First I hope all of you reading this show up at my talk/book signing at Bodhi Tree Books in Los Angeles tomorrow March 12th, 2009 at 7pm. The address is: 8585 Melrose Ave. West Hollywood, CA 90026. It's free and open to the public. Be there or be square! Seriously. At this Buddhist bookstore it would be nice to see a Buddhist author get the kind of massive audience they get for crystal gazers and astro-hypno past-life regression acts.
Also, I'll be at the Dharma Punx place in Hollywood leading zazen and talking on Sunday March 15th at 11am (I'm one of the "and others," thanks...). This will be a monthly thing. Although I won't be there for the April one and I'm not 100% sure about May, my Dharma Brother Kevin Bortolin will lead the ones I can't make it to. The address is 4300 Melrose (between Heliotrope and Vermont) Los Angeles, CA 90029.
More Q&A from the letters bin:
It bugs me that Gautama Buddha left his family. The message I get from your books (and other Zen writing) is that you don't need to run away to find enlightenment, the truth, or whatever. If you happen to be a prince with a wife and child, those circumstances are not obstacles to your practice -- they are your practice. Also, you shouldn't hurt or neglect the people and things in your life to pursue some abstract goal. It seems like this part of the historical Buddha's story is inconsistent with these principles. The way the story is usually told, I get the impression that he wouldn't have been able to find enlightenment if he hadn't left his family -- in other words, having a family life really was an obstacle to his practice. I've also heard stories of others who left their families to join his original group. So here's the question: How do you think one should interpret the fact that the historical Buddha and others in his group left their families? Also, what would you say to someone today who wanted to leave his or her spouse and children in order to devote more time to sitting?
This is a tough question to answer adequately. Let me tell you a story first. When I took the Buddhist Precepts from Nishijima Roshi, he didn't require me to shave my head. But later on I decided it might be useful and expedient to do the ceremony through the Soto-shu just so my name would be on the books there. The Soto-shu requires you to shave your head for the ceremony. So I did.
Afterward I needed to explain to friends and co-workers why I suddenly looked like a skinny version of Curly from the Three Stooges. I still lived in Japan at this time. So I told them I did 出家 (pronounced "shukke" -- shoe-kay). The 2 Chinese characters used to spell this word out mean "leave home."
But I hadn't left home, in the literal sense. I lived in the same house with the same wife and had the same job as before. This is not at all uncommon.
OK. So there was this Chinese-style vegetarian restaurant I used to go to a lot near my house that was run by a Taiwanese woman who was a devout follower of some sort of esoteric Buddhist sect. She asked about my shaved head and I told her I'd done shukke. She turned red in the face and steam shot out of her ears. "You haven't done shukke!! It's just for show!!! Japanese Buddhists don't know anything about real shukke!!!!"
Then she brought out this scrap book full of photos of the monks in her sect with horribly deformed people, apparently helping them do stuff. The photos seemed designed to emphasize the various deformities of the people they were helping in sharp focused, brightly lit, colorful graphic detail, almost like hardcore porn does with genitalia. "This is real shukke!!!!!" she shouted.
While I had to admire those monks for their charitable work, the woman at the restaurant's attitude toward that work showed me there was some kind of problem there. This incident has somewhat colored my attitude toward so-called "engaged Buddhism" ever since. But that's a whole 'nother subject.
To me leaving home is more of an attitude than a description of a specific act. The monks she showed me photos of had indeed left home in a literal sense. But I wondered if they'd really left home at all. Of course, I didn't know them, so I can't say. But her attitude toward them was based on a very strong attachment to a specific (and very common) way of viewing the world. I wondered where she'd received that attitude.
There's certainly a basis of truth in the stories we hear about Buddha and his earliest followers. But things might not have been like we imagine they were. In the days when living your whole life in the same house with an extended family was the norm, "leaving home" could mean moving to your own place three blocks away. In that sense, almost all of us these days "leave home."
The story has come down to us in its present form to emphasize Buddha's commitment to pursuing the truth. "Leaving home," to me, means adopting the attitude that the pursuit of the truth is more vital than the pursuit of what society (home) tells you is important. Even if your mom tells you the most important thing is to marry a doctor and live on a hill with a car the neighbors will envy, you need to be able to reject that and look for what's real.
But that doesn't mean running away. Running away is futile. Even if you run very far away from home to a remote mountain monastery, as long as you carry the same attitude you always had you'll never truly get away. You'll just end up transferring all the stuff from home onto the other people in the monastery.
People of today who want to dump their spouses and kids to run off to the mountains ought to examine themselves and their motivations very, very carefully. Lots of people run away from responsibilities to "find themselves." But not so many of them have a real commitment to the truth. It would be better to find the truth in the life you're living, with the responsibilities you've already accepted. Responsibilities have a way of finding you even if you run away from them.
In your book you talk about how it is important for Buddhist practice to be religious, even if it is not "spiritual". This makes sense to me but I live in a state where the only zen center is run by a guy who believes his group therapy technique can give people enlightenment in a few hours-- if not faster-- and I don't have a lot of money for traveling this year and so I am wondering if there is something I should be doing differently to make my meditation practice more specifically Buddhist. Right now I sit each morning and evening. At the end of each meditation period I recite a version of the Bodhisattva Vow. Reciting the vow is something I only began to do recently and it does seem to add something to the meditation period. Is there some other things I could be doing to make the practice more "religious" in a positive way?
Do I say Buddhist practice should be religious? Man, I never know what the Hell I say sometimes!
I guess maybe you're referring to the idea of sitting with a group or doing some of the ceremonial stuff. I do believe the ceremonial or ritual type stuff is important. But I think you don't need a whole lot of it.
Last Saturday someone asked the purpose of the chanting we do (we chant the Heart Sutra and the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo and do prostrations). I said, "Entertainment." Group chanting really only serves the purpose of providing entertainment and acting as a group bonding ritual. It's probably a slightly better form of entertainment than trolling for YouTube videos of drunk college girls making out. But it's still entertainment.
I think a home-based practice is fine. Me, I do my sitting at home, and don't neglect the bows to the cushion and away from it before and after sitting. Recently I've been chanting the "Five Reflections" meal chant before breakfast. My teacher chants this before every meal even if it's cold take-out from the local convenience store. He also chants the verse in praise of the Buddhist robe before putting his robe on prior to doing zazen. Reciting the Bodhisattva vows is nice too. These kinds of things kind of reorient your mind toward practice in a concrete way.
But the core practice is always zazen. That's the one you should never do without.
Enough for today! I gotta go get my car smog checked.