November 23, 2014

Eating the Menu

Zen requires that we bring mindfulness into our lives. If we are experiencing fear, we delve into the nature and content of that fear, working to understand it, tearing it apart piece by piece until there is no more fear. Our Buddhist faith needs to be invoked. If we're feeling guilty, we examine the source of the guilt. If we made a mistake that caused it, we need to determine how we can atone for it to rectify the damage and relieve the guilt. Each time we reconcile intent with result, we become a little more humble. We recognize the process of error and guilt in others around us. To engage ourselves in Zen, we begin by taking this approach to our lives.

"I have been practicing Zen for close to twenty years" he confided , "and I still get angry at people as easily as I did before I started. The only difference is that I don't express my anger anymore. I hold it in. People think my Zen is very deep but I sometimes feel like I'm living a lie... just masking my true feelings. I'm starting to think that I've wasted my time with Zen and that it's not worth the effort." He kept his head down as he spoke.

We were walking several blocks to the store to pick up some milk and bread. It was a sunny day in late April. Robins competed with pigeons for street-crumbs, honeysuckle was in the air, and flowering bushes lined the sidewalk. Depressive thoughts were out of place on such a spring day. "How are your dreams?" I asked.

He looked surprised. "Very strange, actually. Too often they're about violence, blood and death. I have many sleepless nights, too. And this seems like a big part of my problem. As these dreams got progressively worse, I told my teacher about them and he advised me to put more time in on the cushion. But the more I do Zazen the worse the dreams get and the more I seem to have insomnia. I don't know. I just don't understand it."

I'd heard variations of the same complaint many times before. I smiled. "You're a victim of incorrect sitting meditation," I said, "so stop doing it." I thought the idea might not go over well with him, but he seemed so close to wanting to stop, anyway. Maybe he could use a good excuse that was not his own. "What you're doing isn't Zen," I said.

"I thought Zen was meditation," he said; and when I asked him to define meditation, he answered, "To stop the mental activities of the mind... to control thoughts and stop them from careening wildly through the brain."

"That is not meditation," I replied, "that is Mind-Control. Zen is meditation and meditation is an altered state of consciousness - one in which the ego is transcended. So you can't be controlling thoughts while you are in the state of meditation because thoughts require a thinker, and the thinker - the ego - has to be transcended. Certain "control" methods can be employed to initiate entry into meditation, but they have to be immediately let go. You're not letting go. What you're doing is persisting in an activity - inspired, enacted and directed by the personal self, the ego. And this is precisely why you have been having difficulties progressing in Zen." I took note of his quizzical look and continued. "Zen meditation is one thing and a Zen attitude is another. A Zen attitude doesn't require that you constrain your emotions, but rather it's about understanding them in a constructive way so that you can examine them, dissect them, expose their fallacies, and put some light into their dark areas. If you have an angry thought, focus your attention on it: notice the beginning of the thought and the middle of the thought, and try to see clearly the end of the thought - that is the Zen attitude. Remember the Eightfold Path when you're angry. People make mistakes. You don't have to excuse their errors or necessarily tolerate them. But you do have to understand why, in their human condition, they make them. Then, if you have freedom of choice, you use it to remedy the situation. But what you don't do is pay for other people's mistakes by tormenting yourself with all the effects of anger."

"That's easy to say. But a lot of times their mistakes make my job much more difficult," he protested.

"Yes, but you're seeing yourself as the only person affected by the errors. And that's where your attention stops. Zen requires you to be compassionate and understanding, to be patient and forgiving - but not impotent or unresponsive. Sure, if somebody keeps making the same mistake it can be frustrating for everyone around him. But how many of them are so eaten-up by anger over these mistakes as you are?"

He said that others argued and complained but that since he was the man of Zen he didn't do that. Then he stopped himself and laughed. "But they don't have problems sleeping!"

"I think you've confused being a Zen Man with being a Zombie. Work on the Zen attitude. Zen is a living, breathing, human activity. Follow the Eightfold Path, especially when you're around other people. Zen is not just 'about you.'

"As to meditation, focused concentration leads us into meditation. Some meditation methods require attention upon something specific. Other methods are less structured. Then, it's not a matter of trying to accomplish something, but a matter of letting something happen while we simply watch attentively. We disengage from the thinking process and when the stream of consciousness starts, we stand on the banks and become witnesses to the senseless rushing of discursive words and phrases. Or we're spectators of the images that flow by. Initially it's difficult, but with practice we watch the chaos turn into the most beautiful order and it becomes as easy as a bad habit.

"When we approach our practice constructively - both on and off the cushion, the mind quiets by itself and our dreams and visions become peaceful, heavenly, even. When we go against this way our dreams tell us so with warnings of violence and anxious situations that leave us feeling shattered when we awaken.

"When we try to force our mind into submission, to stop those nerve synapses from firing, we're like a matador left in the ring without a cape, struggling to dominate a charging bull with nothing but flailing hands. Willpower alone will simply not do the job. And so we get hurt."

"So you're saying that Zazen is responsible for these problems? How can that be? The first thing Zen teachers teach is Zazen."

We were nearing a bench under a tree in a small park nestled between two tall apartment buildings and I suggested we stop and sit for a bit.

"Look," I said, "Maybe you have mistaken the menu for the meal. Maybe you've been doing Finger-pointing Zen and have fallen into the error of thinking the directions or the recipe or the list of items are the things they merely refer to. You said that you give the appearance of being calm because you don't show your anger. You feel angry but you look calm. So what are we talking about here, the appearance or the reality? If you felt calm and you looked calm, that would be all right. If you sat in meditation and you actually attained meditation that would be fine. But you're sitting there looking like a person who's meditating and you're not meditating at all. You're thinking about not thinking, and this is an active state. You're not witnessing anything, not being passive and receptive at all. You're not doing a structured meditation; you're applying pressure to relieve pressure. And when you're off the cushion you're doing the same thing: forcing yourself to seem relaxed."

He nodded in agreement. "So what do I do about it? I've always understood that we should fight fire with fire. Now you say we shouldn't."

"True meditation is a beautiful experience. It's not an ecological disaster. You ought to enjoy being immersed in the experience, so forget the forest fire analogy. We know that no matter what technique we use, if we get a good result, it's a good technique. But if we fail to get a good result, we need to discover why. We don't have to affix blame. The technique simply isn't working for us. This admission is a first step in getting back on track. We have to be objective and watchful, to recognize the signs of wrong-practice - nightmares, violent or scary hallucinations, sleeplessness, anxiety, uncontrollable temper or frustration. These are some of the more obvious signs, but there are other, subtler ones, like becoming apathetic toward practice, becoming lazy, or nonchalant toward responsibilities or commitments. If we experience any of these symptoms, it means we've got a problem. Either we've picked the wrong technique for ourselves or we're doing the technique improperly. Make no mistake, the fault is in our choice or our performance."

Of all the indicators, emotion is perhaps the best litmus test. If our psyche is trying to resolve a conflict -- maybe we had an argument with a friend, or got angry at a colleague, or failed an exam, or experienced the death of a loved-one - and we sit down to meditate and simply banish those angry or sorrowful thoughts without understanding them, all we accomplish is their repression. We don't eliminate them, we push them down. What we bury comes up as ghosts - strange nightmares, terrible visions, anxiety -the source of which we can't understand. Foolishly, we train ourselves to do this. When we're conscious and on -guard, we can control our responses and mask our true feelings. When we're not - as when we sleep or are alone with our thoughts, we experience terrible conflict.

Our True Self does not want us to be alienated from ourselves, it wants us to be whole, to integrate every nuance of self that exists in our psyche into a whole, conscious person. Once we have reached a state of integration between conscious and sub-conscious, that is, when there are no more subconscious demands, we are ready for thought-banishment, that quick sweeping-away of dust to reveal the Void-reflecting mirror. Until then, there are literally hundreds of Zen practices for us to enjoy, practices that do not leave us strung out, running to escape from nightmares.

Psychologists know that repression is one of the most dangerous psychological illnesses and one of the most difficult to cure. Zen teachers also have a difficult time leading students out of such chaos, for there is a conditioned impulse in many of us to argue with ourselves, to pick up a sword and duel with our own anger; and then the moment that we believe we have defeated it, to try to inter it, to get it out of sight. We believe that as good Buddhists we're not supposed to get angry so we try to conceal it as quickly as possible. But it merely festers and waits for the right moment to release its increasing energy. We become irritable in the company of others, and even in our own company as when we try to sleep. And then... we retreat to the Zendo to escape the stress in our life, using the sacred space as a sort of sensory deprivation chamber - a place to isolate ourselves from the world. We remove ourselves from what we perceived to be the cause of our suffering - those external sources, without realizing that the problem's cause is inside us and that when we entered the Zendo, we carried it in with us.

Hui Neng, our Sixth and last Patriarch, spent much of his preaching life trying to dispel the notion that it was possible to become a Buddha by sitting still. "You can make a mirror polishing a brick sooner than you can make a Buddha sitting on a cushion," he said. Too many people still think that posture is meditation. This is so foolish. This is eating the menu.

Zen requires that we bring mindfulness into our lives. If we are experiencing fear, we delve into the nature and content of that fear, working to understand it, tearing it apart piece by piece until there is no more fear. Our Buddhist faith needs to be invoked. If we're feeling guilty, we examine the source of the guilt. If we made a mistake that caused it, we need to determine how we can atone for it to rectify the damage and relieve the guilt. Each time we reconcile intent with result, we become a little more humble. We recognize the process of error and guilt in others around us. To engage ourselves in Zen, we begin by taking this approach to our lives.

Mediation practice begins with learning to discipline our mind and body with pranayama (for example, exercises like the Healing Breath or alternate nostril breathing) and other disciplines like focusing the mind on mental images, sounds, or sensations. Some people have found that practicing the martial arts, painting, music, and other disciplines helped contribute to their future success with meditation. Without such discipline, the will is fragmented and capricious - unable to focus its attention long enough on a thing to uncover its mysteries. This discipline has to be practiced all the time. We can't limit practice to time spent on a cushion. In fact, if we do maintain such awareness, we get a nearly opposite result when we sit down to meditate. Then, we need only follow a few disciplined steps, smile gently, and let go of everything. We can drop the sword since we don't have to fight with ourselves anymore. Empty-handed, we can enter the Buddha's Refuge.

We talked for a few more minutes and watched a pair of pigeons land and search for crumbs. One bird found a little piece of bread, picked it up and flew off. The other bird followed. Then we got up and continued our way to the grocery store.

Articles by Chuan Zhi

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