Category Archives: Meditation

Ordinary Mind is the Way – Thoughts on Chapter 19 of the Mumonkan

Zhaozhou_Congshen

-A 19th century woodcut of the great Zen Master Joshu

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” “Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied. “Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.  “If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.  How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu.  Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have really reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?” With those words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.

– Chapter 19 of the Mumonkan

Introduction:  Where is the Place of Enlightenment?

I grew up surrounded by what is sometimes called “Churchianity” in Oklahoma.  I certainly learned some important lessons from my experiences in church-most notably a deep appreciation for the original teachings of Jesus – but eventually I grew jaded with the traditional Christian worldview as time went by.  There were many complicated reasons for my frustration, but perhaps the primary reason was the inaccessibility of God.  God was always something separate from us; He was always in a faraway realm that was far superior to this world, and the only hope we had of experiencing Him fully was in the afterlife. And even then there was always a separation-we were mere humans, and God was God, end of story.

In Zen Buddhism I found a tradition that, among other things, taught the (for me) revolutionary teaching that the Buddha Nature, a term which for me is functionally synonymous with God, is not separate from this very world.  In fact, we would see that we ourselves and all things are It if we could see clearly. As I practiced Zen meditation and studied more about the tradition my ordinary life, with all its usual maddening frustrations, became infused with a glow of supreme sacredness, a point of view that the story I am about to comment on expresses with powerful clarity.  For in Zen our ordinary life is itself the life of the Buddha.  And as it says in the Lotus Sutra, this very world is the “Place of enlightenment.”

A koan is a typically paradoxical Zen story or saying that is sometimes used as a meditation object and is also frequently used as sermon material. This koan from chapter 19 of the Mumonkan (or “Gateless Gate”), the most famous collection of Zen koans, centers around the life question of Joshu, a future Zen master who taught in 8th century China and who in this koan appears as the student.  As with all commentary, my thoughts are not the “correct” way to see the story but merely reflect my own personal thoughts and understanding at this moment.  I also am admittedly interposing my own biases and feelings into the story, but this itself is the very nature of commentary. Please reflect for yourself and discover what it means to you!

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Purposes of Meditation

I have been practicing Buddhist meditation nearly every day, usually in the Zen style, for the past five years.  I have also attended 10 week long silent meditation retreats and undergone 9 months of residential training at a Zen monastery.  Yet what surprises many people I talk to is that I do not identify myself a Buddhist, for I feel that all religions are merely paths to God and I do not wish to label myself with one exclusively.  I also sometimes take a more personal approach to the Divine that is usually not present in Buddhist circles, although I ultimately understand that God/Buddha is fundamentally a direct experience and is actually my own True Nature.

I do, however, consider myself a serious practioner of Zen Buddhist meditation, and I have found that this practice has benefited me immensely.  In this brief post I’ll explore a few reasons why I think Zen meditation can be beneficial for both the religious and the non-religious alike.

Natural stress reduction

The most common introductory Zen practice is simply concentrating on your natural breath, a practice that requires no faith and that anyone can easily experiment with.  And it is now virtually a scientific consensus that this type of mindfulness meditation is linked with actual stress reduction.  And stress in our modern world is something that unfortunately is nearly universal.  In America we have so many options, the world is so freakishly fast paced and interconnected, and information speeds through our brains at a level that probably far exceeds all past generations.

This fast paced world seems to stress people out on a mass scale, and meditation can be a natural medicine for this stress.  When I meditate I find that my brain literally relaxes in a physical way.  Especially on a busy day, meditation tangibly reduces my stress in a way that I can actually feel.  Most people realize they are stressed, yet don’t see the obvious truth that stress is the result of having little control over their own thoughts.  We all understand that our bodies need to rest, and that if we exercise them constantly they will get worn down.  Do we not see that the muscle of the mind will make us stressed and depleted if we don’t intentionally still our thoughts from time to time?

Meditation, in this sense, is a non-sectarian and completely natural medicine for stress and a tool to quiet the restless thinking mind.  Its easy to make meditation into something “otherworldly” and forget that Zen meditation is, first and foremost, the physical practice of concentrating the mind on the present moment as it already is.  Is your breath “Buddhist” or “Jewish” or “Muslim?”  Its high time we begin viewing mindfulness meditation as a universal practice that all can benefit from and not the hoarded treasure of a niche spiritual community.

I don’t practice meditation because some ancient book told me to or because some guy with a backwards collar said I should. Rather, I practice meditation largely because I have found again and again through my own experience that it reduces my stress and makes me a more peaceful person.  When I practice meditation in the morning for 20-30 minutes, I find that I can start the day from a place of calm and relaxation.  And when I practice meditation after a long day of business I find it naturally rejuvenates my energy level.  So even if I did not believe in the potential of enlightenment and understand the more spiritual reasons for meditation I would still meditate for its practical physical and psychological benefits.

Meditation as a tool to experience our own God-Nature

From a more spiritual perspective, I believe that we are fundamentally Spirit/God/Buddha, or whatever word you want to call the Divine .  Yet while this is the case it is a mysterious truth that the majority of people have not actually experienced this.  We may intellectually understand we are the deathless and changeless Buddha Mind, but if we are honest we will see that we have a deeply rooted habit of falsely identifying with our limited body, feelings, and thinking mind much of the time.

The other side of meditation is inquiry into the “Great matter of birth and death,” (A Zen saying referring to the quest for enlightenment) and concentration is not a goal in itself but merely a means to that end.  By calming our thinking mind through meditation we set the stage to investigate our own nature.  And just as we cannot see our reflection in a boiling pot of water, so we cannot see the truth of our own original enlightenment if our mind is distracted by thoughts and clouded by desire.  In meditation we still our mind, and then from this place of calm begin to ask the question, “What is experiencing this?”  “What is aware?”  “Who am I really?” By persistently investigating these questions in the context of deep concentration and mindfulness, I believe we all have the capacity to awaken to the truth that our own awareness is God Itself.  The goal of the spiritual path is this direct experience, one that many prophets and sages throughout time have testified to in a variety of both literal and symbolic ways.

So meditation is not merely a tool to calm the thinking mind, although this is an obvious and wonderful benefit of the practice. In my view, Zen meditation is fundamentally a technology that, if pursued singlemindedly and wholeheartedly, can lead to the direct realization of what is called “God” or “Buddha Nature.”  In this experience we are set free, for we realize that everything – the good and the bad, the pleasant and the painful, the ups and the downs, our body, humanity, and even the whole universe – is merely the dream of a nameless Dreamer who is perfect, deathless, and changeless. And it is my deepest conviction that anyone, through the regular practice of meditation and the grace of God, can realize this deep truth in this very body and enjoy forevermore the bliss that all people are really seeking and that cannot be found in any impermanent thing.

Meditation as an expression of our God-Nature

The great paradox of Zen is that we are already the deathless Buddha in this moment, but that, mysteriously, great efforts in meditation are required to actually experience this truth.  Yet we should never think that in meditation we are gaining anything.  Enlightenment is merely realizing what has always been true, seeing that God is what is already seeing with your eyes and hearing with your ears in this moment.   This very moment is God manifesting Itself to Itself, a blessed perfection based on Its own miraculous and rationally inexplicable existence.   A great historical Zen teacher named Ehei Dogen wrote that our practice, or zazen (seated meditation), is itself enlightenment.  When we sit down to practice meditation, we are not trying to get enlightenment.  Rather, in meditation we are naturally expressing our own enlightened nature.  Because Dogen perceived this inexpressible and wonderful truth he called zazen the “dharma gate of ease and joy.”  From this perspective meditation is not merely stress reduction tool or even a tool to experience enlightenment-it is rather a joyous celebration and a serenely natural manifestation of the Enlightenment Mind we have never one been separate from!

For a deeper explanation of how I view meditation, God, and the spiritual path, check out my book in the book tab of this website.  I have also suggest in the appendix of this book several great books on how to begin a meditation practice in the Zen style.  If you are interested in meditation I recommend starting a daily meditation practice for a period of time you think you can stick to  (20 minutes per day is a good starting number) and consider attending extended meditation retreats.

May you and all beings awaken and realize that your own awareness in this very moment is God/Buddha/Tao/Allah/Krishna/Christ Itself.  With love,

Jeffrey

Effortless Effort: Some Thought’s on Ehei Dogen’s Fukanzazengi

“The Way is originally perfect and all-pervading. How could it be contingent on practice and realization? The true vehicle is self-sufficient. What need is there special effort? Indeed, the whole body is free from dust. Who could believe in a means to brush it clean? It is never apart from this very place; what is the use of traveling around to practice? And yet, if there is a hairsbreadth deviation, it is like the gap between heaven and earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the mind is lost in confusion. Suppose you are confident in your understanding and rich in enlightenment, gaining the wisdom that knows at a glance, attaining the Way and clarifying the mind, arousing an aspiration to reach for the heavens. You are playing in the entranceway, but you are still are short of the vital path of emancipation.

Consider the Buddha: although he was wise at birth, the traces of his six years of upright sitting can yet be seen. As for Bodhidharma, although he had received the mind-seal, his nine years of facing a wall is celebrated still. If even the ancient sages were like this, how can we today dispense with wholehearted practice?

Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now.

For practicing Zen a quiet room is suitable…” – Ehei Dogen’s Fukanzazengi

Introduction

Om.  During the first year that I became serious about Zen I was deeply inspired by the writings of Ehei Dogen.  Dogen was a Japanese Zen master who lived from 1200 – 1253 A.D.  He was orphaned early on and as a young man became a monk and dedicated his life to the study of Zen.  His path led him to many contemporary Japanese Zen teachers, but they ultimately left him dissatisfied.  So, risking his life on a perilous sea excursion, he journeyed to Song China to study with the era’s greatest Zen teachers.

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Life at a Zen Monastery

“Great is the matter of birth and death.  Impermanence surrounds us.  Do not waste your life!”

– Saying written on the front of some Zen monasteries

Om. Towards the end of my senior year in high school I began doing daily Zen Buddhist meditation to cope with an emotional crisis I was then going through.   I immediately discovered that it was a potent way to practically reduce stress and therapeutically heal myself.  This was the initial purpose I used it for, but then by the infinite grace of God I had a powerful awakening experience in meditation that completely revolutionized the way I think about God, spirituality, and life.  The rabbit hole had exponentially deepened, and what initially began as an idle curiosity mushroomed into a consuming desire to experience more of the Divine.

During the next year I began thinking seriously about living in a Zen monastery.  There were only a handful of major ones in America that I found on Google.  I eventually chose Great Vow Zen Monastery, located in the forested setting of Clatskanie Oregon (the trees!), because they had a summer program during July and August where residents could live for donation only (normally it is 500 dollars per month).  So at the end of my freshman year at OU I packed my bags, rented an anthology of Bach’s organ sonata’s for the road, and took a three-day journey to Oregon that would become a life changing spiritual adventure.

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Freedom from Worry Part II: Zen Meditation

“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.”

-Zen proverb

Om. I have found no greater antidote to worry than my meditation practice. I have kept a daily Zen meditation practice for nearly five years now and have experienced again and again both its practical and spiritual benefits. Yet I am just a normal guy living a very normal life in American society.  I go to college, am doing an internship this year, and have everything on my mind that everyone else does – family, money, romance, car problems, my ambitions, etc. Yet I have found in meditation a peace that transcends all of these important yet conditional spheres of my life.  For in them is a ceaseless fluctuation of ups and downs, goods and bads, victories and defeats- to seek freedom from worry through them is nothing short of ignorance! Meditation, on the other hand, can connect us with what the Buddha called “the unconditioned,” a changeless inner peace which Jesus metaphorically referred to as “The Kingdom of Heaven.”

Yet largely because of this type of poetic language many people have a mystified image of meditation.  They think they have to escape to India, grow dreadlocks, or change their name to “moon-child” in Sanskrit to begin a serious meditation practice.  They think of levitation, the yogic powers, and spirit beings with creepy sounding laughs. Yet in reality meditation is deceptively simple and can easily be integrated into the average modern life.  It is, of course, not the Philosopher’s Stone that will fix all your problems, but I can testify that it is something worth taking seriously.  And, when considering the war against worry that everyone in our hectic modern world faces, there are few things that compare to its potency.

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