Bob Schwartz

Category: Zen

Clearing the Chessboard

Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie about a real life chess prodigy. In a memorable scene, his teacher sweeps the pieces off the chessboard, so the child can better concentrate on the actual state of play, undistracted by the apparent state of play.

Meditation and related attention practices are all about clearing the chessboard. What comes next depends on the context, whether it’s a way to relax or a search for enlightenment. The point is that the apparent state of play, the pieces on the chessboard, are distractions and may become obsessions. Only by focusing on the empty chessboard can you see the game for what it is.

Without Labels

Labels harm us as much as they help us. They may destroy us. Social, cultural, political, religious, intellectual labels. Even as we use labels as shorthand that helps us identify our friends and our kind and our foes and our others, we are mistaken. They keep us from reality, keep us from the rewarding but hard work of knowing more and deeply, keep us apart. Labels are as much weapons and disabilities as they are conveniences.

Can we live without labels? In some circumstances they appear to us essential. Don’t we want to know, and want others to know, what party or cause or religious denomination or ethnicity or gender we associate with? We may want that, and we may find benefit in it, but as with most benefits, they may be illusory and they have a cost.

Dogen was the 13th century founder of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism. It is one of the many schools and sects that were developing during Dogen’s time and that have developed during the centuries since.

He fiercely opposed the naming of schools of Buddhism, Zen or otherwise:

In this way, know that the buddha way that has been transmitted from past buddhas is not called Zen meditation, so how could there be the name “Zen School”? Clearly understand that it is an extreme mistake to use the name “Zen School.” Those who are ignorant assume that there is an “existence school” and an “emptiness school.” They feel bad not having a special name as a school, as if there is nothing to study. But the buddha way is not like that. It should be determined that in the past there was no such name as “Zen School.”
The Buddha Way, from Treasury of the True Dharma Eye

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching addresses the way that naming may keep us from the reality of things:

A name that can be named
is not The Name
tr. Jonathan Star

The name you can say
isn’t the real name.
tr. Ursula Le Guin

Names that can be Named
Are not True Names.
tr. John Minford

the name that becomes a name
is not the Immortal Name
tr. Red Pine (Bill Porter)

Red Pine continues: “During Lao-tzu’s day, philosophers were concerned with the correspondence, or lack of it, between name and reality. The things we distinguish as real change, while their names do not. How then can reality be known through names?”

Should you have an opinion?

Opinion: Judgment, view, attitude, appraisal.

The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
Hsin-Hsin Ming/Verses on the Faith Mind by Seng-ts’an, translated by Richard B. Clarke

I am a person of occasional opinion, in a world of opinions. Maybe you are such a person too. Maybe you have media to carry your opinions, circumstances in which you express them or are asked for them or are expected to have them as a part of your work or craft. Maybe you mostly keep your opinions to yourself.

Verses on the Faith Mind, written by Seng-ts’an, Third Ancestor of Zen, is a frequently read Zen text (some say it is the first). Its message is that discriminative thinking tends to lead us astray from the path of self-realization and enlightenment.

Of course, the text itself presents a bit of conundrum, if not contradiction. A recommendation against distinctions is itself a distinction. So we may already be confused.

But there is no conundrum, contradiction or confusion. Having opinions, making judgments and choices, and discriminating are elements of action. A fork in the road demands a choice. (Although, as the wisdom master and baseball great Yogi Berra famously gave driving directions to a visitor, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”)

It is the place those opinions hold that is in question, or more precisely, it is the way we hold and use those opinions that matters. Opinions can be a habit or practice. Just the process of generating opinions has the potential to move us away from our selves, even as we are under the impression that we are simply reflecting ourselves. And then when we express those opinions, in whatever form, however loudly and widely, the impact is our responsibility.

Have opinions. I do. But pay attention as those opinions well up in your mind, more attention when you express them and set them loose on the world. You should be aware of them, of the good they might do, of the harm they might do, not only to others, but to yourself. Verses on the Faith Mind suggests that the fewer the better.

Hope

Kazuaki Tanahashi, Hope

 

Dogen and Heschel on Time

Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) would have understood each other, liked each other, despite the seven centuries that separate them. Brilliant, visionary and overwhelmingly articulate, they were heirs to two rich traditions, Zen Buddhism and Judaism, which they further refined into pure essence. Their inspired prose is poetry, the poetry of the thing itself.

Both wrote about time in ways that exceed our comprehension by a step or two, so we run to keep up: Dogen most astutely in his essay Uji: The Time Being; Heschel in his book The Sabbath.


When you are at this place, there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of form and beyond understanding of form; there is understanding of grass and beyond understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time being is all the time there is. Grass being, form being, are both time.

Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment….

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated. As time is not annihilated, mountains and oceans are not annihilated.

Zen Master Dogen, Uji: The Time Being, translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi, in The Essential Dogen.


Every one of us occupies a portion of space. He takes it up exclusively. The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else. Yet, no one possesses time. There is no moment which I possess exclusively. This very moment belongs to all living men as it belongs to me. We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. We pass through time, we occupy space. We easily succumb to the illusion that the world of space is for our sake, for man’s sake. In regard to time, we are immune to such an illusion.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath.


 

Miniature Rakes: New Symbol of the Resistance and Resurgence…and So Zen

Our story so far: Visiting the site of the California fires, Trump—graduate of the Wharton School of Finance and Forest Management—told officials that the disaster could have been prevented if they “raked the forest floor.” He said he heard this from the Prime Minister of Finland, who replied that he had never told Trump any such thing.

This led to global reaction, including the clever hashtag #RakeAmericaGreatAgain, along with lots of creative images of people with rakes.

Rakes are more than a tool to clean up lawns, or if you are Trump, to prevent forest fires. They are used in Zen gardens to mindfully tend to a blank slate of sand.

Many of us have or have had rakes as items in our landscape tool shed. But displaying a full-size rake inside your home or on your desk is awkward—as is giving a rake as a gift or sending a rake to sympathetic or unsympathetic public servants.

That is where miniature rakes come in. These tiny rakes are not just available as a children’s toy. They are also available to help those who maintain tabletop Zen sand gardens. Best of all, they are inexpensive, as little as $2 apiece.

So buy and display a miniature rake. Put it on your table or desk. Send it as a gift. Rakes may not prevent forest fires, but they are symbols of cleaning up and bringing creative order and design to chaos. All in your hands.

Great Doubt: Zen and the Baal Shem Tov

Doubt is a powerful and necessary tool. Wonder, mystery, unresolved and unresolvable puzzlement. Greater than doubt is Great Doubt. Great Doubt and the Great Secret.

Great Doubt:

The ancients spoke of three essential conditions for Zen practice:

First: great faith; second: great doubt; third: great determination. These are like the three legs of a tripod.

Now, what is great doubt? The type of doubt being referred to here is not intellectual doubt, such as we have when asking about the meaning of a koan. Instead, we can think of great doubt as utterly becoming one with our practice—whether we are counting the breath or practicing with the koan “Mu”—to the point that our entire body and mind are like a single mass of inquiry….

The great root of faith naturally activates this great ball of doubt. If the root of faith appears, the great ball of doubt will arise without fail. Spurred on by great doubt we continue the practice of [the koan] Mu, without seeking or expecting awakening. The quickest way to awaken when completely absorbed in Mu is to throw away all thoughts about it. Awakening has nothing to do with any kind of intellectual knowledge or discrimination.

Koun Yamada, Zen: The Authentic Gate

Great Secret:

In the Hour of Doubt

It is told:

In the city of Satanov there was a learned man, whose thinking and brooding took him deeper and deeper into the question why what is, is, and why anything is at all. One Friday he stayed in the House of Study after prayer to go on thinking, for he was snared in his thoughts and tried to untangle them and could not. The holy Baal Shem Tov felt this from afar, got into his carriage and, by dint of his miraculous power which made the road leap to meet him, he reached the House of Study in Satanov in only an instant. There sat the learned man in his predicament. The Baal Shem said to him: “You are brooding on whether God is; I am a fool and believe.” The fact that there was a human being who knew of his secret, stirred the doubter’s heart and it opened to the Great Secret.

Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

Meditation is not about meditation

zafu-and-zabuton

Meditation is not about meditation.

Many meditate. Many think about meditation. Many talk about mediation. Many write about meditation.

The Zen expression “just sitting” is helpful. So many ways, with or without meditation, and so many ways of meditation. “Just” says it is enough in its unadorned, undecorated, uncomplicated way. Whether it is Zen or some other practice, “just” does not stop people from decorating, as they would a bare-walled house.

Without adding to this, without hanging one more picture on the wall, the thought arose: meditation is not about meditation. Not an original thought, but an essential one, maybe the essential one. Rather than explain it, I just repeat it. If you are meditating in any way, or thinking about meditating, or talking about meditating, or writing about meditating:

Meditation is not about meditation.

More About Compassion Toward Things

These are the creatures and objects that are spoken of as the possessions of this individual: his animals and his walls, his garden and his meadow, his tools and his food. In so far as he cultivates and enjoys them in holiness, he frees their souls. “For this reason a man must always be compassionate toward his tools and all his possessions.”
Martin Buber, The Legend of the Baal Shem Tov

I earlier wrote about the concept of compassion toward your things. Here is a bit more.

What does it mean to be compassionate toward your things, to be “feeling with” them? This is easier to conceive if the thing is something alive like a pet, or something once growing but now picked like some of the food on your plate. But a chair is just a chair; does it really need your compassion to set its soul free?

Could it be that by stretching to find compassion for those things—for all those other things, no matter how insignificant they seem—we are exercising our practice and ability to be compassionate toward everything and everyone all the time? Could it be that by stretching to find the reality of those things, we are exercising our practice and ability to understand everything and everyone all the time?

The Buddhist concept of the trichiliocosm (also known as trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu) “posits that any given thought-moment perfectly encompasses the entirety of reality both spatially and temporally…. the microcosm contains the macrocosm and temporality encompasses spatiality. Thus, whenever a single thought arises, there also arise the myriad dharmas; these two events occur simultaneously, not sequentially.” (Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism):

Trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu. In Sanskrit, literally “three-thousandfold great-thousandfold world system,” but typically translated as “trichiliocosm”; the largest possible universe, composed of (according to some interpretations of the figure) one billion world systems, each of which have a similar geography, including a central axis at Mount Sumeru, four surrounding continents, etc.

In his translation of The Diamond Sutra, Red Pine reflects on a related point:

Chapter 1: One day before noon, the Bhagavan put on his patched robe and picked up his bowl and entered the capital of Shravasti for offerings. After begging for food in the city and eating his meal of rice, he returned from his daily round in the afternoon, put his robe and bowl away, washed his feet, and sat down on the appointed seat. After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

In ancient India, the main staple was glutinous rice, which was eaten with the hands by forming it into balls. The term pinda occurs again at the end of the sutra in Chapter Thirty, where it includes the biggest of all lumps: a universe of a billion worlds. This is not accidental, for the practice of charity and the concept of an entity, either compounded of smaller entities or compounding a greater entity, run throughout this sutra. In the chapters that follow, the Buddha takes us through a series of synonyms for the entities of reality and compares the results of offering such things as a ball of rice, a universe of jewels, numberless existences, or a four-line poem.

The Buddha said, “Subhuti, what do you think? Are all the specks of dust in the billion-world-system of a universe many?”

The Buddha turns from this teaching to the sanctuary where this teaching was being taught, namely, the vihara outside Shravasti where both he and Subhuti were sitting. If the teaching of prajna is no teaching, what about the world in which it is taught? The Buddha begins with the smallest perceivable constituents of matter and the largest conceivable entity that they comprise.

Chapter Thirty: “Furthermore, Subhuti, if a noble son or daughter took as many worlds as there are specks of dust in a billion-world universe and by an expenditure of limitless energy ground them into a multitude of atoms, Subhuti, what do you think, would there be a great multitude of atoms?…The Buddha said, “Subhuti, attachment to an entity is inexplainable and inexpressible. For it is neither a dharma nor no dharma. Foolish people, though, are attached.”

All things big and small are locked in an endless sleight of hand in which each negates the reality of the other. And yet we all look for something to grab. Sometimes, we grab the biggest thing we can find. Sometimes, we grab the smallest. The people of Shravasti offered the Buddha balls of rice. Were the balls of rice real, or the grains of rice? The Buddha ate what he found in his bowl. So, too, do Zen masters swallow the world and all its mountains and rivers. And the reason they can do this is because mountains and rivers do not themselves exist but are simply names we give to momentary combinations of causes and conditions that are themselves momentary combinations of causes and conditions: universes made of specks of dust made of specks of dust made of specks of dust that form universes that form universes that form universes. Zen masters swallow names and concepts, while the entities they represent change. Mountains and rivers and the ten-thousand things all change. If they did not, we would be in trouble. We would have no hope of liberation. But because nothing exists as an independent, permanent entity, there are no obstructions on the path to enlightenment. Foolish people, though, refuse to walk this path. They see nothing but obstructions. Buddhas see offerings and turn these offerings into dharmas.

“Competitive About Your Meditation? Relax, Everyone Else is Too.”

Missing the way by a hairbreadth
is the gap between heaven and earth.
Xinxin Ming (Verses on the Faith Mind), Jianzhi Sengcan (d. 606)

When I saw the following in The Wall Street Journal, I was dumbfounded.

Competitive About Your Meditation? Relax, Everyone Else is Too
As hard-chargers descend on the ancient practice, they are tweaking the quest for inner peace
By Ellen Gamerman

Alan Stein Jr. is on his 324th straight day meditating—a streak he is tending with the mindfulness of a monk.

The 42-year-old performance coach from Gaithersburg, Md., has kept his record using the Headspace app, despite early-morning flights and travel across time zones. On a recent work trip to Atlanta, he remembered to meditate only just after the clock struck midnight. Worried he’d blown his record, he closed his eyes and quickly tried to meditate on the hotel bed for 10 minutes.

“The whole time I’m just waiting for the 10 minutes to be over to see if my streak was alive,” he said. …

Desperate to maintain streaks that can surpass 1,000 days, some driven spiritual voyagers have started looking for new ways to protect their records. On Headspace, the app counts any session completed in an eight-hour period as its own day. Pointing this out, a user on Facebook suggested logging three days in one by meditating at 4 a.m., 2 p.m. and 11 p.m.

On Mindful Makers, a private online group of roughly 250 meditators, members can check the streak rankings daily. Robin Koppensteiner was in second place with 71 days at the start of this week. Members are trusted to report their own meditation updates.

“I have to admit I check every day to see if I’m still in number two or if I’ve gone up to number one,” said the 29-year-old author from Vienna, Austria.

As astonishing as this seems, it should not be surprising.

Every tradition that includes meditation as a practice warns practitioners of objectifying the practice itself, rather than experiencing the practice only for what it is within a bigger context. This is a danger inherent in all religious and spiritual traditions, where specific practices seem to overtake the bigger point. As the Zen saying goes, it is confusing the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.

Chogyam Trungpa called this spiritual materialism, which is a central idea in his classic Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism: “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use, even spirituality.”

Now in the case of many of these meditators, they are pursuing calm, relaxation or peace of mind, rather than following any particular way, Buddhist or otherwise. Which is fine. But the advantage of practicing within a bigger context is that you are regularly reminded and discover for yourself that things like “meditation streaks” are kind of ridiculous and kind of misleading. In fact, the meditation session you miss might be the very session the brings you the calm, relaxation and peace of mind you are seeking. If you are a “competitive meditator” that will mean nothing to you. If you are, for example, a Zen practitioner, it makes perfect sense.

For meditators worried about breaking their streak and losing the meditation competition, this from Suzuki Roshi:

One of my students wrote to me saying, “You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on each page. But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!” Dogen-zenji said, “Shoshaku jushaku.” Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.” Shoshaku jushaku means “to succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku. This means so many years of one single-minded effort.