Commentary by Gendo
Compassion’s Latin root means “feeling with.” Buddhists talk about the “meeting of subject and object.” Christians say, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.” Can you teach compassion?
From a Buddhist standpoint, compassion is completely natural. There is nothing to learn, nothing to teach. It is the natural expression of your “true” or authentic self.
How could you possibly teach someone their own true self? Of course, everyone has to find their own way. Maybe there are helpful signs. Maybe there are favorable conditions. But you can’t do that work for someone else.
What is that work? Buddhism calls it the work of not clinging, not clinging to ideas about your own identity. That’s not a directive, like “you must not cling.” Rather it is what you do when you let “nature take its course”. Notice clinging and the consequences of clinging and you know for yourself that your true nature does not cling to anything.
Every day something has to be done. You have to jump out of the way of a speeding car, or lift your hand quickly from a hot stove. A baby cries and you have to pick it up: You just do it.
It is not clinging until you fixate an idea about yourself. It becomes clinging when you adopt an attitude, like “I am never in the right place. ” Or “I’m a really smart person.” Or even “I am so compassionate!” It’s that “I am”, that assertion of an objective identity, that gets in the way and is different from what was, in the first place, unselfconscious. .
Gets in the way of what? Change, of course. Everything changes, including yourself. Youth becomes old age. Pride comes before fall. A fixated self is like trying to stand straight in a rushing river.
Buddhism says that your true self is “empty.” It’s not that your self is some great void, an emptiness that is just another “I am” identity. The true experience of self is said to be empty of independent identity, empty of ‘self-consciousness’. In that sense emptiness embraces everything.
We commonly think of our bodies as being ourselves. You can, of course, look at your own hand and say, “This is my hand.” But notice that the one who sees the hand stands apart from it. You, the observer, and your hand are in that moment separate from each other. You can look at every part of your body, even imagining the insides that you cannot see, and the same thing is true. The self that observes stands apart from the thing observed. Consider not just your body, but also its decline, in aging and death. The one who regards all of this is detached from it. Consider feeling and thought, both positive and negative, in the same way. All are separate from the “you” that stands apart from them and observes them, Self is not found in anything that we perceive as object. The observer cannot observe itself and is, in this sense, unknowable.
Just as this “I am” rests on a foundation that is empty of an observable self, the same is true of other selves. Thus the act of greeting requires more than exchange of information. It involves ritual, my emptiness acknowledging another’s emptiness: bowing in some cultures, shaking hands or hugging in others. In emptiness, self recognizes other as itself, an experience we call true (selfless) love, or compassion.
Commentary by Gendo
Fullness of mind is empty of self. Isn’t that right? When attention is focused fully on something, there is no experience of self. When some sudden bright thing or stunning sound or strong sensation comes, there is no time to think what it is or who I am. Looking back, you say, “It took my breath away.” What happens without breath? You die.
If that is an unsettling thought, consider that from the very beginning of life you are empty of self. A baby responds to everything with utter unselfconsciousness. With the constant teaching of parents, babies learn to name themselves and all things. But first comes the fullness of experience, empty of self. Adults, who have learned so much, are nostalgic for that innocence. Where has it gone?
If you start looking for fullness of mind, you will not find it. Why? Because who is searching? Your self, of course!. It is the job of the self to divide the world into this and that, into like and dislike, light and dark, tall and short, all in relation to its own preservation. But fullness of mind holds everything. Originally, the mind holds everything.
The self cannot find what is empty of self because that emptiness was never gone, only disguised as discriminating awareness! Every first impression is empty of self, then quickly gives way to thought and name. “Look at the beautiful sunrise!” But even as the words are spoken we have left a moment in which there is no breath, no self. I have made on object of an experience that in the first instance was held in fullness of mind; full, not only of sunrise , but also of night and stars; full of day the bright sunshine and stormy clouds grey and white; all in distinction to the riot of color before me; for which words are poor substitute.
In every moment you die and are reborn. That is the conclusion of Zen.
Comments (more or less) by Gendo offered at Puget Sound Zen Center, Vachon Island, Washington, to an audience including children.
People might think of “Buddha” as a person who lived long ago, or as a statue in front of the room. But “Buddha” is a word (or a statue) that refers to an experience. Like all words and statues it is different from the experience itself.
“Buddha” is an ancient word from the Sanskrit language of India, translated as “the awakened one.” It represents an experience that is like waking up from sleep, or the waking of a newborn baby. In this case, “sleep” is the usual way of seeing things and “waking up” is a particular, fresh understanding of the way things are. When someone has that waking up experience, Buddha is born.
The first person to describe this experience lived 2500 years ago in India. Today (May 5, 2019) we honor him, honor that experience, its potential in each of us, and its continuing relevance to life in our time.
The Buddha of ancient India was a person born of a mother and father just like us. He was born into a family of privilege, with a father who was a leader in his community. Seven days after his birth, his mother died. His father vowed that his son should grow up with every possible pleasure to distract from the tragedy of his mother’s death.
But, as the boy grew to become a young man, he saw from his window people in the streets who were sick and dying. He decided he needed to leave his comfortable home and solve this problem of suffering.
Of course, human beings still face this problem. Everyone is born with the boundless opportunity of new life, but all must eventually face illness and death. Buddha’s journey is our journey and our ritual today is renewed dedication to his quest and to the timeless truth of his realization.
Commentary by Gendo
Suffering is the forgotten one, the minority position. It is not the popular one. It’s the kid who cries in the corner. Suffering is something we get very good at pushing aside, until, suddenly, it is “in your face.” Even then, desperately sick and in the hospital, people find ways to look the other way. Everyone prefers the things they like, whatever makes you feel good about yourself.
But, it turns out, there are always two sides to the situation. Sooner or later, in spite of best intentions, it seems something bad happens. We call it bad luck. Buddhism calls it impermanence.
We identify objects with certainty – this is a cup, there is a pillow, there is a tree. But day becomes night, beautiful becomes ugly, thoughts come and go. All objects of consciousness are impermanent, and what is impermanent I experience as beyond my control, not mine, a source of disappointment and suffering.
Implicit in every object of awareness is a “duality,” something held in contrast: a white thing against a dark background, a sweet thing against a bitter background, a happy thing against a sad background. The same is true of ourselves. A “self” is also an object of consciousness. We understand self, who “I am,” in relation to people different from me. I know myself in relation to what I like and what I dislike. It is how consciousness works. It divides the world, discriminating one thing from another.
In this way, consciousness is imperfect. What we fixate (cling to) as an object of mind is incomplete. It is not the whole truth. What is true is not an independent, existing object, but a dynamic relationship. What appears to be separate, is happening together; positive and negative, night and day, life and death, self and other. What is “true” is fullness of mind, both the happy kid and the one who cries in the corner.
The first of the "four noble truths" of Buddhism is dukkha, or suffering, disappointment, discontent. Psychologist Carl Jung said, "There is no consciousness without pain." It isn't hard to sit in meditation. What is difficult is what we notice about ourselves, the stuff we'd rather not look at.
But Buddhism starts off with the message to pay attention to the hard parts. Meditation is not an escape. Instead, it is the discipline to sit with everything, with joy and sorrow. It is the wisdom of the middle way: not wallowing in pleasure, but not wallowing in self pity either,
Suffering is a teacher. Inherent in suffering is already the knowledge of something else. Inherent in sorrow is the joy having known something or someone. To go through sorrow is to discover that joy has never left.
Joy and sorrow, life and death, in-breath and out-breath: such 'dualities' inform each other. They exist in relationship. If we try to have all of one or the other, the result is suffering.
Commentary by Gendo
What does it means to practice Zen? After sitting in a peaceful Zendo, you and I have to return to a world where people do not understand, to a family that is loud and busy, to a driveway still surrounded by snow.
How do we figure out the connection between practice and everyday life? If we don’t do that, meditation is small and idealistic.
These days, everyone is into mindfulness meditation. In hospitals they say it is good for your health, in business they say a mindful worker is a better worker.
All that may be true, but mindfulness meditation with some goal in mind is not true mindfulness. Mindfulness is fullness of mind and mind includes everything: it includes the peaceful zendo and the dirty snow, kind people and nasty people, good days and bad days, healthy people and sick ones. Sitting quietly may be useful training, but the practice is everything we do. An old teacher said, " if you are going to cultivate immovability, when you see people simply do not see people's right and wrong, good and bad, faults and problems; then you own essential nature is unmoved."
My Zen teacher used to say: “You have to swallow God and the Devil!” He also said, “Everybody wants to go to heaven. But you can’t stay in heaven. There are no toilets in heaven.” In other words, don’t get stuck on perfection. Don’t just transfer your greed to some spiritual ideal.
In the Hearts Sutra, we chant, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. Buddhism teaches that there are two truths: absolute truth and the relative truth of everyday life. Both are true. Watch out! Neither one can be fixated.
Meditation practice is about seeing things truly. Our Western culture came up with science in order to know the truth In India the truth problem was seen as an inside job: how do we know the world as a matter of conscious awareness? What gets in the way of our happiness, what causes confusion?
Both science and Buddhism conclude that to see clearly you must be detached. You have to set aside personal preferences. In science they call it “being an objective observer.” If you test drugs and are paid by the drug company, no one will trust your results.
In Buddhism we say “take an attitude of neither indifference nor attachment towards all things.” In order to ski down a steep hill successfully, you have to see things clearly. You have know what it means to do that well. But you also need to know what it means to crash. If you get too excited about success, you will underestimate danger. The middle way, wisdom or equanimity, holds both success and failure.
So when you sit in meditation or what we call zazen, sit without preferences. No preferences! Sit with no preferences and know the fullness of your own mind.
Commentary by Gendo
This calligraphy by Kajiura Itsugai, former head of Myoshin-ji temple in Kyoto, Japan, hangs in our Zen Center. It was a gift of Kyonen Jim Gordon, a friend, mentor, fellow practitioner and lay ordained Zen monk. It is a quote found in the Blue Cliff Record, an ancient collection of koans, cases used to test understanding.
What does this mean? One way or another, we are reaching an extreme, coming to an end, all the time. How does a person pass through? How do you live your life in the midst of change? Sometimes a big change comes along: Someone you love dies, or a relationship breaks up, or storms destroy your home, or (before long) carbon tax makes your car unaffordable; and you think, something has ended that will never happen again. Nothing I do will change this reality. How do you “pass through”? I write this at the end of the year. We will never see the year 2018 again. For better or worse, it has come to an end.
Buddhist tradition explores change with attention to a basic, embodied activity – breathing. Breathing repeatedly comes to an end, reaches an extreme. Breathe out and you reach a point beyond which you can go no further. Then what? After a moment’s pause comes change, transformation, and the opposite activity, in-breath, takes over.
Human beings have evolved consciousness to further their own situation. We have learned, and teach our children, to identify all kinds of objects, to know likes and dislikes, and to form an idea of self, of who I am.
But Zen points out that consciousness is imperfect. It is imperfect, because everything we identify as an existent thing, including ‘self,’ is subject to change, to impermanence. They do not last and that which does not last we experience as beyond our control; and what is beyond our control, we understand to be other than myself. Everything we are taught to name and know reaches an extreme, comes to an end, regardless of our intention. If even ‘self’ is not ‘mine’ to control, where am I? Who am I? These are existential questions, the suffering, inherent in consciousness – the ‘tree of knowledge’ that Adam and Eve discover in the Garden of Eden.
Buddhism teaches that the reason human consciousness is imperfect is that knowledge is an act of discrimination. We discriminate in-breath from out–breath; which is to say, we know one because we know the other. What is imperfect is the assumption that, because we have named them, each has it’s own essence, its own independent existence. On inspection, however, that assumption is mistaken. It is delusion because in-breath and out-breath, like all objects of consciousness, are discriminated, one in relation to another.
The larger truth of breathing and all objects is not separateness but relationship, activity empty of separate identity, beyond conception, beyond thought altogether. That reality, like breathing, is dynamic, never fully one thing or another. It is the ‘cosmic dance’ that cannot be objectified, and yet neither is it 'nothing.' Consequently this ‘non-object’ is personified as God, or Dharma, or ‘true self,’ or true (selfless) love.
How do we know such a truth? There is no object to be acquired or taught, no self to attain it. It simply is what is experienced when the mind that fixates object and identity is quiet; as in the stillness at the extreme between in-breath and out-breath, a stillness empty of distinctions, self and other, and, at the same time, all-inclusive.
Potluck Lunch. Join the Board of Directors for potluck lunch, January 6, 11:30 to 1:00 at the Zen Center. All are welcome. Bring something to share. Let us know if you plan to come.
December Theme: Inclusiveness/Patience
Inclusiveness, or patience and ‘forebearance,’ is the second of the “paramitas” of Buddhism. The word ‘paramita’ comes from ancient Sanskrit language meaning ‘perfection’ and ‘having reached the other shore.’ Paramitas are like boats, or bridges over ‘troubled waters,’ reminders of what helps in hard times. In the cold and dark of winter, the reminder is to share, not hoard, to reach out and invite the stranger in. The stranger is, after all, your self, the one who got used to summer sun and now struggles with snow boots and shovels. Welcome the stranger! Because generosity and inclusiveness lead to something bigger, something capable of joy.
December 8 is ‘Rohatsu’, celebration of the Buddha’s awakening, marked with renewed resolve and practice. Our Rohatsu retreat begins Thursday, December 6, 8 am at Moose Mountain Retreat, a house generously offered to us, a half hour drive from both downtown Hanover and Lebanon. (People are welcome to arrive the night before, December 5, after 7 pm. ) Registration closes the end of Sunday, December 2. ‘Intro to Zen on Wendesday, December 5 is cancelled. Also Study Group December 6. Sunday practice, December 9, will be held at Moose Mountain Retreat (inquire for travel details).
Also, see retreat page here.
This month (November) at the zendo our theme has been Generosity. In keeping with this theme, the Family Zen Group is planning to visit the Haven in White River Junction on December 28th for a tour and as an opportunity to donate some of the items which they have indicated are needed.
We will package the items in individual bags along with a wonderful drawing or greeting which our Family Zen group recently made.
If you would like to join in this effort, please consider donating something from the list below. We will leave a box at the UVZC, outside the interior hallway door, where you can leave your donation, whether or not we are open. Here is the list:
o Gloves or mittens
o Snacks -such as granola bars, small bags of nuts, crackers and peanutbutter
o Small travel size shampoo, toothpaste, hand lotion, toothbrushes, Chapstick
o Small combs and brushes
o Water bottle
o Warm Socks
o Notes or drawings of encouragement or greeting
We have already received a great discount from Hanover Hardware Store for a case of foot warmers, which we will include.
Thank you for your interest and support in this project. Please let us know if you have any questions. Have a wonderful day!
Shinji Patty Goodman and Jing Mayer
This is a short video (less than six minutes) featuring questions and answers about the UVZC Prison Project. Recorded in April 2018.