In Dreams

Mr._SandmanA candy-colored clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper:
“Go to sleep, everything is alright”

And I’ll be happy in my dreams
Only in dreams
In beautiful dreams.

– Roy Orbison

Dreams. Lately I’ve had some doozys.

One that I remember in some detail was where I was in a Chinese prisoner of war camp, run by a Nazi commandant. The camp was coed. The women all lived in a house filled with dolls, and the men in a barracks. One man and woman, however, were secretly married and they kept their baby in a drawer in a table in the workhouse. The camp was going to have some kind of celebration or festival, and the married guy wanted to put a half-balloon, half-straw man underneath a merry-go-round to startle the commandant. I don’t remember what happened but after the festival was over, I was sharing a bagel with the commandant when all of the sudden a train roared out of nowhere and the commandant pushed me out of the way, saving my life. The next thing I knew a bunch of us were on a train (maybe the same one) and either I or someone else asked, “Where are we going?” and someone replied, “Nowhere, we’re just going.” Then I woke up.

Mondo bizzaro.

I once heard the Dalai Lama say, “Don’t put too much confidence in dreams.”

I’m not sure what he meant by that, but I took it literally. Many people do place great significance on interpreting and analyzing dreams. Freud was one. Edgar Cayce was another. Some people think both were quacks. I know that things we see or experience in our wakened state often suggest the dreams we dream, but I’ve always felt that trying to attach any importance to them is like being on that train in my dream, a ride to nowhere. To me, dreams are just surreal mind movies.

In Buddhism, there are various takes on dreams and their significance. Contradictory takes to some extent, and a lot of them based on superstition and myth. For instance, in the story of the Buddha’s birth, his mother was said to have dreamed of a white elephant entering her womb. She told her husband, King Suddhodana, about it and he sent for some wise men to interpret the dream. They concluded that the dream foretold the future greatness of her soon-to-be born son. Yet, in the Sutta Nipata, (IV., 14), the Buddha advises his followers not to “foretell things from dreams or signs or stars . . . nor practice quackery.”

Dreams are produced by the mind; some believe they are linked to the unconsciousness. The Buddha taught that actually all things are created by the mind, and since the mind is riddled with illusion, waking reality is little more than a dream. As the Rashtrapala Sutra tell us,

This world is all illusion, wrapped in a dream, with no self,
no being – all things are like a mirage or the moon reflected in water.”

The notion of the world wrapped in a dream is a metaphor for ordinary deluded consciousness. A person who wakes up from the dream is a Buddha, an awakened one. However, it is not wisdom that rouses us from sleep; it is suffering. One account of the Buddha’s awakening says that the first thing he realized when he awoke was the truth of suffering.

Suffering gives us the impetus to practice, while wisdom comes as a result of practice. Waking from a dream is what one Buddhist teacher has called the theme of the meditation path.

Life is a dream not in the sense that our perceived reality is a complete illusion like in a fantasy, but rather that our perceptions, our senses, and our ordinary disposition deceive and confuse us as to the true nature of reality. Thought constructions and feelings give rise to suffering.

When we do wake up and see the true reality, we should understand that in the ultimate sense there is no intrinsic difference between our “dreams” and “awakening.” As Zen Master Dogen noted in Muchu Setsumu (“On the Dream within a Dream”), “Therefore, all things, both in a dream state and in an awakened one, are manifestations of the Truth.”

Each merely reflects a different aspect of the same reality. Two sides of the same coin.

I think what the Dalai Lama was implying when he said don’t put too much confidence in dreams, is that we would be better off placing our confidence in dharma, in practice, in the potential of awakening that is always present within the mind. In the practice of Buddhism, the great challenge is to practice in the face of great difficulty and to develop a deep confidence to meet whatever happens in our lives. This means also to have confidence in our mind, for while it is the source of delusion and suffering, it is also the starting place for wisdom and awakening. Instead of trying to fathom the things produced by the mind, it is far better to fathom the mind itself.

Buddhas of the past were just people who understood the mind.”

– Son (Zen) Master Chinul


Zen Scandal, Zen Practice

In recent years, revelations of long-standing sexual misconduct on the part of several Zen teachers have shaken the Zen community. The most recent, involving 105-year-old Joshu Sasaki, founder and head abbot of the Mount Baldy Zen Center, here in California has more or less erupted into an online firestorm.

Over the past month, I’ve read many of the blog posts dealing with the Sasaki issue and I’ve read quite a few of the comments to those posts. It is a difficult problem, and without a doubt, sexual misconduct by those in a position of leadership or authority is wrong.

From the material posted online I’ve seen the ethical approach, the organizational policy approach, the clinical psychology approach, and from Stephen Batchelor, a sort of historical approach. This week, things got pretty nasty, when several Zen teachers starting sniping at one another. I’ve seen precious little of the dharma approach, the faith and practice approach.

I can’t help but feel this is a mistake, one that does Zen folk, their tradition, and the Buddhist community at large, a huge disservice. Unless I’ve missed it, there hasn’t been any discussion about how this issue could be an opportunity for all to deepen their practice and understanding of Buddhism. Except for one or two people, I really haven’t seen anyone talk about taking responsibility, and to my mind, everyone in this situation should be responsible to some extent, if only for contributing to the creation of a climate where misbehavior could take place, and for allowing it to continue. After all, they built it, together.

From my understanding, Buddhism teaches that no one is allowed to escape accountability for anything. Both victimizer and victim must assume responsibility – the victimizer for his or her wrongful behavior, and the victim for the internal cause that drew them to such an experience.

It seems to me that the women preyed-upon are not the only victims here. Everyone in the community is a victim because the situation has had such a wide-ranging negative effect. So, I direct my comments today to that aspect.

There is both an internal and external cause* for every experience. Why did we have to meet a person who would mistreat us? An internal cause help put us in that situation. We can call it a potential or a disposition planted in the psyche of the individual, or we might call it temperament. According to Helen Fisher, Ph.D., writing for Psychology Today several years ago about the ‘laws of chemistry’ that help determine who people find themselves attracted to, “[It] is now believed that 50 percent of variance in personality is due to “temperament”—our predisposition to think and act in certain ways. Cross-cultural surveys, brain imaging studies, population and molecular genetics, twin studies—all suggest that the traits of temperament are universal and tied to our genetic makeup.”

If we are drawn to certain types of people, in both matters of the heart, and for other relationships, then it would seem to follow that we are also drawn to certain situations and experiences, and even though this temperament has a genetic link, that doesn’t mean that it’s set in stone.

If there is no self-reflection, no recognition of an internal cause, but instead, only blame towards another party (no matter how justifiable), then there is no real possibility of changing the fundamental suffering. External changes may help, but in the long run they are somewhat cosmetic. After self-reflection, there should be the vow or determination to change the internal cause, to modify our temperament, to transform. Then, most crucial of all, is to take action, to use practice to overcome the suffering.

Kunzang Pelden, one of the great scholar-monks of Tibet, called it “the strength of remedial practice.” The spirit of taking responsibility for everything that happens to us, regardless of our lack of culpability or distance from the situation, should lead us to this strength. If we are truly Buddhist, then we must truly believe in a dharmic solution.

And this is what I have not yet seen in all the online discussion over this issue. Next to nothing about how to use the practice of Buddhism to overcome the suffering. If meditation is only for calming the mind, and not also for the development of wisdom, and for understanding how to apply that wisdom to every problem of daily life, whether it be an individual or group problem, then, I say an opportunity has been missed. It’s a waste of time to follow a philosophy and not use it.

But, it’s certainly not up to me to tell anyone how to conduct their affairs, especially a community that I am not a part of, and yet at the same time, sometimes outsiders can offer a fresh, objective point of view. And, they are discussing the issue publicly. No one has asked my opinion, but if they did, I would suggest that perhaps there’s been enough of the clinical talk, the discussion of authority and who’s a Zen teacher and who’s not, and certainly enough of the misguided parodies and taking umbrage. Perhaps, it’s time for dharma.

This reminds me of something the Dalai Lama said in Los Angeles in 1997,

Given that dharma is like a medicine of the heart and mind, one must utilize it in the correct manner. When we are ill, we use medication and the medication is aimed at not only eliminating the symptoms but also by getting at the root of the conditions that cause the illness. Similarly, we should be able to use the dharma at the right instance, when it is needed the most, through constant self-awareness, mindfulness, and self-investigation. When one confronts a situation where, within the mind, there is any possibility of even an inkling of an arousal of negative emotions or non-virtuous thoughts – it is at that moment the dharma should be able to counter-act these disruptive forces.

Because negative action is an expression of the negative motivation or negative states of mind, if you are able to apply dharma at the right instance, before it becomes expressed in negative action, then you will be able to deal with it at that time. Otherwise one’s practice will become as [one] master said, “sometimes for some people, the dharma can only been seen when things are fine.” There is a verse that reads that some can only be a practitioner when their stomach is full and everything is like sunshine, but the moment he or she encounters a crisis, the dharma goes out the window and they are complaining and blaming everybody and they act worse than someone who has no belief in dharma practice. This is not how we should do.”


* The concept of internal or primary cause (Jp. nyo ze in) comes from the “Ten Suchnesses” of T’ien-t’ai Buddhism, based on a passage in the 2nd chapter of the Lotus Sutra where ten categories of all reality are presented: “That is to say, all existence has such a form (nyo se so), such a nature (nyo ze sho), such an embodiment (nyo ze tai), such a potency (nyo ze riki), such a function (nyo se sa), such a primary cause (nyo se in), such a secondary cause (nyo ze en), such an effect (nyo ze ka), such a recompense (nyo ze ho), and such a complete fundamental whole (nyo ze honmak-kukyoto).” [The Threefold Lotus Sutra, Bunno Kato]


Beginner’s Mind

I have written about beginner’s mind before, and I hope long-time readers will excuse me if I delve into this subject again, but it is on my mind as I noticed that today is the anniversary of Shunryu Suzuki’s death in 1971.

Suzuki’s book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is a great Buddhist classic. Immediately accessible, rich, and cuts through the crap clearly and succinctly. I checked it out of the library a few years after it was published, bought a copy soon thereafter, lost it, bought another copy later on, and lost that one, too. It’s strange, because I don’t normally lose books. I have kept a few books longer than some of you reading this have been alive. In any case, ZMBM has meant a lot to me. I am not a Zen Buddhist and yet I have gleaned so much about the spirit of Buddhism from this collection of Suzuki’s dharma talks.

It was not until I got my third copy, sometime in the 1990’s, that I was really began to appreciate the spirit of beginner’s mind. In the prologue, Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” We live in a world where there are experts around every corner, but very few beginners.

Cover featuring Suzuki’s calligraphy of “shoshin.”

In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.”

Shoshin literally means “original intention; initial resolution.” The Chinese character shin, as some of you may know, means “mind.” It’s very easy to lose our beginner’s mind, to think we’ve got it made, that we know what’s what. But a person who has held on to his or her beginner’s mind, no matter how many years they’ve been practicing, is continually confronted with what they don’t know, frequently kicked out of their comfort zone. If Buddhism doesn’t challenge us, then we’re not doing it right.

Nikkyo Niwano (1906–1999) understood the spirit of beginner’s mind. He was one of the founders and first president of the Rissho Kosei Kai, a lay organization based on the Lotus Sutra. Niwano wrote in his autobiography that one day he was leaving the house to go to work when his three year old granddaughter said to him, “Grandfather, are you going to join the Kosei-kai again?” He replied, “Yes, I’m going to join again today.” He wrote that the exchange reminded him of “the importance of preserving, always, the freshness of the emotional impact I experienced when I first encountered the Lotus Sutra . . . I knew I would be busy again that day, but my heart was full of morning.”

Later he famously summed it up with these words: “I am beginning today. I am a lifetime beginner.”

The first person to use the expression “beginner’s mind” was Tanken ((711-782), a Tendai priest. Evidently, this soon became a popular term as it is well known within not only Zen Buddhism but also Japanese martial arts. Centuries later, Zen master Dogen, who began as a Tendai priest himself, was very impressed with the idea of beginner’s spirit. It’s said that shoshin was one of his favorite terms. In Bendowa, he wrote, “Because practice within realization occurs at the moment of practice, the practice of beginner’s mind is itself the entire original realization.”*

Beginner’s mind is a treasure of the mind, a jewel as precious as bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. The beginner’s mind is empty, open, forever learning and developing. All the truly great and authentic teachers I’ve had said the same thing, albeit with different words: always go back to the prime point, don’t forget to return to the fundamentals, never lose your seeking spirit, no matter how far you go just remember to start over at the beginning . . .

In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

May your mind always be a beginner’s mind, and may your heart always be full of morning.


*Bendowa (Tanahashi 2004)


Who’s Missing the Point?

Owen Flanagan is a professor of philosophy at Duke University who just published a book entitled, “The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized” (MIT, 2011). According to the publisher:

Atheistic when it comes to a creator god, Buddhism is otherwise opulently polytheistic, with spirits, protector deities, ghosts, and evil spirits. Its beliefs include karma, rebirth, nirvana, and nonphysical states of mind. What is a nonreligious, materially grounded spiritual seeker to do?”

I doubt that such a person will be helped much by Flanagan, who seems like a pretty confused guy to me. I have to wonder about someone who feels that the Mahayana concept of nirvana is “hocus pocus.” To me, concerns of this nature are literary in nature, a matter of understanding how the writers of the sutras used imagery and allegory. Just because they wrote about bodhisattvas flying on lotus leaves doesn’t mean they intended it to be taken literally.

Now I haven’t read Flanagan’s book, but I’ve read about it and read the first pages on Amazon. That’s enough for me to get his general thesis and I find it a bit flawed. Buddhism is already naturalized. If you choose to view it that way.

I also read a piece Flanagan wrote for the Huffington Post. In “Bourgeois Buddhists: Do Americans Miss the Point of Buddhism?” he inflicts these astounding words upon the unsuspecting reading public:

Buddhism has about as little to do with meditation as Jesus’s message of love has to do with prayer, which is some, not entirely nothing; but almost nothing. Thinking that meditation is the essence of Buddhism would be akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking that real Catholics say Mass everyday because priests do.”

Acutally, thinking that meditation is not the essence of Buddhism, just because Asian Buddhists, at least in modern times, do not practice meditation as much as many Americans suppose, is akin to a group of converts to Catholicism thinking . . .

Granted, we in the West may be have our own misapprehension about Asian Buddhists, but by putting the focus back on meditation as the prime point, I think we are “naturalizing” Buddha-dharma. I see the problem as entirely the other way around: most Westerners tend to approach Buddhism from the philosophical angle first, and when it doesn’t make sense at first blush or match up to their preconceived notions, if there are a few T’s uncrossed and I’s undotted, they are quick to dismiss or start poking holes in it. I have described many times on this blog how such concepts as rebirth and karma can be viewed reasonably and non-supernaturally. It’s there, if you want it. It’s really up to you.

Flanagan says,

One wonders whether American Buddhists, especially those who think that Buddhism is largely about meditation, and the personal psychological goods, the self-satisfaction on offer from sitting in, what has become, a laughably bourgeois pose, aren’t missing something essential about Buddhism, about what Buddhist philosophy is mainly and mostly about, namely, wisdom and goodness.”

No, what’s laughable is a professor of philosophy and a non-Buddhist who thinks that spending a few hours with the Dalai Lama and reading some books and research papers (and who thinks that “mindfulness” meditation is “almost entirely self-centered”) qualifies him to point out how the rest of us have somehow missed the point.

I’ve done some looking around online and I’ve seen where Flanagan talks a lot about recent research on the brains of Buddhists, but I haven’t seen him talk about his own experience with Buddhism and meditation. Perhaps he does so in his book. But I have a whole slew of other books to read first. I did see where “Flanagan argues Buddhism matters not just for practical reasons, but for philosophical ones.” Perhaps I am wrong, but it seems to me that he’s suggesting that the philosophical aspects are the main thing, and I can’t believe that anyone with a real grasp on dharma would think that.

I can’t help but feel that perhaps he’s missed the point. The philosophy is just there to support the practice. It’s the practice, that “bourgeois” practice of meditation, that is the prime point. That’s how we open our minds to wisdom and goodness on a deep, intuitive level.

Crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s is not as important as capturing the spirit of Buddha-dharma. That’s another point that many people seem to miss. If you want to read a good book about Buddhism, I recommend “Stopping and Seeing: A Comprehensive Course in Meditation“, Thomas Cleary’s partial translation of the Mo Ho Chih Kuan by T’ien-t’ai meditation master Chih-i.  It’s not the easiest book in the world to understand, but even if you get only a fraction of it, you will come far closer to capturing the spirit of Buddhism than you probably could reading a hundred books like Flanagan’s.

Here’s a quote from “Stopping and Seeing” that I’ve shared before. I’ll probably share it again many more times:

The second issue is explaining this stopping and seeing (Skt.: samatha-vipassana; Ch.: chih-kuan) so as to promote four kinds of concentration by which to enter the ranks of enlightening beings. One cannot ascend to the sublime states without practice; if you know how to churn, only then can you obtain ghee.

The Lotus Scripture says, “Aspirants to Buddhahood cultivate various practices, seeking enlightenment” There are many methods of practice . . . The general term concentration means tuning, aligning, and stabilizing.

The Great Treatise [Nagarjuna’s “Great Transcendent Wisdom Treatise”] says, “Ability to keep the mind on one point without wavering is called concentration.” The realm of reality is one point; correct seeing [kuan] can stay on it without wavering . . .

This realm of reality is also called enlightenment, and it is also called the “inconceivable realm.” It is also called wisdom, and it is also called not being born and not passing away. Thus all phenomena are not other than the realm of reality; hearing of this nonduality and nondifference, do not give rise to doubt.

If you can see in this way, this is seeing the ten epithets of Buddhas. When seeing Buddha, one does not consider Buddha as Buddha; there is no Buddha to be Buddha, and there is no Buddha-knowledge to know Buddha. Buddha and Buddha-knowledge are nondualistic, unmoving, unfabricated, not in any location yet not unlocated, not in time yet not timeless, not dual yet not nondual, not defiled, not pure. This seeing Buddha is very rarefied; like space, it has no flaw, and it develops right mindfulness.

Seeing the embellishments of Buddha is like looking into a mirror and seeing one’s own features. First you see one Buddha, then the Buddhas of the ten directions. You do not use magical powers to go see Buddhas; you stay right here and see the Buddhas, hear the Buddhas’ teaching, and get the true meaning . . . You guide all beings toward nirvana, yet do not grasp the characteristics of nirvana . . .


A Postcript on Faith

Hsin, the Chinese character for "faith" does not imply mere belief, but confidence that comes from firsthand experience.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no question that Dogen is one of the premier Buddhist teachers from the past. Not everyone has the same opinion, but that’s their problem.

One thing that I always find rather puzzling, though, is that even within the school Dogen founded, Soto Zen, it seems there is some resistance to, or exception taken with his notion that “just sitting” is the path to awakening, equal to enlightenment. I can’t believe that he meant it to be taken literally, but then I am no expert on Dogen’s teachings, and I’m not even a Zen Buddhist, so I may not know what I am talking about.

But I do know that early in his life, Dogen pondered this question: if one undertakes Buddhist practice with the hope of attaining enlightenment, then after one has achieved that goal why is it necessary to continue to practice? The answer he arrived at was that practice (zazen or meditation) and enlightenment were identical (shusho ichinyo, literally “practice and enlightenment are one’).

In the Introduction to “Moon in a Dewdrop”, a collection of Dogen’s writings, Kazuaki Tanahashi says,

There is a tendency to view enlightenment as separate from practice and to seek some splendid insight as the goal of Zen practice. Dogen teaches that this is an illusion. One must fully understand the wholeness of practice and enlightenment. Dogen describes this understanding as mastery of Buddhism or the “true dharma eye.” It is freedom from a dualistic frame of mind.

Enlightenment as actualization of buddha nature through practice is Dogen’s fundamental teaching. All his discourses are intended to help students “understand” the meaning of this practice-enlightenment. But understanding is not the final goal; continuous everyday practice is the ultimate goal.

Dogen was a Tendai priest so it is certainly reasonable to assume that the teachings of T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i had some influence on his thinking. In the  Fa-hua Hsuan-i or “Hidden Meaning of The Lotus Sutra”, Chih-i is quoted as saying, “No affairs of life or work are in any way apart from the ultimate reality.” He, in turn, was influenced by Nagarjuna, who wrote in the Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra, “The ultimately real nature of the knowledge of all forms (sarvakarajnata), the ultimately real nature of the tathagata, all this is one reality, not two, not divided. When the bodhisattva realizes this reality (tatha) he is called the Tathagata.”

Tathagata is an epithet for the Buddha, meaning “one who has thus gone.” Tatha refers to “suchness” which is “the undifferentiated whole of things, the ultimate reality, it is the nature of all things.” (Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms) A tathagata then is someone who has entered deeply into the realization of  ultimate nature. There is no separation between this reality and the individual or any activity carried out by any individual, and you can carry that to say that everything is enlightenment or as the Diamond Sutra says, “Everything is Buddha.”

Because reality does not exist in separate parts but is actually a cohesive whole, Dogen said that practice is enlightenment, and I think he well understood, as I mentioned previously, that enlightenment is not a destination,  it’s a process, a path itself. Dogen “repeatedly emphasizes the interpenetration of practice and enlightenment. ‘Practice’ here means ongoing daily activity centered in [meditation]. ‘Enlightenment’ is actualization of buddha nature through practice.” (Tanahashi)

How else can one actualize buddha nature if not by practice? Since it is an intuitive process, you can’t do it by reading a book, watching a video, listening to a podcast or even thinking about it.

In reference to yesterday’s post, we could say that, within Buddhism, faith is practice. This kind of faith is not a passive thing, it’s dynamic. “Just sitting” is not just sitting, for meditation is dynamic. For instance, if the results of the study I blogged about last week are to be believed, meditation changes our brain structures. That’s not just squatting on a cushion.

Going further, faith is enlightenment, if by faith we mean the trust and confidence that helps us maintain continuous everyday practice.  Unfortunately, words like faith come with a lot of baggage, which is why I am often inclined to use the Asian words for these terms. If we talk about shraddha, the Indian word, or the Chinese hsin (Jp.: shin), these are word-sounds that are new to our ears and not loaded with a lot of images that only fog up our minds and make it difficult to grasp a new understanding for an old word.

Buddhahood may seem to be a grand ideal or a goal far off on the horizon of the future, however, faith in Buddhism means understanding that it is only a mirage. Buddhahood exists nowhere else except where we are right now. Putting one’s “faith” into action means practicing, through which we uncover the awakened nature that we have always had, and through our continuous practice we are continually becoming Buddhas.