Posts Tagged ‘zazen’

why buddha sits

November 4th, 2018    -    4 Comments

Let me tell you a story about Buddha. This story is often mischaracterized as mythology or parable, because we like to approach things that way. Oh I get it, it’s a fable— rather than facing it as stark reality.

Buddha was born and his parents adored him in that misguided and dangerous way that all parents adore their children. Because daddy was king of the clan, they had the resources to raise their son with considerable advantages. At the same time they had been warned about certain dangers. They had consulted a seer, who said, “Look, your son is either going to be a great warrior king or become a spiritual freak.” So they tried to prevent him from becoming anything other than a king with power and wealth. They didn’t want any damaging influences to detour his ascent to greatness. What spiritual seekers did at that time was . . . weird. They were ascetics. They didn’t eat. They didn’t dress. They didn’t sleep. They didn’t have homes or shelter. The parents had to rule out that nonsense entirely.

Like all of us, they were very afraid that their child would suffer pain or misfortune. So they baby-proofed the house. They put a lock on the toilet lid, the kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator door. They set out to eliminate all hazards, because this is how much they loved their son and feared for his future. As he grew up, he was surrounded by servants to care for his every desire so he didn’t have to go anywhere. And they weren’t just servants. They were the best-looking servants: only young, fit, beautiful people bringing him the finest food, most beautiful music and freshest flowers. Nothing decayed; nothing unpleasant.

I understand a couple of things that are going on here. I understand love, and how as parents we feel the need to protect and control. But I also get what we feel as children. We grow up, and by degree, we keep peeling back the curtain. We’re hungry for the truth. We feel trapped, smothered, and fooled. We know our parents might have good intentions, but after a while all that confinement begins to feel like bad intentions.

Even though Buddha had everything he ever wanted, he wanted more. He said, “What’s the real world like?” He and his adolescent friends decided they were going do the unthinkable. They jumped over the wall and they went down to the city, that forbidden place. He was gonna have fun!

Only he didn’t have fun. That’s because the first thing he sees is an old person. And he’s like, “Whoa, what happened to him?” Because when you’re 15, you think you’re gonna be 15 forever. When you’re 20, you’re gonna be 20 forever. And then, when you slide over into 30, you think, “Well, at least I’m not 40!”

So Buddha says to his buddy, “What the hell happened there?” And his friend says, “That’s just an old person. We all get old.” That was a downer.

They go on, and pretty soon they see somebody sick on the street. You don’t have to look far to see something like that no matter where you live. Even now when you see it, do you really see it? Nowadays if you get sick, what’s the first thing you think about? Prevention. “If only I’d . . . worn a mask on the airplane . . . hadn’t eaten sushi . . . gotten a flu shot . . . taken a different elevator.” What we’re always trying to do is engineer a different outcome: perfect health, happiness, and the fountain of youth.

A whole lot of what we buy feeds into that delusion. You’re not going to get sick if you use this. You’re not going to get wrinkles. You’re not going to get gray hair. You’re not gonna get old. What’s implied in everything we buy is you’re not going to die. Because the same night Buddha sees the old guy and the sick guy, he sees a dead guy.

Old age, sickness, and death. That’s reality, not a myth.

So what does Buddha do when he comes away dazed and confused from the most shocking night of his young life? He looks around at the hordes of people – his friends, his family, the crowds milling around town, buying and selling crap — and says, “How can you live like this? If you know you’re going to get old, sick and die, why do you live as if it’s not going to happen?”

He’d been born into brocade and jewels. He’d come from a palace. And he saw what it wasn’t. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t true. He realized that he needed to relinquish his false identity of privilege and immunity. He needed to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, irrefutable and irreversible truth that we grow old, we get sick and we die.

Right then, he dedicated himself to resolving this dilemma: How can we live if it’s for nothing? What do we do and where do we go, if there’s no way out?

“This is where we start,” he said, and sat down to see it through.

Excerpted from a Dharma Talk, “The Truth of Your Life” which you can listen to via this link.

***

Photo by Henley Design Studio from Pexels

learn to see

September 11th, 2018    -    1 Comment

If you don’t see the Way, you don’t see it even as you walk on it.
Identity of Relative and Absolute

I used to go around thinking that one day my real life would begin. That some day something important would happen. My life would become interesting and enjoyable. I would do things that mattered. My hard work would pay off, and my ship would come in. All of that would make me happy, someday. But I wasn’t seeing clearly. I was missing the picture entirely. Like someone standing in the waves, looking for the ocean.

We spend a lot of time trying to see far ahead, figure it out, and plot the course to get somewhere else. But we can’t see far ahead. We can only think far ahead. Thinking far ahead is called blindness. Seeing what’s right in front of you is called seeing.

Learn to see. Because now you know that all the things that are so easy to miss are the things that really matter.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center, Los Angeles
Register by email

Photo by Frances Gunn

keep starting over

August 20th, 2018    -    1 Comment

It is important that you encourage yourself to keep starting over, to keep listening to the basic, simple instructions in how to sit, because this is a simple thing to do. But, of course, it isn’t easy.

You are here to face yourself. We are each uncomfortable in some certain way with ourselves and with our lives. Now you are here. You are sitting on your cushion and you are by yourself. You are experiencing yourself. You are breathing your own breath. The most important part to keep in mind is the body. I suppose you might think this is a thinking practice— because we always think that things require thinking—but this is a practice that ultimately requires no thinking. Your body, functioning by itself, requires no thinking. That’s why we can rely on it to guide us.

Let’s pledge to practice with the body we brought. Don’t be critical. Don’t think that you are shortchanged or shorthanded, that you don’t have the right kind of feet or knees, hips, shoulders, eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body or mind. You are perfectly endowed as a buddha. What do you think? If this practice was good enough for Shakyamuni, is it not good enough for you?

Excerpted from the dharma talk “The Breath is You”

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, Sept. 30, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center near Batavia
Upstate NY
Register before Sept. 24

where the fun stops

July 11th, 2018    -    7 Comments

Two years ago we took a summer vacation to Hawaii. Nowadays weather is unpredictable all over, and here it was unseasonably wet. Roads flooded and bridges washed out. One day the clouds lifted. Housebound and bored, we signed up for a kayaking tour that would have us paddling up a river and hiking to a waterfall.

The guide told us that because of the rain, this was the first day in a week that any boats had gone out. When we launched, the river was wide and placid. About two miles in, we pulled out to start the hike. They gave us sandwiches and cold drinks for a picnic in the shade. Then they told us that to start on the trail, we had to cross a ford over slippery rocks in high water with a churning current by holding onto a rope. We’d have to do the same on the way out. There was no way around it.

For some of us, this is where the fun stopped.

I spent last weekend sitting with a group of people in Cincinnati. Anyone who has ever been on a meditation retreat knows that the principal reason you come to sit, whether you realize it or not, is because life is difficult. Sure, meditation helps you focus and calm down. But no one with a half-opened eye comes to Zen just to chill out, be a better person, or get more out of life. This was never clearer to me than when folks began to tell me their troubles. Inside this silent room, amid a rainbow of stained glass, illuminated with the dappled daylight of the glistening garden beyond, disease was spreading, surgeries were pending, marriages were ending, parents and partners had perished, children were stumbling, money was scarce, worry was rampant, and fear flooded our hearts. The sky was falling and the earth was burning. Up ahead, the current was swirling.

Knowing what we know—the swiftness of change—and what we don’t—the miles of uncertainty ahead—how do we live?

There’s a rope over the river and we cross it together.

The rope is love. Take it.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email

Beautiful Valley: A Zen Retreat in Upstate New York
Oct. 11-14
Chapin Mill Retreat Center, Batavia NY
Register here

a sip of stillness

June 25th, 2018    -    No Comments

I’ve added a one-day beginner’s retreat on Sunday, July 15 in case you need a sip of stillness in your summer. All the information you need to register is right here.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, July 15, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Register by email

How to meditate

April 11th, 2018    -    17 Comments

Practicing Zen is zazen. For zazen a quiet place is suitable. Set aside all involvements and let the myriad things rest. – Dogen Zenji, “Rules for Zazen”

To start, let go of the ideas you may have about what meditation is supposed to look like or what meditation is supposed to feel like. Let the monkey in your mind go to sleep so that you can wake up and reclaim your rightful home.

Unless you have a meditation cushion, or zafu, do not attempt to sit cross-legged on the floor to meditate. Without adequate support to elevate your buttocks and enable you to anchor your knees on the floor, sitting this way quickly becomes painful. The point of meditation is not pain. Your life is painful enough as it is. The point of meditation is to relieve pain.

What follows are instructions for meditating in a chair. Although you are unlikely to have the perfect chair in your home for meditation, any chair is perfectly okay. So do not delay your practice until your trip to the Furniture Mart.

1. Sit on the forward third of a chair so that your feet rest firmly on the ground. To support your back, place a hard cushion between your spine and the chair back. This will prevent slouching and keep you alert.

2. Space your feet widely apart. Your body is now supported at three points: your two feet and your bottom. In seated meditation, three contact points are essential for endurance and comfort. Your body now evokes the strength of a mountain.

3. Place your hands in the middle of your lap as follows: first, your right hand, palm up; then, your left hand, palm up, resting in your right palm. Lightly touch the tips of your thumbs together. Holding your hands in this way calms agitation and restlessness.

4. To check your posture, align your ears with your shoulders. Align your nose with your navel. Tuck your chin in slightly. Hold your head as though it were supporting the sky, and it will neither hang forward nor fall backward.

5. Relax your belly. A stiff, cinched abdomen restricts your breathing. In meditation, you will try to return to the full, rounded breathing of a baby. Watch a baby breathe and see that the belly rises on inhalation, not the chest. This is a good demonstration for you to learn from.

6. Lower your gaze, but do not close your eyes. If you close your eyes, you will be lulled into daydreaming. Meditation is not practice for sleeping; it is practice for waking up. Look at a spot on the floor or on a wall in front of you. Any spot will do, as long as it is not distracting.

7. Close your teeth and your mouth. Take a breath and exhale completely.

8. On your next inhalation, silently count “one.” When you exhale, silently count “two.” Inhale counting “three.” Count each exhalation and inhalation up to “ten” and then start back at “one.” If you lose the count, begin again at “one.” This meditation practice is called counting your breath.

9. When a thought comes up, let it go away by itself, which it will if you do not pursue it.

10. This is the practice of zazen. Do zazen for up to five minutes. Keep a watch or clock nearby to note the time. As you meditate more often, you may be able to do it for longer. Do not be self-critical or impatient with yourself. Do not push yourself. Do not make meditation one more thing you have to do. If you are gentle, encouraging and consistent with yourself, your meditation practice will naturally deepen and lengthen.

Five minutes is not a long time, but it can take a long time to find five minutes to meditate. Usually, the first five minutes or the last five minutes in the day are the easiest to find. You already have them and they are already quiet.

I will be most happy to answer your questions and encourage you to keep going.

5 steps to joy

March 19th, 2018    -    10 Comments

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How do we find joy amid chaos?

I’ve been practicing meditation for 25 years now, and this question tells you why. It’s why I do retreats as a student, and it’s why I offer them as a teacher. Each of us, no matter what the circumstances, can find ourselves in a daily struggle to stay sane. And if not completely sane, at least positive. And if not totally positive, than at least moderately hopeful. There is so much going on. We can’t catch up or get ahead. Even our kids are too busy. Everyone is stressed, pressured, and anxious. The outlook is for more of the same. We may feel an urgent need to slow things down, or a depressing belief that nothing we do will make a difference.

We might think that chaos is a unique feature of our 21st century culture, but that isn’t so. True, technology means that we can work 24/7, and we have our devices to thank for our chronic distractibility. We may lack the support of family and friends, and feel disconnected from meaningful relationships. But I bet that you don’t need to look very far back in your family history to find a time when your own ancestors struggled just to maintain adequate food and shelter, or labored under catastrophic wars, disasters, and economic or social injustice. In short, life has always been hard, and often a lot harder than it is now. The proverbial “simpler time” we yearn for might not have been simple at all.

Contemplative practices such as meditation originated many thousands of years ago and haven’t changed. They don’t need to change. They don’t need to be modernized or adapted to the millennial mindset. They depend solely on oneself. And they work. This is what I have observed in my own meditation practice: stillness and silence bring peace, and from that peace springs radiant joy that you can experience for yourself.

It begins in chaos. Are you troubled, confused, anxious or overwhelmed? You’ve taken the first step to joy.

Enter the chaos

All spiritual practices are born in chaos — the shock of loss, the pain of despair, the sobering certainty of old age, sickness and death — the recognition that time swiftly passes and you are not in control. When the world is moving too fast, we always have a choice: to be tossed about by external events, or to center ourselves in the midst.

Drop resistance

The fact is, you’re upset. Frustrated, disappointed and annoyed. Resentful, regretful or indignant. Uncomfortable, uneasy and afraid. Most of us have developed a hard outer edge: the edginess that comes from resisting the way things are. Once you recognize what you are holding on to, you can drop it. It’s a lot of work to haul that extra stuff around, and it makes you feel terrible.

Exhaust yourself

No longer struggling against anything, you might instead feel . . . tired, very tired, and tender, very tender. Your heart softens, and you feel genuine compassion for yourself and others. Everyone is simply doing their best. This is a key step on the journey, because now you are courageous enough to do the most difficult thing of all.

Be still

A great teacher once said, “The effort of no effort is the hardest effort of all.” Using breath as a guide, meditation draws you into the still center of your being. You can stay, rest, and relax there. Your core of stillness, which is pure presence, is the place where healing and transformation occurs.

Enter the silence

Some people approaching their first retreat think that keeping silent will be the biggest challenge for them. I always remind folks that silence is not a prohibition. It is instead an invitation to enter the silence that is already here. Once the mind is quieted and the heart is calmed, everything is exactly as before, but without the noisy rat-a-tat-tat of our judgments. Inner silence harmonizes with all outer activity.

In silence we find quiet joy and gratitude for our life, and for all those who share it with us.

What a useful thing to bring home from retreat. Perhaps you could find out for yourself.

***

Join me at  Still Summer: A Zen Retreat in Ohio the weekend of July 5-8 in Cincinnati.

practice no harm

February 7th, 2018    -    3 Comments

Cracked_Pavement

When folks begin to practice Zen, they can be set back by how hard it is. They might have expected to be good at it—for certain they expected something—but what they are good at is something else altogether.

Why is it so hard to just breathe? Because you’ve been practicing holding your breath.

Why is it so hard to keep my eyes open? Because you’ve been practicing falling asleep.

Why is it so hard to be still? Because you’ve been practicing running amok.

Why is it so hard to be quiet? Because you’ve been practicing talking to yourself.

Why is it so hard to pay attention? Because you’ve been practicing inattention.

Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress.

Why is it so hard to trust? Because you’ve been practicing fear.

Why is it so hard to have faith? Because you’ve been trying to know.

Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.

Whatever you practice, you’ll get very good at, and you’ve been practicing these things forever. Take your own life as proof that practice works as long as you keep doing it. Just replace a harmful practice with one that does no harm.

***

For the benefit of those who will be practicing with me at any of these places, and especially for those who won’t be able to make it.

Winter Sun Retreat, Madison WI, March 1-4
Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat, LA, March 18
What is Zen? Retreat, Kansas City, April 13-15

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your questions about Buddhism

October 25th, 2017    -    4 Comments

What drew you to Buddhism? What do you like about Buddhism? Where can you learn about Buddhism?

I didn’t do it. I can’t explain it. I don’t know.

There is the kind of “Buddhism” that people might study in college, meaning its history, geography, and impact on world events. Then there’s a kind of “Buddhism” that people choose to believe in and adhere to, like a political party. These folks think of Buddhism as a philosophy or source of inspiration. Maybe even a religion. They like it better than other alternatives. But the Buddhism that found me is first, foremost and only a practice. It is a way to do things, and not do certain other things.

Whether you’re interested in Buddhism or not, you might be interested in reading my books. Because they are about life. Buddhism is about the truth of life and not anything else.

learn to meditate

February 20th, 2017    -    1 Comment

Find a sane spot in an insane world.

Beginner’s Mind One-Day Retreat
Sunday, March 19, 9-3
Hazy Moon Zen Center
1651 S. Gramercy Place
Los Angeles

Beginner’s Mind Retreat is designed to give new meditation students a taste of the Zen tradition, with instruction in seated meditation, walking meditation, bowing and chanting. Lunch is served. Informal discussion is encouraged. Everything you need is provided, along with kindness and encouragement. It costs $40.

For more information about the retreat, go here. To register, go here. If the time is right, just go, and I’ll meet you at the door.

Photo by Ben Newton Photography.

top 5 questions about meditation

February 29th, 2016    -    2 Comments

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1. Will meditation help me focus? Yes.
2. Can I meditate without sitting on the floor? Yes.
3. Can I meditate without being a Buddhist? Yes.
4. Do I have enough time to meditate? Yes.
5. Should I start? Yes.

Beginner’s One-Day Meditation Retreat
Sunday, March 20
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Los Angeles
Register by email here

I’m here

February 10th, 2016    -    12 Comments

Fishing_net_blue_and_white

Years and years ago when I was young and busy and my mother was alive, I would rarely call home. So when I did, it was a sign. If my father answered, he wouldn’t stay on the line for longer than a minute because he knew something was up, and my mother would have walked into the kitchen and looked at him questioningly.

“It’s Karen,” he’d say as he handed her the receiver.

Then she would get on the line and say, “Karen.”

And just like that she was there, all of her, for me, which was why I called, and I would start crying.

I called because I was going to make a C in Contemporary American Poetry. Because I’d totaled my car. Because I was going to get married. Because I was going to get a divorce. I had called because I needed her, which happened a lot more than just the times I called, but I was the one who isolated herself, the quiet one, the one who stayed away. And she always let me.

One time in my early 30s, I had to have surgery for endometriosis. This is a diagnosis that doesn’t need major surgery these days, but in those days it meant a week in the hospital and six weeks at home. When I woke up a day after surgery she was sitting in a chair opposite me and although I’m sure this was part of the plan I couldn’t imagine how she had transported herself to my side. She had a bag of books or magazines or work papers with her and she was settled in and I knew that she wouldn’t leave. She stayed a week with me in the hospital and a week at home where she brought me soup and crackers in bed like it was nothing and she asked nothing. She always knew how to ask for nothing.

Later on, older and married again, I moved to another state and I was for some time unbearably sad and afraid of what I’d done. I called that time and asked if she would come for a visit.

“I was just waiting for you to ask,” she said.

***

When I go to a retreat somewhere new, the group of us, mostly strangers, sit with one another in a silent room for five or six or eight hours a day, and there isn’t any conversation. We sit in the quiet, and walk around in the quiet, and follow the schedule to show up at certain times and be quiet together again. And after awhile or certainly by the end you might realize that you have been sitting in a net, and that you are actually part of the net that’s holding you and everyone else up. After all that time and right before you go home you have the chance to speak. Someone will say something like this:

This is the first time I’ve ever done this. I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve read all of your books and they’ve helped me so much and I always told myself that if I ever had the chance I would come to one of your retreats and then I saw that you’d actually be here and I couldn’t believe it and I had to come.

There are usually tears by then and not much more to say, but so much more you can’t even say, and I want them to know everything my mother wanted me to know if I ever asked.

I’m here.

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serene through all their ills

January 17th, 2016    -    4 Comments

popsicleboat1

When I travel around the country for meditation retreats, they usually take place in rooms that weren’t designed for Zen meditation. We may come together in a converted barn, for instance, or a basement, conference room or classroom. All that matters is that the room be empty. Then into the space we put a little bit of the form, or appearance, of a Zen retreat.

That means a bell, a statue of Buddha, and if allowed, a candle and incense; cushions or chairs; and a schedule of seated meditation, walking meditation, and chanting services throughout the day. It sometimes seems to me like we fashion a retreat out of popsicle sticks, but somehow it works.

To a beginner, the form appears strange. It’s rarely anything you’ve done before; classical Zen is not exactly a free-for-all. It’s important to see that the form of a retreat isn’t imposed, like a rule. It is offered, like a life raft. Form gives us a place and a way to rescue ourselves from ourselves. What do I do now, our crazy mind shrieks. Do this, form tells us. But how, we wail. Like this, the form shows us, and we have one less thing to fret about.

One of the first things I invite people to do at a retreat is write down the name of someone who is suffering, someone other than themselves. Even though people come to a retreat to get something—something called Zen—we automatically receive the benefit of our own practice. The point is to extend the benefit to others. The names go onto our retreat sick list which is chanted out loud as part of each day’s service. People might offer the name of someone who has cancer or is going through a personal calamity. Someone ill, elderly, or near death. We all know someone in those straits, and those are the first names that come to mind.

At the first morning service, people are self-conscious. Anyone would be. They are chanting things they don’t understand, mumbling words and syllables that don’t make sense. The chant leader is trying to find the right rhythm and pitch; the names on the sick list are mangled. But this is practice: everyone doing everything together for the first time. There is no criticism spoken, but of course, we often judge ourselves harshly.

With each service, the chanting grows clearer and more confident, and each morning the sick list grows a little bit longer. In our empty room, our minds are growing clearer. We think more compassionately of others when we stop obsessing about ourselves. We might approach the chant leader and ask, can I add one more name to the list?

On the last day of retreat, the chanting is strong and beautiful. The words merge in one voice. All are alert and present. The chant leader makes a point of sounding out each syllable. The names are carefully pronounced, and the list is twice as long. That’s when I hear the names of our children, partners, and parents: people who may not be distressed except by what we say to them, what we do to them, what we expect of them, and what we think of them. We have, by the last day, forgotten ourselves, and in that forgetting, taken responsibility for everything and everyone. After saying the last name on the list, the chant leader intones the final benediction:

May they be serene through all their ills
and may we accomplish the Buddha Way together

And in that instant, they are, and we do.

***

Even when it’s made of popsicle sticks, there is room in the raft.
Come sit by me.

Zen Retreat: Meditation as Love
Feb. 5-7, 2016
Kripalu
Stockbridge, MA

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