Welcome to “the blog that shall remain nameless” for the present. We are conducting a contest to name this blog in an appropriate way, so it is appropriate that we blog a bit about what the focus of this particular blogic activity is and will be.

ZEN AND DAILY LIFE

The focus is on Zen and daily life, which is admittedly not a very tight focus. Very broad, but appropriate for Westerners, Americans who are interested in Zen and perhaps adopting its practice as part of their lifestyle. So we will be welcoming questions and comments on Zen and household, lifestyle, Zen at work, in school. Zen relates to everything we do and illumines the mundane circumstances of daily life. After all, Buddhism is not a religious belief system about reality, but instead simply examines, thoroughly and on the cushion in meditation, the reality we inhabit — the fundamental miracle of existence itself.

My teacher, Matsuoka-roshi, always said that Zen would find its rebirth in America, and that Zen is for everyone. For Zen as a lay practice, its future lies in its assimilation into the culture, just as has been the case when it began in India, and later as it was transmitted through China, the Far East and Japan.

CULTURAL TRAPPINGS

One of the recurring issues in the establishment of Zen in the West is its formal trappings, which many regard as cultural accretions accumulated over time, and not central to the practice or essence of Zen. This is not a new idea invented here, as master Dogen and others in the history have famously stated that after meeting a true teacher and beginning genuine practice based on zazen, there is no need to burn incense, chant the names of Ancestors and Buddhas, et cetera. Some are perhaps too eager to force the Americanization of Zen, rather than preserve the traditions of our dharma predecessors.

Our teachers were Japanese — our immediate ancestors — and many aspects of our practice of Zen find their provenance in the culture of Japan. But the attributes, protocols and forms of Zen practice that are inherited from India and China as well as Japan, are so tightly interwoven that it is very difficult to discriminate the original source.

For example, the small, bib-like vestment worn by initiates and disciples of Zen (J. rakusu) probably had its origin in China. The Chinese people, living in a large country and agrarian society, much like the cultural origins of the United States, very practical and down-to-earth, apparently developed this miniature version of the large formal robe (J. okesa) with a handy strap to hang around the neck, so as to be able to wear the vestment in circumstances where the large robe would be impractical. Or perhaps the Japanese, who knows?

The full set of formal robes now worn by a Zen priest consist of the undergarments and kimono, Japanese in origin; the outer or “practice” robe, or koromo, Chinese in origin; and the outer, quilt-like robe, or O-kesa, Indan in origin. When one dons the full set, it represents the three major countries of origin of Zen Buddhism. This is not to forget the other countries of the Far East, which were slso strongly influenced by, and strong influences upon, Zen and Buddhism – Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, et cetera. If we look hard enough, we will probably find artifacts of their traditions. It is simply to say that in adopting Zen to the American culture, we should hesitate to indiscriminately delete or reject any of the forms we have been taught by our teachers, if only for fear of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

FORM AND MEANING

It is only through repetition of practice protocols does their meaning begin to become clear. Take the Buddhist bow, for example. This bow places the hands palm-to-palm in front of the face, much like a Christian form of prayer. But it does not represent prayer in the sense of communicating with a god. It is something like “prayer” in the old English sense of “pray” in the sense of earnestness, as in “prithee” — a sense of pleading, cajoling, or yearning. Not a prayer to an outside God or deity. The form is similar but the intent is not the same.

The palms coming together, as Matsuoka-roshi explained, represents the joining of the right and left hand. One hand we may take to represent the everyday self that we are trying to improve, the self that is selfish in the negative sense, from which we might even wish to be free. The other hand represents the true self, the original self or buddha-nature, the self to which we aspire. Placing the two hands together illustrates the nonduality of these two selves, in that they are actually only one, just as the two hands that seem to be separate are actually only two parts of one being. This is the way that Matsuoka-roshi explained that this Buddhist bow actually represents non-duality of self and other, non-duality of imaginary self and true self.

Bowing in this posture (J. gassho), when we bow to each other it signifies that I represent your Buddha-nature as the same as mine. We bow upon entering the zendo in respect and appreciation for a place to practice zazen with others in the sangha. So it is a sign of respect, a sign of recognition, and it is a mindfulness-training for us to bow. So I often say, When in doubt, bow! But of course there are times when bowing is not appropriate. In a formal service, for example, there are times when only the leader of the ceremony (J. Doshi) bows while everybody else does not. And there are times when the sangha all bow together.

These ritual forms are the first thing that most Westerners tend to reject, simply because they are the easiest and most obvious aspect to point out, and to reject. It is easy to criticize something that looks like a public display of religiosity. Something that smacks of obsequiousness, or idolatry — bowing to an altar that has a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha on it, for example.

THE RESISTANCE

This attitude of rejection or resistance amounts to a clear revelation of the complete lack of understanding on the part of the Western person. There is no idolatry in Buddhism. There is no worship of Buddha or any other deity. Buddha is not a deity.

So even this simple act of bowing can be misinterpreted, misconstrued for whatever reasons. Matsuoka-roshi said that when the bowing ends, Buddhism ends. Those who follow and train in the formal aspects of Zen that we have inherited are often ridiculed — criticized as so many lemmings being led over a cliff.

This kind of idea — which is a form of delusion, and at an extreme a kind of paranoia — has some pretty solid foundations in the history of religion in the West, where we have seen so many corrupt “religious leaders” come and go, disgraced by their so-called fall from grace, when they have acted upon their human follies and foibles.

It may seem that we have strayed far from the notion of assimilating Zen into one’s daily life. But in point of fact, Zen in daily life usually involves engagement with a community (S. sangha), or a sitting group, of people who are practicing Zen together.

A-B-C-DOUGHNUT

All of the protocols and practices surrounding Zen come together as a way of organizing and coordinating group movement — addressing the simple fact that when more than one person is involved in the practice, certain complications arise. There has to be some kind of agreement, tacit or explicit, as to what we do before we sit in meditation. Which zazen is, of course, the central part of one’s personal practice, as well as the central, cohering thread in group practice. So what do we do before we sit; and then what do we do (and not do) during the sitting period; and after the sitting period, what do we do?

So there is before, during and after, which may be simplified as an A-B-C kind of format. Or we might regard it as a kind of doughnut. A is the front part of the doughnut, which we eat through to get to the middle. The middle part, B, of the doughnut, of course, is the hole, the doughnut hole, which is empty, as is zazen — focused on emptiness. And then the C part is the back half of the doughnut. Whatever we do, even sitting in practice at home alone, we cannot entirely get rid of this doughnut.

We can’t simply, instantly, be sitting in zazen, without doing anything to get there. When we come home from work, or from getting off the expressway, we may change clothes; take a bath; wash our hands; brush our teeth; something — have a snack; light some incense; chant a sutra. There is a point at which we then go and sit down in zazen; and after a some time, we rise from the sitting posture, and do something else! So that is the A-B-C. You cannot get rid of the A-B-C.

When a group is involved, the doughnut can become very complicated. It can be a very big doughnut, covered in chocolate with sprinkles, and so forth. Or the doughnut can be stripped down, made of whole wheat, no sugar, etcetera. But you cannot get rid of the doughnut.

So, like it or not, when we practice Zen — which is, in its form and approach to meditation, the simplest reduction of what meditation can be, down to its absolute, essential essence, if that is not too redundant — nonetheless, the surrounding environment, whether at home or at the temple, can be complex, and can change the A-B-C nature of the doughnut.

RESIST THE RESISTANCE

Most of us in formal Zen practice have trained in protocols, services, et cetera, that have been developed over centuries, and still retain parts from ancient India, China and Japan, in what is called Soto Zen Buddhist ritual or forms.

The main learning point here, about this issue, is that we do have resistance to these protocols. We all find that we have resistance to these forms for all the cultural reasons that we know, with which we are all familiar. So in Zen, what do we do — how do we learn from this?

As always, what we do is to examine our own resistance. Where does it really come from? What is it? Is it really necessary? Is it leading us to a deeper form of practice, or are we using our resistance to the teacher, the teaching, the protocols, et cetera, to discourage ourselves from practice?

In the latter case, this simply becomes one of many reasons, or excuses we look for and eventually find, to convince ourselves that — while Zen itself may be genuine, authentic, real, and worthwhile — this particular way of practice or this particular form of teaching, we find sufficient reason to reject. And then, of course, engage a search looking for another teacher, looking for another community, looking for someplace else that we feel reflects genuine Zen practice, or one that suits our personality and needs.

In some cases, this is a legitimate reaction to what may be a very limited, inept — or even corrupt — interpretation and presentation of Zen, and so is justified. But we have to be careful that we are not simply seeking the perfect at the cost of the good. Letting the perfect image in our mind be the enemy of the good, or good enough, context for practice. After all, again through repetition, the meaning, and the effect, of all these protocols become transparent, or empty. Through sheer repetition, and primarily through the repetition of  meditation, zazen.

If, as we say in Zen, our initial meditation is beginner’s mind (J. shoshin), and our intermediate and advanced meditation, so to say, is still beginner’s mind; then no matter what the circumstance, or environment and protocols surrounding that practice, nothing can really interfere with the progress of that process. Matsuoka-roshi used to say that eventually you will be able to sit in the midst of a thunder storm. Sri Ramakrishna, an Indian saint who lived in Calcuta in the 1850s, likened the process to the growth of an oak tree, which in the beginning needs to be protected by a surrounding fence so that the elephants won’t trample it; but when grown, not even an elephant can uproot it.

NO EXIT ZEN

When you engage in practice (and of course you are invited to the Atlanta Soto Zen Center and any of our network of affiliates; visit our affiliate page for details), the message here is not to let any of the obvious kinds of behaviors and form of the practice tat you can criticize become a reason for you to avoid practicing. Practicing zazen under the best of circumstances becomes extremely difficult. Once we get past the first blush, the novelty quickly wears off. Whatever the circumstances, both in our personal life as well as those of our practice community, we should be on guard against our natural tendency to try to find a way out. In Zen, there is no exit, just as in Buddhism there is no exit when it comes to life and death.

Try as you like, you will find that when you try to run away from Zen, you run right into Zen. Zen has no specific meaning. It is pointing at your life. And we can’t turn around and run away from our life. We run smack-dab into our life every time we turn around.

THE GREAT DHARMA BARRIER GATE

In Zen there are many barriers. Some of them are personal for us. Some are societal. Some are mental, emotional, physical barriers. If we confront these barriers honestly and don’t try to run away from them, they become dharma-gates.

A gate, when it is closed, is a barrier. It may be locked, have rusty hinges. So it may be a formidable barrier. The operative definition of a gate is that it is a gate to something. There is something on the other side of the gate. In Zen, what this something is, we cannot know. But we can know when the dharma-gate opens, or when it begins to open.

Each of these barriers that we confront in Zen practice is potentially a dharma-gate. The greater your criticism of yourself; or the greater your criticism of your teacher, or your sangha, your community, the stronger and higher the potential of opening that particular dharma-gate.

My first dharma name, Taiun, means “great cloud.” As my teacher explained, like a great cloud in the sky, floating high in the sky — no barriers anywhere. So the aspirational challenge of my dharma name is: in my life, to regard any barrier that I find as no-barrier.

This metaphor, this idea of looking at the various barriers that we inevitably confront in our mind, as dharma-gates, is powerful. They are gates to the dharma, gates to the teaching. If we apply ourselves diligently — and don’t give up — eventually, the dharma-gate will open of itself, as Master Dogen says of the Treasure House; and “you will be free to enjoy it to your heart’s content” (Fukanzazengi).

Please continue your practice, and please share your comments with me, including if you have an entry for the name of this blog. Meantime, “Practice-practice-practice!”