Monday, August 16, 2010

DONE AT GREAT SKY, NEXT STOP TASSAJARA

Man it was hot at the Great Sky sesshin! And the mosquitoes were vicious beyond belief. You'd spray yourself with more bug poison than any human should ever apply to his skin and they would still bite. I have little red splotches up and down my legs even now, two days later. Whenever I'd go to the outhouse as soon as that one portion of my body that was not doused with bug spray was exposed they'd be right there trying to take a bite. I had to admire their tenacity.

There's an old Zen saying, "When it's hot let the heat kill you. When it's cold let the cold kill you." Good advice, to be sure. But gosh dang it was hot!

And there were thunderstorms. Because the prairie is so flat out in that part of Minnesota you could see the lightning flashes sometimes as much as four hours before the storms actually arrived. There were a couple times the strikes must have been right there outside the zendo because the thunder came simultaneously with the flash and was loud enough to shake the building. BA-BOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!

As most of you reading this probably know, a Zen sesshin is an intensive period of concentrated Zen practice that usually lasts 3-7 days. This was a 7 day one. They wake you up at 4:30 in the morning and the first practice begins at five. The photo above is the tea house at Hokyoji at 4:30 AM. That's where folks go to caffeine up for the coming onslaught, unless you're me and you can't handle caffeine anymore and have to make do with vitamins. The day is broken up with a few chanting services, a dharma talk, a couple breaks and a work period. But for the most part you are sitting, staring at a wall all fucking day long. It's brutal.

And Great Sky is probably the gentlest Zen sesshin out there, except maybe for those Thich Nhat Hahn things where you do like 20 minutes of zazen a day and even that's optional. Or something like that. I've never been on one, but word on the street says there's very little actual zazen required.

The dharma talks this year by the five of us teachers who were there tended to interlock, which was an interesting new development. One of the themes that seemed to come up in nearly all of them was the subject of kensho experiences.

Kensho (見性)means "seeing into one's true nature." In some circles a kensho or satori experience is held out to be the greatest thing a Zen practitioner can hope for. Lots of Zen folks drive themselves to have one of these great breakthrough moments. The literature is full of different words for these; "opening experiences," "enlightenment," "awakening," the list goes on.

This is, of course, the premise behind the whole Big Mind® scam and other similar abuses of Zen practice. I can't remember what the other teachers and participants said about these experiences, but I can give you my opinions, informed by what I heard last week.

It's not that there can never be any value to such experiences. You can find value in any experience. It's just that afterward it's just like any other cool thing that happened to you. "Dude! You shoulda seen the sunset I saw in Maui when I was totally high!" or "I banged the captain of the cheer leading squad/football team/both at once when I was in tenth grade!" or "I had the biggest Enlightenment experience ever in the world!" are all pretty much the same thing. They're just events from our past that we latch onto in order to define ourselves.

Enlightenment experiences are particularly good for this. In fact, they may represent the ultimate among all ego trips. What could be bigger than being one with the entire universe? What could make you more massive and heavy and ultra super duper rad and cool? Nothing I can think of, that's for sure.

It's not hard to induce some big ass experience. Tonen O'Connor, one of the Great Sky teachers worked in the theater for many years before she became a Zen teacher. She said that this was their stock in trade when they put on shows -- exciting people's emotions and giving them an experience they'd remember. This is why she was initially unimpressed when she first encountered Zen at a temple in Japan that emphasized these kinds of "breakthrough moments." I've participated in similar things in the world of rock'n'roll. Inducing Big Wow moments like this can also be a very powerful way of making people feel they owe you something.

Making someone have a breakthrough moment very early in practice may be the best way of killing that person's potential to truly come to terms with who and what they actually are. And that's pretty sad. Also, at some level of understanding, a so-called "kensho experience" and what most of us would call a nervous breakdown or even psychosis aren't all that different. It's dangerous mojo to play with that kind of stuff.

Anyway, whatever. You've heard me say all this before and you'll probably hear it again. I can't convince anyone of anything, particularly those unfortunate enough to have had their own so-called "breakthrough moments" far too early. I can just make it abundantly clear that I, for one, will forever and always oppose that kind of bullshit.

This year's Great Sky sesshin was a particularly harrowing retreat for me. I don't think I've ever sat a sesshin that was quite as difficult. But it was good. It's what I needed.

In becoming a celebrity and touring the world I've been concerned that I was losing touch with the practice. I needed something pretty strong to bring me back. The Great Sky sesshin was the first part, and the month I'm going to spend at Tassajara is the next.

For those of you keeping track at home, I will be at Tassajara from on or about August 18th until on or about September 14th. It's guest season down there and I'll be a work practice student for most of that month right until the day I magically transform into a teacher and give a couple of talks down in the valley just before I emerge into the so-called "real world."

After that I have a few gigs in Northern California. They're listed at this link. So stop by if you can. Then Zero Defex is playing at the Kent Stage in Kent, Ohio on September 25th. After that I'm speaking at the Cleveland Buddhist Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. I'll be in New York in October. I'm working on a few more East Coast things to try and take advantage of being on that side of the country. So stay tuned.

Some folks are managing my Twitter account while I'm away. So if you subscribe to that there might be updates there before I get out of Tassajara.

Meanwhile, copies of my newest book, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between, have already started appearing in the shops. I have it on good authority that there's a copy at a book store here in Milwaukee. If they've penetrated this far into the Midwest there may be some at stores near you too.

So as soon as I get out of the monastery, the madness will start right back up again full force. Hopefully the time away will help me settle into it easily.

I think we all need a bit of time away from the world. This is why people take vacations. But a Zen sesshin is more than a vacation. It's a time of deepening practice that you can't really get any other way. There's stuff you get into on day three or four that you couldn't possibly get into just sitting for a half an hour at home.

Still, that at-home practice is the most vital thing. It's like visiting the dentist. If you never brushed your teeth and just went in for a cleaning every six months, it would be hard for your hygenist to do much for you. Same with Zen. If you expect, as some folks seem to, that you can get your Zen practice done all in one super intensive week, well, it just doesn't work that way.

Anyhow, this will probably be my last post for a while. Unless I get held up in San Francisco waiting for a ride up the mountains and down into the canyon where Tassajara sits. So enjoy the respite from all of my noise while you can!

ADDENDUM:

It's really interesting to see how upset people get when I question anything about kensho/satori/enlightenment/awakening etc. Immediately after this post went up I'm accused by the usual anonymous posters of "teaching Zen without having insight into (my) true nature," and "talking out my ass like (I) usually do." It seems to really touch a nerve when you question these things.

Even the venerable Jinzang says that saying kensho is unimportant is the same as chasing it, only with a "fucked up layer of repression added to it."

But why such fussing? If kensho is real, then who cares what I think about it? It's not gonna make it less real. Or is it? Are these anonymi simply eager to protect those poor souls, less enlightened than anonymous blog posters, who might be mislead by Bad Ol' Brad?

In Hardcore Zen I talked about two events that happened in my life. One time I was walking to work and all of a sudden everything fell into place. All kinds of crazy shit Tim McCarthy had told me when I first started sitting made sense like, "It's more you than you could ever be." I can't recall when this happened. Not even what year. It occurred completely outside of time and space as I knew it up until that moment. It occurred every day since time began and until time ends. It flashed through all living and non-living things in the cosmos.

My life was divided in two on that day. I describe the whole thing in great detail in the book, so I won't regurgitate that here. That moment has informed everything I've written about Zen ever since. It was an important day.

It was not dramatic at all. It was perfectly normal. Nothing has ever been so normal.

It was not kensho.

I also talked about another experience. In that one I saw my whole body and being spread throughout the cosmos. My mind was the mind of God. All of time was my creation. I was the Biggest, Baddest Thing That Ever Existed.

That one fucked me up but good. And just like the anonymi who post comments to this blog, I was terribly upset when Gudo Nishijima dared — DARED — to question me — ME!!! — about the reality of this.

And then I thought, "Why would God His Bad Ass Self be worried what some little old man thought of him?" And then I ate a tangerine and got over it. Which was also a very big deal. I did not get over it easily. I'll leave it at that. I got over it screaming and kicking and cursing.

The former is not something you can bottle and sell. The latter is what guys like Genpo are tricking their followers into believing is "Enlightenment."

It's fucking them up big time.

But I digress.

If you experience even something like the former too soon and without proper grounding, it's exactly like psychosis. It will make you crazy. It is not a good thing. I suspect maybe Charles Manson had an experience of something like real awakening but he had it when he was not ready to understand what it meant.

Even with 20 or so years of Zen behind me, that experience by the river has had some seriously weird effects in my life. The song 108 Sacred Stages I posted here a while back is about some of that. Something like that happens and you're cool for a while. But then you're all like, (whiny voice) "How come it's not like that anymore?" "How can I make it happen again?"

Oh it's still there, somewhere. But it's not of time. It's the very ground of all being and non-being, including my shitty-ass life of sleeping on other people's floors and hoping my next book sells enough that I can live somewhere decent, of getting horny and looking at Suicide Girls, of mosquito bites and record shopping, of buying books about Jesus and listening to experimental electronic music from the 1950s. It's you too, whether you know it or not.

But there's a strong, strong habit we all have of grasping at things to make them "mine." That day was not mine. "It does not linger in the vicinity of the personal self" as Dogen put it. But you want it to. Believe me, YOU want it to. You want it to bad. And I mean you. And I mean BAD.

Kensho is bunk. Satori is bullshit.

And I'm sleepy. Good night.

Friday, August 06, 2010

THOSE WERE DIFFERENT TIMES

I've been driving a lot the past few days. Yesterday was five hours. Today I have another four. Tomorrow I got five or six more. Then I'll be cloistered away from all this Internet noise for a while.

Anyway, to keep me awake while driving I downloaded some podcasts including one called Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. I had to download it just for the title alone. But it turns out it's really good.

The two podcasts I listened to yesterday got me thinking about the Buddhist view of its own ancient writings. As I've said more times than I can count, Buddhists do not view their ancient philosophical writings the way most religions do. We don't even view our scriptures (for want of a better word) the way Americans view the Constitution.

I saw a thing about the Second Amendment lately where someone was trying to say we had to be true to what the Founding Fathers intended. Why? That's the religious view of scripture right there. The Founding Fathers were not infallible. Their intentions may have been completely wrong. Or, more pointedly, their intentions may have been right but right for their time, not ours.

Religions tend to view their scriptures as infallible and their writers as perfect. Buddhists do not take that view. The ancient Buddhist masters were often brilliant, perhaps in many cases more brilliant than anyone alive today. But they were also people of different times and different places. We must never forget that.

The Hardcore History episodes I listened to yesterday concerned what we would today call child abuse and substance abuse in earlier periods of history. Listening to these, I was reminded how different our world is today form the world of the past. It's not just that there was no Internet, TV or flush toilets in ancient India or Japan or wherever. We may be dealing with a profoundly different kind of human being today than existed in the past. Possibly.

A guy in the comments section of this blog recently said that said Zen is not Buddhism because Gotama Buddha did not allow his sangha to have sex and in Zen even monks and nuns can fuck. I pointed out that he was mistaken. In Gotama Buddha's time the monks and nuns were forbidden to have sex, but the sangha in general was allowed to screw all they wanted as long as their behavior didn't cause problems. Buddha gave a formula for how to judge if your sexual activity would create trouble for society.

In his typically homophobic, chauvinistic, male-centric way, he said:

He avoids unlawful sexual intercourse, abstains from it. He has no intercourse with girls who are still under the protection of father or mother, brother, sister, or relative; nor with married women, nor female convicts; nor lastly with betrothed girls.

You gals and gays out there will need to make your own revisions. But you get the point.

In any case, one of the reasons the Japanese Zen tradition allows sex for monks these days is that it recognizes that we live in very different times.

In the Hardcore History podcasts I listened to yesterday Dan Carlin pointed out that what we would today call child abuse and substance abuse was rampant in the past. It was considered normal. And society was profoundly affected by this. People were different because of it. They were raised in a very different way. They made key decisions under utterly different circumstances. It's hard to imagine the kinds of things that were considered perfectly normal even as recently as 100 years ago. Go listen to the podcasts yourself if you want details. They're two of the "Blitz" episodes. The downloads are free.

In many significant ways we are very different people from the people Buddha was talking to when the earliest Buddhist scriptures were recorded. Yet in other deeper ways we are very much the same. It's our duty as contemporary Buddhists to understand this and to find the differences and similarities.

* * *

OK. That was a quick, off the cuff post to last you for the next week at least, if not the next six weeks. I'll have about four days between Great Sky and Tassajara. There's no telling if I'll be able to post during those days or not. At least two days will be devoted entirely to travel. Maybe more. I need to work on my intenerary.

Anyway, see ya later!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Health, Fitness and Zen

Sorry I ain't been writing much. I've been working hard on finishing up a novel I wrote way back in 1998. It's called Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet.

Back in those days I was trying hard to become a professional writer. I wrote dozens of short stories that I used to send to science fiction magazines and get rejection notices for. I managed to publish three of them, I think. All fairly bad. I was writing stuff for Ultraman, some of which was used uncredited. I also completed three novels; Death to All Monsters (aka Destroy All Spacemen), Akron Ohio: City in the Sky and Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet.

Gill Women was the best of the bunch. It concerned the exploits of a hapless sf-movie nerd named Joe who lives in Akron and happens to have the last remaining copy of a film called Gill Women of the Prehistoric Planet. Joe believes that this moldering old movie kept in rusting film canisters in the basement of the punk rock house he shares with a band called the Zen Luv Assassins contains the key to thwarting an alien invasion he believes is being planned and organized at the local Johnny Teagle's HyperMart store.

It's a comedy that may or may not be science fiction. There's been some interest expressed lately in my novels, so I decided the time was right to fix one of them up and see if it goes anywhere. I'm actually enjoying the book a lot. About two years of hard labor went into creating it, and it's not bad at all.

ANYWAY I got an email today that said this:


Long time fan, first time caller! I'd appreciate a post or just your thoughts about the role of health and fitness in Zen. Most specifically what is your daily food routine like. Do you totally stay away from caffeine? Do you eat after noon? There's lots of Zen writing about mindful eating and such but I'd like to hear more of what your actual diet is like. Do you do wheat grass shots every morning? Do you choke down omega-3's every day? I remember a quote (from Sit Down I believe) where you mentioned our responsibility to feed ourselves healthy food and that you're a vegetarian. You've also talked about yoga and stuff. I know that my practice totally sucks when I've eaten too much or just generally treat my body like crap. And when I don't exercise I just feel way less "balanced" in general. Maybe I just need some encouraging words to get my ass to the gym!


I've been thinking about this a lot lately. My own diet is not really exemplary. I'm a vegetarian, but more for moral reasons than health. Which means that I consider Fritos as perfectly acceptable vegetarian cuisine. However, recently I've been trying to get a bit more serious about diet and exercise.

The crisis point came in my tour of Europe this Spring. I had very little control over what I got fed during my travels. Just trying to avoid big hunks of meat in everything I ate was hard enough. Plus I was spending a lot of time in planes, cars and trains, basically sitting for long, long periods. And not sitting zazen, either! Just sort of slumped in a chair somewhere.

When I lived in Santa Monica I had a regular exercise routine consisting mainly of yoga and bicycle riding. That was gone and I needed to do something. So I went on-line looking for fitness routines that could be done pretty much anywhere without any special equipment. I started doing a 25 minute workout I found on some website every day before breakfast, which I still do now that I'm back in the USA. It's got push-ups, crunches, squats and some other stuff.

I also spent some time in Japan with my friend Patrick Reynolds who runs a thing called the Peak Condition Project. My friend Ren did the program and it really made a big difference. I haven't done the program, but I did listen to Patrick lecture me about my lousy eating habits, and I've endeavored to change those -- fewer carbs, more vegetables (Fritos are not vegetables), less food at night, etc.

The ancient Buddhists were not allowed to eat after noon. Very few Buddhists follow that these days. In fact, in Zen retreats they have a cute way of cheating in which they refer to breakfast and lunch as meals and to dinner as "medicine." It's like supposedly observant Jews who hire gentiles to turn their lights on during the Sabbath. It pays lip service to the tradition but ignores the spirit behind it.

Nishijima, by the way, bucks this system. He calls dinner a meal during his retreats, and does the meal chant at night too (it's usually skipped at night at Zen retreats because you don't chant for "medicine"). I've kept Nishijima's tradition at my own retreats. I prefer the honesty of doing it that way.

In Buddhism we say that body and mind are the same. Unfortunately, too many in the Zen world see Zen as a purely mental exercise and ignore their bodies. I don't really trust fat Zen masters. I saw a video of one American master doing his prostrations and I really worried whether he was gonna have a heart attack with all the bulk he was carrying.

I'm not talking about middle-aged people who are carrying a bit of extra around. That's not such a big deal. But there are some truly obese Zen masters out there and I really wonder about that.

I once read a piece by some author talking about what it takes to be a professional writer. One of the points he stressed was physical fitness. Writing is a job where you sit around a lot. It's easy to get fat and soft. But, said the author, the condition of your body affects the condition of your mind. You can't be a good writer if you don't take care of your body.

I wish I could recall who wrote that, because I fully agree. I believe Zen practice absolutely requires you to take care of your physical condition. You need to exercise and take care of your nutrition. Body and mind are one. You can't expect to free your mind while abusing the rest of your body.

Nishijima Roshi chants the full Buddhist meal chant before every meal he eats, even when he's at home by himself. I haven't started this myself, although I have started doing the very short version of it at most meals. I read once that cultures with meal rituals have less obesity than those without. I can see why. Eating is important. It should not be taken lightly. Even vegetarians like me have to kill other forms of life in order to sustain ourselves. This is some heavy stuff.

So no, I'm not doing wheat grass shots or abstaining from food after noon. But I do try to be careful of what I eat and I make a point of doing exercise every day, no matter how much I hate it -- and I assure you I do hate it. A lot. But it makes me feel good. So it must be good. I'm no body builder, but I'm not fat and I plan to keep it that way. I try to deal with physical fitness and nutrition in a balanced way. It's important not to take even being healthy too far.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Young And Dumb



Here's me and my 14 year old niece Skylar Goldman performing the Rubber City Rebels' single "Young And Dumb" in my sister's kitchen on August 1, 2010.

Corrupting the youth! YEAH!

(By the way, I'm not left-handed. We did this using Mac's Photobooth application, which automatically makes a mirror image video.)