Thursday, January 26, 2012


I have a silly question. When meditating, I've read one is to be aware, and not much else. However, when thoughts calm down, what is one suppose to be aware of. I check posture. But is the mind suppose to settle on something. Or simply search out--thus disturbing the calm--something to be aware of. I don't know if there is an answer--non-thinking maybe it. But I'm not sure I truly understand non-thinking.

There are no silly questions. Only silly people!

No. I don't mean that really. I don't know why people always want to belittle their own questions. This one's a pretty common one.

The real question is; Does awareness need an object? Or does awareness only appear when we divide subject and object?

In practical terms, when my zazen gets screwy I fix my posture. When it gets screwy again, I fix my posture again.

But there's no real need to be aware of anything specific.

One thing I was wondering if you'd written anything on is the uneasy relationship of zazen and intellectual discourse. This point is difficult for me because I'm sometimes irrepressibly intellectual, and reading Western philosophy has shaped me as much as my practice, but in different ways. Anyway, at times I detect a subtle hostility or contempt for intellectual argument in zen practitioners that I find baffling. For instance, one newcomer recently had mentioned having read up a bit on Zen practice, to which a more experienced practitioner responded, "Oh, no need for those books. Reading just confuses you in my experience." Now, of course she was referring to reading about Zen philosophy, or maybe philosophy in general, but in any case it felt a little knee-jerk. It reminded me of all those times I've been in discussions about X spiritual matter and when I asked--in as humble and sincere a way as I am capable of mustering--for clarification on some point or other, I was met with one of two reactions: A) hostility, because they regarded me as an ill-intentioned provocateur, or B) condescension, like I'm some clueless hyper-educated idiot. Or just frustration, that happens a lot too. And again, most of this stuff is pretty subtle, probably unconscious, but the underlying message less so: Just shut up and accept what is being said. I'm in total agreement that there are limits to how you can talk about, say, the nature of reality or the basis of ethical action, but just because those limits exist doesn't mean that you can't explore the space they contain. Or that, given that teachers use of natural language to explain concepts, you can't prod a little bit in hope of gaining some new perspective. (But yeah, it's a thin line between that and just dickheaded arrogance.) This happens mostly in discussions of the idea of one's "nature/essence," what "energy" is, or "enlightenment." It's all the more esoteric stuff, so not terribly important to my practice. But it does come up every once in a while, and then I feel like people are throwing around terms without a very coherent picture of how they fit together. In other words, I hear a lot of what is flawed logical argument that then retreats behind "the intuitive" when you point out how the logic is whack. To me that is bad dualistic thinking trying to pass as non-dual, where the non-dual answer would seem to call a lot of these concepts deeply into question, including the very idea of an opposition between intuition and intellect.

Oh just shut up and believe what I tell you to!

No! Sometimes this is a knee-jerk response. Sometimes it's a guy trying to be dogmatic about Zen. But often it's neither. You can only take intellectual discussion so far. After that it just becomes pointless. Intellectual discussion is limited by what the brain is able to conceive. The brain thinks it can conceive anything. And in a sense it is limitlessly able to box the universe up in new ways. There is no end to the ways we can frame things for ourselves and for others. But that's all we can do, frame things in different ways.

Dogen was also an intellectual. That's why he wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. He really attempted to frame things for us in the most accurate way possible. But he was also keenly aware that there was no ultimately accurate way of framing reality. So his writing is full of contradictions.

I have trouble keeping my eyes still while doing zazen. I have practiced for several years at this point, and my eyes move around just as much as at the beginning, though my legs have settled into half-lotus, my spine gets in a nice comfortable balance and so on.

Is this part of the posture, keeping my eyes in one spot? That is, should stillness of the eyes be a goal that I should work towards, just like getting into half-lotus posture was for me a few years ago?

I am aware that my eyes moving around is not some random, purely physical, automatic phenomenon. I have at least noticed that moving my eyes is connected to the flow of my thoughts. So another way of phrasing the question is: in your experience, is it best to treat compulsive motions like this as something I need to work on outside of the practice, as I would by stretching my legs, or should I look at it as part of the practice, bring to it the same kind of unattached attention as I would a fly buzzing around the room or the stream of thoughts in my mind?

I used to put a little dot on the wall and stare at that because I had much the same problem. This is kind of an unorthodox answer, though. I don't think Dogen would approve. But he's dead so we can't ask him what he thinks.

I'd say to try to work on this in terms of movement of the eyes. So rather than trying to stop thinking, maybe you can just try to stop your eyes from moving so much. I had some problems with twitching several years ago. I'd get a lot of random muscle twitches. My thumbs would jump up of their own accord and so forth.

I worked on that my waiting to see what happened when a muscle would jump. I didn't try to stop it from happening. Quite the opposite. I wanted it to happen so I could observe how it worked. I found that there was one specific state of mind that I'd go into just before the muscles would twitch. It's impossible for me to describe that state of mind. It was sort of foggy. That's all I can really say.

Anyhow, I found that I was able to avoid lapsing into that state. By avoiding that state of mind, I was able to stop the twitching.

I also found there was no real difference between what we call "voluntary" and what we call "involuntary" movement. That is, there was some aspect of what we usually call "voluntary" movement even in those movements we usually label as "involuntary." I never reached this level, but I would assume this is the kind of thing yogis who can slow down their heart rate or raise their body temperature at will do.

What is a "zen monk"?

I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it may tend to incriminate me.

But really... what in gosh's name is a zen monk?

For me it's like this. I studied with a Zen teacher for several years. At some point he asked me to go through this weird ceremony called shukke (出家), which means "home leaving." There was also no "or else" element to his request. I could take it or leave it. But he thought it would be a good idea.

I wasn't interested in doing this stupid ceremony. But this was the first time Nishijima Roshi had ever given me any kind of unsolicited advise. He'd answered questions before this. But he'd never told me what he thought I should do. So I figured this must be important.

The ceremony itself was fairly painless. I felt vaguely silly for about 45 minutes and then I was done. After the ceremony I asked Nishijima if I was a monk. He said, "Yes you are a monk."

A couple years after that I decided on my own to do the more "official" shukke ceremony through the highly official Soto-shu organization, a gigantic evil religious institution in Japan (but with Nishijima Roshi officiating, since he is a card carrying member of Soto-shu). That ceremony was far more inconvenient and way more embarrassing. I had to shave my head! I looked like Nosferatu for two or three weeks while my hair grew back. It was also really hot the day I did it. And I had to wear these horrible ugly white pajama things and have my photo taken in them. It was pretty awful.

But having done that I can now really call myself a Zen monk. It's even written down on a piece of paper somewhere in an office in Japan, filed away with all the other dumbasses who've done that silly ceremony.

On the other hand, many people have argued that I am not a monk. Their definitions of what is and is not a monk are different.

Becoming a monk isn't something you can just do on your own. You can't just decide to call yourself as a monk and expect anyone to take you seriously. You have to go through some kind of social ceremony in which someone else declares you a monk. But once that happens, you're a monk.

Of course people still might say you're not a monk. But, to take me as just one example, if someone says I'm not a monk they've also got to say that everyone registered with the Soto-shu of Japan as a monk is also not a monk. And many people do say that. Or else they have to set up their own standards and say that some of those monks are monks while others are not. But these are both iffy positions because you're going up against a really big organization who, though they are evil, have a lot of respect. Which doesn't stop some people from doing so anyhow.

The extent to which you're taken seriously in the big wide world as a monk is determined by the extent to which the organization that gave you the designation is taken seriously in the big wide world. If, for example, Joe's Zen Palour in Ravenna, Ohio calls you a monk that probably won't carry as much weight as the Soto-shu of Japan calling you a monk.

This is the reason I did the Soto-shu ceremony. At the time, I thought it was important to be seen as a legit monk. I now place far less importance on the matter.

Still, I've done the ceremony. Actually these days I'm somewhat embarrassed by that fact. I'm not so sure I'd call it a mistake. But it's not something I would do now if I hadn't done it 12 years ago. For better or worse I am a monk and I'll be a monk for life unless I choose to renounce what I did all those years ago.

As for what it means to be a monk, which is probably your real question... that's a lot harder to say. For me it means I've made a public commitment to zazen practice. That's pretty much it. For others it means following a strict set of regulations. For still others it's a badge of identity.

But these are the only-est Monks who really matter!


From the comments page-
@Brad, you wrote:
"But it's not something I would do now if I hadn't done it 12 years ago."

Can you give a reason? Or is it an emotional thing, being annoyed by the 'label' you are carrying with you since then?

I feel now like registering with Soto-shu was unnecessary. At the time I figured it was now or never. Meaning that while I was living in Japan in close conjunction with Nishijima Roshi, registering with Soto-shu would be relatively easy. I knew that if I waited and then later on decided to do it, the process would be extremely difficult. For example, if I waited till Nishijima Roshi was no longer with us there would have been a lot of bureaucratic steps involved that N was able to bypass. Or if I waited till I got back to America there would be the extra expense of going to Japan.

I'm not sure how much I benefited from the registration. It's likely that Wisdom Publications took my manuscript a tad more seriously because I was registered. But I think they would have considered my having been given dharma transmission by Nishijima Roshi enough.

I hope the distinction is clear. I did two almost identical ceremonies. One was with Nishijima Roshi in his dojo. That ceremony was not registered with Soto-shu. A few years later I went through almost the same ceremony but performed at Tokei-in temple. Again Nishijima officiated. But this time there were three monks from the temple in attendance, photos were taken, forms were filled out and mailed in and a few weeks later I got my certificate. With my name misspelled! So perhaps some guy named Bradely Warner is a Soto-shu monk while I am not.

I feel like the first ceremony with Nishijima at his dojo was my real ordination, while the second one was just a formality to get me on the books with an organization I have rarely interacted with since then.

I don't regret the ceremony with Nishijima. Although I'm still somewhat ambivalent as to what it really meant. The second ceremony with Soto-shu was something I did for pretty much all the wrong reasons. But I did it and it's done. I've done lots more regrettable things than that in my life.

Also, the dharma transmission ceremony was yet again a whole OTHER thing.

I could have had that formalized by Soto-shu as well. I looked into it. But it would have been really expensive (I think I worked it out that I'd have had to spend between $2000 and $5000 to get it all taken care of). It would also have been patently ridiculous.

One of the steps involved was to do this kind of Q&A session designed to check if I had truly mastered the dharma. BUT both the questions and their answers are already set. I'd have just had to memorize them and spit them out on cue.

Then you get to be honorary head of Soto-shu for a day or some shit. But you can't, like, disband the whole organization or decide to change everyone from black robes to pink tutus or whatever. Which would have made it worthwhile. No. You just get to sit in a special chair or something. Big deal. I'm not into that kind of nonsense. So I'm not gonna pay a couple thousand dollars to do it.

The whole thing just sounded like a parody of what Buddhism is really about.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

George Harrison Says "We Are Not These Bodies"

A reader in North Carolina asks:

Could you please comment on this quote, which Tom Petty attributes to George Harrison: "Look, we're not these bodies, let's not get hung up on that."

I'd be glad to! Because George Harrison is one of the key people in getting me into this whole Buddhist mess that I'm now inextricably mired in. I was a total Beatle geek by the time I was 15 years old and remain one to this very day. And since I'm a perverse weirdo sort of individual, many of my favorite Beatle tracks were the ones nobody else liked. I particularly dug the Indian-inspired tunes George contributed like Within You Without You , Love You To, The Inner Light and even Blue Jay Way. Hearing these songs and reading interviews with George really got me wanting to study Eastern mysticism in a serious way. Man, I even got into George's post-Beatle Krishna Consciousness nuttiness like Living in the Material World and one of my all time fave Hari albums, Dark Horse, which nobody else likes except my friend Lesa. Another all-time great George Harrison record is his production of the Radha Krishna Temple album on Apple Records.

In fact, when I signed up for Tim McCarthy's class on Zen Buddhism at Kent State University way back when, I'd actually been looking for something more like the kind of Hindu mysticism George was into. I settled for Zen Buddhism because it was the closest I could get.

By the time I started taking that class I was already well familiar with the oft-repeated phrase in Hindu mysticism, "we are not these bodies." It was even on the back of some Santana album I saw once as a quotation from Sri Chimnoy. His version went, "We are not these bodies, we are the spirit-soul that flies within."

I expected Buddhism would further elucidate this notion. But instead I clearly recall Tim saying once that it was closer to the truth to say "We are these bodies." That was a bit of a shock. He didn't say that was the truth, just that it was closer.

To say we are these bodies is wrong. But saying we are not these bodies is also wrong. It's like when you're arguing with someone and that person gets you into some hypothetical scenario that has nothing to do with the point you were trying to make. Then you find yourself arguing about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with what you wanted to say. The question does not fit the case. We're given a set of two exclusive options and asked to pick one or the other. Either we are these bodies or we're not. Philosophers and religious people have been going over and over and over with this debate for centuries. But Buddhism takes the stance that neither option is correct.

One time I was sitting listening to Nishijima Roshi give a lecture. I thought I'd figured his whole trip out. With his staunch denial of reincarnation and his very nuts and bolts approach about "the world as it is in front of us" I figured he was a pure materialist. I didn't like him much anyhow. But I went because it was a convenient place to practice zazen with a group. I was dozing off during one of his talks when he said, "The material world is an illusion."

Say what?

To me that sounded like the whole Hindu notion of "we are not these bodies." The Hiundus have a lot of mythology about how the material world is maya, or illusion, and the true substance of reality is pure spirit. But I already knew Buddhism rejected that idea. So here I was presented with the notion that the material world is illusion, and so is the spiritual world. What's left?

The answer is that no category or definition we can create to try and box up the real world we live in can suffice.

We are these bodies in the sense that what we are manifests as our bodily existence. We are our minds/souls in the sense that the mind's reality is the only one we ever really know. But neither is really us.

In the chapter titled Inmo in Shobogenzo Dogen said it like this: "We ourselves are tools that it (inmo, the ineffable) possesses within this universe in ten directions. How do we know that it exists? We know it is so because the body and the mind both appear in the universe, yet neither is our self. The body, already, is not 'I'. Its life moves on through days and months, and we cannot stop it even for an instant. Where have the red faces [of our youth] gone? When we look for them, they have vanished without a trace. When we reflect carefully, there are many things in the past that we will never meet again. The sincere (or pure) mind, too, does not stop, but goes and comes moment by moment."

So in a sense George was right. We're not these bodies. So let's not get hung up on that. But then again we are these bodies so it's impossible not to be hung up on that.

Take it away, George!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Christian Radio

It's Martin Luther King Day here in the USA. But I can't think of anything related to MLK to say today.

So instead I'm going to try and write down my thoughts about the radio station I've been listening to in my car a lot lately, WCRF - FM 103.3 Moody Bible Radio Cleveland. Click on the link and you can listen too.

I found the station on a random scan of the radio after my car's computer was replaced and all my set stations were erased. Initially I just turned it on to chuckle at the absurdity of it. The very first thing I heard was a call-in show about the evils of pornography, how it destroys families and suchlike. It was better than MAD magazine! Or even CRACKED magazine!

But then as I listened more I started to understand the appeal of the station, and perhaps of churches and mainstream religion in general. Most of the time, when I tune in for a few minutes while driving somewhere what I'll hear will be mainly nice things. They talk about how to live a moral life, how to deal with marriage difficulties, how to just be excellent to each other and so on. Some of the advice is even kind of good. I listened to one guy talk about how he gave up watching football on TV and how much it improved his relationship with his family. Nothing so bad about that.

But then just when I think everything's okay, they start slipping in stuff that's either just plain mean or simply bat-shit crazy. And then ZING! they're right back into talking about how to be a good person. And I'm like, where did that come from?

I heard one guy the other day practically frothing at the mouth over some legislation in California mandating that history teachers teach about prominent gay and lesbian figures. Never mind that the idea of talking about gays and lesbians in history is kind of anachronistic since the very idea of defining someone as homosexual is a recent invention. Which is a whole other topic. No, this guy wasn't talking about that. He was raving on and on with a list of all the wholesome things that will be destroyed because of this new ruling -- the boy scouts, motherhood, apple pie, baseball, marriage (of course), kindness, home cooking, flowers, bunnies... It just went on and on until the person interviewing him had to get him back on topic. "So what you're saying is that children will not be allowed to question whether the villainous and evil acts of the homosexual are moral?" she said. "Oh yes! That's exactly right!" he replied and started ranting some more. I think from now on schools in California have to require bands of roving queers to ass rape third grade boys in gym class. Or something like that.

Four and a half minutes later we're back into relatively good advice about being decent to each other. Uh... what happened?

I think there's a large segment of the population who must see a connection between these things that I am unable to see myself. I'd also venture to guess that many of these people are unaware that there are any other sources of information about how to live a decent life than those associated with whatever religion they may have grown up with.

It's all very weird to me. But I think I understand part of the appeal of this stuff now. There are probably people out there who sincerely want to learn how to be decent human beings. Knowing of no other source of information on that subject, they get plunged into the bat-shit crazy stuff and end up associating being bat-shit crazy with being a good person. The mind boggles.

Then yesterday I was at Village Discount Outlet in Cuyahoga Falls ("East and West Coast Styles Arriving Daily!") looking for bell-bottom jeans and I found a book called Glorious Appearing: The End of Days. This is the thrilling conclusion to the Left Behind series. The Left Behind books are a series of novels about what the authors imagine will happen once Jesus gets around to fulfilling all those End Times prophecies he said 2000 years ago would happen before his own generation passed away. The books have sold truckloads! There's even a movie based on it starring Kirk Cameron.

The novels re-imagine the Book of Revelations as a kind of modern-day horror/science fiction story in which people vanish when God takes them up for being good Christians. In this book, the 12th and final of the series, Jesus at last reappears. He's a kind of Godzilla-sized rampaging monster who torches cites and "splays and fillets" (I swear that's a quotation from the book) those who oppose His wrath while He quotes His own words from the New Testament. I only read a few pages. But it's the most over-the-top wish-fulfillment fantasy you can imagine. You fuckers didn't believe us, huh? Well now here's Christ-zilla to give you what you deserve! Ha! Ha! Ha! See you in Hell, bitches!

Great stuff! I want to see that movie! But I figured the book wasn't really worth the 50 cents they wanted for it so I passed it up.

What to make of all this? I don't know. But it's really out there and there really are millions who believe in one variation or another of this kind of thing. Glorious Appearing was a New York Times bestseller. Hardcore Zen was not even close.

It's very easy for people who don't believe this stuff to make fun of it to other people who don't believe it, like I'm doing now. The existence of this stuff used to scare me a lot more than it does these days. I don't think it's inconsequential. But I also don't think there as many true believers in it as I once assumed. Probably most of the readers of the Left Behind books and listeners of Moody Bible Radio have plenty of doubts about what they hear. They may want to believe it a lot more than they actually believe it. Or they may tune in for the good advice about life and just ignore the rest.

Doubt may be our greatest friend in turning the tide. This is why I always fight against the sorts of Buddhism that tries to erase doubt from the picture. A few years ago a group called "e-sangha" issued an alert about me saying that I preached heretical doctrines denying the reality of reincarnation. But if Buddhism ever starts being the kind of thing where we need to be warned against those who doubt the literal interpretation of its scriptures, we're sunk. We might as well write our own Left Behind type books.

Hey maybe I'd finally get a best seller if I did that!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dogen's Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries

The fine folks at Counterpoint Press sent me a copy of Dogen's Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries for my review. So here goes.

First off, the by-line on this thing is a doozy. Here's what it says under the title:

Translations and
Commentaries by
Nishiari Bokusan,
Shohaku Okamura,
Shunryu Suzuki,
Kosho Uchiyama,
Sojun Mel Weitsman.
Kazuaki Tanahashi, and
Dairyu Michael Wenger


You always know the extent to which a movie is going to be a piece of garbage by the number of names in the writing credits. One writer can make a good movie with a specific point of view and something interesting to say. When movies are written by committee the committee always succeeds in removing anything worthwhile about the story and replacing it with whatever they've agreed on will appeal to, as well as avoid offending, the greatest number of people.

This book is the product of a large Zen institution. I almost wrote that it was the product of the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC). But the inclusion of material by Kosho Uchiyama and Shohaku Okamura widens things even further. Uchiyama and Okamura stem from the same root lineage as the folks at SFZC*, but do not belong to that institution itself. Because of its association with a big institution I was a little worried whether I'd be able to give this book a good review.

My problem with a lot of the stuff that comes out of SFZC these days is that it tends to be watered down. This was the trouble with their edition of Dogen's Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen's Shobo Genzo). It's not that it's a bad translation. In fact it's one of the best around. But it's also a translation by committee. That committee sat together and worried about a lot of fairly ridiculous "problems" with the text such as whether or not the phrase usually rendered as "kingly bodhi tree" might be considered sexist. Which is the sort of thing you'd expect a bunch of uptight middle class liberals from San Francisco to wring their hands about. Thus in a number of areas of the text, rather than giving you what Dogen actually said, they give you what a bunch of uptight middle class liberals from San Francisco are comfortable with him saying. Fortunately they generally restrict themselves to fairly innocuous changes like making "kingly bodhi tree" into "royal bodhi tree," which I admit is pretty much the same thing. But still, the flavor of their translation is Rice-a-Roni (the San Francisco treat) rather than the kind of plain boiled rice Dogen would have served you.

Anyway, that's not what's going on with Dogen's Genjo Koan: Three Commentaries. So just forget I said any of that stuff. The reason there are so many authors in this book is because it is a compilation of three commentaries, each of which has two or three authors or editors attached. The first is by Nishiari Bokusan, who was the teacher of Shunryu Suzuki's teacher Kishizawa Ian. This is translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Mel Weitsman. Tanahashi is Japanese and speaks English but is not an ordained Zen teacher. Weitsman is American and does not speak Japanese but is an ordained Zen teacher. So one can guess that Tanahashi is responsible for the actual translation into English while Weitsman made it sound more Zen and that the two of them hashed out the translation to make sure the final piece was true to the original. Though I can't help wondering if they also removed any offending sexism or suchlike in the process.

The second commentary is attributed to Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind and the first abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. But Suzuki himself never prepared any commentary on Genjo Koan as such, at least not for publication. He did, however, give a number of lectures on Genjo Koan over a period of six years. So Michael Wenger and Mel Weitsman went through those lectures with the assistance of Jeffrey Schneider and stitched together a Frankenstein monster commentary that reads as if it were a single piece. They did a good job. It's very hard to spot where the sutures and the bolts in the neck are in this version. But, again, I can't help wondering what Suzuki himself would have made of it. I've heard that while he was happy with Zen Mind Beginner's Mind, which was put together in a similar fashion, he thought it was more what his students heard him say than what he actually said. I'd guess he'd feel the same way about this piece.

The final commentary is the purest. It was prepared as a single piece by Kosho Uchiyama and then translated by Shohaku Okamura. Okamura was not only a direct student of Uchiyama but is a Japanese Zen monk whose English is at such a high level that he didn't need help in preparing a readable translation. I suppose he had an editor, just like any English speaking author would. But this is still Okamura's own vision of the piece. So even though Uchiyama himself didn't approve it, we can be pretty sure this is very close to how he would have said things if he'd been able to speak English.

That being said, I find Suzuki's portion to be the most readable and easy to understand, while Bokusan's runs a close second. Unfortunately Uchiyama's commentary comes off a little too stilted and scholarly for my taste. This doesn't seem to be Okamura's fault since Okamura's sketch of Uchiyama's life, which precedes the commentary, is highly readable and very warm.

Although Uchiyama's commentary is the most scholarly-sounding of the three, none of these are really scholarly commentaries. A scholarly commentary on Genjo Koan would tell you about Dogen's life, about what was going on in Japan at the time, about Dogen's use of language, about the background of the various quotations he uses, and so on. In this book you get just enough of that stuff to follow along. These are commentaries by Zen practitioners whose main intent was to help other Zen practitioners deal with their practice.

In that, I feel these are very useful for those of us who practice Zen in the West today. Granted all three commentaries are by older Japanese men. But none of these commentaries are so ancient that they feel removed and distant from us the way a really old commentary might. The earliest of the three is Nishiari's, which dates from the early twentieth century. The most recent is Uchiyama's, which dates from the 1970s. They are all, therefore, modern looks at the 800 year old Genjo Koan. Contemporary life even intrudes into the commentaries themselves when Shunryu Suzuki refers to the traffic noises outside the hall in Northern California where he delivered his talks and relates this directly to what Dogen was writing about hundreds of years before cars were invented.

Some might feel this makes the commentaries less valuable since they are so far removed from Dogen's time. One could complain that people so distant from the author's own era can't possibly know what he was talking about. But I don't feel that's the case. It's more important that all three of the commentaries are by practitioners. What's more, like us, these practitioners have to deal with the kinds of things Dogen never had to deal with.

It's funny to me when people act like we, today in the West, have so much more trouble practicing Zen than the folks in Asia hundreds of years ago. In spite of traffic noises and blaring boomboxes, we really have it a lot easier than people in Dogen's time did. They had to deal with wars and famines and political uprisings the likes of which are seldom encountered by any of us these days. The distractions we have to deal with are, admittedly, a lot more attractive and easily available than those of Dogen's time. But our excuse for not practicing is because there are so many more websites to look at and besides there's a guy upstairs practicing Jimi Hendrix licks, rather than because we're about to starve to death since the rice crop failed and the Mongols are burning down the village. It's really no contest. We've got it very cushy by comparison.

The commentaries in this book are by people who understand the unique nature of the distractions to practice contemporary people face. Though they may not be as hip and pop culture savvy as the trash I put out, they're very useful to anyone serious about pursuing Zen practice in our time.

*Some people in the comments section insist that this is wrong. However, Michael Wenger says the following in his introduction, "(Nishiari Bokusan's) commentary is the first in this collection. In fact, all of the other commentaries in this volume are in his lineage." Until I find further clarification I'll take Michael Wenger's word on the matter.


Don't forget, if you want to practice some Zen, beginning Sunday January 15th 2012 I will be hosting Zazen every Sunday night at 7 pm at the Akron Shambhala Meditation Center. Maybe I'll even give you my take on Genjo Koan. The address is:

133 Portage Trail Ste. 202
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

Monday, January 09, 2012

"Moe and Curly" or "Get Started Today"

Here's a question someone sent twice. So he must really want to know.

If you have a moment can you please clarify something on your blog:

"I mean that when Moe hits Curly on the head with a sledgehammer, Moe is really only hitting Moe on the head with a sledgehammer. It only appears to be Curly getting hit."

What does this mean? Moe smashes Curly's head. Curly dies. Moe lives on.

Now I understand that nothing is truly autonomous; but... How is Moe killing Curly, actually Moe killing Moe?

For one thing, you must not be a Three Stooges fan. Curly doesn't die when he gets smashed on the head with a sledgehammer by Moe. The sledgehammer gets all bent up and Curly just says, "Ow!" Look what happened to the axe on the photo on top of this article. Curly was fine.

But I understand the question and I'll try my best to answer it.

The answer is that although it appears to us that Moe and Curly are eternally separate entities, that's not really how it is. Both Moe and Curly are manifestations of the same underlying reality. And not just in an abstract or metaphorical sense. That's really how it is.

The same something that looks out through Moe's eyes and perceives Curly, also looks out through Curly's eyes and perceives Moe. And it looks out through your eyes to perceive both Curly and Moe. If Moe were to kill Curly, that same something would outlive both of them and also be both of them. There isn't anyone else here at all.

I would expect the follow-up question to be, "How do you know this? It sure doesn't seem that way to me!"

This is a perfectly reasonable question. Because it doesn't seem that way to me either a lot of the time. But once you manage to catch on to the reality of this situation even for a moment, you can never let it go.

This understanding of things is radically different from the way most people look at stuff. It is so extraordinarily different that certain delusional folks, when they come across someone who has had a glimpse of this, get way too excited about that person and start calling her a sage or a saint. Those people will never give the folks they follow a moment's peace. Or, conversely, they get way over excited about that person and call him a heretic or a lunatic. They either venerate the person all out of proportion or they lock him up or even kill him.

More people are aware of this view than are willing to talk about it. These folks don't like either of those options. So they stay quiet or they just tell a few close friends and swear those friends to secrecy.

Then, of course, there are those who mimic people who've understood this stuff because they want the fame and money that sometimes accrues when people venerate those guys. Unfortunately you can also get yourself killed this way if you're not careful.

The reason I bring this up is that I'm always careful about announcing how I know this to be true. Much as I'd like to move out of this fleabag one-bedroom in Akron, I'm aware of the dangers involved as well. So every time I mention how I happen to know this, I always go out of my way to make it clear that I am as big of a dunce as anyone could possibly be.

The thing is, you yourself could see this too if you were willing to put in the work involved. Anyone -- absolutely anyone -- can see it if they want to. But most people are too lazy and they never will.

I have managed on a few occasions to get just clear enough in my mind and body to see that my mind is not my mind nor is my body my body. They are both manifestations of something that's way, way bigger than me. And yet this something is more me than I could ever be.

And still I have to pay my own insurance bills. What's up with that?

Anyway, this is pretty much the same explanation as you can find in any one of a dozen or more decent books on the subject. If you're really interested in understanding it clearly then you have to put in the work yourself.

Ten years of daily zazen practice usually suffices for most people to at least get an initial understanding of why Moe and Curly aren't really different from each other in the sense that we usually think.

You can get started today.


And if you want to get started with me, beginning Sunday January 15th 2012 I will be hosting Zazen every Sunday night at 7 pm at the Akron Shambhala Meditation Center. The address is:

133 Portage Trail Ste. 202
Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Can You Be My Teacher?

I feel like it might be time once again to address one the most frequent questions that comes to me:

Can you be my teacher?

I have addressed this before. I'm not even sure how many times. Maybe I should make it an annual thing. Or, given how often I'm asked, maybe I should just make one definitive post and put it up every three months.

The short answer is this:


But if I left it at that I'd just sound mean. I don't intend this in a mean way at all. It's more like you're asking me if I can make monkeys fly out of my butt. The answer to that is, unfortunately, also no. Like making monkeys fly out of my butt, my becoming your teacher is something I cannot possibly do even if I wanted to.

If you live in Northeast Ohio, or if you want to brave the snow and ice and come here, I will be starting a regular zazen class on Sunday evenings at 7pm at the Akron Shambhala Meditation Center at 133 Portage Trail in Cuyahoga Falls. This will begin on January 15th. If you show up, we can sit together and maybe talk a little bit. I'm also working on setting up a religious nonprofit in Los Angeles. The group I started there still meets every Saturday morning at 10 AM at 237 Hill Street in Santa Monica. You can find out about them by going to Chances are good I will be attending the regular sittings there starting in the Spring. If I can get it together, that is. Meanwhile they still go on without me each and every week without fail.

But most of the people who ask me about my becoming their teacher live in places far from me. So I really have no idea what they imagine would happen if I said "yes." Perhaps they imagine I have a center somewhere that they can run off to and escape their dreary humdrum lives into a world of beautiful Zen.

I understand that dream very well because I had that dream myself for a long time. I used to imagine that there were places out there somewhere -- if I could only find them -- where I could run away from all my troubles and just immerse myself in the wondrous dharma. But there are no such places anywhere.

Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery is about the closest thing I've ever seen to what I used to dream about. It's beautiful, it's isolated, it's dedicated to Zen practice, it's not a brainwashing cult. Tassajara is nice. But it's also not a place you can run away to in order to escape your real life. Real life will hunt you down and find you even there. Some people try to escape their real lives by going way, way far away like to India or Japan. But real life always catches them. It caught me even in the mountainous wilds of Toyama Prefecture, Japan.

What I wanted when I dreamed of those places was really just to return to childhood. I wanted to have a new mommy and daddy who would look after me and deal with all the serious shit while I got to play. But, see, even my actual childhood wasn't like that. My actual childhood was pretty miserable in a lot of ways. I was bullied and hassled and bored. So even saying that I dreamed of returning to childhood isn't right. I dreamed of going to a dreamland that never existed because it couldn't possibly exist.

I imagine some people out there who ask me about me becoming their teacher are offering themselves as submissives. They want to submit to me so I can be their master and they my slave. If you want that you can go to Genpo Roshi or Andrew Cohen. They take on submissives, I hear. Me, I wouldn't get into a van with either of those guys. I don't want any submissives. Not as Zen students anyhow.

Maybe the folks who ask about me becoming their teacher imagine we can create some kind of on-line teaching relationship. There are Zen teachers these days who take students on-line. To me that sounds like pure nonsense. But rather than speak in generalities about the concept of Zen teaching on-line, I'll just tell you why I, Brad, do not do it.

I don't do on-line Zen teaching because I really don't like the on-line experience that much. I'm not that into sitting in front of computers typing things. And yet I've fallen into a line of work in which I am constantly sitting in front of a damned computer. It's rare that I spend any less than four to six hours a day in front of this god forsaken machine. That's pretty much the minimum requirement in terms of keeping up with my own books and other writing projects. Then I also have to answer emails from people I know personally, answer emails from people I don't know from Adam who write to me, keep up the correspondence necessary to get speaking gigs and things and find cute animal videos on YouTube.

If I were to try to develop any on-line teaching relationships that would add at least another six hours a day of staring at a computer screen on top of what I do already. Plus I really have a bad memory in general. I have a hard time even recognizing people I know when I see them. People I know well are fine, but I'm constantly embarrassed when people I know just a little bit come up and start talking to me and I can't recall who they are to save my life.

When it comes to people I know only as names on the top of email messages I am totally hopeless. I'd have to work out some kind of weird organization system just to keep up with who was who and what they said to me last time and what I replied. Just getting that together would be a couple hours a day. And would I get paid for any of that? Nope. So when am I going to be able to do the things I need to do to earn a living?

It's just not gonna happen. I'm sorry. I know you've got serious issues and I know you like my books. I appreciate that you read what I write. I'd like to help. But I just can't.

Then there's all the issues I have in general with the whole notion of teachers and students. It isn't always an abusive relationship of the type that Genpo Roshi and Andrew Cohen advocate in the link I provided above. But it's so easy for it to devolve into that sort of thing. And this isn't just because evil manipulative teachers evilly manipulate their innocent students into becoming mindless slave zombies while they sit back and go "Mwah-ha-ha-ha-HAAAAA!"

In fact, there is a whole great class of people out there who desperately want to be turned into mindless slave zombies. Anyone who takes on the role of a spiritual teacher has to invest tremendous time, effort and energy in dealing with these kinds of people. Some of them will insist upon becoming mindless slave zombies no matter how hard you try to tell them not to. Here is a perfect example of how that works:

I can't tell you how many times I've felt just like Brian in this scene from Life of Brian. There are people out there who are exactly like the mob that follows him. And no matter how often you tell them not to follow you, they so desperately want to be led that they'll follow you anyway. It can be really stressful. I actually admire the honest people out there who take on the role of the teacher because I know what they have to deal with. All the people who want to be turned into mindless slave zombies think they're being very sincere and devoted. Which just makes it that much worse.

Watch that clip from Life of Brian again and pay close attention to the character played by John Cleese. He's the guy up front who says, "I should know (you're the messiah)! I've followed a few!" He takes on the guise of a follower. But he's really not. He wants to lead the movement. But he hasn't got the right sort of personality or charisma or whatever magic it takes to actually have people consider him to be the messiah. So he latches on to someone who has a following and offers to help that person maximize his potential.

This is very tempting because guys who do the sorts of things that get them followings are usually not really good at management type stuff. Plus it's a lot of work to have students. This means it's nearly impossible to take on students and have a normal paying job. So guys in Brian's position who want to try to be teachers need to find someone to help them get butts in seats and keep the donations rolling in and so on. So people like the character John Cleese portrays here can be very attractive.

But those guys will destroy everything. And they're everywhere. Almost all of them think they mean well. Some are very convincing. Oy! The stories I could tell you...

Anyway, this desire people have to be led is a really tremendous and very basic problem for humanity in general. This desire ends up causing all sorts of terrible tragedies like Naziism, Terrorism and the phenomenon of lousy boy bands and hair metal acts.

So that's why I can't be your teacher.

It's not that I don't like you or that I don't think your problems are serious. It's just that I can't do it. I'm flattered that you asked. But you're asking for something impossible, so I have to refuse.


Here's an interview I just did. Maybe you'll like it.

Oh! And my friend David Sango Angstead designed a new T-shirt/Hoodie/Bumper sticker etc. for me that you can get on my Red Bubble page. It's a very cool design. I need to order one for myself!

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Look

明けましてお目出度う y'all! That's "happy new year" for those who can't read Japanese.

Here's an email I got recently.

Attached is a picture of Behring Breivik, the guy who shot, bombed and killed about 77 people in Norway this summer. He has been examined by psychiatrists and they have come to the conclusion that he is/was a paranoid schizophrenic, meaning he was insane at the time of his murderous actions.

But look at his picture closely, look at his eyes...he is very balanced according to the Tibetan theory of "eye science."

I sometimes ask myself if this means that Hitler, Stalin, Osama and all other crazy wackos are also just paranoid schizos then?

So are these people really just sick or are they just simply "evil" ? This guy Behring Breivik planned and planned and worked at this for years and went to such lengths to kill these people that it is very hard for me to consider him sick, as most healthy and very intelligent people would not have managed the task of producing, orchestrating and manifesting such a killing even if they wanted to. Should that not say something about his sanity?

I think this is a really important question. And to me the question is, What is sanity and how does it relate to Enlightenment?

I think it's clear that there is no real correlation between I.Q. and morality. Some of the most immoral people in history have been extremely intelligent as measured by the accepted standards of measuring such things. Several of the people who followed Shoko Asahara's orders and placed poison gas on the Tokyo subway system were highly educated. Many of the top leaders of the Nazi party were also very brainy.

This means that the ability to carefully plan out and execute some specific operation does not relate at all with being a moral person. It is quite possible to create a very complex proceedure and to carry it out without having any sense of morality. Whatever you think really happened in Lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, it was clear proof that planning and executing complex schemes does not require any sense of morality. Whoever did that stuff was very smart. I'm sure they all knew how to conduct themselves socially and be accepted as sane. If not, they wouldn't have been able to interact with the many people they needed to deal with in order to accomplish their goal. These were not raving lunatics. They never are...

But one would expect that enlightenment in the Buddhist sense would correlate with morality and just basic human decency. This is where things get tricky. Because it all depends on how one defines enlightenment.

The general consensus seems to be that an enlightened person is one who has undergone what they call an "enlightenment experience." This experience reveals to the enlightened person the true nature of reality. After having had this experience, the person is transformed into something more than what he or she was before.

But I suspect there is precious little more correlation between true morality and the ability to have one of these so-called "enlightenment experiences" than there is between true morality and the ability to score high on an I.Q. test.

OK. I'll back off a little there. At some level an "enlightenment experience" shows the person who has it the real meaning of moral action — that anything one does to another person is something one does to oneself. And I don't mean this in any kind of figurative or metaphorical sense. I mean that when Moe hits Curly on the head with a sledgehammer, Moe is really only hitting Moe on the head with a sledgehammer. It only appears to be Curly getting hit.

But that's not always what gets labeled as an "enlightenment experience." Often what passes for an "enlightenment experience" is something quite different. Sometimes it's much more like a drug-induced hallucination. People on psychedelic drugs often report feeling at one with the universe. But it's not the same kind of oneness. It's a oneness in which the experiencer owns that oneness and incorporates it into his/her sense of self, thereby making that sense of self infinitely big and infinitely exclusive.

Even if an "enlightenment experience" is genuine, the ego is very powerful and exceedingly clever. Absolutely anything, even a true experience of oneness with all things, can be transformed into something the ego can use to bolster itself.

As for the ability to achieve the stereotypical "look" that a realized master is supposed to have, this is even less correlated with morality or even with enlightenment. A decent actor can convincingly act out a variety or roles even when the actor has not experienced anything like what the character he's portraying is supposed to have experienced. It's easy to look the part of the balanced guru without being the least bit balanced.

Osama bin Laden could do it.

Shoko Asahara can do it.

Kirtanananda Swami Bhaktipada, who allegedly ordered several killings on the New Vrindaban Hare Krishna farm community could do it.

I suspect that Mike Myers can do it but refrained from doing it lest he look too much like his buddy...

...Deepak Chopra who has really got it down!

Which isn't to say Deepak is anything like Osama bin Laden, Shoko Asahara and Kirtananda. I don't think he is at all. But that beatific grin he's mastered doesn't prove it.

So sanity is something quite difficult to define. Like the famous quote about pornography, "you know it when you see it." But you don't know it just because someone looks the way the media tells you they're supposed to. It's much more subtle.

And people are uncomfortable with that. They want easy definitions that never change. Unfortunately, in real life easy definitions that never change are hard to come by. They want stereotypes that are reliable. But stereotypes are never reliable.