Monday, September 28, 2015

My Dharma Talks

Comcast is soon discontinuing its "Personal Web Page" service. I've got a bunch of stuff I put up there over the years, which will disappear when the service ends. I'm transferring some of it from there to this blog, for the benefit of future generations... 

Following are transcriptions of some short talks I've given at Empty Gate Zen Center:


There was once a "Parliament of the World's Religions" in Chicago, and many religious leaders were invited - Catholics, pagans, Black Muslims, Hindus, witches, and on and on. One of the things they did was try to draft a statement of principles; they wanted to tell the world, "These are the fundamental truths that spiritual people accept." They had a terribly hard time, of course. It's difficult for human beings, spiritual or otherwise, to agree on anything.

Our teacher, Dae Soen Sa Nim, was there. Even though he's been a Zen Master for over 40 years, he didn't contribute a word to the statement of principles. He just encouraged everyone to sit together silently (he didn't use the word "meditation"), which they eventually agreed to do for 10 minutes.

This is Zen practice, putting aside our different ideas and opinions, and just acting in this moment. If more people could learn to just do something together, even something as simple as sitting silently, then we wouldn't create so many problems for the world.

Formal Zen practice includes sitting, chanting, bowing, and other things that may look like a religion. But it's not at all necessary to consider these actions special, spiritual, or holy. They're opportunities to let go of my ideas, my opinions, mymy situation, I, my, me ... and just do it. At a Zen center, there's a schedule telling us what it's time to do (7pm: sitting; 7:30pm: chanting, etc.). In ordinary life, we often don't have a schedule, but we can keep the same mind - clearly perceiving each moment, and doing whatever that situation calls for.

Years ago, Dae Soen Sa Nim wrote a letter to the Pope, suggesting that he call a meeting of the world's spiritual leaders. When they arrived in Rome, there'd be a hot tub that they could all sit in together. Next, they'd share a meal. And after that, everybody would go home - all without saying a single word.

When religious people come together, they're wearing different costumes. Monks in Korea wear grey, Indian swamis wear orange, the Pope has his white robes, and so on. But to take a hot tub, you take off your clothes, so that would be one step towards putting aside different ideas. And when we eat, our likes and dislikes appear very strongly. So eating the same meal with other people is another way to practice letting go of our opinions.

People who want to make a formal commitment to practicing Zen go through what's called a precepts ceremony, and after the ceremony they get a certificate that includes this poem:
 Good and evil have no self-nature
 Holy and unholy are empty names
 In front of the door is the land of stillness and light
 Spring comes, the grass grows by itself.

The first two lines mean: let go of whatever ideas and opinions you're holding. In the third line, "the door" is the senses, so this line means that whatever you perceive at this moment is Truth. Finally, the last line means: whatever it's time to do, just do it.


For over 10 years, I’ve lived in an apartment just a couple blocks away from the Hayward fault. There’s been one serious quake during that time. It was a few years back, around 3 in the morning. Waking up to an earthquake intensifies that special experience you always have at the moment of waking. There’s always that moment when you have no idea, when there’s nothing in your mind but “What?!”

The phrase that comes to my mind is “back to square one.” As the room rolled back and forth, it was as if I felt, “I can’t even count on the walls and floor staying still any more; so I give up, I don’t know anything.” I had that clear, alert, immediate experience of the rocking room for just seconds. Then thinking appeared, I understood what was going on, and the square one mind was replaced by various wants, including the most pressing want of staying alive and not getting buried in rubble.

The Zen teaching tradition exists to point at this square one mind, the mind we have before thinking. In simple terms, Buddha said that suffering is caused by desire; if you want something, then you have a problem. Before thinking there’s no wanting, no suffering. So it’s a mind worth looking at. You’ll see various stories of Zen masters responding to a question by hitting someone with a stick, or shouting. These actions are like the earthquake, something to give one the before-thinking experience, at least for a moment.

People may talk about square one in a negative sense, as in, “I’ve been trying to get ahead in life for years, but now I’m back to square one.” But in Zen, returning to square one is the practice. Day after day we accumulate ideas and opinions, things we think we know, and it’s possible to practice putting all of that down and returning to square one.

In sitting Zen and in life, I’ve been noticing how these two minds alternate. Sometimes there’s square one, nothing but open alertness. And at other times, there’s thinking about what I want.

Some traditions suggest the path of replacing bad wants with good wants. Some spiritual teachers will say that since bad wants (materialism, sense desire, etc) cause suffering, the solution is to replace them with good wants: “I want enlightenment,” “I desire God,” etc. And there’s some point to this: during those years when I had a strong desire for enlightenment and God, it’s true that all other desires naturally receded into background. But Zen teaching is different. This teaching says that good wants and bad wants are both wants, and as long as you want something, you’ve got a problem.

You’ll hear that style of teaching often in the Zen tradition. “Why do you make good and bad?” This is the same as pointing to before-thinking mind, because thinking makes wanting, and wanting makes good and bad. If I want something, then when the world gives me what I want, I call it “good”; when the world gives me what I don’t want, I call it “bad.” It’s an interesting practice; whenever I see good or bad, I know I can trace it back to something I want.

Likewise with “God.” Most of the world attaches great importance to the idea of God, and conceives of “God” as the embodiment of absolute Good. But good and bad are made by wanting, so wherever “God” appears, we know someone wants something.

I went to a fringe religious ceremony that had a Christian form. A line from one of the hymns has stuck with me. Addressing God, we sang, “You’re the one we wish to serve; you give to us what we deserve.” And I thought, “Sweet Jesus! If I’m taking the trouble to sing hymns to God, He sure as hell better be a God that gives me MORE than I deserve!”

People call Buddhism atheistic, since belief in God isn’t necessary. But it’s not that Buddhism says you must believe there’s no God. Rather, it points to the possibility of accepting what one deserves, of taking whatever comes through natural process. If that’s the case, we don’t need to make ideas of God, because we don’t want anything from him.

There’s a particular practice in Zen called “kong-an” in Korean, or koan in Japanese. In this practice, the teacher asks a question which the student is challenged to answer from a clear mind, from a square one mind. The questions are designed to tempt desires to appear, but once you want something, it creates a fog that makes a clear answer impossible.

There are many hundreds of kong-ans, and they can get awfully convoluted. But when I first met Zen master Seung Sahn, his kong-an to me was simple and direct. I sat down for a formal teaching interview with him, and he asked, “What do you want?”

How to find a clear answer? Any time I stop and think about it, I can find dozens of things I want. “I want a million dollars. I want world peace. I want everyone to like me. I want to feel good all the time.” But all these answers are made by thinking. They’re “wanting” answers; what would a clear mind, square one answer be?

I could say, “I don’t want anything.” Not only is that likely dishonest, it’s what we call “attachment to emptiness.” It’s like saying, “I want to not want anything”; it’s still not clear. But when the teacher asks, “What do you want?”, there’s a particular, elegant, clear answer. What is it?

I was recently reading an essay written by a woman in therapy. She said that after months of appointments, she said to her therapist, “Now I understand something. I see that I had a certain relationship with my mother, and as an adult I often re-create this relationship with others, and this makes problems. What I don’t see is, how does this understanding change anything?”

The therapist replied, “You think it’s supposed to change something?”


I spent 1990 living in Las Vegas, making a living by dealing blackjack and roulette in the casinos. Most people know what it's like in a casino - nearly everybody loses money, nearly everybody knows that nearly everybody loses money, and nearly everybody is convinced that if he could just find the right secret, he'd beat the system and get rich.

At the roulette wheel, some gamblers figure out that if red comes up three times in a row, it means you should bet on red. Others, with just as much confidence, determine that it means you should bet on black. Some players have strong ideas about which is the lucky table, lucky dealer, lucky chair, or lucky deck of cards. At the blackjack table, many people said to me, "The secret is to make your big bets when you really feel lucky." I'd always tell them, "Whether you'll get good cards or bad cards has nothing to do with how you feel," but they'd never believe me.

There are endless tricks, and every trick works ... sometimes. I'd see people on hot streaks, winning constantly for an hour or more, and their expressions seemed to say, "I've finally got it all figured out! I'll never have to work again!" I knew that before long this type of thinking would get them into deep, deep trouble, so it was sad to watch.

People who start a religious or spiritual practice tend to have minds like these gamblers. We think, "There must be a way to avoid the suffering that everyone seems to experience; how can I beat the system?"

Also, the world is filled with spiritual teachers anxious to tell you their ways to beat the system. They say, "If you follow me and my way, you'll get all sorts of good feelings inside and good situations outside; if not now, then in the future. My way will grant you benefits infinitely greater than the effort you put into it."

In other words, they teach the possibility of getting good stuff that you don't earn, and don't deserve. This is a beautiful idea, and it's given beautiful names, such as "God's grace," etc. I've noticed that the largest crowds seem to form around those teachers who say that small efforts can bring big rewards.

In our school, the teaching different. Dae Soen Sa Nim says, "Big effort, big attainment. Small effort, small attainment. No effort, no attainment." How can someone considered a great teacher get away with promising so little? He also says, "Understanding cannot help you." This means that life offers no tricks or shortcuts; and if you really understand that there are no shortcuts, even that's not a shortcut.

Maybe it sounds awful to give up such beautiful hopes. But when you completely give up hope, you're left with something extraordinary: a clear view of the present moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What are you doing right now? That's much better than hope.

There's a story about this in a Carlos Castaneda book. Carlos is walking with don Juan and stops for a moment to tie his shoe. Just then, a boulder falls from the cliffs above and crashes to the ground a few feet ahead. "My God!" Carlos says. "If I hadn't had to tie my shoe, that would have killed us!"

"That's true," replies don Juan. "And maybe someday you'll stop to tie your shoe, and because you stop a boulder will kill you. You don't know when the boulder will fall, so the most important thing for you to do is to tie your shoe impeccably."


We recently reached the end of the year, and what do you know, we’re right back at the beginning. Of course the calendar is man-made, but it’s the same in the natural world. There’s a cycle of seasons; you reach the end, and you’re at the beginning.
It may seem obvious, how it goes round and round like this. But consider: if you’d just been born, even with a fully developed intellect, would you automatically know that the world operates in these circular cycles? Maybe it’s something we learn through experience.
Zen isn’t different from life, so we also find many circles in Zen teaching and art. Zen Master Seung Sahn illustrated his teaching with the Zen Circle. Points around the circle have particular meanings… but the big meaning is the metaphor of the circle itself. You start at zero degrees, and you progress to 360 degrees, which is the same point. It illustrates that the truth, the goal, the pure and clear thing, is not something separate in space or time. It’s already appeared in this moment.
Our teaching style doesn’t say, “You must struggle for decades or lifetimes, and then attain holy ‘egolessness’” or whatever. But rather: “Just now, before the thought of ‘I/my/me’ even arises, everything is already perfect and complete.”
The circle metaphor stands in contrast to the more common image of spiritual life as a path to a mountaintop. This path image puts me in mind of people who climb Everest. Climbers speak of a problem they call summit fever. It’s not just the craziness caused by oxygen deprivation, but a psychological affliction. Climbers can become so focused on reaching the summit that they lose all reason. They don’t consider that after they summit, they’ll still have to climb back down! They make stupid decisions in striving for the peak at all costs; it turns out that most climbers who die do so on the descent.
Metaphorically, that’s what it’s like to follow a path. When you strive to reach something, you don’t clearly perceive and respond to the reality of the moment.
On the other hand, if we see that we’re going around and around in circles, there’s nothing special to look forward to, or to look back on. Then it’s possible to connect with just now. In walking meditation, as we go around and around the room, we can return to a meticulous awareness of the moment, the breath going in or out, the pressure of the floor against the soles of the feet.
Sitting meditation is similar. Trains of thought appear and disappear, over and over again in circular rotation. When I recognize that the thinking cycle is going nowhere, it points back to the clarity of What am I doing right now?
Ken Wilber is a writer and modern philosopher, popular in spiritual and New Age circles. In constructing his view of human development, Wilber has used the metaphor of a ladder. You start with body-consciousness, then move up to the next rung of emotional consciousness, then intellect, then witnessing and other spiritual rungs, higher and higher. He provides an interesting map of this process, but it lacks any sense of circularity.
One of his critics argues that Wilber and his group are missing half of reality. Wilber focuses entirely on development, but existence is more than growth and development, it’s also decay and death. To avoid facing this other half of the circle is like having summit fever, with a mind clouded by refusal to see the whole picture.
If we look at the full circle, it becomes clear. A hundred years ago, I didn’t exist. Then I got born, so now I do exist. A hundred years from now, I’ll be dead, I’ll have returned to that same point of not-existing that I started at! In Buddhism, we say that emptiness becomes form, then form becomes emptiness. First zero, then one, then zero, around and around and around.
Sometimes, I get distracted for half a second, then my attention returns. Sometimes, I get an idea, and keep thinking about it for months before letting it go. These circles, large and small, are encompassed by the circle of life — appearing out of emptiness, and eventually disappearing back into emptiness. It all points back to one thing. We’re not going anywhere, so we’ve got precisely one thing: What is this moment?

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