Friday, February 28, 2014

The Two Absorptions

I was in the airport today, looking around at people’s faces.  What I saw were faces of minds filled with stories.  Each person’s mind filled up with their activity and spinning with their happiness and difficulties.  I looked at my own mind.  I thought to myself, could I wait for the plane and have a still mind?  Could I just be exactly what I’m doing now? Could I drop all my worries, just for this moment and be?  When I’m intentionally thinking about this, I can usually do it.  Just be still and just be “this”.

Then I began to knit and I thought, “Can I just be knitting with a quiet mind?  I remembered rakusu sewing and decided to say “Namu kie butsu” with each stitch.  Could I just be doing what I’m doing?

There is so much “delusion of control” that must be dropped if you are just doing what you’re doing.  If you are not worrying about the future, or trying to “fix” your life, there is so little to do really.  Just surrendering to each moment and deeply knowing that “zenki”  “total dynamic working” is functioning and will support your life.  Cause and effect is happening simultaneously.  That is not to say that we are passive, but sitting in the airport, waiting, there is really not much “to do” and when you are knitting, you are just knitting.  When you are doing the business emails, you are just doing one email response at a time.  Perhaps all the emails together can be constructed into a story, but what you are actually doing is one email at a time.  The instruction to not get attached to the results of our actions is a very powerful admonition.

The Platform sutra of Huineng has illuminated for me the practice that happens in so-called formal situations like zazen and the practice that happens in activity.  What in our ordinary view we keep separate, are actually two different expressions of the same concentration.
Huineng points out that there are two absorptions or concentrations:
1.     Absorption in oneness
2.     Absorption in unified activity

Absorption in oneness is the non-thinking concentration of zazen.  We let everything go, all our perceptions, all our responses and just sit in oneness, not even noticing twoness.  But Zen doesn’t stop there.  Even a little harder than zazen samadhi is absorption in unified activity.  This is the instruction for being out in the world, in our ordinary activity.  Subject (the “I”) and “doing” become one unified activity. Kaz Tanahashi translates that as “undivided mind”. We are totally absorbed in what we are doing with a quiet mind.  The mind is active when it needs to be but when it doesn’t, it just rests, and the whole body and mind does the activity at hand.  Katagiri Roshi emphasized, “subject and object merged.” Sometimes, the mind is very active like being in a conversation with someone and then we are simply totally involved in listening, responding and speaking.

Both of these absorptions are the site of enlightenment.


Good friends, absorption in one practice means always acting with a unified, direct mind in all situation, no matter what you are doing.  The direct mind is the site of enlightenment.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The crucible of spiritual practice in marriage

I often say that zazen is a crucible.  It is like an alchemical vessel or scientific beaker sitting on a Bunsen burner, which allows a transformation to occur within the beaker.  By sitting still with no escape, we allow the flotsam and jetsam of our life to float up to the surface and get burned away.  It is grist for the mill.  Harada Roshi, (from Bukkoku-ji Temple) years ago at Hokyoji Monastery said, the stones of the mill, rub and rub the grist until there is nothing left, (he indicated this by rubbing his hand together over and over) and that is similar to our sense of self being rubbed away by the intensity and clarity of zazen.  After a while, we are just clear and open.  Ready to meet the moment just as it is.

Today, I am going to participate in a marriage ceremony and I think of marriage in much the same way.  Two people make a vessel together that won’t be broken.  In this day and age, perhaps we should say, hope won’t be broken.  But nevertheless, at a marriage ceremony the assumption is “can’t be broken”,  or “until death do us part.”  We cut off the avenues of escape so that the abandonment issue is less prevalent in our minds, and then the real work of character building begins.  The alchemical vessels heats up.  The flotsam and jetsam of our life issues arise indeed! And perhaps I could add, endlessly arise.  Greed, anger and ignorance arise endlessly. Who knows and sees are faults or perhaps I should say, our humanness, the most? – our partner!  This marriage vessel becomes a laboratory for digesting and working out the stuck places in ourselves, so that we can become the best human we can be.  It is a container to explore our growth in the safety of unconditional love.

It is quite a different kind of “Love” then we see in the media and in our culture.  The common place “love” is based on - what can I get out of this partnership?  What can the other person give to me?  Will that other person fill the hole in my stomach of loneliness and anxiety?  But spiritually speaking, marriage is quite the opposite.  Love is something that you do, not something that you get.  Marriage is a verb, not a noun.  It is an every day practice.  We actively love, accept and support our partners to become the best human being that they can be.  The other person’s growth and wholeness as a human being is equally important to us as our own .

In The Tibetan tradition they have two sayings.  One is “Equalizing yourself and other” which is the first practice of finding the equality of concern for yourself and others.  We are all in exactly the same human predicament.  We begin to see that “I” and “Other” are not real.  If after beginning to see all our suffering as universal, we can go even further with the phrase “exchanging yourself with the other”.  This is quite the pinnacle of a bodhisattva practice where you can, by a feat of sympathetic imagination, place oneself in the position of others.  In so doing, one gains an appreciation of both how and why others feel the way they do, and how one appears in their eyes.  This leads us to an understanding of appropriate action for our partner’s benefit.

Through this kind of understanding, marriage has a different meaning and can be used as a deep practice of exploring all the Buddhist principles.  It is evident that our marriage problems can be the grist for the mill of establishing an understanding of no centralized self.  It brings forth the on-going moment-to-moment practice of mindfulness.  My partner’s problems are my problems and vice-versa.   It is also a place to cultivate kindness, compassion, joy, forgiveness and equanimity under all circumstances.  For better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.

There is one other koan explored in marriage, which produces a very active practice.  How do we maintain our individuality and get our needs met, at the same time we are surrendering or compromising for the benefit of the “other”. It is an example of oneness that doesn’t eradicate twoness.  The deep paradox of Zen practice.

This individuation really is helped by a deep practice of Right Speech and loving communication.  Honest, direct and loving communication is a “learned” skill, I think, and something that is practiced day in and day out.  Knowing when we are pressing the doorbell of our partner’s reactivity, and choosing to communicate in a different way, is true intimacy and a deep kind of listening.  It is a type of tenderness in communication that exemplifies a good marriage and also helps us to be able to work through all the thorny differences and issues that arise throughout a lifetime together.

From Erich Fromm:

Love is union with somebody, or something outside oneself, under the condition of retaining the separateness and integrity of one’s own self.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Recognizing feelings and emotions

Mindfulness of feelings and emotions are a very important part of my practice.  When I am aware of what I am feeling, I am less likely, as Katagiri Roshi used to say, “to get tossed away by them.”  My reactive emotions comes from my basic misunderstanding that I have to protect a “self”.  Sometimes I think I am going to die from an emotion it seems so difficult.  At that time, I don’t believe that the emotion is going to dissipate or disappear on its own if I just let it exist and feel it.  I don’t align myself with the truth that things, feelings, people, circumstance come and go.

Through zazen practice I can really practice and strengthen my ability to just hold things or be present with circumstances and feelings as they are.  Pema Chodron has said that meditation practice helps us increase our capacity to hold negative emotions.  We need to digest and see the truth of our negative emotions so that we don’t act out or suppress.  Acting out actually increases the negativity for ourselves and those around us.  Suppression doesn’t work, as eventually that suppressed energy comes out sideways.  Awareness is to be awake to our feelings and to be able to be with them in peace.

I have often called our feelings and the energy of our hearts, the melody of humanity.  It is the song of the ups and downs of life that come with being a human.  We do not want to eradicate them or obliterate our humanness but rather we can aspire to be a fully alive human who can experience the full range of our emotions with integrity.

Zazen in stillness and mindfulness in activity, teaches us how to be aware of what is happening internally and how to hold our life without being reactive.  Ken Mcloed says our awareness has to be just a smidgeon larger than the feeling or circumstance. As Katagiri-roshi said, “we don’t have to poke our heads in there.”  Each part of our life can be held in a gentle loving awareness, without “doing” something to escape it and without reacting.

Thich Nhat Hanh has spoken beautifully of the difficult emotions that arise from past circumstances.
From Thich Nhat Hanh, “Touching the Earth” page 41:
Thanks to practicing mindful breathing and walking, I can recognize different mental states as they arise.  I know that the wounds of my ancestors and my parents, as well as wounds from my childhood until now, still lie deep in my consciousness.  Sometimes painful feelings associated with sadness rise up in me and if I do not know how to recognize, embrace, and help them calm down, I can say things and do things that cause division or a split in my family or my community.  I can use this mindful energy to not suppress these emotions but to help them calm down.  I know these feelings and emotions for the most part arise from narrow perceptions and incomplete understanding.  Investigating and letting go of my narrow ideas and wrong perceptions, my painful feelings and emotions will no longer have a basis to arise.  I promise that from now on I shall practice looking deeply to see that the majority of my suffering arises from my ideas and perceptions.  I shall not blame others when I suffer, but shall return to myself and recognize the source of my suffering in my misconceptions and my lack of deep understanding.

Larry Rosenberg, “Breath by Breath” chapter on “Breathing with feelings.”: (page 73)
One of meditation’s function is to calm the mental processes.  A feeling arises – even one as powerful as fear – using the conscious breathing, you stay with the feeling, stay with it, stay with it.  You let it be.  Conscious breathing and mindfulness take the power out of the feeling so it doesn’t condition the mind to get hysterical.  Our feelings lose their potency to propel us into unwise states.

That is what the Buddha finally said about feelings.  “The enlightened one has become liberated and freed from all attachments.  One sees as it really is, the arising and passing away of feelings.  The relishing of them, the danger of them, the release of them.”

I find that so interesting.  Buddha said that we tend to relish our feelings and attachment even though we know that clinging to a state by pushing it away or attaching to it, produce our suffering.  That’s the danger of our feelings and attachments.  If we want to have release from them, we have to find the balance point between taking care of them but also not clinging to them.