Thursday, February 26, 2009

Genjokoan ¶1

As part of my personal practice in The Big Sit, I'm going to do a series of commentaries on Eihei Dogen’s Genjokoan, paragraph by paragraph.

As all things are Buddha-dharma, there are delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings. As myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death. The Buddha Way, in essence, is leaping clear of abundance and lack; thus there are birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas. Yet in attachment blossoms fall, and in aversion weeds spread.

The first paragraph of Dogen's work plays off of the Two Truths: the relative or conventional realm, where we speak according to social conventions and relative binary concepts (A vs. not-A), and ultimate truth, or truth as experienced beyond conventions or concepts. This warrants a post (or a series of posts) on its own, but it is sufficient for now to say that the Two Truths are not mutually exclusive: relative truth is not a small-t truth nor is ultimate truth a big-T Truth. Similarly, relative truth is not 'half false' nor is it to be looked down upon as something less than ultimate truth. In fact, relative truth exists because ultimate truth exists and vice versa: since we are essentially engaged in this world, we can realize or awaken to ultimate truth; if we weren't so engaged, the conditions for awakening to ultimate truth would be gone. We do not forsake relative truth when we become an Awakened One (Buddha), but we see its truth nature.

It is because of this inter-relation that Dogen says that, "[a]s all things are Buddha-dharma [the Path to Awakening], there are delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings." However, at the ultimate level, since things like delusion, realization, practice, birth and death, buddhas and sentient beings "are without an abiding self," or are composed of non-delusion, non-realization, non-practice, non-birth and non-death, non-buddhas and non-sentient being stuff, "there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death." This is the potentially perilous conceptual distinction within the notion of emptiness (shunyata): it is not the nihilistic understanding that nothing exists, but rather that things are empty of individual existence.

Consider, for a moment, the nature of delusion: it is composed most immediately of mental formations (with its respective objects, thoughts), but also of form (with its respective sense organs and their objects), feelings (positive, negative, and neutral), perceptions (of good, bad, and irrelevant), and consciousness (both as store [alaya] consciousness and our inherited social order). This then extends even further, beyond the Aggregates, to wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action, wrong livelihood, wrong diligence, wrong mindfulness, and wrong concentration (the Ignoble Eightfold Path), all with their respective relations to people, contexts, and events. And we can continue to find all the non-delusion elements that constitute delusion, eventually including the whole cosmos, yet we never find a concrete object we can call "delusion". So, put in abstract logical form, A is not-A, which is why it is genuinely A; without the not-A, A cannot exist, which is why the not-A is essentially (rather than contingently) necessary for the (empty) existence of A. Just like a flower cannot exist without the Sun and rain (and the local and cosmic causes and conditions for the existence of the Sun and rain), so delusion cannot exist without, well, everything!

In turning to the next sentence, the Buddha-dharma/Buddha Way, "in essence", is to move beyond notions of abundance and lack, which initially (at the relative level that we primarily inhabit at first) is living in the world of "birth and death, delusion and realization, sentient beings and buddhas." As we start on the Path we have to "leap clear" of our concepts, hence the Path essentially includes working within the relative world of binary concepts like birth and death, delusion and realization, and sentient beings and buddhas. We must not think that we can get to the other shore (paragate, in the words of the Heart Sutra) without first jumping in the boat and moving on the water, without first examining our concepts and (mis)understandings and learning to look deeply so that we can see the emptiness of all phenomena. Thus, an important and essential part of the Path is working with our concepts.

Our constant guard, however, is to remember that even as we try to grasp on to that which is 'good' and 'beautiful', it will eventually wilt and die; even as we try to push out that which is 'painful' and 'disgusting', it will continue to grow and spread. How much of our lives are spent in grasping and pushing? How much energy do we waste in wishing things were different: that the good would stay and the bad would stay out? Creating our concepts of 'good' and 'bad' doesn't help. In fact, it exacerbates things by creating the illusion that that which we think of as 'good' or 'bad' substantially exists, that it is something to be horded or warred against with every breath in our that we cannot appreciate the joy of simply breathing for its own sake. We always have something to 'gain' and something to 'lose', hence we are always doing something for the sake of something else. And then, when we finally get 'what we've always wished for' and 'what would make us happy', it inevitably leaves or something else that will really make us happy takes its place; when we finally 'get our revenge' or 'vanquish our enemy', a new sworn enemy inevitably appears. Seeing the reality of impermanence is the first step in "leaping clear" of our concepts.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The First Noble Truth: The Reality of Suffering

Not long after his enlightenment, the Buddha gave his first discourse where he brought to light the Four Noble Truths. In Walpola Rahula's translation of this discourse:

The Noble Truth of suffering (Dukkha) is this: Birth is suffering; aging is suffering; sickness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief, and despair are suffering; association with the unpleasant is suffering; dissociation from the pleasant is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering--in brief, the five aggregates of attachment are suffering.
What the Buddha Taught, p. 93.

Here we are given three orders of suffering: the first broad level is birth, aging, sickness, and death, the sights that helped the Buddha realize the need for spiritual work. This is the wider context within which suffering occurs: the cycle of birth to death (and, in one interpretation of reincarnation, to re-birth).

The next and more specific level of suffering is particular afflictions: regret for the past and our losses, experience of pain in body and mind, emotional distress, and hopelessness in the face of living. As we go about living, these afflictions, which can also be categorized by their respective temporal frames of reference (i.e. regret is related to the past, pain and emotional distress the present, and hopelessness the future), occur at different times and cause suffering.

Then we have the very grounds from which the previous kinds of suffering arise: experiencing things we find undesirable (aversion) and that the things we like don't stay and many things that we like don't come to us (grasping). These basic afflictions (kleshas), or basic ways of relating to things and events, are the grounds from which regret, pain, distress, and hopelessness arise; they are what waters the seeds of affliction.

Lastly, the basic objects of our attachment are named: the five aggregates of form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Thich Nhat Hanh, in his The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, aptly translates the last sentence as, "In other words, to grasp the Five Aggregates as though they constitute a self is suffering" (p. 258). This is the third klesha: ignorance, primarily ignorance of the nature of non-self or, put in other terms, our clinging to the ego as if it were some substantial thing. While the three kleshas are all genuine causes of our suffering, ignorance is generally considered the prime cause: it is because we think of ourselves as substantially existing that we feel a need to protect our selves from things that can hurt us (aversion) and seek things that will build us up (grasping).

One important thing to realize is that the First Noble Truth is not claiming that life is suffering. In fact, to make that claim is to deny the Third Noble Truth: the cessation of suffering. The First Noble Truth is making the fairly obvious claim that we do suffer, that suffering exists. Another important point is that Buddhism, by virtue of the First Noble Truth, is not claiming that suffering is just an illusion: that we really aren't suffering. Rather, suffering is a genuine reality, a real part of our lives. The polysymy of the word "illusion", both in English and as a translation of Buddhist concepts, will require its own analysis later; for now it is sufficient to realize that suffering exists.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A Buddhist Valentine

My Love is Empty
By Kevin K. Winters

My love for you is empty
So that it may contain the whole cosmos
And that through it
You may see the abundance of life.

My love for you is impermanent
So that it may grow more and more
Through compassionate service
And genuine openness.

My love for you is non-dual,
For it is not “mine”,
Not “yours”, as if it were a mere possession,
But a manifestation of our self-less devotion.

My love for you is non-grasping,
For to grip you too tightly
Or to mold you into an idol/ideal
Is to do both of us violence and harm.

My love for you is non-love:
Composed of the cosmos,
Watered by blessed causes and conditions,
And therefore is authentic love.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Big Sit

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review is hosting The Big Sit, a 90-day Zen meditation challenge. Here's the text from the site:

On February 23rd, the Tricycle Community will launch "The Big Sit," a 90-day Zen meditation challenge and the first of many Community events to follow. For the Big Sit, participants will sit daily and meet here to share thoughts on meditation practice. Let's support each other!

Guiding teacher Pat Enkyo O'Hara Roshi, abbot of New York City's Village Zendo, will guide you through a classical Zen text with her weekly video teachings. Joining her will be several prominent Zen teachers from around the country who will provide additional support throughout your 90-day meditation challenge.

Don't be discouraged if you begin late or miss a day or two — just pick up where you left off. This is about practice not perfection.

There's more coming soon! Sign up now and we'll send you a reminder as the big day approaches.

For more information, and to prepare for the challenge, please read the Spring 2009 issue's special practice section in print or online.

Good luck. We look forward to sitting with you. Stay tuned!

The Tricycle Staff

Here is the suggested structure of the event:

  • Sit in formal meditation for 20 minutes each day.
  • Listen to one dharma talk each week on
  • Study Dogen’s Genjokoan, the text selected for the period.
  • Commit to the sixteen bodhisattva precepts.
  • Practice with others at or at a local meditation center.
  • Begin when you like. Tricycle’s staff will begin February 23.

I hope many join in this collective attempt to cultivate further peace in our lives.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Zen Brain

The Upaya Institute and Zen Center has a series of podcasts on meditation and neuroscience.

Zen Brain: "Science is just now documenting what meditators have known for millennia. Jim Austin calls meditation “artful attention” and discusses the importance of this skill in our lives. He talks about his own experience both as a Zen student and a neurologist looking at the brain in relation to meditation."

Zen Brain 1: "Science journalist and New York Times contributor Sandra Blakeslee provides an overview of how recent developments in neuroscience have changed the way we view the impact of various practices, including meditation, upon brain structure and function."

Zen Brain 2: "Neuroscientist Richard Davidson provides an introduction to brain systems that may be relevant to meditation. This presentation gives an orientation to neurophysiology and lays the foundation for Dr. Davidson’s second presentation which discusses the relationship between the brain and meditation."

Richard Davidson has done some excellent work on meditation and neuroscience; he will come up again on this blog. James Austin is best known for his earliest work on Zen and neuroscience, Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness, which I haven't read so I can't vouch for his work. He is, however, one of the most long-standing researchers on the neurological effects of meditation. Finally, this is the first time I've ever heard of Sandra Blakeslee, but she seems to be a lay expert on neuroscience.

Also, take a look at Upaya's other dharma talk podcasts.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What is Buddhism?

The final, and natural, introductory post for this blog addresses the question, "What is Buddhism?" The first thing that should be said about every tradition, religious or otherwise, is that it is complicated. As with every tradition, Buddhism has many schools of thought and a long history within which those schools have developed. My own approach is generally within the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools and is marked by particular authors like Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa, and Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet). A very brief history of Buddhism's doctrinal beginning might be useful to provisionally differentiate these schools of thought.

Mahayana Buddhism refers to the Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma: three series of teachings by the Buddha. In the first, and universally accepted, turning of the wheel (given in Sarnath, India), Buddha expounded the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. In these teachings the emptiness (shunyata) of the self was taught, as we find in Hinayana Buddhism, but the emptiness of all phenomena was not. In the second turning of the wheel (given at Rajagriha, Vulture Peak Mountain), the fundamental emptiness of all things (not just the self) was emphasized and the Mahayana Bodhisattva ideal was given: the dedication of the practitioner to relieve the suffering of all beings. In the third turning of the wheel (at Vaishali, in northeast India, accepted by Tibetan Buddhists), we receive the teachings on the Buddha nature (tathagatha-gharba)--the fundamental goodness and openness at the core of all beings--and a refutation of the nihilistic interpretation of shunyata.

With that, one of the most surprising aspects of Buddhism is that it is not a "religion":

When you're trained as a Buddhist, you don't think of Buddhism as a religion. You think of it as a type of science, a method of exploring your own experience through techniques that enable you to examine your actions and reactions in a nonjudgmental way, with the view toward recognizing, "Oh, this is how my mind works. This is what I need to do to experience happiness. This is what I should avoid to avoid unhappiness."
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness, p. 11.

One reason for this is that the Buddha is not a god that is prayed to for liberation. At least within the Mahayana tradition, it is thathaghatha-gharba, the Buddha-nature (or enlightened one) within that we seek. There is a story about a student who became disappointed in his guru over this or that matter, to which his guru responded, "Good! I don't want you to think that the Buddha is to be found outside of yourself." The Buddha is venerated for being an enlightened one, an example of one who has tread the Path, but he is not sought as an external savior who "gives" or "grants" enlightenment.

The non-religious nature of Buddhism can also be seen in its relation to dogma: Buddhist practitioners are not asked to accept anything on faith and are repeatedly exhorted to test what is given. The Four Noble Truths are not propositions to be believed, asserted, or died for, but realities to be experienced: the concrete reality of our suffering, the understanding of the concrete causes of our sufferings, the concrete realization of the causes of well-being, and the concrete experience of well-being through wholesome living. One metaphor used by the Buddha is that of a finger pointing to the moon: if we fixate on the finger--the words, doctrines, propositions, signs--we will miss the beauty of the moon that the finger is pointing to. Furthermore, Buddhism's truths are understandable by everyone and does not require any special understanding of philosophy or theology: the cessation of suffering and the cultivation of well-being are possible now and here, even for the most philosophically un-savvy and uneducated individuals. There are no "orthodox" doctrines that must be believed under pain of eternal damnation or suffering, just concrete ways of living and experiencing life.

Buddhism, put very simply, is the science of self-understanding. We examine the nature of the mind, the body, the senses, and the grounds of our experiences. Through this process we come to understand why we suffer and how to cultivate well-being. This does not occur through affirming and believing some proposition that some book or some authority tells us to believe. It comes through intimately connecting with our own experience, understanding our own relation to suffering and well-being, and learning how to live abundantly. Anyone from any religious, philosophical, or socio-political tradition can benefit from such self-scrutiny and the majority of meditation practices can be done regardless of whether one accepts the emptiness of all phenomena (e.g., see The Foundations of Mindfulness).

NOTE: I finally (2/13/09) found the exact reference for the anecdote given above. Here it is:

When I complained to my abbot Ajahn Chah, considered by millions to be a great saint, that he didn't always act as if he were completely enlightened, he laughed and told me that was good, "because otherwise you would still be imagining that you could find the Buddha outside of yourself. And he is not here."
Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstacy, the Laundry, p. xx.

What is Yoga?

A very apt second post for this blog would be to discuss the nature of yoga. In the West yoga has largely been reduced to a physical exercise, a way to get in shape, a mere option among other fitness options. There is also a segment of the population, particularly among fundamentalist sects (which is not meant in a derogatory way), who sees yoga as essentially Hindi: that its practices cannot be usefully or meaningfully separated from Hindi religious devotion, veneration of Hindi gods, or some notion of uniting the soul with Vishnu. So yoga finds itself, in Western minds, as a phenomenon on two extremes: extreme secularism or extreme religiosity.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the foundational texts in yoga, defines yoga as "the restraint of the modification of mind-stuff" (Book I:2; Sri Swami Satchidananda, trans.). Another translation states it as "the mastery and integration of the activities of mind". "Yoga" itself means "union", the union of the mind with the body, the union of the mind with itself, rather than being scattered, disjointed, or at war with itself. It should be noted that if we accept this as a description of yoga's essence, it makes no dictates as to what the mind is (beyond that it has "modification[s]", which is hardly disputable) and that it requires no particular acceptance of the mind's nature, except that which is found in our own examination of it. The yogi/yogini who thoroughly examines their own minds, its workings, and its relation to their lives and finds nothing of Vishnu, a "larger Self", chakras, or any particularly Hindi religious contents is perfectly free to reject them. In my own practice and classes, I have seen no need to invoke any of these concepts and my understanding of how meditation and yoga works requires none of it: just the cultivation of the natural capacities of attention, concentration, and understanding.

In line with the above, yoga was originally sitting meditation practice without the asanas, or poses. This is how the term is still used in Buddhism. The physical practice was done primarily to strengthen the body so it can withstand the rigors of sitting practice, which can be excruciating when the body is not strong enough to sustain the posture. Even as the asanas became more prominent in yogic practice, they are intended as anchors for the mind: to become mindful of what is happening in the body (during and after asana practice), what is happening in the mind (during and after asana practice), becoming mindful of the relation between mind and body (during and after asana practice), and learning the body's capacities (during and after asana practice), while simultaneously expanding them during asana practice.

This points to one of the best aspects of yoga: it is not a matter of how flexible or strong your body is, but of how mindful you are during your practice, and afterwards. When practiced in this way, the physical benefits will naturally accrue, even though they are not the explicit focus, but the psychological benefits will also be cultivated: increased understanding of the mind's workings, developing the powers of attention and concentration, increased intimacy with one's own body and mind, and, with it all, increased overall well-being. How this occurs will be discussed throughout this blog, but an understanding of the body will be useful for seeing the particular usefulness of the asanas, what they add that sitting meditation, on its own, misses.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

What is Meditation?

The best way to start this blog would be to address the question, "What is meditation?" This is a question I will address on a few occasions, particularly to correct some very common misunderstandings many have about the nature of meditation. I wish to start, however, with a useful description given by Sakyong Mipham, heir to the Shambhala lineage, in his book, Turning the Mind Into an Ally:

Even though the bewildered mind is untrained, it is already meditating, whether we know it or not. Meditation is the natural process of becoming familiar with an object by repeatedly placing our minds upon it. Whatever we're doing, we always have a view; we're always placing our mind on one object or another. (24)

One of the primary goals of meditation is to train the mind in its ability to attend to or concentrate on whatever it is that we are doing. The Sanskrit word for meditation is bhavana which means to "cultivate" or "develop" and it is always used in reference to the mind. Much like the body, which we all think can benefit from exercise, the mind can also be trained, yet we rarely set aside time each week to train the mind while we will make an effort to schedule time to exercise our body. One reason for this might be that we think that these capacities are innate and permanent, incapable of cultivation or development. Another reason could be our penchant to think that our happiness depends on external conditions: having a beautiful body, having money, fame, and sex, or having a beautiful girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse are (supposedly) what give us happiness, so we ignore the mind as a potential source of contentment and joy in our lives. One way or the other, the training of the mind does not have a place of importance in 21st century America.

There are many different meditation practices that are meant to train the mind's natural capacities of attention and concentration (shamatha bhavana, concentration meditation). There are also many different meditations that use the power of attention/concentration by directing the mind towards wholesome things and penetrating into the nature of all phenomena (vipassana bhavana, wisdom meditation). This is the core of meditation and any religious trappings are secondary to cultivating this concentration and clarity.


Welcome to my blog. As of late my interests have expanded from my original interests, though certainly still related to it. My life has benefited in many ways from my meditation and yoga practice: increased peace, decreased stress, decreased ruminations, increased overall well-being, and more than a handful of moments of pure joy following practice. Yet my enthusiasm for mindfulness' benefits is tempered by a critical mind that desires to see things clearly, rather than just accepting what is said without question. This blog is an attempt to bring these two things together: uniting my positives experiences with meditation with a critical look at the philosophical and psychological grounds of Buddhism, particularly in its Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of thought, and yoga.

My own approach to mindfulness is explicitly non-religious and my descriptions of the various meditation practices and even Buddhist 'doctrines' will be given with variations for different religious perspectives (when relevant). Most importantly, though, I will be providing links to and summaries of important research on the physiological, neurological, and psychological effects of meditation and yoga. At present the scientific research on both of these practices is still in its infancy and its conclusions must be held tentatively, though they are illuminating and suggestive.

So enjoy!