Saturday, September 30, 2006

FROM BIRTH TO DEATH IT'S JUST LIKE THIS

There's a guy who's real smart. Buddhist guy. Knows every sutra. He takes up with a new teacher and the teacher asks him, "So what sutra do you lecture about?

The smart guy goes, "The Heart Sutra."

Master goes, "How do you lecture on the heart sutra?"

Smart guy says, "With my mind."

FOOTNOTE: In Chinese & Japanese the character for heart and mind are the same. So this is a pun that totally loses it's pun-ness in English.

Master goes, "The mind is the leading actor, will is a supporting player and the six senses are the followers. How can mind lecture on the sutra?"

FOOTNOTE: In Buddhism, we count six senses. The first 5 are the usual ones and number 6 is the brain as a sense organ that senses the mental sphere. It is not a sixth sense in the sense of a Bruce Willis movie.

Smart guy goes, "If it's impossible for the mind to lecture about the sutra, maybe you think even empty space can lecture about it!"

Master goes, "Even empty space can lecture on it."

Smart guy gets disgusted and, thinking he's beaten the Master, walks off swinging his sleeves in what was then a very arrogant gesture.

As the smart guy walks off the master calls after him, "Hey, lecturer!"

Smart guy turns around.

Master goes, "From birth to death it's just like this!"

All at once the smart guy gets it. And he is never heard from again.

That's the koan I talked about to both people who showed up for the Zazen/lecture this morning at Hill Street. It's always been a favorite of mine. Not really for the story of the smart dude, but for that line at the end. From birth to death it's just like this.

Some people say koans are illogical stories to be meditated upon so that the meditator transcends logic and comes to a realization which is beyond rational thought. This is, of course, horse poopie. Koans are just a means by which Buddhist logic is conveyed in the form of stories, usually annecdotes about conversations between Buddhist teachers and their students. There is nothing irrational or "beyond logic" about any of these stories, though their logic and rationality may not be the type most of us are used to.

In this story, the smart guy thinks he's won an intellectual battle with the master until the master forces him to notice what's actually going on at that very moment. When the smart guy hears this, he notices something much more profound. Which doesn't mean he gives up being smart. He just gives up thinking that being clever is the be all and end all of things. That we never hear from him again just means that he devotes himself to practice.

"From birth to death it's just like this" means that this moment, this reality, right now is what is really true. Everything else is bupkiss. All your thoughts, ideas, clever notions, fears about the future, guilt about the past, plans, schemes, and all the rest are just images in your head. Nothing more. The only thing that ever really counts is what's right here, right in front of your nose.

From birth to death it's JUST LIKE THIS. It is always just like this. No matter where you go, no matter what happens, it's always just like this. It's always here and it's always now. Just like most of us, the smart guy in this story had devoted his life to trying to escape this simple reality. He sought refuge in knowledge and became the top in his field as a lecturer on Buddhism without ever understanding the basis of the philosophy he lectured about. When suddenly confronted with the reality of his own direct experience, though, he was intelligent enough to recognize it.

Friday, September 29, 2006

IDIOCRACY


I went and saw the movie Idiocracy last night. It's written & directed by Mike Judge, the guy who made Bevis & Butthead and King of the Hill. This is a fugging amazing movie. The review I've linked to (click the title of this article or the word "link" below) is much better than I'm gonna be able to write. The basic plot is that the most average guy in America gets put to sleep for 500 years as part of an Army experiment. He wakes up to find that he is the smartest person in the world. It's a great, dumb/funny movie. What's a true shame is that the film seems to be deliberately being buried by Fox, the studio that made it. They're almost going out of their way to ensure that no one even knows about it. The film was made 2 years ago and is only just now getting out. There is no advertising at all and it wasn't even screened for critics. While the lack of screenings for critics is usually a sign that a film sucks, this is not the case here. In fact I've seen very few reviews that were not positive, even glowing. I can only assume the film's burial must be due to pressure from the companies the film parodies. Judge must have secured their permission. But they must have been appalled at the results. Being unable to recind their permission, they instead put the screws to Fox to make sure as few people as possible saw the movie. That's my theory anyway.

I enjoy dumb movies the way I enjoy dumb Zen. Maybe instead of Hardcore Zen, I ought to have made a book called Stupid Zen. But not Zen for Dummies (have they done one of those yet?). I studied under a teacher whose dharma name is "The Way of Stupidity" after all.

Remember Zazen tomorrow morning at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica. Details are on the link to your right.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Case #29 from Shinji Shobogenzo Book One


One day Master Zengen went with his teacher Master Dogo to visit a house where someone had recently died to express their condolences. When they were alone, Master Zengen patted the coffin and said to Master Dogo, “Is he alive or dead?”

Master Dogo said, “I will not say alive or dead.”

Master Zengen said, “Why won’t you say?”

Master Dogo said, “I will never say. I will never say.”

On the way back to the temple, Master Zengen said, “Master! Please give me your answer now! If you won’t I’ll hit you!”

Master Dogo said, “You can hit me if you want. I will not say.”

Master Zengen hit his teacher several times with his fist, but Master Dogo still refused to answer.

On returning to the temple, Master Dogo said, “I think it would be better for you to leave this temple. But if the Head Monk hears you are leaving it will cause trouble.”

After Master Dogo died, Master Zengen went to the temple of Master Sekiso. He told Master Sekiso about the incident and asked him for his teaching.

Master Sekiso said, “I will not say alive or dead.”

Master Zengen said, “Why won’t you say.”

Master Sekiso said, “I will never say. I will never say.”

On hearing these words, Master Zengen finally understood.

This is one of the first koans I heard from my first teacher. It must have been something I was concerned about at the time. I started studying Buddhism for the same reason lots of people do. I was worried about death. I was unsatisfied with the Christian explanation of what death meant and what took place afterward. Yet I found atheism an unsatisfying alternative. I suppose this had a lot to do with my wanting to cling to the hope of an afterlife. But it also had a whole lot to do with the way I found the atheists I’d met or whose words I’d read seemed to be just as smug and self-satisfied with their certain knowledge of there not being an afterlife as the religious people I’d met were with their knowledge of all the details of what happens after you die. I found them both equally unconvincing.

For a while I was attracted to the idea of reincarnation. That scheme made more sense at least than the Christian idea. I mean, I always wondered what happened to a person in the Christian scheme whose sins weighed up to just a tiny bit more than his good deeds. I figure there must be a whole lot of people like that. Did they get tossed into Hell with Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin and all the rest of them? At least with reincarnation, you got another chance to make up that percentage. Still, reincarnation wasn't wholly satisfying either.

I really liked this story when I heard it. It seemed like the most perfectly sensible explanation I’d ever heard.

Master Zengen wants to reduce the real world into just two categories that he believes he understands thoroughly. Either the guy in the casket is alive, maybe in Heaven or Hell or awaiting reincarnation, or he’s dead. But his teacher didn’t want to reduce reality to those categories. They are just descriptions, not the thing itself.

Life and death are just real states at the present moment. Even if you knew what happened after death, you wouldn’t really know. I mean, I know that on October 24th, I’m giving a lecture in Hastings, Nebraska. I have no idea what it will be like. I could gather every scrap of information ever written about Hastings, Nebraska and I still wouldn’t know the real situation that will happen when I get there.

This koan isn’t just about life and death, it’s about our whole approach to knowing and not knowing. We’re very keen to acquire knowledge. Zengen thought that his teacher possessed some knowledge he did not have. He thought that if his Master told him what he knew then he would possess that knowledge and the matter would be settled. But it’s never like that.

Years later when he puts the question to Sekiso, Zengen is a different person. His practice has matured. He’s stopped chasing after other people’s knowledge. So when he hears the very same answer once again, this time he gets it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

NEW PROMO! and whatever...

I just put another trailer for the Cleveland's Screaming documentary up on You Tube. You can also see it on your right over there under the links. You Tube is some weird mojo.

I walked to my post office this morning. There are two post offices in my vicinity. One is about 5 minute's walk away. But that's not the one that delivers to my place. It's actually in Beverly Hills, while my apartment is in Los Angeles. The post office that delivers to my place takes about half an hour to get to on foot. But I hate driving, and I especially hate driving there. So mostly when I have to go there, I hoof it. My friend Hiroshi Maruyama, who designs all the monsters Ultraman fights, sent me a dinosaur book from Japan that wouldn't fit in my mailbox. So I had to go retrieve it.

It's funny to note the cultural differences between the two post offices. The one in Beverly Hills is very open, spacious and welcoming. The one in Los Angeles has all of the workers encased behind inch-thick plexiglass. I'm never sure if this is intended to protect the postal workers from the customers or to protect the customers from potential psycho postal employees. This is some weird kinda place I live in, I tell you what.

Next month I'll be in Hastings, Nebraska doing a lecture at Hastings College. The lecture is on October 24th. I know nothing about Nebraska. My mom was born there, but the family moved to Ohio shortly afterward. So I guess I have some connection to that state. But I've never been there. Can't even imagine what it's like. But it should be fun.

Next Sunday I'm giving a talk at the Karuna Yoga Studio in Los Angeles' Los Feliz section. I'm not sure if the general public can attend or not, or if it's just for members of that studio. I'll post when I know.

Monday, September 25, 2006

OPEN YOUR EYES SEE THE LIES RIGHT IN FRONT OF YOU*


I’ve been thinking some more about this issue of the eyes being focused in Zazen. It’s only recently that I’ve even considered the matter at all. Yet I think it’s an extremely important issue for people who practice Zazen. It kind of seems like I’ve felt that way for a long time, only it’s just now I’ve been able to articulate that. Here’s what I mean.

I don’t clearly recall exactly what my first teacher said about your eyes being in focus back twenty-mumble years ago when I first started practicing. But I do remember being frustrated every time I’d notice my focus starting to fuzz up and drift. So I took a felt tip pen and put a little dot on the wall where I usually did Zazen. When that dot disappeared from my vision, I knew it was time to get back on track.

I don’t actually recommend this practice because it’s a bit artificial. I stopped doing it pretty quickly because the dot itself was becoming a distraction.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago when I first heard Nishijima mention that the eyes should remain focused during Zazen that I gave the matter any thought at all. But when I did think about it, I noticed that when my eyes were unfocused, my practice was also unfocused, my body position was subtly out of whack and things needed re-adjusting.

During our three-day retreat at the beginning of this month and during our usual one-day monthly micro-retreat last Saturday, I watched it happen again and again and again. Whenever the eyes went out of focus, the practice itself began to drift. With the eyes unfocused, the mind wanders and the posture shifts. Refocusing the eyes helped bring everything back to where it needed to be.

I once heard my first teacher answer a question about whether the eyes should be open or closed by saying that when the eyes are closed it’s as if you’re saying that what’s in your head is more important than what’s outside. In Buddhist practice we have to give equal weight to both. This is essential.

So recently I have become convinced that Buddhist practice is the practice of keeping the eyes open and focused.

*This is a line from a song by Lords of the New Church, whose vocalist was Stiv Bators ex of Cleveland's The Dead Boys.

Friday, September 22, 2006

AMERICAN HARDCORE


Last night I went out and saw the movie American Hardcore. It's a documentary about — what else? — the American Hardcore punk movement of the early to mid 1980's. I first heard about this film a couple months ago when I was already pretty deeply into making my film Cleveland's Screaming. I was kinda worried the movies would be very similar. And, of course, in some ways they are. But, while American Hardcore is about the big movement and its major players, my film is a lot narrower in scope, focused as it is on just a single small geographic region.

American Hardcore is a terrific film. This is the first documentary movie that has really dealt with what has to be one of the most significant cultural movements of the late 20th century in a comprehensive way. Don Letts' Punk: Attitude really doesn't go much into Hardcore. Docs about specific bands like We Jam Econo about The Minutemen don't really cover the movement itself — though We Jam Econo is also a terrific move as is Punk: Attitude. There are a whole lot of, frankly pretty lazy semi-documentaries out there which, for the most part, just string together a lot of live clips without any real context. American Hardcore really puts it all together in an entertaining and educational way that should open some eyes to what went on in them days.

The bummer to me was that the filmakers completely ignored the Ohio scene. But, then again, they ignored the Kansas scene and the New Mexico scene and the Alaska scene and on & on... They're California kids. What can you expect but a California-centric film? The general consensus seems to be that California was the heart of the Hardcore movement. I have my doubts about that. I think the main reason for that impression is that kids in California had better access to the means by which to get their stuff heard. Even if they weren't directly connected with the entertainment industry, kids out here are so steeped in how that industry works that even when they go DIY they're a hell of a lot more savvy and efficient than we could've been back in Ohio where the people around us were all tire factory employees and steel workers. While it's certainly a fact that the Los Angeles and Orange County scenes were tremendously important, I think that importance has been somewhat exagerated by the fact that most of the folks who wrote the history of the movement come from out here.

Which is not meant as a put down of the film. I still highly recommend it. It's amazing to me no one has done a movie like this before. I mean it's like everyone thinks Nirvana just sprang up from the ground fully formed in 1991 or that Green Day invented punk rock. You kids today! You don't know how your elders suffered for your sake! Hack! Hack! Where's my Metamucil? What did you kids do with my teeth? Rotten brats...

ANYWAY, the neatest part of the movie for me was an interview where Dave Dictor of MDC Stains (authors of "John Wayne Was a Nazi" and "Corporate Deathburger") is talking about MDC's transition from a more punk rock sound to Hardcore. He says something like, "What we had in common with bands like The Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Zero Defects was..."

I didn't hear the rest cuz I was too busy scraping my jaw off the floor. Thanks Dave!! At least someone from the NE Ohio scene got a shout out.

Another kind of interesting moment for me was a brief interview with a guy who was like a roadie for Black Flag or something — wish I could remember. Anyhow, the guy is now the minister of a Universalist Unitarian church. In his interview he says something like, "Sometimes you see ministers who were formerly rock and rollers who say that that was when they were a sinner and now they're different. But for me it wasn't like that. Being a minister is a progression from what I did as a punk rocker." Actually I can't remember what he said, so I'm totally misquoting him. But it was pretty much that sentiment. Which is how I feel about my role as a Zen monk. I never felt like I abandoned punk for Zen. To me, it's more been the next logical step down the same path.

American Hardcore is set to open in select theaters throught the US next week, I think. But most likely it won't get a huge PR push. Even in LA I had to dig to find out about it. I missed the actual premier because I didn't know it was going on and I check the papers pretty thoroughly for that kinda stuff since it's part of my job. So you may have to look for this one. But I highly recommend you do because it's really worth seeing.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

CHUCK KLOSTERMAN IV


Before I left for Japan I went up to Book Soup on Sunset to find something to read on the plane. This is a stupid thing to do because I'm almost never able to read much on the plane to Japan. About 2 hours into the flight they turn off all the lights and I feel like an ass if I turn mine back on. Before that there's always meal services and stuff happening. I end up reading like 10 pages of whatever I bring and that's it.

But I like reading and it was an excuse to buy something new. I was thinking of getting that book, The Man Who Heard Voices, which is all about how hard it was for M. Night Shaylaman (I think that's the spelling) to make that new movie of his, the one nobody saw. I didn't see it. But the book sounded good. Especially because I've been tasked with making a movie out here. Anyone who's got any bright ideas about that is welcome to write me. We have some money to invest, our company has to be part of the production and it can't be an Ultraman movie. Those are the parameters.

Anyway, while I was at the book store I noticed that Chuck Klosterman had a new book out. So I bought that instead. I really like Klosterman's writing. Plus he lived in Akron for a few years and he's a major fan of KISS. How can you go wrong with that combination? The first book of his I read was Killing Yourself to Live and that was really good. Then I read Fargo Rock City, which was good until the end where he just goes on and on forever about his alcoholism. Robyn Hitchcock has a great song called "Tell Me About Your Drugs." It's a sarcastic rant about people who like to regale others with their drug stories. Boring! So are drinking stories. But that's just the last, like 20 pages, and the rest is spiffy, so I'll forgive him and still recommend the book.

Chuck Klosterman IV is a collection of articles he wrote for SPIN, Esquire and even the Akron Beacon Journal (hoo-zah!). The first part is mostly celebrity profiles and investigative type writing. The Britney Spears piece is getting a lot of coverage. But that's not my favorite. I was more interested in the report about the fact that Morrisey has a tremendous Latino following especially in LA, which I did not know. There's another pretty funny piece about Akron's clairvoyents. Klosterman does not bowl, but he went to a bunch of psychics asking them if he had any chance of making it on the pro bowling circuit. Most said what they thought he wanted to hear. Pretty much what I'd have expected.

The second part of the book wasn't quite as good as the first. For one thing, in part one he introduces each essay with some interesting backstory type stuff about how, when & why it was written. I always like that kind of thing. But in part two he dispenses with that and writes these dopey thought problems, "You are on a raft in the middle of the ocean with your worst enemy and a friendly dog. Who do you eat?" Well, that wasn't in there. But stuff along those lines. I know some people like that kind of thing. I just don't see the point. If I ever find myself in such a situation, I'll do whatever I do. There's no point wasting brain cells on such thinking. I guess if you enjoy thinking, thinking, thinking all the time, you're probably always searching for crap like this to keep the garbage soup inside your noggin churning around.

One interesting point he brought up is what is called the "paradox of choice" which is summarized as, "choice makes us depressed." It's absolutely true. Even though Klosterman gives credit to a professor named Barry Schwartz for inventing the theory, it's been around a lot longer than that. There's a famous Buddhist poem that opens, "The Way is not hard to follow, just give up choosing."

Klosterman brings up the paradox of choice in reference to Johnny Carson. When Carson died everybody said, "there'll never be another Johnny Crason." This is true because everybody in America knew who Johnny Carson was whether they liked him or not. These days even a pop culture vulture like Klosterman misses out on lots of things that are huge hits with certain parts of the population, simply because there is so much more on offer these days. No one can possibly keep up with it all. This is why there'll never be another Beatles either. No one can ever possibly have that kind of impact again unless we were to completely dismantle the Internet, cable TV, satellite radio and all the other media outlets we have access to now.

It's always "57 Channels And Nothing On" as The Boss said. Even in the age of a Godzillion choices, there's still only a tiny portion of truly worthwhile stuff out there. The fact that nowadays everyone and his brother can be a writer, a film maker, a graphic artist or a musician at the touch of a button (Heck, you can even pretend to be a Zen Master if you want to. Who's gonna know you aren't?) hasn't seemed to have produced any greater wealth of truly good stuff. At best some of the good stuff that might not have gotten an audience before, now has a better chance of being seen or heard. But that stuff would've been produced anyway. Artists of any kind with true passion for what they do will create even if there's not a chance in Hell of anyone ever seeing or hearing what they do. Pretty much nobody read Dogen's Shobogenzo for 800 years after it was written. There weren't even printing presses then for cryin' out loud! Yet he still wrote 95 frikkin' chapters of the thing.

This paradox of choice also relates to Buddhism. In reading Dogen, you'll find a lot of passages where he extolls the virtues of Buddhism. But its interesting to note that in his time (the 13th century) the alternatives were far fewer than we have now. No one in Japan had ever so much as heard of Christianity, Judaism and Islam back then. Religion meant only Japanese folk religions (Shintoism) and Buddhism. There were a few varieties of Buddhism by then and Dogen gave each one a go. He found esoteric Buddhism lacking, discovered something more valid in Rinzai style Zen Buddhism but still felt it wasn't quite right and finally discovered the truth through the study and practice of Soto style Zen Buddhism.

Nowadays we have about a trillion flavors of religion to choose from. There must be easily a couple hundred brands of Buddhism on the market. So how do we know which one is right? I've already answered that question for myself. But I was lucky in that what turned out to be the real deal was always right there for me. The few times I encountered bad teachers I dismissed them immediately. I have no idea why this happened. But it did. So I didn't waste a whole lot of time searching and searching. I looked into a few other things and the fact that they were bullshit was abundantly clear without my even having to really dig into them too deeply.

Lately some people have accused me of "sectarianism." But, honest to Jesus, I have no idea what they mean. I suppose they think that anyone who sticks clearly to one principle is, by doing so, implying that we should go out and kill everyone who believes anything else, or, at the very least that we should stick bamboo shoots up under their fingernails until they say they agree with us. Of course this is all true but....

NO! NO! I'm kidding! I have to be careful. Or maybe I don't. Bob Dylan had a great line. A reporter asked him if he felt alarmed that his songs might be misinterpreted and, for example, be seen as an endorsement for drug abuse and other such bad stuff. He said, "That's not my problem." I like that. Anymore that's the way I feel. I can't stop people misinterpreting me unless I just shut up forever. And I'm not gonna do that. So, go ahead and misinterpret away. It's not my problem.

At any rate, choice makes us miserable. I've never seen any happiness come from wafting around from philosophy to philosophy looking for just the right one. When you do that you just become addicted to being a Seeker of Truth. It's far better to just stick with one thing and see it through to the end. Of course you need to watch out that that one thing isn't Aum Shinrikyo or something like that. But it's not necessary to try absolutely everything. Most of what passes for religion or meditation is crap. Sturgeon's Law, you know, "98% of everything is crud."

If I didn't believe in the way that was handed down to my teacher and that he passed on to me absolutely, I would not have become part of his lineage. Otherwise why do it at all? If you want someone who'll tell you that all the other methods of meditation out there are equally OK, I am not your go-to guy. There may be a million and a half choices out there, but I only buy into one way. The others are of no interest at all.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

RAZORCAKE, SATURDAY ZEN RETREAT, ZEN NOIR, JOHN LENNON


Razorcake magazine has published an interview with me in issue #34. If you can't find it wherever punk rock magazines are sold, try ordering it using the link on this article. It's a pretty OK interview. I mean, at least it sounds like me. Even as far back as the interviews I did as the leader of Dimentia 13 I was always amazed at how most of the quotes attributed to me were actually made up by the writers. This one's not like that. Plus there are some pretty idiotic photos you can cut out and pin up on your wall.

Not a whole lot of people have signed up for the monthly day-long Zazen micro-retreat in Santa Monica this Saturday September 23rd (see the link to your right for full details & schedule). With all the traffic and comments this blog gets and all the sales of my book, it's kind of surprising how few of you are really willing to actually do the practice you so enjoy reading and talking about. Such is life I suppose. Maybe I should write a book called "Put Up or Shut Up." *

I will be at the 7:15 show of Zen Noir on Saturday Sept. 23rd at the Westside Pavillion Theater on Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles. It's a weird, funny movie. Go see it. Go to the article called "Zen Noir" (2 articles below this one) and click on the link there if you want to know more about the movie.

Last night I went and saw "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." I liked it. But, then again, I'm a sucker for just about anything Beatle-related. Yoko comes off pretty good in this one, unlike in other documentaries about John or The Beatles. I've always been a fan of Yoko. I'm one of the few people who actually digs her Plastic Ono Band album perhaps more than John's Plastic Ono Band album.

The film focuses on Lennon's political activities, particularly his 1972 "Sometime in New York City" period. That album has always been one of my favorites of his, maybe because Yoko's more fully featured on that one than on any other until "Double Fantasy" and "Milk and Honey." Also because of the rockin' sounds of Elephant's Memory, their back-up band at the time. If I didn't know better, I might have been convinced by the movie that Lennon was more a political activist than a musician. Even though the film quotes him saying he was an artist first more than once, the producers seem more interested in him as a political figure. Which is OK, I guess. Every documentary has to have some point of view. It's just that it isn't really true. Lennon's overtly political phase was pretty short-lived. Though it did, obviously, concern the Nixon administration.

I'm not entirely sold on the film's covert message that Lennon was the force of Light and Life while Nixon and Bush are Darkness and Death personified. That's way too simplistic and idealized. Lennon was an amazing talent, no doubt about it. But he was, by his own admission, a dreamer. Songs like "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine" are absolutely 100% spot on correct. There can be no doubt whatsoever that sentiments like those point in the direction mankind needs to go if we are to survive. But we also need to be aware of the real facts of the world which, unfortunately, are not as beautiful as our dreams.

In the 80's I hated Reagan with a passion and supported the idea of the nuclear freeze. Yet nowadays I am, quite painfully, forced to admit that the arms build up Reagan supported was the real key to the end of the Cold War and the end of the threat of total global nuclear annihilation. Reagan, who would surely have been tarred as part of the forces of darkness by these film-makers had the film been made in the 1980's, was right and I was wrong. Peace is established by and large through the threat of violent retribution towards those who would disturb it. I do not like this fact. But I cannot deny it. This is something which we must certainly change. But we will not change it by refusing to face it, by pretending that the way to peace is all beads and flowers and love-ins, and insense and groovy spirituality. It isn't. The real way to lasting peace is to establish a realistic outlook and stick with it no matter if we like it or not.


* OK, I know a lot of you would come to the sittings if you didn't live a bazillion miles away from Los Angeles. But I also know that people are buying the book in LA. I see them show up at the bookstores I frequent, watch the numbers dwindle and see them get restocked. It's all very gratifying. But I have to wonder, where are these people on Saturday mornings...?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

SINGING AUM


Before I get into what I want to say, I also want to say that I plan to attend the screening of the film Zen Noir on the evening of Saturday September 23 (I'm trying to find the show times) at the Westside Pavillion in Los Angeles. If that's any incentive for anyone to show up, I don't know. I hope it's not incentive to stay away! Feel free to come up and say "hi" if you're there. But if you were not at our monthly one-day Zazen at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica which also takes place on Saturday September 23rd (see the link to your right for details), know that I will be secretly wondering why you came to the movie but not to the Zen sitting. But I won't say anything, so don't worry.

I just got back from Japan this afternoon. The big news over there apart from the impending nomination of a new Prime Minister is all about Shoko Asahara, former leader of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult, the guys who gassed the Tokyo subway system in the name of Buddhism in 1995. Asahara recently lost his final appeal against the death sentence he received a few years ago (2004, I think) for his role in instigating mass murder (12 people died and thousands of others were affected by the gas, additionally 7 others died in a practice run for that attack in the city of Matsumoto in 1994). Throughout the trial, Asahara refused to speak in his defence, or, to speak at all, save for the cryptic statement, in English, "I can speak a little." This is the kind of English phrase Japanese kids learn in grade school, the way I can say, "Je parle un petit peux de Francais" even though I don't.

Amazingly enough, Asahara still has followers. The group has changed its name to Aleph and disavows its former leader, though they still consider him a "genius of meditation" whatever that means. There is a lot of worry in Japan that, once Asahara's death sentence is carried out, his remaining followers may stage some kind of revenge attack. This is probably a legitimate concern, though the cult is not nearly as large and well-funded as it was 11 years ago.

The interesting thing to me was one particular guy who kept showing up every time the TV news ran a story about Aum. He's a funny lookining guy, tall and skinny with long hair dyed platimum blond and the kind of scraggly beard George Harrison has on the cover of the All Things Must Pass album. He always dresses like a hippy refugee from Woodstock and sometimes wears what appears to be a skirt, although the skirt looks more like hippy-wear than something a cross-dresser might outfit himself in. This guy is some kind of expert in all things related to Aum Shinrikyo. He's apparently been studying them for quite a number of years and has been sitting in on most of Asahara's trials.

What stuck me was that, while a whole lot of "respectable society" types like doctors, scientists and lawyers, are members or ex-members of Aum, this guy who is an obvious weirdo knew enough to stay away from them. I think this is important. People who are able to be themselves the way this comentator is seem far less likely to be taken in by people like Asahara and his ilk.

Some folks in Japan are concerned that Asahara hasn't had a fair trial. They insist that he is mentally ill and that this should be taken into consideration. Of course he is mentally ill! What worries me is that he is far from the only mentally ill person on this planet who is taken seriously as a guru by the kind of people who take gurus seriously. It often seems like signs of mental illness are taken by way too many people as evidence of Enlightenment. This is the same kind of thinking engaged in by the guys who wrote the book Zig Zag Zen which postulates that being stoned on acid is the same as Enlightenment. This is one of many reasons why I do not believe in that kind of Enlightenment.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

ZEN NOIR


Yo. Not a lot of time to write. I'm visiting with my wife's parents in the lovely hamlet of Kashimadai in Miyagi Prefecture in Northern Japan. Internet access is hard to come by in these parts & limited.

But I wanted to mention that my friend Marc Rosenbush's movie Zen Noir is "now playing at select theaters" as they say. It's a good movie. The philosophy is mostly ripped off from that Vietnamese Zen Master guy whose name I cannot spell, Tikh Naht Hahn maybe. Any relation to Jessica Hahn, I wonder? Anyhow, it ain't as bad as the attempts at Zen philosophy in most Zen movies. Plus there's a line in there about oranges which sounds a lot like a way over-dramatized version of my stupid story about a Japanese tangerine from Hardcore Zen. Though Marc says it was written before he read my book. So I guess I won't sue him.

In any case, it's a very funny, weird movie and I highly recommend it. You get to see a naked bald chick and everything! There's a promo video for it if you click the link below or on the title of this article and follow the links there. Here's the run-down of where it's showing:

SEPT 15 - 21
SAN FRANCISCO Lumiere Theatre
Filmmaker Marc Rosenbush will be in attendance to
discuss the film and answer questions at evening
screenings on Friday & Saturday, Sept. 15th & 16th
Click for showtimes and to purchase advance tix

SEPT 22 - 28
LOS ANGELES Westside Pavilion Cinemas
Filmmaker Marc Rosenbush will be in attendance to
discuss the film and answer questions at evening
screenings on Friday & Saturday, Sept. 22nd & 23rd

PASADENA One Colorado
Filmmaker Marc Rosenbush will be in attendance to
discuss the film and answer questions at afternoon
and evening screenings on Sunday, Sept. 24th

SEPT 29 - OCT 5
BOULDER Crossroads Cinema
DENVER Chez Artiste

OCT 13 - 19
AUSTIN Dobie Theatre

OCT 27 - NOV 2
SEATTLE Varsity Theatre
ST. LOUIS Tivoli Theatre

NOV 10 - 16
MINNEAPOLIS Lagoon Cinema

DEC 1 - 7
CHICAGO Century Centre Cinema

Friday, September 08, 2006

ZEN IS NOT A "BOTTOM LINE IS WHAT WORKS FOR YOU" PHILOSOPHY

Wow. I just found out there will be Hebrew, Greek and Finnish editions of Hardcore Zen. So any of you Fins, Greeks or Israelis out there reading this can rest easy knowing that soon you will be able to read my descriptions of Gene Simmons' hotel room in your own language! Hoo-zah!

OK. Now the Zen. Here's an e-mail exchange I was recently cc'ed on between Nishijima Sensei & a Seeker of the Truth out there in Blogland.

TRUTH SEEKER:

Dear Nishijima Sensei,

On a Buddhist blog there is a discussion about the correct method of using the eyes when sitting zazen. Below is what the person wrote about the eyes:

" At some point while sitting with my eyes open, my vision begins to swim, blur, or cloud over. What should my attitude be when this happens? Should I re-focus, or allow the blur to occur? If I let the blur continue, it usually obliterates my vision at some point, to the extent that I'm not sure if my eyes are even open anymore. It seems that at that point, I might as well close my eyes. Is maintaining focus with the eyes the right thing to do, according to the Zen concept of maintaining the mind's focus? "

in reply somebody said the following quote:

" Some people prefer to meditate with eyes open and some with them closed. Bottom line is what works best for you. As far as the 'official' zen position though... You are supposed to let them stay open or half-open. Your gaze should be 'un-focused'. If your eyes blur and you can't tell what's in front of you, this is what is supposed to happen. It isn't the same as having them closed because the darkness of closed eyes (as opposed to the diffuse light of blurred vision) tends to make most people fall asleep or become drowsy. "

" In seated zazen, the main focus of attention is inward, so the lack of focused vision is irrelevant. In active forms of zazen, obviously the focus is both inward and outward... which is what makes it so difficult."

You will notice that they mention the ' official' zen position about the eyes. do you agree with this person that what they have written is the official zen position or do you think that they are wrong? if you think they are wrong, what is the best method of using the eyes when sitting zazen?

thanks

NISHIJIMA'S REPLY:

Thank you very much for your important questions of eyes in Zazen, and I would like to answer following the three opinions, which you sent me in your email.

1) When our vision begins to swim, blur, or cloud over, we should stretch the spine straight vertically to have our sight refocused, and we should not allow the blur to occur. We should maintain focus with the eyes, according to the Zen concept of maintaining mind and body focused.

2) The eyes should be open during Zazen. The back of the neck should be kept straight as far as possible, and so the chin should be replaced a little downward and backward. It is wrong for us to keep the eyes half-open. Your gaze should be focused to avoid becoming sleepy or sleeping.

3) In Zazen the focused situations do not have any difference between inward and outward, therefore the lack of the focus can be seen clearly. In Zazen it is necessary for us to look at something concretely, and it is impossible for human beings to distinguish inward and outward at all.

I do not understand the meaning of "official," and I always manifest my opinion following Master Dogen's teachings.

With best wishes

Gudo Wafu Nishijima

ME AGAIN:

What struck me about this when I read it was not so much the specifics of the question & answer -- which are very important to anyone who practices Zazen -- but the difference in tone between the guy who advised people on the blog and Nishijima Sensei. There are lots of guys out there in the Blogosphere giving advise on Zen practice and, unfortunately, most of them are like the guy who told the Truth Seeker that "bottom line is what works for you." I should apologize to Mr. Bottom Line in case it's someone I've corresponded with. Nothing personal, but that advise sucks ass.

Zen is not a "bottom line is what works for you" philosophy. "What works for you" is crap teaching. Don't ever accept crap teaching. I take so much flak from people who've learned from God only knows where that Zen is "what works for you" and are driven to madness by my insistance that it is not. But it isn't. Nope. Never.

"What works for you" means you accept what massages your ego and reject what doesn't. That is not Buddhism. That is not Reality. Reality does not bend in order to please you and neither does the philosophy and practice of Zen. Shunryu Suzuki said, "If the teaching doesn't feel like it's forcing something upon you, it's not good teaching." That is the real spirit of Buddhism. If you're not ready for that, you're not ready for Buddhism.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

2006 RETREAT REPORT

The 2006 Zazen Retreat in Shizuoka, Japan is over and done with. So here I am at work making an ad for our company's booth at this year's MIPCOM television and film market. The deadline is like three weeks ago and here I am blogging away. Gotta make this quick.

The retreat went OK. No big incidents. A very nice group, a few of whom (who?) travelled long distances just to be there. Our final lecture of the retreat is always a chnace for each participant to say what he or she thought of the thing. This time arround the majority view seemed to be that the retreat was too easy. Although there were a few dissenters who thought it was pretty tough. If you want to see the schedule for yourself, click on the word "link" at the bottom of this article or on the title of the article.

When I first started going to these retreats, that schedule seemed damned intense to me. These days, I think it's just fine. Not too little not too much. I am well aware that there are a great many retreats whose schedule is a lot more rigorous. But that's too easy for me. I prefer a tougher approach.

What's that, you say? How can a retreat with fewer Zazen periods and more free time be tougher than a retreat where you're forced to sit from sunrise to sunset with barely a break to pee, where half the people choose to sit all night long rather than take advantage of the three hours alotted for sleep? It's tougher because a schedule like we have forces the participants to make of the retreat what they make of it. Nothing is done for you. If you don't bring any intensity to the retreat yourself, none is there for you to take free of charge. If the retreat is too easy, maybe you're taking it too lightly. And perhaps that's why it was so intense for me the first few times, because I just threw myself into it completely. GWWWWAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!

The other reason for the schedule being as it is and not more strenuous is because it was designed by Master Kodo Sawaki and reflects his view of Zazen as something normal, to be done as part of a person's regular every day life, rather than a view of a Zazen retreat as some special event designed to supercharge your spiritual power. It's true that going to a more strenuous retreat can often have the effect of making you feel like a spiritual superhero afterwards, your head buzzing with lovely Emptiness. But that's just the thing we're trying to avoid.

It's good to appreciate silence and calm, it's good to face yourself for a few days without interuption. I highly recommend attending at least one retreat a year. But if the attitude you find in the retreat can't be carried over into your day to day life, what good is it? Or if a Zazen retreat produces a kind of spiritual high that makes you want to stay in the twilight zone for ever and ever amen, what good is that?

A zazen retreat ought to be a little bit special, but not too special. And -- hey -- if there's too much free time, you can do what I did when I first started attending and spend your breaks in the zendo.