Friday, July 25, 2008

Right Action

I went to a talk in Tokyo last Saturday by my Zen teacher, Gudo Nishijima. Nishijima used to give regular lectures on Buddhism in Japanese and English at a number of places in Tokyo and other parts of Japan until he went into semi-retirement about five years ago. He stopped giving talks completely for a while, but some of his students asked him back to give one talk each month in Tokyo. His students in Osaka heard about it and asked him to give a talk each month in Osaka too. From what I saw on Saturday, he looked happy to be teaching again.

There were around 25-30 people there on Saturday. Mostly his Japanese students, with me and a couple of other non-Japanese guys there too. Here’s a summary of the talk, or as much of it as I could take notes on. Sorry if this post is a bit disjointed.

The talk was mostly about “action at the present moment.” He spoke about the difference between our action and our thinking and sense perception. In everyday life we tend to assume that the thoughts we have in our head are actually true in the real world. But that’s not necessarily the case. Even though we can think lots of things in our brain, those things don’t always turn out to be true in reality. An obvious example is when you think something is going to turn out one way, but it turns out differently. If you want to take it a bit further, if you look back at ancient times, people used to have a lot of strange ideas about the world, like the world was flat or the sun rotated around the earth, but science proved that reality was different to the way people thought it was.

It’s kind of a similar situation with sense perception. When we look at something or hear something, we get sense stimuli in our brain. But those stimuli aren’t always accurate. We sometimes find out later that the sense stimuli in our brain didn’t reflect the actual situation too well. Of course, the objects that we look at are real, but the sense stimuli in our brain are different from the actual objects themselves. The stimuli are our way of interpreting the objects that we look at or touch or whatever. In some cases our sense organs just aren’t equipped to pick up the total situation of what’s happening. So sometimes we just perceive things partially, not completely. You can get an idea of this if you compare your hearing function with a dog’s hearing function, or your sense of smell with a dog’s sense of smell. Compared to a dog, our sense perception equipment isn’t too great.

That’s kind of related to why Buddhism says our real life is based on action. Thinking and sense perception support our actions, but the most important thing is just to act. If you want to do something or change some situation in reality, you have to act. Just thinking about something or noticing sense perceptions of something won’t make any real difference in reality.

So is life based on thinking or sense perception, or is life based on action?

Buddhism says our life is not just based on thinking or on perception. It says our life is based on what we do at the present moment. In other words life is based on action.

So what’s the connection between practicing Zazen and action?

When we do Zazen we enter what Nishijima refers to as “the balanced state”. The balanced state is a state where our body and mind are balanced with each other. If you’ve never done Zazen, an example of the balanced state might be how you feel when you’ve just done some kind of sport. After doing some sport, you probably won’t be thinking too much or perceiving things too strongly. It’s kind of like that when you do Zazen. And when we’re not thinking too much or perceiving things too strongly we can act naturally.

In Buddhism, this kind of natural action when our body and mind are balanced is very important. Because Buddhism says that natural action is “right” action. Nishijima calls it “action in accordance with the universal law” or “action in accordance with the rule of the universe”. Another word Buddhists use for “universal law” is “Dharma”. So if we practice Zazen everyday, our action should tend to be in accordance with the natural laws in the universe.

One important thing about “right action” is that it brings good or neutral consequences or effects. In other words, if you do a right action, you won’t be faced with bad effects as a result later on. And if you keep doing “right action” for a while, life starts to gradually get smoother. Because you no longer have to deal with some kind of bad or problematic situations as the result of some "wrong" action you did previously. And if you don’t have to spend a lot of time dealing with “bad stuff”, you can enjoy your life more and maybe enjoy your Zazen a bit more too.

So that’s the connection between Zazen and action. If you do Zazen regularly you might notice life starting to get a bit smoother or at least involving less hassle. The situation won’t be perfect of course, because even though we do Zazen there’ll bound to be times when we mess up for one reason or another. But overall things should improve.

At this point someone asked about the meaning of “the middle way”, which is what Buddhism is sometimes called. Nishijima’s answer was that “the middle way” is the middle between body and mind.

Next, someone asked Nishijima what reality is. Nishijima used the example of the sun.
He said something like:
"The sun rose in the eastern sky yesterday.
The sun rises in the eastern sky today.
I guess that the sun will rise in the eastern sky tomorrow.
This is what reality is. "

Someone asked about the difference between “right action” and other kinds of action.
Nishijima said that right action occurs when our body and mind are balanced, when we’re in the “balanced state”. He said he also considers the “balanced state” to be balance in our autonomic nervous system. When we do Zazen, our body and mind enter a state of balance with each other, and right action occurs naturally. Other kinds of action are done when we are not in the balanced state. Sometimes those kinds of action have undesirable consequences or effects.

Someone asked if thinking is the same as action. Nishijima said there’s a difference. Action is done with the entire body, while thinking is done with our brain cells. He said living means that our body is moving, thinking means that our brain cells are moving.

Near the end, he was asked to talk a bit more about the difference between action and thinking and sense perception. He said:
"What we think is not reality,
what we perceive (the sense stimuli) is not reality,
what we do (our action) is reality."

Someone then asked about doing things like watching movies or listening to music in the balanced state. Nishijima said that the balanced state is our ordinary state, so we can enjoy art, music, movies and so on in that state.

That was about it.



Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Adventures of Dogen

There’s a show on in Tokyo at the moment called “The Adventures of Dogen”. It’s a musical based on the life of a 13th-century Japanese monk Dogen. Dogen is famous in Japan for establishing the Soto Zen sect here.

The role of Dogen in the show is split between one actress and one actor. The actress is Chiaki Kuriyama. She plays Dogen as a youth. She’s well-known in Japan and appeared in the movie Kill Bill. Another well-known Japanese actor named Hiroshi Abe plays the older Dogen. That’s Chiaki and Hiroshi in the photo with their wigs on.

As part of his role, Hiroshi has to do Zazen on stage for 40 minutes! When he was asked what it felt like, he said “It’s a battle with wicked thoughts and drowsiness.” I know what he means.

Anyway, the show is being held in Theatre Cocoon at Bunkamura in Shibuya. Looks like the cheapest seats (called "Cocoon seats" by the way) are 5,000 yen.

Might be worth a look. I just wonder what Dogen would say?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Summer in Japan and Zazen retreats

It’s been a while since my last post. I won't bore you with reasons why I haven't been blogging for a while, just got a bit bogged down with some stuff.

One thing that kept me a bit busy for a while was preparing to come to Japan for the summer with my family, where I'm writing this from. It was nice to get back here for a while, although I'm still getting used to the heat.

Another thing that happened me recently was I went to my first Zazen retreat ever outside Japan (in France in May). I'd been to a good few retreats in Japan with Gudo Nishijima, but never to one outside Japan before. One reason I've only been to retreats in Japan is that there were no Buddhist groups around when I was growing up (I lived in Ireland and we was mostly all Catholics). Another reason was there was just no information about Buddhism anywhere when I was younger. It was long before the Internet, and the only Buddhist book I remember seeing in our local bookstore was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It was the first Zen book I ever read. It wasn't a bad book, but didn't tell me an awful lot about Zen Buddhism.

Even when I got to Japan, it took me a while to check out Buddhism. What eventually got me hooked was a one-day Zazen retreat I did at a temple in Kyoto. When I did zazen there I felt like I'd found something I wanted to check out more. Later on I moved to Tokyo and was lucky enough to come across Gudo Nishijima.

So basically I hadn’t a clue about Buddhist groups or teachers even when I was practicing with Nishijima’s group. I remember one time a guy at one of Nishijima’s talks in Tokyo gave me a copy of Shunryu Suzuki’s famous book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” He looked surprised when I told him I'd never heard of Shunryu Suzuki. I read the book but didn’t think an awful lot about it. Not to say it’s not a good book, I just wasn’t really interested in Buddhist books then. I was just trying to learn whatever I could from Nishijima. Probably the fact that some guy I didn't know just handed me the book made me a bit uneasy about reading it too. I think I felt it could be like one of those books the Hare Krishnas hand out. Of course, I found out later I was wrong. In fact, the guy who gave me the book used to carry a supply of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” books around with him in a satchel. He told me his way of spreading Buddhism was presenting a copy of Suzuki's book to people.

I’ve kind of gotten off the subject a little, but that was one reason I wanted to go to a retreat outside Japan - to see if there was much difference between the Zen retreats I'd been to with Gudo Nishijima and a retreat overseas. Obviously, I did notice some differences at the retreat in France, but the zazen wasn't too different.

By the way, when I was at the retreat there someone asked me what Nishijima's retreats in Japan were like. Basically, Nishijima liked to keep the retreats kind of simple and also follow his understanding of Dogen's way. So at the retreats we'd do Zazen, Nishijima would give four talks, we'd have meals in the traditional style, everyone would do 40 minutes of light work each morning, and we'd also have a good bit of free time. The Dogen Sangha retreat in September is still held in the same way that Nishijima followed, so if you're in Japan around that time it might be worth checking out.

In case anyone else is interested, here's a copy of the daily schedule from one of Nishijima's Zazen retreats (click on the "Zazen Retreat Schedule" link underneath if you want to see the original version). It's much the same schedule for the current Dogen Sangha retreats too, except an extra day.

Read this document on Scribd: Zazen Retreat Schedule

One more thing. At that retreat in France I was chatting to someone who told me she'd just started doing Zazen a couple of months ago, but that the very first time she did zazen she felt like it was the thing for her. I told her I felt the same way when I first did zazen too, although I never expected to be still doing it years later.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Zazen Notes 4: Shikantaza - just to sit

Buddhism started off in India about 2,500 years ago. It was begun by a man named Gautama who was the son of the king of a small kingdom. Gautama had a very comfortable life as the son of the king. But he eventually began to wonder about “the meaning of life” and whether there was any kind of real truth. When he was 29 he decided to leave his family and his home to try to find some kind of truth. Gautama visited different teachers and tried different methods that they told him would help him. But after about seven years he reached a point where he'd became very thin and frail, and he began to wonder if there might not be a better way to find some kind of truth.

He left the small group of ascetics he was practicing with and started to eat and drink properly again. He also began to consider about what might be a better way to find the truth. At that time, he recalled an experience he had sitting under a tree as a teenager. He remembered the good feeling he had when he was just sitting under the tree. So he decided to try that kind of sitting again. He found a nice tree near a river bank, and began to sit under the tree in the cross-legged posture. This time, though, he just sat there without any particular aim. He wasn’t thinking about mantras or enlightenment or things like that. He just sat there in the cross-legged posture.

The story goes that one morning while he was sitting under the tree, Gautama saw a star in the morning sky and was awakened. After that he devoted his life to teaching other people what he had discovered. The basis for what Gautama Buddha taught people was the simple sitting that he had done under the tree. Gradually more people joined him and Buddhism slowly spread.

One of the places that Buddhism spread to was China. In those days, the main link between India and China was the Silk Road, which was a series of routes connecting East and West Asia. The early Buddhist monks made there way along the Silk Road and eventually reached China. It’s impossible to know exactly when Buddhism arrived in China, but it seems to have arrived there by around the second century AD. Some Chinese people who heard about Buddhism went to India to learn more. These people then translated some of the sutras they came across in India into Chinese.

So some Chinese people were already familiar with Buddhist ideas by the time the legendary Indian monk Bodhidharma is said to have arrived there around the fifth or sixth century. Bodhidharma is traditionally considered to be the transmitter of “Zen” Buddhism to China. He emphasized the importance of the simple sitting practice that Gautama Buddha used to do. There are a lot of legends surrounding Bodhidharma, although it’s impossible to know how accurate they are. One legend is that Bodhidharma spent nine years doing zazen at a cave in Northern China. This made the early Chinese Buddhists more aware of the importance of zazen. Up to the time of Bodhidharma’s arrival, the people teaching Buddhism in China had focused on Buddhist sutras and ideas, and not placed a great emphasis on the sitting practice. So when the Chinese saw the monk Bodhidharma doing this sitting practice so often, they thought it must be some kind of special Buddhist sect. So they gave it the name “Chan” (or “Zen”) Buddhism. “Chan” is a Chinese word that means “meditation”. But for Bodhidharma it was just Buddhism.

People were still doing that simple sitting practice 700 years later when a Japanese monk named Dogen arrived in China looking for a teacher. Dogen had studied Buddhism in Japan with the Tendai Sect and the Rinzai Sect prior to going to China. But he wasn’t satisfied with the Buddhism that he was learning in Japan. He felt that he needed to meet a true teacher to find out what Buddhism was really about. So Dogen decided to travel to China to search for a teacher.

But when Dogen got to China he was a little disappointed. Most of the temples he visited belonged to masters in the Rinzai sect. So Dogen ended up encountering the same kind of Buddhist teachers that he’d met in Japan. He travelled around China for two years but still couldn’t meet a teacher who could help him. He was just about to give up his search, when he met an old monk who told him to visit a temple called Keitoku-ji. A new abbot, Master Tendo Nyojo, had just been installed at Keitoku-ji, and the old monk told Dogen that Master Tendo Nyojo might be the teacher he was looking for.

Dogen had already been to Keitoku-ji temple once. But at that time there was a different abbot there. So Dogen went to Keitoku-ji temple and met Master Tendo Nyojo. When Dogen met Tendo Nyojo he was sure that he'd found the teacher he’d been searching for. Dogen stayed in China for two more years to study with Tendo Nyojo, and then returned to Japan.

The main thing Dogen learned from Master Tendo Nyojo was that just sitting in zazen is Buddhism itself. Master Tendo Nyojo used the phrase shikantaza to explain this to Master Dogen.

Nowadays, shikantaza is a well-known phrase in Zen Buddhism. It's made up of four Chinese characters 只管打坐. These characters are usually translated by dividing them into pairs.

The first pair is 只管 (shi-kan).
This means: nothing but / earnestly / entirely / single-mindedly.

The second pair is 打坐 (ta-za).
This means: to do sitting.

So the four characters in shi-kan-ta-za together mean:

nothing but to do sitting,


earnestly to do sitting,


entirely to do sitting,


single-mindedly to do sitting.

Take your pick.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Zazen Notes III - body & mind drop off

In my last couple of posts, I wrote about "non-thinking" and sitting in an upright posture. This post relates to both of those. It's about a Japanese expression shin-jin-datsu-raku which the Zen monk Dogen used to describe what happens when we practice zazen. Dogen first heard the expression from his teacher, Tendo Nyojo, when he visited China from Japan in the 13th century to meet a true teacher.

The usual English translation for shin-jin-datsu-raku is "dropping body and mind" or "body and mind drop off". Here's the meaning of the four Chinese characters (身心脱落) that make up shin-jin-datsu-raku:

shin (身) means "body"
jin (心) means "mind"
datsu (脱) means "shed"
raku (落) means "drop" or "let fall"

So shin-jin-datsu-raku literally means "body & mind are shed and fall". But the characters for datsu and raku go together, and mean "drop off". So shin-jin-datsu-raku is usually translated something like "body & mind drop off".

"Body & mind drop off" is a confusing expression. It's easy to think it means that when you do zazen your body and mind actually drop off and all that's left is some kind of "spirit". But that doesn't happen.

So what does "body & mind drop off" mean? My teacher Gudo Nishijima interprets it as meaning that when we do zazen our mind gets less active and our perception of our body sensations gets less active. So we're not actively considering things or perceiving things. Of course, we're sitting there with our eyes are open and we can see the wall and hear sounds, but we're not thinking about them. Our consciousness is clear and quiet. Master Dogen described this as "body & mind drop off".

One thing about "body & mind drop off" is that it happens naturally, without us having control over it. We do zazen and try to sit upright. When we're sitting, our thinking might quieten down and our sense perceptions might quieten down, and then we feel like our consciousness is clearer. We might not reach a point where our mind is completely blank and our senses have gone completely quiet, but we can feel like they're quieter than when we first sat down.

Nishijima uses the idea of +/- zero to describe what happens when we do zazen. When we first sit down our mind might be really active or we might be really conscious of our senses. And we can swing back and forth between a state where we're thinking a lot (a "+" state) and a state where we're really conscious of our senses (a "-" state). That can continue throughout our zazen. But at some point, our thoughts may slow down and our bodily sensations may ease off. At that time, there's not too much activity in our head and we're just sitting there. That's the kind of "zero" state.

Zazen is not about thinking. Zazen is a kind of action. You sit on a cushion and try to keep your back straight. It's a very simple action and a very pure action. There's not an awful lot going on when you're doing it. You're just sitting there. But you can notice your thoughts and notice your posture too. And after a while that consciousness of thoughts and of posture subsides and you sit there without much going on in your head. And when you get up from zazen you might feel a bit different from when you started. People who do zazen refer to that feeling as "balanced". It's a nice feeling. And if you practice zazen regularly, that feeling might stay with you for a good part of the day.

But you don't have to take my word for it. If you do zazen for a while you'll see for yourself.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Zazen Notes II - right posture

This post is about the sitting posture in Zazen.

The Japanese monk Dogen wrote instructions on how to practice Zazen in a text called fukanzazengi (Universal Guide to Zazen), which he wrote in the 13th century. His instructions in fukanzazengi are generally regarded as the standard instructions for practicing zazen.

In fukanzazengi, Dogen used the expression sho-shin-tan-za (正身端坐) when he was discussing posture. Sho-shin-tan-za is made up of four Chinese characters:

1. 正 (sho) means right, correct, proper, or true
2. 身 (shin) means the body
3. 端 (tan) means upright, erect, or straight
4. 坐 (za) means sit

Together sho-shin-tan-za mean "sit straight with your body right" or "straighten your body and sit upright".

"Straighten your body and sit upright" is fairly straightforward advice, but Dogen gave some more specific instructions about what he meant by sitting straight. He said:

"Don't lean to the left or right, or forward or backward."


"Align your ears with your shoulders and your nose with your navel."

He also said to keep the mouth closed and the eyes open, and to breathe softly through the nose.

Dogen's instructions are easy to understand. Just sit straight. Don't lean to the left or right, or incline forward or backward. Keep your ears in line with your shoulders, and your nose in line with your navel. Close your mouth and open your eyes, and breathe softly through your nose.

It's not that much to remember. The hard part is that it takes a while to reach the stage where we can concentrate on those points right through zazen. After we sit down to start zazen, our head can fill up with lots of different thoughts and after a few minutes we notice that we're slouching over or leaning to the side. Or maybe our legs hurt and we start to think about moving them or adjusting our posture. So it can be hard to "sit straight with your body right." But if we stick with the practice for a while our posture gradually starts to develop and it becomes easier to sit straight. And even if, like me, your posture isn't quite perfect, and you lean or slouch over sometimes doing zazen, just stick with it. It doesn't have to be absolutely perfect. And if you do find yourself slouching a bit, just straighten your spine again and continue.

Gudo Nishijima used to hold regular zazen meetings and retreats in Japan. Sometimes complete beginners would come along and Nishijima would show them the posture and explain what to do. But he didn't spend a lot of time going around correcting everyone's posture. Occasionally he would, but he seemed to think that it was important for people to just do zazen, without worrying too much about having a kind of perfect posture right off.

When I first started to do zazen I used to get a twitch in my shoulder sometimes. It used to really worry me, particularly if I was doing zazen next to someone at one of Nishijima's meetings. But Nishijima never seemed to notice, and at some point, I don't remember when, the twitch thing just disappeared by itself.

I've noticed similar situations with other people I've practiced with. When they first started off they had trouble sitting for even 5 or 10 minutes. During zazen they'd take a little break and then start again. It looked like they were having a really hard time just sitting there. But they stuck with it and after a while they'd be sitting for 20 or 30 minutes without much problem as far as I could see.

Zazen's like that. If you're starting off, don't worry too much about whether your posture is right or wrong. Just stick with it and try to sit regularly. Your posture will gradually work itself out. Doing zazen will itself help your posture. But don't forget Dogen's pointers for sitting.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Notes on Zazen

I came across some notes I took about practicing zazen from a talk at one of Nishijima Roshi's Zazen retreats. I decided to post them here to organize them a bit. It's also part of my effort to blog more often.

In the talk Nishijima talked about zazen from four aspects. I'm going to write about the first one, "
not thinking", today. Probably nothing new here for anybody familiar with Zazen, but here goes.

(1) 非思量 Hishiryou
Hishiryou is an expression in Japanese Buddhism that translates as "not thinking". It literally means "denial of thinking". Nishijima described it as "transcending thinking and non-thinking".

There's a well-known zen story (a koan) in which a monk sees his teacher sitting in zazen. The monk asks his teacher "what are you thinking when you're sitting in zazen?"
The teacher replies "I am thinking the concrete state of non-thinking."
The monk asks him "How can you think about non-thinking?"
The teacher replies "It is different from thinking."

The point in the story about the monk and his teacher is that essentially zazen is different from thinking. Sometimes when we hear the word "meditation" we assume it involves thinking about something. That's not the case with zazen. Basically you don't want to think about anything at all. If your thoughts stop completely that's just fine. Just look at the wall. So the teacher in the story says that "zazen is different from thinking".

But when you sit down on your cushion and start doing zazen you can be pretty sure you'll be thinking lots of stuff. So what to do? Well, you might have heard this before but, when thoughts come up just let them go. Don't focus on your thoughts so much. Just let them come and go and come and go. Nishijima's advice is that if you find yourself thinking about something during zazen, just straighten your spine and concentrate on sitting with a straight posture. That might happen several times during one zazen period, but that's normal and just keep going. Thoughts come up, just let them go, straighten your spine, and after a while more thoughts come up and so on. That basically is the way it works. If you sit fairly regularly you might notice that the pace of your thoughts slows down
after a while, or that's there's a change in the thoughts that come up.

So why do thoughts come up when we sit in zazen? Isn't it supposed to be some kind of real calm and blissed out state?

Nishijima's idea on this is that we usually suppress a lot of our thoughts in
our day-to-day life. It may be because we're too busy to think about things properly or just don't want to deal with certain things. Whatever the reason, those thoughts and ideas get pushed down into our subconscious. But when we do zazen, all we have to do is just sit there with our posture straight. It's real simple. So at that time some of them thoughts that we've being suppressing start to appear. And when they appear, we should just let them go. Don't try to stop them coming up, but just let them go when they do. Don't worry, there'll be plenty more where they came from.

Nishijima gave a nice analogy for this thing about thoughts during zazen. He said it's kind of like a pot on a stove that's simmering away with its lid on. Once someone takes the lid off the pot, all sorts of steam and things start to rise up.

I noticed this thing about suppressed thoughts myself when I first did zazen at a one-day retreat years ago in Japan. Once I'd been sitting for a few minutes all sorts of thoughts started to come into my head. I felt like I could even see strange shapes on the wall paper. Then after a while my thoughts settled down a bit and I started to feel pain in my legs. By the end of the day, though, I felt a lot more active and I noticed zazen definitely had some kind of effect. Ever since then I try to practice zazen everyday.

Ok. So now go try some zazen and see if you
get to think the "state of non-thinking". Although, to be honest, in my own case I usually end up with the stuff out of the pot.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What Is The Stars?

I watched a documentary called “Master of the Universe” the other night on Channel 4. It was the second part of a two-part documentary about the British physicist Stephen Hawking, who's famous for the big bang theory (I missed the first part - think we were watching South Park). It described how he’s trying to work out a theory of everything. It also had bits about some ups and downs in his private life since he wrote “A Brief History of Time”. There were also interviews with other really clever-looking physicist types. The physicists basically reckon the universe started out as some sort of single
superforce. But the superforce was split into the four known natural forces at the time of the big bang: electromagnetic, strong force, weak force and gravity. Those four forces should all be equal for the theory of everything to work, but for some reason gravity is weaker than the other forces. They’re trying to figure out why.

One reason this show interested me is that Buddhism never goes against anything that science can prove. So if science can prove that there are donuts in space, then Buddhism agrees. But Buddhism does say that even though what science has proved is true, science still hasn’t found the truth about lots of things – that there’s plenty of stuff science just hasn’t stumbled on yet.

One of the things they were talking about is “string theory”. It's considered one of the great breakthroughs. Now I honestly haven’t a clue how it’s meant to work, but the part that caught my attention was when they started talking about different dimensions. They figure the universe may consist of 11 different dimensions, but us humans are only familiar with four of them, up-down, left-right, back-forth, and time. One of the physicists said that basically we’re like fish swimming around in a fish tank. We think that what we notice in the fish tank is all there is, but there's probably much more to it than we’ve managed to figure out.

Anyway, one reason the 11 dimensions caught my attention is that I’ve heard my Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima talk about an extra dimension sometimes. I don't know if it's connected to what the string theory says, but basically Buddhism says that we’re all connected in some way, but we don’t usually notice. Some physicists may someday come up with ideas like that too, although probably best not to hold your breath.

But the part that interested me most was right at the end when Stephen Hawkins was talking about the big picture who made the universe and all that. I’d always thought that the big bang theory meant that the universe wasn’t here before the big bang. It kind of interested me because Buddhism’s idea is that the universe has always existed – which is a bit of a strange one too. Anyway, it turns out Stephen Hawking thinks the universe always existed too, and that it keeps appearing and disappearing or something like that. I can’t remember what he said exactly, but whatever it was it sounded an awful lot like Buddhism’s idea about the universe.

On the face of it, scientists talking about black holes and parallel universes and things seems completely different to Buddhism. But actually they’re not. Scientists try to explain the universe based on scientific knowledge, while Buddhism tries to explain the universe based on what Buddhists experience in daily life. Buddhist meditation is a big part of that, because it helps you become aware of things you may not notice otherwise. And judging from that documentary on Stephen Hawking, it seemed to me like Buddhism and science aren’t too far away from each other after all.

But Buddhism goes a bit further than science. Buddhism comes out and says the universe is the truth itself. Buddhism says the universe is not just matter, but also has a kind of mystical side to it too. That's something that going to be very hard for science to prove.

When I first heard Gudo Nishijima talk about Buddhism being the "truth", I honestly couldn’t believe him. I didn’t think there was anything we could call the “truth”. Eventually I realized I was wrong. Buddhism does contain the truth. And if you ask Gudo Nishijima he'll tell you that there's only one truth. If you practice zazen for a while you'll start to get glimpses of it. It’s different to anything they teach in science class. But it’s there nonetheless. But don’t just take my word for it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

It was twenty years ago today..., or was it ten?

The Buddhist precepts are rules to help you live the Buddhist life. I did a ceremony to receive the Buddhist precepts from my Zen teacher exactly ten years ago today. I thought this might be a good day to write a bit about it here.

In Zen Buddhism there are sixteen precepts. They're known as the “bodhisattva precepts”. The idea in Buddhism is that the precepts are guidelines to help live the best way. There are no sins in Buddhism, but there is right action and wrong action. Breaking a precept is not a sin, but it might result in some bad effect depending on the situation.

For the record, the sixteen precepts are broken down into three groups. Here they are in the way my teacher, Gudo Nishijima, interprets them. The first three are known as the three devotions. They are devotion to Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

The next three are the three universal precepts. They are to observe the rules of society, to observe the moral rule of the universe, and to work for the salvation of all living beings.

Those first two groups are a bit abstract. The next group are most concrete. They're known as the ten fundamental precepts. They are: don't destroy life, don't steal, don't desire too much, don't lie, don't live by selling liquor, don't discuss failures of other Buddhists, don't praise yourself or berate others, don't begrudge the sharing of Buddhist teachings and other things, don't get angry, and don't abuse Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

You can can follow the precepts without doing a formal ceremony. But if you've access to a teacher, you can do a ceremony to formally receive the precepts if you want. After that, you’re officially a Buddhist monk or nun, or layman or laywoman, depending on how you feel about it.

For me, taking the precepts meant some kind of a commitment to Buddhism. I was raised as a Catholic, but lost interest in religion in general when I was a teen. It was no big deal and I didn’t worry about it very much. But after doing Buddhism for a while I felt a bit different. I used to hear Gudo Nishijima talk about “the Buddhist truth”, but I always presumed there was no such thing. But after a while Buddhism began to make some sense. I wasn’t sure how to follow up on it though, so I started thinking about taking the precepts. I’m not entirely sure why, but it seemed like a good idea. I’d been studying with Nishijima for a couple of years and I figured it might make some difference to me.

But I wasn’t exactly sure about turning Buddhist. And I didn’t want to start asking Nishijima about it and then back out. So I waited a while. Then one guy I knew from Nishijima’s Saturday meetings told me Nishijima was planning to do the precepts ceremony for another student, named Denis. I figured he might be able to fit me in at the same time. I decided to ask him about it and I tried calling him one morning at his zazen dojo. I dialed the number and waited and waited, but no-one answered. I tried again a few minutes later. This time I let the phone ring. Eventually a German woman who was staying at the dojo answered. I asked for Nishijima, but she told me they were doing zazen in the zazen hall (zendo) and to call back later. I felt really stupid. The phone was right next to the zendo. Nishijima and the others would have had to listen to the phone ringing for a few minutes while they were doing zazen. I hoped they didn’t mind. Anyway, I called back after lunch and asked Nishijima about it. He said okay and told me to do it the same time as Denis. It was going to be held on January 15 at Nishijima’s dojo. The dojo was in a place called Moto Yawata on the outskirts of Tokyo. The plan was to meet there at about 10 and practice zazen together and then do the ceremony.

So that was it. The arrangements were made. All I had to do was show up and do the ceremony. But I was still having doubts. I was real wary of religions, and even though Buddhism felt different I wasn’t entirely convinced. And those doubts weren’t going away easily. One time I was listening to one of Nishijima’s talks at one of his meetings in Tokyo with about 10 or 15 other people. Some people in the room seemed like dedicated Buddhists who had been studying for a good few years. They had shaved heads and were wearing a rakusu, which is a kind of bib your teacher gives you when you receive the precepts. All of a sudden I started thinking “who are these people, and what am I doing here?”
I felt like getting up and leaving. I didn't though, and after a few minutes I just forgot about it.

The day for the ceremony, January 15, finally came round. It was a Thursday. Normally I’d have work that day, but at that time January 15 was a national holiday in Japan. It was called “coming of age day”. It was the day when people celebrate becoming 20 years old, after which they're legally adults. Nishijima usually arranged to hold any ceremonies on national holidays so they didn’t interfere with people’s work. Doing the ceremony to become a Buddhist on “coming of age day” felt like a nice touch too.

One problem, though, was the weather. It can snow in Japan in January, and sure enough it snowed the day of the ceremony. It snowed really hard too. There were a couple of feet (or at least 5 or 6 inches) of snow on the ground so it was going to be tough getting to the dojo. Nishijima wasn’t staying at the dojo that day either. He had a house in Tokorozawa on the other side of town where he stayed with his wife. He used to only stay at the dojo at weekends. He was going to have to make his way through the snow to the train station and try to make it to the dojo. He was 78 then, so it was a lot to ask.

I should have called up Nishijima and asked him to cancel the ceremony. But for some stupid reason I decided to head off for the dojo. It was kind of dumb. It was going to take hours to get to the dojo, and Nishijima could easily have slipped and fallen on the way. I guess I must have been really nervous about the whole thing and just got carried away. I walked through the snow to the train station and waited for a train. Eventually one came, and I made it to the dojo at around 11. Denis showed up a while later and eventually Nishijima too. He had walked through the snow from his house to the local train station, caught a train to Moto Yawata station near the dojo, and walked from there to the dojo. Not bad for 78. Most people wouldn’t have bothered. It helped dispel my doubts. He’d made a big effort to get there.

The original idea was to do zazen and then do the ceremony. But we were running late so we went straight up to the room to hold the ceremony. The place was freezing. I was still nervous about the whole thing and would’ve liked to do some zazen to settle my nerves first, but we didn’t have time. Nishijima changed into his formal robes and a few of us set up the room for the ceremony.

The person who does most of the work during the precepts ceremony is the teacher. He repeats each precepts three times, and asks the recipient if they can keep it until the end of their life. The recipient says “Yes, I can”. One part in the precepts ceremony that felt important to me was these four lines the recipient says towards the beginning:

"Our wrongs which we have committed in the past,
All came from eternal greed, anger and ignorance.
They were the products of body, speech, and mind.

So now we confess them all."

I’d done a lot of things in my past that were definitely “wrongs” that came from "eternal greed, anger and ignorance". I felt like I was getting a fresh start.

Towards the end of the ceremony the teacher says “You should do your best to keep these precepts”. That’s the basic idea. You’re not expected to spotlessly keep the precepts, just do your best. After that, the recipients do three prostrations and then walk up and sit on the teacher’s chair. The teacher walks round the chair a few times saying that the person receiving the precepts is at the same level as Gautama Buddha and is a child of Buddha. When that’s done the receivers get a rakusu and a certificate from the teacher.

When you receive the Buddhist precepts you also receive a Buddhist name. It's usually chosen by your teacher, but you can sometimes choose it yourself if you like. There’s cloth on the back of the rakusu where the teacher writes your Buddhist name, the date and the teacher’s name. The certificate has the same things written on it. Nishijima also wrote the Japanese version of this poem on the back of the rakusu:

How great is the clothing of liberation,
Formless, field of happiness, robe!
Devoutly wearing the Tathagata’s teaching,
Widely I will save living beings.

This poem is taken from a chapter titled Kesa-Kudoku (The Merit of the
Kasaya) in Dogen’s book Shobogenzo. Dogen heard a Chinese monk recite it before he put on his Kasaya when he visited China. The Kasaya (or Kesa in Japanese) is the Buddhist robe that’s worn by most Buddhist monks and nuns regardless of which branch of Buddhism they belong to. The rakusu is considered to be a small version of the Kesa.

After myself and Denis received our rakusus, the ceremony ended. We took a few photos, and then went downstairs for a quick cup of tea, and headed home. One of the photos is at the top of this post. Nishijima's in the center, with Denis on the left and me on the right.

So that was it. I’d taken the precepts and gotten my rakusu and certificate, and had a Buddhist name. I had formally turned Buddhist, although I didn’t feel any different. But I felt very grateful to Nishijima for the trouble he went to. There was no money or reward involved for him. He did it because he believes in Buddhism.

The next time I met Nishijima was a few weeks later at one of his talks at Hongo-sanchome. I was on my way into the zazen room. I thanked him for doing the ceremony. He didn't say anything, just shook my hand really strongly and gave me a big, big smile.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Doing Your Best

Let me start by wishing everyone a
Happy New Year!

Hope you don't mind I'm a few days late. I'm still trying to get back to something like normal after the holidays.

I'll start off the new year with a few encouraging words about studying/practicing Buddhism from Gudo Nishijima. It's in reply to a question at one of his talks in Tokyo.

I want to learn about Buddhism, but my family life and work takes up a lot of time. I also waste time watching TV and so on. The gap between what I want to do and what I do causes me some frustration. Have you any advice about the attitude we should have to learn Buddhism?

Nishijima: I usually think that to do my best is the best I can do. And all human beings can only do their best. It is impossible for us to do something more than our best. So even though you have some dissatisfaction in your daily life, including that dissatisfaction, you are doing your best. So I think you can be very optimistic in your daily life, because you are doing your best. So to do our best is the important matter. And even though our best is not so high, we should be satisfied with that low situation in day-to-day life. Because, even though it is low, the low situation is our best at that time. So, to live our daily lives sincerely is our best. And that is Buddhist life. It is not necessary for us to think about more ideal situations apart from our real life.