A Few Notes for The Time Being

I read a nice article about novelist and Zen priest Ruth Ozeki yesterday. The piece, written by Terrence Petty of the AP, gives us a glimpse into Ozeki’s life story, her introduction to Zen, and a short description of her last novel A Tale For The Time Being, which was a finalist in 2013 for the Man Booker Prize. The title of her book comes from an essay by Dogen on time titled Uji, often translated as “The Time-Being.”

ruthozeki-2I don’t know Ruth Ozeki, but I know a little about her. For instance, as Petty points out, her “spiritual companion is a Zen master named Dogen. Dead for nearly 800 years, when you listen to Ozeki, you know he’s there.”

Sorry to say that I have not heard her or read her novels . . . yet. I do plan to start learning more about Ruth Ozeki by further exploring her “Web World” at Ozekiland.

I am not a Zen Buddhist, but that doesn’t stop me from being a big fan of Dogen, too. Fan is not the right word, but you know what I mean.

I wrote about Dogen just the other day, and quite a few other times, as well. You can read those posts by clicking here or on the name Dogen in the tag cloud on the sidebar.

I have an old notebook full of random notes and copied quotes about Buddhism and meditation; it dates from 2001 and there is one note that I didn’t really get at the time I jotted it down, but in recent years has stirred my murky depths of my mind.

bielefeldtThe notation is marked simply Bielefeldt –. I am sure it refers to Professor Carl Bielefeldt who “specializes in East Asian Buddhism, with particular emphasis on the intellectual history of the Zen tradition.” He’s also the author of Dogen’s Manuals of Zen Meditation. I don’t recall reading that book, and I don’t believe I have ever attended a lecture given by him, but maybe I have. Perhaps I read it in article or interview, or heard on the Internet or television. Could be just something I heard someone say. It doesn’t matter. The note says,

According to Dogen, the practice of Zazen [meditation] was not of an ordinary human trying to be a Buddha, but a Buddha expressing himself as an ordinary person.”

Think about it.

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The Mummy Returns

My post on March 2nd about Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu would have had more context if today’s post had preceded it. I meant to post this piece the previous Friday, but the deaths of Ruth Denison, Leonard Nimoy, and Avijit Roy changed my plan, and then I forgot that I had not posted it.

In any case, a few weeks ago I blogged about the mummified remains found in Mongolia of a man thought to be about 200 years old whom researchers believe might be a Buddhist monk who died while meditating as he appears to be sitting in the lotus position. The connection between that, Kukai and his concept of sokushin jobutsu, is that there has been some speculation that the Mongolian mummy is an example of the Japanese practice known as sokushinbutsu or self-mummification, known to have occurred between the 12th and early 20th centuries. Twenty-four self-made mummies have been discovered in Yamagata Prefecture, all individuals who belonged to the Shingon sect, of which Kukai was the founder.

Statue and CT scan imageBefore going any further, let me lay some more mummy news on you: it has been widely reported that a 1000-year-old Buddhist statue after subjected to CT scans appears to contain the mummified remains of a Chinese monk. The scans also show scraps of paper with Chinese characters written on them where the mummy’s internal organs should have been. Some reports indicate the remains belong to Liu Quan, a meditation master, and it is thought that he, too, went thought the process of self-mummification.

The two recent mummies were found in Mongolia and China, so the connection to Japan might be that Kukai learned of the practice when he visited China and brought back with him. The similarity between the two terms, sokushinbutsu and sokushin jobutsu is obvious. Self-mummified Buddhists are traditionally considered to be “living Buddhas” and in Mongolian Buddhism it is maintained that that senior lamas whose bodies have been preserved are not really dead. Broadly speaking, we can say that becoming a Buddha with this body is like becoming a living Buddha.

I mentioned in the 3/2 post that soku means becoming, shin is mind/body, and butsu is buddha: become buddha mindbody. The term can also be interpreted as “attaining Buddhahood in this very existence.”

Kukai was not the only Japanese Buddhist to promote sokushin jobutsu. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counterpart, founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept when they trained in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism. Kukai used as a source for his treatise on the subject a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (thought to be apocryphal), which contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable in the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).

In the 13th century, Dogen, who established the Japanese Soto school of Zen after studying Caodong Ch’an in China, also taught a variation of this concept, sokushin zebutsu or “mind itself is buddha.” In his work “Sokushin-zebutsu” he wrote, “The mind correctly transmitted means that one mind is all dharmas and all dharmas are one mind.” As Dogen had been initially trained in Tendai, I see a correlation there with the philosophy of Tendai predecessor, T’ien-t’ai Chih-i of China and his i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen).

The difference between Kukai and Dogen is that the former, a tantric Buddhist tended to emphasize mystic experience as the way to become awakened in this life, while the latter focused on the more routine process of cultivation, the method of realizing buddha-mind, which is rigorous meditation practice.

Now, in some of these teachings, and in others where the idea of attaining enlightenment in one lifetime is floated, they don’t really mean one lifetime but three although I don’t recall exactly how that was worked out. However, in the modern application of all this, the point to focus on is that becoming a buddha is not realizing some supra-mundane state of being. Huang Po, a Ch’an master during the Tang Dynasty, said “The Way is your everyday mind.” The Way is Buddha, and our everyday mind, our everyday body, our everyday life, is Buddha.

I wrote about Dogen and sokushin zebutsu in a 2012 post, noting “This line of thought breaks down the traditional notion that it take many lifetimes to attain Buddhahood. It brings awakening into the present, into the here and now.”

The piece is titled This Mind Itself. As I looked at the post earlier today, I couldn’t help but notice that the image I created for the piece bears some small resemblance to the image of the CT scan above.

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Giving Up

Some people still consider Chogyam Trungpa a great teacher. I have never understood why. Trungpa was a teacher in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and highly controversial. I’ve always felt that he used (abused) the Tibetan concept of “crazy wisdom” so that he could misbehave. (I blogged about one notorious incident here.)

But recently ran across this Trungpa quote and I liked it:

In order to become Buddha you either have to give up the idea of Buddha or give up the idea of you.”

This is one of those paradoxical statements Buddhism is famous for, and it’s similar to the Zen saying, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

I would take it a step further, though, and suggest that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of you. There is no “or” about it.  To surrender both is crucial. What’s more, you probably have to give up the idea of becoming a Buddha, too.

In my opinion, one of the critical first steps on the path is to rid ourselves of the notion that Buddha is someone or something outside of our own lives. The real Buddha is the inner one. We need to “kill” or give up our tendency to form attachments to external objects, and therefore, it is important that we not turn Buddha, awakened beings, or even awakening itself, into opportunities for grasping.

The concept of you is already a prime opportunity for grasping.  Buddhism teaches that the concept of “self” is the root of suffering. You, me, the ego, self-being – all are simply designations for something falsely imagined.

The you that you think you must promote and protect is not the real you, rather the real you is the Buddha within. It’s a bit more complicated, but that’s the gist of it.

And with this understanding, we begin to realize that so many of the Buddhist statements that we may shake our heads at and classify as just some sayings riddled with paradox, actually point to an objective reality that is highly paradoxical.

You must give up you to find the real you. That’s a logic that is sometimes hard to wrap our minds around, but we would do well to put some effort into it.

Dogen put it this way:

To study the Way is to study the Self. To study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment goes on forever and ever.” *

When I read passages like the one above, I think to myself, “I know this so well.” Then I observe my own behavior and see how I have forgotten the principle so easily. I find that I must keep trying to improve – one thing I can’t afford to give up.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Hee-Jin Kim, Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, Simon and Schuster, 2004, 125

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A Day with Three Mornings

New Years is a time when many people still make “resolutions,” even while most of them know that they will manage to keep only a few of them, if any at all. I’ve always liked what the English sculptor and artist, Henry Moore once said, “I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the years’.”

calvin-hobbes-new-years-resolutions2And I also like the Tibetan word for “new year,” which is losar. Lo is “year, age”; sar “new, fresh”. So despite that a new year is just a turn of the page on the calendar, it can be a time for fresh beginnings. New is merely something not previously known, but fresh is not old or spoiled; fresh is pure and clean. We should strive to make this new calendar year a fresh year.

The Buddha asked his followers to consider this question, “What, when I do it, will lead to my long-term well-being and happiness?” If some behavior or way of thinking is not helping someone find well-being and happiness, then of course, it should changed.  The importance of having the ability to consciously direct and manifest change in our lives cannot be overstated.  Change is good, and in recognizing its great benefit, we can say that every day is a new year. Every day is a fresh start. Every day is a time for resolutions, a time to embrace change.

As far as New Years the holiday is concerned, most Buddhist countries celebrate the New Year according to the Chinese calendar. It coincides with Lunar New Year (last year January 31 and this year February 19). An exception is the Japanese Buddhist schools who tend to observe New Years on December 31. However, this is a relatively new tradition, only in place since 1873, when five years after the Meiji Restoration, Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar. Prior to that, Japanese Buddhists celebrated the Lunar New Year.

And that was certainly the case in the 13th century, when in the first day of 1241 at Kosho-horinji Temple in the Uji district of Yoshu, Eihei Dogen, the Tendai priest who had brought the teachings of the Chinese Caodong school (Soto Zen) to Japan, entered the assembly hall and gave the following talk, which along with 531 others has been preserved in Eihei Koroku (“Eihei or Dogen’s Extensive Record”) and translated by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura.*

They have titled the talk “The Advantage of New Years” and explain that the phrase “Lost the advantage” means “that the speaker did not express the Dharma as fully as the monk in this dialogue, and was bettered by the monk.”

Today is the beginning of a new year [1241], and also a day with three mornings. I say three mornings because it is the beginning of the year, beginning of the month, and the beginning of the day.

dogen01Here is a story. A monk asked Jingqing Daofu, “Is there Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year or not?”

Jingqing said, “There is.”

The monk asked, “What is the Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year?”

Jingqing said, “New Year’s Day begins with a blessing, and the ten thousand things are completely new.”

The monk said, “Thank you, teacher, for your answer.”

Jingqing said, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”

A monk asked Mingjiao Zhimen Shikuan, “Is there Buddha Dharma

at the beginning of the new year, or not?”

Mingjiao said, “There is not.”

The monk said, “Every year is a good year, every day is a good day; why isn’t there [Buddha Dharma in the beginning of the new year]?”

Mingjiao said, “Old man Zhang drinks, and old man Li gets drunk.”

The monk said, “Great Elder, [you are like] a dragon’s head and snake’s tail.”

Mingjiao said, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”

The teacher Dogen said: [Both teachers] say the same, “This old monk today lost the advantage.”

Hearing such a story many people say, “These are good stories about [teachers] losing advantage [in a dialogue].” This mountain monk [Dogen] does not at all agree. Although Jingqing and Mingjiao speak of one loss, they do not yet see one gain. Suppose somebody were to ask me, Kosho, if there is Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year, or not.

I would say to them: There is.

Suppose the monk responded, “What is the Buddha Dharma at the beginning of the new year?”

This mountain monk would say to him: May each and every body, whether staying still or standing up, have ten thousand blessings.

Suppose the monk said, “In that case, in accordance with this saying, I will practice.”

This mountain monk would say to him: I, Kosho, today have advantage after advantage.

Now please practice.

– – – – – – – – – –

* from Dogen’s Extensive Record: A Translation of the Eihei Koroku, Eihei Dogen, translation by Taigen Dan Leighton & Shohaku Okumura, Wisdom Publications Inc,  2010

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Expecting Realization

As many of you know, Dogen was a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist, the founder of Soto Zen. I am not a Zen Buddhist, yet I am. Just like I am a Tibetan Buddhist, but then I’m not.  But you don’t have to Zen to be familiar with his Shobogenzo, “Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma”, a collection of ninety-five essays on the dharma. Lessen known, outside of the Zen tradition, is the Shinji Shobogenzo, essentially a collection of 300 koans. A koan can be a story, dialogue, question, or statement, they are often paradoxical, and often an object of meditation.

chinese-bamboo1dOne koan goes like this:

A student once asked the Zen master Tsui Wei, “What is the essence of Buddha-dharma.” They happened to be in the lecture hall where there were other monks around. Tsui Wei said, “I’ll tell you later on, when there is no one is around.”

In the afternoon, when the two were finally alone, Tsui Wei, “Now that we are by ourselves, I can tell you the essence of Buddha-dharma.” Tsui Wei took the student outside and pointed at the bamboo growing in the garden. “See?” said Tsui Wei. “Here is a tall bamboo. And over there, a short one.”

In his essay Yui Butsu Yo Butsu, “On ‘Each Buddha on His Own, Together with All Buddhas’,” Dogen wrote,

Buddha-dharma cannot be known by ordinary people. This is why since ancient times no ordinary person has realized Buddha-dharma . . . Because Buddha realized awakening all by himself, he said that each Buddha on his own, together with all Buddhas, has been able to fully realize It.

When you realize awakening, you do not think “This is awakening just as I expected.” Even if you think it is, awakening always differs from your expectation. Awakening is not like your conception of it. Therefore, you cannot realize awakening as you previously conceived. In Buddha-dharma you do not know how awakening has come as it has. This is something to reflect upon: What you think one way or another before your realization of awakening is not an aid to realization.

Now, I am sure you understand the story about the bamboo.

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