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Reflections on the Human Experience

Study & Arts, Sitting & RitualGuiding TeacherComment

The nature of human experience is to reflect on and react to the human experience. That is, human beings are constantly noticing their thoughts, feelings, and bodies, and having thoughts and feelings about them. In fact, one could say that this is one of the defining features of humanity. We are born with the ability to observe ourselves and, typically before two years of age, we become aware of ourselves as individuals. Have you ever stood with someone in front of a mirror? The immediate recognition of self and other is so familiar that it probably wasn’t something you thought about.

Humans have the capacity to imagine our place in a context, whether physical or mental, and to consider who and what we are within that context. It’s called being self-conscious or self-reflective. What we notice can be the simple observation of a small detail of experience with little impact, or something intensely painful, or a profoundly uplifting experience as vast as the cosmos. The reflection can be so quick that it seems automatic or that it is assumed to be present before we notice it. At other times, it takes decades to form around an experience long past. In myriad ways, human beings spend quite a lot of our time and energy reflecting on ourselves.

resting Buddha.jpg

Practice is an effort to bring to awareness that capacity for self-reflection, using Buddhist principles and teachings, and to turn self-reflection into a source of clarity, calm, and deep inspiration. In particular, the practice of zazen or meditation can be about clear and positive self awareness. Even the word “self-conscious” can have a negative connotation, an implication of discomfort, unease, and awkwardness. Yet my experience of many years of the practice of self-consciousness has been incredibly valuable and healing, leading away from unease. So, I am suggesting that you can reframe this term, and learn the usefulness of this powerful mental ability that we all share.

Consider, for example, what happens when you hear a sound. Perhaps you think, “Why is that garbage truck ruining my silence so early in the morning?” or “Isn’t it lovely how that bird is singing me a song?” Can you notice the constructed self that is implied in those thoughts? Can you see how those events actually don’t belong to you, or say anything about you? Can you allow them to come and go without clinging to some idea of wanting less of that, or more of that? There is so much to work with on the cushion. and there is plenty to work with off the cushion too.

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This kind of practice can go a step further, too. If you examine deeply, in detail, the components of the experience, perhaps using the framework of the five aggregates or skandhas (body ~ feeling tone ~ perception ~ volition ~ consciousness), then you may begin to see the constructed nature of hearing itself, the way that the experience of hearing is a group of conditions that depend on one another for an instant, and then shift in the next moment. Perhaps you can begin to dismantle some of the sense of continuity and permanence, and begin see the fleeting nature of life. Life is as brief and insubstantial as a mirage. This kind of awareness begins to get at the reason why the self is not actually referenced by events, and it begins to loosen our grip on the wanting and wanting, or not wanting and not wanting, that causes us so much difficulty. Look deeply at the conditions and their relationships, their presence and absence. Notice whether that begins to soften your ideas of how things ought to be, of how you ought to be. Because, after all, having a look at yourself is the most natural thing in the world. And what you will see, if you are honest and persistent, will wake up a whole new you.

The Clearest Cut

Sitting & Ritual, Sangha & InclusionGuiding TeacherComment

One of the ways, though certainly not the only way, that Buddhist monastics are identified is by their shaved heads. It is a common sight in many Asian countries, and increasingly in the West as well. Some find it beautiful, others find it disturbing, and still others don't even notice it as they go about their busy day. No matter how one feels about it, though, a shaved head is a statement. What kind of statement is it, and what does it have to do with Buddhism?

From the left: Bangladeshi bhikkhuni, Jayanta Johannesen, Rev. Konin Cardenas, Ranjani De Silva

From the left: Bangladeshi bhikkhuni, Jayanta Johannesen, Rev. Konin Cardenas, Ranjani De Silva

Investigating the meaning of the act of shaving the head, I turned to the life story of Prince Siddhartha, the man who later became known as the Buddha, the Awakened One. According to some of the earliest accounts of the Buddha's life, the then Prince cut his hair at the start of his journey in search of the resolution to the difficulties of life.

Siddhartha left the palace. It was midnight, and the prince was on his white horse Kanthaka with Channa, his faithful servant, holding on to its tail. He was going away to try to understand old age, sickness and death. He rode to the bank of a river and dismounted from his horse. He removed his jewelry and princely clothes and gave them to Channa to return to (his father) the King. Then the prince took his sword and cut his long hair, put on a monk's robes, took a begging bowl and told Channa to go back with Kanthaka to the palace. 
Source: Buddhanet.net

From this story it seems that Siddhartha saw his long hair as a symbol of his high social status, and he chose to cut it and change his clothes in order to make clear that he was renouncing that life. Then he went on to practice asceticism for six years, living on very little food and spending all of his time meditating. During that time, Siddhartha's hair must have grown long and matted, as is common for ascetic practitioners. Thus, there are also later stories of the Buddha's haircut by Upali, of his "giving the tonsure" to his disciples, and of many women, men and children shaving their heads prior to and as part of becoming ordained sangha. In this way, the Buddhist sangha was visibly different from the ascetics, Brahmins, lay folk, and royalty of that time. By shaving their heads, they became more identifiable as "Buddhists," though to be sure that term had not yet been used. 

It is traditional, even today, that shaving of the head is a key element in the ordination of Buddhist monks in most traditions. That said, due to the Meiji Restoration that took place in Japan in 1868, laws were passed enabling Buddhist monks to grow their hair and make other changes to their lifestyle and appearance. Thus, while the shaving of the head continues to be a traditional part of the ordination ceremony of Zen monks, they may grow their hair longer at some point afterward.

Still, it was an important question in the Buddha's time and in 19th Century Japan, and the question of religious identity is certainly one that was and is also of concern to Americans. In fact, this concern was important enough to be inscribed in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. There in the First Amendment, each person's right to practice their religious beliefs is expressly affirmed. So we are fortunate, even in this country where the practice of Buddhism is a relatively new phenomenon, to be able to wear the robes and the shaved head of the sangha. 

In the Soto Zen ordination ceremony as I have experienced it, the candidate's head is usually fully shaved the day before, except for a small patch near the crown of the head, called the "shura." During the ceremony, as it's performed at San Francisco Zen Center, the important and significance of shaving the head is described by the Preceptor, who also cuts off the shura:

Cutting off the hair is cutting the root of clinging. As soon as the root of clinging is cut, your original body appears. Changing into monastic robes now, and leaving worldly passions, you are free. Only the mind of a bodhisattva can cut through this drifting-wandering life and take the path of Nirvana. This virtue cannot be defined.

Therefore, one should not view shaving the head as merely a choice of appearance. There is a deeper meaning that is being expressed, the Dharma of cutting the hair which is explicitly linked to the Dharma of renunciation. What is renounced is clinging to outward appearances, thus enabling the appearance of the original self, which is free. This Dharma was taught very explicitly by the Buddha himself, and it has been transmitted to us in these words from the Dhammapada, as translated by Gil Fronsdal:

Fool! What use is matted hair?
What use a deerskin robe?
The tangled jungle is within you
and you groom the outside!

In this verse I hear the Buddha suggesting that even the matted hair of an ascetic could be as much a status symbol as the long locks of a prince. So the Buddha exhorts the practitioner to turn inward and study the nature of self, rather than concern oneself with outward appearances. 

So shaving the head is renouncing both attention to, and inattention to the hair. It is simply a way of taking care of the hair without getting caught by it. Shaving the head, then, is a practice of neither aversion to, nor attachment to hair. One simply removes it so that it doesn't require any other care or become a mess. In this way, hair cannot become a focus of attention or divert energy from the practice. Shaving is acknowledging the body for what it is: a vehicle for our practice of renouncing the view of self in this very life. This is a lesson for everyone, not just those who are ordained. 

In speaking about the meaning of shaving the head, a good friend and fellow Zen monk quoted the Abbess of Mount Equity Zendo, a woman by the name of Dai-En Bennage. My friend said that Dai-En Roshi had mentioned that having our heads shaved makes it easier for people to find us. I would agree. As monastics, we vow to be visibly available to support all beings on the path of awakening. And I would add that having our heads shaved might make it easier for us to find our selves too. 



Mountains and Monks and Snakes - Oh My!

Study & ArtsGuiding TeacherComment

Case 24 from the Book of Serenity - Xuefeng's "Look Out For The Snake"

INTRODUCTION: Can you drop the self or will you get bitten?

Turtle-nosed snake. Photo by Dave Emma from paherps.com

Turtle-nosed snake. Photo by Dave Emma from paherps.com



Xuefeng said to the congregation, "On South Mountain there's a turtle-nosed snake; you people must watch out for it."

Chanquing said, "Today in the hall there are many people losing their bodies and lives."

A monk quoted this to Xuansha; Xuansha said, "Only brother Chanquing could say this. However, even though he is right, I do not concur." 

The monk said, "What do you mean, Master?"

Xuansha said, "Why use South Mountain?"

Yunmen threw down his staff in front of Xuefeng and made a gesture of fright.


South Mountain was an actual place near Xuefeng's monastery, but his statement also points subtly to the Southern school of Chan, whose teaching emphasized "sudden enlightenment." The turtle-nosed snake is very poisonous; here it represents delusion, one of the "three poisons" of Buddhism. In this case the snake refers specifically to delusion about enlightenment. Interestingly, the snake is also said to have represented something not as good as a dragon, according to Chinese lore. As dragons are associated with Zen Masters (in fact some have the character for dragon in their dharma name), one might see the snake as Master wanna be. Thus, Xuefeng's admonition means that there is delusion that resides close to home and you should be practicing with this, and it means that his students are deluded about the nature of awakening.

Chanquing agrees by saying that the monks in the meditation hall have been poisoned by this delusion, and thus "lose their bodies and minds."

When Xuansha hears of this he affirms Chanquing's statement that the monks are deluded. However, he has something more to say. By asking why Xuefeng mentioned South Mountain, Xuansha points out that the poison of delusion is not limited to one place or one idea. 

Yumen shows just how true this is when he makes his move. The monk's staff is one of her or his personal Dharma accessories. Here it represents the identity, in Yumen's case that of a monk. Or it can also been seen as a precious thing. Either way, he throws it down and pretends to be afraid. This is another reference to Chinese lore, in which a person mistook a stick for a snake, and saw the arising of fear. The moral of the story is that fear arises out of confusion abut the way things actually are. So Yumen's gesture means that when we are confused about the self or when we cling to something precious like enlightenment, it is the source of fear and suffering. However, when we see the self clearly,  as it has always been right before us,  and perceive the fleeting nature of what seems precious, then we can set it down and, with it, the poison of delusion.


Tilling the Field of Identity

Study & Arts, Service & EngagementGuiding TeacherComment

When speaking with friends and reading the newspaper, I have the impression that the questions of identity are up for us as a nation. Whether it be a discussion of race relations, of feminism, of the widening rifts between classes, or of sexual orientation or gender, the question of identity is big right now. A lot of people are wondering how to be skillful with the aspects of identity that can be so different from person to person.

For Buddhists this can be a particularly vexing point because of the teaching of "no self." Essentially, the teaching of no self means that there is no permanently abiding self, no self that arises independent of causes and results, no self that remains fixed for even an instant. Yet, to be clear, Buddhism does not teach that there is not a self. It doesn't deny that a self appears to arise and dissipate, and that we experience that self as "me."

This raises the question, "How can we honor the things that make each person unique - like their past, their preferences, their bodies, their expression - and still abide fully in the truth that all of those things don't fully capture what it means to be a person?"

This is a question that deserves deep and sustained inquiry. For starters, I'd like to offer a brief Zen teaching, in the hopes that it might provide guidance for a skillful response. It begins with the story of an interaction between Kueishan, an 8th Century Chinese Ch'an teacher and his student Yangshan, who were the founders of the Igyo Zen tradition.

Here's the story:

Yangshan was digging on a hillside, in an effort to make a rice paddy. He said to Kueishan, "This place is so low; that place is so high."

Kueishan replied, "Water makes things equal. Why don't you level it with water?"

Yangshan replied, "Water is not reliable, teacher. A high place is high level, and a low place is low level."

Kueishan agreed.

Hearing this story in modern times, it seems to me that Yangshan is commenting that he is in the lower position of student, in the lower position of worker, in the lower position monk. This contrasts with Kueishan who is in the higher position of teacher, the higher position of observer, the higher position of Abbot. So Yangshan is pointing out their differences.

In response, Kueishan effectively says, "Why don't you just even things up with a little water?" In other words, you don't have to see it that way. You could just gloss over it.

However, Yangshan doesn't fall for this and responds by saying, "Water is not reliable." That is, you can't just gloss over differences. That is not a skillful way to practice with differences. He goes on, "A high place is high level; a low place is low level." In other words, each of us takes our place. Each of us takes our dharma position in the moment. Kueishan agreed that this is the correct view.

The lesson of this story is that the skillful way to practice with difference is to acknowledge it because, until we acknowledge what's present, we can't possibly begin to work with it. Our differences help us to see our dharma position, help us to see the ways in which we are related. Teacher doesn't arise without student. Low doesn't arise without high. While we might want to make everything the same, that is unrealistic. It's not a reliable way to interact with the world.

On a similar note, in the "Sutra of Eights," the Buddha taught that we should not view ourselves as lower than another, as higher than another, or as equal to another. Where does that leave you? It means we must view ourselves as incomparable, unique beings that are interrelated in ways that are important to acknowledge.

Returning to the story, it is interesting to note that it is Yangshan who gives the teaching words. In doing so, he is demonstrating that, by truly acknowledging and working with their differences, he was able to change the dynamic and be in the "high" place. In effect, he leveled the differences by not glossing over them. So the skillful conversation of identity begins from a place of true acceptance of difference. From there, we can step into relationship and find the ways to connect.