What I Should’ve Said About the Sangha…

So last week I posted a video titled “My Sangha“, it was all about what it means to take refuge in the Sangha if you’re in an area without a temple or Zen center, or if you just don’t have the availability to regularly participate in a local Sangha. Yet, for all that I did say, I’ve begun to realize, there was quite a bit I didn’t say, and more importantly there was quite a bit a could have said better, and probably quite a bit I should clarify. So let’s talk about it right now!

YouTube is a great outlet for sharing and discussing ideas but, one of the problems with the medium of Youtube, for me at least, is that sometimes it can be difficult to effectively communicate and express your thought in such a short form medium. I try my best to keep my videos at or around 15 minutes, and usually I’m trying to cover a lot of ground in that time. Sometimes things get lost in that process or I’m not quite as clear as I’d like to be. Last week’s video about taking refuge in the Sangha is one such example.

I received a great comment on that video that made me recognize that I should say more on the subject.

“Taking refuge in the Sangha is not just about what a Sangha means to you. Members of a Sangha are seeking refuge in you, too. So, it is best, if you can to practice in person with a Sangha, so that you are there for them as well. We can also develop hubris if we believe we don’t need a teacher or other Sangha members to “catch” us in our belief that we’ve got it, when in fact we are far from it.”

There are some really excellent points here.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that an official Sangha is not important or helpful. In fact, just last weekend I took the Refuge vows and the Five Lay Precepts. By taking the Refuge vows and the Five Lay Precepts, I officially joined the Morning Sky Zen Sangha and I became a part of the Tsaodong Ch’an Lineage and tradition..

Now, I’ve discussed the refuge vows in the past couple videos, this is the Triple Refuge, the Refuge of the Three jewels, the triple gem, or the three shelters.

I take refuge in the Buddha
I take Refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

As my teacher explained in that ceremony, taking refuge in the Buddha does not simply mean the historical figure of the Buddha but the Buddha Nature found in everyone. Here the Buddha represents Enlightenment.

Taking refuge in the Dharma is not simply taking refuge in the teachings of the Buddha but the teachings of all beings. In other words, here, the Dharma represents truth.

And, finally taking refuge in the Sangha is not simply the community of fellow practitioners but also the community of all beings.

And that’s part of what I was trying to highlight in last week’s video.

In his book, Friends on the Path, Thich Nhat Hanh writes the follwoing:

The trees, water, air, birds, and so on can all be members of our sangha. A beautiful walking path may be part of our sangha. A good cushion can be also. We can make many things into supportive elements of our sangha. This idea is not entirely new; it can be found throughout the sutras and in the Abhidharma, too. A pebble, a leaf and a dahlia are mentioned in the Saddharmapundarika Sutra in this respect. It . If is said in the Pure Land Sutra that if you are mindful, then when the wind blows through the trees, you will hear the teaching of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the Eightfold Path, and so on. The whole cosmos is preaching the buddhadharma and practicing the buddhadharma. If you are attentive, you will get in touch with that sangha.

This is meant to not only stress the interconnectedness of all things, but I also think that its meant to give some encouragement to those of us who are not always in the position to be a part of an official Sangha in person. When we can see that the sangha is not limited to particular place or a specific group of individuals, but that the sangha is also comprised of all sentient beings, as well as anything and anyone we come into contact with during our practice, We can then recognize that we are never alone, we are never not part of a community – we are all part of an interdependent web of life, our community is always all around us.

We should welcome and acknowledge the support of the community that is always near us.

I’ve been reading a paraphrasing of Dogen‘s Shobogenzo by Brad Warner, called Don’t Be a Jerk, in it he writes that we should “rely on whatever has the truth, whether it’s a lamppost or a stop sign or a Buddha, whether it’s a stray dog, a demon or a god, or a man or a woman” and that one should even “look to trees and stones to be your teachers, even fields and villages might preach to you, as it says in the Lotus Sutra. Question lampposts and investigate fences and walls.”

I think what I wanted to try to say was that regardless of one’s location, availability, or circumstances one can always take refuge in the sangha of all beings, they too are part of one’s sangha.

In this regard, I don’t think its a bad or irreverent thing to ask what a Sangha is?, or what a Sangha is for you?

A really great book I read years ago is a book called The Sacredness of Questioning Everything by David Dark In it he writes that “religion can, and should be, objected to, questioned, and talked about. Contrary to many adherents who demand unquestioning respect for their faith, religion is perfectly and wonderfully objectionable.”

“The religiously faithful aren’t just permitted to critique and complain and reform; they’re BOUND to do as much BY religion. Without it, there is no faithfulness”

To me, this seems to be in keeping with the evolution of Buddhism. The historical development and progression of Buddhism has proven to be quite plastic, by that I mean that the tradition is malleable, there is a fluidity there. In each successive generation practitioners have constantly been found asking what it meanss to be a Buddhist in their context. As a result Buddhism has constantly adapted to changes of time and place, and it has done so without ever losing its core principles and teachings.

One of the books I just started reading is a book called Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. Here’s a passage that I think gets at what I mean here:

The world we work in today is not the world of Michelangelo, of Marie Curie, of Ernest Hemingway, or even of Paul Rand. It is a new world, empowered and entranced by the rapid-fire introduction of new technologies—a world where our metaphysical front door is always open, where anyone can whisper in our ear, where a “room of one’s own” no longer means you’re all alone.

We can easily apply this to the Buddhist tradition, or any other tradition for that matter.

The world we live in today is not the world of the Buddha, of Bodhidharma, of Hongzhi, of Dogen, or of any of the other great teachers and Zen masters. It is a new world…

As Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book, Cosmopolitanism, “the worldwide web of information – radio, television, telephones, the Internet – means not only that we can affect lives everywhere but that we can learn about life anywhere, too.”

For example, I should mention that the Morning Sky Zen Sangha, isn’t exactly what you would call a traditional Sangha. It’s primarily based online. I live in Palm Bay, Florida and my teacher is in Kansas City, MO., and its other members are found all over the country. In other words, by embracing and utilizing the internet based communications technologies our modern world, my Sangha is reformulating what a Sangha is, what a Sangha looks like, and what a Sangha can be in the reality of our present world.

However, the refuge and support I receive from my teacher and the other members of my Sangha is in no way diminished by the fact that it is transmitted through an internet connection, if anything, the fact that the support of my Sangha can transcend the barriers and limitations of geography in such a way is a testament to its strength and vitality.

I believe firmly that our faithfulness or commitments to our beliefs, ideals, and traditions is directly proportionate to our ability to question them, our ability to reevaluate them, and our ability to reformulate them.

By asking what a Sangha truly is, what it means to be a part of Sangha, what a sangha means for me, or what a Sangha means for you, it is a way of acknowledging the fact that our world has dramatically changed and continues to do so, and it is way of expressing our deep commitment to these traditions and ideas.

In What is Zen? Norman Fischer writes that “Zen has to be different to fit us, but we have to be different to fit Zen.”

It is a reciprocal activity.

As Thich Nhat Hanh writes “When we say, ‘I take refuge in the sangha,’ it is not a statement, it is a practice.”

It is an active orientation, a vow of reciprocal action, a promise enacted reciprocity.

Returning to Thich Nhat Hanh, he say that “A sangha is not a community of practice in which each person is an island, unable to communicate with each other—this is not a true sangha. No healing or transformation will result from such a sangha. A true sangha should be like a family in which there is a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.”

He goes on to say – “Don’t think that we sit for ourselves. You don’t sit for yourself alone, you sit for the whole sangha—not only the sangha, but also for the people in your city, because when one person in the city is less angry, is smiling more, the whole city profits.”

When we sit, we sit with and for all beings, we sit with and for the entire world.

As Dogen explains, “Mountains practice with one who meditates. Water realizes the way with one who practices.”

We should not only be the recipients of support, we should equally lend support to whatever community we find ourselves a part of.

We should take refuge in the sangha of all beings, but also all beings should be able to take refuge in us, as we are part of their sangha as well.

In other words, the Sangha is the practice of being open and aware enough to receive the support available from the entire world, it is taking refuge in the entirety of the world. But, it is also the practice of being open-enough to be the space in which the entire world can take refuge in you.

What makes a Sangha a Sangha is not it’s physical location or its brick and mortar structure. A Sangha is not limited to a building, or one geographical place, nor is it liimited to the the literal proximity of the participants to one another. The Sangha extends beyond all this. What makes a Sangha a Sangha is the shared reciprocity of caring support and compassionate connection. To take refuge is to be a refuge.

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My Sangha…

In this video talk about what’s known in Buddhism as the Sangha, or the ‘community’, and what it means to take refuge in the sangha if you don’t have a local Buddhist community or when you just don’t have time to go to your local Buddhist community. Below is a rough transcript. Enjoy!

So, if you’re a Buddhist or if you’ve studied Buddhism at all you may have come across the term Sangha. A Sangha is a Buddhist community of practice, in other words, a temple, meditation center, or a Zen center. But, what if you don’t live near a temple or Zen center? Or, if you’re like me and you don’t always have time to get your local Zen center, what is a sangha for you then. That’s what we’re going to talk about right now.

In Buddhism there’s something called the Triple Refuge or the refuge of the Three Jewels: “I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher). I take refuge in the dharma (the teaching). I take refuge in the sangha (the community). I know this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about the Three Jewels. I briefly discussed them in part four of my “Montaigne & Buddhism” titled “Why Should Buddhists Care?” But, today I wanted to focus on the refuge of the sangha a little more. Maybe you’re like me in that I’m a predominately a kind of self-taught Zen practitioner. I’ve gotten deeper into Buddhism and Zen from reading various books, watching videos, listening to podcasts, and dharma talks etc. So, for me the endeavor into Zen and Buddhism was not one primarily of community orientation. At the time I wasn’t even aware if there was a Zen center near. I’ve since discovered that there is. I have visited my local Zen center more than once and I have greatly enjoyed it each time. However, between hectic-ness of work and family life I don’t get to go as often as I would like. But, as I said in the intro maybe you live in an area with out any kind of official sangha, without an actual temple or Zen center. How does one, then, take refuge in the community, the sangha?

In his book, What is Zen?, Norman Fischer explains that “The word sangha…means “community” but, also that “the word sangha as used in Mahayana Buddhism means…the community of all beings.” Fischer goes on to say that “In the relative sense, sangha is the people you practice Zen with” and In “the absolute sense, sangha is all sentient beings.” In the Mahayana school of Buddhism, and especially in Zen. There is no separation between one’s practice and one’s everyday life. They are one and the same. If one’s practice and the activities of one’s everyday life are not separate spheres, then, it also stand to reason that the idea of a sangha  cannot be separately demarcated sphere. In other words, perhaps, one could say that the Sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, or anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, or contributes to your Zen practice.

I just wrote an Article for The Tattooed Buddha Website that was published a few days ago. The title of the article is “Barking Dogs & Meowing Cats: Samatha Meditation Between the Pauses”. In the article I talk about what my daily meditation practice is like and what the environment of my daily meditation practice is like.

Every morning I get up early, I grab my cushion, I let the dogs out, I set my timer, and I meditate on my patio for about 45 minutes. On paper, that sounds more serene than what it actually is. Don’t get me wrong, some mornings, when I have enough awareness, or when I’ve gotten enough sleep the previous night, the sound of birdsong and the whispers of a slight breeze softly pirouetting through the trees in my backyard is meditation gold. Picking an object of concentration in such a setting is like being at a buffet. Unfortunately, this isn’t actually the most accurate portrayal of the soundscape. Remember those dogs I let out? Yeah…let’s talk about them for a minute. I have a Chiweenie who has made it his personal mission, his quest, to vigilantly defend the yard against every rustling bush, viciously hunting down every intruding lizard, and barking vehemently as if sounding the alarm against the evils of the squirrel menace. I also have a neurotic Jack Russell Terrier mutt, who noisily and aggressively rushes to the aid of her pint sized comrade in arms, unquestioningly seconding the commotion, yelping without ever having a clue as to what is being yelped at. She quickly grows tired of the traumas found in the backyard battlefield. Whining, panic stricken, and in a state of utter despair, she scratches at the patio screen door seeking asylum, calling for canine sanctuary. If that wasn’t enough, throw in an indoor cat meowing incessantly at the sliding glass door, desperately yearning for the outside world. Not so serene now, is it?

I’ve begun to see that regardless of the torrent of external and internal activity, I can physically locate a stillness, a quiet, somewhere within myself. Often while I’m watching the breath and becoming distracted by the cacophony of diversions that both my mind and my environment elicit, I search for that stillness. I try to see if I can I touch this stillness, even if but for a moment. Sometimes I find it in the still stability of my hands as they rest together on my lap. Sometimes I find it in the brief pause between breaths.

I don’t always find this quiet, I can’t always see the stillness, and I don’t always have the ability to touch it, but, when it happens, when I can manage to touch that ever-present stillness within myself, I simultaneously touch the stillness that is present in everything else around me. There is a stillness in the tress as the wind caresses the leaves. There is a calm in the chirping of the birds. There is even a quiet stillness found present in a barking Chiweenie, a whining Jack Russell, and an incessantly meowing cat.

Zen Meditation, or zazen, is at its best when it welcomes in, embraces, and sits with the present moment of the world around us, whatever it may be, whatever may be happening, and whatever it may contain. In Brad Warner‘s book, Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dogen, Japean’s Greatest Zen Master, he writes that “unlike most other forms of meditation, [in zazen] we keep our eyes open. This is a way of acknowledging the outside world as part of our practice and as a part of us.” Warner says that “By opening our eyes, we are letting in that light that Dōgen says we should shine inward. So although we are shining our light inward, we also accept that there is no hard line that divides ourselves from the outside world, or the rest of the universe.”

You may be thinking, that all sounds great, but, what about the sangha? what does any of this have to do with the sangha?

I’m getting there, I promise. I just read a great blog post by Sensei Alex Kakuyo called 3 Things I learned from my Outdoor Meditation Retreat. In the blog post he writes about a time he was working as Farmer, and not only did he not have access to a local sangha but, virtual or online access to a sangha and such dharma related resources was limited. So he would do self-led meditation retreats, autonomously exploring outdoor meditation. He writes about the experience stating “I wanted to sit in a beautiful park with birds singing in the trees.  But you can’t enjoy those things without dealing grass stains and bird poop.  They’re part of the process, and expecting anything else is a cause of suffering.” I can relate. For me to sit zazen in the morning on my patio means I also have to deal my dogs barking and whining, and one of my cats meowing. Sensei Alex highlights the fact that “The world will always be there, banging at the front door.  The best way to deal with it is by letting it in.” This next part of his essay was the light bulb moment for me and it drives home the point I’ve been trying to get it in this video. He says that as he was meditation in these outdoor areas, observing and “letting-in” the contents of the environment he began to recognize that “The birds, the ants, and the people at the park had all been supporting me like a traditional Buddhist sangha”. All of these various elements of the outside world became so apart of his practice that they were actually supporting and upholding his practice, they became his sangha. He says that “Everyone and everything on the planet is working hard to help us in our walk toward awakening.  We just need to open our eyes and notice the gifts that we’re given.”

in a weird kind of way, my sangha is made of up my of these dogs and cats, and the whole conglomeration of what is present at the time and place of my practice. The sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, any thing or anyone that somehow contributes to your Zen practice.

As Max Erdstein says “The Whole world is the monastery”.

This may sound strange but, this really isn’t a foreign concept to Zen. I just recently finished reading The Essential Dogen. Dogen, who I mentioned earlier and who I’ve quoted in a past video, was a 13th century Zen Buddhist priest, who has not only been credited with bringing Zen to Japan but, also founded the Soto school of Zen. In Dogen’s voluminous writings he talks about ‘insentient beings speaking the dharma’.

Dogen writes the following:

“Mountains practice with one who meditates. Water realizes the way with one who practices.”

“Because earth, grass, trees, walls, tiles, and pebbles of the world of phenomena…all engage in buddha activity, those who receive the benefits of the wind and water are inconceivably helped by the buddha’s transformation…and intimately manifest enlightenment.”

“The sutras are the entire world… There is no moment or place that is not sutras.”

“The sutras are written in letters of heavenly beings, human beings, animals, fighting spirits, one hundred grasses, or ten thousand trees. This being so, what is long, short, square, and round, as well as what is blue, yellow, red, and white, arrayed densely in the entire world… is no other than letters of the sutras and the surface of the sutras. Regard them as the instruments of the great way and as the sutras of the buddha house.”

Everything that you encounter on the path of your practice is the dharma. The entirety of the phenomenal world forms the letters of the sutras. Everything is your sangha. As you begin to practice and as you continue to practice take a deep look at everything and everyone in your world, that is your sangha.

Meditation & Discomfort…

Whether you’ve been mediating for a couple weeks or several years, chances are at some point in your practice you’ve been confronted with some kind of discomfort, whether physical, emotional, or psychological. So let’s talk about that right now…
I recently posted a video titled “I Suck at Meditating” in that video I outlined some of the frustrations I have with my daily meditation practice, and, even more so, I talked about the frustrations I have with what seems to be my lack of meditative progress. Sometimes meditation itself can a kind of catalyst for discomfort. Meditation is an extremely ‘reflective’ experience. Now I don’t mean reflective in the sense of being in deep thought. What I mean here is that meditation is mirror-like in that it can incisively reflect the details of one’s subjectivity back to oneself. It can reveal the details of our attachments, expectations, anxieties, fears, judgments. Although this can sometimes be a painful and uncomfortable experience, it can also mean that its working. Meditation fully confronts one with the contents of reality and all that is included within the present moment, which often includes things that aren’t so pleasant. I posted that video in a Facebook discussion group I belong to and I received a great comment from another member of the group. They stated the following:
Due to that misunderstanding about the goal being not having anything thoughts, I’ve tried to use meditation to escape unpleasant feelings. It didn’t work very well.
I’ve had a major life change recently, not handling it well, and my therapist told me I have to actually feel emotions instead of repressing them, so I’ve been trying to allow that to happen in meditation. It feels awful to be aware of how much everything hurts, of how angry I am, and doesn’t feel like lovingkindness or peace. But my physical health is improving, so I guess it’s having benefits.
I replied saying that as paradoxical as it may seem often the most lovingly kind thing you can do for yourself is to allow yourself to feel how you feel. Sometimes the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself is to give yourself permission to experience exactly whatever you’re experiencing. It can be much more violent to try to repress or ignore pain and discomfort. Yet, from my experience, it seems that when you’re fully present to the hurt and you simply observe it with mindfulness, the sting begins to fade.
This really got me thinking. Early on I tried to use mediation as an escape from discomfort, stress, and frustration. A few years ago it felt like my life was falling apart. I lost my job, lost my house, my marriage was on the verge of collapse. It felt like I was in a losing battle with depression. On top of everything else I lost, I lost hope as well. Whenever I would feel myself getting overtaken by anxiety, stress, depression, or anything like that I would run to the cushion. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad strategy – meeting strong emotional and psychological reactions with meditation head on. But, that’s not exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to use meditation as a means to push away the discomfort and not deal with it, to escape from it. I was trying to use my practice as a way in which to avoid dealing with the problem.
Jon Kabat Zinn writes that “You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquility of stillness and peacefulness. This of course would be an attachment to stillness, and like any strong attachment, it leads to delusion.” In other words, if you use your meditation practice as a means in which to avoid facing the perturbances and difficulties of everyday life you will remain trapped in suffering, and if you cling and grasp too firmly in an attachment to the idea of and the desire for tranquility and stillness, you will remain ensnared by delusion. Dogen says that “Realization is reality right now. Even shocks, doubts, fears, and frights are none other than reality right now.” Jon Kabat Zinn goes on to say that “Mindful sitting meditation is not an attempt to escape from problems or difficulties into some cut-off ‘meditative’ state of absorption or denial. On the contrary, it is a willingness to go nose to nose with pain, confusion, and loss, if that is what is dominating the present moment, and to stay with the observing over a sustained period of time”.
I recently read a great article by Daniel Scharpenburg on the Tattooed Buddha Website. Daniel is a fantastic writer and meditation teacher and the Tattooed Buddha is really cool website that I’ve recently had the pleasure of writing for. Daniel’s article is titled ‘Greed, Hatred, and Delusion‘, or whats known in Buddhism as ‘The Three Poisons’. These three poisons are also known as ‘Attachment, Aversion, and Ignorance’. Greed is synonymous with Attachment, we are greedily attached to our desires, attached to the desire to have our desires permanently fulfilled. we are addicted to comfort, satisfaction, and security, yet, we are never fully satisfied, we are constantly chasing the dragon. In Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, Dan Harris writes that “We’re always on the hunt for the next dopamine hit. We hurl ourselves headlong from one cookie, one promotion, one party to the next, and yet a great many of us are never fully sated”. This is Greed, this is attachment.
Hatred is equated with Aversion – aversion to pain, discomfort, etc. As vehemently as we are attached to our desires for what we want, we are just as equally averse to all that we don’t want. Daniel Scharpenburg makes it clear that this hatred/aversion can be directed toward “unpleasant people, circumstances, or even toward ourselves.” He highlights that hatred and aversion “can manifest as anger, but also as impatience, ill-will, annoyance and hostility.” In his book, What is Zen?Norman Fischer expresses a similar idea when he says that “This aversion appears as a cacophony of resistance in the body to the pain, as well as painful emotional thinking, including blame of others, self-blame, fear, despair, anger, and so on.” We are so attached to our ideas, beliefs, and concepts of pleasantness, comfort, and satisfaction that we express a deep seated hatred and aversion to anything that threatens to shatter or conflict with those desirous beliefs.
Being so caught up in these bifurcated beliefs, so firmly distinguishing between pleasant and unpleasant, between what we want and what we don’t want, we are lead into the third poison, Delusion and Ignorance. Put simply, Delusion and Ignorance arrives at the very moment we believe that all our desires can be lastingly fulfilled and that all discomfort and unpleasantness can somehow be avoided. In other words, we demonstrate an utter lack of understanding concerning the nature of reality.
In the article I recently wrote for the Tattooed Buddha I discuss what’s known in Buddhism as ‘the second arrow’. In the Sallatha Sutta the Buddha states the following:
When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows. In the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental.
The first arrow is unavoidable. We will inevitably and invariably be confronted by pain, loss, discomfort, unpleasantness, difficulties, etc. It is our reactivity to the first arrow that causes the strike of the second arrow. We are the second shooter, the second gunman, the second archer on the grassy knoll. We are responsible for the second arrow. As I say the article, the second arrow flys “when we begin bemoan the fact that things aren’t the way we think they should be.” Norman Fischer explains that
What makes suffering suffering is our aversion to it, our desire to escape, our childish sense that this shouldn’t be happening, that we shouldn’t be suffering, and that we should be able to figure out how to make it stop. That attitude makes the suffering worse. But when we are willing to suffer when it is time to suffer, when we don’t mind, when we know that suffering is and was always built into being alive in a living world, and that this is the beauty and the privilege of living, then we can take on the suffering, and it isn’t really suffering.
Fischer goes on to say that “If you can sit still for all this and keep breathing, eventually you discover that it is the aversion, much more than the primary sensation, that hurts.” Perhaps one could say that the second arrow is the very expression of the three poisons, that is, our Attachment, Aversion, and Delusion. It shows us what we are attached to, what we are avoiding, and what we are ignorant of or deluded by.
If I’m being honest, I have to admit that sometimes my meditation practice is more an expression of my attachments, aversions, and delusions than it is my release from them. But, it’s through my sitting practice that I’m beginning to be able to see and detect these three poisons more easily. These poisons coming to light, especially during mediation practice, can be unpleasant, uncomfortable, and, perhaps, even painful. It can be extremely tempting to push the experience down or to push it away. Yet, as Jon Kabat Zinn explains “There can be no resolution leading to growth until the present situation has been faced completely and you have opened to it with mindfulness, allowing the roughness of the situation itself to sand down your own rough edges.”
A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of The Minimalists Podcast. It was episode 135, titled “Acquaintances”. While they weren’t discussing meditation or Buddhism, I think what they had to say relates to what we’re talking about here. They talk about how avoiding everything you dislike will stunt your growth.” Avoiding experiences you dislike will severely limit the breadth and depth of your experience of reality. In fact, Experience becomes richer when you open yourself up to experiences you dislike. In his book, Buddha Mind, Buddha Body, Thich Nhat Hahn writes that “When we know that our suffering, our hatred and fear are organic, we don’t try to run away from them. We know that if we practice, we can transform them and they can nourish our happiness and well-being.” If we can fully confront our suffering, our pain, our discomfort, our attachment, our aversion, and our delusion, not only can we avoid the sting of the second arrow but, we can also transform our pain and our poisons into the fertilization of our new growth.
The truest testament to the results of mediation is not the quality or the pleasantness of your time spent on the cushion but, the quality of your life spent off the cushion.

I Suck at Meditating…

If you’ve ever felt frustrated or disappointed about meditating, well…you’re in good company. In this video I talk about about my meditation frustrations and what meditation is really all about. I hope you find it helpful! Enjoy!

 

I suck at meditating. Maybe you think you do too. So let’s talk about it.
I suck at meditating. It’s true. I’m a bad meditator, a committed and disciplined meditator but a bad one none the less. I get up early every morning, or at least 6 days out of the week, sit on my cushion, and meditate for 30-45 minutes. The problem I have with my practice is my progress…
I am constantly getting unknowingly lost in thought – getting lost in thought without even realizing its happening.  Now, I know that the misnomer of a ‘clear mind’, or ‘clearing the mind’, or a mind free from all thoughts is something of a meditation myth. To some extent the mind can never be clear, it can never be free from all thought. You can’t stop thinking, specifically because you are not the author of your thoughts, the mind is a ‘thought’ producing machine, a ‘thought’ creating machine, all ‘thoughts’ are ‘thoughts’ without a ‘thinker’. But, one of the suggestions I often here in meditation instructions is to try and see the thought arise as it arises. Well…I suck at that. By the time I recognize ‘thinking’ I have already been overtaken by it. I don’t see it until I’m already in the thick of it.
I slip-away, black out, I doze off – sometimes this dozing isn’t really sleep so much as a sleep-like haze – I guess that’s why the aspiration of meditation is ‘awakening’, to ‘wake-up’
I’ve been growing increasingly frustrated with my meditation practice – or more specifically increasingly frustrated with myself for not being able to meditate up to the standards I think that I should be.
I’ve also been getting increasingly frustrated with the results of meditation practice, or more specifically the lack of results, which I have masochistically categorized and listed: (Maybe you’ve experienced some these yourself if you’ve tried meditating)
  • Meditation is supposed to help with focus but I find myself getting distracted so often
  • Meditation is supposed to increase memory but I’m noticing how forgetful I am and how often I forget things
  • Meditation is supposed to aid in making one less of an asshole but I am seeing how much of a dick I can be
  • I am seeing how frustrated I get with people, with situations, how annoyed I get with things I don’t like, whether its doing things I don’t like, or being places I don’t want to be
  • Meditation is supposed to help calm or regulate one’s mood and overall demeanor but damn am I one moody mother fucker.
  • Just recently I really lost my temper with my daughter and one of the first things that I felt was disappointment and resentment with myself. I was even more angry with myself when I started thinking about the fact that I meditate regularly, thinking why isn’t this meditation paying off? why isn’t it working? Why am I still losing my temper? What am I doing wrong? What’s the point of getting up so early, sitting, sometimes uncomfortably, for 30 minutes at a time, if i’m still just as much of a jerk.
From time to time I write after my sitting practice – as a kind of extension of the practice. I was writing after a particularly ‘bad’ sitting. My mind had been racing around like a toddler hyped up on mountain dew and pixie sticks. I don’t think I had a moments peace for the entire 30 minute sitting. I was getting exhausted just trying to watch my mind, and I kept almost slipping into sleep, and unconsciously dropping into the cloud of thoughts, spacing out, without even realizing it had happened, coming out of with an almost confused disorientation, “What happened?” Where did I go? How long was I out for? Dude, where’s my car? As I was airing my meditation grievances in written form, something occurred to me: isn’t it interesting that we can so clearly define what is a bad sitting? We can so clearly describe what constitutes a bad meditation session. We can so easily articulate what failure looks like, what fucking up looks like? What being wrong is? But, what is a good sitting? What does a good sitting feel like? What does a good meditation session look like? What would succeeding look like? Well…damn…I don’t know, I don’t know how to answer those questions, We might instinctively feel like we know the answers but stop, take a minute, and genuinely try to answer those kinds of questions, if you’re like me its like trying to hit a moving target , its like trying to catch that toddle high on sugar and cracked out on caffeine. I also had another realization: I am noticing that I am noticing these things. I am seeing that I am seeing these things. Things about myself are becoming more clearly visible
Well…Maybe this is a win. It’s an anti-climactic win. Perhaps a kind of disappointing win, a melancholy win, but, maybe a win none-the-less.
In episode 135 of the 10% Happier Podcast, Dan Harris and his guest Paul Gilmartin discuss this precise situation and these exact ideas. Paul Gilmartin says that “nothing degrades the quality of my life like obsessing about the quality of my life” and Gilmartin goes on to say that “Meditation is good at introducing yourself to what you’re obsessing about”.
I’m not only obsessively noticing my lack of focus, my tendency to be distracted, my forgetfulness, and my general proclivity toward being an asshole. I’m also seeing how much judgement I have, or how much I’m judging myself. I’m noticing all my expectations for myself, for my meditation practice, and all my expectations for everything else that I do for that matter. I’m seeing how much I cling to those expectations. I’m noticing how attached I am to those expectations, how caught up in those expectations I am.
I just recently finished reading Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren, and Carlye Adler. It’s an easy and insightful read, about beginning, cultivating, and continuing the habituation of a meditation practice. In the book Harris points out that  “Expectations are the most noxious ingredient you can add to the meditation stew.” Harris goes on to say that “Ambition and striving—the assets that often help us so much in the rest of our lives—can work against us on the cushion.”
In this regard, the Harris’ book highlights the fact that “Meditation is unlike anything else you do in life, in that here, “failing”—that is, noticing you’ve gotten distracted and starting again—is succeeding.” Harris writes that “When you wake up from distraction, that is the magic moment, the victory.” There’s no way to fail, failure vanishes into success the moment a ‘failing’ is attentively recognized with a keen and observant awareness. In his book, Wherever You Go There you Are, Jon Kabat Zinn writes that “Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” Jon Kabat Zinn goes on to say that “in meditation practice, the best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all.”
 In this regard, there’s no bad meditation, there’s no such thing as a bad sitting.
Returning to Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, He goes on to say that “One of the learning curves of this practice is maintaining your intention without being attached to a particular outcome, including the outcome of feeling better.” As Harris notes, “The goal is to be open to whatever comes up, and to approach it all with mindfulness, friendliness, and interest.” It’s not about being good at meditating or getting good at meditation or being a good meditator. I came across a great tweet from Ethan Nichtern. Nichtern is a senior teacher for the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York. He tweeted the following:
Ethan_Tweet
It’s not about the outcome, it’s not about the results, its not about meeting expectations, yours or anyone else’s, instead its simply about doing the work and being present.
With that in mind not only is there no such thing as a bad sitting, there’s also no such thing as a good sitting. In his book, What is Zen?, Soto Zen priest Norman Fischer explains that when it comes to meditation “There’s no such things a ‘good, better, or best'”. In fact, it’s Meditation that can help one to let go of one’s ideas of how things should be.
Jon Kabat Zinn writes that “meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel. It’s not about making the mind empty or still…meditation is about letting the mind be as it is and knowing something about how it is in this moment. It’s not about getting somewhere else, but about allowing yourself to be where you already are.”
If you feel good while you’re meditating allow yourself to feel good. Notice what its like to feel that way. If you feel bored or frustrated or anxious or distracted while your on the cushion allow yourself to feel that way, and pay attention to the way that feels.
I think Jon Kabat Zinn makes an important point when he says:
There is nothing wrong with feelings of boredom or staleness, or of not getting anywhere, just as there is nothing wrong with feeling that you are getting somewhere and in fact, your practice may well be showing signs of becoming deeper and more robust. The pitfall is when you inflate such experiences or thoughts and you start believing in them as special. It’s when you get attached to your experience that the practice arrests, and your development along with it.
Boredom can be fascinating when you have awareness enough to objectively observe it. Staleness can be incredibly fresh when you can mindfully open yourself up to the full experience of it. What does boredom feel like? What does the staleness of meditation feel like? Can you locate the feeling of boredom and/or staleness in your physicality? The same could be said of frustration, anger, annoyance, disappointment, there are observably physical components to each. You can learn a lot by just letting them be, letting them be what they are, letting yourself be where you are.
Maybe you’ve tried meditation and gave up because you thought you sucked at it or because you thought you failed at it. But, Meditation is about learning to fall, learning to fail, learning to let go of it all, and learning to be right where you are, wherever it is that you are.

Montaigne & Buddhism Part 4: Why Should Buddhists Care?

This is the final part of my Montaigne & Buddhism series. In this concluding video I attempt to answer the question “Why should Buddhists care about Montaigne?”  Below you’ll find a rough transcript. Enjoy!

Recently I posted one of the videos from my Montaigne and Buddhism series in a Buddhist Facebook discussion group and the question “Why should Buddhists care about Montaigne?” was one of the first questions raised. I actually think this is a really great question. It’s an apt point and a reasonable concern. After all Montaigne is a French Renaissance philosopher, he was not a Buddhist, and there seems to be no evidence to support that he ever studied or encountered Buddhist thought and philosophy. So why the comparison? Why does it matter? And, to restate the question, “Why should Buddhists care?” In any philosophical discussion or conversation one of the most important questions to ask is “So what?” On one hand it is perhaps self-indulgent on my part, in that my academic background is in both religion and humanities and I relish the opportunity to put my interests into conversation. I think the work of comparative philosophy, putting cross-cultural and cross-contextual figures into discourse, can be quite helpful regardless of one’s predominant school of thought or regardless of the particular affiliation of one’s tradition. My aim here is not to use Montaigne as a referential point of legitimization or substantiation for Buddhism. There is no need to refer to Montaigne. But, because Montaigne did not study or write about Buddhism it makes the close parallels found between the writings of Montaigne and Buddhist thought all the more interesting. There is a fascinating simultaneity. The suggestion, here, is that, in Montaigne’s Essays, he seems to display many ideas that are both similar and conducive with many of the core tenets of Buddhism. Montaigne does seem to practice something closely akin to a mindfully meditative awareness concentrated upon the present moment (Dhyana/Jhana). Such a practice does seem to have cultivated in him ‘a special way of seeing’ into the nature of existence and reality (Vipassana/Vipasyana). Through such ‘insight’ he does seem to suggest that the world, and everything within it, is ultimately impermanent and in a constantly fluxing process of becoming and unfolding (Anitya/Anicca). As such, Montaigne does seem to propose that even the ‘self’ is not immune or exempt from the variable transience, or transitioning, of impermanence (Anatman/Anatta). Rather than being fixed or stable, Montaigne sees the human subject or ‘self’ as an intricately interwoven mass of interconnected substances and things subject to constant change (Skandhas/Khandhas).
However, one possible refutation of the project presented in this paper is that the comparisons outlined are merely a kind of grasping at straws. One could suggest that the proposed parallels between Montaigne and Buddhist thought have been read into, or posited upon, the text rather than actually interpreted from the text. Perhaps, this research has merely shined a Buddhist light on Montaigne’s thought, or perhaps it has only bent Montaigne in a Buddhist direction, forcing words or thoughts into Montaigne’s mouth and mind. Perhaps this is true. However, if, as Sarah Bakewell suggests, that one of the chief questions that fascinated and motivated Montaigne’s writing was the question of “How to live?”, then all subsequent investigations into the thoughts and ideas of Montaigne will be deficient if they are taken up only by a solitary stream of study. The question of “How to live?”, as well as questions into the nature of reality, are far too universal to be limited to a single field of thought. Ideas and insights are not limited to a particular time, culture, or context. Nor is the truthfulness of certain ideas and insights contingent upon the knowledge or familiarity of similar ideas and insights from a differing time, context, or culture. If anything, an unaffiliated, cross-cultural and cross-contextual, simultaneity of ideas and insights is evidence of their truthfulness, and the universality of the human condition. There is, then, a necessitation for comparative philosophy.
I just finished reading a book by Soto Zen priest, Norman Fischer called “What is Zen?” In the book Fischer writes that Zen “engages the large questions: Who are we? Why are we born? Why do we die? What is death? What is the good life?” In other words, Zen and Buddhism, also deal predominantly with the question of “How to Live?” There’s nothing specifically or particularly “Buddhist” about such a question or the effort of grappling with such a question. In fact, I came across a tweet from meditation and Dharma teacher, Daniel Scharpenburg. Scharpenburg posted the following quote from Zen master Seung Sahn:
tweet
Buddhism is not something categorically separate. It’s just a convenient name given to the practice of attempting to see reality clearly, it’s a name given to the act of grappling with the question of “How to Live?” Returning to “What is Zen?”, Norman Fischer notes that Zen, or religion, or philosophy, or etc. “cannot actually give us answers to such questions; rather, it gives us ways to grapple with them together, in communities that include not only living friends, but practitioners from the past, whose words and deeds still inspire us.” Here, Fischer draws special attention to what Buddhism calls the Triple Refuge or the refuge of the Three Jewels: “I take refuge in the Buddha (the teacher). I take refuge in the dharma (the teaching). I take refuge in the sangha (the community). Fischer explains that “Refuge means literally, “to fly back,” “to return to,” to commit oneself to what is already a deep natural urge of the heart.” Fischer also explains that “A Zen teacher isn’t a person; a “Zen teacher” inevitably involves a world, a context.” Zen teaching is unavoidably engaged within and synonymous with the context of an immanent and material world. Similarly, Fischer not only highlights that “The word sangha…means “community” but, also that “the word sangha as used in Mahayana Buddhism means…the community of all beings.” Fischer goes on to say that In the relative sense, sangha is the people you practice Zen with” and In “the absolute sense, sangha is all sentient beings.” Perhaps, one could even distill that down even further and say that the Sangha is anyone or anything you practice Zen with, or anyone or anything that aids you in your practice of Zen, or contributes to your Zen practice.
Is it any wonder that I find it difficult to separate my practice from all my other activities and interests, they are all deeply conjoined and interrelated. In Zen thought, there is no separation between one’s practice and one’s everyday life. Zen practice is life. In “What is Zen?”, Norman Fischer writes that “Zen…is about how we live, who we are, and how we treat others”. Fischer goes on to say that “there is really nothing else but practice. All our daily activity is practice”. It should then come as no surprise that one can find glimmers of the dharma everywhere, even in unexpected places.
Should a Buddhist care about Montaigne? Maybe, maybe not. Should a non-Buddhist care Montaigne? Maybe, maybe not. But why not explore the discursive potentiality? The Buddha seemed to suggest that the truths he discovered were not unique to him alone, but that anyone anywhere could discover what he had and that they could even do so without a direct affiliation to ‘the path’ he outlined. In his book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula, writes that “[The Buddha] attributed all his realization, attainments, and achievements to human endeavour and human intelligence” and that [The Buddha] taught, encouraged and stimulated each person to develop himself and to work out his own emancipation, for man has the power power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence”. As Rahula goes o to say “If the medicine is good, the disease will be cured. It is not necessary to know who prepared it, or where it came from.” I am someone who is attempting go deeper into Buddhist practice and to learn more about the Dharma. But, I am also still one who is steeped within the literary tradition of the humanities. I am hoping that attempts at joining these passions together will help to strengthen both. Perhaps, I’m not alone in such a pursuit and if I’m not I would love to be able to help spur on such a conversation. Perhaps those more steeped in Buddhism my find a few kindred spirits in the literature of western humanities and perhaps those more fluent in the literary humanities will see something synchronous in the middle path. In many ways, I think that thinkers, like Montaigne, help me to be not only a better person but, also a better Buddhist. Or perhaps one could say that because something or someone helps you to be a better person, it will also help you to be a better Buddhist, or a better whatever you are. Take refuge in the teacher, the teaching, and the community of anyone and anything that helps you better grapple with the question of “How to Live?”

Montaigne & Buddhism Part 3: Anatman/Anatta – ‘No-Self’

This is Part 3 of my Montaigne & Buddhism series. In this video I talk about the similarities between Montaigne’s view of ‘The Self’ and the Buddhist doctrine of Anatman/Anatta.  Below you’ll find a rough transcript. Enjoy!

Alan Watts explains that “The doctrine of anitya is” not simply “the…assertion that the world is impermanent,” but also that “the more one grasps at the world, the more it changes” (46-47). Because the world and everything within it evades a solid and stable grasping, it goes without saying that the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca also applies to the ‘self’.Owen Flanagan explains that “‘the self’ is like many other natural things, and as such “Personhood is [but] one kind of unfolding” (69). The ‘self’ is impermanent and transitory. There is no fixed or permanent ‘self’. Even the ‘self’, no matter how firm or steady it seems, is also an event or process of becoming and unfolding. Montaigne says “I study myself more than any other subject” (Montaigne). One of the chief objects of Montaigne’s mindfully concentrated observation was his own subjectivity, his own mind, his own consciousness, his own ‘self’. In the attentive awareness he devoted to his ‘self’ he noticed, and gained insight into, this transient impermanence. He writes that “the features of my picture alter and change,” and thus, “I cannot fix my object” (Montaigne). The ‘self’, as object of Montaigne’s investigative awareness, is “always tottering and reeling” (Montaigne). Montaigne can only take the ‘self’ “as it is at the instant [he] considers it” (Montaigne). He cannot paint the “being” of the ‘self’, he can only “paint its passage” (Montaigne). The passage of the ‘self, Montaigne notes, is “not a passing from one age to another, or… from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute” (Montaigne). Montaigne says that the ‘self’ so rapidly alters and changes that “I must accommodate my history to the hour,” wondering “whether it be that I am then another self” (Montaigne). Montaigne saw in his ‘self’ “a subject void of form” and it was all he could do to “couch it in this airy body of voice” (Montaigne). Montaigne seemed to recognize that the ‘self’, like the world in which it is a part, is not only impermanent but, ultimately ungraspable. Grasping at the ‘self’ is like grasping at the wind, the more one reaches for or attempts to capture the ‘self’, the more the ‘self’ evades being held, vanishing from sight.

Here, Owen Flanagan suggests that the human subject is “a transient being constituted only by certain ever-changing relations of psychological continuity and connectedness” (28). The human subject is an amalgamation, constantly in motion, and changing before it can ever be fully grasped. In this regard, the doctrine of Anitya/Anicca, when applied to the ‘self’ gives way to another central thesis of Buddhist thought, i.e. the doctrine of Anatman (Sanskrit) or Anatta (Pali), that is the doctrine of ‘no-soul’ or ‘no-self’. Walpola Rahula, a Sri Lankan Buddhist monk and author of the book What the Buddha Taught, explains that the doctrine of Anatman/Anatta proposes that just as “there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging, and eternal in the whole of existence,” so too is “what we call ‘I’, or ‘being’…only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change” (66). Rahula states further that “What we call a ‘being’, or an ‘individual’, or ‘I’,” is but a naming convention, it “is only a convenient name or a label given to the combination of these…impermanent” and “constantly changing” aggregates (25). In this regard, according to Buddhist philosophy a human being is a coalition comprised of five Skandhas (Sanskrit) or Khandhas (Pali), that is, what is commonly called the Five Aggregates.

The Five Aggregates that comprise a human subject, as outlined and explained by Zen Buddhist monk Brad Warner, are form (body, matter, or materiality), feelings (sensations or sensorial experience), perceptions (cognition or cognitive functions and operations), “impulses toward actions” (volition, mental formations, or conditionally directed responses to phenomenal experience), and consciousness (Warner 69). There is little in Montaigne’s Essays that directly or explicitly address the detailed specificity of the listed Five Aggregates that constitute a human being (though research for this writing has certainly made an attempt to do so). Given the immense breadth of Montaigne’s Essays, perhaps it is possible to undertake the task of attempting to draw specific comparisons to the Five Aggregates in Montaigne’s writing yet, such a task is beyond the scope of this paper. However, suffice it to say for now that Montaigne does seem to agree with the general trajectory of the idea that the human being is an amalgamated collection, a conglomerated coalition. Indeed, not only does Montaigne recognize that the human subject is “infinite in matter, infinite in diversity,” and “evermore flowing and running, without ever remaining stable and permanent,” he also seems to see the human being as a mass of interwoven connectivity (Montaigne). Montaigne writes that “We are all lumps, and of so various and inform a contexture, that every piece plays, every moment, its own game, and there is as much difference betwixt us and ourselves as betwixt us and others” (Montaigne). Montaigne presents an evocative imagery of the human subject as a lump, so various, informing a contexture. Such an analogizing portrait seems to be firmly in keeping with what is at the heart of the Buddhist notion of Skandhas/Khandhas. It is interesting to note that the literal translation for Skandhas/Khandhas means “heap” (Warner 67). In Buddhist philosophy a human is a ‘heap’, or more specifically a ‘heap’ made up of five interconnected ‘heaps’ (the Five Aggregates). Put in the terms of Montaigne’s thought, perhaps one could say that a human being is a ‘lump’ of ‘lumps’, a ‘lump’ made up of various ‘lumps’, that is to say a collection of aggregations, an aggregated totality. In other words, it seems that according to Montaigne, the human subject is an irregular and indefinite, “compact mass of a substance” (“Lump, n1), “a mass of things,” that is “interwoven together…to form a connected whole” (“Contexture, n1”), marked by both variability and instability.

 

Document the Journey: T.k. Coleman, The Minimalists, & Hakuin

I’m two parts into my “Montaigne & Buddhism” series (Part 1 Transcript and Video & Part 2 Transcript and Video) but, decided to take a little sidetrack this week, and talk about some things I’ve been reading, listening to, and thinking about. In the video above and the rough transcript below I talk about the importance of learning, and more importantly, the importance of “learning out loud”, documenting the learning process, sharing it, and transforming it into creative action. Enjoy!

I read a lot of books, mostly on Kindle. I love the convenience of having the app on my phone as well as having access to the Kindle Cloud Reader from virtually any computer. It means I can have the majority of my library with me at all times. I also love that Kindle saves, consolidates, and centralizes all my highlights and notes in the various books I’ve been reading (I do a lot of highlighting and note-taking). I listen to a lot of podcasts on Stitcher, I can stream all my favorite podcasts, listen to new episodes, and I can save past episodes of podcasts so I can listen to them later. I also watch a lot lectures, talks, interviews, etc. on YouTube. My “Watch Later” list is constantly expanding. I consume content and information obsessively. In Evernote I keep a list of all the books I’ve read throughout the year. I also cut and paste all those notes and highlights from my Kindle reading into Evernote, so I can conveniently search and utilize them at any time from anywhere.
A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of The Minimalists Podcast, I believe it was episode 131, titled “School”. In this episode their guest was T.K. Coleman. Coleman is an author, thinker, entrepreneur, and he is also the Education Director of an organization called Praxis. Throughout the Minimalists’ conversation with Coleman, he shares some great insights regarding the process and act of ‘learning’.  He says, quoting Chalmers Brothers, that “learning is the process of doing what you don’t know how to do while you don’t know how to do it”.  In this regard, Coleman advocates what he calls “learning out loud”, that is, documenting your journey as you learn, by “advertising those things you’re studying” through either blog or YouTube, or something similar. True to his word, there’s even a section on Coleman’s website called “Reading Notes,” where Coleman “learns out loud,” by regularly posting his reflections on whatever books, blogs, or podcasts he’s currently consuming. Coleman highlights that more often than not when someone is learning something new, or is in the process of mastering their craft, or honing their expertise, “they hide what they’re doing from the world until their confident that they know what they’re doing”. Coleman suggests that such a reclusive tactic not only misses the point of learning but, also misses a golden opportunity. He recommends putting your learning out there. Coleman states that “learning doesn’t count if you’re not combining it with some form of creative action”. I find all of these ideas inspiring and poignant. This is something that I think I’ve been attempting to do myself, although I’m not sure I consciously realized that this is what I’ve been doing.
I started this blog when I began my undergraduate program not as way to share what I ‘know’ or to share my supposed ‘expertise’ but as a way to share what I was in the process of learning, as a way to document that process of learning. In the hope that it would be helpful to others and in the hope that it would deepen what I’m learning about. I’ve personally found that in the act of sharing the things that I’m attempting to learn, my thoughts, views, and my overall understanding of the subject actually becomes more clear and conducive.
I’ve continued trying to do this in my blog as I’ve continued on into my graduate studies and I’m continuing to try to expand this endeavor of documenting my learning, this endeavor to learn out loud, with my YouTube channel. Documenting not only my academic studies, but also my personal studies of the things I’m curious about, and what I’m personally fascinated by. I write these blogs and make these videos not because I’m an expert or because I’m so knowledgeable, but because I’m learning. I’m in the process of learning, the process of doing what I don’t know how to do while I don’t know how to do it, knowing that anything I learn that remains hidden away and disconnected is devoid of meaning, it doesn’t count, and it will be inadequate.
For about the past few years I’ve been dabbling, off and on, with meditation practice. I’ve gotten more serious, more formal, and more committed to mediation in the past two years, and in the past year I’ve actually begun digging deeper into Buddhist thought and philosophy. I’ve been trying to teach myself more about mediation and I’ve been giving myself a crash course in Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism. One of the books I’ve recently finished reading is a book called The Zen Experience by Thomas Hoover. In The Zen Experience Thomas Hoover recounts the long and evolving history of Zen. One of the figures that Hoover discusses is a Rinzai Zen master named Hakuin Ekaku. Many scholars have suggested that Hakuin is one of the most important Zen teachers. In fact, Rinzai teachers, to this day, trace their lineage back to Hakuin. He was an artist, a poet, and a brilliant Zen philosopher. Hakuin breathed new life into Zen at a time when Zen practice seemed to be waning. In many ways he seemed to democratize Zen, so much so that Hakuin has been called “the Zen master of the people”. Hakuin extended Zen teaching, practice, and philosophy beyond the monastic communities of ordained Buddhist priests and nuns, and instead included people from all walks of life. In Hakuin’s teaching, “If meditation bears no relationship to life…It is merely self-centered gratification” (Hoover, 232). According to Hakuin, “Just to hide and meditate on your own original nature produces inadequate enlightenment, while also shutting you off from any chance to help other people, other sentient beings” (Hoover, 233). In fact,
“Hakuin says to test your meditation outside, since otherwise it serves for nothing. And today Rinzai monks are expected to silently meditate during all activities, including working in the yard of the monastery, harvesting vegetables, or even walking through the town for their formal begging” (Hoover, 233).
Hakuin, himself, seems to be saying that “learning doesn’t count if you’re not combining it with some form of creative action”. He seems to go so far as to say that even something as weighty, worthwhile, and grandiose as the idea of ‘Enlightenment’ is ultimately meaningless if it is disengaged from everyday life, if it is disconnected from boots on the ground experience. If ‘Enlightenment’ is shut off and disconnected from other people and from other sentient beings it is an inadequate Enlightenment.
This process of learning out-loud, this kind of documentary learning, is something I’m trying to be more committed to, not only as a graduate student and as an aspiring academic, but also as a person in love with learning, in love with curiosity, and especially also as someone who is becoming increasingly devoted to the practice of meditation and Buddhist philosophy. You don’t have to be a graduate student, an academic, a meditator, or a Buddhist to document your journey, to advertise your learning. Whatever you do, whatever you’re passionate about, whatever you’re interested in and fascinated by, do it and do it out loud, even and especially when you don’t know how to do it.