to face with the question we are trying to solve in Zen practice.  We are right back to the very point we started at.

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