Saturday, April 27, 2013

Snow Flakes


     I suppose not all folks over the years have come to a point were their mind observes that having compassion for beings that have no intrinsic reality is not much different than having compassion for snow flakes, each beautiful and unique and each doomed to melt away in the light of the sun. I am there now.

       What can I do for a snow flake, in my great compassion for all sentient beings, in what way could I be of benefit to one. Now vapor, now crystal, now a unique individual, now water and then vapor. Each snow flake remade, but never the same, time and again.

      I see each Flake coming into being only when conditions are just as they need to be, each melting as those conditions change. I sit deeply aware of snow flakes, profoundly moved to help, but when I look at my own body, reach out my hand I just see another melting snow flake.

           So here I sit, deeply aware of snow flakes.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The mythology of the Buddhist robe.

Togen's Zen Robe for 21st Century
  Whether I like it or not it seems today that one of the big issues in the West is the Buddhist robe. There is an ongoing spreading of old myths about the Buddhist robe, it’s origin and its significance. So I would like it if we all took a step back and considered some facts of history. 
   The first thing I would like to point out is that there were no representations and art of Buddha as a person until almost 400 years after his death. The fact is Buddhist had been instructed while Buddha was still alive not to make statues and pictures of him so that people would not be tempted to worship him as if he was some sort of man God. It wasn’t until almost the beginning of the second century CE that some pictures of him in human form began to appear. Until that time the Buddha was represented usually with symbols such as the Buddha's footprints.  We know that it was probably  not until the days of Alexander and the spread of Greek culture that statues of Buddha began to appear.
   We also know that even the first sutras were not written down until 200 years after Buddha had died. So even descriptions of the his clothing described in early sutras many of which are quite fantastic and fanciful are not based on any actual knowledge of what he wore. The fact is Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist he was a Hindu holy man. I recently read a blog by a nice lady that seems to think that Hindu holy men today wear something resembling the present day Buddhist robe.
     One thing we can be pretty certain of is what Hindu holy men wear now is pretty much what Hindu holy men wore than. Some Hindu holy men wear saffron robes and holy beads but these robes don’t look like Buddhist monk robes. The fact is that the majority of Hindu holy men wear a loincloth and that’s about it. Some wear a loincloth and a gold chain or gold bracelet. Many like the Nagas where nothing at all. You can get on the Internet and Google pictures of Hindu holy men and you get a clear idea of the way an ascetic in India dresses now and in Buddha's life time. If you can find a picture of a Hindu monk wearing a Kashaya robe you’ve done better than I ever have.
     I think anyone who gave the question any serious thought and was familiar with Buddhist history would probably guess as I am about to do that the first codified Buddhist robes were probably introduced by Ashoka Maurya (304–232 BCE) commonly known as Ashoka and also as Ashoka the Great, he was an Indian emperor of the Maurya Dynasty who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from ca. 269 BCE to 232 BCE. Until Ashoka converted to Buddhism it was more or less a very small sect that primarily existed in local areas in northeastern India and what would now be Nepal. When the Ashoka converted he ruled the entire Indian subcontinent from north to south. He introduced many rules both for Buddhist and for laypeople based on Buddhism. In fact he insisted that the entire Indian subcontinent try to live by Buddhist values. Although he was a devout Buddhist he did not insist that anyone adopted Buddhism unless he or she wanted to.
     What is known is that at one point he was such a wonderful patron of Buddhist monks that many people were starting to pretend that they were Buddhist monks. And he introduced a white robe that these fakers when found had to wear from then on. I think it was probably during this period that Ashoka probably codified the Buddhist robe as its found in southern India and Sri Lanka today. He was in fact personally  responsible for transferring Buddhism to Sri Lanka where the earliest forms of Buddhism were preserved when Buddhism was more or less wiped out on the Indian subcontinent. I think it’s very likely that this Buddhist robe probably introduced by him accompanied the wandering monks that went up and down the silk Road and into China in later years.
   So this wonderful story about Ananda designing the present robe from rice paddies  is probably as likely as the stories of Buddha and 500 of his followers flying around the countryside visiting various kings. Both stories are about as likely. I seriously doubt that two young princes from far northern and northeastern India would have been so overcome with Rice paddies that they would have designed robes based on them.

     Buddhism is over 2500 years old and it has traveled and changed and modified itself with each culture that it has encountered over those 2500 years. The fact is the three-piece robe like most things in Buddhism has been surrounded by myth and mythology for centuries. Few people probably know the arcane symbolism of the Mala that they wear on their wrists or even that a proper one must have three cords not just one if it’s to be a real Mala. The fact is Buddhist monks have been as creative as humans can get and have used robes and Mala's as teaching tools over the years. But like all religious artifacts their true meaning is always as vast and  as miniscule as the minds and faith of the person wearing them.
      If you gather together Buddhists monks and nuns and priests from all over the world you will find a wide variety of robes and beads and symbols. They’ll be colors of red and saffron of black and brown and various mixtures of the same. There are ceremonies in some countries were laypeople in order to get merit contribute cloth for the making of their local monks robes. In some countries certain schools of Buddhism forbade monks and priests from making their own robes simply because they need the income from selling them to them. An example of this is the main Soto school in Japan.
      I’m sure that many monks have sown their own robes, just as I’m sure that many monks robes are sown by their mothers, this after all in most Buddhist countries gives laypeople merit. Most Westerners haven’t got a clue what merit is in Buddhism so they have no idea why this would be so. But the fact is in most countries helping a Buddhist monk is considered to generate good karma for the helper. This good karma is called merit. So in many countries filled full of native Buddhist and not Johnny-come-lately’s would think sewing his own robe would be  a selfish act denying someone the merit they would accrue in doing this unselfish act for the monk.
     I’ve been a Buddhist for about 30 years maybe longer and I have in the last five years seen this robe thing expand exponentially full of myth and good old-fashioned BS. Personally I think robes may be a thing of the past that we could very well do without in the 21st century. Maybe Zen Buddhist priest should all carry iron rods with five rings attached and pound them on the ground as they walk along the road as they used to do in Japan. But I think they would look quite silly today. Sometimes I think that people come to Buddhism simply because they want to put on robes and seem all mystical and stuff. I myself always feel a little silly wearing a full robe and would much prefer a black suit and a black turtleneck. But that’s just me.
     But the one thing that I am sure of is that Buddha said not to get too attached to things and I’m fairly sure that a robe is a thing. It seems to me robes today are being used to make people feel important, to provide income for those who teach the mysticism of the robe, and to make people feel important and quite frankly lord it over other people. Somehow I don’t think this is what Buddha had in mind. 
     I’m going to suggest that if you really want to wear the original Buddha’s robe you get yourself a loincloth. And that’s probably about it. That is what Hindu holy men have worn for 3000 years. But please don’t set up in front of a bunch of gullible people and perpetrate a bunch of BS simply to make yourself feel important and act like you might know more than you do. This isn’t the first time that Buddhist robes were used to impress the natives and instill awe in the gullible and it certainly won’t be the last. But it is the 21st century and this blog will probably be around for a while and you taking a chance it might blow your cover. 
     If you want to start a new school of Buddhism and you’re in the West go ahead. If you want to introduce new traditions go ahead and do that. But please be honest about what you’re doing with others and yourself. Lets just say these robes are a tradition. They are a tradition of our school and of Buddhism.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Doing good and sitting on the Cushion

Mummy of Huineng  Sixth and Last Patriarch of Chán Buddhism.

     Easter weekend I attended a retreat at the Nashville Zen center. One of the new disciples asked my sensei if he should continue trying to do good. Sensei’s answer was more than a bit vague. And this bothered me a lot. Essentially he replied that the answer to such questions were found on the cushion. I know this is the basic teaching of Zen and it was not an inappropriate answer. However for a young man just starting on the path it seemed to me one that may have left him confused and without guidance.
     I have been a Buddhist for over 30 years and I came to my present sensei a little over seven years ago and have studied with him ever since. I have the greatest love and respect for him. When I came to him one of the things that I expressed to him was that I was in dire need of was learning to carry what I found on the cushion with me after I got off the cushion and entered the world around me.
     I had studied hard over the years with many different teachers. I had the great honor of attending the teachings of many elder Tibetan lama’s over a 20 year period. I studied with one Rinpoche for two years studying his area of expertise which was the veneration of Mañjuśrī. But in the end I took Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) Bodhisattva as my Yidam or meditational deity. Today I still venerate Guanyin and have many statues of her in my house. I recently purchased one of her holding a child in her arms because one of her duties historically has been to protect children. It is my hope that one day I will find her pure land in my heart and mind.
     I found in the young man’s question a deep connection to the very reason that I came to my sensei all those years ago. What I have found on the cushion is that those things that we call good are real and true. And that when we act in accordance with those things and those ideas we are reflecting our true self our true Buddha nature. That those things that we call bad or evil are distortions of the truth and the result of delusions and do not reflect our true Buddha nature.
     We have all learned from thousands of years of civilization that it is almost impossible to legislate morality. We can tell young people right from wrong and punish them when they do the wrong but in the end the only true rehabilitation  is to discover your true nature. The way that we do that as Zen Buddhist is on a cushion. We make a sincere effort to find our true self without looking for it. We find it because it is there to be found. The afflictive emotions of anger and hate, greed and lust are simply smoke and pain. It’s true that we find those emotions on the cushion but the great hope is that we’ll be able to see through them. That we will be able to see that they are delusions and as insubstantial as smoke.
     The last few years of my life have been awash in personal tragedy. My dear wife and three of my children died unexpectedly in the last two years. I cannot describe to you the frustration the anger the pain that this has caused me. In order to survive this I have had to dig deep inside myself to find what is true and real in order to have something to hold onto and maintain my sanity. I do not recommend this course for anyone but as for myself it was my karma and we cannot avoid our karma we can only live through it, endure it and perhaps glean something of value from it.
     What I have learned is that life is too short to keep secrets from the young and those seeking what we older people have learned at great price.  I would have told the young man what I have learned just as I have told you in this writing what I have learned. I can see no way it can harm you or that it would harm him to know what I’ve found on the cushion and in life. If you’re not going to seek the truth about yourself on the cushion knowing my truth might encourage you to seek for your truth. If you’re the sort of person will simply say well Togen went there and saw what there was to see and I will simply take his word for it then you’re probably going to find someone else’s experience to live through anyway.
      I firmly believe that we each must find our own truth on the cushion but experience has shown me that we cannot separate what we find on the cushion from what we experience in life. There is no way to not carry what you find on the cushion with us and there is no way to sit on the cushion without caring what we have experienced in life with us on that cushion. As with most things in Zen and Buddhism what I have found is like Dorothy in Oz I never truly left home and never lost what I found on the cushion. I take it with me wherever I go night and day awake or asleep. It permeates my dreams and supports my mind when I’m awake.
     I’ve so often seen young people when they first encounter Buddhism and begin their meditations and readings become overcome with the great power of the truth they are beginning to see and feel. They suddenly want to become teachers they want to tell everyone what they found, little realizing that they have just started a lifelong voyage. So while I think you should tell what you know I wouldn’t present it as if it were some gospel from on high. I would whisper it in a soft voice just as you would with your friend when you’re trying to find where you’re going in the fog and you both might just be lost.
     You know what’s right and wrong it’s been burned into your nature. And the question of whether you should continue doing right is of course one that would only reasonably arise from the confusion that results from understanding Zen teachings. Of course you should do as much good as you can and does little harm as you can and purify your heart and mind. That’s why we recite the precepts to remind ourselves of what we already know.
     I’ve always found it fascinating that the sixth patriarch of Zen had his first awakening as he was walking down the street and heard a stranger reciting a sutra. He had never set on a cushion and I’m not sure if when he was handed the robe in the bowl of the fifth patriarch he had at that time ever set on a cushion. Yet he is the patriarch of Zen. Dogen himself revered him as a Buddha and taught upon his teachings and stood upon his shoulders. But Zen is forever woven with the threads of paradox.

       So listen for the twig that snaps and brings about a waking when you’re walking alone in the forest. Listen to the sutras and the songs of the ancient Buddha’s they might just resonate with some past lifetime and bring about your awakening. Sitting on the cushion is the skillful means we have chosen but you carry that cushion with you in your mind wherever you go. There might be a demon howling in a hollow log that only you can hear that will open your eyes one dark night. But in any case remember that you’re always on the cushion.