Zen as Religion

 

I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

 

Blue Cliff Record Case 77: Yunmen’s Sesame Rice Cake

 A monk asked Yunmen, What is the conversation that saves the buddhas and goes beyond the ancestors?”

Yunmen said, “Sesame rice cake.”

 

Tonight I want to take up a rather slippery topic:  Zen as religion.

We don’t spend much time in Zen circles engaging in theological reflection – at least not the sort of analytical reflection and discourse that’s common in other traditions.  We don’t concern ourselves too much with definitions and boundaries. It’s not a tradition that demands adherence to any particular beliefs.

There are ideas and principles practitioners through the ages have found useful, based upon their own practical experience with them, but there are no litmus test beliefs that define what it means to be a Zen practitioner.

(To be fair, we concern ourselves with definitions and boundaries some; for instance, in relation to authority within the community, as is true of any other organization, religious or secular.)

There are some western Zen practitioners who don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion.  I suppose it’s possible to view Zen as a sort of psychological system, as some western practitioners seem to do, though I think that’s a limited and limiting frame.

Scholars debate the defining characteristics of religion.  We won’t resolve that debate tonight.  But let me offer one element of one scholar’s working definition of religion as a launching pad for some things I want to say about Zen. Émile Durkheim, the great 19th century French sociologist, famously defined religion this way:

Since the idea of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the profane in the thought of men, the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two corresponding things to be confounded, or even put in contact with one another.

We see this sort of binary between profane and sacred, between the mundane and the other-worldly, defining religion in the work of other scholars, like Rudolf Otto, for instance.

It’s a fair point.  This is a key insight into much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions – including some strains of Buddhism, I believe – so it’s not surprising that this binary is considered by many to be a defining characteristic of religion.

I’m hedging, of course, when I say that this binary describes “much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions.”  There certainly are strains of most religions that resist the idea that there’s an impenetrable barrier between sacred and profane, as Durkheim imagined.

For example, one might say that Christianity was founded on a degree of resistance to this binary.  Dominant strains within the Greek philosophical tradition that held sway within the ancient world into which Jesus was born maintained that what is ultimately real is removed from this world.  Think: Plato and his forms.  Christianity upended that notion.  Here was God among us.

Of course, the Christian community found itself in schism at times over questions about the extent of this divine-mundane intermingling.  Some Christians really pushed the edge of that envelope along the way, like Meister Eckhart, the great 14th century mystic.  It was orthodox to regard Jesus as the Son of God, of course, but Eckhart also said, “We are God’s sons and daughters, but we don’t realize it yet.”

That has a real resonance with how we sometimes talk about Buddha nature and enlightenment in Zen, as D.T. Suzuki and other Zen scholars have noted.  Of course, Eckhart was tried as a heretic by the Inquisition.  Fortunately for him, he managed to die before his verdict was pronounced.

Does this sacred and profane binary describe Zen?

Yes and no, I suppose.  But, more than most strains of most religions, I think not.

We have our notions of the absolute and the relative, of emptiness and form, yet we’re reminded again and again and again that they’re one and the same.

And, as we think and speak about the relative and the absolute – think and speak about them – they’re notions, of course.  Ideas.  Whatever God or the absolute or emptiness or the ultimately real is to you – well, I sincerely hope you experience it, or come to experience it, as something other than an idea.

The koan with which I opened this talk is typical of so many.  A student comes to a teacher and asks earnestly, “What’s it all about?”

A rice cake, Yunmen says.

In other cases, we hear it’s about . . .

. . . three pounds of flax

. . . a pail of water

. . . the oak tree in the courtyard

. . . even a dried piece of dung

Dung.  Excrement.

Our tradition seems to be making a point of imploding distinctions between sacred and profane; of playfully poking fun at our tendency to make such distinctions; of using that tendency as a nudge toward realization – dangling the distinctions as cat nip.  Lovely story after lovely story like that.

From a theistic perspective, one might say Zen brings heaven and earth together, without obliterating either.  It’s relentless in this way.  It’s the religious equivalent of a supercollider.  A theological Large Hadron Collider.

From an atheistic scientific materialist perspective, one might say Zen brings the dead (the inert) to life.  In this day and age, it’s something of an antidote to the turn in philosophy that attempted to jettison metaphysics – yet still a place, in this day and age, many skeptics feel they can call home.

Tapping on a coffin (in a koan set at a funeral), one monk asked another, “Dead or alive?”  “I won’t say!  I won’t say!” replied the other.

Can this be contained in sacred or profane, heaven or earth, absolute or relative, dead or alive?

This/that mind is concerned with pulling Humpty Dumpty apart and putting him back together again.  That capacity is immensely, immensely useful.  And, even as we exercise that capacity in those situations where it’s useful, we can know in our bones that Humpty Dumpty is, fundamentally, everywhere and always, together in its distinctions.

That potential is one of Zen’s great invitations and gifts to us.

Is Zen religion?

Let me close with another story (also from a koan):

The Emperor Wu of Liang asked Bodhidarma – the 28th Buddhist patriarch, who brought Buddhism to China, where it mingled with Taoism and became Chan, eventually migrating to Japan, where it’s called Zen – “What is the highest meaning of the Holy Truth of Buddhism?”

“Empty – there’s no holy,” Bodhidharma replied.

No separation.

Stunned by this answer, the emperor asked, “Who are you facing me?”

“Don’t know,” was Bodhidharma’s response.

Is Zen religion?

Who are you facing me?

Who are we facing one another?

 

Cultivating the Empty Field

My dear friend Kate Hartland gave a wonderful Dharma Talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center last night.  She spoke about the writing/poetry of Master Hongzhi collected in the text, Cultivating the Empty Field.  Hongzhi was first to spell out the approach to meditation we know was shikantaza, or “just sitting.”  He was a major source of inspiration for Master Dogen, founder of the Soto stream of Zen.

(Kate is a Dharma Holder in Boundless Way Zen.  You can learn more about what that means here, if you’re curious.  Part of what it means for me, practically speaking, is that I see her less often these days . . . and I miss her!  Kate and I sat together for many years as part of the former Ralph Waldo Emerson Zen Sangha (affectionately known as “Waldo,” which was the name of the dog my family had when I was a kid), and then as part of the GBZC, once we got our permanent digs in Cambridge.  A couple of years ago, Kate started, and she continues to lead, Bright Sea Zen in Weymouth.)

One of the many golden nuggets in Kate’s talk was her take on this notion of cultivation – of human agency.

Weeds will grown in an empty field, of course.  Indeed, fields full of “weeds” often look really lovely.  There truly is nothing we must become; nothing we must do.

This goes on happening, regardless.

And, yet . . .

We have this wonderful opportunity to act, to influence, and to do so intentionally.  (In fact, we leave a mark whether we act intentionally or not.)  We can plant flowers, so to speak, and so help shape the field into something it might not otherwise become.  Not something “better,” mind you, but something else to behold.  Something in which we’re participating, and know we’re participating.

Something expressing and reflecting our best intentions.

It’s so lovely when our own best intentions are sensitively and skillfully integrated or aligned with others’ best intentions.  The field becomes yet something else to behold.  Something in which you and I are participating together, and in which we know we’re participating together.

Shaping and being shaped by it.

Shaping and being shaped by one another.

That’s what Zen practice is about, really.

And that’s what work life, and home life, and all else are about – with a Zen heart.

Thank you, Kate.

 

Harvard Divinity School with the Pastor and the Imam from Nigeria

I’ve been teaching a graduate seminar on religion and peacebuilding at Harvard Divinity School one night a month this year (as HDS’s first Lecturer on the Practice of Peace). The course is connected with the public speaker series that is part of the school’s new Religions and the Practice of Peace Initiative.

Our most recent speakers were Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, founders of the Interfaith Mediation Center in Nigeria. They once led rival youth militias and tried to kill one another. James lost his hand in combat. Muhammad lost his teacher and two cousins. They ultimately made peace and now help others do the same.

I’m pictured here with them, and with Dean David Hampton, Professor Diana Eck (one of my teachers when I studied at HDS years ago), and Professor Darren Kew of UMass Boston (who I know from my student days, and who now focuses his academic work on Nigeria).

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Passing through Hell

I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.

“If you are despised by others and are about to drop into hell because of evil karma from your previous life, then because you are despised by others, the evil karma of your previous life will be extinguished.”

Blue Cliff Record Case 97: The Diamond Sutra and Evil Karma

I just passed through a week from hell.

Two weeks ago this past Monday my 79-year old mother was hospitalized with a serious intestinal condition requiring emergency surgery.  Her system had gone septic, and she was teetering on the edge of death.

I booked the next flight to Colorado, which had me departing the next day at the crack of dawn.

My mom was still in surgery as I landed in Denver, which is a two-and-a-half drive from my parents’ home.  One of my brothers was waiting at the hospital for news from the surgeons.  He called about an hour into my drive to say that our mother had come through the surgery, barely, but was by no means out of the woods.

He and I had both been calling my parents’ house that morning to check on my father.  My mother had been caring for him at home, though she was barely able to do so.  My dad wasn’t answering the phone.

My brother went from the hospital to my parents’ house after the surgery and found my dad lying face down on the floor, conscious, but unable to get up, and with a big bump on his head from the wood step he hit when he fell some hours ago.  He couldn’t say when.  He’s on a blood thinner, so falls are risky; they can lead to fatal internal bleeding.

I arrived at my parents’ place shortly after my brother did.  We called 911 and followed the ambulance to the hospital where my mother was still in the recovery room.

As if all this weren’t enough, my wife texted me around this time to say that two falls her mother had recently were caused by strokes, that she was undergoing an urgent series of tests to determine whether she was in immediate risk of another, and that she and my wife’s father would not be able to travel to Boston from the UK (where they live) to visit us later that week.

Stress.  Fear.  Sadness.  Exhaustion.  Hell.

Over the next 48 hours, my mom began to stabilize, the doctors determined my father hadn’t been seriously injured in his fall, and my mother-in-law was cleared to visit us (but still requires more testing and, possibly, treatment).  The aging parent thing has become ten times more intense for us overnight, but the immediate danger for each of them seemed to pass almost as quickly as it emerged.

The koan with which I opened this talk describes another sort of hellish experience: being despised by others.  Perhaps one is despised because of something one did, like taking another life; perhaps it’s because one is a member of a minority racial group or religion; perhaps it’s because of a combination of these or other factors.

It is tempting to read this koan as if it’s about some cosmic algebraic equation; an equality in which we gain future karmic happiness in proportion to our present karmic misery caused by past karmic transgressions.

But this is 21st Zen Buddhism we’re practicing.  That can’t possibly be what we mean.  Indeed, that can’t even be what the ancient masters meant. Can it?

I suspect this sort of good/bad, past/present/future karmic accounting has helped countless people cope with the difficulties of life throughout the ages, including this one – and not only in the Buddhist world, but through similar notions in other religious traditions.

Yet I think this koan extends another sort of invitation.  It’s the same invitation extended by the Five Remembrances that we recite each week.  That verse reminds us that we’re of the nature to grow old, become ill, and die, and that there’s no escaping this.

Life really was hell a couple of weeks ago; it truly felt like hell.  We really are watching our parents grow old, and become ill.  We will say goodbye to them in time . . . if we ourselves outlive them, and we must remember that’s not guaranteed.

The Five Remembrances can be a real shocker for those new to Zen: they certainly have a bubble bursting quality that one doesn’t find much in religion.  But bursting the bubble in which we’re bound to keep searching for that mythical way out, that door from hell to heaven, is only half of the real Zen equation.

Whether we feel we’re in heaven or hell or someplace in-between, the door, the Dharma gate, actually is always right here, and always has been.  It’s a gateless gate.  A boundless gate.  And it leads to this.

Sitting alone at my mom’s bedside in the ICU as she laid there on life support, unaware of my presence, holding her cold, swollen, unmoving hand, hell seemed so . . . solid.  That moment, tortuous as it was in one sense, seemed so solid.

So trustable.

And so bearable.

I couldn’t help but feel grateful for it all somehow.  Grateful for her.  Grateful for the presence of mind and spirit to be present to that moment.

All is blessed. Every day is a good day, as old Master Yun-men said when asked about his own illness and impending death.

Even the hell states.  Even the hell states in which we can’t manage to see that all is blessed.

I credit Zen practice for helping me experience that moment this way.  But I think you know this isn’t the product of some great yogic feat of mental discipline in which we banish all our fears and anxieties or cultivate a stoic detachment from this world of pain and suffering.  Quite the opposite.

It’s by actually allowing ourselves to be in hell when we’re in hell.  And by discovering there and elsewhere, including on these cushions, that we contain hell, rather than the other way around.

Knowing in our bones that we’re part of it all; submitting to that reality.  Finally letting it have us, as, in fact, it has all along.

Knowing that we’re both dew drop and this very dew containing universe. Or, in this case, tear drops.

We find our liberation and our peace in that.  We ultimately find the exemption we’ve been seeking by realizing – by which I simply mean being – the raw reality, the brute fact that we’re not exempt.

Awakening to Discouragement

This is an approximation of a Dharma talk I gave at the Henry David Thoreau Zen Sangha in Newton, MA, on June 8, 2015.

Our liturgy book changed recently. There are some new verses, two of which we chanted tonight.

I’d like to focus on one of these in this talk:

Awakening to Discouragement

(by Joan Tollifson, from the book Nothing to Grasp)

Part of waking up is becoming sensitive to how we become discouraged, how we close down, and where we go for false comfort. To wake up is to become aware of the tendency to judge ourselves, to take our failures personally, to fall into despair, self-pity, depression, frustration, anger, or wherever we tend to go when we believe the story that we are a person who can’t do it right. Seeing all of this is enough. Awareness is its own action. We don’t need to analyze it or impose changes based on our ideas of what should be happening.  Just being awake to the present moment, as it is, and seeing clearly what is happening: this is transformative. We are simply awake here and now.

I found this verse unsettling the first couple of times we chanted it at Greater Boston Zen Center, where I sit. I still do.

That unsettled feeling is usually valuable, I find — a call to pay attention.

This verse is unsettling to me, I think, because it doesn’t really feel encouraging in the way I’ve been socialized to think about encouragement.

Encouragement as I’m used to thinking about it would be telling me things will get better. Maybe telling me how to fix these problems.  (They’re clearly problems, right?) Or, at least boosting my confidence in my ability to find solutions.

But this verse says seeing is enough. There’s no need even to analyze this experience, let alone do anything.

Really?  That’s it?  This is just part 1, right?  Tell me Part 2 of the encouragement is coming.

But if we sit with encouragement like this long enough — and it is encouragement — and if we just sit, this sort of encouragement may begin to shift our perspective in time.

The part of me that has difficulty seeing this verse as encouragement is the part of me (the frame of mind) that is sure there’s something wrong with my life, even something wrong in the universe; that’s sure things just have to be made better; and that I must do something about it. Now.

This is the me which gets tempted to think that things are falling apart — at home, at work, in the world — and that I need to hold them together.

For me, the encouragement this verse provides is a challenge to that perspective.

The truth is, each world-moment is always hanging together.  Without me needing to take control, as if I could.

Nor can we withdraw and disappear, if that’s our default mode for trying to deal with our anxious feelings.

I speak German (poorly), and I’m still sometimes amused by how literal the language can be.  For instance, the word for mitten is handschue (hand shoe).

The word for participate is teilnehmen, which literally means “part taking.”  It’s like our word partake, or, better yet, the phrase “take part.”

Here we are. We’re just taking part, whether or not we want to, and whether or not we believe that’s all we’re doing.

My anxious feelings are just that.  They’re taking part, too.  Just a part of me.  We’re just a part of the universe.

Myriad Dharmas.  The first and wholly sufficient step is just to see them.  That’s enough, this teaching tells us.

And even that isn’t required.

Zen is often accused of being a quietistic religion, and it certainly can tend in that direction.

But how much suffering is created and compounded by so many of us walking around with the sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong with all of this? Something fundamentally amiss in the universe.

How much more skillful our plans and actions and interactions would be if, as some Hindus would say, we thought, at every turn, “The god in me bows to the god in you”?

And won’t we be better at helping solve this world’s problems, so many of which are responses to and avoidance strategies for these feelings of dis-ease, if we can just learn to sit with our own feelings? The god in me bows to the god in my anxious feelings. Perhaps we’ll become better at seeing those feelings as they arise in and propel others, and become capable of responding more compassionately.

This is hard, I know, and I suppose it’s one place in Zen where faith comes in. Faith in the teachings. Faith in our teachers. Faith in each other. Faith in this path. All helping us develop faith in our experience. Faith in this. Faith giving way to knowledge in our bones that “every day is a good day,” as old Yunmen says in that famous koan about life and death. About the Great Matter.

One of the main fruits of Zen practice is progressively waking up to the reality that the world is cohering all the time, and me with it, no matter how much I might be tempted to doubt that at any given moment.

My falling apart is the world cohering. And, as James Ford says, “If you’re lucky, your heart will break.”

Thank you, James

We’ve just returned from a goodbye celebration for James Ford at the Boundless Way Temple in Worcester.  James and his wife, Senior Dharma Teacher Jan Seymour Ford, are moving back to California to retire. (Jan is already there.)  James is the senior founder of Boundless Way Zen, shaping it from inception. He is one of the kindest, most gentle, most down to earth, wisest people I’ve ever met, and he’s a brilliant institution builder and religious innovator. I feel so fortunate to have him as a teacher along the Zen way — which is to say, in this one life.  Deep, deep bows of gratitude.

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