Category Archives: Zen Buddhism

Re-interpreting Jesus II: The Kingdom of God

jesus 

Why, after 2000 years and massive changes in culture, language, and historical circumstance, are people still talking about Jesus?  Regardless of your religious views, Jesus’ continuing worldwide influence is historically astonishing.  If someone in the year 30 A.D. predicted to you that the most famous man to ever live would be a Jew who was brutally executed as a rebel by Rome, who was a relatively marginal figure in his own time, and who’s movement was rejected by the majority of his own religion, you would have assumed that he/she was crazy.  At the end of the day, history is fundamentally unpredictable, and the human intellect will always fail to grasp the inscrutable ways of Fate.

In any case, why are people still talking about Jesus?  For me, this fascination can be partially explained by the cryptic ways Jesus spoke about God and about himself that often make him seem like an unknowable enigma to people who study his life. Unlike the historical Buddha, who used precise technical language to describe his subtle mystical experiences (If Eskimos have 100 words for snow, Vedic religions have 1,000 words for meditation experiences), Jesus used simple metaphors that were profound, but that can be interpreted in countless ways as a result of their fundamental imprecision.  This fact has made Christianity almost endlessly malleable, producing hundreds of conflicting denominations which all use the same texts to justify their beliefs.

For instance, one of Jesus’ central teachings is his almost constant emphasis on “The Kingdom of God.”  What did Jesus mean by this?  Many evangelical sects teach that Jesus was referring to a realm in the afterlife that only his devotees will be admitted to; more socially conscious preachers have taught that the Kingdom of God is a movement that will create an era of socioeconomic equality on the earth; more mystical interpretations argue that the Kingdom of God is a state of spiritual illumination similar to the Buddha’s Nirvana.

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Three Reasons to go on a Meditation Retreat

greatvow – The meditation hall at Great Vow Zen Monastery, where I have lived for 9 months and have participated in 10 sesshins.  I have also done one 10 day Vipassana retreat (as taught by SN Goenka), which I highly recommend.

I returned this week from a 5 day silent meditation retreat that Zen Buddhists call sesshin (sesshin is often translated as “touching the heart-mind”) at Great Vow Zen Monastery.  It was my 11th long retreat, and, as usual, it was a deeply meaningful experience.  It was also utterly outrageous and fascinating; although retreats can be difficult, for me they are like going on spaceship adventures through my own mind/body and discovering new worlds!  In this post I’ll share three reasons why I feel that going on meditation retreats is spiritually useful. This post is mainly about retreats that are 5 days or longer.  There are also shorter 1-2 day retreats that are good introductions to retreat practice, and that can be very powerful experiences.  My discussion in this post is also limited to my experience in the Zen tradition, though I have also done a Vipassana retreat which I strongly recommend as well.   For a more in depth explanation of what meditation retreats are like, and for a fuller explanation of why I think they are important, you can read my book (specifically, the section is entitled “Meditation Retreats”) in the free pdf above.

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Zen Meditation in Activity

Introduction

Modern psychology has a strange way of categorizing the different aspects of our life.  Many psychologists emphasize that there are different spheres of life, and that we must find a proper balance in each sphere.  Everyone ideally, for instance, should have meaningful work, positive relationships, and soul rejuvenating hobbies.  Each sphere of life has different principals, and if one sphere is neglected our life becomes unbalanced.

There is certainly wisdom in this view, but all-too-often people make their spiritual practice just another category.  They divide enlightenment and the world, and allot spiritual practice only a portion of their time and dedication.  “This is my job, and there is my spiritual practice.”  “This is my prayer time, and there is the time I spend running errands.” “I go to church on Sunday, but during the week engage in ‘worldly activity.’” “I visit a monastery to live ‘the holy life,’ but my ordinary life in the city is mundane.”  Without realizing it, when we think in this way, we are re-enforcing the false view that the Divine and the world are separate, and our spiritual practice becomes just another delusion to garland our ego with.

When I began studying Eastern religions, my understanding of spiritual practice was utterly revolutionized.  In Zen Buddhist teaching, the tradition I have studied with the most depth, this very life is the activity of enlightenment.  There is not a moment of our life that is separate from enlightenment, from the Way, from God.  It naturally follows from this perspective that all of our activities are spiritual practice.

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Jesus as Koan: The Zen Perspective

JC

-A rendering of Jesus in deep meditation.  In my opinion, the future of Christianity must be informed by the more experiential religions of the East if it is to remain relevant.

 

Introduction

Jesus, Jesus Jesus….  Try as I might, I have never been able to escape this foreign name whose omnipresence in our society is, to me, an object of fascination.  Imagine giving an alien a tour through present day America and walking around a Midwestern city.  Inevitably the alien would ask, “What is this strange T-shape that adorns so many buildings and the necklaces of so many people?”  You would then answer, “It is an ancient device used to torture people to death that is a symbol of hope and transformation for billions of people on Earth.  It refers to a Jewish carpenter’s son who lived in Israel 2,000 years ago whom they claim was God Incarnate.”  What would the alien think about this?  Do we never stop to think about the strange uniqueness of the largest religion in the world? What a fascinating state of affairs!

This strange T-shape has dominated my spiritual life since childhood.  I was born in a Jewish family and converted to Christianity as a child.  I went to Catholic schools and non-denominational churches, and even have been the full time director of a Presbyterian ministry.  I can frequently be seen reading the Bible, and even have pictures of Jesus in my bedroom.  To the outside observer I might be labeled a Christian, but I do not consider myself one since I view all religions as equally valid paths to the Divine.

In high school I became disinterested in religion until I started practicing Zen meditation and ultimately went to live at a Zen monastery.  Ironically, my practice and study of Zen re-opened me to appreciating the original teachings of Jesus, now viewed from a new angle.  There is really no right or wrong angle, for there are many ways to understand the multifaceted life of Jesus and of religion in general.  In a previous post I examined Jesus’ death and resurrection from the Jungian perspective of an archetypal symbol, for instance.

In this post I am going to explore how the sayings of Jesus can be viewed from the perspective of the the Zen koan tradition. I hope to show that many of the sayings of Jesus can be approached the same way Zen students approach the Zen koan.  His sayings should be viewed as statements pointing to an awakened state of mind to be realized experientially, not as dogmatic edicts to be received with blind faith.  Jesus was not, as many Christian theologians have absurdly misinterpreted, God’s sole representative in the world for all of time to come.  Rather, to me, he was an awakened human being who taught about God and Enlightenment in the context of his Jewish environment in the 1st century.  He used various metaphors that people in his historical context were familiar with, but ultimately he was teaching about ineffable universal truths that other religions also symbolically express.

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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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