Thursday, 31 December 2009

Can muppets ride motorbikes?

So I got all geared up this morning to go get petrol in the motorbike as it was low for a couple of days. It's takes some time getting ready to ride in the winter, with several layers being put on, gloves, scarf tucked up under the helmet, big socks, boots etc. 

I kissed my wife and kids goodbye, left the house, got to the bike, had forgotten my keys, went back into the house, got the keys, kissed the family again, went back to the bike, took off the chain, put the chain under the seat, got on the bike, started it, reversed out of the drive onto the road and was just about to start off when I checked the dials and saw that the thing was full of gas. I'd filled it yesterday. Mindfulness? I think not. 

Can muppets ride motorbikes?

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Being the blue mountain and the cloud.

The thought of not being a 'perfect' Zen practitioner used to drive me nuts. I wanted to be a fully fledged monk, maybe even with my own temple in Japan. The robes, the knowledge, lifestyle and all of that were important to me, but now they're not. They're not because I have a better understanding, and that's infinately more important than all of those things I just listed.

This understanding is not of what I am. It's of those things that pose as myself, this ego and this thinking mind. They are not me. For years I lived under their total influence, their total power, thinking that they were me and I was them. They are no more me that this hand on the end of my left arm, or this arse at the top of my legs. Now, very often throughout each day, I find me beyond these things, observing the rambling of the mind. A space opens up between this awareness which is really what I am and the mind. My relationship with these things is becoming more balanced. They are being reigned in little by little.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Caffeine use is no inhibition to practice.

So I went back on the caffeine. I'm not annoyed at myself and I don't think it's as bad as thought it was to drink caffeine and to practice. My initial motivation to stop drinking caffeine was that it stimulated my mind too much and my thinking became even more frantic than usual. However, I've gained a certain insight from direct experience which has lifted me above this misunderstanding.

I have been able to stand back from my thinking just as easily with my mind engaged in a caffeine rush as when I wasn't drinking caffeine at all. This has come about as a result of practice. My original self is growing in strength and my ego is weakening its hold on me.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Pink steering wheels are OK.

I was driving home from work yesterday when I stopped at a set of traffic lights. A small Nissan car pulled up beside me driven by a young man. I noticed that the steering wheel had a pink cover on with red hearts dotted all over it. Immediately I scoffed at his crassness, his pathetic lack of taste. But then, as quickly as I had had that thought, I realised just how miserable my ego is that it wouldn't even allow someone such an innocent choice and how it seeks to elevate itself by standing on the necks of others. I want to be completely free of it. It has nothing to offer me or anyone else.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

No music in my car.

Some time before I found zazen I realised that my thinking was too frantic to be healthy. I was in my car for the daily commute to work and by habit had turned on the CD player to listen to some music as I drove. However, I never did actually listen to that music, not beyond the first few bars. At this particular moment in the car I realised that I was just creating noise in my head and that my thinking was as much a part of that noise as was the music thumping away in the background (usually the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, hence the thumping reference!). I'm also pretty sure that whatever music was playing in the background was also effecting how I felt and thought.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Lost my way a bit. It's time to get back on the zafu.

I drifted quite a bit for a month or so. Barely sat at all and even missed my Sunday zazenkai a couple of times. Well, three times, but only one was because I just didn't want to go. The others were due to work commitments. I haven't touched this blog for weeks. I just lost myself in the noise of my mind, or, more like, let go and allowed myself to be deafened by it.

These last few days I've been labouring under a chest infection of sorts and I've lost a lot of sleep. Today I was particularly down and I knew why. I'm letting the world impinge on me, get the better of me. I can't hand the responsibility for my well-being over to my mind, or my ego. So right now, I'm making a start to get back onto an even keel. I'm going to have a shower, get dressed in my loose house clothes and take my zafu out from the cupboard. I'll sit for as long as it's comfortable and after that I'll get back to mindfulness in my daily living to the best of my ability.

I'll continue the Eiheiji blog as soon as I get settled. I want to tell you about the morning morning after the night before, Dogen style!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Zen Mind - a trailer for the movie.

This is a great documentary from Empty Mind Films. I'm sure you can work out what it's about, but it also gives a pretty good insight into life in Eiheiji and Sojiji temples, the two main Soto Zen temples in Japan. It's well worth a watch and you might be able to find it in full on the internet.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Report from the Eiheiji sesshin, Part 4. Evening Service.

After eating we went back to our bedroom, drank tea and waited for the monks to return to take us to evening service. Again, I sat alone. As a matter of fact, no-one really spoke to each other at all, apart from a few mild greetings, a gassho at the tea urn, a nod when sitting down close to another. There were no chairs in the room so we had to sit on the floor. It was clear that people were already starting to feel the pain the their legs, and this was not even the end of the first day. Some were stretching whilst others were rubbing their knees and flexing their joints. Already I was starting to feel a burning in my knees. Sitting for eating was tough, after two periods of zazen as well, but I knew the scariest bit was to come; evening service and at least an hour of seiza.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Report from the Eiheiji sesshin, Part 3. Oryoki.

After finding new zafu and placing them on the tan where we sat, we were given a few minutes break to go into our rooms and drink some tea. Soon afterwards, a young monk came and told us to return to the zendo for the evening meal.

I knew that eating in monasteries (oryoki) is not a straightforward affair, but I was unaware of just how complicated it actually is. Nishida-san and a host of young monks decended on the zendo and got about very busily and in great earnest. It was obvious from the very start that this was going to be a serious business. Before eating we were told to mount the tan and sit on our zafu facing out into the zendo, remaining silent at all times. Then we were given a small bundle of eating untensils, wrapped in two cloths and tied on top and then detailed instructions on how to unwrap the eating utensils from their cloth wrapping and lay them on the wooden edge of the tan. Every single movement during meals has been described by Dogen Zenji in the Shobogenzo and they are followed more or less to the letter in Eiheiji up to the present day. All communication is done by hand gestures as speaking is not allowed. Servers bring the rice first, soup next, then the pickles, and at evening meal, there are two extra bowls delivered on trays.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Report from the Eiheiji sesshin, Part 2.

Soon we were taken around and told the rules, manners and how tos of the toilet, washing area, zendo and hallway. In Soto Zen monasteries everyday tasks and choirs are considered sacred. Each time we passed the zendo we were to bow in gassho. We were to walk everywhere in shashu and greet everyone with gassho as we passed them or met them. Outside the toilet and senmenjo we were to bow in gassho to a statue of a bodhisattva (Baddabara I think). On entering the toilet we were to remove the lower part of our clothing, the hakama, fold it in a certain way and hang it over a wooden rail, then remove our slippers, place them in a certain way under our hakama and then enter the toilet, using the slippers provided.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Report from the Eiheiji sesshin, Part 1.

The sesshin in Eiheiji finished on Sunday, and my legs are still buggered. I meant to post a little earlier, but I kind of slumped this week after coming home. Certainly, Monday and Tuesday were recovery time, catching up on sleep and getting my body clock back on normal time. The rest of the week was a bit of a meander to be honest with not a lot constructive done. Anyroads, here's the beginning of a run-down on the sesshin. It'll have to come in installments as there is just so much to tell. It was truly an extraordinary experience, one I intend to make an annual event.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Eiheiji this week.

My sesshin is Eiheiji starts this week. I'll arrive there on Thursday morning and leave on Sunday morning. I have to say that I'm a little apprehensive as it looks like it will be a real test of endurance. I'm excited nonetheless. I don't have to bring much, just some clothes and washing stuff and a little money. Apparently I can rent the necessary robes there. I'd rather not use robes, just my own clothes, but when in Rome, as they say.

Initially I had intended to prepare a bit better. I had palnned to learn the Heart Sutra by rote and learn more about oryoki, the meal routine in temples, but I've done no more than read a bit about oryoki and watch one or two instructional videos on YouTube.
More than anything, I'm looking forward to being able to give my full attention to practice for three days, without worries about child-care or work, or shopping, or anything for that matter. Just practice in an environment designed for practice. I'm hoping I can learn a lot just through practice itself. I'm also hoping that I can find a teacher through it. Eiheiji has a satellite temple not far from my home and I'm hoping that I can get an introduction to it.

I'll post at length I suppose when I return. I might bring a camera too and take a few photos to publish.


Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Gollum's Enlightenment!

I was watching The Two Towers again last night for the first time in a couple of years. This scene passed me by the last time, but this time I couldn't help but notice the comparison of Gollum's predictament with my own, a clearer seeing awareness drowning under a deluded ego. Gollum's struggle in this scene is great, as his original self, Smeagal, struggles against and decisively uproots his delusion, his rampant ego and declares himself to be free.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Not a place to listen to a sutra!

I was on the loo earlier, listening to the thunder and the rain outside, when I heard a very faint, rythmic sound which sounded very like chanting to the beat of a mokyugo. Just a minute later the rain faded away and for sure I could hear someone chanting The Heart Sutra and hitting on a mukugyo.

Then it dawned on me that it's the Obon festival here in Japan when families remember their past relatives. Many families invite a monk to their house to chant in front of the butsudan, a Buddhist shrine dedicated to past relatives which most homes have here. So there I was, sitting on the toilet, listening to a Zen monk chanting The Heart Sutra. I just thought I'd share that with you...........

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Buddhism must be relevant to all of us.

I was driving the car today with the family in tow, kids loud, 36 degrees and sweltering humidity, money tight and work needing done on the house and all was not well to be honest. I was under pressure for sure. At that point I thought of my practice and all that I have learned of late regarding attachment and the worry and anxiety that can result from it. Owning a house and having a family brings grief, that's for sure.

I thought of all those monks in all those temples hidden in all those secluded, serene places, with no possessions, no children, no concern for earning, just sitting, working the gardens and the grounds and how easy it must be for them to sustain a relatively worry free existence compared to us plebs.

Then I was struck with the realisation that Buddhism must be as relevant to me as it is to them. The promise of Buddhism must be as realisable to me and to all like me as it is to the monks or it isn't worth one gonk on a mukugo. I need to find my freedom in my life as it is, with all it's trials and grief.

And in saying that (just off on a slight tangent here), we'd a quake two days ago. My wife and I woke at 5am and the house was shaking severely. It was the biggest quake I've experienced yet. Then yesterday we went visiting to the north and drove along a very precarious road above a river, cut into the side of a mountain. I thought that such a road would be very dangerous if a quake was to hit, with landslides and the like. Then this morning I woke at around 5:30 out of a nightmare in which my family and I were falling from bridge into a river in the car because of a quake. It was crap. There was no way I was going to get back to sleep so I went downstairs, washed my face and then took out the zafu for a 20 minute sit. When my alarm went, in my mind I had a guy pinned to the ground and I was pummeling the head of him with my fists. The rest of the day wasn't much better.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Approaching Zazen. An intro video.

Here is a great zazen intro video from a bunch of lovely folks called YogaGarden who have a shed load of stuff on YouTube. Some of you might find it of some value. I certainly did.

Sesshin in Eiheji.

After some waiting, chin rubbing and a possible let-down, I heard today that I can attend a sesshin in Eiheiji temple, the head temple of the Soto Zen school. I visited there before as a tourist and it's a very beautiful place. I was able to see the training monks, albeit from a distance, going about some of their daily chores. There is a big visitors centre which holds retreats two or three times each month.

The monk at the temple I do zazen at is worried about me going, even though he has organised it. He's particularly worried about me sitting seiza (on my haunches) for periods of up to two hours. It's scaring me too a bit, but I've been hoping to go to a sesshin for some time now. This will be my first. He says that I'll need a bit of coaching before I go. I was thinking of smuggling in a few morphine shots to whack into my legs when the going gets nasty. What I'm worried about is the food situation. It's typical temple oryoki, which means small amounts of food, served quite infrequently. Here's the sesshin schedule:

  • 3:30 - Shinrei (wake up bell)
  • 3:50 - Kyoten zazen (Morning zazen)
  • 5:00 - Choka (Morning service)
  • 7:00 - Shojiki (Breakfast)
  • 8:30 - Samu (Work period)
  • 10:00 - Guchu zazen (Late-morning zazen)
  • 11:00 - Nicchu (Midday service)
  • 12:00 - Chujiki (Lunch)
  • 13:00 - Samu (Work period)
  • 14:00 - Hoji zazen (Afternoon zazen)
  • 16:00 - Banka (Evening service)
  • 17:00 - Yakuseki (Evening meal)
  • 19:00 - Yaza (Evening zazen)
  • 21:00 - Kaichin (Lights out)
As you can see, there's a 14 hour gap between even meal and breakfast. I'm not altogether sure why it's so tough. I suppose it could be argued that when we are confronted with pain in life, our motivation for overcoming pain is increased, and that the sesshin schedule, therefore, will focus minds in zazen. That's what I'm hoping. The monk at my temple tells me that the seiza periods are at least one hour, which is severe. However, I can see that morning service is scheduled for two hours, which is a monster session. Two hours of seiza on a very empty stomach. Ouchies. Morphine, see!

Saturday, 8 August 2009

There is a rule.........

I was taught this little verse by an English anarchist about 18 years ago, standing side-by-side at a tulip bulb factory conveyor belt in Holland as thousands of bulbs shimmied past us while we selected the rotten ones for the trash. It always pops into my head now and again, but now I've come to see its deep truth shining through the lilting lyric.

There is a rule that man's a fool,
He wants it hot when it's cool.
He wants it cool when it's hot.
Always wanting what it's not.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Zazenkai this morning.

Went to the temple this morning for zazen and when I turned up, I was the only one there. At first I thought it wasn't on and that I'd not understood the previous week, but after a few minutes someone else turned up who I hadn't seen there for months. So he and I were waiting with about 10 minutes to start when he put on robes which I thought were very strange for a zendo, the lower robes of a kendo or kyudo practitioner, i.e. Japanese swordsmanship and archery. It transpired that he was home on holiday from a monastery in Kyoto where he's studying Rinzai Zen and they are the training robes for monks in both Rinzai and Sotoshu. I thought it was great that he would just turn up at a Soto temple and join in the zazen there. That's pretty cool that no such sectarianism exists here. Well, at least not with him.

Noone else turned up apart from the monk. It seems that it was because it's the summer holidays. Maybe it's not right for me to say so, because I know it shouldn't matter a jot, but it was certainly nice sitting in a more or less empty zendo, with the rain lashing down outside and a myriad of plopping and dropping of the water from the roof into the various drains around the place. The rainy season has lasted longer than usual this year so quite cool in comparison with previous years. It's a sweet relief, although I know this shouldn't matter either!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The ego mirror.

I spent the day with a colleague who did me a major service. He is very egotistical. Everyone around him is at fault in one way or another. Nothing that anyone has ever done comes up to his standards. He spent today selecting various other colleagues (none of whom were there) and subjecting them to vitriol and character assassination, and when he wasn't doing that he was telling me about his many achievements, ten books, an almost complete PhD, fluency in Japanese and many more besides.

So what service did he do for me, you maybe asking? How can a man so selfish do anything of anything of any value for anyone? Well, he was a mirror in which I saw myself. So many times I have tried to build myself up by knocking others down. Singing my own praises is the same thing. By boasting about my achievements, I'm knocking them down and the usual result of this is that another ego gets its back up and defends itself. Then a fight ensues, usually low level and enduring, a relationship all but destroyed. So in all his ranting and raving today, my colleague showed myself to me and helped remotivate my practice. I'm grateful to him.

Weeding the garden.

Today I need to weed my moss garden. In summer new weeds appear daily it seems. At times I feel that I'm wasting my time as no sooner do I weed, new weeds start growing again. One time this thought came to me, but I remembered Dogen's advice about just doing something and finding the universe in it.

Weeding seems like such a boring job, but when I am in practice, rather than utter delusion, being down amongst the bushes, moss and lichens, paying full attention to the musty smells of damp foliage and a mosquito coil, just weeding, nipping the tiny shoots of wayward grasses and creepers with the tips of my finger nails, life becomes uncomplicated, easy and full. When I rise from weeding, I go back into my house, back into my family, a better man.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Sex and Zen.

Sooooo, I'm trying to sedate my sex drive. Or just ignore it. For years I have known it to be a cross between a tickle and an annoyance. Certainly, whilst I've had a lot of fun with sex, a fair amount of the wreckage surrounding me has been generated by inappropriate sex. I haven't taken the precepts, but I can see the inherent value of the one covering the dirty deed.

I'm not going to be celebate. I'm married after all. And my wife wants another child, so there'll be plenty of bonking going on at regular intervals over this next while. Jeese, last month I got a bit fed up with bonking to be honest (there was a bonking schedule designed to hit the most fertile time of the month. For a week before until a week after the time of the right temperature, it was every other night. And still, The Wee Fella wanted to go wandering. You can't underestimate the power of The Wee Fella.) But that's not what I'm on about. It's a fundamental truth that a great deal of the tension and uneasiness in my life is to do with The Wee Fella wanting to get it on when it's just not appropriate to do so.

For example, I work in an education environment with lots of young adults. i.e. lots of young women, and I live in Japan, which means in summer the classrooms and hallways are full of hot pants, mini skirts and low tops. I know that there are some who would blame the women who dress like that for my predictament, but I can recall Gandhi writing somewhere that the bodhisattva would not allow his sexuality to dominate his mind, even if a naked woman were to be sitting on his lap. Personally, I think you'd have to be dead to manage that feat of endurance, but, hey, I ain't no Gandhi. Still, I know what he was getting at.

So what I am doing to sedate my sex drive. I'm doing the very same thing I do when I find myself getting caught up any unnecessary thoughts, putting my awareness on my breathing or whatever task I'm performing at that present moment. I simply ignore it. Often it has been a helluva struggle, but I've managed on enough occasions to prove to myself that it can be done without needing a monumental amount of effort. I'm just not following through on the thoughts as often. I'm doing exactly what I do on the zafu, only it's not on the zafu. My time and efforts on the zafu is strengthening my ability to remain present as I go about my daily business.

I've often enjoyed following through on the thoughts, but I have to admit that moreoften it leads to anger and frustration when there's no avenue of release for the resulting physical energies that accrue. And when there is, maybe it has come about as a result of a sense of duty on my wife's behalf, rather than a shared desire for sexual gratification. Then the exquisite line from the poem Deceptions, by Philip Larkin comes to mind, when he describes sex as:

"stumbling up the breathless stairs
To burst into fulfillment's desolate attic."

But that's the negative side of bonking. The positive side remains exquisite in itself. And I can attest with total conviction that there is no better sex than when it is with someone you love and you are both trying to make a baby.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

I got sick of listening to myself.

By far the most important thing that has happened to me since I started sitting and trying to live life mindfully, is that I don't have to listen to my nonsense as much. Of course, I lapse into the old ways of thinking, the sham fights with people in work and elsewhere, the grandiose imaginings, and the lamenting and cursing of my past. But not as much as before, when almost all of my thinking was dominated by such thoughts.

Today I went out to buy a new samue (traditional monks work clothes worn by many men in Japan as casual summer wear) and I wasn't with my wife, who usually translates when I get out of my depth with the language. There was a woman and a man tending the shop, a traditional kimono shop. Chances are they are husband and wife. When I bought my first samue there the man was there alone and he dealt with my wife. The samue then was ¥3,000 (around $30) and today the same price was on the label. However, the woman served me and she asked for an extra ¥150 over the marked price. Immediately I felt awkward, wondering why she was bunging on an extra 75 cents and I immediately reckoned she was taking the foreigner for a ride. Not confident in my Japanese language ability and with a two-year-old son in tow, I just paid the price, took the samue and left.

Then the nonsense began. The whole way home in the car and back in the house I replayed the experience in my mind, new scenarios with me challenging her and making a fuss, standing up for myself and striking a blow for foreigners in Japan, etc, etc, etc. However, it was much more muted than before. I tried very hard to let it go, not whipping myself for thinking that way, concentrating on my breath and bringing mindfulness to the fore. Soon, it subsided and I went about my business until my wife came home. I tried to resist telling her, but I gave in, the old thinking was back, stirring the pot again. I told her about being charged the extra and she told me that I'd just been charged the tax, like she was when we bought the first samue.

My ego is more than ever subject to my awareness and it is losing its grip on me. I am so glad that I have got sick of listening to it. Where did I put that zafu?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Sitting zazen at a Soto Zen university.

As I wrote in a previous post I found a zendo at a Soto Zen university which is 30 minutes by car from my house. I've only lived in this town for a couple of years, so I'm still getting to know the area. The university was established by Soto Zen practitioners and has a Faculty of Zen Studies. Here's a link to their website, which has an excellent instruction on how to do zazen.

Yesterday was my second visit, the first being very clumsy, not knowing what the hell I was doing and not having enough confidence in Japanese to ask anyone. I was just watching and following.

The zendo is a magnificent building tucked away in the trees at the back of a pretty big campus. I could go into detail describing the building and how beautiful it is, but that's not what's important. The local temple I go to each week has a very relaxed attitude to the formalities of sitting. Their is no kyosaku or monk in attendance. The monk who runs the temple (with his family) strikes a very large bell housed in a ground level belfry outside the zendo, then joins us in sitting.

In the university zendo there are at least two monks in attendance. Yesterday there were two in robes and two younger ones in western clothes, but wearing rakusu, the flat, square bag worn around the neck. I assume they're students at the Zen institute, and probably novice monks. One of the monks wears dharma robes and is the chief Zen master. I just saw him on the website as being the director of the Zen institute.

The zendo is a large rectagular room with seating for well over 100 people sitting two deep on tatami, just like other major zendos, for example Eiheiji monastery. Yesterday only one zafu on the second row was being used. Sitting is preceded by the Zen master walking swiftly around the Zendo, passing each sitter who is sitting on a zafu, but facing outwards into the middle of the room. This 'inspection' is called 'Kentan' and when the master passes each sitter must do gassho. When he finishes, a bell is struck three times and we turn around on the zafu to face the wall to begin 20 minutes of sitting, then a short session of 'Kinhin', which is walking meditation, then another 20 minutes on the zafu. The session ends with the unpan and mopan being struck.

My first sitting in this place was not good as I was overly conscious about being there and following procedure, as well as being a few feet away from a wall and staring at a zafu, rather than the wall. It was simply too strange. However, yesterday, the quality of my sitting rose significantly. For some reason, staring in the direction of a black zafu, rather than a wall, allowed my eyes to settle, glaze over and my concentration to properly rest on my breath. Usually I find myself struggling with jittery eyes. I thought about this on the way home in the car. It was truly a step forward for me. As I sat with my mind on my breath, I was looking with my mind's eye into a void and my thoughts were nil. There was perfect quiet except for my breath and I was utterly aware. I could hold this for a only a few short periods before being disturbed by something external, but it was the most wonderful experience. Last night at home, after the kids went to bed, I went into the room I sit zazen in, a tradition Japanese room with tatami mat flooring and green, sand-gritted plastered walls, and turned the lights down much lower to what they normally are. It was not totally dark, but dark enough for my eyes not to be strained as I tried to settle them. Once again I was able to gain a better level of concentration on my breath.

The zazenkai (zen sitting sessions) at the university are opened to the public only once a month, but next month there is a break for the holiday. So, the next zazenkai is in September. I'm looking forward to it. I sincerely hope that I can build a relationship with the people there and learn from them. I'll be sending an application to their English department for a part-time teaching, which is what I do, only at other universities. They have student zazenkai each Wednesday which I have been invited to attend. From September I may well be able to go every Wednesday. Fingers crosses then.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Zen, the movie.

Last night I watched Zen, the new Japanese movie about Dogen Zenji's life and work.

It has recently been released on DVD with English subtitles. The movie itself is quite good, despite some pretty ham acting and woeful special effects, especially the depiction of Dogen's enlightment when he shoots straight into the heavens on a computer generated lotus flower. But all this can be forgiven as it's still a good movie. It charts Dogen's life from the death of his mother to his death sitting in a zendo in his most famous temple in Japan, Eiheiji, which still exists today.

The movie selects a series of famous quotes and events which build a picture of the teachings of the man. This is what makes the movie so good. It's not all about the man, to the detriment of his teachings. The core teachings are laid out and are even more inspirational in the context of the movie. I'm not sure if this is available on Amazon outside of Japan, but it's available from Amazon Japan. It's region 2 so if you want to watch it in the US or other places, you'll need to watch it on your PC.

Good luck.

Friday, 3 July 2009

I fell off the dharma wagon, but it keeps pulling me back on.

I've spent the last week and a half slacking big time on sitting and generally staying present. I've not touched this blog despite spending dozens of hours in front of the computer, choosing instead to aimlessly browse and squander time playing on-line games, an escape route from reality on which I have spent far too many hours. I've been drowning in my past and fantasising about a glorious future and being thoroughly disenchanted with the present moment.

This said however, once we hear the truth of Buddhism, we are never truly the same. The truth, once experienced, changes us forever and we cannot return to our old, ignorant ways for very long, without realising what we have done. One time I heard a recovering alcoholic say that once alcoholics know the truth of themselves their drinking is spoiled forever. I think it is the same for we ego-addicts, for that is what we surely are, and that is the self which the Buddha exhorted people to leave behind. I may have identified with thoughts over this last couple of weeks, the 'stinking thinking' that some recovering alcoholics call it, but the light of truth keeps illuminating my folly.

I never really fell of the dharma wagon at all. I'm tied to it through realisation.

Monday, 8 June 2009

My search for a teacher continues

Tomorrow I'll visit a new zazenkai on my way back from work. There is a Soto Zen university not too far from my house, but I've yet to be able to go there. Tomorrow, I'll finish teaching at a university at 4:10pm and the Soto university is en route to my home and around 30 minutes from by workplace. The zazenkai starts at 5pm. I'm hoping that I can build relationships with the people there and maybe even find a teacher. It would be an exciting place to be around. Every summer vacation they holds retreats to Eiheiji Monastery, effectively the seat of Soto Zen in Japan. I'll blog about it when I get home.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

This morning's zazenkai and the avoidance of an ego trap.

There were very few at this morning's zazenkai, only five including the monk. Still and with all, we had enough to fulfil the drum and gong duties and afterwards we had a good chat and looked at the monk's photos of his pilgrimages to India, Tibet and Nepal to the various Buddhist centres.

It was particularly pleasant in the zendo with fewer people there. We all sat spaced around the place so I'd no-one sitting beside me and it was easier to relax and fidget when the time started taking its toll on my legs and back. It's a beautiful summer day here, but not as hot as it can get. We opened the main doors and let the breeze come in and the hall filled up with the sound of birds singings in the trees around the temple.

There were various lay people working around temple from quite early. The strange thing about this place is that very few lay people will be zazen practitioners. Those who were there this morning were working the gardens and the graveyard and probably wouldn't have known what we were doing in the zendo. I saw it in my home country, people getting some sort of solace from getting close to the forms of a religion, the clergy, the buildings and locations, the ceremonies, but not actually getting themselves involved in the personal, spiritual practice. I once heard it being referred to as people seeking respectability, rather than personal spiritual transformation and when I saw those I knew who were far from spiritual turning up to church on Sunday dressed in their best clothes and behaving piously, yet being very un-Christian during the week I could see what was being described. While I'm not saying that anyone there this morning falls into that category, it's true to say that Soto Zen is an establishment organisation here and there are those who seek respectability by being seen around it. It is a ego trap we can all fall into and one we must be very mindful of.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Zazenkai in the morning

So it's zazenkai in the morning. There's a pretty decent Soto Zen temple close to my house which has been holding a Sunday morning sitting for many a year. No-one there speaks much English and my Japanese is weak, but we manage all the same. I can get basic instruction, but getting into the nitty-gritty of Buddhism is beyond our ability to communicate just yet.

I'll get up at around 5am, have some toast and rooibos tea and take my scooter on the ten minute ride to the temple. People start gathering very early. Yamada-san is a grisly, old dude who drives a 1970s English Mini. He'll be there from 5am reading his Japanese history books. There are a few older women who come and, in taking with traditional societies everywhere, will see to the tea and sandwiches while we men beat the drums and ring the bells. I'll mark the beginning of the zazenkal by striking a drum and bell. Afterwards, I mark the end with two others as we hit mopan (wooden plate gongs) and an umpan, or cloud gong, which is made of metal. I hit the umpan and it makes an almighty racket.

The monk who owns the temple spent two and a half years in Eiheiji Monastery in Fukui prefecture. For those who don't know it, it's a very prestigious Soto Zen monastery, founded by Dogen himself in the 13th century. They sit for 40 minutes there, so we sit for 40 minutes in our zazenkai. It's a long sit, and was especially so when the monk dozed off one morning and didn't wake until we'd been sitting for almost an hour. Even he had difficulty getting to his feet after that length of time. He freely admits he's not altogether up for being a monk, but inherited the temple and, therefore, became a monk as a matter of filial piety, i.e. respect for his parents and ancestors. Still, he enjoys the Sunday sitting and especially the coffee and sandwich session afterwards which can run on for a few hours.

I'll blog about tomorrow's zazenkai when I get back from it.

I'm being challenged!

I'm being challenged this week for sure. First I had an attack of the piles, then dental pain, then I stopped the caffeine, which is still beating on me, and yesterday I knocked my back out. How do I rise above this I wonder? The tendency is to escape from the now given how bloody uncomfortable it is, but mindfulness is where I'm supposed to be going. Now I see just how far on this journey I have to go.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Caffeine headaches, fatigue and restlessness.

This is the third time I've been here and I don't seem to have learned. I've stopped using caffeine accept to stop the headaches and I tried to sit last night and lasted just a few minutes before throwing in the towel. I'd one today before my last class (I teach university) as I didn't want to inflict my headache and irritiability on my students, but that's the only one I've had today. Now I'm nursing a whopper and I'm thinking about having one to settle it.

I understand there is a long tradition of using caffeine to aid sitting, with monks here in Japan often drinking green tea (some of which is loaded with caffeine) before sitting to stave off sleepiness. For me though, that's not an option. I simply drink too much as my body starts to crave the drug. It's loads or none for me I'm afraid. Moderation is not an option. I'll deal with sleepiness by getting more sleep. I'll be doing the business au naturale from here on in ;o)

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Caffeine and meditation.

Before I started meditating I stopped using caffeine for two periods of over a year each. Now I'm back at it again and I'm wondering if it is effecting my ability to settle my mind during sitting and during my day generally. Certainly, I drink too much, but I find moderation very hard. I'm thinking about packing it in again.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Life of Buddha, a BBC documentary.

Found this on YouTube. It's not too bad, giving a fair account of the life and ideas of Shakyamuni Buddha. Not too sure about the silly hair-do though. Watch out for the mysteriously appearing bun on the crown of his head immediately after his enlightment.

Taking the precepts in Japan.

I've been considering taking the precepts in Japan, but I haven't decided whether I should or not, nor do I know how to go about it. I have to be careful with myself. My ego draws lovely mental pictures of me with my head shaven, in full robes, looking the part, and people looking at me and saying, "Ooooh, aaaaah, a westerner monk, wow!" and I would feel all important whilst I hurtle in the opposite direction from enlightenment. I wonder if I can be a monk in practice and attitude, but not on paper and in attire.

To find a teacher?

I reckon I should find a teacher, but I don't want anyone whacking me on the side of the head with a fan. The monk at the temple I sit in zazen at says that I'm doing well enough with my reading. His English is virtually non-existant as is my Japanese, so he can't be it just yet I think. One of the other sitters translates for us, but his English is not great either. The monk said, "Suzuki-san ga ii." (Mr Suzuki [Shunryu] is good for now). I'm reading Beginners Mind. That said, I'd like to find a teacher.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Not dying?

I have no position on life after death and I struggle with the idea of reincarnation, but I heard a phrase recently which I have to say I like and it goes like this, "Death is not the opposite of life, it is the opposite of birth."

Cloud beating.

I go to a zazenkai in a local temple every Sunday. For some time I've struck the drum and bell to mark the start of the sitting and a thick, rectagular, wooden gong called a mopan to signal the end.

This week I was asked to strike another gong, only this one is made of metal and it doesn't chime very well. It's called an umpan, which is Japanese for cloud gong. I'm the only non-Japanese at the zazenkai and everyone complimented me profusely for my gonging. Even if I was particulary crap at it, they would still compliment me prefusely. If it was in Eiheiji, they'd kick me around the floor.