Buddhism for the new and curious

A talk given at the request of two Indian friends, to a group of psychotherapists, January 6th,2011.

When Dogen Zenji, the Japanese monk returned from China, he brought Zen Buddhism from China to Japan.

From a psychotherapeutic standpoint, you may be interested to know of his formulation of Buddhism-” To study Buddhism 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”

You might say, that in spiritual or psychological terms, the world is either your adversary, or your therapist, depending on your point of view.

When the Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, having trained in meditation under the greatest teachers of his day, 2500 years ago, he realized that “All beings have Buddha nature, it is only their delusions and attachments that prevent them from seeing it.”

So, we can see that psychology and Buddhism have a lot in common, namely, liberation of ourselves from the hindrances and blockages that so many people experience. While we all know that there is a lot of emotional distress these days in our modern society, we shouldn’t think that it is only in these times that humans faced trouble.

A questioner once asked the Buddha:

Inner tangle, outer tangle, this whole generation in a tangle, who will succeed in untangling the tangle?

If the questioner thought things were tangled up then, he had not even considered Bank statements, business and professional licenses, investment schemes, and geopolitical politics! Or nuclear meltdowns.

The Buddha answered by saying, the person who, with determination and wisdom works on it, that person will untangle the tangle.

But the question then arises, “How do we go about this”?

And what is the thing we can Zen? Zen has become nowadays a term associated with trendy fashion statements. I saw a poster in the Taiwan Airport, saying “Find your Zen”, they were selling some fashion item.

But actually, Zen comes from the Chinese word Chan. And Chan comes from the Sanskrit word, Dhyana, which means “meditation”. Thus the Zen school of Buddhism emphasizes the practice of meditation to achieve the goal of spiritual and psychological freedom. Strictly speaking, as such, it uses, but does not depend on words, books, etc.

One time, the Buddha was in front of the assembly of monks, nuns, and laypeople. He held up a flower. No one understood his meaning, but then his Disciple, Mahakasyapa came forward and bowed. The Buddha affirmed that their wordless exchange showed a meeting of awakened mind with awakened mind, and so Mahakasyapa became the 2nd Zen Ancestor after the Buddha Shakyamuni, so the story goes.

It is fair to say that much of this is legendary, some historically true, some made up to fill in the blanks, but nevertheless, meditation has been central to the work of spiritual freedom throughout the centuries.

Whether in the case of the many Indian saints, such as Ramana Maharshi, or the zen masters, Tibetan lamas, Daoist sages of China, and even Native American shamans, sitting crosslegged shows a common thread in those who wish to develop themselves.

Of course, crosslegged sitting is not totally necessary, as there are other practices such as the various schools of yoga, chi gong, tai chi, etc. And one of the principle common threads is that of Mindfulness, or recollection.

Why is this? because our minds are essentially out of control.  Let’s try an experiment. We’ll sit quietly for a few minutes, and starting with each breath, breath in, and on the out breath, breathe “one…then on the next out breath…two, up to ten, and then start over at “one”

———OK, so how many of you, after a short time, either lost count of your breath, or noticed other thoughts irrelevant to the exercise, creep in?

If you did, guess what………..You are normal!

Just as it is the heart’s job to pump blood, the mind’s job is to think. However, if we can learn to train our minds to think in a certain way, we will no longer be at the mercy of our thinking, feeling, and psychological and cultural conditioning.

That is why mantras are a popular form of practice in many religions. The mind is said to be like a young calf, jumping around all the time, but if we tie it to a post, it will gradually settle down and become calm.

The mindfulness exercise or recollection we practice, is the rope we use to tie it, and with patience and persistence, the many thoughts and feelings we experience, we can catalog and understand, and eventually tame our minds.

However, if you try holding a mantra or your breath in mind as you are walking down the street, driving your car, or doing other common activities, you may find that it is quite difficult to do so. While sitting with no other  activity, though, it is easier.

After about 1000 years in India, there was a certain Prince in Southern India, who, like the Buddha, also gave up his throne, and became the Indian who brought Zen Meditation practice from India to China. Up until then, Buddhism in China had been mainly scholasticism, the study of Buddhist doctrine, or the description in words of the Buddhist experience of reality, or the practice of devotional recitation of various names of Buddhist luminaries.

Bodhidharma, so he was called, used one scripture as doctrine, but also emphasized that ultimately, it is up to each of us to cultivate ourself and realize our true nature. He is spoken of as the First Patriarch, or first Ancestor of Zen in China.

The Sixth Ancestor, named Hui Neng was a good example of the concept of nonadherence to words, letters and doctrine. An illiterate woodcutter, he supported his poor mother, his father having died while he was young.

One day, he heard a monk reciting from the Diamond Sutra, a short but key text in Chinese Buddhism (incidentally, printed on woodblocks about 800 CE, and thus the first printed book) and his mind was enlightened. He inquired where the monk came from, and learned that he was a student of the 5th Ancestor. ” Due to my good karma in past lives, I heard of this teaching, and I was given ten Tael (coins) to maintain my mother, who advised him to see the 5th Ancestor.

I once asked my teacher, “Hui Neng lost his father at a young age, his mother was miserable, and he was an illiterate woodcutter, yet, on hearing the Diamond Sutra, he realized his Essence of Mind”.

I also lost my father at a young age, my mother was also miserable, but at least I had a good education. And yet, Hui Neng heard the Diamond Sutra and was immediately enlightened. While I have been beating my head against the wall these many years, trying in vain to to be enlightened. So what is the difference between Hui Neng and me?”

My teacher said, “Hui Neng heard the Diamond Sutra and was enlightened, and you have been beating your head against the wall.”

So now I think maybe for starters, I should stop beating my head against the wall, trying to attain something!

Well, anyway, I am not alone, for Hui Neng soon found that he faced serious envy from the other practitioners at the monastery, many of whom had, no doubt also studied Buddhism for years. His teacher advised him to lay low for 16 years, and he left the monastery and lived in the forest for years. However, at one point, he was being pursued by a tough soldier, General Ming,  who was seeking the return of the 5th Ancestor’s robe, which he felt was not rightfully Hui Neng’s.

He was about to overtake Hui Neng, who was hiding behind a large boulder. Hui Neng said, “the robe is only a symbol, and not worth fighting over, so if you want it, take it, and left it on a rock. But Ming, the soldier had enough presence of mind, to say, “I came for the truth.”

Hui Neng, replied that he should just sit quietly and calm his mind. And then after a time, Hui Neng said, “Now show me your Original Face, before your parents were born”.

It is sometimes used as a meditation subject “What is your original face, before your parents were born.” It is said that at that point, Ming had a breakthrough.

To do this, to break through, we must be in the here and now.  A friend and I were talking about another story the other day, about some one who was reborn for 500 lives. The story is reminiscent of the movie Ground Hog Day, where the hero of the story wakes up and has to go through the same day every day, until he finally sees why he is stuck.

Interestingly, Zen uses stories to stimulate our mind to look at things in new ways, and free ourselves from the preconceived notions that bind us.

A zen master used to give lectures periodically, a common practice, and an old man used to show up to listen. One day, the old man stayed behind. “I used to be the abbot of this temple, but because of a mistake I made, I have been reborn as a fox for 500 lives, only appearing here as human for your talks.”

So what was the problem the abbot asked? “When someone asked me about Karma, [ the law of cause and effect, as represented by “as you sow so shall you reap”], I said enlightened people are not subject to karma”. “Ok, now ask me the question, the abbot said.

“Is an enlightened man subject to karma or not?” 

“An enlightened man does not disregard Karma” retorted the abbot.

At that point, the old man was enlightened, and said that he was now released from the body of a fox.

The abbot then called the monks together and told them to prepare for a monk’s funeral. They were all puzzled since no one was even sick. So the abbot took them on a walk around the mountain and poking under a rock, found the body of a dead fox. He then told them the whole story, gave the fox a monk’s funeral.

So from a therapeutic point of view, we can look at this story and consider its meaning. Maybe it is “why do I do the same behavior over and over again?”

Why do I feel stuck in my life?

However, from a Zen point of view, if a Zen teacher gives you this story, also called a Koan, or “Public case”, and you keep this story in mind, you will probably start to see your own life story in a different way, a way that frees you from your conditioned response to it.

In other words, what we think is neurotic behavior, suddenly becomes an understandable response to perhaps some situation that we could not handle earlier in life. We can forgive ourselves for our state of mind, and more important, accept the behavior of others such as parents or spouses we didn’t get along with, but not take it personally. Likewise, if we have done things that have hurt others, through our own arrogance, greed, anger, fear or ignorance, those issues will come up so we can deal with them and (hopefully) not repeat our own mistakes.

The key point, is to not get caught up in doctrine or dogma.

As Bob Marley said,

Free yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds….

or Bob Dylan:

It’s all right Ma, it’s life and life only.

We study the self in order to forget the self, and are liberated by all things.

Suddenly, everything becomes “OK”, or “things just as they are”.

This practice, which involves becoming more intimate and gentle with ourselves, through mindful awareness and employing sitting meditation as the cutting edge of developing awareness has been used for at least 2500 years in Buddhism and certainly in many other spiritual and psychological disciplines.

Constellation therapy, gestalt therapy, Jungian therapy all have similar aspects to them.

The key is learning to see our life, just as it is, without denial or feelings of victimhood, or superiority, but in a different way, where we take responsibility for ourselves.

One useful step to take is to own our own body and mind, by taking stock, through meditation, the Zen stories, and the various sutras–Buddhist scriptures–are all useful tools, but the real work is really up to us, to untangle our own tangle.

Indeed, teachings of any kind, from Aesop’s fables, to the Bible, can serve as metaphors or lenses to gain some insight into ourselves.

It is said that the Buddha’s last words were

All concocted things disintegrate

Work out your own salvation with diligence.


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Filed under Bumbling about, Thoughts on Zen and Buddhism

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