Archive for the ‘Zen Approach is Universal’ Category
Words are the building blocks of communication. A structure of thought, blueprinted in beauty or ugliness, utilitarian or ornamented, transfers itself from one mind to another through the use of words. Words link the world together, bind heart to heart, move mountains of doubt, march a people to war, fire the suicide’s despair, capture slaves for ideology, pull the strings of imagination, create a nuclear physicist, fill the pocketbooks of Madison Avenue. Informing, enticing, inspiring, bewitching, praising, condemning, words without end flow around us, toward us, into us, above us from the beginning to the end of our days.
Words create light out of darkness, form the world from the shapeless primordial state, justify the molding of Adam, and seduce Eve to sin. Jesus Christ bears the name Word suggesting that even salvation itself comes as a structure of divine thought directed audibly and visibly toward humanity. How we use words, their choice and arrangement, brings success or failure. An educated man unable to shape his thoughts in coherent communication will fail; an ignorant orator will motivate his audience to action. For the professional communicator—preacher, teacher, editor, author—words comprise the tools of his trade, the medium of his choice, the end product of his training. The more he knows about the use of words, the more successful he will be.
Too often the would-be professional communicator feels that he can make the leap from amateur to professional use of the language without thought or study. Unfortunately, it usually shows. Only seldom does environmental absorption of a language provide the basis for its professional use. All too often the person feeling called to preaching, teaching, or writing fails to recognize that success in this calling consists, technically at least, in the use of words. He may become brilliant in theology, learned in science, a master in literature, and yet fail in word usage. He may actually resent any studied attempt to shape the stream of communication, regarding it as manipulation of his audience, or feeling that what he possesses from experience is all that he needs.
If you wish to know the simple use of words in the English language, listen to two people talking about everyday things. English stems from two distinct influences. When William the Conqueror crossed the English Channel, there rode with him an unseen army of words intent on conquest. Though he and his knights claimed Viking ancestry, they had long since shed their Norse tongue and had adopted the sophisticated French language, with its roots in Latin and Greek. Backed by the culture and authority of the Normans, French thought and words invaded the Old English forms.
As in so many other fields, the English finally won the battle, but only through compromise. English today really consists of two languages welded smoothly and unnoticeably into one. When we talk with each other, we use the short, four-letter words of our English mother tongue; when we wish to be accurate, or flowery, or sound learned, we insert the words of the French invasion. Over 50 percent of the words found in any English dictionary are either French or Latin in origin. The majority of words of two or less syllables are of English origin; most words of three or more syllables come from French or Latin borrowings.
A simple test of the power of the words used by preacher or writer lies in an examination of their roots. A powerful mover of men uses simple, short words of Anglo-Saxon origin. When he selects longer, and perhaps more descriptive, words, he does so carefully, especially when they are words not normally used in everyday speech. Of course, like all such observations, this one oversimplifies. No one can rely entirely on Anglo-Saxon words. English is one language, not a two-tiered structure, and the two language sources intertwine so thoroughly that any attempt to utilize only one ends in artificiality.
To sense the punch behind the shorter, Anglo-Saxon words, we only have to think of such words as rip, hate, love, snap, rush, and so on. The four-letter word forms the basis of much of our stronger, harsher, more emotive reservoir of words, and the longer words give subtler toning of mood, accurate description, or subtleties of thought. Word usage goes through phases. In Shakespeare’s day, the age of the King James Version of the Bible, Anglo-Saxon roots dominated. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the dependence of borrowings increased giving the flowing, and, to us, often rotund, style of John Ruskin, Tennyson, and the romantic poets.
From the moguls of the advertising world, the news readers, the mass media, and the realistic writers of our age, English has revolved once more to its Anglo-Saxon roots. We fret under the circuitous style of the bureaucrat, terming it gobbledygook. We resent the long sentences, the deliberate choice of complex words, regarding it as a put on. In preparing sermons, teaching assignments, or articles, a general rule is to choose the simple over the complex, the short over the long, the known over the unknown. Too many hearers of the word lose interest because the words live outside their world. Two aids assist the communicator in the choice of words.
Some years ago I came across a new word in an article I was reading. I went to the dictionary parked outside an administrator’s office. The word was not there. The dictionary was twenty-two years old. A new one arrived shortly after. I have a rule that if my dictionary does not contain the word I want, it is time to buy a new or better one. A dictionary should give pronunciation, meaning, and derivation. Better word banks will reveal the first known usage of the word and will quote it within literary sources. A thesaurus is the key to word usage. Shades of meaning, synonyms and antonyms surface in the grouping of words in a good thesaurus. By combining dictionary and thesaurus, no communicator need be a purveyor of tired words.
English has at least twice as many words as French, the language with the second-largest number. No preacher need bore his congregation with the repetition of thin words worn smooth and unattractive by repeated passage. Never pass a word by without knowing its meaning. Our dictionaries should wear out faster than any reference book except the Bible.
The voice offers intonation, inflection, accent, emphasis to our words. But if the words are not chosen with care and arranged in appropriate order, they may fail in their purpose. Grammar ranks right alongside foreign languages and mathematics in the negative popularity poll among elementary and high school students. Vast numbers of college students fail to distinguish between noun and verb, adverb and adjective, active and passive voice. Students may read and write, but are grammatically illiterate. Ask them to analyze a sentence, and they may confuse it with the actions of a court of law.
Out of this pitiful ignorance of the science of language flows a welter of incomplete sentences, clouded concepts, and obscure meanings that leave the speaker bewildered, the hearer frustrated. All too often the criticism, “I didn’t get what he was driving at,” reflects the speaker’s inability to put words together in correct sequence and relationship. Grammar teaches sentence structure, right pronunciation, language history. Syntax concentrates on the correct formation of sentences. A preacher, a teacher, a writer without a knowledge of both has about as much chance of controlling the thrust of his words as a ten-million-mile airline passenger has of piloting an aircraft successfully just because he has flown so often. He lives under the threat of always being a passenger of his own flight of words and never the pilot.
This does not mean that we should tolerate a stilted use of the language. Twenty to thirty years ago, split infinitives, certain collective nouns with plural verbs, and other usages would have appalled or confused many audiences. Today, usage is pushing such structures toward acceptance and correctness. Master the use of the simple declarative sentence. A simple declarative sentence takes a subject and links it with an object by a verb. It states something in simple logical sequence. Of all sentence structure this is the most easily understood. We use it with children for that reason. We use it in the height of emotion. We say, "I love you," "Black is beautiful," and so on. Such sentences become catch cries that move people. They are easily remembered. They may be repeated with out boring. Yet many communicators shy from them. They want to qualify with dependent clauses, explain with adverbial phrases, link two main clauses together, and make the sentence complex and difficult.
Use a new sentence for each new concept. Mingling concepts within the one sentence frame obscures meaning. The mind has to evaluate which of the two or more concepts has priority, and while doing this either drop out altogether or falls behind. Keep the simple, short words for the points of emphasis. Reinforce ideas by using the simplest of words and sentence structure to drive your point home. Go from the simple to the complex and then back to the simple again. Do it with both words and sentences.
It is said of Jesus that the common people heard Him gladly. It wasn’t only what He said, but also the way He constructed His speech. He chose words the people understood to match illustrations they understood. His revolutionary ideas found acceptance through the simplicity of the words He spoke, as well as through His compassion, His honesty, His inspiration. We have the best of examples in our Lord. He was not called the Word for nothing. Those who heard Him under stood Him completely. He could only be the Word as He communicated accurately the message of divinity to humanity. His power lay in His words and so may ours. We stand closer to Christ as we use the language with simplicity, purity, and understanding. The Holy Spirit has greater hope of directing us to the needs of others and directing them to their own needs through correctly used language.
It is something worth praying about, something worth working for.
Credits: Walter R. L. Scragg
Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy. It is not a psychology or a type of science. It is a way of liberation, and is similar in this respect to Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga. A way of liberation can have no positive definition. It is suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.
Zen is fulfillment of long traditions of Indian and Chinese culture. Furthermore, it is more Chinese than Indian. Since the twelfth century, it has rooted itself deeply and most creatively in the culture of Japan. As the fruition of these great cultures, and as a unique and peculiarly instructive example of a way of liberation, Zen is a precious gift of Asia to the world.
What is meant by a way of liberation? The difficulty and mystification of Zen to the westerners are the result of westerners unfamiliarity with Chinese ways of thinking; ways which differ startlingly from westerners. It is of special value to westerners in attaining a critical perspective upon westerners’ ideas. The problem here is not mastering different ideas, differing from Western World, say, the theories of Kant differ from those of Descartes, or those of Calvinists from those of Catholics. The problem is to appreciate differences from those of Catholics. The problem is to appreciate differences in the basic premises of thought and in the very methods of thinking. These often overlooked Western World’s interpretations of Chinese philosophy is a projection of characteristically Western Ideas into Chinese terminology. This is the inevitable disadvantage of studying Asian philosophy by the purely literary methods of Western scholarship, for words can be communicative only between those who share similar experiences.
This is not to go so far as to say that so rich and subtle a language as English is simply incapable of expressing Chinese ideas. The difficulty is not in the language, but in the thought-patterns which have hitherto seemed inseparable from the academic and scientific way of approaching a subject. The unsuitability of these patterns for such subjects as Zen is largely responsible for the impression that the oriental mind is mysterious, irrational, and inscrutable. Furthermore, it need not be supposed that these matters are so noticeably Japanese that they have no point of contact with anything in Western Culture. It is true that none of the formal divisions of Western Science and thought corresponds to a way of liberation. The study of Zen in English Literature has shown clearly that the essential insights of Zen are universal.
The reason why Zen presents, at first sight, such a puzzle to the westerners is that Western Mind has taken a restricted view of human knowledge. For westerners, almost all knowledge is what a Taoist would call conventional knowledge, because westerners do not feel that they really know anything unless it can be represented to them in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics or music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication. Just as people speaking the same language have tacit agreements as to what words shall stand for what things, so the members of every society and every culture are united by bonds of communication resting on all kinds of agreement as to the classification and valuation of actions and things.
The future is always beginning now. Do you ever feel like there’s something missing in your life? It feels like you’re always waiting for something to arrive. You want the future to come, because it’s better there. But that’s all wrong. The future is an illusion. It’s just a concept in your head. This is what I’ve realized in the past few months. I’ve suddenly become acutely aware of what’s going on. I’ve entered the present moment more powerfully than ever before. I’m learning more and more, and that’s exactly what happens each year. As I’m writing this, I am completely present in my body. I feel my fingers write the words. It almost feels like I’m not the one typing, typing is just happening. I don’t claim to be perfect, but I do want to share what’s happened, and how you can tap into the same peace and joy that I have. But before we do that, let’s look at the problem.
In the past, I tended to live in the future. I daydreamed of a better life. I wanted more money, more adventure, and more time so I could be in the present moment. When I put it like that, it almost seems crazy, doesn’t it? But that’s how your mind works. It promises that you’ll get something that you already have. The problem is that to be at peace, you have to transcend the mind. It’s there for the taking. By shifting from the future to the here and now, I feel amazing. I realize that there’s nothing in the outside world that can make a big difference if I’m anchored to the present moment. I used to get depressed by this, but now I feel grateful. I feel alive when I walk outside. The air is fresh. I am in touch with the presence that I am and everything is what it is.
The solution is to stay present here and now. Notice what thoughts are popping up as you read these words. Let them be without analyzing or reacting. Instead, feel your body. Notice your feet, legs, abdomen, and your breathing. Become intensely present in what’s going on now. How is your body feeling? What sounds are you aware of? What do you see? When your mind tries to pull you back, gently bring your attention back to your body. This isn’t always easy. I’ve been falling in and out of the present moment for years, but how long you stay there is not the goal. There is no goal. When you notice that you’ve slipped, you return to now. It’s that simple. When you notice criticizing thoughts pop up, let them be, and breathe. Say yes to whatever happens in your life. I worry less about the future, because I’ve realized there’s not much I can do. The future will come in the form it comes. All I have to do is stay here and now and deal with whatever comes in the best way I can. It’s easy to think we can control life, but we can’t. Life has a tendency to live itself, and we’re along for the ride. As I’ve become more and more comfortable with just going with the flow, I’ve started feeling more peace and enjoying what is.
When I tap into the now, I notice that I’m already at peace. I don’t really need anything, because even if I get something, it won’t have a lasting effect on my happiness. The only way I can be happy now is to tap into that peace inside of me. When I do that, I come from a place of positivity instead of negativity. Life seems easier. I feel better. I affect the people around me just by being close to them. If I feel negative, I sometimes sit down on the sofa behind me, close my eyes, and immerse myself in what I’m feeling. I breathe and let things be. When I do this, eventually I may feel an impulse to do something, such as write. I used to try and force myself to take action, but now it often just seems to happen. We’re all interconnected. Even scientists are realizing this. This means that if you stay in the present moment, you tap into a bigger intelligence than your mind. Your mind cannot comprehend this, which is why it’s confused, scared, and worried. That’s okay, too. It wants the best for you. But real living is living from your heart. It’s living in the present moment and following your excitement.
You can’t control life. I used to have plans for what I wanted to do. I still have intentions for where I am going, but I’m not rigid about them. I don’t suffer if they happen. I might be unhappy, but I do my best to stay here and now when they arise. I had no idea I would be doing what I do today just a few years ago. I’m doing what I love. I’m an alarm clock that helps people wake up from their slumber. I trust the force. It’s not easy to let go, because your mind will try to fight you tooth and nail, but when you see that first glimpse, you realize what’s possible. It has taken me years to reach this point, so don’t criticize yourself if you’re not where you want to be. Notice that that is another thought, and notice that you are the awareness behind that thought.
We’re all evolving. This is just the beginning. But each moment is a new beginning. There’s no need to live in the future, because future is merely a concept in your head. When it arrives, it will arrive as the present moment. If you’re not here and now, you’ll miss it. You’ll keep dreaming of a better future, which never really comes. The message I want to give you is that everything is okay right now. We all have challenges in our life, but its okay. Say yes to life. Accept what’s here and now. Trust life, even if it doesn’t look the way you want it to. The problem isn’t life, but your expectations of it. Everything in the outside world will sooner or later dissolve, but who you are deep down is eternal. When you can tap into who you really are, your life will change.
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The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance. My obsession at an early age became to follow my heart—a life’s search for meaning, adventure, and enlightenment. This search has been remarkable, a journey that has brought me to fascinating place for extended stays in US and has led me to relationships with some of the most interesting, loving people around the globe.
As exhilarating the feeling of following your heart can be, it’s not always the yellow brick road we envision. The journey can be ambiguous, and it can toss us around like in an airplane cabin during times of heavy turbulence. Instead of being overcome by the drama-loving ego, feel a strong sense of inner peace, as if a path to an important journey lay ahead. Sometimes spiritual journeys are not the fuzzy-feely ones we see all too often in modern pop culture, Eat, Pray, Love being one of them. Spiritual journeys can be physically challenging, emotionally daunting, and can require deep inner strength.
We live in an ever-changing world, and we need to fine-tune our souls to release inner resistance and fully open to the journey—good, bad, or horrific. These may help in embracing extreme change. Open your heart to divine guidance. I believe that there’s no such thing as coincidence or being in the right place at the right time. Embrace situations that give you an overly positive gut feeling. That feeling can only be the right thing for you to do, coming from a higher sense of self. Accept the journey that lies ahead fully and quickly start making arrangements. Do not allow conflicting thoughts to deny the inevitable. Sometimes instead of fighting upstream, allow the natural flow of things to take you where it is you’re supposed to go.
Let love set you free. A flash of heartfelt memories and dread immediately follows by the four words “Dear one has passed away.” The weeks that follow will be a matter of figuring out logistics. There will be countless calls of condolences from family and friends. The support and memories exchanged during this time is invaluable, and one should have nothing but complete gratitude for the love expressed during that difficult time. They are helping you to set free.
Be at peace with the past. The entire experience passing away of dear one leaves some seriously gaping holes in our soul. Find peace in making past your friend. Filling the holes with love—embracing only the positive memories of your adventures through life. There will be times during extreme change when you will want to make the past your enemy. Don’t! Simply let it be what it is—the past. Life is nothing more than a series of experiences and journeys, and yours is right now—this present moment.
Embrace life for what it is in the moment—good, bad, or horrific. We can all take important lessons from our life. Life isn’t always neat; it’s messy, but it’s all we have. Embrace every moment and truly give the divine gift of love wherever your journeys may take you. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other—to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment, but it is transient. If we share with caring, light-heartedness and love we will create abundance and joy for each other and then this moment will have been worthwhile.
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I practiced with a Rinzai-ji affiliated group for approximately 10 years in the 1980s. I hesitate to call myself a student of Joshu Sasaki since I only saw him in sesshin 2 or 3 times a year or less. I was never a resident at one of his practice centers. I would see him for a week of sesshin when I could, and that was it. I was never sure if he even remembered who I was from one sesshin to the next. For people like me, he seemed distant, elevated, and untouchable. I don’t remember the year, maybe 1989, when our centre received an open letter that a female student had written to Sasaki and then mailed to several Rinzai-ji affiliated zen centres. It was a highly emotional rant on how she could no longer tolerate his groping her and his pulling her hand into his robes for his own excitement.
I was stunned. I had no idea this was going on. Then I heard that it was a common occurrence that “Everybody knows…” and I began to hear a whole range of stories. Some women said that they became stronger because of his abuse. I also heard a story that one woman hired a Japanese translator to confront him with her pain because he refused to acknowledge her when she confronted him in English. Apparently, he refused to acknowledge the translator. After this scandal, there were some assurances that Sasaki would be brought in line. Apparently, a list of behavioral guidelines was drawn up for him. This is what we were told to reassure us that something would be done. I stayed with my practice group hoping that there would be some healing. I didn’t want to abandon my practice family just because times were difficult. One response was that women students who went to practice with Sasaki were warned that he might behave inappropriately, and that this was not to be seen as a necessary part of his teaching.
I wrote a personal letter to Sasaki expressing my concerns and telling him that I did not feel I could sustain my affiliation with Rinzai-ji if I didn’t feel certain that women would be safe with him. I never received a reply although one Osho did ask me about what I had written. A woman returned to our practice centre after sesshin at Mt. Baldy and described how wonderful she felt when Sasaki gave her a big hug at the end of sanzen. This was about a year after the letter denouncing Sasaki had been received. I no longer had confidence that anything would change, and I left the group. More than once I heard ordained members of the Rinzai-ji sangha say, “If you have a problem with roshi’s behavior, it’s your problem.” The implication was that Sasaki had no problems. If you thought he did, that just proved your own lack of understanding. This was “old news” in the 1980s. It’s very sad.
I’m a bit late commenting on the latest Zen teacher sex scandal. Really, this is getting tiresome. But here goes, recently the board of directors of Rinzai-ji Zen Center in Los Angeles met to discuss allegations of sexual impropriety against the abbot, Joshu Sasaki Roshi. This has allegedly been going on for years, and the impropriety allegedly is ongoing in spite of the fact that Roshi is now 105 years old. If you want to read the last sentence a couple more times, I understand. I have no personal knowledge of the Sasaki Situation and can only report on what I have read elsewhere, so please take all of this with a really big grain of salt. But here’s the story: Sasaki Roshi, born in 1907, is a Rinzai Zen teacher who came to the United States to found the Rinzai-ji Zen Center. He also is abbot of the Mount Baldy Zen Center, also in California, and a number of affiliated Zen centers. He is best known for being songwriter Leonard Cohen’s teacher.
I have only heard a few of the allegations, but allegedly Roshi is a compulsive groper. One former student said he had asked her to bare her breasts to him to help her break out of her mental limitations. There are vague hints of sexual relations with students, although nothing is spelled out and that’s about all I know. In some ways the question of what Roshi did or didn’t do is less interesting to me than the reactions to it. There seems to be a lot of belittling of the allegations going on, especially because of Roshi’s advanced age. But the allegations go back many years, when his age was less advanced. Some groped women have testified that when they complained, senior students just laughed off Roshi’s odd little habit of grabbing women’s breasts at random times. That’s just Roshi!
Because of the man’s advanced age, I am not so interested in punishing or condemning him as I am in educating others, especially the men folk, that the groping thing is seriously bad. Yes, worse things can happen. Yes, most of the time being randomly groped doesn’t do permanent damage. But when the groper is a man in authority, someone said to be worthy of admiration, being groped, being treated as a sex toy, is deeply humiliating. It tells the woman that the man in authority doesn’t take her seriously as a human being, much less as a student. I think that must be hard for a lot of men to appreciate, but that’s how it is and, of course, if a woman has a history of being sexually abused, being groped by an authority figure stirs up all the shame and self-loathing that so often plagues sexual abuse victims.
The best analogy of awfulness would be to welcome African Americans into the sangha and then tell them they have to clean the kitchen while the white folks meditate and then tell watermelon jokes. Well, that’s what it feels like to a woman when her person is so disrespected by someone in whom she has placed her hopes and her trust. It’s not the sex; it’s the betrayal of trust and the belittling and while it’s bad enough for Roshi to be a groper; when the senior students of the sangha brush off a woman’s complaints and tell her to just get over it, to me, that’s even worse.
That said, of course women are very different creatures and don’t all react to the same situation in the same way. Maybe some women don’t find it to be a big deal. Maybe there are people with scars who don’t mind being called ugly, or elderly people who don’t mind being belittled as useless and senile. Since not everybody minds, those who do mind should just get over it, right? Dosho Port commented on the Sasaki Situation, but what struck me is the first comment, in which someone with a feminine name complains that we shouldn’t be so judgmental about sex. OK, but we should try to get points, and I say this really isn’t about sex.
Adam Tebbe at Sweeping Zen says he got the same reaction when he wrote about Sasaki. "One man contacted me on Facebook to inform me I am the ‘Pee Pee Police.’ Another angry blogger previously commented that we’re Sweeping Sins, now," he writes. Again, I don’t think this has anything to do with conventional or unconventional morality, or sin, or puritanism, or whatever is hanging somebody up. This is about signaling to certain people that they have no value as human beings and that their pain isn’t important and won’t be taken seriously. This is what the Buddha taught? This has become something of a pet peeve — Whenever I see the Diamond Sutra mentioned other than by a dharma teacher, and sometimes then also, it is said that the sutra mainly is about impermanence. This is a bit like saying football mainly is about tackling. Yes, there is tackling, but other things are going on too, like passing and touchdowns.
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Meditation is not easy. It takes time and energy. It also takes grit, determination and discipline. It requires a host of personal qualities which we normally regard as unpleasant and which we like to avoid whenever possible. We can sum it all up in the American word ‘gumption’. Meditation takes ‘gumption’. It is certainly a great deal easier just to kick back and watch television. So why bother? Why waste all that time and energy when you could be out enjoying yourself? Why bother? Simply because you are human, and just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent inadequacy in life; which simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time. You can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back; usually when it is least expected. This inherent inadequacy in life approach all of a sudden, apparently out of the blue, you sit up, take stock, and become conscious of your actual situation in life.
There you are, and you suddenly realize that you are spending your whole life just barely getting by. You keep up a good front. You manage to make ends meet somehow and look okay from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you; you keep those to yourself. You are a mess and you know it, but you hide it beautifully. Meanwhile, way down under all that, you just know there has got be some other way to live, some better way to look at the world, some way to touch life more fully. You click into it by chance now and then. You get a good job. You fall in love. You win the game and for a while, things are different. Life takes on a richness and clarity that makes all the bad times and humdrum fade away. The whole texture of your experience changes and you say to yourself, "Okay, now I’ve made it; now I will be happy". But then that fades, too, like smoke in the wind. You are left with just a memory; a vague awareness that something is wrong.
But there is really another whole realm of depth and sensitivity available in life, somehow, you are just not seeing it. You wind up feeling cut off. You feel insulated from the sweetness of experience by some sort of sensory cotton. You are not really touching life. You are not making it again, and then even that vague awareness fades away, and you are back to the same old reality. The world looks like the usual foul place, which is boring at best. It is an emotional roller coaster, and you spend a lot of your time down at the bottom of the ramp, yearning for the heights.
So what is wrong with you? Are you a freak? No. You are just human, and you suffer from the same malady that infects every human being. It is a monster inside all of us, and it has many arms like chronic tension, lack of genuine compassion for others including the people closest to you, feelings being blocked up, and emotional deadness. None of us is entirely free from it. We may deny it. We try to suppress it. We build a whole culture around hiding from it, pretending it is not there, and distracting ourselves from it with goals and projects and status, but it never goes away. It is a constant undercurrent in every thought and every perception; a little wordless voice at the back of the head saying, "Not good enough yet, got to have more, got to make it better, I got to be better." It is a monster, a monster that manifests everywhere in subtle forms.
Go to a party. Listen to the laughter that brittle-tongued voice that says fun on the surface and fear underneath, feel the tension and feel the pressure. Nobody really relaxes. They are faking it. Go to a ball game, watch the fan in the stand and watch the irrational fit of anger. Watch the uncontrolled frustration bubbling forth from people that masquerades under the guise of enthusiasm or team spirit of booing, cat-calls and unbridled egotism in the name of team loyalty, drunkenness, and fights in the stands. These are the people trying desperately to release tension from within. These are not people who are at peace with themselves. Watch the news on TV. Listen to the lyrics in popular songs. You find the same theme repeated over and over in variations; jealousy, suffering, discontent and stress.
Life seems to be a perpetual struggle, some enormous effort against staggering odds, and what is our solution to all this dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the ‘If only’ syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I could find somebody who really loves me, if only I could lose 20 pounds, if only I had a color TV, curly hair, and on and on forever. So where does all this junk come from and more important, what can we do about it? It comes from the conditions of our own minds. It is a deep, subtle and pervasive set of mental habits, a Gordian knot which we have built up bit by bit and we can unravel just the same way, one piece at a time. We can tune up our awareness, search up each separate piece and bring it out into the light. We can make the unconscious conscious, slowly, one piece at a time.
The essence of our experience is change. Change is incessant. Moment by moment life flows by and it is never the same. Perpetual alteration is the essence of the perceptual universe. A thought springs up in your head and half a second later, it is gone. In comes another one, and that is gone too. A sound strikes your ears and then silence. Open your eyes and the world pours in, blink and it is gone. People come into your life and they leave again. Friends go, relatives die. Your fortunes go up and they go down. Sometimes you win and just as often you lose. It is incessant change. No two moments ever the same. There is not a thing wrong with this. It is the nature of the universe. But human culture has taught us some odd responses to this endless flowing. We categorize experiences. We try to stick each perception, every mental change in this endless flow into one of three mental pigeon holes. It is good, or it is bad, or it is neutral. Then, according to which box we stick it in, we perceive with a set of fixed habitual mental responses. If a particular perception has been labeled ‘good’, then we try to freeze time right there. We grab onto that particular thought, we fondle it, and we hold it and we try to keep it from escaping. When that does not work, we go all-out in an effort to repeat the experience which caused that thought. Let us call this mental habit ‘grasping’.
Over on the other side of the mind lies the box labeled ‘bad’. When we perceive something ‘bad’, we try to push it away. We try to deny it, reject it, get rid of it any way we can. We fight against our own experience. We run from pieces of ourselves. Let us call this mental habit ‘rejecting’. Between these two reactions lies the neutral box. Here we place the experiences which are neither good nor bad. They are tepid, neutral, uninteresting and boring. We pack experience away in the neutral box so that we can ignore it and thus return our attention to where the action is, namely our endless round of desire and aversion. This category of experience gets robbed of its fair share of our attention. Let us call this mental habit ‘ignoring’. The direct result of all this lunacy is a perpetual treadmill race to nowhere, endlessly pounding after pleasure, endlessly fleeing from pain, endlessly ignoring 90 percent of our experience. Than wondering why life tastes so flat. In the final analysis, it’s a system that does not work.
No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up with you and in between those times; life is so boring you could scream. Our minds are full of opinions and criticisms. We have built walls all around ourselves and we are trapped within the prison of our own lies and dislikes. We suffer. Suffering is a big word in Buddhist thought. It is a key term and it should be thoroughly understood and the Pali word is ‘dukkha’, and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means the deep, subtle sense of inadequacy in life which is a part of every mental treadmill. The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At first glance this seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren’t there? No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension, that no matter how great the moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have got, or scheming how to get more. In the end, you are going to die. In the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.
Sounds pretty bleak, doesn’t it? Luckily it’s not; not at all. It only sounds bleak when you view it from the level of the ordinary mental perspective, the very level at which the treadmill mechanism operates. Down under that level lays another whole perspective, a completely different way to look at the universe. It is a level of functioning where the mind does not try to freeze time, where we do not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, where we do not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain. It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable skill. It is not easy, but is learnable.
Happiness and peace are really the prime issues in human existence. That is what all of us are seeking. This often is a bit hard to see because we cover up those basic goals with layers of surface objectives. We want food, we want money, and we want sex, possessions, and respect. We even say to ourselves that the idea of ‘happiness’ is too abstract: "Look, I am practical. Just give me enough money and I will buy all the happiness I need". Unfortunately, this is an attitude that does not work. Examine each of these goals and you will find they are superficial. You want food. Why? Because I am hungry. So you are hungry, so what? Well if I eat, I won’t be hungry and then I’ll feel good. Ah ha! Feel good! Now there is a real item. What we really seek is not the surface goals. They are just means to an end. What we are really after is the feeling of relief that comes when the drive is satisfied, relaxation and an end to the tension. Peace, happiness, no more yearning.
So what is this happiness? For most of us, the perfect happiness would mean getting everything we wanted, being in control of everything, playing Caesar, making the whole world dance a jig according to our every whim. Once again, it does not work that way. Take a look at the people in history who have actually held this ultimate power. These were not happy people. Most assuredly they were not men at peace with themselves. Why? They were not men at peace with themselves because they were driven to control the world totally and absolutely and they could not. They wanted to control all men and there remained men who refused to be controlled. They could not control the stars. They still got sick. They still had to die.
You can’t ever get everything you want. It is impossible. Luckily, there is another option. You can learn to control your mind, to step outside of this endless cycle of desire and aversion. You can learn to not want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them. This does not mean that you lie down on the road and invite everybody to walk all over you. It means that you continue to live a very normal-looking life, but live from a whole new viewpoint. You do the things that a person must do, but you are free from that obsessive, compulsive drivenness of your own desires. You want something, but you don’t need to chase after it. You fear something, but you don’t need to stand there quaking in your boots. This sort of mental culture is very difficult. It takes years. But trying to control everything is impossible, and the difficult is preferable to the impossible.
Wait a minute, though. Peace and happiness! Isn’t that what civilization is all about? We build skyscrapers and freeways. We have paid vacations, TV sets. We provide free hospitals and sick leaves, Social Security and welfare benefits. All of that is aimed at providing some measure of peace and happiness. Yet the rate of mental illness climbs steadily, and the crime rates rise faster. The streets are crawling with delinquents and unstable individuals. Stick your arms outside the safety of your own door and somebody is very likely to steal your watch! Something is not working. A happy man does not feel driven to kill. We like to think that our society is exploiting every area of human knowledge in order to achieve peace and happiness.
We are just beginning to realize that we have overdeveloped the material aspect of existence at the expense of the deeper emotional and spiritual aspect, and we are paying the price for that error. It is one thing to talk about degeneration of moral and spiritual fiber in America today, and another thing to do something about it. The place to start is within ourselves. Look carefully inside, truly and objectively, and each of us will see moments when "I am the punk" and "I am the crazy". We will learn to see those moments, see them clearly, cleanly and without condemnation, and we will be on our way up and out of being so.
You can’t make radical changes in the pattern of your life until you begin to see yourself exactly as you are now. As soon as you do that, changes flow naturally. You don’t have to force or struggle or obey rules dictated to you by some authority. You just change. It is automatic. But arriving at the initial insight is quite a task. You’ve got to see who you are and how you are, without illusion, judgments or resistance of any kind. You’ve got to see your own place in society and your function as a social being. You’ve got to see your duties and obligations to your fellow human beings, and above all, your responsibility to yourself as an individual living with other individuals, you’ve got to see all of that clearly and as a unit as single gestalt of interrelationship. It sounds complex, but it often occurs in a single instant. Mental culture through meditation is without rival in helping you achieve this sort of understanding and serene happiness.
The Dhammapada is an ancient Buddhist text which anticipated Freud by thousands of years. It says: "What you are now is the result of what you were. What you will be tomorrow will be the result of what you are now. The consequences of an evil mind will follow you like the cart follows the ox that pulls it. The consequences of a purified mind will follow you like your own shadow. No one can do more for you than your own purified mind– no parent, no relative, no friend, no one. A well-disciplined mind brings happiness". Meditation is intended to purify the mind. It cleanses the thought process of what can be called psychic irritants, things like greed, hatred and jealousy, things that keep you snarled up in emotional bondage. It brings the mind to a state of tranquility and awareness, a state of concentration and insight.
In our society, we are great believers in education. We believe that knowledge makes a cultured person civilized. Civilization, however, polishes the person superficially. Subject our noble and sophisticated gentleman to stresses of war or economic collapse, and see what happens. It is one thing to obey the law because you know the penalties and fear the consequences. It is something else entirely to obey the law because you have cleansed yourself from the greed that would make you steal and the hatred that would make you kill. Throw a stone into a stream; the running water would smooth the surface, but the inner part remains unchanged. Take that same stone and place it in the intense fires of a forge, and the whole stone changes inside and outside. It all melts. Civilization changes man on the outside. Meditation softens him within, through and through.
Meditation is the Great Teacher. It is the cleansing crucible fire that works slowly through understanding. The greater your understanding, the more flexible and tolerant you can be. The greater your understanding, the more compassionate you can be. You become like a perfect parent or an ideal teacher. You are ready to forgive and forget. You feel love towards others because you understand them, and you understand others because you have understood yourself. You have looked deeply inside and seen self-delusion and your own human failings. You have seen your own humanity and learned to forgive and to love. When you have learned compassion for yourself, compassion for others is automatic. An accomplished meditator has achieved a profound understanding of life, and he inevitably relates to the world with a deep and uncritical love.
Meditation is a lot like cultivating a new land. To make a field out of a forest, first you have to clear the trees and pull out the stumps. Then you till the soil and you fertilize it. Then you sow your seed and you harvest your crops. To cultivate your mind, first you have to clear out the various irritants that are in the way, pull them right out by the root so that they won’t grow back. Then you fertilize. You pump energy and discipline into the mental soil. Then you sow the seed and you harvest your crops of faith, morality, mindfulness and wisdom.
Faith and morality, by the way, have a special meaning in this context. Buddhism does not advocate faith in the sense of believing something because it is written in a book or attributed to a prophet or taught to you by some authority figure. The meaning here is closer to confidence, it is knowing that something is true because you have seen it work, because you have observed that very thing within yourself. In the same way, morality is not a ritualistic obedience to some exterior, imposed code of behavior.
The purpose of meditation is personal transformation. The ‘you’’ that goes in one side of the meditation experience is not the same ‘you’ that comes out the other side. It changes your character by a process of sensitization, by making you deeply aware of your own thoughts, words, and deeds. Your arrogance evaporates and your antagonism dries up. Your mind becomes still and calm and your life smoothes out. Thus meditation properly performed prepares you to meet the ups and downs of existence. It reduces your tension, your fear, and your worry. Restlessness recedes and passion moderates. Things begin to fall into place and your life becomes a glide instead of a struggle. All of this happens through understanding.
Meditation sharpens your concentration and your thinking power. Then, piece by piece, your own subconscious motives and mechanics become clear to you. Your intuition sharpens. The precision of your thought increases and gradually you come to a direct knowledge of things as they really are, without prejudice and without illusion. So is this reason enough to bother? Scarcely. These are just promises on paper. There is only one way you will ever know if meditation is worth the effort. Learn to do it right, and do it. See for yourself.
Every time we sit down in meditation, we are challenged to face our dissatisfactions. What is really going on in our body-mind? What ideas are we stubbornly holding onto? What are we afraid of? What would we rather not deal with like anger, resentment, longing, dissatisfaction, numbness? What, or who, are we rejecting? What aspect of our lives makes us want to act selfishly or childishly – by throwing a tantrum, blaming others, or refusing to participate? We don’t have to go seeking for our dissatisfactions when we meditate. Zazen, seated meditation, doesn’t have to become a grim session of taking account of how crappy our life is or how flawed we are. We also need to be open to awareness of the joy and positivity in our life; we have to be completely open to awareness of everything as it is. However, we are much more likely to be open to the positive stuff than we are to the negative stuff, so facing the dissatisfactions takes some intention and courage.
I like to think of “opening the doors of my mind” during zazen to whatever might wander in. The Zen ceremony of Segaki ritually enacts this process when the doors of the temple are opened wide and the hungry ghosts or manifestations of unresolved stuff are invited to enter. It is surprising how effective this ceremony is. Many people report unresolved stuff coming up for them as they sit zazen in the day-long retreat that follows the ceremony traditionally. In the evening there is a ceremony to send the “ghosts” on their way, but it often takes much longer to become familiar with a new ghost, learn what it has to teach, and then take the actions necessary to truly send it away.
When I open the doors of my mind as I settle on the meditation cushion, I always feel some apprehension. What am I going to discover? What am I going to have to deal with? Am I going to have to change?
When I finally summon the courage to face my dissatisfactions, I am always surprised to find that no matter how bad it is – it is less anxiety-provoking to face it than it is to avoid it. Finding something behind the door can be scary and might require serious action, but in the long run it’s better than sensing there’s something behind the door but just wondering how terrifying it might be. When we really face our dissatisfactions there is often some sense of relief. In addition, avoiding or denying parts of our reality increases our sense of separation or isolation from our whole life and from the people and situations we encounter. When we are one with our dissatisfactions we are more fully present with everything. When trying to summon the courage to face our dissatisfactions during meditation or anytime it can be helpful to recall the sense of relief or presence that can be achieved by doing so. Sometimes it also helps to imagine the worst that is likely to come through the doors of our mind and ask ourselves if it would be the end of the world; it rarely would be. Alternatively, we might talk ourselves into facing our dissatisfactions by noticing how tired we are of running away from it.
Once we are determined to be still no matter what comes at us, we expand our awareness by letting go of any idea about our life, our body-mind, or what we should or should not be experiencing at this moment. Then our dissatisfactions can arise and find itself recognized and embraced – because, after all, it’s not coming at us from outside, it was already here.