Open Your Eyes…

If you’ve been watching any of my videos you know that I’ve been meditating for quite some time, and over the past several months I’ve been studying Zen, and trying to go deeper into Zen practice. But, here lately, I’ve been having a really hard time, I’ve been specifically struggling with my meditation practice. So let’s talk about it right, come on, lets go.
 
Now, Zen meditation, or zazen, shares a lot of commonalities with other forms of meditation, like mindfulness meditation or vipassana, but, there’s also some notable differences. One of those small differences is kind of the source of my current meditation struggles.
 
I know how petty and insignificant this going to sound but, one of the things that I’m having a really hard time with in my zazen practice is that in zazen your instructed to keep you eyes open during meditation. See Brad Warner explains 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 goes on to say that “By opening our eyes, we are letting in that light that…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.”
 
I love the idea behind keeping your eyes open during zazen, during meditation. I love the idea of acknowledging the entirety of the world and the entirety of everything within the present moment as part of my practice, and that’s exactly why I want to do it but, the simple fact of the matter is that its been really difficult to do.
 
So since I’ve adopted this eye’s open method of zazen, I feel like I’m getting more lost in thought and more distracted than usual. I especially find myself getting caught-up in ‘planning’ more than anything else, plans for the day, planning everything on my to-do list, plans for the future, planning, planning, planning. It kind of feels like its not working.
 
Alright, I know this seems silly, and it probably seems like I’m making a mountain out of a meditative mole mill, and well, maybe you’re right. I mean you’re probably saying to yourself “if its not working, just let it go, why keeping trying to make it work?” I’ve been thinking the same thing in all honesty, that is until I heard something that made me realize that maybe its so difficult, and maybe it feels like its not working precisely because it is working.
 
Let me try to explain. I was watching a video of a talk by a Zen teacher named David Peters. Towards the end of that talk Peters said something that made it all make sense to me. Peters was beginning to give instructions for Zen meditation and said that “eyes remain open, we’re not trying to go any place different, we’re trying to stay in our body in this room”. When he said “eyes remain open” because “we’re not trying to go any place different”, that’s when it hit and the light bulb came on. I had been feeling like I had hit a wall  in my practice but once I heard – I began to see that this wall wasn’t something new, it didn’t just pop up, it didn’t just appear out of no where, its a wall that had actually been there the whole time. I just couldn’t see it, at least until I opened my eyes.
 
Jon Kabat Zinn writes that “You might be tempted to avoid the messiness of daily living for the tranquility of stillness and peacefulness” found in meditation. Up to this point in my meditation practice I had unknowingly succumb to this temptation of tranquil peace and stillness. With my eyes closed I had found a way to block out and avoid the messiness of my daily life, I had unconsciously found a way to escape from the reality of the present moment, the reality of where I am at this moment. I think with my eyes closed I had managed to keep the world at bay but, when I opened my eyes, the floods gates opened, everything came rushing in, and my mind started getting so caught-up in the plans for another time and and another place because it wanted desperately to be some place different, it wanted to be anywhere other then right here, 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.” Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh says that “Meditation is not a drug to make us oblivious to our real problems”. It’s not intended to be an escape, or a sedative. “On the contrary,” Jon Kabat Zinn explains that meditation “is a willingness to go nose to nose with pain, confusion, and loss, if that is what is dominating the present moment” It’s an attempt to be fully awake to the reality of whatever is going on around and inside us here and now. Being present, being fully present, means being fully present to ‘what is’ -sometimes ‘what is’ sucks and that means being fully present even and especially when it sucks.
 
You’re never going to get anywhere by trying to get away from it.
 
I think most of us would have to admit that we spend most of our time trying to get somewhere else, wanting to be some place else, unintentionally and sometimes intentionally closing our eyes to where we are. Thich Nhat Hanh says that when we do this “we postpone being alive to the future” and as a result, he says that not only are we “not capable of being alive in the present moment,” we may “never be truly alive in our entire life”. But, as Thich Nhat Hanh stresses “the only moment to be alive is the present moment.”
 
I’d love to tell you since I had this realization that my practice and my attitude has dramatically improved, and that I’m out of the woods of this rough patch. But, that just wouldn’t be true. I’m still getting pretty distracted. I’m still getting pretty lost in thought, and I’m still getting caught-up in ‘planning’. When these distractions of thought and planning occur most meditation practices instruct you to come back to the breath, to come back to breathing. We practice this conscious breathing because, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains, it helps to make us “aware of each thought and each act,” and “we are reborn, fully alive, in the present moment.”  And so, that’s what I try to do. I try to come back to the breath again and again. But, sometimes I’m pretty hard on myself when I have to keep coming back to the breath. A lot of the time, I come back with shame, I come back with guilt, I come back with so much judgement. But, someone told me recently, that the moment you come back to the breath is actually the most sacred moment. I don’t know about you but, I really needed to hear that.
 
It reminded me that coming back needn’t be laced with shame, guilt, judgement, and negativity. Coming back to the present is a beautiful simplicity. I’m trying to come back with more kindness and care. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “Our true home is in the present moment”. So, I’m trying to think of coming back to the breath as a kind of home coming, as a welcoming back.
 
There’s nothing wrong with getting distracted. There’s nothing wrong with getting lost. Because the moment you realize you’ve lost you way is the sacred moment that you get to come back home You just have to open your eyes to see it.
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I Don’t Know…

So I fucked up, and I don’t know what to do…So lets talk about it right now, come on let’s go.

So last week I posted a video called “Think Like a Beginner“. In that I tried to talk a little bit about this Zen Buddhist idea called Beginner’s Mind. Well, shortly after I posted that video I realized I screwed up.

Somehow, someway, a pretty important section of last week’s video ended up on the cutting room floor. Well technically that’s not accurate, It wasn’t really ‘edited out’ because I didn’t even put in to begin with. Here’s footage I missed:

In Japanese Zen there’s something called Shoshin or ‘Beginner’s Mind’‘. In essence, Beginner’s Mind is an attitude, it’s a way to approach things. It’s an attitude of open eagerness. It’s an approach of wonder and curiosity. It’s an attitude free of preconceived notions. It’s when we approach a subject or a task just like a beginner would – when everything is new, vibrant, and exciting.

Suzuki Roshi wrote a book about Beginner’s Mind, called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. He says that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” It’s not the beginner that’s limited, it’s the expert, and that’s really interesting.
Now, not including this segment is a pretty big fuck up, I totally missed it, I totally dropped the ball. I actually excluded the segment of me explaining the primary subject matter of last week’s video. So what do I do now? I don’t know…

On one hand I got pretty lucky, the video still maintained a good flow, it still conveyed a story, and it still made sense, and it still managed to make the point I was trying to get at. But, it still bothers me and I just don’t know what to do about it, I don’t know what the proper response is. Do I pull the video down, put in the section of video I missed, and re-upload it? Or, do I just sweep the whole incident under the rug, pretend like nothing happened, pretend everything was intentional, with no one the wiser? I don’t know…

From the beginning I said this channel is all about learning out loud and documenting the process. In some ways you could say that this idea behind Beginner’s Mind is integral to this channel. If I’m going to be committed to those primary goals, if I’m going to be committed to being a beginner, then that means all the mistakes, mishaps, failures, and shortcomings have to be included, they have to be documented and displayed as part of the process of learning out loud. In that regard, neither of the two responses: ‘denying’ the mistake or ‘fixing’ the mistake, seems to be truly in keeping with the goals of my channel. They both hide the mistake. They both make me look like I know the answer, they make it look like I know how to figure it out, they both make it look like I know what I’m doing. These are the limiting options of the ‘expert’s mind’. Neither honestly recognizes the fact that I just don’t know…

I think we feel this constant pressure towards knowing, this imperative to know. We’re obsessively attached to idea of knowing. It seems that the world is screaming that we’re supposed to know. A lot of the time we’ve even deluded ourselves into thinking that we do know. But, most of the time, if we’re really honest with ourselves we don’t know.

T.K. Coleman  writes that ‘Knowing” can often be “a symptom that you’re too comfortable with the familiar, that you’ve organized your life around routines and relationships that don’t challenge you anymore. And if that’s the case, perhaps you’re better off seeking a situation where you don’t know what to do.” Coleman says that “Being a person of vision isn’t about having a clear set of guidelines and guarantees for every important scenario. It’s about being committed to your principles even if you’re unsure about where that leads or even if you’re unclear about how to make the proper adjustments. Sometimes you get the luxury of finding an answer, but not always. Sometimes you have to step up and create your own road map. The most rewarding decisions often come with a responsibility to improvise.”

There’s an idea in Korean Zen that’s very similar to the Japanese Zen idea of Beginner’s mind. It’s called Don’t Know Mind – how appropriate. Don’t Know mind is the radical Zen practice of openly admitting and embracing the fact that we don’t know. This adamant admission of not-knowing is not a shameful confession of a failure or a shortcoming. Instead, its a violent act of honesty and humility that liberates from the suffocating constraints of the experts mind, and the limitations of having to know, of having to have the answer.

Zen master Bon Soeng  says that “this Not-Knowing actually gives us life. It gives vibrancy and energy to the world we live in”. He says that “We fill our minds with all this stuff, and it gets stale and dead.” But, “Not knowing is what opens us up and comes alive”.

The experts mind or the knowing mind says its either black or white, its this or its that, but the Don’t know mind opens us up to an infinite number of creative possibilities. The expert’s mind says you should know, it says that you should only do this, and that you should never do that. The Don’t Know mind says that all the ‘shoulds’ of expert knowing is a cage, and Not knowing is a rebellious opportunity just waiting to be explored.

Zen master Bon Soeng says that if we really live into this practice, “it changes everything”

Think like a beginner…

In this video we talk about an Essay in the book “Manage Your Day-To-Day” by Steven Pressfield, an interview with Ian Leslie, and the Zen Buddhist idea of Beginner’s mind. Rough transcript below. Enjoy!

Hey I’m glad you’re here. One of the books I just finished reading is a book called Manage Your Day-To-Day. As I was thinking about that book and as I was weeding through some old articles I had clipped into my Evernote account I came across an article called “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious”. So as I was thinking about some of the passages in Manage Your Day-to-Day and as I was thinking “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious” I started thinking about this Zen Buddhist idea called ‘Beginner’s Mind’…again. If you follow this channel at all I’ve done a couple videos on beginners mind already, so let’s talk about it…again.

In one of the last essays towards the end of the book Manage You Day-To-Day, called “How Pro Can You Go?” Steven Pressfield says the following:
* “A professional is someone who can keep working at a high level of effort and ethics, no matter what is going on—for good or ill—around him or inside him.”* “A professional shows up every day.”
* “A professional plays hurt.”
* “A professional takes neither success nor failure personally.”
* Here’s the best part – “A pro gets younger and more innocent as he or she ascends through the levels. It’s a paradox. We get salty and cynical, but we creep closer, too, to the wonder. You have to or you can’t keep going.”

I love this idea of continually creeping closer and closer to wonder, despite the possibilities of being jaded and despite the possibilities of cynicism, and a persisting youthful innocence that actually continues to increase as we progress instead of decreasing as we move forward. This is what made me think about “Beginner’s Mind” …again…

In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind , Suzuki Roshi writes that “In the beginner’s mind there is no thought ‘I have attained something'” Beginner’s mind isn’t primarily concerned with achievement or attainment, it’s free of attachments, expectations, judgments, and prejudices. Suzuki Roshi goes on to say that “Because your attainment is always ahead you will always be sacrificing yourself now for some ideal in the future”. In other words, beginner’s mind is so concerned with the wonder and the curiosity of this present moment that it refuses to relinquish anything that exists within this present moment for something that may or may not be there in future.

In my opinion, I think there’s something actually kind of punk rock about beginner’s mind, there’s something kind of guerrilla about this approach. The Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov said that “Curiosity is the purest form of insubordination.” I love that! I think there is something very insubordinate about the wonder and curiosity found in Beginner’s Mind; it refuses to see anything as average, mediocre, or mundane. It refuses to let anything become routine. It refuses to let anything slip into the status quo. It finds an element of newness and freshness in everything it encounters. And that’s because everything in every moment is new, fresh, and different if you really think about it.

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Everything is different. Everything is always different. The river is constantly changing. The man that steps into the river is constantly changing. Beginner’s mind recognizes the newness of every moment. I think this is why Suzuki Roshi says that the “real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.”

So, like I said earlier, I was going through some old articles that I had saved in Evernote and I came across an article called “Why the Future Belongs to the Curious“. It’s an interview with a writer named Ian Leslie. In the article Leslie explains that there are two different kinds of curiosity; Diversive Curiosity and Epistemic Curiosity. Leslie says that everyone is born with Diversive curiosity. It is curiosity at its most basic. Its a child like craving for bright shiny newness. But, he say that “The trouble with diversive curiosity is, unless it matures into something deeper, it just continues as a futile search for the next shiny thing.”

And, then there’s Epistemic Curiosity. “‘Epistemic curiosity’ is what happens when curiosity grows up.” Leslie say that “The more we learn, the easier it is to be curious, and the more powerful our sense of epistemic curiosity can become, because new knowledge hooks onto the networks of existing knowledge in our brains.” He goes on to say that “It’s all-too easy to fall back on old routines and habits and not to bother learning. Epistemic curiosity encourages you to work at it and learn new things.”

I think the way Leslie talks about Epistemic Curiosity is exactly what I mean when I talk about the Zen idea of Beginner’s Mind. Like I said this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about Beginner’s Mind. I’ve mentioned it in two previous videos; one is titled “Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind” and the other is kind of a follow-up to that video called “Congruence“.

Maybe I keep thinking about beginner’s mind because I’m still a beginner on a lot of levels. Even though I’ve studied Buddhism academically, I’m still a beginner when it comes to Zen and Buddhism on a personal level. Even though I’ve been meditating for the past couple years, I’m still a beginner. i still have a lot to learn about it. When it comes to YouTube, and making videos – shooting, editing all that, I’m definitely still a beginner. I have no idea what I’m doing. But, If I’m being honest, over the past few weeks I’ve been going through something of a dry spell. I can feel myself getting a little dull, a little cynical, a little jaded. If nothing else maybe this video is a reminder for me to remember Beginner’s Mind, to remember to capture that attitude of thinking like a beginner, to remember to utilize that approach of Beginner’s Mind, and see the freshness and newness in everything, to keep my wonder and curiosity alive.

Maybe you needed to hear that too…

I want to encourage you to creep closer, and close, and ever closer to your curiosity, welcome home you’re wonder, and think like a beginner…

Questioning Religion?

In this video, as a pretty skeptical dude studying Zen, I try to talk about ‘religion’, what it is and what it means. Transcript Below! Enjoy!

What is religion? Why do religions exist? What characteristically typifies religion? Every analytical study or examination of religion begins with such questions. Yet, in many ways, such questions implicitly, always-already, contain the answer within them. Perhaps, one could say that the question is, itself, the answer, or that the answer is, itself, the question. That sounded kinda deep and cryptic didn’t it? Pretty Zen right? Just me…Anyway, lets talk about it right now, come one let’s go!
As I’ve mentioned in a few of my other videos, even though I’m a Zen student, and even though I have Bachelors in religion, I still have a fairly tenuous relationship with religion, and even the word ‘religion’ still makes me a little uncomfortable. Jacques Derrida once said “I rightly pass for an atheist”. I love that quote because I think it describes me pretty well.

This isn’t my way of launching into the “I’m spiritual, not religious'” cliche, to be honest I think I’m probably even more uncomfortable with the word ‘spirituality’.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with that “spiritual, not religious” stance. If that’s you, if that works for you – awesome – own it. I’m just saying its not me.

Regardless, the brute facticity of the matter is that Zen and Buddhism are considered religions, and meditation is considered a spiritual practice. I’m involved in all three and if you are too, well we’re going to have to deal with ‘religion’, we need to look at and talk about honestly, and, maybe even find a way to get comfortable with it.

I’m in the process of finishing my Master’s degree, and I just started a new class this semester on the History of Religion. Any good study of Religion, before it can get its hands dirty in the detailed particularities of each specific religion, has to begin with the type of questions raised in the intro of this video – ‘what religion is’? “what are its characteristics?’ etc. In other words, the study of religion begins with questions…

The study of religion begins with questions because religion and the religious life begins with questions, because to be human is to be full of questions. This is why most of my videos begin with a question, not because I have the answer, or because I’ve found the answer but, because I have questions, and usually in the process of researching and examining a question what I actually find are more questions.

In his book What is Zen? Norman Fischer explains that “Religion engages the large questions: Who are we? Why are we born? Why do we die? What is death? What is the good life?” (59). According to Fischer religion is the emergent result of existential questioning. As such, Fischer goes on to say that “Religion provides practices…that help us cement our hearts to such questions, giving our lives a sense of ultimate grounding” (59). Religion is what William James calls humanity’s “total reaction” to life’s big questions (James, 35). In other words, religion is the name given to the set of varying strategies systematically utilized in humanity’s phenomenological absorption with the large questions of existence.

Yet, Fischer makes another pivotal point to consider, he says that “Religion 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” (59). Said another way, religion’s modus operandi is in providing one with techniques for living in engagement with the questions, strategies and practices for mindfully sitting with these questions. Here, the emphasis seems to be placed on the ‘question’ rather than on the ‘answer’, or, more specifically, the process of actively wrestling with the questions is of greater import than the answers.

In his book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, David Dark says:

I believe deliverance begins with questions. It begins with people who love questions, people who live with questions and by questions, people who feel a deep joy when good questions are asked…When we’re exposed to the liveliness of holding everything up to the light of good questions…we discover that redemption is creeping into the way we think, believe, and see the world…a redemption that perhaps begins with the insertion of a question mark beside whatever feels final and absolute and beyond questioning, gives our souls a bit of elbow room, a space in which to breathe again, as if for the first time (14).

What does it mean to study religion? What is it that one studies when one studies religion? In many ways, it seems that the study of religion is the anthropological and sociological study of the specific ways in which various cultures at various points in history have grappled with the big questions. And what does it mean to be religious? Maybe part of what it means to be religious is being devoted to the practice of mindfully asking and grappling with ever bigger questions…

Authority?

Hey I’m glad you’re here. So, last week I posted a video called “Tradition?“. In that video we tried to talk a little bit about what it means to be faithful to tradition, what it means to honor tradition, and what it means to betray tradition or to rebel against tradition.

We talked about how Buddhism is founded upon a kind of rejection of tradition, that it’s a tradition of rebelling against tradition, a tradition opposing tradition. And thus, one of the ways in which to faithfully honor the Buddhist tradition is to continue the work questioning tradition and rebelling against tradition when and where it’s necessary, even and especially when it’s in regards to the tradition of Buddhism itself.

With that in mind I can’t help but think about the question of ‘Authority’ in the same way – what does it mean to respect authority and what does it mean to reject authority? So let’s talk about it right now, come on let’s go.

So, to recap just little bit, as I mentioned in last week’s video I just finished reading Huston Smith’s book Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. In the book Smith highlights that “Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition” and thus “He encouraged his followers, therefore, to slip free from the past’s burden.” The Buddha said:

“Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: ‘These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering’—then reject them.” When it came to tradition and even when it came to his own teachings the Buddha seemed to emphasize a kind of provisional pragmatism rather than the staunch rigidity of traditionalism.

What’s interesting as that not only addresses the Buddha’s relationship to tradition but, it also implicitly addresses the Buddha’s relationship to authority. In other words, the Buddha not only said to Question tradition but, also to question authority. In this regard, Hustom Smith points out that, just as the Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition, in the same way “Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.”

Smith goes on to say that “Buddha challenged each individual to do his or her own religious seeking and rational investigation.” He didn’t expect anyone to take him at his word. He didn’t want or expect to be viewed as a figure of absolute authority, nor did he want his teachings to be seen as unquestionably authoritative. He wanted to be questioned, he wanted his teachings to be probed, to be tested, to be investigated, and he encouraged his followers to do so based upon their own authority rather than anyone else’s.

Elsewhere the Buddha said, “When you yourself know [these teachings] lead to harm or ill, abandon them; when you yourself know [these teachings] lead to benefit and happiness, adopt them.” Do what works, throw away what doesn’t.

The Buddha said “Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height.”

A few weeks ago I posted I video called “Zen Teachers?” and in that video we talked about the role of a Zen teacher. We often think of Zen and/or Buddhist teachers as authoritative figures, yet, as my Zen teacher suggests “the role of a teacher is more about reflecting you back at yourself rather than being above you”. Similarly, Brad Warner writes that “A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror.” Perhaps, then, you could say that if a Zen teacher is authoritative it is only to the extent that they are a reflection of your own authority, or that they reflect your authority back to you rather demonstrate their own.

In my opinion, what the Buddha taught and what I’ve learned from studying and practicing Zen is that, they provide us with guidelines not rules. In other words, the aim is guidance not indoctrination. They act out of advisement and aid rather than authoritarianism. They provide counsel rather than control, and direction rather than dominance. It’s so easy to get caught up in the supposed sovereignty and supremacy of teachers and teachings, to try and follow them to the letter, to try and do exactly what Bodhidharma said, or to try and do precisely what Dogen said to do but, as my Zen teacher recently pointed out to me “we aren’t pursuing Bodhidharma’s awakening or Dogen’s awakening. We’re each pursuing our own.” “Just do whatever works”

The Buddha, himself, said that “Buddhas only point the way. Work out your salvation with diligence.”

Perhaps, this is where my religious studies background is going to show itself some but, when I read the Buddha’s instruction to diligently work out your salvation for yourself, I can’t help but think of a passage from the New Testament that says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

The Greek word phobos translated as ‘Fear’ doesn’t just mean terror or dread. It also means reverence and respect. But, what about “trembling?” This comes from the Greek word tromos which is used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts. In this verse, the instruction is to Work out your salvation with Fear and trembling, with reverence and distrust. Perhaps one could say that here Reverence is demonstrated through distrust, respect is given through skepticism, and honor given through doubt.This salvation is worked out with a reverent distrust, a skeptical submission, a questioning surrender, and a doubting devotion. this seems to be that same kind of pragmatic provisionality that the Buddha advocated.

I’ve been reading a book called “Manage You Day-to-Day“, in one of the essays in that book, Scott Belsky writes “Listen to your gut as much as you listen to others…don’t let yourself be persuaded by the volume of the masses. Nothing should resonate more loudly than your own intuition.”

Perhaps the best way in which to faithfully honor tradition is to recognize that you are not strictly beholden to it, and perhaps the best way in which to respect authority is to realize that its ultimate source is your own.

Tradition?

Hey, I’m glad you’re here. So as I continue delve deeper into learning about Buddhism and the Zen tradition, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about ‘tradition’ – what it means to be faithful to tradition and what it means to betray tradition, what it means to be aligned with tradition and what it means to rebel against tradition. So let’s talk about that right now!

So, a couple of weeks ago I posted a video called “Zen Teachers?“. In that video I talked about the fact that every aspect of the world around us is shifting and changing. Whether its ecologically, environmentally, technologically, politically, socially, or culturally, everything changes and is changing. As a result its imperative that we ourselves continue to learn, grow, evolve, and innovate.

Since posting that video I’ve had some really interesting conversations with some of my online acquaintances regarding some of the subject matter presented there. Some really intriguing questions were raised about what it means to honor tradition and about what it means to be rooted to tradition.

Because of this constancy of change, our religious, philosophical, and spiritual traditions, values, and beliefs cannot be static. They must change and they must remain open to change and alteration if they are to continue to have any relevance or impact. If the ideas and traditions that we value are to continue to be of any value, we must constantly seek to reexamine, reevaluate, and reformulate them. Our traditions, beliefs, or ideals are alive only when they are listening, morphing, innovating, and letting go of whatever has gotten in the way, and embracing whatever will help us continue to learn and grow along the way.

I just finished reading Buddhism: A Concise Introduction by Huston Smith and Philip Novak. It’s really a great read, Smith explicates the various aspects of Buddhism with a nuanced clarity that is probably second to none. What’s interesting is that near the beginning of the book Smith explains that there are six aspects or constants of religion that “surface so regularly” that it seems to “suggest that their seeds are in the human makeup”. I won’t get into all six aspects here but, one of these fundamental aspects of religion that constantly surfaces is ‘tradition’.

Ok, as a side-note, I realize that there is still an ongoing debate as to whether Buddhism is actually a religion or not, I certainly don’t want to get into that debate here. I’m a bit conflicted about the question myself.

I read an article recently that said that a lot of people who get involved in the “Is Buddhism a religion?” are usually in one of three camps: there’s the people that just love to argue and debate over conceptual particularities and the minutia of linguistics. I have to admit sometimes I can be that guy.

There are also those who belong to a different religion who think that if Buddhism is, itself, a religion then they cannot participate in Buddhist practices without it somehow conflicting with their chosen religion.

The other camp of people who tend to engage with the debate surrounding Buddhism’s status as a religion are the “people that see value in Buddhism but also think religion is bad.” Well, I also have to admit that I have a foot in this camp as well. My relationship to religion is complicated.

On one hand, I have a Bachelors degree in religion and I know first hand that if you’re going to study Buddhism on an academic level its going to take place under the banner of religion, its going to happen in the religious studies department.

But, on the other hand, outside of academia, on a more personal level, as an atheistic skeptic I have to confess that I still have some trepidation around using the word ‘religion’ to describe my zen practice and my engaged affiliation with Zen and Buddhism. It probably sound strange to admit that given that I do belong to a Sangha, and I’ve taken the Refuge Vows and the Five Precepts – but, I guess that’s the paradox of me. Maybe you can relate.

Anyway, back to the actual topic at hand. While Smith highlights the fact that aspects of religion, such as Tradition, contribute importantly to religion, he also clearly notes that “equally each can clog its works”. Now, what’s even more interesting is that in outlining the details of these six individual constants of religion, Smith points out that the Buddha seemed to systematically undermine each of them, and this is especially true of his relationship to ‘tradition’.

Smith writes that “In large measure [Buddhism] was a religion of reaction”, specifically a reaction against the religious systems and traditions of time and culture in which it emerged.

Smith explains that Buddhism could be described as a kind of “an Indian protestantism not only in the original meaning of that word, which emphasized witnessing for…something, but equally in its latter-day connotations, which emphasize protesting against something. Buddhism drew its lifeblood from Hinduism, but against its prevailing corruptions Buddhism recoiled like a whiplash and hit back—hard.”

Smith goes on to say that the “Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition. He stood on top of the past and its peaks extended his vision enormously, but he saw his contemporaries as largely buried beneath those peaks. He encouraged his followers, therefore, to slip free from the past’s burden.”

The Buddha, himself, said “Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: ‘These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering’—then reject them.”

This is one of the things I find most interesting about Buddhism – it seems to have a kind of inbuilt irreverence for tradition, a built-in opposition to tradition, an inherent iconoclasm. It is a tradition against tradition. Perhaps one could say that Buddhism has a tradition of rejecting and reformulating tradition.

I think this kind of iconoclastic rebellion can be seen not only in the emergence of the Buddha’s original teachings as an external reaction to the spiritual and religious institutions of his time but, I think it can also be seen internally within and inside of the development of Buddhism, itself. In other words, I think Buddhism equally turns its critical gaze inward upon itself, and has reacted against itself, against even its own traditions.

For instance, take the development and emergence of Chan and Zen within the Mahayana school of Buddhism.

As Thomas Hoover points out in his book, The Zen Experience, “Chinese Ch’an grew out of Mahayana”. When Buddhism came to China and it began absorbing aspects of the Taoist tradition. When “Pure Chinese naturalism met Indian abstraction, and the result was Ch’an.” As such, “The school of Ch’an was in part the grafting of fragile foreign ideas (Buddhism) onto a sturdy native species of understanding (Taoism).

When Chan spread to Japan and became Zen it took on a different flavor yet again. It developed and reformulated itself in ways that increased its fitness to that cultural climate and social environment. As Roshi Philip Kapleau points out, through the centuries Zen continued to be further elaborated in Korea and Vietnam.

There is a very real level organicism to the way in which it has changed, morphed, and innovated. Entry into each new region and era naturally began a process of alteration, an adaption to new surroundings.

In fact, there are many who now debate as to whether Chan or Zen should actually be considered Buddhism at all.

I was just listening to an episode of the Angel City Zen Center Podcast. Towards the end of the episode Brad Warner commented that Zen is, in many ways, a slightly different sort of thing than Buddhism. Although Zen ‘derives’ from Buddhism, it is, perhaps, only tangentially related to Buddhism. Warner says the relationship of Zen to Buddhism is like the relationship of Sufism to Islam.

Regardless, its interesting to note that, as Thomas Hoover highlights, Chan’s or Zen’s “simplicity [is] in many ways a re-expression of the Buddha’s original insights.” In The Three Pillars of Zen Roshi Philip Kapleau similarly states that Zen is “Grounded in the highest teachings of the Buddha”.

If Buddhism began as a kind of Indian Protestantism, and if the Buddha was a kind of Indian reformer, Perhaps you could say that Chan and Zen developed as a kind of Buddhist Protestantism. Perhaps, Zen is a kind of Buddhist reformation.

In episode 137 of the Minimalists Podcast, T.K. Coleman says to “Prioritize discovery over dogma” I think this prioritization of discovery over dogma is something we can see not only in the figure of the historical Buddha but, I also think its something that has been implicitly present within the continual development of Buddhist. That’s one of the things that attracted me to Zen – I think the fluidity of discovery over and against the solidity of doctrinal concretization is something that seems to be is intrinsic to Zen.

My Zen teacher points out that “Traditionally in the East only monks did Zen practice. It was, for a long time, unheard of for laypeople to be serious about practice.” Yet, as Zen has moved into the West, serious practice is no longer limited to monastic practitioners, instead Zen practice is being increasingly taken on by every-day, ordinary people like you and me. As my Zen teacher goes to say “This has changed the tradition and that’s okay. The tradition always changes, that’s part of what’s good about it.”
I think there is a delicate balance required however, one shouldn’t grasp too firmly or rigidly to tradition. We should not seek to maintain tradition only for the sake of maintaining tradition, or only for tradition’s sake. This is how traditions stagnate and atrophy. Chris Cotty says in a dharma talk on the Against the Stream podcast that just “Because anything has been done for generations doesn’t mean it’s OK to do it now or in future generations”

But, I also think that one shouldn’t look to radically alter or change tradition simply for the sake of ‘change’, or simply for the sake of changing it. This can be how traditions lose veracity.

I do think that our faithfulness or commitment 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. It’s about our ability to skillfully improvise.

There is a pragmatism and a provisionality here. When we engage with tradition we should take conscious and decisive action in a way that takes account of the core of the tradition, but also in a way that shows consideration for the current context of our time and place. We should realize that the tradition as it was formulated and handed-down was only ever provisional at best, and that any changes we make to the tradition will also only ever be provisional. The goal is to progress along the path. As Sensei Alex Kakuyo says “Progress is better than perfection“.

Congruence…

So a couple days ago I posted a video on my YouTube channel called ” Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind.”

In that video I talk about how exploring your curiosities is an expression of authenticity and that this kind of authentic open-mindedness geared towards the exploration of wonder and discovery is synonymous with the Zen Buddhist idea of Beginner’s mind.

I won’t rehash the whole video here. I’ll include a link and you can check it out for yourself.

Anyway, sometimes after I release a video I read something or I hear something that connects to what I was trying to say in that already released video, and I wish I would have read it or heard it before I released the video so that I could have included that little nugget in the video.

Well, yesterday that happened. I was listening to an episode of the Office Hours podcast with T.K. Coleman and Isaac Morehouse. The episode was called “Results Matter More Than Status and Rules.” In the conversation between Morehouse and Coleman, Coleman says something that I think poignantly conveys what I was getting at in my recent YouTube Video.

Coleman says: “It doesn’t matter if I’m like everyone else, it doesn’t even matter if I’m different, what matters is that I’m congruent with what I’m doing.”

What Coleman’s getting at is that sometimes we wax and wane between two fearful poles when it comes to exploring our interests and curiosities.

Sometimes we’re afraid to explore an interest because its something that everyone else is doing, and we don’t want to be just like everyone else.

Sometimes, the opposite is true, and we’re afraid to explore our curiosities if they are dramatically different than everyone else’s.

Both positions are obstacles and obstructions blocking our authenticity and impeding exploration, innovation, and discovery.

It doesn’t matter if you’re congruent or in-congruent with what ever social or cultural group you may find yourself a part of. What matters is if you are congruent with yourself.

As I say towards the conclusion of my video “Curiosity, Authenticity, & Beginner’s Mind” –

Sometimes we get so rooted to a specific tradition,a particular school of thought, a particular way of being, or a particular way of doing things that we cease to examine anything at or outside the periphery of who or what we think we are or should be.

But, Beginner’s Mind is what beckons us to explore our curiosity no matter what it is. It calls us to give voice to these curiosities regardless of whether it is an interest shared by everyone else, or whether it is something directly related to whatever traditions or groups we belong to. In this regard, Beginner’s Mind calls us to explore these curiosities even and especially when it is starkly different. The most important thing to ask ourselves is, are we being authentically congruent with who we are, with what we’re doing, with what we believe, and with what we value?

The curiosity and wonder expressed within Beginner’s Mind is the active expression of one’s emerging congruence with one’s authentic nature.