Archive for the ‘Books’ Category


Highlights from Eido Frances Carney and Ryokan

March 14, 2015

Just finished Kakurenbo: Or the Whereabouts of Zen Priest Ryokan by Eido Frances Carney and thought I’d share the sections highlighted. Some are Carney’s words, some are Ryokan’s.

  • To see one’s limitations and the piling up of beliefs and projections heaped into an assembly that we think is ourselves and to see this mirrored against Zen practice convinces that compassion is at its core.
  • How do we create a Zen Buddhist ministry in the United States that can become organized enough to address the problems we face as a society, to hold the line against charlatans, to care for the health and welfare of the clergy and yet not become entangled in privilege and power?
  • First, innumerable labors brought us this food, we should know how it comes to us. Second, as we receive this offering we should consider whether our virtue and practice deserve it. Third, as we desire the natural order of mind, to be free from clinging, we must be free from greed. Fourth, to support our lives we take this food. Fifth, to attain our Way we take this food. First, this food is for the Three Treasures. Second, it is for our teachers, parents, nations, and all sentient beings. Third, it is for all beings in the six worlds. Thus, we eat this food with everyone. We eat to stop all evil, to practice good, to save all sentient beings and to accomplish our Buddha Way.
  • … all these contrivances against discomfort distance us from the natural world and cause us to forget the true human condition and the right of all creatures to exist. Such privilege allows us to exert power in ways that diminish the recognition of Buddha Nature and our openness to the totality of existence.
  • the question becomes: what is enough? What is too much? When does having become greed?
  • The Buddha, who lived on as little as possible, would come to say that the origin of violence is poverty.
  • The powerful stay in power whilst those who seek to confront it rise and fall. Someone who makes the news today quickly becomes yesterday’s forgotten hero…” (Spin Watch, March 27, 2005)
  • If the origin of violence is poverty, then the origin of poverty is privilege.
  • Let me drop a word of advice for believers of my faith. To enjoy life’s immensity, you do not need many things.
  • We want to identify with success, with accomplishment, and therefore we will be generous where we can see some sign of economic protection or the legitimate use of our money. We want our gifts to be insured. We want accountability for our judgments of worth. Thus, we will give to the successful organization but not to the homeless.
  • Americans must discard any notions of casual practice, must give our lives, fully committed to the Dharma. We cannot see Zen practice as faddish or exotic. It is work at its core.
  • Till darkness wrapped us complete.
  • Friends don’t actually give a gift to someone else; they give the gift to the friendship and both share and benefit equally in the exchange.
  • If Ryokan lost a game of Go, he paid his betting debt with calligraphy. Since he was a poor Go player, it was easy to get a piece of calligraphy out of him.
  • Keibun Roshi wrote that we should live in an invisible way and not seek to hand a body of work into the future. We should not seek fame, but live totally in the present so that our thoughts and actions are loaded, like the brush is with ink, in the expression of Buddha Nature.
  • We should not be concerned whether anything we have done will live beyond us. In other words, the mind should not attach to anything. If something we have done lives beyond us, it is none of our business. Fame does not actually belong to the person who becomes famous but only to those who make others famous.
  • If many ghosts dance in Ryokan’s poems, how glad they must be to have their bones still rattle.
  • There is a fine line between allowing people to work out their issues and really helping to relieve suffering. We don’t have all the answers.
  • It is wisdom to step aside even though one may feel regret.
  • Freedom seems to be in the ability to manage our commitments and to sustain older commitments with care when we decide to take on a new one. Happiness is found in the practice of devotion surrounding our work. As with the man in the sandpit, apart from situations of abuse, it is about not looking to escape the life we have but embracing the work we are doing.
  • This is why commitment or vow is such a treasure. The person chooses to be constant to a particular way because it is true for their lives, and then she continually chooses it, not just once, but again and again.
  • We misunderstand compassion and misinterpret empathy as a standard for ethical behavior.
  • Without this balance, we can become invested in our own needs and performance while forgetting there are others in the animal, vegetable, and mineral world. Or we can become so outwardly directed, perhaps even to the point of interfering, as to fail to see our own shortcomings. We must ask: for whom do we practice? We have the paradox of the self in the world, focusing inwardly in order to manifest outwardly. The inward look is the outward view.
  • Straight glances of honest eyes break a pile of swords. Strides of steady feet scorn the heat of boiling water.
  • This plainest truth must be implanted time and time again,


August 11, 2010

June was a strange month.

It was partially strange because my wife and I spent almost a full month apart (I spent a week in Vegas and she spent three weeks overseas with family right after I got back) for the first time since we spent summers in college at our respective homes. But it was also strange and difficult because our dog unexpectedly died while I was in Vegas.

She’d been sick for a while and had been really worn down from the medications she was on as part of her treatment, but we thought she was on the upswing. We were doing physical therapy with her, reducing her dosages, etc., but one day in June, that was it. She was gone. It crushed all of us to lose a member of the family like that.

Since this blog is where I (occasionally) write about zen/Buddhist-y stuff, I thought I’d take a few minutes to write about death from that perspective. This is the first major loss that I’ve dealt with since I started my practice a couple of years ago. And I really didn’t know what to expect.

Shortly after getting the news from my wife over the phone, I got back to my hotel room and didn’t quite know what to do with myself. I knew I couldn’t go out and be in public. I really needed to be alone. I decided I was going to try and sit, feeling whatever came and letting it be. I lasted less than three minutes propped up on a couple of pillows on the floor. I just couldn’t take it.

For the rest of the day, I made a conscious decision to just stay in and be with my grief. There were moments that I felt momentarily OK, but for the most part, there were waves of sadness hitting throughout the rest of the afternoon and evening. I didn’t fight them, try to think my way through them, or suppress them. Would I have had I not been practicing zen for the last few years? Maybe, maybe not.

Where the real difference came was in the days and weeks that followed. The Old Me would have spent a lot of time groaning, “Why? Why did this happen?” Instead, after the initial bout of that and the anger that came with it, I found myself feeling melancholy and contemplative. The waves of sadness would hit, but they’d be short-lived and manageable. It’s not that I was mourning less or that I was somehow feeling less pain, but that I was more equipped to deal with it moment-by-moment. It’s a hard phenomenon to explain, but it was there. I didn’t try to comfort myself with thoughts of “she’s in a better place now” or anything like that… if that comforts you, no problem, but I think I’m at the point where I don’t need those thoughts to help me through my grief.

From the point of view of attachment, I made it a point to not hold too tightly to the sadness but also not to grasp for relief from the pain. It really does make everything much more manageable and real to take it a moment at a time, without judgment. And there is a lot of judgment that happens with the death of a loved one. There’s the inevitable guilt that you should have done something differently or that you should have treated them better before it was too late. There’s the anger at the mistakes others made that contributed to the end result. There’s more guilt that comes with the feeling of relief. That last one’s kind of a doozy, actually. When our dog was going through her treatment, we had to take her outside 8-12 times a day. It was exhausting, but it was what we did for her because she needed it. So, sure, there was a relief at not having to constantly worry about her anymore — I was doing a lot of worrying — but the guilt hits for feeling that relief. It’s OK, though. It’s OK to feel relief because you know you’d gladly do it for weeks or months or years more to get to spend more time with them. It’s like a realization that hit me a few months ago: you can be happy and still feel worry and concern. You do have to give yourself a break and let yourself feel happiness/relief.

That last paragraph was a mess. But hopefully it makes some sort of sense.

There were a few things that really came in handy during June. I thought I’d share them here on the off-chance they might be useful to someone else going through the same thing:

  • Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart. I’d never read anything of Pema Chodron’s before — I had this impression that because she practiced in a Tibetan lineage that her writings would be dealing with mysticism, reincarnation, etc. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. When Things Fall Apart is one of the most important books I’ve ever read and is absolutely essential for anyone looking for ways to work through difficult times and learn from them. As an example of something from this book that helped me out more than I would have imagined: tonglen. The basic idea: breathe in the pain of everyone that’s suffering the way you are and then breathe out compassion and healing for everyone. I know, I know… total touchy-feely stuff. But what’s key for me is that moment of breathing in. It’s so easy when you’re caught up in grief to feel like you’re the only one who’s ever felt this pain. That moment of breathing in helps act as a reminder that we’re all connected, we all suffer, and often we’re suffering for the same reasons. We’re not alone.
  • Gil Fronsdal’s dharma talk on grief (mp3). Absolutely wonderful. Gil discussed a quote he remembered from a teacher along the lines of, “The first person you meet after finishing your grieving is the recipient of a great compassion.” The idea being that grief, when you take the time to really feel it and examine it, can lead to increased compassion for others in your day-to-day life (not just when you see someone else suffering).
  • Roshi Joan Halifax’s dharma talk on grief and Buddhism. Roshi shows an amazing tenderness and debunks myths about the grieving process (there are no “stages” – we waver back and forth and move in between) while talking to a group of caregivers that deal every day with death.

How ‘Bout Some Hardcore

August 4, 2006

The most recent book to “change my life” (though that phrase bothers me because the most important changes in life tend to come gradually) has been Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen. After having studied Buddhism informally for a number of years, this book finally crystalized my own feelings about the essence of Buddhism and its relevence to everyday life. Warner follows the Soto school of Zen, a sect started by Dogen Zenji back in the 13th century who brought Chinese Caodong Zen to Japan. What makes Soto Zen different from other schools of zen, like Rinzai, is that it doesn’t believe in “enlightenment” in the sense that most people associate with Buddhism. Rather, it says that the ultimate reality is you. It’s your life right now, at this moment. The only thing that is real is this exact moment and the best thing you can do is “right action” with regards to this very moment.

Its meditation is also different from many other forms of Buddhism in that there are no mantras involved, no focusing on koans, no trying to think of nothing (have you ever tried that?). Rather, it encourages what’s called shikantaza, which translates basically to “just sitting.” Zazen (sitting meditation) involves sitting on a cushion with your back straight, staring at a wall. And that’s it. You don’t try to block thoughts… you acknowledge them with a quiet mind and make yourself very aware that they’re there. With this comes the notion that thoughts are just thoughts, which is kind of an odd concept I’m just trying to grasp. Warner describes it well in an NPR interview he did a few years ago where he says when he gets annoyed, he can acknowledge that he’s annoyed and realize the annoyance is just another thought, which makes it easier to move past.

What’s great about Hardcore Zen is the way it minimizes the importance of ceremony and formalism… it’s not trying to sell dogma, it’s not trying to push a series of self-help books, it’s just one guy describing how he went from being a bassist in punk bands to working in Japan on monster movies to being a zen master. He’s not afraid to call people out for claiming they’re enlightened when they’re just using it as a marketing gimmick (he calls them “pussies”) and at the same time can take the most subtle corners of Zen philosophy and make it seem like common sense. Which it is.

I’ve started sitting zazen occasionally, though not as frequently as I’d like to. But one thing I noticed is that I tense up my muscles a lot, in particular my shoulders. So every time I was sitting and I felt myself tense, I’d let my shoulders drop and breath slightly deeper. Sometimes it would happen again 30 seconds later, so I’d do the same thing. After only a few sitting sessions, I found it easier to just sit and not tense up when thoughts would come to me. A cool side effect is that In Real Life, I notice that in a lot of situations where I’d be tense with my shoulders drawn up, I’m actually more relaxed and my shoulders and neck are in fully relaxed mode. Good stuff.

So, I guess one could say that Hardcore Zen has changed my life, though it’s only changed ever so slightly. I do sense, though, these are the types of changes that actually mean something and I look forward to learning more and focusing more on the right action for the moment.