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.
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.
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!