Friday, March 31, 2006

No deliberate efforts

Following up on my comment about how the universe (the Tao) makes your decisions for you - here is a passage from The Ring of the Way by Taisen Deshimaru (a soto zen master)

When you follow Buddha you do not need to use up your own strength, you do not need to make deliberate efforts with your own willpower. You can become Buddha unconsciously, naturally, automatically, detached from life and death.

I will add that the above makes no sense whatsoever if one maintains a distinct sense of self and thinks that one can 'use buddha power' to make your life better. Your sense of self, it seems, must be replaced by an identification with the universe, the tao, with everything... as long as you feel that you need to control things you are grasping & being lost in thought of right vs wrong. Or not?

I do wonder though - if all your decisions are already being made by the Tao (because your brain is a physical thing, obeying the laws of physics and thus mechanical, like the sun) then how can you interfere with yourself and feel like you are going against the tao? Where does that frustration of trying to control the uncontrollable come from if your every thought and action is the Tao (Buddha/the universe) already?

Zen Master Caterpillar

I wanted to share this because it is just the coolest thing. It's an amazing leaf-like chrysalis that's formed on our cassia. I saw the caterpillar before in became enclosed, but missed taking a before pic.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

A Zen Essay

I came across a nice, lucid introductory essay on Zen, which I thought some of you might be interested in:

Zen is essentially about the resolution of the dualism between the knower and the known, which is the fundamental problem of self and other. In Zen, self-realisation cannot be attained by reasoning or logical processes.

The mind hinders and separates the self from Reality by the same reasoning processes that it supposes is answering the ultimate questions. The paradox is that that which is being sought is seeking. The mind does not realise that the questions it raises are the mind itself. By virtue of the human capacity for self-consciousness and the ability to make value judgements, humans become too involved in the duality between self and other, subject and object, right and wrong, good and evil, and so forth. By making value judgments and distinctions, people become attached (to worldly things). Unlike plants and animals (who are “just as they are”), we can see ourselves only from the outside. For Zen, the fundamental goal is to achieve “no-mind”, or freedom from the bounds of conceptual dualities. This dualistic perception is regarded in Buddhism as the “ignorance” inherent in human existence. Zen aims at perceiving Reality as it really is; as it actually asserts itself, rather than as it is filtered and interpreted by the mind. Ultimate Reality is lived out by “pure experience”, meaning that there is no experiencing subject, or any objective experience of Reality. Nagarjuna called Ultimate Reality (which is ineffable) “emptiness” or “void”. There is no naming, no “emptiness”; just an “experience experiencing itself”. This is reached when there is a union between the subject and the object, the knower and the known.
The essay is the final one in this paper

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

No evil

The universe enjoyed its ride to work this morning. Photons traveling from the sun reflected off mass-energy patterns that were in the form of two adult bald eagles and formed an image in the eyes of the universe. The universe was happy with this vision of itself.

translated: I enjoyed my ride to work this morning. I saw two bald eagles. I was happy to have seen them.

It has been pointed out that IF no one has a free will how can anyone be to blame for their actions?

Since each person is really just a different, temporary, manifestation of the universe then every action of the universe is also your own action. You are as much to blame for the behavior of your body as you are for causing hurricane Wilma. Which means that you are both responsible for everything and oddly responsible for nothing. The idea that you are responsible for some things and not other things is plainly wrong.

Thus, if your body does something stupid you are unlucky. It's that simple. I feel bad for all those consciousnesses that are trapped inside poorly trained, stupid or malfunctioning bodies. It's not their fault. They're just unlucky.

If it's a really stupid action then you might want to try to train your body to not do that again (like, say, driving drunk for example). If your body doesn't take charge of training itself then other bodies might do so. They might try to punish your body to teach it to stop behaving that way. Thus there is every reason to try to train people - just as we train dogs, to change their behavior. Dogs, like people, are not responsible for their actions. They are just unlucky enough to have been in a body that did something very stupid, unwise, wrong, hurtful, etc. The universe trains itself to get itself to behave.

This pretty much does away with that crazy notion of good and evil...

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Buddha Dogma

Here's another one from the archives. I hope you guys like it.

Do not believe in anything (simply) because you have heard it.
Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumoured by many.
Do not believe in anything (simply) because it is found written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
But after observation and analysis when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all then accept it and live up to it.
Gautama Buddha, Kalama Sutta

My aim is always to practice zen with my eyes and mind open as it were, since there seems to be a human tendency towards religiosity, ideology and dogma - a tendency to become partial and to develop rigid ideas, to conform and engage in 'group-think'. Why shouldn't that apply to Zen? The last thing I want to do is become another religious nut. Sometimes I think I see Zen practitioners seemingly getting very attached to the trappings of Zen and I wonder if that's helpful. I try to just be my ordinary self and to assume as little as possible about Zen. I don't assume that Soto Zen is always the best way. For example, sitting in the lotus position works well for me, although I do get 'pins and needles' in one foot after a while and if I'm sitting for a long time I get tense, painful shoulders. Perhaps I'm doing it wrong. Perhaps there are better ways of doing zazen. There's no reason to imagine that there's anything magical about the posture - anything that allows us to remain motionless, alert and quiet for a long time without too much tension or pain fits the bill. For all I know Mike Cross and Pierre Turlur might be right - maybe the Alexander Technique is better. I don't know, I've never tried it.

One criticism that gets levelled at Zen quite a bit is that it does not emphasise direct cultivation of compassion. The justification I've heard for this is that trying to act compassionate or cultivate compassion when it isn't sincere is artificial and hence a distortion of our true selves. We cannot force ourselves to act and feel compassionate. I think there is some truth in this. I have met Buddhists that have the same sort of forced over-sincerity and over-niceness that many Christians seem to have. To try to do this seems to be a recipe for repression and self-deception and that can't be healthy. This is borne out by my own earliest experiences with Buddhism.

I originally came across Mahayana Buddhism some years ago as an undergraduate. I was very intrigued by the philosophy and seemed to get some benefit from meditation practice, but I had reservations about it: I found nothing to make me accept the notion that we will be reborn when we die, it all seemed like wishful thinking and not very well thought out and I wasn't keen on all that devotion to Boddhisatvas and so on. I'm a healthily sceptical and logical person, and I'd spent far too long debating with Christian apologists to accept such ideas on faith.

Some of the practice seemed insincere - I felt I was trying to make myself be nice and compassionate and serene, when in fact deep down I usually felt quite different. Was it because I was a beginner? Was I being badly taught? Or was it inherent in the teaching? It was as if I was meant to sprinkle sugar on top of all the 'negative' but real feelings I had and as such seemed to be encouraging me to regard my true feelings as unacceptable and thus repress them and replace them with something more 'wholesome' but less sincere.

The Zen approach is careful self-observation through the practice of Zazen so that the attachments of the 'personal self' are eroded away leaving a nature which is selfless and naturally compassionate.

It's an interesting theory, and it certainly seems likely to avoid artifice, but I don't know to what extent it would cultivate compassion. Without a personal self is our nature really more compassionate? There are enough stories of abuse by American 'Zen Masters', support for Japanese pre-war imperialism by Japanese roshi and use of Zen by samurai as a tool of violence to give me some doubts about that. It's for this reason that I supplement my Zazen with Metta Bhavana meditation. In the context of self-awareness and an attitude of acceptance I really think it is possible to cultivate compassion without the problems I described above.

The reason that I practice Soto Zen is mainly because it is light on metaphysical, philosophical and supernatural speculation. There are no Boddhisatvas to pray to or magical sutras to chant for good karma. For obvious reasons you do need to have confidence in the practice, but that's about it. The practice is very down-to-earth, 'stripped down' and simple. Its not about believing or disbelieving, it's about paying attention to the actuual reality of here and now. Being a natural sceptic, that suits me fine. Of course, to practice Soto Zen formally you have to do it in a certain way. You have to follow the Noble Eightfold Path and try your best to live according to the Buddhist precepts. Practice involves certain rituals, if you are ordained you should wear a rakusu, a kesa etc when you're at the zendo. Beyond that it doesn't really matter what you think (if anything) about the afterlife or karma etc.

Another thing I try to remain agnostic about is the nature of Enlightenment. I think its important not to idealise it or pin hopes on it. To me, 'Enlightenment' is just being fully present without many of the illusions and delusions that cause us suffering, such as a sense of a separate self.

Now, these provisional personal views are all part of a process of personal investigation, not dissimilar to scientific investigation, although exploring subjective areas which are difficult for science to access. Nevertheless, there are a number of scientific studies which provide compelling evidence for many claims made about Buddhist practice.

This empirical approach is also encouraged in the Kalama Sutta (quoted above), not that I needed Buddha to give me permission not to take him as an absolute authority, but it's just as well that this sutta exists since the tendency to religiosity an to represent Buddha as an omniscient god-like figure is strong in Buddhism. Those words at least give independent-mindedness a fighting chance.

Some Buddhists use the Right View/Right Understanding principle of the Eightfold Path as a club to hit free-thinkers over the head with. I don't have beliefs in rebirth after death or karma (as traditionally described) and am accused sometimes of not being a 'real Buddhist'. Apart from the fact that I don't care whether these people consider me a real Buddhist or not (in a sense its a relief if they don't) as far as I'm concerned rebirth and karma are merely the philosophical backdrop against which Buddha had his realisations. He did not originate these concepts - they were standard Vedic beliefs, which most people in India at that time accepted without much questioning. All Buddha did was modify the concept of reincarnation to rebirth to attempt accomodate his principle of anatta - the absence of inherent self. He also did not refute the existence of gods, although he described them as limited beings, subject to birth and death like everyone else and discouraged reliance upon them.

To suppose that Buddha was omniscient is an extraordinary claim for which there is no evidence. It's not even something that he claimed about himself. How could he possibly have known what happens before and after people die. Modern, well-educated, rational people who are scientifically literate may realise that visions or apparent memories about such matters do not constitute good evidence any more than they provide good evidence of Satanic child abuse or the existence of spirits or elves or extraterrestrials. Buddha did not have the benefits of a 21st century education. And for me at least, the notion of rebirth after death is rendered redundant by moment-to-moment rebirth ie. a realisation of no inherent self.

As far as I'm concerned, Buddha's key and original insights were interdependence/emptiness and causes of suffering and the method of liberation from it. It is an understanding of these principles which constitutes Right Understanding.

And what, monks, is right understanding? Knowledge with regard to sadness, knowledge with regard to the origination of sadness, knowledge with regard to the stopping of sadness, knowledge with regard to the way of practice leading to the stopping of sadness: This, monks, is called right understanding.
Magga-vibhanga Sutta, An Analysis of the Path

An author I can really recommend on the topic of agnostic Buddhism is Stephen Batchelor especially his book Buddhism Without Beliefs.

Now, before anyone misunderstands me, I'm not suggesting that Buddhism is whatever you want it to be. It has a good breadth of interpretation, from the most rational and science-friendly to the most religious. There are sects which insist on belief in karma and rebirth and sects for which such metaphysical speculation is redundant. But there comes a point where it will stop being Buddhism and start being something else.

Buddhism can become just another 'virus of the mind', but used well it can be the remedy.

There are two systems I know of that are capable of dismantling meme-complexes (though I am sure there are others). Of course these systems are memes themselves but they are, if you like, meme-disinfectants, meme-eating memes, or "meme-complex destroying meme-complexes". These two are science and Zen.
Susan Blackmore

You can read more about the Kalama Sutra here:

Apologies to Brad Warner and to Trey Parker and Matt Stone for blatant theft of their artistic ideas.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Dimentia 13 LIVE in Santa Monica April Fool's Day

In case any of you flappers are in So Cal this coming Saturday, April 1st, Twenty-ought-six, please come by the Church in Ocean Park at the corner of Hill and Main Streets in Santa Monica at 7 PM to see the first performance in 13 years by my psychedelic band DIMENTIA 13!!! This looks like it'll be a one-off show, so if you miss it, you'll be waiting another thirteen years to see the band in action again. Also featured will be the all-female African percussion group (yum...) ADAAWE. Go to my webpage (linked to my blog which is linked to here, the church is right next to the Hill Street Center, so the map there is good for both)

The show is a benefit to support the Hill Street Center, which is the place where I hold my weekly Zazen classes (Saturdays at 9:45AM till Noon, three people showed up yesterday, where are all those people who get all uptight about my rantings when it comes down to the real business????).

There will also be a raffle to which I've been asked to contribute a prize. Who knows? Maybe I'll give out Certificates of Enlightenment to random winners!!! A 40 dollar value!! Be there or be in Samsara, mo'fo's!!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Too much thinking

Brad's response prompted these thoughts -

Zensters tend to emphasise not thinking or at least not getting lost in thinking. Yet there is nothing written in books or online which is not thinking including the many admonishments not to think so much. And there are great Buddhist thinkers such as Nagarjuna who are as abstract as any western philosopher. So, where do we draw the line? When does thinking become 'too much' thinking?

My Godo, Guy Mercier, doesn't teach that we should stop thoughts, just always to pay attention, so when there is thinking, there is just that thinking without absorption into that thinking. I like the idea of thoughts as just another bodily function.

I would suggest that too much thinking is when thought is treated as if it was reality, when we 'enter the Matrix' as it were. The purpose of Nagarjuna's abstract thoughts is not to believe a philosophy of emptiness, but to direct us back to emptiness, to reality, by showing the emptiness of all phenomena including his own views.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I got it but lost it

Hey all, I love Justin's God posts & hope we can get some good talk on those. So I'm sorry to 'post over' them with this little thing:

I finally figured something out - endo would be proud.


The Face of God (Pt. 2)

I came across this article which ties in nicely with what I said in my earlier post The Face of God with regards to the duality between two views or aspects of the concept of God.

The concept has two aspects (one of which in Christianity has three faces - the Holy trinity). Some theists see God as having one aspect or the other, while most Churches see one as a manifestation of the other. The two aspects of God are:


This is the more familiar concept of a personal God who feels, thinks and acts, who creates, who is jealous, who forgives, who smites enemies and who impregnated a virgin. This is similar to the polytheistic view of a personified deity as a powerful and manifested being which is 'in the world'. In Christianity, God manifests in three ways known together as the Holy Trinity - the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.


This is the mystical view of God as the ineffable, unknowable, deepest source of reality, and which in some interpretations equals the sum total of existence.

As 'The All' God would appear to be indistinguishable from the deepest principles of physics (and/or the source of them if physics is a manifestation of something deeper). Some theists adhere to this view of God alone. Advocates of such a view include the philosopher Spinoza. The Vedantic school of Hindu philosophy sees Brahman in a similar way as the ground of all being.

Interestingly, this concept of - and mystical experiences of - this All or Ultimate seem to be the place where all religions meet. The differences are in the metaphysics produced in the act of interpretation. Even poly-theistic religions tend to have a more abstract 'greater god' of some sort, of which all other gods are manifestations. Non-theistic religions and philosophers have similar ideas, for example, the concept of the Tao and Buddhist concepts like Dharmadhatu. Schopenhauer's concept of the noumenon is also related. The linguistic philosopher Wittgenstein 'talks around' a reality which cannot be spoken of: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" and went as far as giving a positive endorsement of mysticism "Feeling the world as a limited whole -- it is this that is mystical"

Some scientists such as have similar holistic but non-theistic concepts of the cosmos, which border on or even embrace the mystical.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe , a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.

When Hawking occasionally talks in terms of God it seems to be more in terms of a hypothetical omnipotent creator being.

And in their quests for a single unifying theory - and as a result of their research - scientists aknowledge the 'oneness' of phenomena, although this is a unity which is generally believed to be physical from top to bottom since, although science does not depend on it, there is to a large extent an unchallenged acceptance of the metaphysical philosophy of Physicalism (also misleadingly referred to as Materialism). Also this unity is to be understood primarily conceptually and mathematically rather than realised existentially.

The view of God as a symbol for the ineffable unutterable deepest reality or source of reality is easier to defend philosophically because such an 'entity' is being described largely in negative terms - it is that which cannot be spoken and about which therefore no claims can be made. Interestingly such a view of God (as the linked article above indicates) is that of a being which cannot truly be said to exist, since the transcendent cannot belong to the set of things that exist.

Some Jewish, Christian and Muslim Medieval philosophers, including Moses Maimonides and Pseudo-Dionysius, as well as many sages of other religions, developed what is termed as Apophatic Theology or the Via Negativa, the idea that one cannot posit attributes to God and can only be discussed by what God is not. For example, we cannot say that God "exists" in the usual sense of the term, because that term is human defined and Gods qualities such as existance may not be accurately characterized by it. What we can safely say is that God is not nonexistent. Likewise God's "wisdom" is of a fundamentally different kind from limited human perception. So we cannot use the word "wise" to describe God, because this implies he is wise in the way we usually describe humans being wise. However we can safely say that God is not ignorant. We should not say that God is One, because we may not truly understand his nature, but we can state that there is no multiplicity in God's being.

Compare these statements with the negative philosophy of Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna.

Neither from itself nor from another, Nor from both, Nor without a cause, Does anything whatever, anywhere arise.

In the Midhyamakakirikis, Nagarjuna attacks this attempt to absolutize Buddhist praxis by utilizing a system of logic that offers negative responses to four possible alternatives. Called the catuskoti, it is often depicted in the following form:

1. It is not the case that x is Ø.
2. It is not the case that x is not-Ø.
3. It is not the case that x is both Ø and not-Ø.
4. It is not the case that x is neither Ø nor not-Ø.

Nagarjuna uses this fourfold logic against a whole series of arguments ranging from causality, the self, the aggregates, production, destruction, permanence, impermanence, space, time, motion, and so forth. Against a particular view of causation, for example, Nagarjuna applies the catuskoti and concludes that dharmas (x) are not produced (Ø), not non-produced, not both, and not neither. Or, against a particular view of motion, he applies the dialectic and concludes that motion (x) is not moving (Ø), not non-moving, not both, and not neither.

"Nagarjuna (c.150-250 CE) ... realized at a profound level the difficulties of carrying out Buddhist discourse in the medium of language, and the degree of attachment that could occur with even such subtle concepts as shunyata. Therefore he endeavored to prevent people from falling into the error of attaching to Emptiness as a "something" or as "non-existence."

He made his project an exercise in consciousness that sought to free people from being limited in thought by the linguistic options of "this or that" and "existence or non-existence." He did this by taking Buddhist philosophical terms and putting them into his formula of "neither x nor not-x." According to this formula, existence is "neither empty nor not empty," "neither samsara nor nirvana." Nagarjuna's teachings are not something new ontologically speaking, but were developments toward a more advanced logical form that can be seen in his Madhyamaka-karikas.

In these texts, he strove to stop the reification of the concept of emptiness by: (1) stressing the non-difference between emptiness and dependent origination; (2) by emphasizing the understanding of emptiness as a mental attitude which pays attention to the non-attachment to concepts and theories. That is, emptiness should not be made into a theory to be clung to (as are other philosophical and religious doctrines). According to Nagarjuna, he who does so is like "a customer to whom a merchant has said that he has nothing to sell and the customer now asks to buy this 'nothing' and carry it home."For Nagarjuna, emptiness should not be interpreted ontologically, but rather in the way of the parable of the raft: The Buddhist teaching (especially shunyata), is like the raft one constructs for the crossing of a river. Once the river is crossed, the purpose of the raft has been served. It may now be discarded.

The same is true of emptiness: it should not be held on to; one who does hold on to it will have trouble functioning in life. In this sense, emptiness could also be compared to a laxative: once the obstruction has passed, there is no need to continue taking it. Nagarjuna wrote extensively, and his teachings resulted in the formation of an Indian school called Madhyamika or the "Middle Way School."

Having their ineffable and speaking it

When debating with theists I tend to find that they oscillate between these two positions. God is treated as an existent thing in many ways - as an existent person - a moral agent with human-like attributes who performs acts and who has feelings and thoughts. This is the entity that proclaims the moral absolutes which theists use as justification not only for changing their own behaviour but at times for oppressing others and for acts of violence, in other words this is the 'fully knowable' God that enters the political arena.

When challenged about apparent contradictions in the supposed attributes of God or conflicts between those attributes and His behaviour theists often retreat their God into a 'cloud of unknowing' a place of free-form mysticism where paradox is not only permissable but a defining, positive sign of God's transcendent divinity.

Is this so different from the non-rationality of Buddhism, for example, the paradoxes of Nagarjuna or of Zen koans? I hear you ask.

Buddhism (correctly understood) does not claim to be or have an absolute truth, it can only ever be a finger that points at reality, which is ineffable. Buddhism is a provisional 'skillful means' and thus its attempts to influence the political, scientific or intellectual spheres are likely to be less absolutist and more tolerant. A Japanese Buddhist cleric historically explained the virtual absence of conflict between Zen and other sects as being due to it having no doctrine at all.

Many theists on the other hand want to have their cake and eat it. They want a God who is mysterious, transcendent, unknowable and unspeakable, yet will provide absolute support for their moral and metaphysical pronouncements. How do they get away with it? In Christianity, God is traditionally described in terms of the Trinity - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are manifestations of God, which is nevertheless described as a unity and as 'infinitely simple'. This infinitely simple and unchanging being is supposed to be the active, willful source of all the complexity there is. It seems to me that only through a mixture of blind faith and a sort of mystical agnosticism that such a contradictory nature seems to be acceptable. These are the sorts of statements that I've heard from theists on this matter:
'God is unknowable and anything is possible with God.'
'I see and how can you know that?'
'It is possible to have partial knowlege of God'
'If you don't know what you don't know then how can you know what you know?'
'I just know.'

It is in this way that Christians emerge from their own 'cloud of unknowing' to make oh-so-confident proclamations about the nature of God and His will - to declare what is right and wrong, what is true and every so often to smite their own enemies or justify such actions.

Personally I don't have knowledge or experience of anthropomorphic or any other sort of deities and I tend to think that the ineffable is better handled by the likes of Wittgenstein "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" and by concepts of the Tao and Buddhist concepts of Dharmadhatu and Sunyata, since the 'emptiness', relativity and provisional nature of these concepts is pre-built, well-defined and well-accepted. It's interesting to note also that neither of these indicators of the ultimate is, correctly understood, transcendent since they refer to reality itself.

In my view God is the Tao, misunderstood and as we know

The Tao that can be told of is not the eternal Tao;
the name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Face of God (Pt. 1)

A few people here said they liked this pair of posts I wrote earlier on my own blog about Buddhism and the idea of 'God', so I've moved the first one over here. If it goes down well I'll post Part 2 as well.

Personally, I've never had a belief in God, and tended to believe that the Abrahamic (why do people say 'Judeo-Christian' and exclude Islam?) concept of God and 'His' supposed purposes were incoherent. That doesn't mean that I didn't have a strong sense of 'spirituality', it just means that I didn't attach it to a concept of an anthropomorphic creator being. It was nature/existence itself that awed me.

Some Zen teachers occasionally talk in terms of 'God' - even the iconoclastic Brad Warner sometimes does. The word is being used as a way of expressing a Buddhist idea in 'Western' terms. However, the concept used here is far from the Abrahamic concept of a separate, self-existent, supernatural and (always to at least some extent) anthropomorphic creator used by most theists. Personally I tend to think that it should be avoided to avoid confusion.

There are some people - mainly Christian-Buddhist hybrids (not sure how that works) and Christians looking for common ground who try very hard to show that Buddhism and Christianity are essentially saying the same thing. I think that ultimately there may be an element of truth in this, but I think that a great deal of damage is done to a concept such as Sunyata (emptiness) by trying to squeeze it into a God-shaped hole. I tend to think that the concept of God is, in part, derived from experiences of 'no-self' and 'oneness', interpreted as a cosmic event - a union between a discreet self (individual soul) and a discreet Absolute (Godhead). This is naive and simplistic compared with the subtlety and sophistication of Nagarjuna's concept of Sunyata and Dogen's (and others') descriptions of the relationship between relative and absolute. In Buddhism, the denial of a separate self (anatman) and a separate absolute (nirvana) are key concepts. The rest as far as I can tell is a naive search for explanations which will fit into our common-sense conceptual structure on the basis of faulty logic and blind faith.

Even putting aside all the issues of evidence and the validity of 'personal revelation', and all the problems of Biblical literalism, I find the concept incoherent. Here is a small selection of the questions I think the idea of God begs:

Why would an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent being use methods of improving his creations, which required great suffering, (existence, freewill, evil, evolution) with no sign of resulting improvement?

Why would a perfect being need to create humanity let alone need its love?

Events/changes require time to occur in, so how could the creation of space-time occur before there was any time for it occur?

The usual answer to these sorts of questions is some variant of 'God works in mysterious ways', but this comes back to How do you know He works in mysterious ways?, How do you know the Bible is infallibly true?, How do you know that God exists?, How do you know (enough to make claims about it) what God is like?. Blind faith - a personal feeling of conviction isn't valid, as demonstrated by the number of people who have absolute faith in their beliefs and yet who contradict each other or who are demonstrably false and/or insane. Faith in Buddhist practice, as I understand it, is of a more ordinary sort - like the faith of a climber in his ropes. The 'intuitive knowing' described about 'enlightened masters' is something else - 'knowing' is not quite the right word and it is not knowledge of anything supernatural or metaphysical - rather, it is just being fully attentive to reality, absent of certain illusions we have about it.

I find it interesting that the less literal the interpretation of Biblical and traditional explanations of God are - the more 'ineffable' they are, the less problematic they become, because such claims are less concrete. Instead of the jealous tribal god Yahweh who lives on Mount Sinai and smites the enemies of Israel, God becomes a cosmic source or principle beyond space and time, almost equivalent to the deepest laws of physics. A consequence of this is that the more anthropomorphic supposed 'purposes' of this entity start to become absurd. 'God is the unknowable source, the will of nature, the very ground of all being...and He hates gays.'

If God is a synonym for the deepest principles of physics, what word is left for a hypothetical being who answers prayers, intervenes to save cancer patients or helps evolution over difficult jumps, forgives sins or dies for them?
Richard Dawkins

I came across this excerpt and really enjoyed it. I know that 'Zen talk' can seem pretty bizzare so I've added my interpretations of what Seung Sahn said.

After one of the Dharma Teachers was finished with his introductory remarks, he asked those congregated to direct their questions to Zen Master Seung Sahn, Soen Sa Nim. One of the visitors asked if there was a God.

Soen Sa answered "If you think God, you have God, if you do not think God, you do not have God."
[God and the absence of God are mental constructs]

"I think that there is no God. Why do I have God if I think God?"

"Do you understand God?"

"No, I don't know."

"Do you understand yourself?"

"I don't know."

"You do not understand God. You do not understand yourself. How would you even know if there was a God or not?"

"Then, is there a God?"

"God is not God, no God is God."
[Apart from our mental contruction there is inherently no God or absence of God. Alternatively - the Ultimate (God) and nothingness/absence of inherent nature/interdependence are the same. ]

"Why is God not God?"

Holding up the Zen stick, Soen Sa said "This is a stick, but it is not a stick. Originally, there is no stick. It is the same with God for originally there is no God. God is only name. The same is true of all things in the universe."
[Conventionally sticks exist, but ultimately they do not, for their nature is dependent. The same is true for God.]

"Then is there no God?"

"The philosopher Descartes said, 'I think therefore I am.' If you do not think, you are not, and so the universe and you are one. This is your substance, the universe's substance, and God's substance. It has no name and no form. You are God, God is you. This is the 'big I,' this is the path, this is the truth. Do you now understand God?"
[All things (including 'God' and 'no God') are ultimately of one substance. Is this God? It cannot be named.]

"Yes, I think that there is no God, and I have no God."

"If you say that you have no God, I will hit you thirty times. If you say that you do, I will still hit you thirty times."
[By saying there is or there is not a God, the visitor is trapped by thought and language and unable to apprehend reality as it is before conceptual thought distorts it. Reality is not found at either of these extremes but in a non-conceptual 'Middle Road' between them. The threat of violence is just gentle encouragement.]

"Why will you hit me? I don't understand. Please explain."

"I do not give acupuncture to a dead cow. Today is Tuesday." replied Soen Sa.
[This is a waste of time. Forget all that abstract stuff - this is reality].

I just found this short little piece, which I also like:

Zen Master (to student): Do you know God?
Student: I don't know
ZM, Do you know Buddha?
Stu, I don't know
ZM, Do you hear the waterfall?
Stu, Yes
ZM, Just That.
[Forget your ideas about God or Buddha - the sound of the waterfall is the real 'God'/'Buddha' ie. ultimate reality, not some idea about something transcendent but reality itself]

I am in Hawaii longing for Hawaii

I just came back from a holiday in Hawaii. It was fantastic but I had the constant feeling that I was longing for the place I was already in. Someone posted the Basho verse before but it's perfect:

I am in Hawaii
Yet at the sound of the waves
Longing for Hawaii

Sunday, March 19, 2006

My acts are irrevocable

My acts are irrevocable
Because they have no essence...
Where are the doers of deeds
Absent among their conditions?
Imagine a magician
Who creates a creature
Who creates other creatures.
Acts I perform are creatures
Who create others.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

just one more!

well i know that a fair few were getting tired of the poetry thing but i liked it. so anyway i just couldn't resist putting one more up:

See my speech on its own won’t change your beliefs
Say the least only hope to achieve a reprieve from the fiend
Cos the fiend comes between the means to see peace
Cogs of machine get greased when we weap.
I make a clean sweep
New break, heartache, between sheets I shake like an earth quake
All born naked on our birthday
We’re all the same
To think otherwise is purely man made it fans flames
Breathe in smoke choke and feel a bad taste in the back of your throat like hash cakes
In a bad state
You know it doesn’t really have to be that way
Oh see that day walked down the path cast the past away still half awake
Wearing a half made mask of plaster clay I clasp palms together and start to pray that darkness May just start to fade.

Zen and progress

Is Zen against progress? Zen is claimed to be a path of 'action' (often said in reply to criticisms about complacency). However I wonder if a society of dedicated Zen buddhists would ever cure cancer or invent computers or, in general, discover a better way to do X (insert your favorite activity, chore, job, etc)?

I ask this based on a few points I've picked up in various sources. I recall one story about an American who had joined a Japanese monastery. He observed how the monks went about their daily chores and one day realized that they were being inefficient. He went to the head monk and told him that if they changed x, y, and z they'd save at least 3 hours of work a day. The head monk considered this and replied "Then we'd have to sit zazen for 3 extra hours a day. We sit long enough as it is." So the idea was shot down.

When I think about this aspect of zen it speaks to me of the wisdom that there are more important things in life to balance against progress. That zen is not against progress as a rule, but only against the excessive focus on progress that is so persuasive in modern society. This speaks to a greater regard for sustainability. Progress cannot continue forever - the simplest example of this is the exhaustion of natural resources that can happen with unlimited population growth. Many human societies were able to live in the same location for thousands of years without exhausting their resource simply because they, essentially, did not change. Their life spans were not that long becuase their medicines were not that great, they had no ipods, life was hard. There was very little technological progress in these societies (some, like the Oholone natives of California, actually ostracized individuals who proposed changes to their technology). Some might call this stagnation, others call it long-term sustainability.

One of the reasons western society is so fixated on progress is the very anti-zen notion that this moment is not good enough. We must sacrifice this moment for the future. We must spend all our time and effort now to make things better later. A lifetime spent in this fashion is a pretty sad affair, but this fits very well with Christianity and similar religions, which tell their followers, it's OK to suffer now because you'll have eternal bliss in Heavan after you die.

In contrast, a society of Zen buddhists, who think this moment is all there is, would be, I assume, less likely to sacrifice the present for the future than most of modern society. This is why Zen is sometimes criticized as advocating complacency - contentment with the present seems to invariably lead to acceptance of the present (if not 100% acceptance, at least more acceptance than we see in modern culture which proclaims loudly, "This moment is flawed, we must fix X, Y, and Z NOW! Work harder!"

Island life is often called "slower" than modern life, but sometimes criticized as being the result of laziness. The same people who call islanders lazy, of course, love to vacation there because everyone is so much more laid back.

What if everyone was that laid back? What would life be like? I expect there would be less fighting but the reason for less fighting would be the same as the reason for less progress - "things aren't that bad right now - let's just enjoy life and keep things the way they are."

I expect Computer software produced by a zen buddhist company would have fewer bugs but fewer innovations too. No bells and whistles, just perfect code.

So, is advocating a dedication to Zen also advocating the slowing down of progress? I'd say it is.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Buddhism and Atheism

I got a tricky question in a recent email. I told my correspondent that I'd happily tell her what I think I know on the topic, but that I wasn't sure I could do it justice. I suggested that maybe I could put my answer here on FM and you guys could add your clarifications, and meanwhile she'd be able to lurk and watch the show. That way she and I might both find something out.

Here's her question:

"Is Atheism compatible with Buddhism? Can one be an Atheist AND a Buddhist? I ask this because my understanding tells me the answer is yes. However, another who is far more advanced in his practice than I am, told me I am mistaken."

My answer:

Absolutely, there's no contradiction between Buddhism and atheism. You're not mistaken. Buddhism has no God.

But like most Buddhist things, the answer more complex than that, and slippery, and possibly self-contradictory. I do not have it all figured out, but here's my understanding.

When people asked the Buddha about a Supreme Being, a Creator behind it all, he said, "Wrong question. The answer will not help you liberate yourselves from suffering. Skip it." So, early Buddhism is atheistic in the practical sense: God has nothing to do with anything. But it's agnostic in the literal sense: it has no doctrine concerning the subject. It doesn't know.

But you could sort of almost call it polytheistic, too, but ... not really. Like this: there are zillions of gods and demigods in Buddhism, early and late, local and universal, good and bad. They are venerated and supplicated just like any other religion's gods. So polytheism, right? Well, no, because they're no different than humans; in fact, they used to be humans. Humans can earn rebirth as gods; but gods have a lifespan and at the end of that, they can be reborn as humans. Or bugs. So in a practical sense, yes, you might call Buddhism polytheistic, but its gods aren't what we in the West mean by the word. Hmm.

Pantheistic? Well, yeah, it's sort of that, too. There's that "no self" thing: no single thing can be defined without reference to other things, and those have to be defined with reference to still other things ... and pretty soon, you can't define anything without defining it as everything. Thus, my car keys aren't really things, they're not even parts of everything, they're just one of the ways in which I percieve the one thing, which is everything, which is the Buddha Nature -- pantheism. Sort of. Not really, but close.

There are those who have ignored the Buddha's disclaimers that he was an enlightened man who was going to die and enter nirvana, that is, utter cessation. They have simply deified him and worship him as the supreme being, so you have a Buddhism that's essentially monotheist. Not precisely what the West means by monotheism, because of the different conception of "supreme being," but again, not so far off.

And some Buddhists have just appropriated one or more gods from Brahminism, including Brahma himself -- and so you're off and running with poly- or monotheism again....

Sigh. Difficult.

So as usual in Buddhism, simple questions aren't. But I think when pressed hard with the Western notion of God, most Buddhists would say, "No, we don't have one of those." (I can't swear it.) Certainly if you want to be an atheist Buddhist, you can, especially in Zen. And certainly if you want to believe in a god, or gods, or even God, and still be a Buddhist, you can, especially in Zen.

Local zendo is a million-dollar house loaned by a Zennie who's also a devout, orthodox, practicing Catholic. So hey, whatever.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Hi, folks. It's Brad. Nothing to do with the Meaning o' Life, I'm afraid. Though I think the best place to look for it would certainly be on a blog...*

I am trying to locate a woman named Vicky who once lived in Lansing, Michigan. She was the girlfriend of a guy named Gus who played guitar with the Crucifucks. She used to come to Ohio a lot with the Crucifucks and while there, she video taped some of the hardcore shows.

I am working on a documentary movie about the Celeveland and Akron hardcore scene and those videos would really help. Anyone who might know her wherabouts, please write me at


(* this is sarcasm)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The meaning of life, seriously

Hey all. I thought some of you might find this interesing: A biologist / philosopher I know, Massimo Pigliucci, is writing a book using a blog to post rough drafts of his chapters for feedback. The book is to be titled "The Meaning of Life, Seriously" and he intends to cover lots of topics that I assume would be of interests to Buddhists.

I have two reasons for alerting you all to this: one altruistic and one less so. The altruistic reason is I think Massimo's writing is great and his thoughts are loaded with both wisdom and knowledge of the world and the history of philosophy and science. Thus, I figure some of you might enjoy and benefit from reading his posts.

But the less altruistic motive is that he seems far more knowledgeable about western philosophy than eastern (this is an assumption of mine - I could be wrong). By commenting on his blog we have the opportunity to provide him information from the zen perspective - which I expect he'd love to hear. He welcomes all (registered bloggers) to comment. In short, I think it would be a shame if a book that purports to cover this huge topic were to ignore or dismiss the zen perspective (as if all of reality can be explained by western science and philosophy!).

here's the link:

Monday, March 13, 2006

“I Take Refuge in the…”

Or, “American Zen: Refuge for the Passive?”

When discussing Buddhism with Christians and other folks that are not familiar with the Dharma, I sometimes hear the criticism that Buddhism is passive, allowing practitioners to avoid responsibility for their lives, by saying things like, “it is what it is, and I accept it.”

I usually respond that this perspective is a misunderstanding of the Dharma, and Buddhism is actually a philosophy of action, requiring the practitioner to fully embrace and take responsibility not only for his or her own circumstance, but for everything that is experienced.

At least that’s the way I see it.

Or is American Buddhism different? Has it evolved into something uniquely American, like MTV, pop music, diet pills, and video on demand, with practitioners shopping for instant gratification of the senses through the latest pop Zen book or the latest blog that entertains and titillates?

Has American Buddhism become another form of American consumerism?

Lama Yeshe on Love & Compassion

"With true realisations, the mind is no longer egotistically concerned with only its own salvation. With true love, one no longer behaves dualistically: feeling very attached to some people, distant from others, and totally indifferent to the rest. It is so simple. In the ordinary personality the mind is always divided against itself, always fighting and disturbing its own peace. Check up inside now and discover how you look at your neighbours. Visualise first a friend and then an enemy and see how your mind reacts. Instinctively we feel attachment for the one called 'friend' and aversion for the one called 'enemy', but such reactions are the opposite of peace. They are negative and do nothing but produce suffering.

"The teachings on love are very practical. Do not put religion somewhere up in the sky and feel you are stuck down here on Earth. If the actions of body, speech and mind are in accordance with loving kindness, you automatically become a truly religious person. The mere thought of hatred automatically destroys your peace. Similarly, true love does not depend on physical expression. You should realise this. True love is a feeling deep in within you. It is not just a matter of wearing a smile on your face and looking happy. Rather, it arises from a heart-felt understanding of every other being's suffering, and radiates out to them indiscriminately. It does not favour a chosen few to exclusion of everyone else. This is true love.

"Furthermore, if someone hits you and you react with anger or great alarm crying, 'What has happened to me?' this also has nothing to do with a mind knowing the meaning of true love. It is just the ignorant preoccupation of the ego with its own welfare. How much wiser it is to realise, 'Being hit does not really harm me. My delusion of hatred is an enemy that harms me much more than this'. Reflecting like this allows true love to grow."

----Lama Yeshe

Sangha of the Smurfs

Well, this is awfully cozy. Far be it from me to bust up a great big fuzzy group hug. If Walt Whitman and plenty of affirmation is what you want, God love you.

It's odd, though. You guys have read a book by a punk who said, question everything ... doubt everything ... test everything ... take nobody's word for nothin', but find out for yourselves what's so. Bash and crash and take the big adventure. Presumably that attracted you, and here you are. And some among you are willing to be challenged, and others are not. Not everyone can be or wants to be or should be. Okay.

But don't pretend that Big Questions have nothing to do with Zen. What is man? Is there will? How do we define tolerance? Is Zen materialist, or not? Is Buddhist compassion anything like love, or not? Some of you dismiss such questions as mere posturing, just argumentative crap. But these questions have everything to do with Zen, and everything to do with how I can practice and how I can live my life, and I'll apologize to nobody for delving into such things.

If that's not your cup, fine, there's always Stevie Nicks. But such things have mattered to a couple of millennia of Buddhists so far, and I'll ask you to take my word for it that they matter intensely to me. Not that a poem-of-the-day forum is the place to discuss them.

Poetry may be the highest aesthetic achievement of mankind, and in the form of pop music it has an emotional grab that nothing else can match. But don't kid yourselves. It isn't Zen.

Lyric verse is a celebration of the world and the things in it. A good poet sees particulars, he notices things in themselves, he is attached to the wild variety in this world and is drawn to the uniqueness of this because it isn't that.

I love lyric poetry and in the past I've lived my life by it. I've published a bit of it in good journals -- not much, but some. Poetry is a celebration of this world in all its gorgeous, chaotic concreteness.

But this is exactly what Zen tells you isn't real. It's a celebration of the attachments from which Buddhism wants to release you. It's a love affair with the world that Zen calls an illusion. It's fine to tell yourselves that there's "crossover" between poetry and Zen, but so sorry, there is not. Not unless you debase both poetry and Zen to mere sentimentalism, and to do that is to commit two crimes at once.

Two crimes, guys. Because poetry is no more cuddly than Zen is. A while back, I mentioned that I had first met my wife while doing battle over each other's writing. Well, the writing in qestion was our poetry. Poetry is a lifetime endeavor and it has its own calculus. It's not all subjective: there's much to critique, to debate, to brawl about, much in it that can be done right or wrong. To read Seamus Heaney and go, "Ooh, hey, nice," is to miss everything.

So if Zen is too hard, and you want to get away from thinking, then poetry is really no escape. Just thought I'd mention it.

As for myself, I'm fine in any case. There are serious people around me, both online and IRL, so if the smurfs take over Flapping Mouths, eh, no problem.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Acts of Helplessness

Here are the miracle-signs you want:
that you cry through the night and get up at dawn, asking,
that in the absence of what you ask for your day gets dark, your neck thin as a spindle,
that what you give away is all you own,
that you sacrifice belongings, sleep, health, your head,
that you often sit down in a fire like aloes wood, and often go outto meet a blade like a battered helmet. When acts of helplessness become habitual, those are the signs.

But you run back and forth listening for unusual events, peering into the faces of travelers.
“Why are you looking at me like a madman?”I have lost a friend. Please forgive me.
Searching like that does not fail. There will come a rider who holds you close. You faint and gibber. The uninitiated say, “He’s faking.” How could they know?
Water washes over a beached fish, the water of those signs I just mentioned.

Excuse my wandering. How can one be orderly with this? It’s like counting leaves in a garden, along with the song-notes of partridges, and crows.

Sometimes organization and computation become absurd. Rumi

My Favorite Poem

My Favorite Poem
I wanted to leave one more post regarding the poetry. I have copied my favorite poem here called "St. Francis and the Sow" by Galway Kinnell.

The budstands for all things,even those things that don't flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness,to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch it is lovely until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as St. Francisput his hand on the creased forehead of the sow, and told her in words and in touch blessings of earth on the sow,
and the sow began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail, from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine down through the great broken heart
to the blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

Landslide of changes

By Stevie Nicks
I took my love and took it down
I climbed a mountain, I turned around
And I saw my reflection in a snow covered hill
'til a landslide brought it down

Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life?

Well, I've been afraid of changing cause I've
Built my life around you
Time makes you bolder
Even children get older
And I'm getting older, too
I'm getting older, too

I took my love and took it down
I climbed a mountain, I turned around
And if you see my reflection in the snow covered hill
The landslide brought it down
The landslide brought it down

Soooooo... I'm sailing through my own changing ocean tides right now, and unfortunately I need to focus my time and energy on other things for a while. Sorry everyone. Fortunately, you've got a great person to pick up the slack where I'm dropping it. Anatman is the newly-appointed illustrious leader of Flapping Mouths, and will be taking over all administrative responsibilities. I'll drop in as I have time, and occasionally post comments, etc. but Anatman will be running the show.


Friday, March 10, 2006


Dirt blankets a pillow
and sheet on the bamboo floor.

Roosters crow in random sunshine
and bold black pigs
root through the trash,
laying claim to their kingdom.

The old man’s mouth
drips blood
of crimson betelnut,
staining black his teeth.

The young man’s teeth
gnash in anticipation
of the next
amphetamine injection.

Who gave the black goat salt?
Now he won’t keep
from the kitchen door.

Who gave money
to the hill tribe youth?
Now they know they are poor.

And on through the trash
the pigs still dig,
retrieving dinner
from the plastic chaff

while kids play and sing,

“This is the day
the Lord has made”

on the dusty road.


A centipede’s wooden legs
support the bamboo house.
Inside, Indian style
sit the opium smokers.

The medicine man gathered his herbs
while his son shot an emerald serpent
straight from the tree
with a muzzle loading rifle.

Now is the time to dream.

A rusty oil lamp weaves soft yellow light
in patterns of dark and light.
Crickets provide the rhythm for the passing of the pipe
and the river spirit softly
grumbles his approval.

Tomorrow morning

early they rise

to cut the rice

before it rains.


Thanks for the change of direction Jules, let's see where it leads.

I'm a big fan of poetry myself, especially poetry that opens possibilities rather than closing them down. There's a wonderful quote by the dramatist Jerzy Grotowski that might be apt here.

If a phenomenon can be defined as 'it is that, and only that,' that means it exists only in our heads. But if it has a real life existence, we can never hope to define it completely. Its frontiers are always moving, while exceptions and analogies keep opening up.

It is these possibilities that the best poetry points to.


Don't ask me to describe
the taste of my poison.

At the end of years of wandering
I've chosen a Friend. Don't ask who!

I weep in the doorway.

Last night I heard you saying
what cannot be said.

Now you motion to me,
Don't tell.

The pain of being in my room alone
is really what cannot be spoken.

So like Hafiz, I walk the love-road
aware in a way that has no name.

~Hafiz e Shirazi (Sufi Poet 1320-1389)

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Topic expansion: Poetry

Thanks for your eloquent and sometimes very kind comments in the last post, everyone. You reminded me of why I'm here, and I think you've helped me figure out what was missing, at least for me. I'm kind of making a unilateral decision here, but I think it's needed. Sometimes I tire of dry philosophy. I want poetry. Poetry crosses all boundaries. I love to read slowly, letting the words fall one by one, letting my brain roll them around a bit before moving on. Maybe we can have a discussion about favorite poets, too. There's a lot of crossover with Zen, anyway.

So let's make this a Zen and Poetry blog for a while, OK? I'll start with one of my favorites, by Mark Strand:

Eating Poetry
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

Flapping Mouths

I think to a large extent, what's written here really is a waste of time. All you could possibly get out of it is motivation to practice, or motivation to find a real teacher who can get to know you personally and help you to see your own BS, and to see through your own BS. I'm not saying anyone is full of BS any more than anyone else is, especially me. We're all full of shit. And I don't think blogging is going to change that.

I really enjoy discussing things. Some of you have made some really insightful comments. And I've personally gotten a lot of value out of a general feeling of support from some of you recently -- in a sense we really are a sangha, so to everyone who's still here, thanks for sticking around.

But what are we doing? Lately there's been a lot of venom. A lot of people seem to be upset, and several others have left.

It seems like even Brad's mostly given up blogging, unless he sees something he's gotta comment on, like for example getting lumped in with Zenmar and Mike Cross.

What do we hope to get out of blogging? I mean, some of the stuff is good -- what kind of Zafu works best, tips on sitting, etc. That's all good... Boring, but good.

Arguments over philosophy? What could be farther from Zen practice? Tips on finding good teachers? Brad's covered it. Vegetarianism? Brad's covered it. Hell, I suspect everything you could possibly say about Zen (which isn't a lot) has been said by people a lot wiser than I am.

Every idea one could possibly have about Zen is just an idea, and on a blog we can't do anything but exchange ideas. I can write all day about 'vast wonder' but all I'm really passing on is a two-dimensional idea.

I really like you all, but... what are we doing? Some of us have been practicing zen longer than others... some of us haven't started practicing yet. Some are afraid to post for fear of looking dumb or getting ridiculed. Some of us are posting like crazy, looking for some kind of support, for ego, or whatever. We're all just human beings, and we seem not to be relating to each other very well anymore. Maybe we're wasting too much time with this stuff. So why ARE we still posting here? Can anyone tell me? I wanted to continue the sense of community that we had on Brad's blog, but it seems like we're starting to lose that anyway. No?

What have you gotten out of Flapping Mouths? What do you like about it?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Bikkhu's Blog

This is from the website of one of the runner ups in the best celebrity blog catergory. He's got some really good articles on his website. You can read them here I pasted one below.

"Evil" is a word which has featured prominently in public discourse after September 11th. It is a term with strong religious connotations, but not all religious systems share the idea. Buddhism, for one, does not find the concept of evil a useful one. Buddhism is primarily concerned with suffering and the ending of suffering. An action is considered unskilful if it increases suffering, either of one's self or of others. It is considered skilful if it leads to a lessening or elimination of suffering.
This puts an entirely different perspective on problems of ethics. Things become less absolute, and more importantly, less personal. In Buddhist thought, there are no evil persons. There are only persons behaving in an unskilful way. There is no final damnation, and the possibility of change is always recognized. Unskilful actions, i.e. those which increase suffering, are always motivated by greed, hatred or ignorance. Skilful actions are those based on generosity, good-will and wisdom.
When the two sides in a situation of conflict are viewed in terms of good vs. evil, the possibility of reconciliation is removed. The only acceptable outcome is the elimination by force of the "evil" opponent. Analysis and investigation of underlying issues is made superfluous. Violence and counter-violence becomes inescapable. The tragic results of this way of thinking are all too evident in the world today. Ironically, the concept of "evil" which seems so absolute and clear, is really a relative one. Both Osama Bin Ladin and George Bush can claim to be fighting evil and defending the good. Both are probably sincere.
The Buddhist way of thinking allows much more hope for peaceful resolution. Analysis begins with considering whether a proposed action increases or decreases the suffering of sentient beings. If other beings commit actions which increase suffering, analysis turns to consideration of the underlying defilements. Were they driven by ill-will? Have we on our side done anything hateful to which they are responding unskilfully? Were they motivated by greed? Are they responding to our own greedy appropriation of resources? These kinds of considerations do not excuse the harmful acts of wrong-doers, but they do help in the formulation of useful long-term solutions.
We should add a caveat here. It would be a mistake to think that Buddhism advocates a loose moral relativism. To say that the concept of an evil person is not a useful one, is not to say that there are no right or wrong actions. Buddhism does have definite moral precepts. Killing is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Committing adultery is wrong. Telling a falsehood is wrong and bewildering the mind with intoxicants is wrong. In its own way, the Buddhist tradition can be quite absolute about these precepts. But the person who transgresses them is not "evil", he is behaving unskilfully and the result will be suffering for himself and others.
Thinking in this way has a great practical effect at all levels of human relations. We have already touched on international conflicts. On the social level there is an obvious application in how we deal with criminals. The focus shifts from retribution to rehabilitation and restitution, and even more fundamentally to prevention. In our personal relationships with friends and family, conflicts are more easily resolved if we don't categorise the other person but deal with their skilful and unskilful actions instead. A final point to consider, that applies to all these levels of discourse, whenever we label someone else as "evil" we are allowing ill-will to enter our own mind, and are behaving unskilfully ourselves. The result is bound to be more suffering.

Last Chance to Come to Nashville

Well, actually, Nashville, will still be here, but Brad is coming in to lead our Nashville Zen Center spring retreat starting Friday, March 10, at 5 a.m. I'm posting this because apparently we still have cabin space. The cost for the retreat is $45 per day for Friday and Saturday, and $35 for Sunday (ends at noon). The cost includes food and lodging! And it's held in a remote cabin and adjoining property near Ashland City, TN.

If you want info, look at, or just email me at I would love to see some fresh blood. And actually if you would like to sit starting Friday morning, I would advise you to show up Thursday (tomorrow) night, at no additional lodging cost.

See, how easy could this be? If you prefer, you can call me at (615) 305-3412, and leave a message.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


I just found out that I won the Blogisattva Award for Best Celebrity Buddhist Blog of 2005. You can read about it at

On the one hand, I appreciate the sentiment. On the other hand, it's truly depressing. For one thing the idea that I'm a celebrity makes me cringe. The guy even addressed his congratulatory e-mail to me "or Member of the HZ entourage." Entourage? Who? My wife? The five guys who show up to my weekly Zazen classes? Fine.

But what was worse was when I checked out the other contenders for the award. None of them were of any interest to me at all. If this is the state of Buddhism in the West today, it's in really bad shape. What I am doing has nothing at all to do with any of that.

Having said that, my visits to Still Point in Detroit, the Milwaukee Zen Center, the Los Cruces Zen Center in New Mexico, and my first teacher Tim's Kent Zendo in Ohio lead me to believe that Zen in America may not be adequately represented in the so-called "Blogosphere," or on the Internet in general or in "Buddhist" magazines for that matter. There really are sincere people out there who are pursuing the practice with energy and dedication.

They're just not blogging. Which goes to further prove that they're smarter than those of us who are.

Now turn off your computer and go outside and play!

Monday, March 06, 2006

Yamaoka's Mother

Encho was a famous storyteller. His tales of love stirred the hearts of his listeners. When he narrated a story of war, it was as if the listeners themselves were on the field of battle.

One day Encho met Yamaoka Tesshu, a layman who had almost embraced masterhood in Zen. "I understand," said Yamaoka, "you are the best storyteller in our land and that you make people cry or laugh at will. Tell me my favorite story of the Peach Boy. When I was a little tot I used to sleep beside my mother, and she often related this legend. In the middle of the story I would fall asleep. Tell it to me just as my mother did."

Encho dared not attempt to do this. He requested time to study. Several months later he went to Yamaoka and said: "Please give me the opportunity to tell you the story."

"Some other day," answered Yamaoka.

Encho was keenly disappointed. He studied further and tried again. Yamaoka rejected him many times. When Encho would start to talk Yamaoka would stop him, saying: "You are not yet like my mother."

It took Encho five years to be able to tell Yamaoka the legend as his mother had told it to him.

In this way, Yamaoka imparted Zen to Encho.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

problems during zazen

me brought up the issue of the problems that arise during zazen (buzzing in his ears in his case). in my case it's pain in my lower back on the same side as the leg that is twisted up onto my other leg (half/quarter lotus). today was the first day that i didn't experience any pain or cramping in my back but i'm not sure what i was doing differently this time.

is this pain just cos of inflexibility or am i sitting wrong? any suggestions?

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Regular Zen Practice

A friend of mine has had difficulty getting into the habit of sitting every day. I said, "Just make a habit of it, do it without thinking. I roll out of bed, get some water, go to the toilet, and go sit. I'm on the cushion before I'm even fully awake." My friend looked interested, but a little doubtful.

Does anyone else have any tips for practicing regularly?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

to all y'all worriers: a well earned break from taking zen so seriously!

and for the nerds (these are actually the one's that made me laugh the most!)

Other faiths and traditions

I was thinking about Buddhism and Christianity and Islam, and how so many of us divide ourselves into different groups and have feelings of animosity toward or superiority over people who don't belong to the same groups we belong to. I found this great quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, and I had to share it:

I would like to tell you a story. Thirty five years ago I had a student who fell in love with a young man who was Catholic, and the family of that young man required that the young lady abandon the practice of Buddhism in order to be baptized as a Catholic. That was the basic condition for the marriage, and she suffered very much. Her family was also opposed to that. She cried and cried, and one day she came to me. I said that Buddhism is not there to make you unhappy. Buddhism is not an obstacle, so I think in the name of the Buddha I can tell you that you can become a Catholic and marry him, but I would like to make a recommendation. You have received The Five Mindfulness Trainings; you should continue to look on them as the guidelines of your life. You don't have to be called a Buddhist; you only have to be a true Buddhist within yourself. Live accordingly and practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and that would make me happy enough. She was so joyful that she was allowed to marry the person she loved. But she did not sleep during that night, and the next morning she came very early, and she said, "Thay, a tradition that is so embracing, so tolerant, so open, if I abandon it and turn my back to it, I am not a person of value. A tradition that is so strict, that has no tolerance, that is not able to understand, how could I formally identify myself with it?" So she just refused to get married to that person. I thought that I would help her get married to that young man, but I caused the opposite to happen. Today, thirty five years later, she is here somewhere in this Sangha.

When I was in Korea a few years ago, I participated in the first dialogue between Buddhists and Christians, and I said that many young people have suffered due to being caught in that kind of situation. So I proposed that we should be able to allow Buddhists and Christians to marry each other, with the condition that the young man would learn and also practice the tradition of the young woman, and the young woman would also learn and practice the tradition of the young man. Instead of having one root, you have two roots. Why not? If you love mangoes, you are free to continue to eat mangoes, but no one forbids you to eat pineapples or oranges. Your favorite fruit is the mango, yes, but you don't betray your mango when you eat pineapple. I think it's too narrow-minded, even stupid, to enjoy only mango, when there are so many different fruits around in the world. Spiritual traditions are like spiritual fruits, and you have the right to enjoy them. It is possible to enjoy two traditions, to take the best of two traditions and live with that. If you like to eat Italian food, you can still enjoy French and Chinese cooking. You cannot say, "I have to be faithful to my Italian cooking", that's too funny.

--Thich Nhat Hanh

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

free will and chi

ok instead of putting it all on the blog, here's a link to an essay explaining why free will and determinism are not incompatible.

and to completely change the subject, rot 13 said a few days a go that he/she (don't wanna presume!) didn't think that 'chi' was real. well luckily for me i happen to live 5 mins away from one of two of the only shaolin temples outside china and i saw a monk break a real (honestly it was real) metal bar over his head without leaving so much as a mark. another monk was lifted up into the air on 4 spears (sharp enough to split blocks of wood) and he was completely unscathed. another monk pole vaulted with a pole 3 times his size and while in mid pole vault ran up the pole and stood on the top of it.

this one's not from personal experience but:

my friend's dad works for the UN and while in Tibet he was shown a monk levitating (!).

so i believe that chi's real. therefore i believe that correct posture is important in every action that you perform. if your back's not straight and unsupported when you're doin zazen then it's not being done correctly.

also, always bend your knees and keep your back straight when lifting heavy objects (like monks lying on spears).