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.


  1. My experience -- not always fully realized -- is that when you stop trying to improve things, things improve.

    What a teacher says to a student invariably constitutes a secret ... or, if you prefer, a lie. It's not a big deal. Experience cannot be shared. Nevertheless, you tell me your story and I tell you mine and we encourage each other. Sometimes I 'understand' you and sometimes you 'understand' me ... but that's just talk. It is enough that we are friends and know how to laugh.

    Without doing the spiritual name-dropper schtick, the Dalai Lama once said, "It can't be helped." In my ears, this is important. Improvements are a terrible burden, whether for newcomers or old timers. This is not to suggest that there is no effort, but the 'improvement' part is extra. You sit on a cushion, I sit on a cushion ... not in order to improve anything but rather to see what happens. Just this once, see what happens.

    The Dalai Lama has described himself as "just a simple monk." A part of your mind or mine might say sarcastically, "yeah, right!" But what if that were simply the truth? Suppose for a moment "it can't be helped." Dalai Lama ... see what happens. Togen ... see what happens. Adam ... see what happens. Beginner...see what happens. Longtime student... see what happens.

    Sorry for the ramble. I don't imagine it will improve much. :)

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