Posted in zen

Teachers and Monks

These days I tend to downplay the fact that I went through monk training.

I lead a Zen meditation group now and I certainly don’t want to use the fact that I went through monk training to promote that in any way. That would be inappropriate.

I was a monk school dropout. These days I’m just a lay teacher at my local non-sectarian Buddhist temple. And that’s just fine with me.

I went through monk training with an organization that doesn’t have a good reputation. I don’t talk about it much because I don’t want to be perceived as talking bad about someone. I don’t know if there’s anything *wrong* with that organization really. They didn’t try to take money from me or anything like that. I just really didn’t connect with their lineage at all and there were a few weird things going on that I felt I couldn’t ignore. I don’t want to go into details about that here, but I will answer any questions privately on the subject.

I’m careful to not mention the name of that organization. I just don’t connect with the teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn and it seems like people in his lineage are often just repeating things in his teaching style. Which is fine. A lot of Buddhist teachers just repeat things from their teacher or just quote their teacher all the time. It’s not at all unusual. But it just wasn’t for me.

In early Buddhism things were probably different than they are now.

One would take the vows of a Novice, expressing the intent to walk the path of the Dharma, and then look for a teacher, probably studying with several different teachers to find the right one. That’s what Dogen did. That’s what Ikkyu did too.

I took these novice vows a few years ago. But, I did leave that organization. It wasn’t a good fit for me, especially at that time in my life.

These are the ten novice vows that I took:

The First Precept: I vow to support all living creatures, and refrain from killing.
The Second Precept: I vow to respect the property of others, and refrain from stealing.
The Third Precept: I vow to regard all beings with respect and dignity, and refrain from objectifying others.
The Fourth Precept: I vow to be truthful, and refrain from lying.
The Fifth Precept: I vow to maintain a clear mind and refrain from harming myself or others with intoxication.

The Sixth Precept: I vow to be kind and to encourage others, and to refrain from discouraging others including myself.
The Seventh Precept: I vow to be kind to others and refrain from being boastful and self-centered.
The Eighth Precept: I vow to be generous, to be grateful for what I have, and refrain from yearning for things that do not belong to me.
The Ninth Precept: I vow to promote harmony and refrain from acting in anger or hatred.
The Tenth Precept: I vow to affirm and uphold the three jewels (the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma).

Now, I think people are largely expected to stay in an organization or stay with a teacher. But I’d like to suggest that that wasn’t always the case. This is speculation on my part, but I don’t think things used to be as rigid as they are now. Because students should have time to have the right teacher, if we’re going to have teachers at all. And having trouble finding the right teacher is, of course, no barrier to serious commitment to the path.

This is generally how I think of myself. As a Novice Monk, as a wanderer, as a cloud. Some say that if you don’t keep going, if you don’t take more vows etc., then you have to give those vows back or something. I respectfully disagree. Vows are a lifetime commitment, and they’re something you take for yourself. They aren’t something you take for an organization.

I’ve connected with a lot of teachers. I’ve studied with teachers on the internet and I’ve spent a little time on retreat with other teachers.

I read Dogen and Ikkyu all the time, but I can’t really call them my teachers (they’re dead).

There is a sad truth about Buddhism in the west that we don’t talk about much.

That truth is ambition.

One can very easily fall into a trap of ambition. “I want to wear cool robes.” “I want to join this or that awesome lineage.” or “I want to be a great Buddhist Master.”

And if you want a teacher to feed your ambition and tell you that you’ll become something great, you can find one. They are out there.

From what I’ve seen a really good teacher doesn’t promise you anything.

For the longest time I thought I should become a ‘GREAT Zen Master’. I read stories from Zen history about Bodhidharma, Huineng, Dogen, Huang Po, Xu Yun, Ikkyu, Basho, and many others. They are inspiring.

One of the teachers I’ve spent time with, Maezen, once told me, “Drop your attachment to outcome and let the Dharma unfold in your life by itself.”

Now I take that message to heart.

Maezen is my favorite Zen teacher that I’ve met. I’ve talked to other Zen teachers on the internet over the years, and I really think that’s no substitute for real life practice. She’s a traveling Zen teacher. I can’t really have a formal relationship with her unless I become a traveling Zen student. But, I can tell you this: I served as her Jisha (attendant) on a weekend Zen retreat here in Kansas City and I think I learned more about the path in those three days than I ever thought possible.

Now I lead a Zen meditation group, but I don’t think of myself as a teacher. I’m even teaching a class on the Diamond Sutra at the Rime Center and I’ll be teaching other classes in the future, but I’m still not sure I can think of myself as a teacher.

Now after all this time, I really wonder why I wanted so badly to be a teacher in the first place. I read about Buddhism every day. I don’t read much else, really. I spend more time in Buddhist temples than a lot of people. And I love to write about Buddhism. I really really enjoy it.

Maybe those are reasons why. Is getting credentials necessary in order to be able to write about Buddhism? I don’t think so. Jack Kerouac wrote about Buddhism. Alan Watts wrote about Buddhism too. Hell, even noted scholar D.T. Suzuki was not a Zen Master.

People sometimes expect me to be an authority figure because I write about Buddhism. I’m about as out as you can be. No one that knows me wonders what my spiritual beliefs are. I’m always carrying Buddhist books. I’m talking about the Dharma to anyone who is interested. Oh, and I have some Buddhist symbols permanently on my body. On my right arm I have a blue lotus, an OM, a Bodhisattva, and an endless knot. So, anyone that wants to talk about Buddhism knows that I’m someone who they can talk to about it before they even know my name. Is that why I got these tattoos or is it because tattoos are cool? Who knows.

I’m not an authority figure, not really. I’m as mired in suffering as everyone else. I’m confused and I make plenty of mistakes, probably more than my fair share.

I’m not a role model. I am full of flaws.
As Kerouac said, “I had nothing to offer anyone except my own confusion.”

The only thing I can really do when people ask me for advice is point to the mistakes I made. I can definitely tell you what I did that didn’t work out well. My regrets are numerous.

I’ve studied with several different organizations that give teachings online. We don’t have a Soto Zen community here in Kansas City and Soto Zen is what really speaks to me the most. It actually kind of bothers me. Wichita, KS has a Soto Zen temple. Cedar Rapids, IA has a Soto Zen Temple. Omaha, NE has a Soto Zen temple. But we don’t have one in Kansas City. We have a growing city, an amazing city, that’s becoming increasingly diverse. We’re a bigger city than Wichita. We should have a Soto Zen temple.

I haven’t had great results, but that’s okay. I’ve learned a lot. You can learn about Zen online, but I don’t think you can really learn to walk the path.

Sangha is important. Being with actual other Buddhists in real life is important.

I was practicing with the Rime Sangha here the whole time, but I wanted a Zen Sangha. Being able to go to the Rime Center has been a great benefit to me. I can’t express how much being part of that community has meant to me. It’s a wonderful community, but a lot of that Tibetan stuff doesn’t hold much meaning for me.

The Zen tradition is the one that really speaks to me.

I’ve learned a lot in studying by myself and in studying with teachers on the internet. I can’t say that I’ve had a bad experience. I’ve been pretty thoroughly educated in Zen Buddhist history and theory. I actually learned a whole lot in studying with one of my teachers, Shi Da Dao on the internet. He gave me the Buddhist name that I use and gave me permission to teach in his lineage, the Empty Cloud Lineage of Xu Yun. He did this even though we never met in real life. I have trouble taking that seriously. Something about it definitely doesn’t feel real.

I have to acknowledge that education and practice aren’t the same thing. There are Buddhist colleges that train ministers, plenty of them. But that’s not the way we become Buddhist clergy (whatever that means). All training is on the job. I think we do a disservice to the Dharma if we make it about training to be a minister. It should be about awakening.

I’ve taken Bodhisattva Vows and done all sorts of other things.

I’ve written about Bodhisattva Vows before and Dharma Transmission as well. I gave certificates. I am a ‘certified Dharma teacher’. I’m a teacher in the Tibetan tradition as well. I was given the title ‘Gegan’ (teacher) by Urgyen Palden Gocha.

But, and this is important, Buddhism isn’t really something you learn. It’s something you do. My hero Ikkyu tore up his certifications when he got them because he didn’t take them seriously.

I think Vows are something you take for yourself and not for some other person or organization. I believe those have meaning no matter what.

Three things have traditionally been fundamental to Buddhist practice. One is practicing by yourself at home. The second is practicing with a community once in a while. The third is following an example, spending time with a teacher who has more experience than you.

I’m no one’s master. That is clear. I’m just a wandering cloud. A student on the path, just like all of the other Buddhists. Although I’m like the kind of student who’s studying all the time.

I won’t be your master.

But I’d love to be your spiritual friend.

Posted in altar sutra

Altar Sutra: The Story of Hui-neng

This story was told by the Patriarch at Pao Lin Monastery and was transcribed by his students.
This teaching was attended by government officials, Confucian scholars, monks and nun, laymen and laywomen, and Taoist Philosophers.

The congregation asked him to give the most complete teaching he could and he told the story of how he came to be the sixth Patriarch.

“Our true nature is the seed of Enlightenment. It is pure and by making use of it we can Awaken.
Let me tell you about my life and how I came to be in possession of the Mystical teachings of the Ch’an School.
My father died when I was very young and my mother was poor.
We lived in Canton in bad circumstances.
I was selling firewood in the market one day when, outside a shop I heard a man reciting a Sutra.

So, Hui-neng’s mother didn’t have anyone to help her raise him after his father died. They were so poor that he had to go sell wood at the market to help support them. This was not an unusual condition for a poor family in this context.

As soon as I heard this text, I had an experience of Awakening. I asked the man what the name of the book was that he was reciting and he told me that it was the Diamond Sutra.

The Diamond Sutra is one of the most revered texts in all of Mahayana Buddhism. It is a classic of the world’s spiritual literature. It is a short text, around 6,000 words, but it has been interpreted in many different ways. The title in Sanskrit is Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita Sutra, which translates to ‘the diamond cutting perfection of wisdom Sutra. It’s been said that just hearing one line of the text can bring one to Enlightenment and that is the assertion Hui-neng is claiming.

I asked the man why he was reciting this Sutra and he said that he came from Tung Ch’an Monastery and he was being given lectures on the Sutra by the Abbot of the temple, Hung Yen, the Fifth Patriarch.
He told me that the Patriarch encouraged laity as well as monks to recite this Sutra, as by doing so they might become Enlightened.

I think it was because of good karma from past lives that I came upon this man. He gave me money to leave for my mother so I could go to the monastery and meet the Fifth Patriarch myself.
The journey to the Monastery took me thirty days.

I went to meet the Patriarch.

When I met him he asked where I had come from and what I expected to gain.

I replied, “I am a peasant from Kwangtung. I have travelled to pay you respect and I ask for nothing but Awakening.”

“You are a native of Kwangtung? A barbarian? How can you become Awakened?” asked the Patriarch.

I replied, “Although there are northern and southern men, north and south make no difference to their Buddha nature. A barbarian is different from you physically, but there is no difference in Buddha nature.”
I was given a job pounding rice in the monastery.

Eight months later the Patriarch assembled his students.

He said, “Whatever merits you gain in life are of no help if your Buddha nature remains obscured. Go look for Prajna within your own minds and write a gatha about it.”

Gatha is a Sanskrit word that means song. Students often write gathas when they gain Dharma Transmission.

“Whoever composes a gatha that demonstrates an understanding of their Buddha nature will be given Dharma Transmission and will become the Sixth Patriarch. Go.”

Dharma transmission is a custom in which a person is established as a successor in a spiritual bloodline, an unbroken lineage of teachers and students that is theoretically traced back to the Buddha himself. This system may have been created to reflect the importance of family structures in ancient China to form a symbolic ritual for the establishment of the spiritual family. Bodhidharma brought this lineage to China. He passed it on to Huike. Huike passed it on to Sengcan. Sengcan passed it on to Daoxin. Daoxin passed it on to Hung Yen, the Fifth Patriarch in this story.

The students left. They all thought that it would be Shen Hsiu, the Patriarch’s best student that would write the best gatha. They all believed in him. They decided it was not worth their time to even make an effort when they thought they knew what the outcome would be.

Shen Hsiu took notice. He saw that none of the other students were trying to compete. He was actually not as confident in himself as all of the other students were, but he decided to go ahead and compose a gatha.

He was nervous. He did not believe he was worthy of Dharma Transmission. But, at the same time, he couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to try.

In front of the Patriarch’s hall there were pictures from the Lankavatara Sutra as well as pictures of the Five Patriarchs. Across from these there was a blank wall.

The Lankavatara Sutra is another beloved Mahayana text. It takes places in Sri Lanka and involves a deep discussion between the Buddha and a Bodhisattva named Mahamati.

Shen Hsiu couldn’t summon the courage to submit his gatha, so he wrote on the blank wall instead. He thought that if the Patriarch read it and declared it was good, he could reveal that he had written it. And if the Patriarch said it was bad, he did not have to come forward.
At midnight he went with a lamp and wrote his gatha on the wall.
he course of four days he made altogether thirteen attempts to do so. 

The gatha read:
Our body is the Bodhi-tree,
And our mind a mirror bright. 
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,
And let no dust alight.

The Patriarch saw the gatha and said that it was good. He had all of his students recite it.
Later, he asked Shen Hsiu in private if he had written it.

“I did,” replied Shen Hsiu, “I do not know if I deserve to be the Patriarch. Can you tell me if my gatha shows any sign of wisdom?”

“Your gatha shows that you have not yet unleashed your Buddha nature. So far you have reached the doorway to Enlightenment, but you have not entered.

To become Enlightened, one must know one’s own true nature. Once your true nature is known you will be free from delusion and will dwell in harmony.

Such a state of mind is the Truth. If you see things in such a state of mind, you will be Enlightened.
Go write another gatha and if it shows you have entered the door of Enlightenment, then I will transmit the Dharma to you.”

Shen Hsiu bowed and left.

For a few days he tried to write another gatha, but he could not.

Two days later a boy read the gatha and came to recite it for me.

As soon as I heard it, I knew that he hadn’t realized his true nature.

The boy told me about the Patriarch’s instruction to his students to write a gatha.
I composed a gatha of my own and asked him to write it next to the first one for me.

Hui-neng was raised in poverty. In that era, literacy was not the norm. Because he was raised in poverty he did not know how to read or write. This story gives us the important lesson that anyone can attain Enlightenment, regardless of education or social standing. Because Hui-neng could not read or write, he had to ask for help.

My gatha read:
There is no Bodhi-tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is Void,
Where can the dust alight?

Shen Hsiu’s gatha was wise, but he was still thinking in duality. Hui-neng’s gatha tears through that duality to try to get to the truth.

Everyone that saw this was surprised. They wondered how such a wise and Enlightened individual was working for the monastery. Seeing that the crowd was overwhelmed, the Patriarch declared that I had not yet Awakened.
The next night the Patriarch summoned me to his room.

In his room, he gave teachings from the Diamond Sutra to me. When it came to the line, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from any attachment,” I immediately became Enlightened and I realized that the whole universe is one, that when we realize our Buddha nature, we understand that we are one with everything.

“Our true nature is inherently pure. Free from the beginning, perfect. Everything is a manifestation of Buddha nature,” I said.
Knowing that I had Awakened, the Patriarch said, “For one who does not know his own mind, there is no use in learning Buddhism.
One the other hand, if one knows his own mind and intuitively sees their own nature, they are a hero, a teacher, a Buddha.”

So, he transmitted the Dharma to me and I inherited the lineage of the Patriarchs as well as his robe and begging bowl.

“You are now the Sixth Patriarch,” he said, “Take care of yourself and bring as many beings as you can to Enlightenment. Spread and preserve the teaching and don’t let it come to an end. Take note f my gatha:
Those who sow the seeds of Enlightenment will reap the fruit of Buddhahood.
Objects neither sow nor reap.

When the Patriarch Bodhidharma first came to China, most people had no confidence in him and his robe was handed down as testimony from one Patriarch to the next.
The Dharma is transmitted from one mind to another and the recipient must realize it by their own efforts. It has always been the practice for one Awakened being to pass on the teachings and the Dharma to a successor. And for one Patriarch to transmit to another a mystical teaching from one mind to another. This is the teaching of the Ch’an Patriarchs and Masters, which I have transmitted to you.

As there may be dispute among those who are jealous of you, you should leave immediately and preserve and protect this sacred Dharma. Go seclude yourself. You will know when the time is right to give teachings.”
Many jealous students of the Patriarch did pursue me. I went to a remote place to live.
A monk named Hui Ming found me. I thought he was coming to attack, but when he saw me he asked for teachings.
He said, “I haven’t come to take the robe and bowl from you. I have come to receive teachings.”
I replied, “Since you have come here for the Dharma, I will teach you. Clear your mind. When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, in that moment you are dwelling in your true nature, beyond duality.”
As soon as he heard this he became Enlightened. But he asked, “Apart from those mystical teachings and ideas handed down by the Patriarch from generation to generation are the any other secret teachings?”

“What I can tell you is not a secret,” I replied, “If you turn your light inward, you will find the secrets are within you.”
“In all of my time at the monastery I did not Awaken. Now, thanks to your teachings, I have. You are now my teacher.”
As I was not yet ready to teach, I sent him away.

I stayed in hiding for fifteen years, although occasionally I gave teachings to those I found in the wilderness.

One day, I knew it was the right time. I went to the Fa Hsin Temple in Canton.
When I approached two monks were looking at a flag that was blowing in the wind. One said it was the flag that was moving and the other said that it was the wind that was moving.
I declared that they were both wrong and the real motion was in their minds.
They were impressed by this and took me inside to meet Dharma Master Yin Tsung.
He questioned me about the Buddha’s teachings. Seeing that my answers were correct, he said,
“I was told long ago that the successor to the Fifth Patriarch would come here. Is this you?”
I nodded. He immediately bowed and asked me to show the assembled monks my robe and begging bowl.

He further asked what instructions I had when the Fifth Patriarch transmitted the Dharma to me.

“He told me that Buddha nature is all that there is, that duality is an illusion. Buddhism doesn’t really have two ways. From the perspective of the unawakened the component parts of an individual and factors of consciousness are separate, but Enlightened ones understand that they are not really separate. Buddha nature is non-duality.”

Yin Tsung was pleased with my answer.
“Your teachings are more valuable than mine.”

He ordained me as a monk and asked me to accept him as my student.

At this point Hui-neng reminds us that he was not a monk when he received Dharma Transmission. Enlightenment is available to everyone because at our core we all have Buddha nature.

Since then, I gave teachings.
We are fortunate to be here and able to lay the foundation for the successful propagation of the Dharma.
This teaching has been handed down from Patriarchs throughout history and is not my creation. Those who wish to hear it should first purify their minds. After hearing it they should each clear up their doubts in the same way that sages did in the past.”

The assembled students bowed and thanked me for my teaching.