Saturday, April 21, 2012

How to Attain Enlightenment

"Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as 'awakened.'"
--Shakyamuni Buddha, Dona Sutra

Mysteriously, we're not born enlightened. We're born with a baby's mind that gets angry, frustrated, and jealous. As we grow up, our minds expand, we learn a lot, and we seem to grow out of that behavior. However, the baby-mind is still in there, at the core, and all the new layers are simply installed on top: the child-mind, the teenage mind, the college student mind, the young adult mind, the older adult mind...
The new layers simply modify the baby impulses in order to make them look more polite or professional. When something annoying happens, the baby-mind still throws tantrums deep down. Those tantrums are now too deeply buried to be experienced or expressed directly, so they work their way up through the hierarchies of the brain and eventually come out in the form of a plan, an argument, or some kind of violence.

Unfortunately, many times these infantile emotions are so out of touch with reality that your mind can lead you to self-destructive behavior. People can turn to drugs to make themselves feel better, but they actually make their problems worse. People go to war so they can exercise their aggression, but they come back traumatized or dead. Even smart people make dumb decisions based on deeply buried emotions.

Bridging this gap between our rational understanding of reality and our irrational emotional impulses is enlightenment. When someone is enlightened, they are shining the "light" of their conscious attention into the dark corners of their mind. In one sense, this invites the inner baby out of the darkness of its own delusions and teaches it to respond appropriately to reality. In another sense, this dissolves the inner baby. Once you see that the inner baby is not needed, you stop reinforcing the bad habits and those neural pathways can eventually restructure.

The same thing can happen to all the other layers of the mind. By peering into the roots of your teen angst, your college-mind ambition, and your adult greed, you can see how irrational, self-destructive impulses start and repeat. The end goal is to foster communication between all these parts of your mind--the emotional and the rational--so that they can work together. When this happens, the mind becomes unified. A unified mind is very powerful because it is no longer wasting energy on internal conflicts.

Prior to this unification, the emotional mind exists in a dark, murky fantasy world. When it "wakes up" to reality, that is--in a practical, psychological sense--enlightenment. This may not be the mystical, exalted enlightenment of the Buddha, but it is something meaningful. At least, it is a step toward a better way of life.

What is Zen?

"Zen practice is the direct expression of our true nature.... The most important thing is to express your true nature in the simplest, most adequate way and to appreciate it in the smallest existence."
--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Seen from the outside, Zen seems to be focused on calmness, simplicity and repetition. With this perspective, we might conclude that only calm, simple, repetitive behaviors "are Zen," and we might assume that the end goal of the practice is to become calm, simple, and repetitive.

Experienced from the inside, Zen is more like an empty framework that gives you a structure in which to explore your life. Whether your initial practice of Zen appears to be calm and simple is irrelevant. To focus on the framework itself is a distraction from the important issues. It's like when kids play with the box a toy came in and forget about the toy.

If you meditate in the Zen style because you want to be "Zen," then you're playing with the packaging. If, instead, you meditate in the Zen style because you've discovered that it helps you study yourself directly and it helps you root out the obstacles to happiness, then you're using the toy. Whether you appear to be calm and simple on the outside is not the point.

For people who discover Zen in adulthood, it's important to recognize that all the emotional baggage from the past will have to be a part of their early Zen practice. It takes a while to sift through it all, so there is a period of time, perhaps a long time, where their practice of Zen does not look, superficially, like the practice of an old Zen master.

It takes time to let go of old habits and simplify thoughts. Coming into Zen after decades of social conditioning that promotes greed and competition, we have no idea how to express our "true nature in the simplest, most adequate way." The simplicity of the Zen tradition provides a structure in which to explore the move toward simplicity. Gradually, we can let go of complex thought patterns and defense mechanisms and discover that we haven't lost anything important; we've only removed the barriers to our own happiness.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Middle Way

"Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathagata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding."
--Shakyamuni Buddha, Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion

The components of the Middle Way,
a.k.a. The Eightfold Path
Buddha's path is called the middle way, because it avoids extremes of behavior or understanding. In terms of behavior, the middle way avoids the extremes of selfishness and self-denial. In other words, it's not about getting everything you want, nor is it about repressing your feelings for the sake of a spiritual ideal.

What's wrong with these extremes? It's possible to find out by looking at each extreme in your own life and seeing what it does. Maybe selfish behavior leads to stress because it alienates people you want to be friends with. Maybe idealistic behavior makes you hopeless when things don't go the way you think they should. These are just a couple of possibilities.

Recognizing those kinds of problems will eventually convince you that neither path is the best one. Then the middle way might start to sound appealing.

What is the middle way? It is a path that transcends the two extremes. It does not blend them--I don't think the middle way means spending 50% of your time being selfish and the other 50% being selfless. That would be pretty miserable, because you're still feeding your greed, you're still repressing yourself, you're still alienating people, you're still building up unrealistic expectations.

It would be far better to get to the root of the matter and resolve the problems there. Then you might actually transcend the original issues. So, what causes a selfish person to think they're better than others? What causes an idealistic person to subjugate themselves to others?

Both problems stem from the assumption that things have different priorities of importance. If you're convinced that you are a top priority, you're automatically going to become selfish. If you're convinced that ideals and values are a top priority, you're going to pour a lot of energy into them.

These assumptions can be deconstructed when you consider that nothing is absolutely real. The world is just a swirl of relationships between countless particles and systems, which themselves only exist relatively. If and when you accept this completely, you'll naturally see that it applies to people too. No one is more real than anyone else. Therefore, everyone is equal.

Any kind of behavior that does not reflect the equality of all beings is based on error, no matter how noble the intentions may be. Leaving yourself out of your own consideration leads to a partial understanding. Caring only about yourself leads to a partial understanding. Full understanding has to take everything into account.

The middle way is based on this kind of understanding. To practice the middle way, you have to see how you fit into the big picture and then act in accordance with that insight. This means entering each situation with equal respect for yourself and others. That's a very tricky line to walk, but it allows you to express yourself, your needs, and the needs of others without greed or repression. The middle way makes it possible to use your feelings and needs for good. If you have a strong conviction that the alternatives--selfishness and self-denial--are fundamentally unable to make you happy, following the middle way then becomes natural.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Stopping the Mind

"Have you ever tried living with yourself? If so, you will begin to see that yourself is not a static state, it is a fresh living thing. And to live with a living thing your mind must also be alive. And it cannot be alive if it is caught in opinions, judgments and values."
--Jiddu Krishnamurti, Freedom from the Known

Meditation provides an opportunity to notice what's really going on in your mind. Even while you're sitting still in a quiet room, your mind keeps thinking and feeling. Memories and plans pop up, the mind reacts with judgment, and then a whole storm of thought can happen spontaneously. This isn't necessarily bad. It can be an opportunity to explore and understand the structure of your mind. Understanding the inner workings of your opinions, judgments, and values is a step toward overcoming their limitations. In that sense, it can be beneficial for thoughts to arise during meditation.

I've heard some people say that they want to be able to stop their minds because all the thoughts interfere with their meditation. I've heard other people say that their inability to stop their minds must be a sign that they are not good at meditation. I've heard still other people say that they are trying meditation because they want to stop thinking.

Buddha did say that it was possible and beneficial to stop the "discriminating mind," which is the aspect of our mind that forms opinions, judgments, likes and dislikes. But he never said that the entire mind should be or could be stopped. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions can be expected to persist as long as our bodies are healthy and awake. Stopping the brain from thinking would be like stopping the eyes from seeing. The eyes make images and the brain makes thoughts. That's just what they do. How we experience those images and thoughts, however, is a great mystery of existence that we are able to explore and learn from during meditation. There's absolutely no need to vilify it.

Believing that thoughts should stop is itself a judgment, so setting out to stop the mind with this motivation actually puts energy into judgmental thinking. That's maybe why Buddha didn't encourage people to stop thinking. Instead, he encouraged his students to let go of their attachments. He said that letting go of attachments would naturally lead to the cessation of judgmental thinking.

For example, consider emotional attachments. Maybe you have a secret crush on that cute girl in class, and you despair when she doesn't talk to you. Maybe you're in a relationship, and you get angry when your partner doesn't act the way you expect. Maybe there's a coworker you dislike, and you dread having to work with them. In each case, there is an attachment to a particular state of being that doesn't actually exist: dating the cute girl, controlling your partner, avoiding the coworker.

The ego churns out a lot of thoughts and schemes in order to take control of the situation, but the control never comes, and so the thoughts just keep cycling. You can struggle in vain to suppress the thousands of thoughts that come up, but they will persist as long as the root cause remains active. The only way to quiet these thoughts is to let go of the underlying attachment. Letting go of the attachment doesn't mean neglecting the other person; it means accepting the reality in which you meet them. When there is no scheming necessary, the mind can quiet down.

What's the Deal with All the Bowing?

"Doing something is expressing our own nature. We do not exist for the sake of something else. We exist for the sake of ourselves. This is the fundamental teaching expressed in the forms we observe. Just as for sitting, when we stand in the zendo we have some rules. But the purpose of these rules is not to make everyone the same, but to allow each to express his own self most freely."
--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

As "rugged, individualistic Americans," we naturally resist the formality of Zen practice. We've grown up thinking that we're supposed to be unique, so it's not easy to start following a bunch of Zen "forms" that dictate a standard way to walk, sit, and bow. If you've gotten interested in Zen through reading and meditating on your own, you might have your own style that works pretty well, and so the extra formality practiced in a Zen center might seem off-putting.

Newcomers to the San Francisco Zen Center sometimes stand in the middle of the meditation hall, looking horrified or bewildered, when everyone starts bowing to the floor at the end of evening meditation. I had the same experience the first several times. The thoughts running through my head went something like, This is crazy. Don't drink the Kool-Aid. You're smarter than that. 

In spite of the great practical benefits I had experienced from other Zen practices, I refused to believe that the forms, especially bowing, served any purpose. Nevertheless, I stuck with the schedule to see what might come of it, and I'm glad I did.

I eventually came to appreciate the forms, including bowing, for what they are not: they are not my idea. Someone else created them and passed them down, and then other people followed them and passed them down. Now everyone learns them from someone else. It almost doesn't matter what the exact forms are. It just matters that you pick them up from someone else. This takes the ego out of its normal executive position, allowing you to experience a different, more free-spirited, way of doing things.

At first, the ego puts up a real fight. Your inner monologue fills with every excuse in the world to not follow the forms. But eventually, you see that it's okay. You manage to survive the forms. You even manage to survive the bowing. On top of that, you can enjoy yourself. You can enjoy the calmness and the clarity of the experience when you don't have to plan every little move. That's how your ego slowly learns that it's okay to let go.

You also see that you continue to be yourself, even when you're doing exactly what everyone else is doing. All of the weird behaviors that we cultivate to assert the uniqueness of our identity prove to be unnecessary--it really doesn't matter how we dress, or what music we like, or what other people think of us. At best, those superficial characteristics are just expressions of the personality that is already there. No effort is required to be yourself. This is not easy to see unless you intentionally stop trying to be unique. Then you see that you're going to be unique no matter what, and you can redirect a considerable amount of time and effort toward things that are more meaningful.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Precepts

If we lose our original self-sufficient mind, we will lose all precepts. When your mind becomes demanding, when you long for something, you will end up violating your own precepts: not to tell lies, not to steal, not to kill, not to be immoral, and so forth. If you keep your original mind, the precepts will keep themselves.
--Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

At SFZC's Young Urban Zen practice group, we often discuss the Buddhist precepts, and there seems to be wide agreement within the group that it's hard to follow them. Perhaps the biggest reason for this difficulty is that it's not clear what the precepts really mean: are they strict rules, or just suggestions to try out? Are they ideals to work toward, or the natural expression of wise understanding?

Growing up in our society, being pressured to accept the authority of teachers, police, experts, and preachers, it's easy to think of the precepts as rules that must be followed to avoid punishment or to attain some idealistic goal like salvation or enlightenment. This way of seeing the precepts probably alienates people or inspires the impulse to rebel against them. For those who decide to stick it out, taking the rule-based approach channels a lot of energy into a struggle between desires and ideals.

The big problem is that these attitudes are not self-sufficient. In both cases the focus is external: rebelling against some outside authority or seeking to conform to some outside ideal. By focusing on something outside the mind, both of these approaches distract us from the reality that we play the dominant role in shaping our own lives.

That means when there are problems, we probably created them.

Sure, there are events beyond our control that take us by surprise, but even then we have a lot of responsibility. We're responsible for our reaction. Our reaction is capable of turning a little problem into a big one, or a big problem into a huge one, and that means we still have a lot of power in these situations. We can use an obstacle or a painful situation as an excuse for giving up or doing something dishonest, in which case the problem grows, or we can stay calm and take a moment to learn from the situation, in which case it can become an opportunity in disguise. At the very least, the original problem can fizzle out without being compounded.

More importantly, there are countless actions that fall completely within our control. The consequences of these actions are entirely our responsibility, and it's misguided to look for a solution to them outside the self. If we've spent a lifetime spinning a web of "innocent" little lies to impress people, then today our social landscape will be filled with deception, secret dislike, awkwardness, and disconnection from people we want to be friends with. It's painful to admit that it's our own fault, but how else can we take charge and make improvements?

The situation is further complicated by the sheer size of this web we've been spinning--a lot of lies can be told in a lifetime. It's impossible to keep track of all of them, so we also struggle against forgetfulness, and we think someone else caused the problems. But even if we don't remember the actions that brought about our present day problems, the problems are still ours to deal with.

Getting out of this mess can begin by considering the meaning of Suzuki Roshi's statement quoted above. See if it's true. See what a self-sufficient mind really does. With a self-sufficient attitude, look at how your innermost urges lead to actions that lead to situations. Is that process getting you what you really want? It's up to you to find out. That's the first step in taking charge of your life.

We don't need permission to take charge of our own lives; we can and must do it ourselves! That means getting over the old habits: blaming, making excuses, running away, rebelling. In a self-sufficient mind, there is no room for blaming other people or for blaming one's situation. There is no role for rebellion, since you'd only be rebelling against yourself. Likewise, there can be no conformity, not even to the precepts--they are just tools for creating the life you want.

In short, there are no rules. Your experience is simply a reflection of your actions, good or bad. If you are tired of being lied to, then stop lying. If you are tired of being cheated, then stop acting out of greed. If you seek peace, then forgive. If you seek love, then love.

It really is that simple. But knowing where to start is not simple. That may be the reason we need the precepts.

Monday, April 2, 2012


“Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have insisted for centuries that God does not exist and that there is 'nothing' out there; in making these assertions, their aim was not to deny the reality of God but to safeguard God's transcendence.” ― Karen Armstrong, The Case for God

In her book, Karen Armstrong makes the case that originally all religions practiced an apophatic theology--a theology in which God is only considered in negation. Underlying this view is the belief that God cannot be adequately described through language. This is why, as stated above, a person can worship God without saying that God exists. After all, existence applies to ordinary things that are defined relatively and therefore must change, and one purpose of religion is to connect with a reality that does not possess this nature. Originally the apophatic view was so important that any attempts to describe God affirmatively were ignored or considered blasphemous. However, this attitude has changed over the course of history. In Armstrong's book, she traces this shift and shows how we arrived at the problematic state of modern thought, in which people don't seem to recognize any problem in defining what God or reality is supposed to be.

The culprit, unexpectedly, is reason. To summary Armstrong's book, as Christian scholasticism gave rise to the modern study of natural philosophy, the practice of religion became increasingly intellectual and decreasingly mythical. Instead of searching for personal meaning in our emotional responses to religious stories and practices, we started searching for objective meaning in the empirical world. Science was born as a new religious practice. The Deists, like Isaac Newton, sought to understand God by understanding the principles underlying God's works. Even though we tend to think of science and religion in conflict, in their modern forms they both express the same impulse to understand reality in terms of something external. This focus on something "out there" makes them more similar than either might care to admit.

For examples of the abiding unity between science and religion, look at the underlying intentions of two areas of cutting-edge research: the intense mapping and analysis of the cosmic microwave background radiation is a recent development in the ancient search for a first cause, while the search for the Higgs boson reflects a deep-seated belief in the concreteness of reality.

I'm not trying to say that these lines of research will fail to turn up definite results, but the meaning of those results is open to interpretation. When we look for answers we tend to find them; the Void can't fail to respond logically to our logical actions upon it. The question is whether those answers reflect a true understanding of reality, or whether the results of a particle smashing experiment simply reveal one more face of the big illusion.

In parallel, the same interpretation can apply to the modern practice of religion in which God is defined using words. Do those practices reflect a true understanding of reality, or are they a big defense mechanism to make the ego feel comfortable in an uncertain world? This is not a criticism of religion only--it is a serious question for atheists as well.

One problem with concrete language is that it never agrees completely with our shifting and relative reality, so it leads to absurdities that alienate. It can alienate other people, the way atheist biologists and fundamentalist Christians alienate one another. It can alienate ourselves, the way our expectations and ideals from yesterday make us feel inadequate today. Letting go of fixed notions of reality--the essence of the apophatic tradition--is the key to being flexible and forgiving in our relationships with people (including ourselves) who have varying beliefs and subtlety of understanding. That, in turn, is a major step toward being happy.

The capacity for this type of approach is innate to every religion, but it's hard to find these days. After a spirited search, I ended up practicing Buddhism because the Buddha's teachings are so clearly focused on just this issue. The Buddha used many words to explain to people the shortcomings of words. In this regard, his teachings are helpful in any context, whether it's another religion, atheism, science, or academics. Learning from these teachings is not inherently a magical or mystical experience; it doesn't even have to be a religious experience as we've come to think of it; it can simply be a process of removing the misinterpretations that prevent happiness.