Sunday, August 5, 2018

A Silly Song of Fundamental Zen Concepts

The other morning I saw this posted on a Zen FB group "Please don't post silly memes on this page - it may not seem so to you, but it is somewhat demeaning to the question or issue that someone is posting. The ZD Page is about dialogue or discussion - there are times you may just want to not respond rather than respond with silliness. I would define silliness as different from humor, btw, which is a hallmark of Zen. You probably know the difference."

My immediate reaction was to recall a lovely silly thing from my daughter's childhood, and post it in reply.

As I drove into work I realized what a surprising piece of Zen that lovely thing was.

Later in the day I saw that my post was deleted, by the ZD admin(s), I can only assume.

The lovely thing came to me many years ago from some direction in our social circle in Texas, when someone had gifted my young daughter a VHS cassette of "Veggie Tales" -- a sweet and simple exegesis of Christianity in the form of the mad-cap capers of cartoon vegetables. One of the hosts was Larry the Cucumber, a lovable Gilligan of sorts, who interrupts the story line in many episodes for a moment of "Silly Songs with Larry".

The lovely thing I had recalled was "The Water Buffalo Song".

Here are the lyrics, and the surrounding script for your appreciation. Note the interruption by the much more conservative stalk of asparagus, Archie, who shares a distemper for silliness with the Zen group administrator.

And now it's time for Silly Songs with Larry. The part of the show where Larry comes out and sings a silly song. So without further ado... Silly Songs with Larry

The Water Buffalo song

Everybody's got a water buffalo
Yours is fast but mine is slow
Oh, where do you get them I don't know
But everyone's got a water buffaloooooo [sustained howl]

I took my buffalo to the store
Got his head stuck in the door
Spilled some lima beans on the floor
Oh everybody's got a...

ARCHIE: [interupting]
Stop it! Stop! Stop right this instant!  What do you think you are doing?
You can't say everybody's got a water buffalo when everyone does not have a water buffalo!
We're going to get nasty letters saying "where's my water buffalo? Why don't i have a water buffalo?"
And are you prepared to deal with that? I don't think so!
Just stop being so silly!

This has been Silly Songs with Larry. Tune in next week when Larry sings...

Everybody's got a baby kangaroo
Your's is pink but mine is blue.
Hers was small but...

ARCHIE: [running Larry off the stage]

Here is a link to the performance, but it might be removed for various copyright reasons, so I am also including an image of the first page of the sheet music (which itself might get snagged), cause it's important for you to fully realize the majesty of the song....

Anyway.... In pondering the song, I appreciated many Buddhist connections, none of which were intended.

  1. Larry is a cucumber --- David Chadwick wrote a well known biography of Shunryu Suzuki-roshi called "Crooked Cucumber". From the introduction: From the Introduction: "From the time he was a new monk at age 13, Suzuki's master, Gyokujun So-on Suzuki, called him Crooked Cucumber. Crooked cucumbers were useless; farmers would compost them; children would use them for batting practice. So-on told Suzuki he felt sorry for him, because he would never have any good disciples. For a long time it looked as though So-on was right. Then Crooked Cucumber fulfilled a lifelong dream. He came to America, where he had many students and died in the full bloom of what he had come to do. His 12 1/2 years here profoundly changed his life and the lives of many others." .... So we can imagine Larry as a proxy for Suzuki-roshi. Worth paying attention to!
  2. A water buffalo is a kind of ox --- The 10 Ox Herding pictures are a famous representation of ones travels toward realization.  
  3. We each travel at our own speed --- The lyrics declare "Everybody's got a water buffalo, yours is fast but mine is slow". This is clearly a message of the fact that we are all on a journey of discovery, but each of us must move at our own pace. We each must take responsibility for our own direction and learning. 
  4. "Only don't know!" --- This is a famous answer of the Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn to question of life, the universe, and, well, everything, and Larry uses it too when considering the fundamental question we all have of how did we get placed on this journey, what is the meaning of all of this, as represented in the water buffalo. His reply; "Where do you get them, I don't know" - Only don't know. 
  5. The universal truth --- These are tough questions for Zen masters and for Larry, but it is a situation common to us all... "everyone's got a water buffalo!"
  6. The gateless gate - as you probably know well, koans are those little Zen stories that help puzzle us into understanding. One of the great collections of koans is the forty-eight cases gathered in the Gateless Gate. The thirty-eighth case is a quite short somewhat awkward answer to a question that is not captured in the case. It is as follows: "To give an example, it is like a buffalo passing through a window. Its head, horns and four legs have all passed through. Why is it that its tail cannot?”. Another famous koan has a novice monk asking Master Tozan, “What is Buddha?” to which Tozan replies, “Three pounds of flax.”. In the silly song we see Larry skillfully combine these into the buffalo stuck in the door and spilling the lima beans on the floor (my guess is three pounds worth). Where is Buddha in this? What comes next when the head is stuck in this trap!? Just spill them to find the freedom!
Why the ZD admin(s) deleted reference to this vehicle of fundamental Buddhist principles is beyond understanding.... at least, clearly, theirs.

I'll finish with further defense that silliness has not just an important role, but a fundamental role in Zen. The silly puzzles the mind away from normal modes of tired, formal and normal thinking and opens it to new essential non-sequitur of reality as it is. 
  1. The first transmission occurred when the Buddha silently picked up a flower and twirled it. Among hundreds of serious arhats gathered, only Mahakasyapa apprehended this special transmission outside of the scriptures. Please do not try to convince me that the Buddha twirling a flower silently in that audience was anything but a silly thing to do!
  2. In another Koan Master Joshu famously put his slippers on his head and walked out...
  3. Kodo Sawaki warns "We cannot exchange even a fart with another, can we?..."
Silly is fundamental to Zen. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

"Whether art it was or heedless hap ."

An early meaning of hap is just what occurs without particular planning or obvious agency. So a happy person could be one who gets along with what comes along, not necessarily a  delusional person. In this sense, the eightfold path could lead easily to better happiness, and I could live easily, per-haps.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Transcription of Peter Rocca Chatting with Gudo Nishijima-roshi about Buddhism, Realism, Intuition, and Precepts

Above is a snap of Peter's blog where I got the sound file. It is an image, so the link does not work. 

Transcribed by Lauren Crane around July 2018.

Regarding the transcription:
  • ·       In the following SNS = sympathetic nervous system. PNS = parasympathetic nervous system. ANS = autonomic nervous system. ANSs = autonomic nervous systems [which are the SNS and PNS]… all are spoken out by Nishijima-roshi, I have abbreviated them for convenience.
  • ·       I have attempted to capture some of the flavor of the natural flow of this conversation with various “ahs” “unns” and the like. Not all have been captured.
  • ·       Nishijima-roshi often started speaking with “so da…” which, with my limited exposure to Japanese over many years, I take as a casual thought starter which might more formally be “so desu…”. I do not think it has literal meaning other than a gentle confirmation of what was said, or affirmation of what will be said.
  • ·       I’ve installed some time stamps in brackets throughout so you can locate snips in the tape (sorry... my age is showing. I mean, of course, the sound file).  
  • ·       I’ve also installed some comments in brackets where I had trouble clearly understanding what was being said, or to note vocal effects such as chuckles.
  • ·       Comments in braces {} are my impression of the meaning of what is happening on the tape that is not present as words.

Peter and Nishijima-roshi are discussing a story from chapter 20 in the first volume of the  Nishijima-Cross translation of Shobogenzo titled "Kokyō - The Eternal Mirror". In particular this story...

"Great Master Seppō Shinkaku on one occasion preaches to the

assembly, “If you want to understand this matter, my concrete state is like
one face of the eternal mirror. [When] a foreigner comes, a foreigner appears.
[When] a Chinese person comes, a Chinese person appears.”

(the PDF files have been available here)

==== Transcription
G: Okay?

P: Ya 

G: umm.

The story suggests the difference between European civilization and Indian civilization.

And in European civilization the two fundamental philosophies - idealism and materialism - are the ehhh main um symbols, but in the Indian philosophy, Guatama Buddha insists reality exists only, and therefore, Buddhism insists that even though in European civilization people revered two philosophies - idealism and materialism; but in Indian Buddhism they think that transcending two philosophies – idealism and materialism; and should establish only one realism, is Buddha’s saying.

So in such situation, the Shobogenzo Chinese master utilizes the symbol of two mirrors. And when two mirrors have met, two mirrors vanish, and reality exists in front of them, that is the meaning of the story. [2:16]

P: So the mirrors are symbols of ideas, of concepts.

G: ahhhh… yes ...  so da … such mirror is the human intuition.

P: Right. When the two mirrors meet… human intuition vanishes?

G: unh…so da…. vanish… and reality manifests itself.

P: ….

G: So manifesting reality, is the ultimate phase of Buddhist philosophy [2:52]

P: ohhh

G: Therefore, to explain such situation, Chinese Buddhism utilized  two piece of mirrors. [3:10]

P: um um …I see…so at the beginning of the story the master Seppou Shinkaku says uh, if you want to understand the matter … my concrete state is like one face of the eternal mirror. When a foreigner comes, a foreigner appears. When a Chinese person comes, a Chinese person appears.

What does that mean – “when a Foreigner comes a Foreigner appears”?

G: mmm so da…it is the story which symbolizes some kind of philosophical relations so da ….. Chinese master utilizes mirror as the symbol of human intuition and uh…. Two masters have met…. Two masters idea vanishes and only one reality is maintained….

P: So when they meet face to face, they are in reality, that’s the real…..

G: So this is the process of explanation [?]…. So the real situation such kind of intuition vanishes and there is just reality itself. [4:46]

P: This intuition, is it something that we that we can kind of unders … is it something we can understand ourselves and think about … or does it just happen… is it a very natural…

G: So intuition is different from thinking, so da …we should explain such problem on the basis of ANS, and when SNS is stronger, we are skillful to think. Therefore, in that case, we are skillful to consider philosophical problems on the basis of idealism, but when PNS is stronger the people usually be sensitive. In that case, people think philosophical problems on the basis of material world. [5:55]

So da…. we have tendency that when our SNS is stronger we are prone to be spiritual, and if our PNS is stronger, we are prone to be materialistic. So those two states are different from Buddhist situation. In the Buddhist situation, SNS and PNS have the equal strength. In that case, plus minus zero, then we can notice the existence of reality. [6:54]

So European philosophies and Buddhist philosophies should think about utilizing such [unclear – something like “uh… simile”].  So in Euorpean civilization, there is body and mind, but in Indian philosophy, our ANSs are balanced…. so such is described “plus minus zero”, then we can grasp reality directly. [7:41]

So practicing zazen is making our ANS balanced, and then, we can grasp reality directly. So not consideration, not perception, but just sitting, keeping the posture regularly, then we can experience reality itself, directly. That is the practice of zazen. And therefore, practice of zazen is the central importance in Buddhist philosophy.  [8:26]  

P: And what is the relationship, then, between intuition and this balanced state?

G: Ah…so da… when ANS balanced, function of autonomic…[correcting himself] function of SNS and function of PNS become equal, so such situation is like plus minus zero, and such situation of plus minus zero is just the basis of reality. [9:15]

Therefore by practicing zazen, we can utilize practice of zazen, we can live in the reality. The reality is situation of plus minus zero. [9:36]

P: I see. So this situation of plus minus zero, is the same as the situation of reality, of the universe.

G: Yes, yes, that’s it.

P: So we’re in plus minus zero and reality is plus minus zero.

G: Yes, yes. [9:53]

P: And then where does intuition come from? Is that, is that, part of reality [???] does that come from inside each person?

G: Ah, so da…. reality comes {“from” seems implied by not said} the equality between strength of SNS and strength of PNS. [10:14]

P: That’s .. intuition comes….

G: Yes,

P: They’re, they’re…

G: Yes. So intuition is beyond consideration.

P: Right

G: Beyond sense perception.

P: aha

G: ummm

P: And is it an individual thing? Do individuals kind of generate their own intuition, or is it a kind of a universal… ?

G:… therefore in European philosophy, we do not revere intuition, and sometimes we think that intuition is very dangerous. Therefore, before deciding something, we should be more considerable, but Buddhism insists different theory, and true decision comes from our intuition, not from consideration, not from sense perception. [11:25]

When our ANSs are balanced, then we can grasp the truth directly, intuitively. That is the theory of Buddhism. Therefore, Buddhism revere the balanced state, and when our ANSs are balanced, we can reflect the truth intuitively. [11:53]

P: …and we reflect the truth intuitively… the truth exists in reality.

G: Yes.

P: I see.
G: so da…. the universe is truth itself. [12:07]

P: Ah ha…

G: So if we … make identify {perhaps he intended “identical”} our mental wave with the universal wave, we can listen to the universal voice [light chuckle] {my impression is he is amused by this analogy with radio signals}  [12:24]

P: ah ha… great…great… When we do that, can we listen to it kind of consciously? Can we do it in our men[tal]… do we get a mental … can we actually recognize it?

G: Ahhh yes… therefore, sitting spine straight vertically, we are having balanced state of ANS then the wave from the universe come into our body and mind.

P: ah… and where does the wave from the universe… where does that originate.

G: It is fact. [13:02]

P: uh huh… it exists.

G: Universe has such function.

P: I see. Is this… is intuition… prajna… the word prajna… is that separate to the word dharma? You know we talk about the universal law and universal rule. Is…

G: Therefore balanced ANS is the wave of the universe. Therefore when human beings make their ANS balanced, then they can listen to the broadcasting from the universe. [13:52]

P: right.. and the broadcasting from the universe is truth, it’s reality.

G: Yes, yes.

P: well that’s very good, thank you.

G: So the Buddhist philosophy is not belief but philosophical fact. Therefore, I think all human beings should study Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism can never be [unclear] but philosophy itself. [14:25].

Because in the case of Buddhism, that is nothing to believe in. The Buddhist theory is fact itself. Therefore, we should not believe in anything. We should find the existence of Buddhism itself. [14:55]

P: We believe in reality.

G: Yes.
P: …like that…

G: Yes.

P: It’s not that… we don’t believe in a particular idea, we believe in….

G: ah…We do not need to believe any idea [15:12]

P: uh huh…

G: umm

P: I’m sorry.. one last question.. how do the precepts relate to, you know, our intuition?

G: da…. when I want to explain such situation, I usually use very wide pasture. And in the pasture, ox and horse are playing very pleasantly. But if they over the fences, the outside is very dangerous. Therefore, without getting out from the fence, is very important condition to make ox and horses safe. [16:15]

P: right..

G: umm… so precept is such kind of face… fence… therefore we should not get outside of the fence, that is the precepts.

P: I see…. Occasionally there are times when we have to act…sometimes we do something that goes against the words of the precepts.

G: Ah yes…. Therefore, in such case we should come back to the pasture hastily.

P: Hastily…

G: [chuckle] {of amused confirmation}

P:And usually the precepts and the truth in reality they should kind of be… they should … uh conform to each other… they should be…

G: uhh… Precepts is first step. And first having the precepts, but it is rather difficult to follow the precepts. So we make our effort and gradually we will get ability to follow the precepts.

P: I see…

G: So precepts is the first fess… fence…

P: yes…

G: umm. And breaking the precepts is common for human beings. Therefore, we should make our effort to follow the… play… inside the fences. Then we can have freedom, even though we are living on the earth. [18:08]

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Facebook Diaries

I've been spending some time in the Soto Zen FB group and occasionally inspired to contribute a few things, well, I like. I am capturing some here to have them under one roof with my other ramblings. In the order FB chose .

Zen is a method, similar to the scientific method, a tool kit for coming to understand what is (dharma), and how my interaction with what is informs my sense of suffering as a human. Shikantaza, the precepts, and a few other items are very useful tools in the tool kit. That is basically it. Any other 'stuff'; ordination, sects, enlightenment, etc... has nothing, fundamentally, to do with 'it'.
I just read a story about the ex cop in Japan who is acknowledged to have the largest collection of Hello Kitty stuff. Spends a huge part of his income on the collection. His wife says it's okay "everyone has to make their mark on the world." This is certainly a concept I struggle with. I find an urge to make a mark, to be recognized socially, lurking in many parts of my week. Usually it's a worry that I have not, rather than the satisfaction that in some small action I have.
As a partial antidote for this 'self' centered ennui, I contemplate the millions of people who live each day completely out of any spot light other than, perhaps, their family circle. All the people who have gone before that are unknown to me. And in 5 billion years when the expanding, dying sun engulfs the Earth, the millions upon millions of unknown lives, with mine, for which any trace at all will disappear except for the bits of atom that constituted them, cast across this patch of an infinite universe. But such grand poesy also falls short.
In the end the better solution may be to side step all that. Just reach out at night and adjust the pillow....step off the 100 foot pole... get on with it...give someone a smile and let them wonder what's up...かな....
I self identify as Soto Zen, mainly because that is the lineage in which I took jukai. However I often see posts in the group where some says "we in Soto Zen XYZ" and I think it very much misses the mark as I understand it, or their statements sure don't include the way I think. Perhaps this is just the impact of the unskillful "we" rather than the more honest "I", but it makes me wonder how could one identify a Soto zen practitioner by characteristics? Is it a mater of the particular way someone practices, or what they claim to believe, or simply an issue of functional lineage? What are the 'unmistakable marks' of Soto?
A la "The Hunting of the Snark"
... "Come, listen, my men, while I tell you again
The five unmistakable marks
By which you may know, wheresoever you go,
The warranted genuine Snarks.
Let us take them in order. The first is the taste,
Which is meager and hollow, but crisp:
Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist,
With a flavor of Will-o-the-wisp.
Its habit of getting up late you'll agree
That it carries too far, when I say
That it frequently breakfasts at five-o'clock tea,
And dines on the following day.
The third is its slowness in taking a jest.
Should you happen to venture on one,
It will sigh like a thing that is deeply distressed:
And it always looks grave at a pun.
The fourth is its fondness for bathing-machines,
Which it constantly carries about,
And believes that they add to the beauty of scenes--
A sentiment open to doubt.
The fifth is ambition. It next will be right
To describe each particular batch:
Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite,
And those that have whiskers, and scratch."

There are two types of people in this world: Those who have gotten past dualistic thinking, and ...
I don't want to look at Zen as a guide for how I should *appear*. I want to be honest, and sometimes I am honestly angry, or rude, or snarky, or sad....or supportive or self sacrificing. My hope is that my Zen practice might change who I am, so that I honestly become someone less angry, or rude, or snarky, or sad. Zen as my marrow rather than Zen as my clothing.
I seem to have a choice in zazen. Look with purpose at a fixed point so that my vision field is normal, but this feels like I'm doing more than just sitting; or let my eyes relax, which results in a cross eyed image, which seems to give rise more quickly to day dreaming. Does anyone else experience this choice? What do you recommend?
"Zazen is a kind of habit, and it is necessary for us to establish the daily habit without fail. It is not necessary for us to get the so-called enlightenment. Because the so-called enlightenment is just a Romantic story, which many children love. But Buddhism is never a Romantic story, but it is just Action. It is just sitting. It is just Practice. It is just Reality." Gudo Nishijima
Would it be useful if Zen centers tried an "experiment in thus-ness" by declaring, for example, "because we are not free from picking and choosing, the zendo leader sits on a specially designated cushion", "because we are tied to ideas of hierarchy we ask you only to wear rakusu of the approved style and color", "because we are afraid of our passions, please don't wear bright clothing in the Zendo"?
Can Zen survive if the institutionalized contradictions of basic principles is not acknowledged?
Is there doubt that institutionalized contradictions exist?
We've been discussing precepts a lot lately. Today I was struck with a more fundamental question... regardless of what a precept means, what does it imply if I find I haven't kept one, or several (regardless of what I understand them to be)? I'm quite certain that I have failed in some precept or another. Am I in trouble? A poor Buddhist? No big deal? Try again tomorrow? What is the meaning of vowing to abide by the precepts?
Every day bodies are turned to ash or laid in boxes in the ground.
Everyday babies emerge from wombs and draw first breath.
And yet some Zen "masters" say that birth and death can be "overcome" or "escaped from" and spread platitudes like "ultimate reality is free from birth and dying." Can anyone explain the skill/truth in such apparent lies?
I can see cultivating an attitude that has no interest or clinging to such events, but that is far different, and just a semantic trick, from denying the events occur.
"There once was a temple with long hallways and new students from many different places. Everyone walked down the halls differently, some on the left, some on the right, some down the middle. It was hard to get anything done because of the many collisions and near misses. There was lots of grumbling and excited conversation of who was right and wrong for how they walked in the halls.
The abbot of the temple called everyone together and asked everyone to walk on the left. Some folks wanted to walk on the right, but he said 'please', and they said okay. After a week or so getting used to the new method, things got much easier in the temple. Few crashes, less excitement.
When new students came to the temple, as part of their introduction, the Abbot would mention people walk on the left in the hallways, and could they please also do this, telling them about the history of the temple's decision over a comfortable tea. Some new students would forget and walk on the right, but eventually got into the habit of walking on the left. Students did well, and the temple was successful.
A few years later, the abbot died. A senior student took over the job of introducing new students to the temple. He would tell them it is a rule of the temple that everyone must walk on the left. The temple soon withered and died. No one cared to practice there."
-from the wet goose chronicles-

'Licchavi Vimalakirti came to the foot of that tree and said to me, ’Reverend Sariputra, this is not the way to absorb yourself in contemplation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation so that neither body nor mind appear anywhere in the triple world. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest all ordinary behavior without forsaking cessation. You should absorb yourself in contemplation in such a way that you can manifest the nature of an ordinary person without abandoning your cultivated spiritual nature.'
Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra
I might do well not to think of impermanence as a sad, or lofty, or centering, or revealing idea. It's just a convenient fact, useful to keep in mind.
I might regret stating this, but....
Zazen doesn't cause anything, per se. There is no "zen charge up" battery charging while I sit. It is a practice. It is the practicing of something.
Do not see it as subtleties or magic. Do not see it as special robes or piercing insights. Zen is putting on a shoe.
Of course there is a goal. Perhaps one way to express it is the goal of sitting to practice not chasing any particular thought. Which somewhat paradoxically includes not chasing the goal of not chasing.
"All truth is available to you.
It's nothing special."