First up the Hardcore Zen Podcast has recently been updated. It's all about SEX! So go have a listen.
I'm also now up on another podcast: Dr. Dick's Sex Advice.
Secondly, now that the Christmas season is here, I wanted to once again direct your attention to Often Awesome, the group of friends of mine who have joined together to help their friend Tim LaFollette in his battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease. It's a damn shame to live in a country where the only way a guy like this can get the help he needs is by begging from strangers. But that's the U.S. of A. for you. Don't get me started... Just donate something!
Back to questions from readers. I don't have a specific email for my first question. It's just something that keeps coming up especially now that I have moved to New York City. The question goes something like this: How can I practice in an urban setting with all the noise and hassle and speed and distractions?
I was just reading Shohaku Okumura's Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo last night and came across the answer. Okumura cites the old Japanese folk tale about the rabbit in the moon. The story, which I have cut and pasted from this website, goes like this:
"The Old-Man-of-the-Moon one day looked down into a big forest on Earth and saw three friends sitting together around a fire. These three were a rabbit, a monkey and a fox. Amazed at seeing a group of friends like this, he went down to Earth and changed himself into a beggar. He told the three friends that he was very hungry. On hearing this they all ran of to find him some food. The monkey brought back a lot of fruit to the man and the fox brought back a big fish. However, the rabbit was unable to find any food for the man, and so asked the monkey to gather some firewood and the fox to build a big fire with the wood. Once the fire was burning very brightly, the rabbit explained to the beggar that he didn't have anything to give him, so he would put himself in the fire and when he was cooked the beggar could eat him. Just before the rabbit jumped into the fire the beggar turned back into the Old-Man-of-the-Moon and told the rabbit that he was very kind, and that he shouldn't do anything to harm himself. Because he decided that the rabbit is the kindest of the three, he took him back to the moon to live with him."
Okumura writes that as a young Buddhist monk he often felt like that rabbit. He was ordained at 21 and began living off the donations of others. He says that as a result he never developed any skills that would allow him to have a regular job. He often felt guilty about receiving donations from people who did "real work" when he could offer nothing in return. All he could offer was his practice. He says, "I tried to practice zazen as if I was offering my body and mind to all Buddhas." And, of course, by "all Buddhas" he means everyone.
In New York City people like to blow their horns. It's not quite as bad as Cairo or Jerusalem because you can actually get fined for unnecessary use of your horn here. Although I doubt if anyone ever really is fined for that. In any case, whenever I hear some asshole honking his horn for no good reason* I recall that I am doing my practice for him. I am training myself to be better able not to add to the stress and frustration that causes guys like that to have to lash out at others. Every little bit helps.
TODAY'S FIRST EMAIL QUESTION:
A really awesome friend of mine is typing up this question for me because I am in prison right now. In your book “Sit Down and Shut Up” you said Dogen says not to study Buddism without a teacher. But what about when you’re in a place without a teacher? I’ve read all of your books more than once. I’ve read books by Gudo Nishijima, Dogen, et cetera. I lend time to zazen everyday. What else can (or should) I do? Is there anyway to study Buddhism without a teacher?
I get a lot of "how can I study Buddhism when I'm so far away from a teacher woah is me" type questions. And I'm not incredibly sympathetic because I managed to find a great teacher in Kent, Ohio in 1983, a time and a place where there should not have been anyone to teach me Zen. I'm aware of magnificent teachers in such far flung places as Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Helsinki, Finland. There are amazing teachers all over the damn place of only you take a look. A lot of people who ask this question are either too lazy to look around or too fussy about finding a teacher who fits exactly their preconceived notions. If I had waited for a teacher who fit my ideals about a teacher I would never have studied with Tim McCarthy or Gudo Nishijima.
But some people, like the guy who wrote me, really are in positions where a teacher is absolutely not available. To them I say, just continue your practice. There are points in practice where you genuinely have to have an outside opinion. I often cite the story of Shoko Asahara, the dick-wad who decided he was Enlightened and that this meant it was OK to jump start the Apocalypse by putting poison gas on the Tokyo subways as an example of what can happen when you try to teach yourself to meditate.
That's a very extreme case. You probably won't do something like that. I hope. Most likely your zazen will be sort of boring and maybe a little confusing. You might feel like giving up sometimes. But you'll be OK. Wait it out a little and you will probably find yourself in proximity to a teacher at just the moment you truly need to be. I really believe in the old cliche that "when the student is ready the teacher appears."
Guys who try to solve the problem of students who feel they need a teacher RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE by being available too easily are probably not doing anyone any great favors. The difficulty involved in finding a teacher is often part of the process that makes you ready when you do finally find one.
As fro what you can do besides zazen and reading... I don't know. That's all I've ever really done for my practice apart from talking to my teachers. Joshu Sasaki said to read lots of good books. I've always liked that advice. I made my own webpage of Zen books I think don't suck.
SECOND EMAIL QUESTION:
I have been reading your excellent book Sit Down and Shut Up and I have a question about the chapter 'Proper Posture Required.' It is not clear from the way the chapter is written the extent to which you think Zazen is possible in other positions. Whilst I have been taught that posture is very important, I have also been taught that it is possible to practice Zazen whilst kneeling on a bench, sitting on a chair, walking and even lying down, as long as the zazener is paying proper attention to their posture. I do not current possess the flexibility to practice in the iconic lotus positions, so I use a meditation bench. Do you think my meditation practice is completely shot as a result? Because I don't! However, I do not currently have a ready-made Sangha to visit to ask questions!
As I've often said, the posture in zazen is not arbitrary. It is part of the practice. No decent Yoga teacher would let a normal healthy person sit in a chair and bend forward a little then tell them they were doing the Downward Facing Dog pose just like the rest of the class. But if that Yoga teacher saw that sitting in a chair bending forward a little was the best approximation a certain person could do of Downward Facing Dog, she'd do her best to help that person in the hopes that maybe with a bit of work she could do the posture correctly someday.
I think Zen teachers who tell students that sitting in chairs, on benches or even lying on the floor are the same as sitting cross-legged on a cushion are not doing their students any great favors. Yes I KNOW that the full lotus posture is a bitch. YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO THE FULL LOTUS POSTURE! I don't know why every time I say anything about "right posture" a million commenters immediately assume I mean full lotus and get all red-faced and angry about it. I have always been very clear on this. Even Dogen doesn't insist on full lotus and he's about as hard-line on matters of posture as anyone you'd ever want to encounter.
But unless you really, truly, no bullshit, absolutely cannot sit cross legged on a cushion in any way shape or form then you really have to sit cross-legged on a cushion to do zazen correctly. Here's Gudo Nishijima explaining how to do it.
Your meditation practice is NOT completely shot because you do it on a bench. Do I need to say that again? Maybe I do because so many people seem to miss it when I make statements like that. So here goes:
Your meditation practice is NOT completely shot because you do it on a bench.
Those kneeling benches come kinda sorta close to getting you into a decent zazen posture. But it's still not the same. I would keep working on my flexibility. Try some Yoga classes. They're good for you! You might meet some cute people there too! Then after a while you can put away the bench until such time as you're old and arthritic and can't do the posture anymore. Then when you actually really do need the bench, pull it out again and use it.
* And I do mean "assholes honking for no good reason." I got honked at once here during the 1.7 seconds it took to shift my car from neutral to first gear. I also heard another guy get honked at because he failed to run over me when I was crossing the street in front of the guy who was in front of him (I had a walk signal too, by the way, as if that would even make a difference).