Beginner's Mind Zen

A Zen Community in Fredericksburg, Virginia


Photograph of Rebecca Solnit by Sallie Dean Shatz.

This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. These quotes are from the book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (public library) by Rebecca Solnit It is also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both. The twenty-first century has seen the rise of hideous economic inequality, perhaps due to amnesia both of the working people who countenance declines in wages, working conditions, and social services, and the elites who forgot that they conceded to some of these things in the hope of avoiding revolution. Worse […] is the arrival of climate change, faster harder, and more devastating than scientists anticipated.

There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom and of justice — and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of… We need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.

The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction.

Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought, including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now.

It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act.

Alan Watts reading the Story of the Farmer

Zen Service

Image from What’s the Deal with Zen Ceremonies blog post by Brad Warner

I am happy to announce that we will be having a3rd floor, Suite 331, 217 Princess Anne Street, Fredericksburg, VA across from Carl’s Ice Cream. There is an elevator. formal Zen service on Sunday, September 11th at 2pm at our George Washington Executive Center location. This is an auspicious time because it comes at the time of a major Buddhist holiday in Japan, Ohigan (到彼岸).

This Zen service will be an annotated one meaning that I will pause the service at a number of points to explain the significance of what we are doing. It consists of chanting both in English and Sino-Japanese, zazen (seated meditation), tea and a dharma talk. It should last a little over an hour.

Introduction to Zen Buddhism (public library)

If you read any of the popular books about Zen you may be surprised that Zen has any formal ceremonies. For example, a classic book on Zen, Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D. T. Suzuki says:

Zen … is not a religion in the sense that the term is popularly understood; for Zen has no God to worship, no ceremonial rites to observe, … Zen is free from all these dogmatic and ‘religious’ encumbrances.

Zen is viewed as one of the most austere forms of from The Teacup and the Skullcup: Chögyam Trungpa on Zen and Tantra (public library)Buddhism devoid of ceremony. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpohe writes:

[Zen] is the accuracy of black and white. In the Zen tradition there is no gray, nor is there yellow, red, green, or blue: it is black and white. That is the paramita of meditation: dhyana practice, Zen practice, Ch’an. Dhyana, Zen, and Ch’an all mean meditation.

But Zen has plenty of ritual and ceremony. However, there is a What’s the Deal with Zen Ceremonies blog post by Brad Warnerdifference between a Zen ceremony and one from another faith. Brad Warner writes:

Although the ceremonies at Zen temples might look like the ones you see at houses of worship in other faiths, the approach we take is a little different. No one ever insists you must believe in any of the rituals and chants and suchlike in Zen. You’re not worshipping anyone. You’re not pledging your allegiance to the temple or to Buddha. You’re not heaping praise upon unseen entities.

The chanting is just chanting. The bowing is just bowing. The bells are just bells.The statues are just statues. The priests are just people. The combined activities engaged in at these ceremonies have a genuine effect that you can feel. But there is nothing supernatural about any of it.

There is a story that Peter Levitt, poet and Zen priest tells. Peter Levett is a beat poet and he tells the story of going to a 7 day meditation retreat lead by the Dalai Lama (the Dalai Lama was 27 at the time). So it was Peter and a bunch of other poets including Alan Ginsberg. One day of the retreat The Dalai Lama was teaching them to chant in Tibet with various hand motions. One of the poets goes up to Peter and says “go over to Alan and listen to him chant.”” So he goes up to Alan, and hears him intoning “Eenie Meenie Miny moe…” And Peter says “Alan, what are you doing?” To which Alan replies “Hey, it works”.

Cajon and Practice - Part 1

For my birthday my wife bought me a cajon (a wooden box drum). (Set aside for a moment your cognitive dissonance of the thought of a 64 yr. old Zen Buddhist Monk playing something as cool as a cajon.) Here is my current plan on learning to play.

The Plan

I am not even going to open the box until I can play the cajon. Here’s the plan. Every Sunday I am going to watch YouTube cajon videos (like the one above and this one and this one). So I will do that for at least 2 hours every Sunday. And I bought a bunch of books from Amazon about playing the cajon. Here is an excerpt from one:

There is no question about this relationship of the top arm to the level where tone is produced. If the fingers, hand, or forearm have any bearing down on their own initiative, the tone simply does not come off. They each become an integrated unit with the top arm control; they make the top arm effective in contacting tone.

I am not entirely sure what that means but it sounds important. So I will memorize it. I am going to dedicate 1 hour a day to reading these books and memorizing the material in them. So that is my plan. It is the start of June now and if I do this to mid-August that will be about 100 hours devoted to learning to play the cajon. Then I will take the cajon out of the box, unwrap it, sit down and play the cajon flawlessly.

How’s that for a plan?

Maybe you are thinking that I won’t successfully play the cajon and I bet it is that you think I am not spending enough time on my new hobby. So here is my new plan.

The Revised Plan

Basically it is the same as the first except I will spend 20 hours per week watching YouTube videos and reading books and I will not open the box until Christmas. That is 1,000 hours devoted to learning to play the cajon–10 times more than the previous plan. Won’t it be a lovely gift to my wife to wake up on Christmas morning to some virtuosic cajon beats.

I think everyone can see that this plan is totally misguided. What is missing is practice, and plenty of it. If I did deliberative practice for those 20 hours per week instead of reading and watching YouTube videos, I probably could lay down some dope beats by Christmas. In the musical realm it is quite obvious to all of us that practice is the key.

But what about our spiritual life? This blog post is nearly identical to a talk I gave years ago about this topic. Here is the YouTube link. What people view as a foolhearty plan related to the cajon, they may view as valid when related to a spiritual path. Going to Sunday service, watching inspirational YouTube videos, reading books. That sounds good. But if that is the extent of it, it is as misguided as my cajon plan. What is missing is practice and plenty of it. You may think I DO practice. I read something in a book and apply it to my everyday life. That may work for some things, but I think it is equivalent to me buying a cajon and immediately joining Santana. I will read books at night and apply what I learn to me playing on stage with Santana. But clearly, a Santana stage performance is too complex to just jump into and apply what I learned watching YouTube videos. All the band members of Santana have spent years learning to play their instruments. And the band itself practices for hours. Hiromi, a phenomenal jazz pianist says this about her band:

It requires a lot of rehearsal to play the songs. My band always tells me I better change the group’s name from Sonicbloom to Boot Camp!

Similary, life is too complex and chaotic to immediately transfer what you learn in books to everyday situations. For example, you have probably read multiple times about mindfulness, but chances are, in the middle of your work day you may not be mindful. Racing around, traffic, kids, the 101 things you need to do. You are not focused on the suggestions from a book–you are just trying to survive in the modern world. Deliberative practice, including meditation and compassion practice (tonglen), enables us to work with what we learn from books so that it naturally arises without effort in everyday situations. All of a sudden, without thinking, without effort, we have moments of mindfulness.

Hiromi says “Focus, continuous training, and love and passion for what you do, more you practice, more you can fly” and “I wanted to bring what Jackie Chan does in Kung Fu to what I do on piano.” The more you meditate, do compassion training, and other practices the more you can fly in everyday life.

In my next post I will dive into this a bit more.

Don't Know

Zen Master Seung Sahn. Art from the website prajna-galleries

As many of you know we have been searching for a space to hold our meditation sessions and other events. We sent out a number of emails to area churches and looked at commercial office space to rent. A few times it looked like we found what we were looking for, only to discover some wrinkle that made the space either far less than ideal or unavailable. Last night I heard of the possibility of a fantastic space–better than any we have looked at so far. So the possibility of having a great meditation space may be on the horizon–or maybe not. This morning, while walking my dogs, I realized that this process of looking for a space is similar to the famous Chinese farmer story. For those unfamiliar with it it goes something like this.

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer who lost a horse–it ran away. And his neighbors came around that evening and said “That’s too bad! That is most unfortunate!” And he said “maybe.” The next day the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with him. And his neighbors came around that evening and said “Why that is fantastic, isn’t it?” And he said “maybe.” The next day his son was trying to train the wild horses and broke his leg while attempted to ride one. And, of course, the neighbors came around and said “That is awful! That’s too bad!” And the farmer said “maybe.” The following day army officers came around the village conscripting all young men into the military. They rejected the son because of this broken leg. Yet again, the neighbors came around and this time they said “Fantastic news, you must be very happy.” And the farmer said “maybe.”

So is it good news that we found a potentially wonderful meditation space? Maybe

Alan Watts said of the Chinese farmer story:

The This is from his book Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks 1960-1969 (public library)whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad—because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.

I am at a truck stop in west Texas. Someone approaches me as I pump gas, tells me he has no money but he needs to get to Arkansas to stay with his brother. I give him $10. Will the consequences of that act be good or bad? I simply don’t know. Maybe good; maybe bad. We can extend this don’t know mind to everything.

Stephen Batchelor writes Confession of a Buddhist Atheist (public library)of his time in a Zen Monastery in South Korea:

All I do, hour after hour, is ask myself the question What is this? … All I did for ten hours a day for the next three months was ask myself this question. The first two weeks, when my back hurt and my mind swung between febrile daydreamsfebrile daydreams = fever-like daydreams and lethargy, and the last few days, when I strove unsuccessfully not to look forward to the retreat ending, were the hardest. Throughout the long middle period, I experienced an unprecedented contentment.

The point of this exercise, common in Zen, is to

short-circuit the brain’s answer-giving habit and leave you in a state of serene puzzlement. This doubt, or “perplexity” as I preferred to call it, then slowly starts to infuse one’s consciousness as a whole. Rather than struggling with the words of the question, one settles into a mood of quiet focused astonishment, in which one one simply waits and listens in the pregnant silence that follows the fading of words

Zen Master Seung Sahn wrote in a letterThis is from his wonderful book Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn (public library):

You must keep don’t know mind always and everywhere. This is the true practice of Zen.

The Great Way is not difficult
if you don’t make distinctions.
Only throw away likes and dislikes
and everything will be perfectly clear.

So throw away all opinions, all likes and dislikes, and only keep the mind that doesn’t know. This is very important. Don’t know mind is the mind that cuts off all thinking. When all thinking has been cut off, you become empty mind. This is before thinking. Your before thinking mind, my before thinking mind, all people’s before thinking minds are the same. This is your substance. Your substance, my substance, and the substance of the whole universe become one. So the tree, the mountain, the cloud and you become one. Then I ask you: Are the mountain and you the same or different?

The mind that becomes one with the universe is before thinking.

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