Friday, February 13, 2009


Those of you who never read MAD magazine won't get that title. Go look it up! Anyway, I've decided to try & answer some questions I've received by e-mail on this blog.

If you have questions, you can send them to me via e-mail. I can't promise I'll answer because my in box is always full. But I'll do what I can. I don't read the comments section on this blog (sorry, but it's troll city in there and I break out in hives every time I enter), so don't just put them there.

Here goes:

In the midst of a heated debate while attempting to communicate Zen concepts to a friend, there were a few times, more than a few, where I ran into difficulty articulating myself, naturally. Particularly the idea that the point of practice is to have no point to practice. My friend asked 'How does sitting benefit you?' and I tried to explain that it is essential to get away from this idea of benefit. When one is sitting, just to sit, with no goal, no reaching, no looking, no mind, no Buddha, no attainment. My friend had a hard time with this, essentially arguing that this is impossible, to just sit without some idea of benefit motivation or goal, arguing that no-goal is itself a goal. Eventually I simply said that words and explanation breaks down, and that's the point. One can only sit zazen, because eventually any logical reasoning breaks down. I am wondering if I am articulating this properly?

This is a tough question. The longer I do zazen, the harder it gets to explain why I do it. I mainly do it these days because I enjoy it. Although I don't know if "enjoy" is really the right word. Plus I feel like crap when I skip it.

Your friend is perfectly correct that "no goal is still a goal." And you're right in saying that at some point words and explanations break down. The fact is everyone who does zazen has some kind of motivation to do so. That's just the way we humans work. I used to sit so that I could get Enlightenment and be the biggest blow hard in the zendo. Look how beautifully I succeeded!

This is, of course, a joke. What I wanted and what I got were two completely different things. It's always that way, though. Which is why it's better to drop any goal you might have for practice. If you can't drop your goals, just recognize them as ideas floating around in your brain.

If you're trying to convince your friend to practice... I can't really help there. I never bother with that. People who want to do zazen will find a way to do it no matter what obstacles are placed in their way, including busy schedules, physical disabilities and all the rest. People who don't want to do zazen will find any excuse at all not to. It's best not to waste time trying to sell anyone the practice.

Next question.

I've been wrestling with two attachments I can't seem to let go: reading and running. My problem is, while trying to free myself from attachment, I vacillate between donating my books and ceasing exercise and buying more books to learn about Zen Buddhism and on a different track running (which I love for its meditative and liberating nature) but also having to do yoga, lift, blah blah blah to make sure I'm balanced. I'm having trouble finding a middle ground, and was interested in what you thought. I have a stack of Buddhist magazines next to my couch and I don't know whether to smack myself with them or read them. They are healthy endeavors, it just seems that I'm allowing myself to become too attached to them, especially in our news-obsessed/ultra-healthy culture (do I really need to know about the elections in France and how to lift more than the guy next to me in two hours a day?).

There's nothing wrong with buying books -- as long as they're my books!

But seriously, authors need to eat and buying books and magazines is a way to help them earn a living. And for those of you who don't believe in wasting paper on books and magazines, I think that's very noble. But you still need to pay writers for their work! Once we get it together to pay writers for the work they do on-line I'll go paperless. Until then I still buy books and magazines.

ANYWAY, running sounds to me like a healthy thing to do. So why worry about being attached to it? Reading is fine. I like reading too. Dogen was a voracious reader. There's no shame in it at all. I take what I read in Buddhist magazines with a big huge grain of salt. In fact, I rarely read them. I prefer MOJO (a British music rag) and FILMFAX (all about obscure old sci-fi movies) myself. Still, every so often the Buddhist mags put something interesting in, and that's all right. It's part of the way Buddhism gets spread around.

But maybe the question is really about attachment. That's a big buzz word among American and European Buddhists. But oddly enough I don't think this whole idea of non-attachment is really a key Buddhist concept. It's more of a Brahmanistic (Hindu) idea that got incorporated into Buddhism when Buddhism came to the West as part of a mixture of Eastern philosophies. A lot of Westerners seem to find it a bit distasteful to suggest that there are some very big differences between the various Eastern philosophies. But there are.

Which is not to say the idea never comes up in Buddhism. It's just not a real key thing the way it is in Hindu philosophies like Vedanta (at least I think it's big in Vedanta philosophy, I've never studied Vedanta in depth).

I'm not gonna go look thru every chapter of Shobogenzo to check. But off hand I can't recall Dogen ever talking about non-attachment except possibly when speaking about ancient Indian philosophies. Maybe the idea of non-attachment to views comes up. But non-attachment to running or reading and stuff along those lines? I can't recall anything like that.

ANYWAY, the fact of the matter is that we all have attachments. We love our families, our kitty cats, our favorite breakfast cereals and all the rest. You can't be a real human being without having some attachments. The goal of Zen practice isn't to turn us all into un-feeling robots or clones of Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

It's good, though, to see your attachments for what they are; just thoughts inside your head. The lighter your attachments are, the easier your life will be. Because nothing stays one way forever, and whatever you're attached to will change some day and eventually be gone. I sometimes think this "non-attachment" thing is a way of trying to numb oneself so that the day you lose your mom and your kitty and the store runs out of Corn Chex you'll be all cool and "non-attached" about it. The real goal of Zen is to find a way of life that's easy and undramatic. Strong attachments lead to upset and drama.

The fact that you can recognize your own attachments is very good. Most people never do.


What´s your practice when it comes to food and eating?

I'm a vegetarian and have been since I was 18. I wanted to be a vegetarian from the time I first learned that hamburgers were made from dead cows and hot dogs from dead pigs. My mom freaked out over the idea of having to cook special food for me. So I decided I'd wait until I moved out of the house. Once I moved out I quickly went veg.

BUT, vegetarianism is not necessary for Zen practice. There's a story about Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. It seems he was traveling with a student of his who was a very strict vegetarian. They were hungry and the only place to stop was a little roadside diner. The diner didn't have anything vegetarian on the menu so the student ordered a grilled cheese sandwich to be made specially for him (maybe like that scene in Five Easy Pieces). Suzuki ordered a hamburger. When the sandwiches came, Suzuki quickly grabbed the student's grilled cheese and stuffed it in his mouth. Then he said, "It's OK, you can have mine!"

I started Zen at roughly the same time I started being vegetarian. I think vegetarianism came a few months earlier. I was pretty hardcore about it at first. So when I heard stories like that I worried a lot that some Zen teacher would force me to eat meat or that my vegetarianism was somehow un-Zen.

But both of my teachers encouraged my vegetarianism, although neither one of them was a vegetarian himself. Tim McCarthy used to say he was a "liberal vegetarian." This, he said. was a ridiculous designation, even though he used it. He said, "It's like saying your a 'liberal celibate.' Like, 'I'm celibate but sometimes I still fuck!'" He ate meat, but not much and never red meat. Nishijima's pretty much the same. Though he might eat a bit of beef or pork sometimes. I don't know for sure. Nishijima has great respect for vegetarians, though. He used to say that if there were more vegetarians there would be less violence in the world.

The thing about eating is that even if you're a vegetarian you're killing other beings so that you can live. A carrot is almost certainly less self aware than a cow (though who can say for sure other than a fellow carrot? And they ain't talking!). But it's no less alive. So it's important to have respect for your food.

This is why Zen monks recite big long chants before eating -- so long their food is always freezing cold by the time the chant is done. The chants remind them that eating is a big deal and must not be taken lightly. In part the Zen meal chant goes like this:

We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.

We reflect on our virtue and practice and consider whether we are worthy of this offering

We reflect on our illusions and mistakes, we must avoid greed, anger and ignorance

We reflect on the reason for eating meals, it is to avoid becoming weak

For the sake of attaining the truth we now receive this meal

Nishijima Sensei chants this whole thing before every single meal even if he's eating prepackaged bento from the local convenience store. I'm not as hardcore as that. But every time I eat something, even a bag of Fritos (see photo above), I fold my hands and say, "itadakimasu," which is a Japanese word meaning something like "I receive this with gratitude." Half-assed, sure. But so am I!

OK. That's all I got time for today. Tune in next time!


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Moon Face Buddha said...

"Does the chair you are sitting in violate precepts?"

Reductio ad absurdum surely?

Anonymous said...


I have this frightful attachment to breathing - I can't go more than 60 seconds without totally selling out and breathing again...i'm like a super-junkie for the shit...

Please help what can I do?

Anonymous said...

Shut up Al. Go read your MAN-ual on heavy balls. Balancs your ANuS.

Moon Face Buddha said...

Learn the meaning of attachment and non attachment in the context of the teachings of Gotama?

Al said...

"Reductio ad absurdum surely?"

Surely, but so is all this banter.

Anon- Since when is having Big Balls a bad thing? I balanced my anus yesterday by overdosing on Correctol. The results of my experiment will find its way to you doorstep in the next few days.

Justin said...


Holy shit Justin.

When was the last time you took a physiology course?

These things are ALL apart of the ANS. people tend to forget that the brain is not just the lump of flesh that resides inside your skull, but refers to the spinal cord as well. Anything that affects physical changes in the brain is affecting the ANS.

Everyone here needs to go read a text book on manual medicine.

You have completely misunderstood. The question being considered is not "Does meditation have any effect on the ANS?" nor is it "Is meditation blah blah blah something about the ANS?". The question is "Is Nishijima's claim that zazen balances the ANS well-supported enough to call a fact?". No one has commented on whether the other processes and structures involved / affected by meditation are part of the ANS or not - only whether balancing of the ANS is caused by meditation.

Which leads onto...

Moon Face Buddha,
The term "balanced ANS" appears to be meaningless because nobody actually knows what "balanced" can mean in relation to the ANS.

Let's investigate what Nishijima actually says about 'balanced ANS':

The two parts generally function in opposite ways. For example, generally when the sympathetic nervous system (I'll call it the “SNS”) is stronger than the parasympathetic nervous system (the “PNS”), people are prone to be tense, to have a weaker appetite, to suffer from insomnia, and so forth. On the other hand, when the PNS is stronger than the SNS, people are prone to feel dull, to have a strong appetite, to sleep heavily, to have rather high blood pressure, and so forth.

...Therefore the state of a stronger SNS is not preferable, and neither is a state of a stronger PNS.

...I arrived at the bold proposition that when people have a stronger SNS they are prone to be idealistic and when people have a stronger PNS they are prone to be materialistic.

...This suggests that we should avoid having both a state where our SNS is stronger and a state where our PNS is stronger.

...Therefore I think Buddhism emphasizes the importance of equality or equilibrium between the SNS and the PNS.

...we can interpret that “to accept self” suggests the function of the PNS, and “to utilize self” suggests the function of the SNS. So we can think that Jijuyo Zanmai means a state of equality between the SNS and PNS.

...Zazen is not a means to attain “enlightenment,” but is just an act to experience the balance of the ANS.

So what Nishijima means is that meditation brings the SNS and PNS into equilibrium, that is when one is high and the other lower, the higher one is reduced and the lower one, increased.

Is this supported by the evidence? We've already been over this. No. In fact what research quoted earlier (see above) shows evidence that the activity of the SNS decreases and the activity of the PNS increases. In other words, the ANS is likely to move away from equilibrium.

Nishijima's theory is at best unevidenced speculation which should not be taken seriously or less charitably, is pseudoscience.

Certainly, reinterpreting Buddhist philosophy as being about ANS balance is completely misguided.

Anonymous said...

Mysterion the magician said,

I'ld like to suggest Life Before Life.

And I'd suggest a healthy dose of scepticism. Not all that is written is true and even not all that appears so is so. If you take a look at the cases presented at their website - it's quite safe to assume I think that they would choose the better ones there - none of them are very convincing.

This book was apparently released already in 2005. Certainly, if the cases were credible, we would have heard more about it? Where are the publications, papers, anything peer reviewed? Where's the beef? Anyone can write a book - and many have - telling about their or someone else's so called "past life experiences" but just the ability to write words down doesn't mean any of it is true.

It's also kind of telling that in the website all the endorsements are from people / institutions who already believe in reincarnation.

Anonymous said...

There's another aspect to this whole ANS / meditation stuff. In many of the studies, the meditation used was TM or the Benson method. Neither of these stress or require the lotus posture. This itself calls into question whether simply maintaining the posture does anything that isn't also done to the ANS repeating a mantra while seated in a chair.

Justin said...

I have hard time understanding how the 12 chain link proves literal rebirth in real life. Anyone here fluent in the subject wishing to elaborate? And I do mean a more precise example than goddidit which is what it eventually came down to among e-sangha folks.

I don't think it does. But traditionally the 12-link chain is a map of the causal sequence that leads to rebirth and hence suffering. As I said, I have also come across the claim that this is a distortion of the original teaching and that it is really about the rebirth of suffering rather than literal rebirth. I'm not really knowledgable enough to say much about it, although I wasn't personally very convinced.

It's not a big area of interest for me since I neither believe in literal rebirth not take Buddha as an absolute authority.

Al said...

"No one has commented on whether the other processes and structures involved / affected by meditation are part of the ANS or not - only whether balancing of the ANS is caused by meditation."

Yes they are. They are all part of the same feedback system. A positive effect on the ANS causes a positive effect on the other systems and vice versa.

"In fact what research quoted earlier (see above) shows evidence that the activity of the SNS decreases and the activity of the PNS increases. In other words, the ANS is likely to move away from equilibrium."

The raising of the PNS and the lowering of the SNS is likely an initial overshoot. Most of the bodies systems do this to regain equilibrium.

PKB said...

Here are some selections from a great article I found on Zen Forum International by the rev. Nonin, a dharma heir of Dainin Katagiri Roshi. I urge anyone interested to visit the site and read the entire article:

"When human beings see differences (the branches) and focus on them, they tend to ignore the similarities, the shared heritage (the roots). Then, it becomes easier to take the next step, to regard your way (or yourself) as better and others as worse, or your way as true, or authentic, and other ways as false, or inauthentic. This is human ego at work, and it has bred sectarian rivalry, bitterness, and suspicion throughout Buddhist history. Unfortunately, it is still going on.

My Zen Buddhist teacher, Dainin Katagiri, encouraged me to read the Pali Nikayas to get a feel for what Shakyamuni Buddha was really like and to examine how he lived his life day-to-day; Katagiri-roshi also invited Theravadan monks to give talks at our temple in Minneapolis. Other Zen teachers can be similarly open-minded. A Zen monk I trained with in Japan was encouraged by his teacher to go to Thailand and practice with Theravadan monks to experience what it was like to live as Shakyamuni Buddha did. He went and stayed for two years.

Dainin Katagiri was fond of saying that the world’s great spiritual traditions, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and all the many others are like fingers pointing at the moon. The moon is truth, and all authentic paths lead to it. This is also true in regard to different Buddhist paths. I like to add that we should never mistake the finger for the moon. Paths can only direct us to the truth. They are not the truth itself, which is beyond any path, any “yana, or vehicle,” any “ism,” beyond any and all words or functions that discriminate and separate things into this and that, true and false, right and wrong. All of this is dualistic. If we mistake the finger for the moon, and regard our way as the truth, we mistake the path for the goal and we get stuck, blocking further development and keeping ourselves from realizing things as they are. The moon, then, moves farther and farther away.

It’s also good to remember that no spiritual tradition, Buddhist or otherwise, exists as a separate entity apart from the people teaching and practicing it. There are good, mediocre, and not-so-good teachers in all traditions. A good teacher would never say that their way is the only way, the best way, or the most complete. Sectarianism is a manifestation of a small, narrow, ego-centered mind. "

Justin said...

Yes they are. They are all part of the same feedback system. A positive effect on the ANS causes a positive effect on the other systems and vice versa.

As I said. No one has said that these are not part of the ANS. Define 'positive effect'.

The raising of the PNS and the lowering of the SNS is likely an initial overshoot. Most of the bodies systems do this to regain equilibrium.

You seem keen to reinterpret the evidence so that it fits what you already want to believe. Can you give any evidence that meditation leads to equilibrium in the ANS?

proulx michel said...

Blogger Mysterion said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...
"I'd like to add that personally I don't support the idea of literal rebirth at all..."

I'ld like to suggest Life Before Life.

And what about Life During Life (or "Is there a life before death?)

Mysterion said...

Blogger proulx michel said...
"And what about Life During Life (or "Is there a life before death?)"

This world of shadow and light is the Buddhist equivalent of "hell." Birth is suffering, life is suffering, growing old (disease) is suffering, and death is suffering. All rather pleasant stuff, NOT. Furthermore, in the pirate-copy of Buddhism, it is mentioned amongst mystics.

see, for example:
ZEN MASTERS: A MAVERICK, A MASTER OF MASTERS, AND A WANDERING POET. By John Stevens, 161 pp. Kodansha International: Tokyo/NY/London, 1999.

1 Corinthians, for example, mentions that the physical world the "realm of the devil."

Matt said...

Wow, my god, I leave this place for a few days and look what happens!

Settle down back there or I'll slap all three of ya!

Al said...

"Define 'positive effect'."

A positive effect would be the righting of whichever abnormality/skill/or physiological function is being tested.

"You seem keen to reinterpret the evidence so that it fits what you already want to believe."

Nope. I studied exercise science and pre-med in school. I'm not citing studies here, but knowledge from the text I studied. My statements are based on the model of the human body and its feedback systems.

In general most studies on meditation don't specifically study the ANS because it is to broad. The ANS is like a circuit board that operates a number of other systems. An abnormality in one system(hear rate variability) will effect the ANS in some manner. I think the confusion here is that this "balance" of the ANS is a 50/50 split. From my knowledge it is not. Generally most of the conditions that constitute a "diseased" ANS result in hyperactivity of the systems the SNS controls. Notice I said the systems it controls, NOT the SNS by itself. A study that points to the benifits of meditation will always show a lowering of SNS activity and a increase in PNS activity.

Here is one:

The most common test are Heart Rate Variability and EEG. I've never read one that doesn't mention the ANS. However, there is not end all be all number for a balanced ANS(that I know of). Its balance relies on too many different systems.

Here is a recommended text:,M1

Look, I don't think Nishijima looks at all this stuff. I see his pointing to the ANS as a more objective way of explaining what is usually mystical. He hasn't done bad for 90 year old man.


Anonymous said...

BTW mysterion and a couple of others (re the third noble cause) -

From the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary:

"SAMUDAYA: coming together , union , junction , combination , collection , assemblage , multitude , aggregation , aggregate

(with Buddhists) the aggregate of the constituent elements or factors of any being or existence (in later times equivalent to " existence " itself)

a producing cause (e.g. दुःखस्° " [= duhkha-] the cause of suffering ")

income , revenue
success , prosperity

war , battle
a day

rising (of the sun &c )..."

While some may question Monier-Wiliams' Buddhist sourcing and interpretation, his sanskit is still authoritative. Nowhere do we see "wandering". Where did that come from?

UG Krishnamurti said...

"When the questions you have resolve themselves into just one question, your question, then that question must detonate, explode and disappear entirely, leaving behind a smoothly functioning biological organism, free of the distortion and interference of the separative thinking structure."

Anonymous said...

My bad - I meant 2nd noble truth.


Anonymous said...

A further BTW, for NellaLou, and others -

While I've got the dictionary out...

"DUHKHA: uneasy , uncomfortable , unpleasant , difficult

uneasiness , pain , sorrow , trouble , difficulty"

So that is the meaning of the word.

Barbara O'Brien's "categories of duhkha" - derived from sanskrit compounds - are her own business (or that of some school of buddhism I'm unfamiliar with) and aren't to be confused, I suggest, with the word itself. It may help to know that DUH is the antonym of SU, meaning good or pleasant.

You can make it into "such a large concept" if you want, but the original meaning of duhkha is pretty straightforward.

Anonymous said...

A good teacher would never say that their way is the only way, the best way, or the most complete. Sectarianism is a manifestation of a small, narrow, ego-centered mind.

I have to disagree a bit. Obviously not all ways are as good and why would you study or teach something mediocre or less than the best? Why settle for less?

Saying that all traditions are as valuable or all paths lead up the same mountain (as the other famous mouthpiece goes) is just being a pussy afraid of confronting the frauds. When I looked at the ZFI I saw lot of that kind of mellow smiling and pussyfooting around attitude there and I think one of Brad's most valuable contributions to the Buddhist scene in the West is that he is not afraid to point out that the master has no clothes or say things aloud when they need to be said.

Anya said...

I don't disagree, anon. My problem with Brad is not that he does not hold every tradition in equal esteem, which I agree would be silly. My problem is that he badmouths teachers and traditions he admits to knowing almost nothing about, often on very flimsy pretexts. His ridiculous criticism of 'mindfulness' because some other teachers at Tassajara leave the room a mess is just an embarrassing example of sniping. Since I'm Theravada, I don't regard Mahayana as being of equal value, because I have trouble with the idea of praying to Manjusri or Sutras that were written 600 years after the Buddha's death to be authoritative. But I'd never launch into a tirade about how Zen is stupid because I've met thoughtless Zen teachers, or claim that key Buddhist concepts never existed just because I didn't know much about them. The Buddha was pretty clear that not all paths lead to enlightenment; if that was his message then there would be no Buddhism, he could have easily just told his followers to stay Hindu, become Jains, or whatever else was available. Brad claiming he believes his school of practice is the best one is not an issue, since we all probably believe this about our path to some extent. When he starts publicly saying that everyone besides Gudo Nashijima and a few buddies are hacks, because of things he's too lazy to study, that becomes an issue,as does him being a self-promoting Buddhist teacher who shows a shocking lack of basic Buddhist knowledge.

Cynthia Choi said...

what a wonderful post and such wise and kind answers. Love the food commentary.

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