Bob Schwartz

Tag: Shunryu Suzuki

“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.


A Zen Harvest: An Essential Zen No Zen Book for No Zen People

A Zen Harvest

While I often write about Zen and Buddhism in this blog, I have never suggested a “where to begin” book. There are a lot of reasons for this, but that’s for another time.

(For those who might be interested, a leading Buddhist publication did a survey of where its readers did get started, and the overwhelming first book was Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, pretty clearly the most popular book on Zen in English. It is also where I got started.)

A Zen Harvest: Japanese Folk Zen Sayings (1988), compiled and translated by Soiku Shigematsu, is something different and special. (His first book, A Zen Forest: Sayings of the Masters (1981), is sadly out of print, but you can find a PDF if you go fishing in the Web sea.)

Shigematsu does a lovely job of explaining the text in his excellent Introduction. I actually suggest you not read the Introduction, at least not at first. Robert Aitken Roshi (author of another popular introduction to Zen) offers an appreciative Foreword. You can initially skip that too.

Instead, just browse anywhere in this collection of nearly 800 poem-like sayings. Anywhere. Don’t think of these as Zen. Don’t even think of these as poems. Don’t care about who said it or wrote it.

I am not even going to offer a sample saying, because it would not do the collection justice. Just get it and read in it, a few seconds at a time. You may or may not learn or find out anything about yourself, your life, other people’s lives, the world, the universe, or Zen. Does that really matter?

The Sandokai: You Don’t Have To Be Zenish

Branching Streams

You don’t have to be a Zen person to read and appreciate the Sandokai (Harmony of Difference and Equality). You don’t have to be any particular person at all.

The Sandokai is a poem by eighth-century Chinese Zen Ancestor Sekito Kisen. It is a core text that is recited daily by many Zen practitioners.

It is often described as “difficult” the same way that oceans are described as “deep.” The depth is valuable and explorable, and yet ships of all kinds from all nations seem to float and travel on its surface beneficially, without regard to the depths below.

It is read as a challenge to even the most practiced reader. But a first reading by a beginner (and we are all beginners) can be surprisingly lightening.

The unsurpassed modern overview of the Sandokai is by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. His talks from 1970 at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center are collected in Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai. (You can also read the unedited transcripts and hear the talks themselves by visiting the San Francisco Zen Center archives.)

If you have any interest in the nature of things, just read. Don’t worry about what else you’ve studied or about what perspective or tradition you are coming from, or not studied or are not coming from. Just read, and if any of the verses strike you—or strike you over the head—all for the good. And if not, well, it’s still an interesting and lyrical poem.


Harmony of Difference and Equality (Sandokai)

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.

While human faculties are sharp or dull,
the Way has no northern or southern ancestors.

The spiritual source shines clear in the light;
the branching streams flow on in the dark.

Grasping at things is surely delusion,
according with sameness is still not enlightenment.

All the objects of the senses
transpose and do not transpose.

Transposing, they are linked together;
not transposing, each keeps its place.

Sights vary in quality and form;
sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.

Darkness merges refined and common words;
brightness distinguishes clear and murky phrases.

The four elements return to their natures,
Just as a child turns to its mother.

Fire heats, wind moves,
water wets, earth is solid.

Eye and sights, ear and sounds,
nose and smells, tongue and tastes;

Thus for each and every thing,
according to the roots, the leaves spread forth.

Trunk and branches share the essence;
revered and common, each has its speech.

In the light there is darkness,
but don’t take it as darkness;

In the dark there is light,
but don’t see it as light.

Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.

Each of the myriad things has its merit,
expressed according to function and place.

Existing phenomenally like box and cover joining;
according with principle like arrow points meeting.

Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don’t establish standards of your own.

Not understanding the Way before your eyes,
how do you know the path you walk?

Walking forward is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.

I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
don’t pass your days and nights in vain.

Translation from the Soto Zen Text Project.

New Year Non-Resolution: Less Nonsense

Maxfield Parrish - Winter Twilight

No New Year resolutions for me, for many reasons. Here is a related thought from Shunryu Suzuki Roshi:

When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves. 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.

It is hard to talk about what is and isn’t nonsense. Waiting with anticipation for the new season of your favorite TV series or playing games is not necessarily more nonsense than discussing political affairs. And don’t even get started on food and sex, which can be critically important, nonsense, or both at the same time.

It is a matter of attention, depth, and priority appropriate for you at the time. A way to determine this is discernment, keeping just quiet enough to hear the voices coming from above, below, outside, and especially inside, that suggest just how much of what might be good for you.

Examples abound. More than ever, there is the theoretical possibility of paying attention to just about everything, and no possibility—even with multi-sensing capabilities we are equipped with—of actually doing it. Even when you do limit and choose, you may find that the coverage or talk is just repeating versions of the same stuff—nonsense—over and over, without its going much of anywhere except around in circles.

So for me—call it a wish or a perspective or a direction but not a resolution—I will try to discern who and what matters, pay better attention to those, and avoid some of the rest. This is not necessarily a matter of serious or world-changing: the new seasons of Downtown Abbey and Mad Men will have my attention. But as things come along, I will try to listen to just which way they might be moving me. Just a little less nonsense.

The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo

Zen Teachings of Homeless Kodo

Even if you are not interested in Zen or Buddhism, this is your invitation to discover one of the most fascinating and overlooked figures in 20th century religion.

If you are a student of Zen, and think you have a broad overview of Zen in the last century, you may wonder why you’ve never heard of Kodo Sawaki Roshi (1880-1965), let alone read any of his work. Up to now, circumstances worked against that. But that has changed with the just-published The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo from Wisdom Publications. You owe it to yourself to fill that gap.

Lineage is an essential element of Zen, a tracing of the conceptual DNA that reaches back to Bodhidharma, who in the 5th or 6th century BCE legendarily brought Buddhism from India to China. Thus begins the story of Chinese Ch’an (later Japanese Zen) Buddhism.

In the modern Western incarnations of Zen, some lineages are well-known. Arguably the most popular of all teachers in the West is Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who founded the San Francisco Zen Center. The first collection of his teachings, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, remains the bestselling introduction to Zen practice in English. It is clear and captivating, and it captured many, including me years ago.

Maybe not as well-known, but equally important, is the work of Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Published at about the same time as Zen Mind, Uchiyama Roshi’s Approach to Zen lacked the design and print sophistication of Suzuki’s book. Instead of Zen Mind’s colorful cover, calligraphy, and fine typesetting, Approach to Zen is plain brown, with simple illustrations hand-drawn by Uchiyama Roshi.

Approach to Zen

Proving that you can’t judge a book by its cover or color, Approach to Zen is an excellent primer on practice and philosophy. It was later expanded into the even more valuable Opening the Hand of Thought: Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice (where happily a few of the original drawings are kept). If you are Zen-curious, you could do no better than starting with the pair of Zen Mind and Opening the Hand of Thought.

Opening the Hand of Thought

Sawaki Roshi was Uchiyama Roshi’s teacher. Uchiyama Roshi’s best-known student is Shohaku Okumura, whose practice includes being one of the premier translators of Zen texts—now including the work of Sawaki Roshi. In this new book, these three teachers, three points on an extraordinary line, come together.

Zen masters often have complex lives, but more than most, Sawaki Roshi’s story defies quick summary. The emblematic thing to know about his life and teaching is that he was an iconoclast. It is conventional for great teachers to take over a temple, so that they can effectively (and perhaps comfortably) transmit their teachings. Sawaki refused that possibility; he was, as a teacher for decades, without a home.

People call me Homeless Kodo, but I don’t think they particularly intend to disparage me. They say “homeless” probably because I never had a temple or owned a house. Anyway, all human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home.

Zen is renowned for straight talk, even when that talk seems to be crooked, wandering around so that the undeniable point remains out of easy reach or reason. In these excerpts, Kodo Sawaki employs the straightest of straight talk—no less philosophically deep than the most puzzling of messages, but as punishing and sometimes sarcastic as a punch in the face.

When people are alone, they’re not so bad. However, when a group forms, paralysis occurs; people become totally foolish and cannot distinguish good from bad. Their minds are numbed by the group. Because of their desire to belong and even to lose themselves, some pay membership fees. Others work on advertising to attract people and intoxicate them for some political, spiritual, or commercial purpose.

I keep some distance from society, not to escape it but to avoid this kind of paralysis. To practice zazen is to become free of this group stupidity.

Some opinions have passed their prime and lost relevance. For instance, when grownups lecture children, they often simply repeat ready-made opinions. They merely say, “Good is good; bad is bad.” When greens go to seed, they become hard and fibrous. They aren’t edible anymore. We should always see things with fresh eyes!

Often people say, “This is valuable!” But what’s really valuable? Nothing. When you die, you have to leave everything behind. Even the national treasures in Kyoto and Nara will sooner or later perish. It’s not a problem even if they all burn down.

Equal to the value of these teachings is the layering of commentary on Sawaki Roshi by his student Uchiyama Roshi and by Uchiyama Roshi’s student Shohaku Okumura. Layered commentary is common not only to Zen, but to many religious and philosophical traditions. Yet this is remarkable for combining erudite exposition about the teachings and Zen with what can only be described as filial respect and affection—that is, love. Though two of the three participants have died, you feel as if you are present for an enlightened three-way conversation among grandfather, father, and son.

You will wish that it would never end. In a sense, it never does or has to. You can take the treasures you find here and incorporate them into your life, your thinking, and, if you are inclined that way, into your practice.

A horse and a cat once discussed the question, “What is happiness?” They couldn’t reach any agreement.