Posted in zen

Shosan’s Five Points in Buddhist Practice

Suzuki Shosan, the samurai who became a zen monk in the 1600s in Japan, said that there were five points in Buddhist practice.

He listed five reasons why we should engage in the Dharma. I think these five points are relevant for us today.

Shosan’s Five Points for Buddhist Practice:

1) Usefulness in society

2) Upholding the precepts

3) Separating the self from personal views and experiencing oneness.

4) Freeing the mind from attachment to objects

5) Destruction of evil passions.

I’ll examine these one at a time.

Usefulness in society

Conquering your delusions and transforming yourself helps everyone. If we demonstrate that delusions can be overcome then we are setting an example for others. Not only that, but as we strengthen our compassion, we are helping others and trying to build a more compassionate society.

Upholding the Precepts

The precepts help us control any tendency to twist and distort the teachings. The mind naturally becomes virtuous through Buddhist practice if we follow the precepts and try to live a morally upstanding life.

Separating the self from personal views and experiencing oneness.

That seems like a short sentence, but there’s a lot of meaning in it. What is separating ourselves from personal views? Personal views are the labels we put on the world and especially on ourselves.

As soon as I label myself as a certain political party, for example, I’m putting myself into a rigid paradigm that doesn’t reflect reality. That’s why people get so attached to such things and they let their common sense go. It often happens that a relationship ends and someone thinks, “What am I if I’m not a boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband?” because we create labels and then we attach to them. Whatever small views we have are minor when compared to the actual reality of things. Our whole perception consists of labeling things and putting them into categories because that’s how our brains are wired.

It serves us well in some ways, but in other ways it harms us.

What is oneness? Oneness is a direct perception of reality without being distracted by all the delusions and labels that we put on it. A feeling of oneness is an intuitive understanding that we aren’t separate from our environment and the other beings around us. Our true nature is one with everything and we can have experiences in which we feel that oneness. To be one with everything is to love everything and to feel loved in return.

Freeing the mind from attachment to objects

This leads the mind to more selflessness and less greed. How often do the things we own seem to own us? If my computer broke I would be devastated. But why? It’s an object. Not only is it replaceable, but also most of its functions can be performed on my phone anyway.

We become so attached to objects that we let them consume us. Some people hoard possessions, collecting all they can, doing whatever they have to to get more. We call this the poison of greed. Greed hurts people. It causes mistrust and jealousy and anger. I think it’s true what they say, “The best things in life aren’t things.”

I get more joy from going for a walk on a warm summer morning than from owning the newest cool gadget. We live in a consumer driven society. Everything I hear and see tells me we should own more to be happy. The things you own end up owning you. If we determine our self worth by how much we own, it will never ever be enough.

Destruction of Evil Passions

The evil passions Shosan is talking about are those negative emotions like greed, lust, jealousy and excessive pride. As we walk the path of Buddhist practice, these passions soften and are overcome. These evil passions have a huge impact on our ability to be compassionate to others. It’s harder to love someone when we are busy being jealous, wishing we had what they have.

These kinds of feelings are fine in small amounts and we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for feeling them, but they don’t serve us well and we need to understand that. Many relationships and friendships are ruined by greed and jealousy. One of the major benefits of Buddhist practice is that these feelings start to soften.

I really like Shosan’s Five Points. He was a down to earth Zen teacher who explained things in ways that were easy to understand.

What do you think?

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 tattooed buddha

Perform Only Virtuous Actions

 

“Do not commit any non-virtuous actions.

Perform only virtuous actions.

Subdue the mind thoroughly.”

-The Buddha

 

This is chanted in a lot of Buddhist temples.

To me it’s the shortest possible explanation of Buddhism.

People sometimes ask me about Buddhism, mainly because I write about Buddhism on the internet and I have cool Buddhist tattoos (I think). When they do, I like to start by talking about that quote. Some people would start by talking about The Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path, or even the story of the Buddha’s life.

That quote written above, is direct and to the point.

The first two are pretty simple, in fact. Well, they sound simple. That last one sounds a little bit harder, which it is.

Do not commit any non-virtuous actions.

I’d like to explain this in terms of Sila, morality. In Buddhism we often talk about morality in terms of the Five Precepts (there are lots of lists in Buddhism. Get used to it).

The Five Precepts are:

1.  Abstain from killing any living beings.

2.  Abstain from taking what is not given.

3.  Abstain from sexual misconduct.

4.  Abstain from lying and false speech.

5.  Abstain from the abusive consumption of intoxicants and drugs.

These Precepts are not commandments. They’re rules that we observe only because we realize that such actions cause harm to others and to ourselves.

We can think of them in a positive way instead of a negative one:

1.  The practice of Harmlessness and Compassion.

2.  The practice of Kindness and Generosity.

3.  The practice of Faithfulness and Responsibility.

4.  The practice of Truthfulness and Pleasant Speech.

5.  The practice of Self-control and Mindfulness.

Perform only virtuous actions.

I’d like to explain this in terms of Dana, generosity. This means giving or helping others. This can be done in many ways. We can give kind and encouraging words, we can give someone our time and we can listen to someone who needs it.

Of course we can also volunteer our work to good causes and give material charity as well. There are so many ways we can help others.

Subdue the mind thoroughly.

I’d like to explain this in terms of Bhavana, mind cultivation/meditation. Meditation is said to purify the mind and make it easier to develop generosity, compassion and wisdom. Through deep meditation we can come to fully know ourselves. Through it we are able to really see things as they truly are.

Meditation is the form of spiritual practice that led the Buddha to Enlightenment. Even a short meditation, 20 minutes per day, can change your life.

All of Buddhist teachings can be summed up, I think, in these three things. Sometimes they’re written even more succinctly:

“To avoid all evil. To do good. To purify one’s mind.”

~ the Buddha.

This is it—the cultivation of morality, wisdom, and concentration.

It seems simple, but of course we can spend all of our lives cultivating these things. This is the simplest and most direct way to explain what Buddhism is all about.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Precepts

Buddhism is sometimes seen as a path that is governed by strict rules of discipline. There can be a tendency to see the ideal student of the Dharma as someone who endures great hardship in the name of practice, as the Buddha did before he discovered the Middle Way

In the early days of the Buddhist order strict rules for behavior were developed for monks and nuns. In many traditions these rules, called the vinaya, are still held in high regard and adhered to.
The Mahayana approach, however, often stresses a more flexible approach to behavior. The five precepts are considered the most important part of ethical conduct: Not to kill, not to steal, not to enage in sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to drink intoxicants. Although these have been set as rules, their purpose isn’t to shame us for breaking them, but to encourage the conditions that can help us come to an understanding of the Empty Mind Ground.

In the Mahayana tradition we are expected to be motivated by the viewpoint of the compassionate Bodhisattva.

Posted in Uncategorized

The Parable of the Burning House

The parable of the burning house is a teaching that  is used to remind us that the precepts in Buddhism are suggestions. It is part of a long text called the Lotus Sutra. Although precepts are important, they aren’t airtight commandments that we can never break. They are a roadmap, not a set of laws.

 

This is how the story goes:

A man sees that his house is on fire with his children inside. The children are having so much fun playing a game that they don’t realize that the house is going to burn down.

So, the father yells, “Come out!”

 

And…the kids ignore him. A familiar experience to those of us that are parents.

 

The father thinks for a minute and comes up with an idea.

 

He yells, “Kids, I have three carts full of toys out here, come outside and play with them.”

 

And the kids come running out immediately.

 

 

So, he lied to save their lives. And because he lied they lived, although they were probably disappointed and perhaps angry at their father.

 

In Buddhism, honesty is valued very highly. It’s one of the five precepts. But, this goes to show that life happens and there are situations.

 

An example from modern times would be someone hiding Jews in their house during the World War 2. Of course if you’re trying to save lives in that way, you’re going to lie if someone comes to your door looking for the people you’re protecting.

 

This can be a dangerous teaching, because one could then think of all sorts of excuses to break precepts. But another important part of Buddhism is using common sense. If you use this teaching to get around the precepts, you know exactly what you’re doing and you aren’t helping anyone.

This is an important teaching because it sets Buddhism apart. The Buddha says these rules are a good idea, but he also says use your common sense.