Field Trip

Abbys Buddha drawing


Abby’s 4th grade class recently took a field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the Japanese Buddhist Garden, the students were asked to draw what they saw. In the foreground of the garden there were lots of leaves and foliage. Deep in the garden, there was a statue of the Buddha. Most of the other kids in the class drew the leaves. Abby drew the Buddha. She said that it reminded her of me. I couldn’t be more flattered.

What she wrote next to the picture was pure Zen. She wrote: The statue of Buddha is in the meditation Buddhist Temple and I believe it symbolizes peace and calmness, but it may not be calm at all.

Buddha looks calm, but he may not be calm at all. That is his mind. How could we know?

I asked Abby what she meant by he may not be calm at all. She said that he may be pretending to be calm, but he is really thinking other things.

That is the heart of Zen. You may be calm or thinking, sometimes even both. I think the Buddha was calm, especially in his statuesque rock form, but Abby’s interpretation was just right. He may be thinking. Buddha did that.


Zen 101

Zen is many things. It is the history, philosophy and practice of Zen Buddhism, and also the source of all existence. It is sitting meditation. It is a generally peaceful state of mind. It is also a word that rhymes with ten, hen, then, when and again. It is nothing at all.

As the source of all existence, Zen encompasses everything, yet Zen philosophy teaches that the source of all existence is nothing. The aim of the practice and philosophy of Zen Buddhism is to help everybody in the world to directly experience Zen, the source of all existence, nothing, and thereby end their suffering.

The practice of Zen is sitting in meditation, walking in meditation, and living in meditation. Meditation is the practice of watching your mind. Your mind is like a giant vacuum that sucks you into whatever it thinks. Sitting meditation is like dropping an anchor, so that you don’t get completely sucked into whatever you happen to be doing with your mind. There is also walking meditation which can help you get up from your seated position while maintaining your anchor. Moving from sitting to walking meditation points the way to full life meditation, which is a constant recognition that everything that is happening is happening in your mind.

The philosophy of Zen follows the teaching of the Buddha who recognized that all this stuff happening in your mind causes suffering. He, and thousands of Buddhas after him, developed the philosophy of Zen and the practice of Zen to guide you to the experience of Zen, which helps you get beyond your mind and alleviate your suffering.

The way to get beyond your mind and alleviate suffering is to meditate, watch your mind, which means living in the present moment and observing all the strange and amazing places that your mind takes you. With enough practice, you will discover the peace of mind that is Zen, and you may directly experience the source of everything which is Zen. You will delight in the simple pleasures of your mind, which includes finding rhyming words like then, when, hen, and again, Zen. There’s nothing to it.


Understanding Emptiness

If you don’t understand emptiness, then emptiness is your understanding of emptiness.

Emptiness can be viewed as the lack of a separate self. Everything is interconnected, nothing exists independently, so no entity possesses a self which is separate from the whole. Everything is empty of a self.

 Also, everything is change, so emptiness is lack of permanence.

Hopefully, this keeps you confused so that you can keep contemplating emptiness, self, interconnectedness and impermanence. Through focused contemplation of emptiness (mu) you can discover your True Nature, which, you will find, strongly resembles emptiness. 


Groundhog Day

The movie Groundhog Day (from 1993) is a romantic comedy and a Zen classic. The movie is about a weather man, Bill Murray, who gets stuck in time on Groundhog Day. Every morning he wakes up to the same day. To everybody else it is a new day, but to him it is a repeat of same day, again and again. By living the same day over and over, he finds enlightenment. Because it is a romantic comedy, enlightenment is true love.

In real time, Bill Murray probably spends 50 years reliving Groundhog Day. His goal at the beginning of the movie is to advance his career as a weather man. His goal at the end of the movie is to live life with his true love. He grew a little in those 50 years of the same day. Before he learned how to love, he had to assure himself that there were no actual consequences to his actions. At first, living without consequences sent him into a deep depression and he committed suicide everyday for several weeks. After he got death out of the way, he was able to live life, learn compassion and become lovable.

From a Zen perspective, the world of change stopped, leaving Bill Murray as the only force of change in the universe. When he tried to live in the world as he had, without changing, he became increasingly miserable. When he embraced the fact that he was capable of change, he became change. When he forgot about himself and fully engaged in the world, the world changed.

Although Groundhog Day is a twenty year old Hollywood romantic comedy, it is also a finger pointing at the moon. The moon in beautiful. Whether there is a tomorrow or not, there is a lot going on today. There is more than enough happening now to fill 50 years. There is enough to find your enlightenment.


Dunk Tank

One reason that it is hard to get comfortable in life is that we are living in a dunk tank. We live our lives sitting on a plank above a tank of water, while kid after kid lines up to toss balls at the target that will drop us into the water. Each time a kid hits the target we are surprised. We get an instant to reflect before the plank drops out from under us and we find ourselves soaking wet again. Even though we know we will fall into the water, we get attached to sitting on the plank.

Life is all about change. Change is going from the high, dry plank into the water down below. Change comes constantly and relentlessly. In building a stable life for ourselves, we try to secure our planks and make our targets smaller and smaller, but no matter what we do, the kids keep hitting the target and the plank lets us drop.

If we sit on our board and worry about falling into the water, life is torture. Things will  change, we will fall. People will come and go from our lives, we’ll gain and lose jobs, we’ll go to sleep and wake up, we’ll be happy and sad. It’s hard to know just what our planks are, until they fall out from under us. We may get upset by the way somebody looks at us or how long a checkout line is. Bang, splash, our plank lets us down again.

Becoming comfortable with the plank, the water and the fall, is the only security there is. The kids throwing the balls are having a blast. Enjoy the carnival. Kersploosh.


I Beg Your Pardon

The monks back in Buddha’s time were called beggars. That was their practice and their sustenance. Each day the beggars and the Buddha would go into the towns and beg for their daily meal. They were well respected as they begged. They didn’t beg for money because they could not eat money. They begged for food and they shared whatever they received with the community, because some got more and some got less and some were not able to make their begging rounds.

In our capitalist societies, we don’t like beggars. We believe that what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. If you want what I have, you should work hard for it and then you will both have what I have and appreciate it more because you worked for it. That’s not really true.

We are all beggars. Some of us are just better at begging than others and we are able to get more. Then we forget to share with those that are less able to beg than we are. Besides not sharing what we received through our particular style of begging, we justify not sharing by imagining that others are less deserving than us. This not sharing and looking down on people makes us uncomfortable. It’s even worse if we are in need and nobody is sharing with us. Then we may feel like people are looking down on us and we feel unworthy of receiving what they have. Whether we have, or have not, because we are beggars and don’t like beggars, we come into conflict with ourselves.

As we all beg our way through life, it is helpful to like beggars. It is wonderful to both give and receive help from those around us. Sharing, being generous, and being gracious nourishes happiness. Disliking beggars, nourishes contempt. We are all deserving of our daily meal. We are all beggars. We are all Buddha.


Seeking the Light

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the tunnel is long and bendy and you have no idea that the light is there. It’s there though. What’s even better than that, is that you can see in the dark. You never went into the tunnel to find the light, you went into the tunnel to check out the tunnel. Then you got lost in the tunnel and suddenly you were eager to see the light again. Of course the light is there. It’s always been there and always will be there. You don’t have to see it to know it’s there, but if you start to imagine that it is not there, then you may freak out and think of nothing but the light.

When the light is out of sight, you need to let your eyes adjust to the dark. The dark is where you need to be, because that is where you are. You need to walk slowly. Take in the sounds and scents. What you find in the dark will carry you to the light. It will take another moment for your eyes to adjust then too.

If it’s light it’s light. If it’s dark, it’s dark. You are alive and aware, no matter what the external conditions are. You are here. Breathe, smell, walk slowly and let your eyes adjust. There is plenty of light.


The Spirit of Zen

Although Zen is a spiritual tradition, there is nothing spiritual about Zen. There is no specific god in Zen. Buddha was a man, who found a way to live with his mind in such a way that he didn’t suffer. He then set about teaching others how to live with their minds. Living with your mind may include worshiping a god or making offerings to the dead. It may include passing from one life to the next. It may not.

The spirit of Zen is the spirit of life. It is nothing more than all of existence and nothing less. If you bow to a statue of the Buddha in your practice, it is not because Buddha is a god and you are something less, it is because you are bowing.  If you sit in meditation, you are not any closer to the spirit of the universe than when you sit on the toilet. Both of those activities are part of life.

In god fearing cultures, it is hard not to imagine a conscious power pulling strings to make things happen. Even atheists may find themselves asking the cosmos for favors in a pinch. Whether God exists or not is beyond the scope of Zen. Not knowing is the spirit of Zen. What is God? What is Buddha? What am I? Don’t know. That’s the spirit.


Comfortable Thoughts

If you are uncomfortable, you are not comfortable with your thoughts. To become comfortable, you have to change your thoughts. Changing your thoughts is not the difficult part. Thoughts change all the time. When you are uncomfortable, your thoughts are going from one uncomfortable place to the next. When this happens, it’s time for some new thoughts. The first step in finding a new set of thoughts is seeing what thoughts you already have. Looking at your uncomfortable thoughts with the hope of transforming them is already a change. When you do that, the transformation has begun.

The most comfortable thought there is, everything is going to be alright. That thought is a good thought to turn to when the opposite seems true. Another comfortable thought is, everything is alright. That’s what parents say to kids when they are in distress. It’s ok. It’s ok. That can be a comfortable thought. A more testable thought is, everything has been alright. The thoughts, everything is and will be alright tend to contradict the immediate experience of discomfort. With the thought, everything has been alright, you can look back over your life and see all the events you have survived and all the events your ancestors endured to get you to the present moment. You can see that despite so many horrific events, you have come to a moment of hope, where you are focused on becoming comfortable with your thoughts.

When you understand or believe that everything is, was and will be alright, then uncomfortable thoughts are not so uncomfortable. Circumstances will continue to test your ability to be comfortable with your thoughts. Whenever discomfort creeps into your thoughts, observe the discomfort, observe the thought. If there is a pebble in your shoe, throw it out. If your mind is pestering you, throw it out. When you look up into the sky, your thought is the sky. It’s wide open, with lots of room for thoughts. As a bird flies by, it doesn’t leave a trace in the sky. When you give your thoughts that kind of space, the thoughts pass. Everything is ok, comfortable.


Common Sense

Whatever it is that’s happening, we are constantly trying to make sense of it. There is so much going on though, that we cannot make sense of it. We try anyway. We develop an understanding that passes for sense. We compare our sense of things with other people’s sense of things and together we come up with common sense. Some aspects of our common sense are sensible, others are absurd. When we try to live our lives dutifully following the absurd aspects of common sense, we start to suffer.

We are told that if we work hard and stay in school, we will get a nice job and make plenty of money and be happy. We may do all these things, then notice that we are no happier than a person who made a Youtube video and got a gazillion views. Then common sense would tell us that fame and acknowledgement should make us happy. Then we notice that the Youtube phenom is in rehab.

Sometimes following common sense leads us to happiness, sometimes it leads us to rehab. Sometimes rehab leads us to happiness. The only common sense that can reliably lead us to happiness is our sense of taste, touch, smell, sight, sound and thought. Any two people can smell a rose and, although it will be a different experience for each of them, they will certainly experience a common scent. They will feel connected to each other and to the rose, and there will be a sense of peace in the experience.

When trying to live by society’s sense of common sense leads you into a place of suffering, you can recognize that you have been lead astray into an abyss of absurdity and bring yourself back to reality by observing your immediate surroundings through your senses. It can be a delightful bit of rehab. It’s quite sensible.