Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

My teacher passed his on to me from her teacher, so from the late Jiyu Kennett.

Day of remembrance, day of sad recalling
Of those who died in battle so appalling;
To them we bow remembering their falling;
Thanks to our fallen.

Proudly they fought upon that day so hateful,
Proudly they fell upon that day so fateful,
Proudly they died; to them we are so grateful;
Thanks to our fallen.

Now here they lie; their graves tell al their story,
They are at peace, war's horrors but a mem'ry;
Now here we stand remembering their glory;
Thanks to our fallen.

Day of remembrance, day of grief and sadness;
Days of fierce war, the days of utter madness,
Bought for us all this time of peace and gladness;
Thanks to our fallen.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Sesshin and ordination

Next week I'll be in sesshin for a week - the longest ever for me. Not only that but I'll be taking my 'Bodhisattva ordination' (a fancy name for Jukai /taking the precepts/taking refuge). However, before I can do that I have to finish sewing my rakusu and there's still loads to do! Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Zen , Science, and Religion.

A few thoughts that seemed worth interrupting zazen for:

I finished off the last post of my own blog with this subject - something that's been kicking around in my mind a lot lately:

Where will you be in 100 years from now?
Not so long, but when I died in a few years, everything will become nothing including me, and I will take a rest forever. - G. Nishijima

Basically, it seems that science, and most other purported methods of "truth-seeking" consider there to be one truth. This seems obvious in the case of science because of its strong emphasis on objectivity - on describing the world in a way that works whether people are there to observe it or not. To predict the unobserved one must have a model that works, period.

Religions like Christianity are also based on a "single-truth" idea, in which there is some spiritual / divine world that exists and about which a few people, like the priests, etc. know a great deal. These people then tell the rest of humanity what they should believe about this supernatural world, its beings, and their powers, interests, motivations, etc. or tell them to "just read the holy book."

Zen on the other hand is quite different. It seems to be one of the only major methods of "truth-seeking" that is based on there being as many different truths as there are different perspectives, that is, as there are people. Each person has a unique view of the world. Each of these views is more or less intermixed with other's views and with the empirical world that science emphasizes. Zen insists that the subjective cannot be removed from the objective.

The funny thing is how this plays out... First, I should add, although Zen recognizes multiple "truths" it's main approach is to help its students free themselves from belief - to accept only that which remains when belief is removed, as "true." Zen places a huge emphasis on honesty, lack of pretension, and a focus on the source of all things - not the inexhaustible classifications of categories upon categories that people spend so much time dividing the world into. Most arguments are really about these classifications - is this good or bad? is this a civil war or not? is this a planet or not? etc. all this bickering and of course all the world's racism, sexism, etc is tied to a great degree to different classification systems people use to "see" the world. Some men "see" woman as objects and nothing more - it's a classification problem. Zen trains folks to realize that these classifications and there definitions are not, and can never be, "the truth", - they are at best a weird mixture of subjective and objective.

So Zen is NOT totally relativistic, it places great emphasis on an objective truth, but never goes so far as to say that there is any sense in talking about "the observed" without an observer. There is no sense in talking about what the universe will be like after you die. No scientist can design an experiment to determine what things will be like after they have died. Zen refuses to dismiss the subjective, but instead of ignoring it, as much of science does, it is explicit about the subjective role that is inherent, and unacknowledged, in all of human thought. In this way it reminds me of the Bayesian approach to statistics, which also is explicit about the observer being an integral part of the equation (all Bayesian statistics require the user to input into the equations a "prior" belief of probability for the hypotheses being tested - even if your belief is a total washout, you still must add this "uninformative" prior to the math). I like Bayesian statistics, especially for the phylogenetic work that I do. (Not because of the priors, actually, but because this approach allows a quantification of the uncertainty in the data).

Zen therefore seems to have a wonderful mix of these two seemingly opposed approaches - science and religion. Zen emphasizes minimizing belief & maximizing reality as does science. Zen also emphasizes that because there is just this moment that is real, and because we are here - with our subjective feelings (that science tends to dismiss too easily) this moment is as special as the "divine" of Christianity. So, science says "just material" and dismisses the subjective and the religious spiritual. Christianity (as an example for all religions here) dismisses the material world (and all its bugs and disease and other non-Christian things etc) and emphasizes an imagined spiritual world elsewhere - a "perfect" world that Christians will go to after death. Zen says no to both of these approaches - there is just this world, and actually, there is just this single moment of this world - all the other moments are imagined.

And the very matter/energy that science cares so much about IS the spiritual. No need to imagine a perfect world elsewhere - that's just fantasy - it's right here, now. There isn't anything else.

Zen is an alternative to science which provides little for the subjective, feeling-based human and it is also an alternative to the world's religions which contradict science and emphasize belief in fantasy.

Zen says here and now is all there is ( = science, objectivity) AND it's divine ( = religion, subjectivity).

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Zen Mind and Ordinary Mind

Several years ago I came across an interesting article on Zen in the Karate discussion website . I can't find the article now, but as far as I recall Rob Redmond criticised Zen meditation saying that it was 'just' the reduction of abstract thought, freeing up mental bandwidth for awareness of the present, in other words, it has no deep significance.

In a sense, this is right. Our ordinary conciousness consists largely of projections into the past, future and hypothetical situations. As the illustration above suggests, in this state out attention is largely temporal (forwards and backwards in time), leaving very little mental bandwith for awareness of the reality of what is actually occurring. Not only that, but (given the current impossibility of time travel) experiencing the past and future is impossible, so all of this awareness is virtual - it is hypothesised from what is going on now, such as memories and predictions based on deduction, intuition and experience. We take these abstractions for truth or reality and the process of projection and identification with past and future events causes us to see our life in terms of continuous existence. We wonder whether this continuity will cease with physical death or continue into an afterlife.

When we do zazen or similar meditation, this virtual activity quietens down and we become aware of what is actually going on. I don't mean that we suddenly gain special access to what is thought of as 'objective reality' or Kantian 'things-in-themselves'. But we experience the events of our life unmediated by thought - we experience the sounds of our breathing or sounds from outside directly, in all it's uniqueness and familiarity and it's indescribable complexity. We can feel the causal reverberations of the universe. We can't find anything (other than convention) to distinguish between the events in 'ourselves' from those 'outside'. Seeing our memories as experiences that literally 'we' did or didn't have no longer seems to mean much. The idea of annihilation or continuity into afterlife no longer seem to mean much. Instead memories and anticipations are just mental events occuring now - one more aspect of the relentless surge of change without real begining and end, which is the real nature of this life. To experience this is to experience Ku, Sunyata, emptiness.

I used to think that the aim of Zen was to exist in this state permenantly. However, this is impractical - we need memory and anticipation to survive. Also to see this state as real and the ordinary state as false or inferior is to create one more duality and duality is the activity of samsara, the deluded mind. The true aim of Zen as I understand it, is to find this emptiness in meditation and contemplation and to realise that when we meditate we are not creating emptiness nor are we moving from non-emptiness to emptiness - rather, we are paying attention to the emptiness which is the actual nature of all of our existence, whatever we are doing, whatever our state of mind. There never was a continuous self, nor continuous entities of any sort. There is only a vast rippling matrix of interdependent cause and effect. Looking inwards or outwards we can find no continuity. What we thought was the continuous existence of ourselves is really change. Whether we realise it or not existence is empty of self - whether we are in a 'zen state' or an 'ordinary state' there is no continuous self. We don't need to be in a special state to make emptiness real. The only thing that makes a difference in this respect is seeing the nature of things or not and how this affects our experience of living. In this sense ordinary mind and zen mind are already one, samsara and nirvana are not different.