Category Archives: Dharma Bytes

Zen teachings of Elliston-roshi, from the Silent Thunder Order website,


On a recent trip to Virginia, to inaugurate the establishment of our most recent Affiliate Zen group, performing Initiation (Jukai) ceremonies for three members who form the basis of the new community, I had been thinking of Zen as what the world needs now. This recalls the popular song first released in 1965, sung by Jackie DeShannon. The lyrics begin:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of

What the world needs now is love, sweet love,

No not just for some but for everyone.

As I settled into my room and turned on the television, suddenly this familiar melody began wafting through the room, as if someone was reading my mind. It was a much more recent version, but still had basically the same, somewhat insipid message. Turned out to be the theme this hotel ran throughout their corporate messaging. But this coincidence made me think that maybe I am on to something.

What the world needs now is not love, in my opinion, depending on what we mean by “love.” There are few instances of this term appearing in English translations of Buddhist texts. One that stands out for me is in what is usually referred to as the “Loving Kindness Sutra” or Metta Sutta, attributed to Buddha. Following the stanza which states the overall theme, “May all beings be happy,” it continues:

Let no one deceive another nor despise any being in any state
Let none by anger or hatred wish harm to another
Even as a mother at the risk of her life watches over and protects her only child
So with a boundless mind should one cherish all living things
suffusing love over the entire world above below and all around without limit
So let one cultivate an infinite good will toward the whole world

Well, good luck with that, you might say, though no one would object to the sentiment. It is survival of the fittest, after all; there have to be losers and winners. But the Buddha was not being sentimental. He was simply pointing out the interconnectedness of all beings, on both biological and social levels. But this teaching included all of sentient life within its embrace, not exclusively humanity. This may be the first ecological sermon ever preached (the back story is that so many followers had come together in this area that the trees of the forest were “unhappy”). He was also suggesting that all beings be happy with reality as it is.

Modern science is coming to see the wisdom of this holistic assessment of our actions on the rest of the world, and its reactions to those actions. In despoiling our home, our neighborhood, or the planet, the consequences will return to bite us. It is in our enlightened self-interest to pay attention to the finite nature of this continuum. We all live downwind, or downhill, as someone pointed out. But it is not only America that is contributing to the overall downward slide of our chances of living a better life. China now creates as much pollution from fossil fuels as the US and Europe combined, according to a recent report.

India may want to revisit its cultural heritage. The land that birthed Shakyamuni, Bodhidharma, and a bit later, Gandhi, would not now make the latter happy, according to his grandson, who was interviewed recently on public radio. The turn toward materialism and away from Gandhi’s vision of a compassionate community, as an ideal for government, is recent, and may be irreversible.

Something of the same may be said for China. Watching its rise in recent decades, and listening to the laments and anxiety about the country of Mao becoming the first world power, I felt that the fear-mongers probably did not have the appreciation of one of the world’s oldest cultures that I have developed through study and appreciation of their Zen heritage, which Japan inherited through Master Dogen, and of which we are now the beneficiaries, through Matsuoka Roshi.

Matsuoka Roshi’s efforts in bringing the genuine practice of Zen and its meditation, zazen, to American soil prior to WWII, places our Founder in that rarefied pantheon of the very few — such as Bodhidharma and Master Dogen — who likewise left it all behind to bring the real Zen to a foreign country, from their country of origin; or in Dogen’s case, revitalizing it in their own culture, importing it from a foreign land. In all three cases, it was a mission fraught with personal risk, including physical harm, as well as other forms of danger.

We in the West might feel justified in challenging our counterparts in modern India and China, to live up to their Buddhist legacy, even in shaming them for failing to appreciate the true treasure they have historically, and settling instead for the evanescent inducements of living in a material world. But this would be worse than hypocritical, as the USA now stands as the poster boy to the world for self-centered striving, which, as the Hsinhsinming promises us, ceases, “for the unified mind in accord with the Way.”

This is not a liberal viewpoint. There is nothing liberal about it. It merely seeks to conserve — as in true conservatism — the highest value of community. To which all religious, philosophical and political systems give lip service. Community, or sangha, as one of the Three Treasures of Buddhism — along with buddha (awakening) and dharma (truth or reality) — is one of the triadic value system underpinning Zen, the three pillars on which human society relies for its stability.

There are those who would argue that embracing the larger community, e.g. through too-liberal immigration guidelines, destroys the smaller community — those who are already snugly within its confines. But much evidence is clearly to the contrary.

Biologically, hybrids are more successful in terms of survival than those whose gene pool is too narrow, as in the example of inbred royal families of Europe, to name but one example. Opposites attract — as those familiar with Shopenhauer will recognize — and lead to better outcomes in their progeny, thereby actualizing the will of the species. Sex, the most private and personal of pleasures, in other words, feels good for the sake of future generations, rather than the short-term satisfaction of the present, perceived as our own desires for self-fulfillment, and perverted as objectification of, and power over, others.

So what the world needs now is certainly not that kind of love. Individuals may need it, but the world does not. The species, now at over seven billion and counting, may be able to tolerate a few billion more, but not without a serious reworking of the way wealth is conceived, and distributed.

So what does the world need now? Most people would probably reply with the party line, or the talking points of their particular special interest group. Others would sincerely promote their philosophical or religious point of view. Some may illustrate recommendations from experience from their own personal lives. But in general, each individual would probably have a unique perspective on this issue.

I am no exception to this rule. I would say that what the world needs now is Zen, more Zen. And those who practice Zen in a serious way would know what I mean by that. But those who have not, and do not, practice Zen would have no idea of the difference between that prognosis and any other suggested palliative. The same can be said for Buddhism, which, depending on the source, might mean a variety of different things. Here, from a 1929 tract titled “An Outline of Buddhism” by George W. Wright, quoted on the blog site of James Ford, an American Zen priest, friend and colleague:

Westerners should be attracted to Buddhism because of its striking appeal to reason and common sense, an because it offers a logical and scientific system of ethics and culture that is based on sound philosophical principles.

Other religions have presented excellent moral codes that were well adapted to the conditions that existed at the time they were given out. But there have been vast changes in the world and in the human race since the days of Jesus, for example, and the religious systems have failed to adapt themselves to these changes.

But here, we should be careful. We should remember that Buddha was not a Buddhist, any more than Christ was a Christian. If we were to say that what the world (meaning the followers who were exposed to the teachings of either of these two bodhisattvas) needed then, was Buddhism or Christianity, that would have been a non-starter. There was no Buddhism at that time, and 500 years later, there was no Christianity. So to say so now, would be to point at something that is not really at the heart of the matter. Buddhism and/or Christianity amount to a kind of paper trail, left behind the actual Awakening of Buddha, or the epiphany of Christ.

Same for Zen. It means a variety of things to a variety of people. No two Zen practitioners would have exactly the same definition, as it depends on their own experience, which, by definition, cannot be identical.

So we may say that what the world needs now, is the truth. The Truth is something we accept as pre-existing, though different folks may have different takes on it. In the age of “fake” everything, even the notion that there is a thing called truth is under siege. So we would have to modify, or modulate, our bandying about a term that has been so woefully abused by both sides of the political dialog, as well as many other areas of debate in the public arena.

Others may insist, along the same lines, that what the world needs now is the facts. Just the facts, ma’am. But facts have the same kinds of problems associated with them as “truth” has. Tellingly, this laptop’s on-board dictionary uses a political reference in its first definition of “fact”:

a thing that is indisputably the case: she lacks political experience—a fact that becomes clear when she appears in public | a body of fact.

The “origin” section of the definition is also revealing:

late 15th cent.: from Latin factum, neuter past participle of faceredo.’ The original sense was ‘an act or feat,’ later ‘bad deed, a crime,’ surviving in the phrase before (or after) the fact. The earliest of the current senses (‘truth, reality’) dates from the late 16th cent.

Note that originally, it connoted behavior, not a pre-existent condition. This is addressed with characteristic wry humor of one of America’s greatest from the “quote” section of the thesaurus option:

Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please. Mark Twain, American writer and humorist

This is not really very funny now, in the context of the current shenanigans of our political “leaders.” But it is clarifying, if not comforting, to understand that “the true facts” started out as corrupted by the monkey minds of those professing them.

You may have taken Latin in high school, as I did for a couple of years. There I learned that the verb facio-facere, if memory serves, also means “to make.” So when we say We are not making this up (“Thus have I heard”), we have to have the humility to recognize that, while we solemnly vow to “manifest truth — do not speak falsely,” we cannot speak the absolute truth (though we inadvertently manifest it in our very being); nor can we help but speak falsely, in the sense that we can only offer our version of reality, which cannot be complete, and thus, true. So you might say that the best we can manage is half-truths.

So we have come to the end of this essay, if not the problem it addresses. I would like to close with some comments from my professional background and practice in design, which I find has many parallels with the practice and teachings of Zen Buddhism. One of the links is the focus on problem-solving in both traditions.

When we regard what Buddha experienced, and what he did about it, one of the more reasonable, and less emotionally laden, interpretations is that of problem-solving. Buddha has sometimes been referred to as the first “psychologist,” in that he diagnosed the suffering of the world (including that of people, of course) as caused by our own clinging to attitudes and approaches that basically do not work, in the face of the reality of our situation. He recognized that there is a problem here in paradise — that there is something unsatisfactory (S. dukkha) about it; analyzed his own experience and behavior; and came up with findings, conclusions, and recommendations, based on his in-depth research of the subject, in meditation. He defined the problem thoroughly, which, in design circles, is the essential necessity and method for teasing out a solution to the most seemingly intractable problems.

Most problem-definition we see going on, particularly in the political realm, is tainted by personal self-interest, or bias, and an aversion to admitting to any culpability in the creation of the problems that beset us. One of the fundamental tenets upon which Buddhism and Zen are based is the recognition that I am the source of my problems — not you; not “them.” It may be too much to ask to have a public display of this kind of humility and honesty. But within the privacy of our own meditation, we can afford to face up to the fact that we bear the responsibility for our own existence, though we cannot take full credit for it.

So what the world needs now is definitely this kind of personal comeuppance, as a result of Zen or other self-critical practice. Or simply as merit accumulated from past lives, a well-regarded testament to modesty in action, in the face of good or bad times. Most of us who practice Zen feel that its meditation is the most effective and efficient method for coming to the same conclusions as did Buddha. This is our mission to America and the rest of the world. Simple in principle, difficult in practice. But no one will be convinced of this other than by our example. This is our responsibility. If we manifest the truth of Zen, first by finding verification on the cushion, then actualizing it “with no exertion of the mind’s power” in daily life, this is the most we can do.

January 2018 Dharma Byte – Buddha Blows His Nose

During Rohatsu retreat this year I took several turns as time-keeper (Doan) for the morning sit at 6:00 am, in order to lead the sangha in the morning service, as a training example to those attending who are not as familiar with the chanting protocols, accompanied by drum and gong.

At one point, as happens every morning, my sinuses started to drain, and I realized that I had forgotten to tuck a tissue into my sleeve as I usually do to accommodate this daily ritual. While sniffling as silently as I could until the opportunity arose to leave the zendo to retrieve a napkin, it occurred to me that at some point Buddha would have had a similar problem. While he taught about the accumulation of merit, and warned against the accumulation of possessions and too much wealth, he surely experienced the accumulation of mucus in his sinuses as well. In fact, his descriptions of the true nature of our physiological being are near scathing in their directness and unflinching honesty about the various fluids and organic matter, including waste material, that make up what we fondly refer to as “me” or “myself.”

So I began to wonder just how Buddha would have handled a runny nose, sitting, as he was, in front of hundreds or thousands (myriad kotis, etc.) of his ardent followers, hanging on his every word. We can be pretty sure that the culture of that time had long since figured this out, and had a customary way of dealing with such exigencies. But they apparently did not have paper, certainly not a handy box of Kleenex tissues, and the cloth that they did have was not only hand-woven, but hand-everything, and so would have been relatively expensive to use as a hanky. We are told that they reused scraps of fabric recovered, laundered (in the local stream) and stained with dye to hide the uneven coloration, for their patchwork robes (J. Okesa).

Naturally my curiosity turned to other, more extreme matters, such as the delicate issues of defecation and urination, so I turned, as we moderns do in matters such as this, to Google. I found to my delight and amazement that indeed the ancient precursors in India to Buddha’s time, a civilization that once held forth in the Indus valley, had, not indoor plumbing, but a kind of outdoor plumbing. That is, archeologists have discovered, and you can see the photos online, that they had crafted toilets of stone, which were positioned over streams, a kind of continuously-flushing toilet. They look much like my grandparents’ outhouses in my childhood. This basic technology was also a characteristic of other civilizations, such as that of early Greece, but in India had been lost to history by the time of Buddha, so the practice of going on the ground, or directly into the river, had re-arisen; and is in fact still common in many of the less developed locales in the world today.

When Baba Ram Dass visited some mutual friends in Chicago in the 1960s, I invited him to give a talk at the University of Illinois, where I was teaching at the time. He told his classic tale of traveling to India, meeting his guru, and in passing, remarked upon various cultural differences he found there, for the benefit of our less well-traveled students. I remember his mentioning that they did not use toilet paper, but water instead, for cleaning themselves after using the toilet. I believe that was when I learned also that one hand was used for eating, while the other was reserved for cleaning duties. This makes a lot of sense in a world where there is no TP to use, let alone for blowing one’s nose. The transmission of disease was of course known in earlier societies, though often attributed to forces other than bacteria.

This raises a point that I think is crucial to our understanding of Zen and Buddhist practice in the modern world, that is, that it originated and developed in a very different world from what we have today in terms of social norms, culture, hygiene, and, above all, technology. One theory of the dominance of humanity over all other species attributes this to the acquisition and use of language, of course; but also to what is sometimes referred to as cultural evolution: the ability, and propensity, to transmit technology to the next generation; and for them to improve it and pass it on to their children. The example of a kayak is sometimes used, to illustrate the unlikelihood of any one person inventing and developing such a sophisticated item in one lifetime, over against the greater likelihood of its becoming progressively more elegant and efficient over generations of incremental improvements in design and function.

So, when we look at the design of Zen practice, with its irreducibly simple meditation, along with admittedly more complicated ritual protocols surrounding that central method, we can usefully take into consideration the context in which it originated, and those in which it was refined over some 25 centuries of practice from India, through China, Korea and Japan. There is a built-in bias in our current worldview — which may also have been characteristic of cultural prejudice and opinion throughout history — that the arc of cultural refinement bends toward ever-increasing sophistication. In other words, that our way of living today is highly advanced over the civilizations of the past, and with each generation gets better and better.

There are several contrarian strains of thought that would argue the case for flattening this curve, recognizing so-called advances as merely variations on themes that are not central to living fully, but merely peripheral. Some would even hold that in many ways we have gone backward, rather than forward, in our endeavors to enhance the lifestyle and refinement of humanity. Recent power outages and mass migrations have illuminated this idea to millions.

In the case of Zen practice, in the midst of whatever set of social circumstances it finds itself, I think the utility of this line of thought points to what is most central and important in life. It is difficult to come up with something more compelling and elegant than Buddha’s definition of the most salient problem of existence as aging, sickness and death.

We have done a lot to mitigate the ravages of the first; to prevent and cure the second; and to forestall the third, but we have not eradicated them, notwithstanding the musings of science fiction, and our most hopeful prognostications. One could even argue that the unseemly emphasis on the accumulation of wealth we are witnessing around the world is based upon some sort of belief that if you have enough money to throw at such a problem, you have a fighting chance of solving it. And it does seem that the haves are trying to have it all, even at the expense of the have-nots, who do not have enough to even stave off the predations of the unhealthy conditions threatening their lives, which are largely the corporate effluents of the wealthy class. We know that those deceased denizens who have invested in cryogenics, as one example, had more money than they knew what to do with. And even if their investment pays off in a future resuscitated incarnation, Buddhism asserts that in fact, all future lives are a form of rebirth to begin with, and so would cast a jaundiced eye on a retread consciousness that had long ago reached the end of its shelf life. Wisdom does not necessarily accumulate with age and experience.

When we listen to the recorded teachings of Buddha and the Ancestors, it is important to remember this context, to “contextualize” them socially as well as technologically, to get a more practical inkling of their true meaning. If instead we forget that these great and incisive minds did not have the benefit of the kind of vaunted education and access to technology we enjoy today, we are likely to miss the deep import of their teachings, such as the line from “Trust in Mind” (Hsinshinming) reminding us that:

Here, thought, feeling, knowledge and imagination are of no value.

At some point in our understanding of Zen, ordinary understanding is useless. However, we cannot take this as an absolute obiter dictum limiting our practice path in getting there, as earlier in the poem, Sengcan warns:

To move in the one way, do not reject even the world of senses and ideas;
indeed, to accept them fully is identical with true enlightenment.

If, however, our practice leads to a point where knowledge and imagination are of no value, it is obvious that such cultural considerations as lifestyle and technology become largely irrelevant. Not rejecting even the world of ideas, however, means that as part of our worldview, as well as in the practical implementation of our practice, the impact and implications of scientific advances suggests that the ideals of Buddhism may be realized in the real world.

One of my many mentors, R. Buckminster Fuller of Geodesic domes fame, pointed out that in spite of the negativism promoted by politicians and their paymasters, there is enough and plenty to go around, in terms of meeting the physical needs (Maslow’s hierarchy) of the population, but the barriers to distribution are largely political. And political resistance is always conditioned by the philosophical or ideological underpinnings of those resisting sharing the wealth, bolstered by the same psychological fears that impel them to amass great wealth in the first place.

Remember that in Buddha’s time, if the historians are to be believed, it was not that different. The caste system was firmly in place in India; birth was destiny. If you were born into the Brahmin class, you were at the top of the heap for life, as would be your progeny. If, on the other hand, you chose your parentage from the “untouchables” caste, you had no upward mobility. In the Order of monks and nuns, however, all such bets were off, according to the story. Proto Buddhism opened the big tent, under which all could enjoy the benefits of community, as long as they were willing to leave behind the perquisites they enjoyed in the outer society. But the teachings were not spared only for those who joined the Order.

Nowadays we do not literally have to leave the world of lay people in order to follow Buddhism, or Zen; nor did lay people in Buddha’s time, only the monastics. We have the more difficult task of integrating a practice into life as we know it, the “world of senses and ideas.” Most of the ideas about the senses promoted by the society we live in are on the side of indulgence: “Everything all the time” (Hotel California). The ideal of being or becoming wealthy is tied to an ever-expanding sphere of possibilities for how to enjoy your wealth, from second homes, to why not dozens of homes, all over the world. The stubborn parameters that are resistant to this kind of power over our future fortunes are the aforementioned aging, sickness and death. Even the wealthiest person in the world cannot buy off these debt collectors when they come calling, though many seem to be spending a lot of time and treasure on the futile effort.

We are dazzled by the prospect of technology, whether for its life-extending potential, or simply because it makes life so much easier, interesting, and more productive. When we use a term like “productive,” however, we have to consider what it means, as in producing what? Time-saving devices, such as the word processor I am using to write this essay, have made it much more readily doable, compared to the typewriter of the last generation technology, the rice paper and ink brush of our Zen Ancestors in Japan and China, or the prior technologies for recording information (on broad leaves) in India. But what am I, what are we, to use all this time we have saved for, exactly?

Many would say, well, travel, for example. Which seems to have an unquestioned value for those who can afford it. But Zen, according to Master Dogen, points out the futility of traveling to foreign lands to find enlightenment (Fukanzazengi). Or study — reading or writing that book we have planned to do for so long. Or any other of a number of worthwhile and interesting projects. But Zen would ask, as the old monk-chef (J. tenzo) did with Master Dogen in China, when they discussed Dogen’s earnest studying of the Chinese texts, “What’s the use of that?” Then, concluding the discussion, “No, I mean, what’s the long-term use of that?”

When we consider this term, “long-term,” we must think of the short-term as well. How long, exactly, is the long term, in my life? Is my study of buddha-dharma good for today, or this week, in that it entertains me for now, and occupies my mind with something more worthwhile than, say, a murder mystery? Or science-fiction? Or is it a longer-term benefit, in that the next time I am lecturing to an audience on Zen or Buddhism, I will be able to refer to what I am reading as a quotable quote, perhaps enabling me to more clearly elucidate a subtle point? In other words, what is the long-term use — the utility, or futility — of any or all of our present behavior? Are we wasting our time in futile endeavors, pursuing useless knowledge? Or preparing ourselves for some imagined future, where this information may be useful to us?

A quote from Seikan Hasegawa, from his book “Cave of Poison Grass” will serve as an example of the above, while simultaneously illustrating the ambivalent nature of the very activity of researching Zen in this way. Paraphrasing from memory, he said that most people wait until they are on their deathbed to confront the fundamental issues of life and death, remarking that this is like trying to “eat soup with a fork,” if memory serves. The implication is that we can look back on a long life of striving, only to realize that we were putting all of our efforts into marginal or useless endeavors, looking for love in all the wrong places, et cetera. How do we avoid this existential regret, no matter how much wealth we accumulate, or how many honors we receive? What is the long-term use of anything, or any activity?

Zen asks something very simple, yet extraordinarily difficult, of us. It asks us to see beyond the relative conditions of our present existence on the one hand, and to eschew our opinion of the absolute significance of our life, at the same time. While thought, feeling, knowledge and imagination are of no value at this far remove, they can be helpful in getting to this point. What are we doing, when we are sitting in zazen? We are unlearning. We are learning to let go of our opinion of our own existence. In this case imagination can be useful, but not in trying to imagine the truth.

We instead can imagine, for example, what it was like for Buddha to blow his nose. I could have said, “picked his nose,” but that would be disrespectful. But only in our culture, not necessarily in his. How would that simple act of humanity have affected his followers? Were they critical, or impressed with his dignity? How does it affect you, the next time you blow your nose? How does it inform your appreciation of the homeless, the extravagantly wealthy, the ordinary person? Why is Buddha-nature defined as a dried shit-stick? Or a snot-rag? And how does it achieve its status as the most precious thing in the world? Where is it in yours?

Mass Murder Victims Subject To Rebirth: A Meditation on the Latest Atrocity Born of Ignorance

This Dharma Byte follows on last month’s, titled “An Act of Pure Evil,” quoted from the current POTUS. He was referring to the Las Vegas shooting, which held our attention for about a month. This time, he moderated his comment to “An Act of Evil.” Perhaps the difference between the two events is in the numbers killed, one of many measurables with which he seems to be obsessed, along with the press.

The title is intentionally phrased as a headline you might encounter in the news. As such, it is designed to catch your attention, and to encapsulate the message in as few words as possible. As a headline, it does not have to be true, nor even represent the beliefs of the writer. It just has to cut through the clutter.

One of my habits, which may turn out to be good or bad depending on the day, is to quickly check the latest tragicomic event in the news as I arise each morning. This particular day followed the latest church shootings that took enough lives to get the 24/7 attention of the media, especially the death of the 14-year old daughter of the pastor and his wife, who happened to be away from church that morning. When I hit the remote, a reporter was conducting an on-the-street interview with a member of the congregation, who was saying about the preacher, “He was just…a man of God” if I heard her correctly. The reporter mentioned that the daughter had been killed in their absence, and then asked, while a fuzzy image of a young girl appeared on the screen, “How did they take the news?”

Responding to the intolerably insensitive nature of that question, I immediately hit the off button, and decided to write this piece. My major point is not the wretched state of the news profession, but I believe it provides an appropriate backdrop, a contextual aside, for illustrating one of the many kinds of ignorance that we find cloaked in the cultural memes of today. This reporter is making a substantial living, doing what he does, we may presume, simply because he is on camera. And the organization he works for must think that he is doing a good job, or they would not have his face fronting their program.

That he casually asks such an incredibly rude question — to which we all already know the answer, or really, in all decency, do not need to know — apparently only to wring more blood from the story, seems to capture the character of the new norm of professional reportage. That the photo of the hapless victim is out-of-focus may represent a nod to decency, or perhaps is the only way to skirt around the prohibition against showing victims without permission. In any case, this vulture-like savaging of carnage for profit is detestable, but, again, not the main point I wish to make. Others would argue that he is just doing his job, after all.

The title of this piece implies the classical Buddhist theory of rebirth, which, as I understand it, holds that death leads to rebirth, in almost all cases. Without going into the esoteric dimensions, or the differences between rebirth and reincarnation, the prevalent meme of Buddha’s time, I simply want to present it, rebirth, as perhaps the single doctrine, in Buddhism, that comes closest to a religious belief. Scientifically, it is safe to say, we have little or no evidence that rebirth can be proven, other than the testimony of Buddha himself, according to the story; or that of Tibetan monastics, who famously claim to be able to recognize reincarnated lamas. But it makes as much sense as any of the other beliefs now extant, about life and death, and in particular, life after death. The many teachings on the Zen approach to this issue make it clear that rebirth, unlike reincarnation, is not technically a belief. We may regard it as a plausible alternative to the other beliefs around this fraught subject.

In the design business — because we are engaged in problem-solving activities on behalf of clients for money, or on behalf of ourselves for our own sanity, or both — we often engage in a process called, simply, “What if?” What if we did it this way; what if we redefined the problem to be this instead; what if we ordered in some sandwiches instead of breaking for lunch?

In the case of much of the doctrinal teachings of Buddhism, this what if? approach may be the most reasonable for considering their validity, for getting at their implications, and for deciding whether or not we want to accept or reject them. One great line of many in the ancient Chinese poem, “Trust in Mind” (J. Hsinhsinming), says, “To move in the One Way, do not reject even the world of senses and ideas; indeed to accept them fully is identical with true enlightenment.” (from the Liturgy of the Soto Zen Sect).

The conventional understanding is that Zen is, if not anti-intellectual, certainly not intellectual. That is, its wisdom and insight do not depend upon an intellectual understanding of life. Indeed, Zen calls upon us to go beyond the discriminations of the thinking mind, if not to reject them outright. The same poem, elsewhere, says, “Here, thought, feeling, knowledge and imagination are of no value.” Here being in the warm embrace of ultimate insight. Our treasured talents for thinking, emoting, knowing, and imagining are all found equally lacking, totally beggared, in the face of that which cannot be thought, felt, known, or even imagined, in the ordinary sense.

This seeming contradiction is resolved, I think, in our acting out of the teaching in our daily lives. While we are not to reject the world of senses and ideas, we are also not to attempt to depend upon this great capacity for creativity, at least when it comes to our efforts to come into harmony with the Great Way. These usual tricks of the discriminating mind simply won’t work. But nonetheless, the conceptual faculty of mind is not, in itself, a barrier to insight. It can help us to sort through the many and various kinds of delusion, for example.

So what if we apply this What if? approach to the notion of rebirth? We might simply ask ourselves, What if it is true? What if, in the great majority of cases, death, no matter how it comes about — but particularly if it is willful, either in the form of intentional suicide, or homicide — will dependably bring about the necessary and sufficient causes and conditions for rebirth? Further, what if this idea became the prevalent cultural meme, the new normal way of looking at the advent of death, and its implications?

I do not mean to suggest that replacing any belief or doctrine of any major religion with one from the teachings of Buddhism would necessarily be a good thing. I am not lobbying for Zen over Christianity, Islam or Judaism. Zen does not traffic in beliefs. I am merely suggesting, purely for the sake of argument, that allowing that another interpretation of these grave events and their after-life outcomes may be true, might relieve us of some of the social consequences of currently shared cultural beliefs. If this present life is seen to be already the afterlife of the past one, and another is coming, how would that change things? What might that look like?

Those unfortunate ignoramuses who perpetrate these crimes against others might, of course, misread the ramifications. They may see the idea of rebirth as relieving them of the guilt and responsibility for their actions, doubting the karmic consequences sure to follow. But knowing or believing that they, as well as their victims, would be reborn, might give them pause. What good is the fame acquired through notoriety (one motive imputed to copy-cat killers), if the newly reborn “you” is not going to benefit from the act, or even be associated with it (other than karmically)? And further, placed on the cosmic scales of justice, the new life you enjoy may not be so enjoyable, not even as much as your latest abortive ride on the merry-go-round of birth and death. What good is it to kill as many people as you can in the hopes of topping the last atrocity, if they will all just be reborn?

For the perpetrations of these acts by the bad actors is surely just as informed by the shared belief that we go to our reward after shuffling off this mortal coil – the reactions of those survivors of the victims who believe that they are in a better place. If a person is suffering to such a point of desperation that it leads to suicide by cop, at the same time taking a lot of other unfortunate souls with them, the belief that this ends it is all they need to justify their rationale, if it can be so defined. At least, in death, they may find relief from their unbearable existence.

But Buddhist rebirth says, Not so fast! All you are doing, ignorantly, is kick-starting another cycle, another round in the Twelve-fold Chain, potentially an even worse existence than the one you just cut short awaits you. Death is not the end; it is the beginning of what comes next. It seems a stronger deterrent, and just as logical, to assume that now you will have to start from scratch again undergoing the pain of birth to another mother, in another location, growing up and suffering aging, sickness and death all over again than dies assuming that the next thing is either heaven or hell, purgatory or the Void. Déjà vu on a cosmic scale, like the movie “Groundhog Day,” only with deteriorating circumstances.

If the very exposure to this idea, let alone the assumption that it is true, might have even a bit of sobering effect upon these madmen, who, after all, are driven to atrocity by what amounts to a polyglot of other assumptions and beliefs; this potential alone may rationalize embracing Buddhist rebirth, as a society. It may be far more believable than the threat of eternal damnation in hell, which does not seem to be working out very well. If rebirth throws the next wannabe madman into doubt about the consequences of his or her actions, so much the better.

If the victims and their survivors could, with all due respect, refrain from indulging in the belief that we will all meet again in the sweet bye-and-bye, and consider the possibility that the deceased are not actually laid to rest, but are already on their way to another birth, they may be just as comforted, and reconsider a life and its consequences more seriously.

At this point, it seems necessary to discuss (not pretend to explain) something of the difference between rebirth and reincarnation. From the above, the false impression of a soul, or self, transmigrating from one life to the next, relatively intact, may be inferred. But it is not meant to be implied. As I get the distinction, the one that is reborn is not the same person as the one that died. A lot of the baggage we are carrying does not carry over into the next birth, but some consequences do, associated with actions in our present, or even prior, lives.

This gets a bit fuzzy-thinking, so it is probably advisable to say, that whereas reincarnation suggests that there is a person, an intrinsic entity, at the present time inhabiting this body, and in the next life moves into a brand new body like we might move from one apartment to another (with or without all new furniture). In the theory of rebirth, the one that is born is not exactly the same one that died. Analogically, it is more like a seed dropping from a tree. Given the necessary and sufficient causes and conditions for growth — soil, sunshine, water, et cetera (and no negative conditions, such as a hungry bird) — the seed will dependably grow into a tree, much like the parent tree. It will not accidentally turn out to be a different species of tree. But it is not the same tree, either. The connection of the new tree to the prior tree cannot be denied, but there is nothing tangible, other than DNA, which is a pattern, not a thing, that has transferred from the one to the other.

Karma can thus be considered a kind of cosmic DNA, carrying over influences from prior lives into future lives. Probably enough said about that for our purpose.

If we can at least consider the possibility that this is the way the world works, perhaps we can mitigate some of the worst suffering that accompanies these tragedies that have become the curse, or what some regard as the price, of freedom. If instead we continue to promote and propagate the very neurotic worldview that prompts this kind of madness in the first place what else can we expect as an outcome? This is the very definition of insanity.

If we can begin to interpret these incidents, and the endless quest as to the “why” of them, as obviously fostered and fomented by ignorance of the true conditions of existence according to Buddhism, including endless rebirth; perhaps we can relieve our so-called civilization of the excess baggage and burden of customary views, which only tend to reinforce the compulsive-obsessive, knee-jerk reaction to the unbearable pressure of living under the tyranny of beliefs that have little or nothing to do with reality.

The why of these atrocities is something anyone who is paying attention can probably dictate without bothering to do any research. Beliefs trigger actions, which engender responses, which are commented upon by others sharing the same beliefs, which reinforces other believers’ unquestioning embrace of like beliefs, which leads to the next atrocity ad infinitum. This is a vicious cycle that will not be solved by analysis after-the-fact, no matter how many examples we have to consider. By now this should be clear to all who witness this predictable pattern and response to the now-weekly item in the news feed.

Buckminster Fuller defined intelligence as the ability to “extract the general principle from particular case experiences.” We cannot extract the general principle driving the particular case experiences of these ongoing disasters, as long as we are harboring beliefs that prevent us from observing and seeing them clearly.

The poem suggests a way out of our self-imposed dilemma: “For the unified mind in accord with the Way,/ all self-centered striving ceases.” The actions of the perpetrators, the reaction of the news media, and particularly the political leaders, all amount to self-centered striving. This koan of modern life is aggravated by the shared notion of death as being personal, a threat to the existence of this so-called self. It is further exacerbated by the pat belief in an afterlife that is not the same as this life.

Birth is the leading cause of death. There is no death without birth, no birth without death. The two are not-two. This truth is not of our making, and we cannot change it. If we embrace it fully, all unnecessary suffering can come to an end. This is our mission as Zen practitioners and teachers. The personal and the social cannot be separated. They are also not-two.

November 2017 Dharma Byte “AN ACT OF PURE EVIL”

This is how our President defined the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, an event that is by now largely forgotten, except for the victims and their families, of course. This comment is one of many all-too-predictable reactions, a kind of communal knee-jerk, which has become a cultural meme. And the media seem to concur.

But no, it wasn’t. There is no such thing as pure evil, just as there is no such thing as pure good. These are stereotypes, handy shortcuts, mainly useful if you want to sidestep any serious, in-depth analysis.

This meme is based on another, that of “free will.” Having recently read Sam Hariss’s mercifully brief book of the same title, and after discussing the issue around the campfire over the last night of our Fall retreat at Watershed, the connection between the two memes stands out in stark relief, at least for me. It becomes clear, on closer examination, whether from a psychological-backed-by-neuroscience point of view, such as Mr. Harris employs, or from a merely social-and-common-sense-logical perspective, that the two memes are inextricably interconnected. As Harris asserts:

The belief in free will has given us both the religious conception of “sin” and our commitment to retributive justice. The U.S. Supreme Court has called free will a “universal and persistent” foundation for our system of law, distinct from “a deterministic view of human conduct that is inconsistent with the underlying precepts of our criminnal justice system”…Any intellectual developments that threatened [the legitimacy of] free will would seem to put the ethics of punishing people for their bad behavior in question.

Again we mark the black-and-white-no-gray-area opposition, typical of our public dialog [brackets mine] comparing free will as an alternative to determinism, as if there is nothing in between, no room for any more nuanced analysis. And we should note that this presidential “opinion” is meant for public consumption, predictably reinforcing the usual self-serving, divide-and-conquer stratagem characteristic of such pronouncements from on high, while offending no one of any real political consequence.

If we can delude ourselves sufficiently to define such an act in these terms, we can shirk our responsibility for confronting it for what it is. Which renders all such declarations as convenient truths, or myths. But it does take a community, however regrettably, to deal with irrational actions of individuals raised in, and conditioned within and by, that community. It is understandable that our leaders would hope to deflect our attention by resorting to a fundamental bifurcation of reality into promordial “good” versus “evil,” rather than confront the complexity of the reality.

It also promises to absolve us of doing what we can, or should, do about it. Evil is not our fault, after all. We did not create this reality. But rather than fob it off to God and/or Satan, or whatever other handy default, we should embrace a less simple truth, a problem in which we all play a part, the solution for which begins at home.

It may be clarifying to regard these atrocities as incursions of a form of guerilla war. However, the war we speak of is not between ISIS or Islam and America. It is instead a struggle between the kind of profound ignorance that Buddhism points to, one in which we all participate to differing degrees; that and the difficulty of recognizing and accepting the truth of the causes and conditions of our existence, which are immensely complex.

To assume that some individuals are simply bad apples, and that nothing can be done to anticipate and prevent their self- and other-destructive impulses, is to abdicate our responsibility to recognize the same tendencies in our own minds. If we are honest, we can all identify with the urge to lash out, and may remember those times in our lives when we did just that, harming ourselves and others unnecessarily. We may still confront these urges on a daily basis.

If we look closely, we can see that our actions may be driven by instinct, hormones, or other internal, subliminal motives such as Harris points to, as driving our outward behavior, thus not of our own free will. The 19th Century philosopher Shopenhauer makes much the same case, if with less reliance on scientific evidence, in his “The World as Idea; The World as Will,” in which he argues persuasively that those motives, desires, actions and responses that we take as our own, in regard to sexuality, for example, we feel are to the advantage of our enlightened self-interest: that is, our “will.” But they are actually in service of the will of the species, i.e. in the interest of the child to be born as a result of our attractions and actions. This is one form of delusion.

Another delusion is that which afflicts these perpetrators of mass atrocities, which we strive so fervently to understand (the “why” of it). A third delusion is our cavalier interpretation of the events as, in the current example, “acts of pure evil,” or some other nonsense. As Master Dogen reminds us in Genjo Koan, there are those who are continually in delusion, throughout delusion.

The perpetrators in this war hit and run, sometimes surviving and striking again. Which is the guerilla form of warfare the American colonialists used to defeat the British armies, who would form ranks and stand in the open field of battle, absurdly expecting their enemy to do the same thing. This may have been the last vestige of the form of warfare emulating the idea that there is something noble about it.

One doesn’t have to be trained in military strategy to understand that in any war, the supply lines to the enemy have to be disrupted, if we are to disrupt the attacks. Only if we can locate the routes by which the enemy re-arms and re-supplies its troops on the front line, can they be cut off, rendering them weaponless, or at lease deprived of ammunition.

In our current struggle against domestic mass murderers, we at least know where the supply lines are. They begin with the manufacturers, and for the most part move through a limited and known distibution network of licensed dealers, gun shows, and private transactions, as well as less-traceable underground networks.There is a weekly gun show just blocks from the Las Vegas massacre.

But they are not being disrupted, because vested interests and so-called leaders, supposedly on our side of the conflict, are profiting from the supply chain, either directly or indirectly. Parties to this proxy war either lobby for the gun business or are supported by contributions, which some consider bribes. In any international war recognized as such, this would be seen as traitorous, and punishable by death. Those who profit from the sales of guns used in the latest massacre are culpable, to the degree that they profit from tragedy. Connecting the dots is not all that difficult.

“If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns,” another meme, is belied by the fact that even if everyone at the Las Vegas concert had been armed to the teeth, it would have done nothing to prevent the assault. That criminals will always be able to get their hands on guns through illicit means is a separate issue. The point here is that those supplying the war efforts of our enemies are profiting if not profiteering, and should be held accountable. The survivors of victims of shootings, one would think, would mount a class-action lawsuit against the industry that profits from their suffering. But arms manufacturers are protected by a law, passed by their congressional agents, shielding them against such action.

The argument that we do not, cannot, know who the enemy is, is irrelevant. In many war zones, the same may be said of the enemy. They arise out of the populace and fade away back into the village, into the bush, or the jungle. This is the nature of guerilla warfare. What if our generals and commanders in the field, say in World War II, reacted to the latest attack with moments of silence and prayers, rather than pursuing the enemy and their suppliers? This is not a formula for winning a war, but amounts to a pre-emptive surrender.

Where you cannot find and pursue the enemy actors directly, you can attack their sponsors and suppliers. In a proxy war, the third parties to the conflict are not on the front lines. They are safe in their gated compounds in foreign countries. The locals fight their fights for them, and are rewarded in return, with financial and materiel support.

It does not matter that this week’s mass shooter is unrelated to last week’s, or next week’s. It does not matter “why” they commit the atrocity, whether in the service of a mad religious belief, or a personal psychosis. They are nothing but a proxy army for the real combatants, who are the makers and distributors of the weapons of war. Some say they are the real enemy. They need to sell ever more weapons to stay profitable, which is ever more difficult in a heavily saturated market.

The actual shooters, then, are merely “useful fools.” They keep the consumption going — of weapons, ammunition, and lives — the latter of which are merely the collateral damage, necessitated by the bottom line of arms providers.

You may disagree with the foregoing arguments, and that is fine with me. I make these points only for the sake of argument. My main point is that when we prefer to “explain” the unexplainable with simplistic nostrums that reinforce stereotypes, rather than take a closer look at what is happening, we are not really interested in understanding, or doing anything about, the problem. As long as it is not in my back yard, I have other things to attend to, thank you. And there is something to be said for fatigue, getting used to the new normal of ongoing disasters du jour. No wonder many resort to belief, e.g. that some individuals are just simply evil, unlike us.

Belief is a hedge against doubt. As long as we can shore up our beliefs, primarily by not examining them too closely, we can re-establish our comfort zone ever more quickly, in the aftermath of the most recent tragedy. We are encouraged to do so by the very media and first responders that present the news. How can we make sure this never happens again? Why did the perp do what he/she/they did? Now let’s move on to the healing phase. And the next outrage in the next cycle. The first thing reported are the numbers, so that we can judge how “important” the most recent event is, against its predecessors. If it fails to at least match, or exceed the last such incident, it is less newsworthy. Meanwhile, the perpetrators compete to rack up even more deaths, ever more dramatic flourishes to the atrocity, in order to gain the attention of the media, and perhaps to grasp the faux immortality of infamy.

Again, these are not novel revelations, but have become reprotage stereotypes, which may have nothing to do directly with the immediate motivation of the actors, which they likely do not understand, themselves.

When and if we can no longer believe in our own prejudices and opinions, however; when we find we are hiding behind protective walls of delusion; when we thoroughly examine them in practice, and see that they are constructed as a defensive perimeter of the wretched self at the center of our fantasy; we are faced with an awful void, a yawing chasm of doubt, that threatens to undermine our very sense of being in the world, our central place in it. If we cannot manage to see ourselves as good, and them as bad, for example, we enter into a zone of no reliable assurance, no comfort.

If we believe that we do not have free will, to any degree that makes the term viable, we can become confused about our culpability, in the defense of others as well as ourselves. If determinism is the only alternative to free will, we cannot be responsible for our lives, or the actions we take. But if we can accept that free will is a concept like any other, including determinism or fate, we can examine closely whether we are exerting free will, or not, in our daily activities, and to what degree.

Yes, other factors come into play when we make a decision to act, but are they truly determinant of the action we finally take? I intended to write this paper a few weeks ago when Las Vegas was still in the news, and here I am, finishing it at a later date. In between, whatever subliminal impulses occurred to me, indicating a lack of free will, or those that impelled me to begin, the impulse to continue and complete the message cannot be attributed to unknown or inchoate intention. Embracing the reality of no free will in the absolute sense is, in itself, an act of free will, perhaps the only act that qualifies as such.

The fact that an impulse, say to sit in zazen, can be detected in the brain a few hundred milliseconds before we become aware of it, and actually sit down, does not mean that our decisions are out of our control altogether. It cannot begin in the brain, as isolated from reality. Something, some stimulus or other, was registered by the brain in the milliseconds just before the decisive impulse was triggered. It may have been a picture of a monk or nun, catching a whiff of incense, or an emotional shock that caused a reaction, reminding us of the serenity we last felt in zazen.

Of course, multiple, partially determining factors come together in the present moment, even extending to influences from past lives, according to classical Buddhism. But the decision to act on them, or not, surely must be conscious. Unless we are so addicted to the substance of choice, or to the pleasure we are seeking in sensuality, for instance, that we cannot resist.

This is why we look upon zazen as a form of withdrawal. We temporarily withdraw from our usual attachments to pleasurable sensations and circumstances, as well as our aversion to unpleasant conditions. In this neutral territory of the middle way, we are free to take action in line with our impulses, or in spite of them.

Whether or not we are subject to, or free from, will is — like the other causes and conditions of our existence — to be discovered in zazen. What starts out as an exercise in free will, i.e. the decision to attend a retreat, for example; evolves to another level by the third or fourth day in. It is still our choice, but the paramaters have changed, usually dramatically, from the first impulse.

If, as Master Hyakujo pointed out in the example of the fox who was a Zen Master, we are neither subject to nor free from the law of causality, but one with it; then the only example of free will must be that with which we are also one. In Zen there is no actual dichotomy. In the mind, or imagination, there are many.

Living in the Eye of the Hurricane: October 2017 Dharma Byte

After Katrina hit the coast, and caused some of the greatest devastation yet seen at that time, I was giving a talk on Zen practice at the Japanfest, which at that time was held outdoors in Stone Mountain Park. Suddenly a woman interrupted me, asking “Well, what would you do if you were in Katrina — just sit there?” I was taken aback a bit, having never run into a Zen heckler before, but responded that I had no idea what I might do in such a crisis. Run for safety, try to help others — who really knows, until you are actually faced with such a nightmare?

But I made the point, that if she thought somehow she, and I, were exempt from the hurricane, simply because we had dodged that particular bullet — or that of Andrew or Hugo for that matter. The latter made a slope of rubble of the building in Charleston where our Zen affiliate met — one brave or foolish member climbed up to the floor level where the zendo had been and dug out the drum and gong from the pile of brick. If so, then she had another think coming. We are all in the eye of a hurricane, whether we know it or not. And the wall is coming our way, eventually.

We are all beginning to experience a bit of fatigue, I assume, with the vicarious disaster du jour that we are faced with each day on the media. How many times do we look at images of unremitting tragedy until it becomes the new normal? The heroic attempts of our first-, second-, and third-responders, to rescue and restore the damage; and the pathetic antics of our leaders in politics and religion to manage damage control, and to rationalize such events as the will of God, for example; only add to the sense of déjà vu as each new horror slogs through the “breaking news-biggest ever-putting this behind us-gaining closure-healing” routine with which we have become all too familiar, as the standard public reaction, and acknowledgement of living in interesting times.

Next comes the inevitable finger-pointing and fault-finding, and the assurance that we are taking measures to “make sure this can never happen again.” It is not lost on many of us that it did not have to be this way, whether in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico, or Mexico City. And that in the past few weeks. When Hugo hit South Carolina, one of our members there, who was a home-builder, decided to wait out the storm in one of the homes he had built on the coast, with some friends. They didn’t lose a shingle. He designed, engineered, and built hurricane-proof homes. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes are used at the DEW line at the arctic circle, partly because they can withstand hurricane-force winds. They are based on a 60-degree system, imitating Nature’s closest-packing of molecules to generate structure, rather than the 90-degree model typical of most buildings, which is not inherently sound, but requires cross-bracing.

When the school building collapsed in Mexico City, it was standing next door to larger buildings that did not collapse. The fact that it pancaked three stories into one suggests that the structural integrity of the support system between the floors was woefully inadequate. This further suggests that the builders may have made some extra profit — on a building for schoolchildren in a known earthquake zone. This point has already been floated, cautiously. We have seen this in other parts of the world.

The dam in Puerto Rico that is now threatening 80,000 people living downstream is not a natural structure; it is holding back a “man-made lake.” Its structural damage, “caused by the rain,” is also caused by insufficient estimates of the maximum capacity the dam would have to be able to withstand, and making sure the strength exceeded that load. When and if it collapses, the chaos wreaked on the villagers will not be owing to Mother Nature. It will be man-made.

The major point to be taken here is that these are no longer natural disasters. We may find, ultimately, that all such “accidents” are attributable to our poor choices. They are the combined result of Mother Nature, and our self-interested meddling with her. This is not an original idea, but it is resisted by those climate change deniers and others with a financial stake in the outcome. Which recalls the famous adage from Upton Sinclair, that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Of course, the term “salary” may now appear naïve and laughably out-of-date, with the scale of wealth and political stakes involved in population centers.

These large-scale events are now, arguably, a combination of causes and conditions augmented by effects of human activities on the atmosphere, the ocean, and the natural forces that are unleashed both seasonally, and when a large change in climate comes about. Those who argue that cold snaps demonstrate that the climate is not warming are either dangerously ignorant or ignominiously disingenuous. It is to be expected, I think, that extreme vacillation would characterize the onset of such a global shift, before settling into the new normal, at one extreme or the other. There may even be a scientific term for this dynamic, but if so, I am not familiar with it. Even so, it would seem prudent to err on the side of caution, when the downside is so great. If those who profit from a cavalier attitude were made to bear the true cost when they are proven wrong, we might see a shift to the side of caution, as we do with insurers.

The images we see from space of these mega-hurricanes, the sheer size and scope of them, begs an interpretation on the human scale, in human terms. They seem to express a high level of anger toward the victims, be it that of Mother Nature, or of God. But this merely serves to excuse poor planning on the part of certain humans, amounting to a crisis on the part of others. When commentators and people in charge remark that “no one could have prepared for this,” they are mistaken. The reasons that people build, and re-build, in hurricane alleys and floodways, are economic, largely. It is no accident that the poorer areas of town always seem to take the brunt of the destruction. Irma may be the first major case of non-discrimination in this regard, having leveled Puerto Rico without regard to wealth, class or other social stratification.

Others make their livings, and even vast fortunes, in the process. Building codes and standards are in place to protect vested interests, such as the local building trades and businesses. Bucky found this out when he tried to manufacture and distribute his Dymaxion House, which at the time could be delivered for a fraction of the cost of traditional housing, and could be yet today. Precisely because it was mass-produced, of aluminum, essentially with the same technology that mass produces airplanes. The only two prototypes ever built were eventually stacked, one on top of the other, somewhere in Texas, by their final buyer, probably as a curiosity. It stands as a ridiculous monument to the futility of going against entrenched interests.

Surveying the damage in the wake of these storms, one has to wonder why a roof cannot be securely moored to the building, or the ground, such that the wind cannot rip it off so easily? Why do the wall structures necessarily have to be built of soft wood sticks, stuck together with wire staples from “nail guns,” built for speed? The inadequacy of this way of building was perfectly captured in the song, “Little Boxes,” by Melvina Reynolds, first popularized by Pete Seeger:

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes on the hillside
And they all look just the same

They all look just the same, and they are all built to the same low standards of construction of other houses, those that do not happen to be in a floodway or a tornado alley. Housing does not have to be built this way.

The point is, the destruction of Hurricane Irma not only was not unanticipated, it was predictable. Though the innovative “spaghetti” traces of potential variations in the final path provide some semblance of scientific control of the situation, the arbitrary landfall betrays the false sense of security provided by weathermen bolstered by sincere “meteorologists.” And the trend seems obvious. Storms are becoming more frequent, and more powerful. The running joke is that we are still using outdated language, like “500-year flood” for weekly occurrences.

Like a huge grinder or eraser, air moving at several hundred miles an hour is compressed into a dense wave — functioning more as a fluid, or even a solid, than a gas — with known outcomes assured. We can only hope that the current monster misses us by some stroke of fate, but it is only a matter of time until our luck runs out.

Then, once the horse is out of the barn, we see the earnest but foolhardy pledges to rebuild, as if this somehow celebrates human resilience, rather than a compulsive stubbornness. But, of course, without assuming our responsibility, without recognizing our role in helping to cause, and our lack of preparedness in preventing, the latest tragedy. Or the choice we made to rebuild again and again, expecting different results, a definition of insanity writ large.

Those preachers who facilely attribute these cataclysms as divine punishment of a vengeful deity must explain, to three million-plus people on an island, how their collective sins could be so much greater than those of the members of their own flocks. Even Sodom and Gomorrah could not have been that great an exception to the rule, wherein down to the last person, all were equally guilty of an unforgivable offense, as if we know what could possibly offend God the Creator.

No, I am afraid that we must begin to shoulder our fair share of the burden. If we want to live free of threat from storms, floods, quakes and fires, as well as the pestilence that follows on the heels of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it is going to demand a lot more than lip-service to reform, whether conceived as moral or structural, and knee-jerk, reactionary hand wringing and posturing, after the fact. Amongst other reforms, it will demand abandoning disaster-prone areas altogether, or engineering site-specific kinds of dwellings, such as our ancestors did, building on pylons above the maximum flood stage, which continues rising. Ironically, many of the flooded houses have been raised from the ground, with funds apparently available to the lucky few.

But, rather than try to design for all exigencies, it may be far more practical to simply accept that this world is not a respecter of persons. That is, there is no intent, malicious or otherwise, behind the latest hammer to come down on us or our fellow citizens. When a tornado capriciously levels one house, skips the next, and then levels a third right next door, it is not God playing whack-a-mole. The survivors are not “blessed” because they are more righteous, or because God has a plan for them. There is no anger, no conscious motive behind the forces that create the causes and conditions of the disruption, other than those of the human beings who are party to the original construction and/or reconstruction, and may be partially culpable, owing to self-serving striving or neglect of due diligence.

This suggestion is not meant to convince anyone that, on a societal level, we should just give up all efforts at trying to do better for ourselves or our fellow citizens. But simply that, on a personal level, we should probably face up to the fact that we — you and I — may not appear all that special in the eyes of some god, buddha or bodhisattva. Instead of “Why me, Lord?”, the lament of Job, we should simply assume, “Why not me?”, a more Taoist, or Zen, attitude.

Hurricanes, cyclones, monsoons, typhoons and tornadoes seem to follow a ubiquitous, universal form, from the Great Red Spot on Jupiter to the recent NASA photos of the giant hurricane at the north pole of Saturn, the eye of which is estimated to be 50 times greater than any (so far) on Earth. The rotating, whole-planet storm generates a beautiful, hexagonal jet stream, an effect harking back to Fuller’s Geodesic Geometry, in a dynamic context. The Red Spot is a constant storm, larger than the entire planet Earth. Irma is an eddy on that scale.

So the hurricane may be taken as a metaphor for all life situations, whether in a zone of immediate danger, or not. We may experience a lull from time to time, but it is temporary. The calm before the storm can represent all self-delusional states of apparent safety and security. Even sitting on the cushion, in a relatively controlled environment, the sense of peace can be deceptive.

Buddha warned that the mind imposes a “false stillness” on reality. When this stillness is disrupted, by emergency or a change in circumstance, we may experience a broad range of reactions, from irritation to outright panic. And it is necessary that meditation is calm and uneventful, in the beginning. But Matsuoka Roshi assures us that if we persevere, we will eventually be able to sit through a thunderstorm, or an earthquake, with equanimity. In order to do so, it is necessary that, facing the wall in zazen, we recognize the presence of the emerging event — the wall — looming just over the horizon.

September 2017 Dharma Byte – INTERPRETATION

In Zen circles, we often hear the teaching that we should suspend judgment — especially in meditation, regarding ourselves as well as others — so often that it has become a cliché. This admonition is also referenced in Soto Zen Precepts received during ceremonies, such as “Do not discuss the faults of others,” and “Do not praise yourself at the expense of others.”

These two are included in the second five of the Ten Grave Precepts of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which Matsuoka Roshi reserved for formal stages of priest training (Zaike and Shukke Tokudo), being more socially oriented, i.e. regarding transactions with others, than the first five of Initiation (Jukai), as is to be expected for those wishing to be trained in training others. But I think the more personal and direct application of the act of judging is probably best for understanding the vital functioning of Precepts, especially in zazen; but also in relationships to others.

If we substitute the word interpretation for judging, we can develop a tighter focus on our direct experience of the way the mind typically works, the so-called monkey-mind of discriminating thinking. Discrimination has continued to carry negative connotations in our ostensibly post-racial society, but at heart the ability to discriminate is just that. It is neutral, like any other tool or capability. Whether it is positive or negative in effect is a matter of how we use it; but of course, such a thumbs-up-or-down evaluation is also a judgment call. We cannot escape this aspect of mind. But we do not have to be driven by it.

Moving from the “outer” realm of making judgments about others, and various situations we encounter, to the “inner” realm of those we make about ourselves from time to time — or if we are hyper-critical, constantly — let’s consider how this may manifest during zazen itself.

The Zen model of the mind is based on Buddhism’s teachings of the Five Aggregates (S. skandhas) and Six Sense Realms (S. dhatus) — the former parsing holistic experience into various categories of sensory awareness, built into the subjective mind; the latter those relevant dimensions of the mind’s sense objects — expanding the dynamic of sentience into a complex, and fairily comprehensive, model. Modern science has not substantially contradicted or simplified this model, but further extended it into the microcosmic realm of neural networks and chemical exchanges on the nervous system and the brain; as well as dissecting the sense organs in great detail, and illuminating the operations of the brain through real-time imaging.

Nonetheless, all this information about the way our information-processing proceeds still does not address the “so what?” question: How, then, does this trigger my own, personal insight? Nor does it answer the challenge of what to do about it, when we come up against the same old, same old, knee-jerk reactions to causes and conditions arising in our meditation, and impinging upon our daily life.

Most of our practice can be said to depend upon observation, in the scientific sense, but without pretense to absolute objectivity: Zen includes, importantly, most centrally, the observer. Zazen — our stripped-down, high-performance engine of a meditation — provides the vehicle, but does not automatically get rid of the driver. In fact, sitting “until you forget that there is someone sitting,” Matsuoka’s turning phrase (J. wato) demarks a turning-point in our training, not a condition or assumption going in. This is captured in Master Dogen’s “To study the Way is to study the self… to forget the self” and many other Ancestors’ teachings.

One of the key symptoms of the continuing operation of the controlling self is this tendency to judge anything and everything that comes into its awareness. Sometimes it does so neutrally, usually with some passion, or self-righteous brio, and even a good helping of animus. But if we examine the model of the process offered by Zen Buddhism, we can find those weak points at which we may be able to insert the lever of analysis, to subdue and subvert the monkey’s auto-pilot discriminating. To quote one of our Ch’an Ancestors, Master Sengcan:

The burdensome practice of judging brings annoyance and weariness.

For example, in contemplating “bare awareness,” a common description of a phase of meditative attention that sometimes surprises newcomers — but eventually comes to be familiar to long-time meditators — we begin to witness the breakdown of the seemingly seamless nature of the flow of information from the senses to the brain and back, the standard Western model of sensory awareness, including its accompanying emotional triggers and reactions. Rather than picking up the thread somewhere down the line — where we find ourselves already immersed in disgruntled, even angry, internal dialog, about this or that aspect of what is happening in the moment; or what happened a few minutes ago, or even yesterday; or, for that matter, what may yet happen today or tomorrow — we find ourselves getting ahead of the train a bit. Or lagging behind it, if you will. In any event, we are no longer simply riding the train.

We notice the slightest change of stimulus, say in the form of air movement caused by the ceiling fan; a subtle shift of light level; or a sudden relative quiet, when the air conditioning cuts off. Just a simple acknowledgment of a slight change in ambience, no big deal. But we may also recognize that our reaction to it is neither positive or negative, just neutral. Staying there for a moment, we find our attention fixated in our senses, rather than in follow-up, judging thoughts, as such. At the next moment, another subtle change may catch our focus.

If we pay really close attention, we begin to move to a plane of awareness that approaches simple registering of sensation, moment by moment, the slightest shift from one degree to another. In doing so, the so-called “inner and outer” dimensions of sensation itself begin to fuzz out, into a boundary area of overlapping outer stimulus, and inner responsiveness. This can be a delightful discovery. Or more like a long-forgotten, primordial memory.

As awareness expands to include all sensation simultaneously — eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind — the kaleidoscopic, kinetic activity transpiring both in the environment and in our body-mind becomes evident, emerging as a polyrhythmic, polychromatic and polytonal parade of passing pageantry, so to say. But if we insist on interpreting each and every little mote of stimulus that comes our way, we disrupt the flow, and the harmony, of our little program.

If, for example, we are not satisfied with simply registering a thought about what we feel in the immediate present, or how we feel about something someone did in the proximate past, we have no other choice than to interpret both: how we feel, and what they did. It is in the compulsion to interpret the raw data that we run into trouble. On his formative trip to India, Baba Ram Dass says he met a young American, whose guru he finally also met. When Ram Dass would mention a feeling he had, this expatriate would say, “Feelings are like waves on the ocean; watch them disappear on the horizon.” (This was part of a long talk Richard Alpert, the well-known former advocate of LSD gave to my students at the U of I in Chicago, in the 1960s.) All too often, however, we do the opposite. We nurture, and obsess over, our feelings. In zazen, we find we can let them dissipate, if not disappear altogether.

In professional research, we concern ourselves with findings, conclusions and recommendations. In designing a study, whether conducted in focus groups, with individuals, or through participant observation (so-called ethnographic studies) the apprpachapproach is to let the information flow to us, without biasing it. The interviewer, or moderator, works like a mirror, to simply reflect, and encourage, the dialog, rather than directing it. Similarly, when practicing “opening the hand of thought,” as Uchiyama Roshi phrased it, or the “backward step” of Master Dogen, in zazen, we let the information flow to us, without interpreting it. This would be the findings phase.

But in preparing the reports for the client, one has to draw relevant conclusions from the findings. (Some ersatz research firms actually do not, but simply dump the findings on the client, leaving them to sort out their own conclusions.) In any case, someone has to translate the raw findings into meaningful data, information upon which action can be taken. My senior partner and mentor would often say that you have to finally “Take your guts in hand, and tell them what it all means.” In other words, you must interpret! That is what they pay you for.

Now, when it comes to interpreting the most intimate, personal information to which we have access, the kind that becomes apparent in Zen meditation, we come up against what Thoreau expressed as a kind of conundrum, wrapped in an enigma, on the horns of a dilemma:

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

To be socially correct, and sensitive to gender bias, today we would add that the mass of women probably do so as well, if only because most of the men in their lives are desperados. But stepping out of the social context for the sake of simplicity, if we look at our zazen as an act of quiet desperation, we might come closer to the worldview of Shakyamuni Buddha and the Ancestors. We sit in meditation, admitting to ourselves, at least, that we do not know what we fundamentally most need to know. And unless we have gotten to the point of desperation about it, and are willing to exercise a bit of faith that Zen may offer a final resolution, our zazen is probably not the real thing, the “real zazen,” as Matsuoka Roshi referred to it.

The other sign that our zazen is not yet complete, not the real deal, is if we are constantly interpreting it. That is, interpreting the raw sense impressions through the filter of preferences. The Ch’an quote above comes from “Trust in Mind,” the first line of which is:

The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.

Here, we do not believe the great sage is suggesting that we seriously examine, and perhaps forgo, our preference for chocolate ice cream over vanilla. Later in the poem, he says, “So too with being and non-being.” So we are not playing around here. We assume our practice to be about life and death, in a very direct way. We examine closely our desire for life, and our fear of death. Not in a morbid way, but as a very practical consideration. Unless we are a true believer, we do not know of any examples of any living being that escaped death, ultimately. If we look closely, we may find that we are actually interpreting our lives, rather than living them. But Zen is about being truly alive. Which finds meaning only in the context of death.

On a less fraught plane, we can examine our proclivity to interpret the behavior of others. For example, when a member of the sangha goes missing for several years, we tend to interpret that event. We may assume, or speculate, that they are just not as serious about Zen as we are. Matsuoka Roshi would occasionally respond, when I would ask him about so-and-so, “Come-and-go type.” Or, “Wishy-washy type.” These two phrases may represent a finer parsing, or interpretation, of someone’s character. Wishy-washy is a bit more harsh than come-and-go. But remember, O-Sensei was working with tropes from a second language, not native to him.

Later on, the missing person may one day reappear on the doorstep of the Zen Center, a bit more gray and the worse for wear, perhaps. And as their story unfolds, it seems that owing to circumstances beyond their control, they have been unable to be present for practice in this particular location and during this particular period, for good reasons, no excuses. And had they been able to, they would have preferred to have been in attendance. The native Americans have a saying I recall from high school studies, that we should “Walk a mile in their moccasins” if we are prone to judge someone we do not know very well. Another platitude admonishes us not to assume someone hasn’t changed if we have not seen them for over a minute.

Even less personal, but fraught with broad and deep meaning, are the events that impinge upon us from the world at large, and nature in general. These include the political, business, and other spheres, where human nature often seems not worth interpreting, even if we had the ability to do so. But on an even larger scale, we in certain parts of the United States recently had an opportunity to engage in a transcendent exercise: seeing, and interpreting, the eclipse.

How are we to “interpret” something like a total solar eclipse? Some might argue that it is proof positive of the existence of God, a kind of cosmic signal, or “joke”: that the likelihood of the moon being exactly 1/400th the size of the sun, yet positioned exactly 400 times closer, is beyond any possibility of being a chance occurrence. It is so precise, and so precisely attuned to the perception of human beings (notwithstanding those placing safety glasses on their pets), that it must be intentionally staged to get our attention. That would be one interpretation.

Another would be that, no — that is just the way the forces of nature have choreographed the dizzying dance of the local celestial bodies. And it just happens that humankind has developed the awareness, intelligence, and technology to appreciate it. There was a time when knowing a solar eclipse was about to occur amounted to a very powerful piece of information, accessible only to the inner circle. Nowadays everyone knows way too much about the occurrence. One such eclipse was used to verify the “lensing” phenomenon, a claim made by Einstein that massive bodies will bend light. So there is no basic problem with interpretation itself. Again, just a useful tool, for trivial, or transcendent, usage.

But bringing us back down to Earth, interpretation is the first step toward making a judgment. If we can catch ourselves in the micro-moment — before the act of interpretation has a chance to set in place — we can avoid the more insidious aspects of the judgmental mind. Then the Mind that has no preferences, Bodhi-mind, can come to the fore.



NOTE: the following is a work-in-progress, reacting to recent political developments, based on study of historical documents such as the Britannica “Great Books of the Western World,” including Greek and West European philosophers and historians on the origins of civilization, as well as the foundational documents of America. The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels formed the turning point in inspiring this Manifesto. I am not interested in confirming the historicity or scholarly astuteness of various points in the essay, but only how to move to a point of wisdom and action in defining Zen’s role in the commonwealth. Otherwise, your comments are welcome as always. Please forgive the long form.

Because Zen Buddhism is not really a religion as culturally defined, this statement amounts to a manifesto, rather than a creed. Because Zen has to do with the true meaning of independence in the real world, I propose the term interdependence, instead, as more fitting. Originally attributed to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, in his teaching of Interdependent Co-arising, sometimes called the Twelve-fold Chain of causation, interdependence is the dynamic of Nature.

    Zen is the meditation sect of Buddhism. Its worldview is derived from direct experience in meditation, rather than based upon a system of beliefs. Thus it propounds what is in essence a realistic outlook, rather one that is pessimistic, or overly optimistic. Zen Buddhism shares certain tenets that could be considered beliefs, in the conventional sense of the term, such as the conviction that all human beings have the innate capacity for spiritual insight, like Buddha.

    We also believe in the veracity of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha and his descendants throughout Zen’s countries of origin, as well as the legitimacy of living teachers. Among the most central teachings are the Middle Way set out in the First Sermon, declaring the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path. The former define the determinative conditions of existence; the latter prescribes what to do about them — that is, how to live in harmony with reality. Other seminal teachings include the Five Aggregates of Clinging and the Six Perfections, along with the Twelve-fold Chain. Buddhist teachings labeled as Sutra are attributed directly to Shakyamuni.

    While these doctrines are not regarded as inerrant scripture, but rather as models of reality, they are revered for their clarity, and their thoroughness in describing the most salient aspects of our existence and situation as sentient beings. But they are to be verified by ourselves in direct realization. Thus they are not a form of knowledge to be gained, especially from intellectual study, but descriptions of the original state of body and mind to be recovered, or returned to, the meaning of taking Refuge in Zen. Our independence in this endeavor is not totally dependent upon others, but independent on the more personal level, interdependent on the social level, with our fellow denizens of our nation, and the Earth.

On July 4th, we in the United States of America celebrate our independence, declared in 1776, from the British Empire, of which the original thirteen states were former colonies. Whatever the historicity and details of what actually brought about this revolution, we are living with the consequences in our daily lives, some 240 years later, give or take a few calendar anomalies.
    My intention in putting this Zen manifesto in writing is to share a worldview that I believe can shed some light on the confusion and distortion of the original intent of the union — amongst those to ensure its citizens of fundamental freedoms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that has come about through the development of unforeseen changes in the polity in the intervening two-and-one-half centuries, including intentional subterfuge from both within and without.

    This span of a quarter-millennium seems the mere blink of a gnat’s eyelash, upon consideration of the scope and scale of those changes evolving in such a brief time, and their effect upon our common culture, as well as upon the individual citizen. It is part of our underlying premise, that conflicts such as those between emerging technologies versus inherited traditions have outstripped the ability of the governing system, and of most citizens, to keep pace, or to even know what changes are transpiring in the aggregate. This in spite of the more ubiquitous and continuous access to information emerging from the digital revolution. I believe that Zen can help to resolve these conflicts, for the individual, as well as benefiting society at large.

On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that any large-scale resolution or solution is likely. All such uber-analyses of history appear subject to the same weakness: subsuming the nature of the individual into that of a cultural group. Many examples come to mind, but one familiar meme will suffice to make the point: Marx and Engel’s division of the polity into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Few would argue that this model of class conflict has no basis in reality. But in terms of the individual confronting her/his life circumstances, it leaves little wiggle room for taking action of an independent nature. One either rejects or embraces the truth of the model; and if the latter, either engage the revolution, whether on this side or that, or resigns oneself to the status quo, perhaps hoping to move from the latter to the former.

    This is not to overlook Marx’s finding of movement between the classes, as touched on in the Manifesto. He suggests that when the financial basis for one segment of the bourgeoisie is superseded by technology — the horse and buggy whip-maker at the advent of the automobile — whole groups fall out of the bourgeoisie and into the proletariat. But it seems just as obvious that others rise into the bourgeoisie – i.e. the auto makers.

    The proletariat is typically defined as the working class, people who own nothing, and so their only value is their labor. But if we look at the working class today, we see that they are being replaced by robotics, and that what work many people do would not classify as work in the sense of manual labor, or turning physical tricks, as one of my mentors defined it. Many of the productive class today are working online, and while they are paid for their time, and perhaps by the hour, it would be a stretch to call what they do manual labor. The new members of the bourgeoisie have elevated themselves to that station by dint of their grasp of the digital revolution, identified a need, and developed an application to meet that need.

    Some of these are, famously, college dropouts, who therefore would not be considered educated in the old sense of the term. Other entrepreneurs analyzed an existing industry, and figured out a way to disrupt it, using mobile technology, and are in the process of replacing the older businesses. So it seems to me that the Marxian model is out-of-date on several levels, and we face a brave new world in which, as Bucky Fuller pointed out, the buttons we can push have gone invisible.

    That is, whereas a ruling lord in medieval times could assess the wisdom of waging war on an enemy by counting up the visible assets — human, horse, weaponry, et cetera — of the enemy and that of his own resources, today the information is not directly accessible to the senses. The decision-makers have to rely increasingly on those who understand the language of technology to make judgments and take decisions based upon information provided by trusted aides. This makes for high anxiety in an atmosphere of distrust and competition, which is rife in a system where ownership and wealth are out of balance.

    After the demise of the village system, in which all members of the tribe owned all property, i.e. real estate, in common (with exceptions for items demarking status and functionality, such as for hunting and gathering), the feudal system created the first division of the local populace into lords, or owners, who were also assumed to be the tribal protectors or benefactors; and their indentured servants, serfs and vassals.

    The inequality of wealth distribution in much of the world still reflects this division, and has become one of the hot-button issues dividing what are commonly considered today’s classes — the haves and have-nots — supporting and supported by the two-party political system, loosely labeled liberal and conservative, supposedly reflecting their imputed, relative worldviews.

    Like all stereotypes, these amount to generalizations for convenience, and largely function as shortcuts to propaganda and kompromat, utilized to reinforce negative publicity in the continuous campaign for the hearts and minds of the public. These shortcuts to thoughtful analysis work because they relieve their promoters and believers of any burden of careful consideration of causes and consequences. But upon closer examination, they are seen to be semantic exaggerations of faux simplicity.   

The current meme of identifying others, and self-identifying as conservative or liberal, the latter now trending to progressive, has some obvious double-think going on, I think. Further, these labels are confused, not clarified, by crossing them with the terms fiscal and social, though the combinations provide a veneer of logic. One can be a fiscal conservative and/or a social liberal, a fiscal liberal but socially conservative, a fiscal and social conservative or liberal, and so on. So the terms seem to take on meaningful application, through juggling the combinations, as if that provides enough flexibility to legitimize them. But if we look at what liberals want to liberalize, we see that they are wanting to conserve certain things. Likewise, if we closely examine conservative dogma, we see that they want to liberalize other things. So conservatives are liberals, and liberals are conservative. It amounts to a distinction without a difference, at least from a semantic perspective.

    There was a time when liberal was associated with generosity (S. dana), the first of the Six Perfections (S. paramitas). To be socially liberal has much this same connotation, or that of magnanimity, as in the three minds of Zen Buddhism, sometimes defined as Magnanimous, Nurturing, and Joyful mind. This is connected to the concept of compassion in Zen, but which must be balanced with wisdom to be most effective. Sometimes true compassion looks like cruelty, as in the tough love of a parent, manifesting the Nurturing mind.

    The term conservative also has powerful positive connotations, or did before it became another political football. Because its root is conserve, in its most innocent application, who could have an issue with it? Again, it is a matter of what one wants to conserve, or to liberalize. If all we are trying to conserve is our privileged position, for example, or the advantage of the contemporary bourgeoisie over the modern stand-in for the proletariat, then conservatism loses some of its altruistic luster.

    A simple test as to whether you are a conservative at heart, in the old sense of the term, is the shower temperature. If the water is too hot, or too cold, do you adjust the other faucet up, or turn the offending faucet down? If the former, you are not really a conservative. If the latter, you may be. Stretching the point a bit further, you would shower only when needed, rather than for pleasure or comfort. This is not as far-fetched, or as petty or picayune as it may seem.

    Traditionally, in entering into a long Zen retreat (J. sesshin), it is customary to shower and shave at the beginning, but to refrain from doing so during the period of retreat. This takes a lot of stress off of the local ecosystem, especially where the facilities may be limited to one shower. It is simultaneously conservative and liberal, deferring to others instead of oneself. It both conserves water, and expresses a magnanimous attitude toward fellow retreatants. Of course, if you really need a shower, e.g. after working up a sweat during a heavy work party (J. samu), the effect on your fellows may be the opposite.

These are two terms you probably never expected to appear in the same phrase. The Zen view would propose a third alternative to taking sides in the polarization of the population, I think. This approach would suggest that individuals who others see, or who see themselves, as fitting into one class or another, need not self-identify with such a definition of who and what they are, their place in society, and in the world at large.

    With the technological revolution under way, as mentioned, this would seem even more self-evident. That is, in spite of all the hand-wringing as to the isolating effect of social media, the Internet also raises the bar in terms of creative possibilities of finding a niche online to make a living as an entrepreneur. Apparently the “jobs” on offer online are often low-pay, offering no benefits, and so amount to another expression of the owner class oppressing the labor class.

    In Zen, we begin to see the possibility of a true third way, in sharing our common space and resources, as expressed in the eighth Precept, “Share generously — do not spare the Dharma assets.” Here, Dharma may be taken to mean not only the teachings, which the Zen priest brings to the table as her/his offering of dana; but also Dharma as beings, including any material asset that is available, and needed to be shared with others. The history of Zen has many stories around this idea, such as of great Ancestors burning the wooden Buddha statues in order that the monks survive the cold of the winter; giving away silk or copper to villagers who are in desperate need, thus depleting the stores of the monastery. The underlying assets are the generosity and magnanimity of the buddha-nature itself, which owns nothing.   

    In the Zen community (S. sangha) in general, and on retreats in particular, we begin to experience a microcosm of society at large. Even if everyone is highly trained in Zen, and in the protocols surrounding group practice, their very expertise may itself become an issue, for those who are less initiated into the mysteries. Subtle or not-so-subtle cues may begin to manifest, suggesting an “us-and-them” factionalism amongst the otherwise harmonious community (the technical distinction marking a sangha). This factionalism is the root cause of political class divisions, and by extension, intercultural and international disputes. It amounts to the logical extension of the idea of self to the larger community. Those I see as like me are of my community; those less like me are not.

    Just as it is not possible for an individual who is part of a group of protesters to “disperse” (other than on the molecular level) — an action that applies only collectively to the crowd as an aggregate — it is not personally helpful to see oneself as a part of a group, especially as defined by others, unless one is prepared to engage in collective action on behalf of that group. Organizers of such movements may identify and articulate common cause to inspire their followers to take action, but the cause as identified is bound to fall short of any comprehensive program of improvement of the conditions of all such individuals who self-identify with the group, let alone benefit others who are not identified as members. It necessarily requires that one side loses in order that the other side wins, or gains in the aftermath.

    It should go without saying that when revolutions have occurred, it has merely replaced one ruling class with another. Shortly after the Bolsheviks succeeded in overthrowing the Tsarist autocracy, they magically appeared as the new owners of the coveted dachas at the resorts. Human nature will not be denied, until individuals transcend it, in favor of buddha-nature.

    This goes to one tenet of engaged Buddhism — which I term nondual realpolitik — which derives its legitimacy from a story told of Shakyamuni Buddha. Wikipedia defines realpolitik as:

politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises

The difference in a Zen context would impact the “given circumstances and factors,” which would include impermanence, imperfection, and insubstantiality, as well as the other fundamental tenets of Buddhism, into the bargain. Buddhism emphasizes compassion and wisdom, which perhaps imply moral and ethical premises, but not as mandates to be imposed upon others. This is not a distinction without a difference, as may be made clear by the story.

    Leaders of another clan in prehistorical India consulted with the Sage (Shakyamuni means “sage of the Shakya clan”), the story goes, as to the wisdom of waging war on a neighboring clan or tribe. The Buddha is said to have responded — not that war is always wrong, according to ideology or doctrine, or a didactic moral philosophy — but instead. inquired as to the outcome of the war: would both sides be better off, after the dust had settled?

    Who knows whether the tribal leaders had an answer to this question, or whether the attack was called off or not. But the Buddha’s response raises the obvious question: How could anyone know, a priori? Can we be absolutely sure that both sides to a conflict will be better off afterward, especially in modern times, when literally millions of innocent non-combatants may be killed, maimed, or displaced?

This brings up a sobering factoid regarding the 18th Century English figure Thomas Robert Malthus, whose world resource inventory is referenced by Bucky Fuller in explaining the political ideology of the Age of the Robber Barons, contemporaneous with Malthus, and which is largely still in effect today. Fuller pointed out that Malthus basically said that with population growth, there will eventually not be enough resources, i.e. food, to go around; at about the same time, Darwin was publishing the origin of species. The politicians of the time wed the two theories — distorting Darwin’s meaning of the “survival of the fittest” — to campaign on a promise that, essentially, if you keep me in power, I will make sure that we get ours. The attitude toward the poor of the world promoted by Malthus may also still prevail in certain quarters today. Again from Wikipedia:

Clergyman and political economist of the eighteenth century who theorised that the world’s population always grows faster than its food supply, and thus, rather than attempting to alleviate perpetual hunger by misguided compassion, one should allow inevitable famine, disease and war to act as natural retardants to population growth. M. argued from an empiricist point of view against the ideological, theoretical ideas of philosopher William Goldwin and other supporters of the French Revolution who believed in the perfectibility of human kind.

And this from a member of the Christian clergy. In his defense, he was only ten years old when the American colonies declared their independence, when “the empire on which the sun never sets” was approaching its peak, and so can perhaps be forgiven for his myopia in attempting to justify the deaths of colonial subject populations, in the context of pillaging and plundering their material wealth for the sake of his fellow educated and “enlightened” Englanders. He was obviously a man of his times, though many disagreed with his conclusions.

    One unintended consequence of the ubiquitous spread of the world-around (to use another Fuller coinage) media network, is that today we literally see the suffering of the world, in all the remote corners of the globe. They are broadcast right into our living rooms, if we do not turn off the TV in fatigue or frustration. The warning “some of these images are graphic” is occurring with greater and greater frequency in our newscasts. If we take the Malthusian view, we can simply regard these atrocious human disasters as the action of Nature in balancing an out-of-control population. But we cannot forgive ourselves for not taking action to curb the growth of populations in a more humane manner.

    Food and health insecurity are growing issues on a global, as well as a local, basis. And while it is true that the people who cannot afford to have children are probably the ones that are having children, we cannot blithely declare that actions have consequences without in the same breath recognizing that inaction also has consequences. In Zen, the acts of omission that we commit are just as determinative of karmic consequences coming our way as are acts of omission. There is no possibility of evading this truth, even though from a three-score-and-ten perspective, it looks like bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. It looks like the self-striving tyrants of the world often get away with their vicious transgressions against their own people, or neighboring peoples via the horror of the proxy war. But this belief does not take into account the possibility of rebirth, the corollary theory to karma. We can hope that rebirth is a myth, but we cannot be sure that we are safe in death.

    The phrase misguided compassion goes to the heart of the Buddhist view. Literally meaning “suffer with,” compassion does not dictate any specific action, but only suggests that we share the suffering of others, rather than see their suffering as their just due, and not our responsibility. Karma is no excuse for inaction. While we cannot prevent aging, sickness and death, we can do a lot to mitigate the worst-case scenarios. Fuller pointed out that what the politicos of the time missed was the curve of technology toward ephemeralization — a term coined by Fuller, denoting the ability to get more and more out of the same resources — and that, in fact, there is plenty to go around. Most of the resistance to the fair and equitable distribution of goods (i.e. wealth) is in the form of misguided self-interest, creating political barriers to sharing.

    It goes without saying, I suppose, that Buddhism in general and Zen in particular would argue for the perfectibility of humankind. But the premise of Zen suggests that the ultimate, innate nature of human beings transcends even the definition of humanity. Indeed, the inborn, self-centered striving behavior of people has to come to an end before realization of buddha-nature can occur. In the meantime, we are guided by the teachings of Zen Buddhism, such as its Precepts.

One unifying meme that cuts across cultures, philosophies, and various endeavors of industry, commerce and government, including manifestos such as this, is that of the Precept: an explicit or implicit, underlying rule or presumption. An example is the first of the Three Pure Precepts of Buddhism: Do no harm. It correlates with the primum non nocere: “first, do no harm,” of the medical community. As with most precepts, it is subject to a wide range of interpretations, and adaptation to changing circumstances, for its specific application in daily life.

    The Acknowledgment of Karma precedes receiving the Precepts in practice path ceremonies in Zen. This recognizes that most of the causes and conditions of sentient existence, and resultant behaviors, come with birth. They are born of body, mouth and mind, and arise from the Three Poisons of greed, anger or hatred, and delusion. They are not entirely of our own making, as they come with the territory of sentience. But we acknowledge them, and accept all consequences of our past actions, as our just due.

    We come to embrace the Three Refuges, in light of the difficulty of living compassionately and wisely in the face of reality. We take refuge in Three Treasures of Buddhism: the Buddha; the Dharma; and the Sangha. Each has at least a dual meaning, respectively: the Founder, as well as our true or original nature; the compassionate teachings, as well as the law of the universe; and the community of the Ancestors, as well as that of our present peers. These are the highest values, the highest good, to which we dedicate ourselves in Zen. They surpass, but do not necessarily conflict with, loyalty to the laws of humankind or nations. Taken together, they constitute the first six Precepts.

    Next, the Three Pure Precepts are taken, including the aforementioned do no harm, followed by do only good, then do good for others. Any governing body that follows these precepts would likely be embraced wholeheartedly by the governed, being truly of, by, and for the people. Do no harm is the mother of all further precepts, which simply articulate, in detail, what it means to do no harm in any and all circumstances and situations.

    The first Five Grave Precepts received during initiation (J. jukai) into the Soto Zen sect are against killing, stealing, sexual greed, lying, and intoxication. They are largely in the personal realm, but have a halo effect upon our social relations. Each prohibition has a preceding, positive corollary: Affirm life – do not kill; Be giving – do not take what is not freely given; Honor the body – do not engage in sexual misconduct; Manifest truth – do not speak falsely; and Proceed clearly – do not cloud the mind with intoxicants.

    But these are not commandments, in Zen, but ways that we take up, obligations we take on voluntarily. They are not as simple as they may sound. There are many ways in which we kill, for example, some of which cannot be avoided if we are to survive. There are also many ways to steal, as with the pen rather than the sword, and some of which are not apparent, especially to ourselves. Misconduct is socially defined, but we may commit personal transgressions in sexual relations, such as mentally objectifying our partner. We cannot actually speak the truth, but we should recognize when we are intentionally deceiving others. Intoxication is seductive on many levels, such as that of power, not only in the form of chemical substances. All aspects of life can be, or may become, addictive.  

    The second five precepts are given as the latter half of the Ten Grave Precepts in the first formal stage of training to become a teacher of Zen. They have a more social slant, concerning the relationship that someone representing Zen has with others, and each has a positive as well as a prohibitive aspect: See only your own faults – Do not discuss the faults of others; Know self and other as one – Do not praise yourself at others’ expense; Share generously – Do not spare the Dharma assets; Actualize harmony – Do not indulge in anger; Know intimacy with all things – Do not defame the Three Treasures.

The idea of independence implies that one can or should be able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, all independent of others. Interdependency suggests that this is not true. How can we be truly happy, when others are suffering so deeply? If we try to dodge the bullet by insisting that their suffering is their karma, while true enough, this does not exempt us from the suffering of others. Karma is shared, according to my understanding. Even the knowledge of suffering is itself a form of suffering. Nor does taking any such attitude, excuse not taking action to mitigate the suffering we witness. Many of the Jataka Tales (apocryphal tales of Buddha’s former lives) illustrate how the nascent bodhisattva put his own life and safety at risk, for the sake of stopping the suffering of others.

    Of course, some situations are more intractable than others. Such as the homeless person, or addict, who will not cooperate in doing that we feel sure is just what s/he needs, to get off the streets, or to recover; or the recalcitrant student, or obstinate child, who refuses to go along with the program in their best interests. So in Zen we have to balance so-called compassion with so-called wisdom, as captured in the famous “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Zen does not look to God to grant these aspects of the enlightened life, but offers instead the method of Zen meditation (J. zazen) as the most expedient and efficacious means to develop them. This change in awareness, penetrating to the root meaning of life itself, as revealed through Right Meditation, is the central theme and praxis of our revolution: propagating the practice of the natural posture and breath, eliciting the natural state of mind, at all levels of society. It is literally too simple to believe.

    Unlike other manifestos of social change, Zen does not propose or even suggest a prescribed content of its meditation, which would amount to propaganda. We believe that the unguided human consciousness will come to the same insight, conclusions and implications regarding the functioning of society, as did Buddha and his followers down through history. We do not believe it is necessary that we dictate the form of government, the distribution of wealth, or the method and means of production to meet the needs of the world community. We think that this will naturally evolve from overcoming raw human nature, through zazen.

    This may seem to suggest that Zen is another self-improvement program, the objective of which is to become a “better person.” This, I think, is a common misunderstanding. However, it should be stated that Zen training is not about making us better people. We are probably the same in that regard as we were the day we were born. What Zen training does is make us a better practitioner of Zen, in particular its meditation. Like training in the arts and sciences, the most we can hope for is that we become better at the art or science in question. Becoming a competent or even outstanding artist or scientist does not necessarily mean that one is a better person. I believe that this attitude toward Zen amounts to a puritanical overlay on what is a very simple system, devoid of moralistic pretension.   

    Precepts in Zen are the natural outgrowth of meditation. If no one ever transgressed, there would be no Precepts, as there would be no need for them. As Master Dogen reminds us, “In zazen, what Precept is not fulfilled?” For zazen is bringing human nature to heel, allowing the emergence of the original, or buddha, nature.

    Again, the first Five Precepts are more oriented toward personal behavior and the internal consequences thereof; while the latter half of the Ten Grave Precepts have a more social, transactional slant. They remind us that our actions are not taken in a vacuum, but like ripples on the surface of a pond, interact with and mutually modify all other beings. In this regard, the personal and social dimensions of the Precepts are not-two:

In this world of suchness there is neither self nor other-than-self. To come into harmony with this reality, just simply say, when doubt arises, “not-two.” In this “not-two” nothing is separate, nothing is excluded. No matter when or where, Enlightenment means entering this truth.

So as a Manifesto, this essay is intended to encourage you to penetrate to the essence of your own existence. In doing so, you will become empowered and enabled to do the right thing in the social and political context. Our motto is not exactly “Zen meditators of the world, unite!” but “First, do no harm – get to the bottom of things so that you are personally at peace and know how to do good. Then take action to spread peace and justice locally, doing good for others, on a global basis.”

    The most we can do is share the buddha-dharma, enabling others to exercise compassion and wisdom in their own lives. We have the Original Nature on our side, and the most excellent method of Zen meditation as our heritage and technique. Let us get to work.