Monday, September 17, 2012


I recently finished reading a little book called, Special Karma, by Merry White Benezra. I have no acquaintance with this author, but both she and I did Rinzai Zen in our twenties. Rinzai is the kind of Zen in which students are given progressively more difficult koans---word puzzles for which there is no logical answer---and have to discover a response that comes from their whole being, not just their mind. I never passed a koan myself, but I well remember the naïve belief that if I worked very hard, I would pass all the koans and attain enlightenment in no time!

Of course, more sophisticated meditators will be quick to point out that enlightenment is not in the future and that such thinking is therefore erroneous. In Soto, the other main branch of Zen, one just sits with, as Suzuki Roshi put it, “beginner's mind.” Becoming one with sitting itself, in the present, one feels no need to attain something called “enlightenment” in the imaginary future.

Yet sometimes this way of approaching meditation can also result in missing the most essential thing. Most people think of the “present” as an instant sandwiched between past and future. But the “eternal present” is something quite different: not a moment in time but beyond time (and yet encompassing all time). And so, although we may sit on a cushion and feel peaceful because, after all, few demands are being made on us in this situation, we don't necessarily discover the outside-of-time, deeper dimension of consciousness through this kind of practice.

At this point, someone may say, “But there is no enlightenment anyway: it's just a thought, an illusory goal to keep the mind engaged.” And yes, as a thought, a belief in a future event, enlightenment is a fiction.

Still, there is that moment when the bottom falls out of consciousness. (At least, that's one way to put it.) You thought your consciousness had a certain depth, a certain limit---and what a surprise to find out that it's infinite! That moment when we discover that we are both nothing and everything at the same time needs a name. Some call it “enlightenment”; others might opt for “awakening.” The word doesn't much matter. But to the extent that we are thinking in time, this “event” happens to us. Only when the mind ceases for a moment and we discover that the “real” world is beyond the mind do we see that the idea we had of enlightenment, like all other ideas, is a creation of thought.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Is There a "Me"?

Q: I recently read this question: “Is there really a 'me,' at all, anywhere, in any way, shape, or form? Was there ever?” Will an awake person always answer “no” to this question?

A: This question is often used by teachers when students are on the edge – just ready to drop into the vastness but a bit afraid. It's cleverly worded because it makes the student aware that s/he doesn't have to do anything or go anywhere since there was never an obstacle to the realization in the first place!

But without this context, to ask this question and expect the answer to be a statement of fact is very problematic. Language by its nature is dualistic. It is language that invents the ideas “me” and “not me.” Maybe someone has a great moment of liberation and discovers they don't really exist. Then they bring that realization back into the usual dualistic consciousness from which thought arises and declare it the absolute truth. But the problem is that in that relative world what they have discovered can't be captured. And if one declares that there is no “me,” one may find oneself on guard to make sure no “me” thoughts ever appear again. Good luck!

The way out is to see that the “me” isn't a problem. The problem is not recognizing that the “me” exists in a larger context in which all of life, time, space, and all appearances, including “me” and “no-me” arise – and that we are this context – this context is what is meant by essential nature

Addendum: I'm trying to post a response to Pat's comment, but Blogger won't let me, for some reason. So I'll do it here. 

I checked out the Buddha at the Gas Pump site and also a few moments of Francis Bennett. Both gems -- thanks for sharing them.

You mentioned something about straddling the fence between "me" and "no-me."  I want to say that, for myself anyway, I don't experience it as straddling. It's more like there's a "me" in my everyday life, but because of having realized no-me, the "me" is now experienced differently. I know it is really transparent -- a creation of thought -- and that it's not essentially who I am. It is almost as though I could put my hand through it and, touching things seemingly outside "me," actually sense that I'm touching myself. The sense of this is very subtle, almost a sixth sense sort of thing. None of this is intellectual, such as when we straddle political positions or something like that.

That probably doesn't make anything clearer! 

And Kim, I tried to thank you for your comment when you left it as well, but also couldn't figure out how at that time. So I'll do it now. Yes, context is everything. I'm glad if what I said clarified that.

NOTE: The previous post, on detachment, may now be found on the FAQ page. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Masters of Deceit?

I left Zen behind decades ago, and yet I still feel there is something sacred about Zen lineage. Perhaps this is why I'm so annoyed as I notice, more and more, how half-baked teachers from other traditions —or perhaps from no tradition—apply the term “Zen Master” to themselves. Even someone who has practiced and taught Zen for years is not a Zen Master, or Roshi in Japanese, unless that person's own Roshi has designated him or her as a successor. Certainly, then, someone who has scarcely, if ever, set foot in a Zen center is not entitled to this designation.

My own teacher, Adyashanti, who comes from Zen, doesn't call himself a “Zen Master,” or any other kind of “master,” for that matter. But after a series of awakenings inspired by his presence, there was a period almost a decade ago now when I researched the various American Zen lineages. It seemed—and still does seem—that something incredibly precious was transmitted, and that it didn't start with my teacher but went back hundreds or even thousands of years. Maybe it's this sense of the preciousness of transmission that causes me to feel that it's a travesty for someone who has only the vaguest familiarity with Zen, or even with Buddhism in some cases, to refer to himself as a “Zen Master.”

Still, even those with a little knowledge of the history of Buddhism in America know that those who are legitimate dharma heirs—successors to the lineage holders in their tradition—have sometimes behaved in less than enlightened ways. Thus, people may well ask, “What does it even mean, anyway, to be a Roshi? Does it really guarantee that a person is a completely enlightened teacher? It seems that it doesn't. So if the purpose of lineage is to help potential students decide if a certain teacher is genuine, maybe it isn't that helpful a guide.

This brings up the whole question of teachers and their role. In an interview in Dialogues with Emerging Spiritual Teachers, by John W. Parker (Sagewood Press, 2000), Eckhart Tolle concluded that teachers who are awake sometimes experience return of their ego because of all of the projection from students (p. 122). In other words, when everyone thinks you're a god, it's hard not to buy into that view eventually. Christianity doesn't have that problem because the earthly manifestation of its god came to earth over 2,000 years ago and never since. But for seekers in Eastern traditions, the teacher often unconsciously represents the inner, unmanifest Buddha that is only consciously realized in awakening. This is natural but also causes much confusion.

In response to the quandary over how to find spiritual leaders of integrity, some communities based in Eastern wisdom have decided to elect their head teacher through democratic process. But this solution also raises some questions: Given that we don't know what enlightenment is ahead of time, how is it possible to select the right person to lead us to a goal of which we are ignorant? And how can we choose someone who will not succumb to the egotistic temptation of believing him/herself to be a great master? I continue to think we in the West need to grapple with this issue until we find the right structures through which the teachings transmitted from the East can flourish.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

"Morning has broken, like the first morning"

I went to a Rise Up Singing group the other evening and sang, "Morning Has Broken."  This song moves me in a mysterious way -- I'm always tearful by the end, so that I can scarcely get the words out.  According to Wikipedia, the words sprang from Eleanor Farjeon, and the tune was a Scottish ballad.  I cannot believe other than that Farjeon was awakened, perhaps even as she wrote these words:  "Praise for the singing; praise for the morning. Praise for them springing fresh from the word."

This, of course, echoes the gospel of John:  "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  The New Oxford Annotated Bible (1973) explains that the "Word," a translation of "logos," "is more than speech; it is God in action, creating."  But perhaps this explains too much while really explaining nothing.  The literal meaning takes us further into the mystery, I think:  the world, our world, does spring from language, in the sense of conscious labeling of our experience.  Without that, there really is nothing.  The labeling makes it all seem solid, and obscures the illumined emptiness (another description of God), so that we see only "through a glass darkly." And this, of course, is how Buddhism and Eastern spirituality dovetail with at least the mystical branch of Christianity.  When Farjeon writes, "Born of the one light Eden saw play," she surely knows something about how it all comes to be, how it comes to be every minute.  This Light is not a metaphor but the creative force of the universe, visible to those graced with eyes to see it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The nature of suffering

I'm reading a memoir by a man who went to Dharamsala seeking truth:  TURTLE FEET by Nikolai Gronzi.  He states what I think are supposed to be the Four Noble Truths in a way I hadn't heard before and that seems more accurate to me:  "that all compounds are impermanent; that all physical and mental states, born out of a misconception about the ultimate way of things, are in the nature of suffering; that all phenomena are devoid of objective reality; and that Nirvana is peace." 

I guess this seems more accurate to me because these days it's becoming clearer that suffering comes from the whole human apparatus of consciousness; not just from some mistaken view, but from the way the human psyche functions.  That is to say, the mind solidifies everything and places it outside of itself, and also tends to make things permanent when nothing lasts more than an instant.  So loss is a permanent feature of life as a human being, not because "things" die but because we imagine they were ever solid in the first place.

All of this perhaps sounds intellectual, but I think it does reflect the realization that happens when all of this gets seen through.   

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Once you start on the path, it's forever

I read the above in a novel last night -- or words to that effect.  I have that sense as well.  But I think there's even more to it than that.  When one is meant to be on the path -- when it's what one was born for -- when one finds a way to follow it, it's like finding home. But even if one doesn't start, if it's what one was meant to do, one cannot be happy until that destiny is fulfilled.  I can't prove this is true -- it's just my sense.  And I wish I had come to it sooner.  In the past, when I lost my first teacher, there seemed to be no way forward, and so I just tried to live the way everyone else did.  If someone had said to me, "You can't.  Your destiny is different," maybe it would have made a difference.  Not that there is something wrong with what others are doing, but it was wrong for me.  All's well that ends well, of course, but it would have been wonderful to know sooner that there was no choice in the matter..

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ego and Kensho

Last night I was reading an interview with an author who had lived in several Zen temples in Japan. At the first temple, the Zen Master told this American student that he had experienced kensho, or a glimpse of enlightenment. This author did not believe the Zen master was correct. He felt nothing different, he reported. He left that temple and went to a temple of a different branch of Zen, where the priest told him that kensho was just sort of a game, confirming in this student's mind that he had, in fact, not experienced anything significant.

Well, there is that aspect of that type of Zen (Rinzai) that does seem like a game: all of the students vying to see who will get enlightened first as they go from koan to koan. And the fact that this author did not believe his teacher probably means that it was just as well he went somewhere else. But – this is why we have teachers – to tell us what we may not ourselves realize, to reflect back the deeper truth that our egos cover over. My guess – and not having been there, it is only a guess, of course – is that in fact this author did experience kensho but that discursive thought quickly came back in and said he'd experienced nothing at all. And, of course, this is true, too – and is exactly why ego misses it. When we experience nothingness, how can we tell about it? We were, after all, absent that moment.

It's quite a paradox that the ego so wants, on the one hand, to take credit for an insight it has nothing whatsoever to do with, and on the other, to pretend that it never happened. Often, after an initial awakening, both of these delusions alternate with each other. I know that for me, when my first teacher told me, upon my initial awakening, that I had “entered nirvana,” I hadn't a clue what he was talking about. It is only in retrospect that I see that he had the larger picture.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Joseph Campbell: an enlightened soul

I caught tidbits of the Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell that have been on PBS the past week or two.  Moved to tears.  When I watched these videos when they were originally broadcast in the 1980s, I didn't realized how enlightened Campbell was .  And poor Moyers shows by his responses that he hasn't a clue!  But what an opportunity and gift he got.  I wonder how he looks at the experience now, in his 70s. 

Of course, the phrase from JC (oh, same initials as that other bloke) that everyone knows is "follow your bliss."  In his case, he followed the "myth" path and it led him to Truth.  Not bad advice and hard to do.  I am always, ALWAYS moved to tears when I come across someone who has done it.  Jane Goodall would be another example.  It doesn't have to end up in enlightenment -- but there IS something illuminated about someone who has lived this way. 

For me, what has been in the way my whole life is wanting to be like other people.  When I was a child, I wanted to be like the other kids -- and I never was.  Being different always meant being LESS.  And it is just now occurring to me that it doesn't mean that at all -- that one only truly comes into one's power and does what one is meant to do on this planet when one finds the gift of the uniqueness of one's being. 

I don't know if there are, literally, such things as "old souls" but if there are, I'm sure I am one.  And it is only now that I realize I could never find satisfaction in all of the things others found it in because I simply was not meant to.  My calling has been this Truth which is finding voice in me now.  And I realize that one doesn't have to be "completely enlightened," whatever that is, to speak that Truth.  In a sense, one HAS to speak it -- not to do so is to betray oneself and that Truth.