Monday, December 15, 2008

Zen and the Art of Deconstruction

Here's a fun blog by David Pyle.

Ways that Zen Sesshin is Like Military Basic Training
During the Zen Rohatsu Sesshin (7 ½ Day Zen Meditation Retreat in honor of the Buddha’s enlightenment day) that I attended this past week, I began to notice some eerie similarities to my multiple experiences of Military Basic Training. Though this was my first Sesshin at the Zen temple where I study, I have been in a military basic training environment not less than five times in my life, and that does not include the UU Worship services I lead for the Basic Trainees at the Great Lakes Naval Station.

I am sharing these observations of similarities and surface differences between Sesshin and Military Basic Training, in the hopes that it might inspire thought… Sesshin was a wonderful experience, and I may write about it more in the future. But this is what I have to share right now… other than saying it is good to be home.

Ways that Zen Sesshin is Like Military Basic Training:

You wake up at O’ Dark Thirty for no apparent reason.

There is a lot of “hurry up” so you can “sit down and wait”.

You must always be on time, but you don’t have a watch.

You spend a lot of time with people you are not supposed to talk to.

The simplest things become very important.

You are told by the teacher/drill instructor that you are wrong, a lot.

Your body is in pain much of the time.

You eat in silence, and there is a ritual for washing your own Oryoki bowls / mess kit.

You always seem to have kitchen clean-up duty.

Sleeping, eating, and a hot drink are more important than you ever thought they could be.

You stand, sit, walk, and eat in unison.

Every once in awhile someone shouts “ATTENTION!” even when you are already paying attention.

You are told that the self-identity that you have spent years crafting has issues, and sesshin/basic will help with this problem.

Cleaning becomes a ritual act.

There is little contact with the outside world.


Pacific Zen Institute sesshins (next sesshin is Sunday, January 18 — Sunday, January 25) are not quite as regimental as described in David Pyle's blog, but the alalogy still holds in most aspects listed. What I am interested in is the similarity of the deconsruction techniques with little talk of the purposes or goals of the two projects-- military basic training and Zen basic training-- are. The David alludes to it when he says, "In Sesshin you try and let go of the constructed self. In Basic the government constructs a new self for you." But he leaves this difference for another discussion.

The question connects in an interesting way to the blog written by Ken Ireland about the Jesuit Francis Xavier and his encounter with Zen in the 16th century.

There are conversations you overhear or read in books that are so familiar you feel as if you were a fly on the wall, listening to words you’ve heard before. The sentences ring with so much immediacy that you have to restrain yourself from finishing them. The tones are as so familiar you think that you are remembering them, not hearing them for the first time.

The conversations that I am going to write about are from the distant past—the case that I am going to discuss was written down in Latin by Francis Xavier more than 450 years ago, sent on an uncertain journey from Japan to Lisbon aboard a Portuguese caravel, then carried onto Rome, and delivered into the hands of Ignatius Loyola. They are the first recorded encounters between Christians and Zen Buddhists, a Jesuit saint and a roshi.

As I read from Xavier’s letters in Bernard Faure’s Chan Insights and Oversights, there were several moments when the hair on the back of my neck stood up—the words, the phrasing, even the jokes seemed to be right out of conversations that I have had with my own Zen teachers. Despite my post hippie attempts to free myself from all past influences, when I read Xavier’s comments, I could hear echoes from my Jesuit training in my responses to my Zen teachers; carefully formulated points of doctrine intended to stem the tide of the Protestant Reformation were still the core of the Jesuit curriculum when I entered the Society of Jesus 40 years ago. Among the first seven Jesuits, Xavier was the master of debate, but when he shifts the conversation with the Zen master towards a polemical argument, I was almost embarrassed, realizing how much I had missed when I set out to become a Zen student.

As I see it, the Christian project is like the military one, deconstruction of the self-image in order to reconstruct another self, one in relation to the image of God, the other in relation to the image of God and Country.. In the Buddhist project the deconstruction of the self is not about reconstructing a new self. It is about deconstructing the self-image over and over again until one can state like the enlightenment utterance by Buddha, "I see you, oh Housebuilder, the rafters are broken and the ridge beam is split, no more will the house be built."

To the extent that Japanese Buddhists, crafted a Nationalist image of self, they too failed at the Buddha project. It is fascinating to note that the encounter stories of the early Jesuits bring out this point. I first came across the Jesuit references in Heinrich Dumoulin's book "A History of Zen Buddhism," the shorter paperback Beacon edition published in 1969. In addition to recounting the exchange between Xavier and the Zen teacher, Dumoulin recounts the "conversion" of Zen Buddhists including one Zen eacher Kesshu, "whose enlightenment had been confirmed by two outstanding authorities." In this, we can see several things at work. For one, we see that the call to rebuild the house is very strong and having an "enlightenment" experience is no guarantee that one will rebuild the house. Alternatively, we might surmise that certification of an enlightenment experience was not very well established so that a monk who had supposedly answered the question of life and death was able to backslide into the wishful thinking of everlasting life at the foot of Jesus in heaven. This would be like a Zen monk converting to Pure Land and deciding to sit at the foot of Amida Buddha after death rather than fully deal with death in the here and now of this life.

When Buddhism talks about transcending death, it also means transcending life. Christian theology wans to transcend death but doesn't seem to get to this place of transcending both life and death, that is, finding the Zero Point, or actually seeing the face of God and rests with the hope of seeing God in heaven. People who believe that eternal life rests in a heaven, as Xavier obviously believed, have a false image of eternal life and have no clue about the eternal life that rests nowhwere. Buddhism eshews both eternalism and annilationism (or nihilism). There is an important difference between a belief in an "immortal soul" and seeing the undying living person, who as Linji says, goes in and out of the holes in the face. The Jesuits believed that "the soul" has a beginning but not an end. Buddhism teaches that there is no beginning and no end and no soul, and so speaks of the unborn as well as the undying. The unborn and undying one is not easy to meet, and I don't see any evidence that Xavier or his Jesuit missionary brothers in Japan ever got any closer than to see that one as an objectified image of God in heaven. The Jesuits were incapable of seeing anything in the "principle" of emptiness (sunyata) other than plain nihilism. They could not see that the image of God is what they create in their own image when looking into emptiness.

But the Buddhists of 16th century Japan were also people of their age and were not all that disposed to the higher virtues of Buddhism when their social structure was challenged . Both Japanese Buddhists and the new Japanese Christian converts came to blows and at times burned down each others temples or churches. So even in Buddhism we see that we the people often fail to live up to our ideals. The perennial problem is in finding the balance of the middle way between these different situations of the building projects of society and the deconstruction project of the spiritual quest.


Sunday, December 14, 2008


This is my new translation of the second of Shitou's known odes. Both are now on my Buddha Verse webpage.

-- 艸庵歌 Caoan Ge (J. Soanka)

By Shitou Xiqian (Shih-t’ou Hsi-ch’ien, J. Sekito Kisen)
(b.700 - d.790)

I tied up the straw thatched hut without precious objects.
With the cooked rice finished, I followed the aim of appearances and soon slept.
As the first season was accomplished, I saw the thatch was new.
Later when it is worn out, I will pay my debt and reconstruct the thatch.

The resident hermit -- subdues permanent residency,
And does not categorize the middle space with inside or outside.
A worldly person resides in a place; I do not reside.
A worldly person has affection for a place; I do not have affection.

Although the thatched hut is small -- it contains the Dharma-realm (Dharmadhatu).
In a square ten feet, an old man studies liberation of the essential body.
A bodhisattva of the Supreme Vehicle trusts without doubt.
The middle and inferior hear it and surely give rise to (a sense of) strangeness.

Asking about this thatched hut -- poor or not poor?
Poor and not poor: the original master is present.
Not dwelling south or north and east or west
A foundation on top of "the firm and stable" therefore becomes superlative.

Green pines below -- light inside of the window.
The Jade Palace (of Heaven) and the Vermilion Tower (of Hell) do not compare.
With a patched cape covering the head, the 10,000 affairs come to rest.
Here and now, this mountain monk already does not meet (anyone).

Residing in this thatched hut -- ceasing to work on liberation.
Who boastfully spreads out a mat aiming for customers?
Revolve the light and turn back your illumination, then you come back to the origin point,
Breaking through to the boundless root of the spirit, you do not face backwards.

Meet the ancestral masters -- be intimate with the teachings.
Tie straw for a thatched hut; do not create backsliding.
Abandon your 100 years (of your lifespan), yet be alive vertically and sideways.
Wave a hand, then do, just without doing wrong.

One thousand kinds of words -- ten thousand categories of liberation,
Are only necessary not to obscure the teaching for long.
If you desire to know the undying person inside the thatched hut,
How can it be separate, and yet right now be covered by the skin bag?

For comparison with four other translations see the following webpages:

Song of the Grass Shack

Song of the Grass Hut

Soanka: Song Of The Grass Hut

A Song About My Grass-Thatch Hut

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Case 42 龐居士雪 Layman Pang's Snow

42. Layman Pang's Snow

Raised: Layman Pang bid adieu to Yaoshan. Shan ordered ten people who were Zen travelers to go together to the main gate to see him off. The Layman pointed to the snow in the middle of the sky and said, "The excellent snow; flake by flake it does not fall at another spot."
At that time there was Zen traveler Quan who asked, "At what spot does it fall?"
The gentleman hit once with a slap.
Quan said, "A Layman too cannot get careless."
The gentleman said, "Like this you call yourself a Zen traveler. Lao-tzu has not liberated your dependence."
Quan said, "Layman how do you make it alive?"
The gentleman again hit once with a slap and said, "The eye sees like a blind person; the mouth speaks like a mute."
Xuedou separately said, "At the first questioning point, yet grab a snowball then hit."

Xuedou's own ode, placing another hit, says:

A trap.
Hit with a snowball, hit with a snowball.
The checkpoint of Elder Pang's function is unable to be grasped.
The superior person of Heaven does not personally know of the opening.
Inside of the eye, inside of the ear, decidedly easy-going.
Easy-going decidedly.
The blue-eyed barbarian monk is unable to differentiate.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Case 41 of the Blue Cliff Record

41. 趙州問死 Zhaozhou Asks About Death

Raised: Zhaozhou asked Touzi, "So, what about the time when the person of great death returns to the living?"
Touzi said, "It is not permitted to go traveling by night; the light must be cast to arrive."

The Ode says:

In the middle of life there is an eye; turning back is the same as death.
Why must the jealous physician do an exam of the family?
The esteemed words of the ancient Buddha did not arrive together.
One doesn't know who is let loose to scatter dust and sand.


Zen is the Heart of the Vehicle of Oneness: A survey of Ekayana Buddhism - Introduction

[This is the first draft of the introduction to an essay I'm working on. (c) 2008]

Introduction To Ekayana

The thesis of this essay is that Zen is the heart of Ekayana Buddhism, that is, the Buddhism known as the One Vehicle or more accurately the Vehicle of Oneness. While many have heard of Zen Buddhism and of the major branch of Buddhism known as Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism, within which Zen is usually located, and heard also of the Mahayana charge of Hinayana (Small Vehicle) views against opposing branches of Buddhism, few in the West have heard, fewer still have appreciated, and even rarer have been those who realize the meaning of Ekayana Buddhism. By Zen I do not mean Zen as a religious institution but the Zen of awakening that is the unity of meditation (dhyana-chan-zen) and wisdom (prajna) within the context of one's straightforward daily activities (sila). The primary purpose of this paper is to inform English speaking Buddhists about the importance and centrality of Ekayana Buddhism as it relates to their own Buddhist practice in whichever tradition they find themselves. Secondarily I hope to speak to non-Buddhists who are wondering how Buddhism relates to their own spiritual practice.
Though the Ekayana is Shakyamuni's true and direct Dharma, the basic problem is that even most Buddhists have failed to see and acknowledge the central role of Ekayana. This is a problem of failing to see the forest for the trees. This problem is explained by the Ekayana as being the result of that essential aspect of consciousness that divides the world into the images of separate categories and things and turning this divisive mental process onto Buddhism as well. Thus, instead of having a clear appreciation of Ekayana Buddhism and how it functions as the complete unification of Buddhism, we have Buddhist sectarianism and arguments over the centrality of one sutra or another, the methods of one sect over another, or even sometimes the nature of the goal of Buddhism itself. The history of Buddhism is in large part a history of the resurgence of the Ekayana spirit and its subsequent re-fracturing when the spirit is overtaken by the religious politics of the day.
There are certain myths in Buddhism and Buddhist studies that Ekayana does not accept. Among them are the notions that Hinayana and Mahayana are irreconcilable, that Chinese Buddhism is not based on Indian Buddhism and that the Chinese development of the sects of Tiantai, Huayan. Zen, and Pure Land are inherently different from each other or have different goals. And there are beliefs about Buddhism in Buddhist studies circles that make no sense without an understanding of Ekayana. For example, it is often said and commonly believed that Zen and other forms of Buddhism "look to Hua-yen for their philosophical foundation." (Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, p. xii) However, this implies a sectarian reliance that doesn't make sense. It is not that Zen looks to Huayan as a separate school for its philosophy, but that both Huayan and Zen are parts of the Ekayana as a perennial spiritual movement within Buddhism. The teaching of the Huayan Sutra may be said to represent the grand philosophical aspect of Ekayana while Zen presents the direct practice aspect of Ekayana. In this way, all of the Ekayana Sutras and their schools of study (not just the Huayan) are the lobes of the brain-mind of Ekayana as Zen is the heart-mind.
A caveat: One of the most primary ways we learn is by assimilating strange ideas and images through metaphors relating to something we are already familiar with, e.g., body parts like brain and heart. The downside of that learning method is that we may take the metaphor too literally and come to falsely believe something about the strange new thing that is not true simply because the idea is contained in the transitional metaphor and not in the new thing. For example, someone who had never before seen or heard of a lion or tiger may learn something accurate about a lion or tiger by being told it is like a very large house cat. But then the person would be misled upon taking the metaphor to mean that the usual lion or tiger was as docile as the usual house cat. Metaphors are good for making strange things familiar, but they are not substitutes for the facts themselves.
To be introduced now to Ekayana may seem strange to many if not most Western Buddhists who have heard frequently of Mahayana and of the debate over the uses of the term Hinayana, and who even may have heard of Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle), but have not heard the term Ekayana before or having heard it not really registered it as a term of significance. This sense of strangeness might be reduced by learning that Ekayana is a little like Gnosticism within Christianity; it is an essentially ecumenical movement within Buddhism that refuses to allow itself to become a separate sect and so, to deal with the sectarian mentality of human beings, it appears within all the sects to greater or lesser degrees. In other words, while there are the sectarian divisions known as Zen, Pure Land, Huayan, Theravada, Vajrayana, etc., just as the word Buddha means the Awakened One, the threads that weave the tapestry of the Ekayana movement will be found throughout Buddhism wherever an individual in a particular sect has had a real and genuine awakening which is the one goal shared throughout all Buddhism.
Another caveat: to see Ekayana Buddhism as the "One Vehicle" or "One Path" does not mean what it may seem to imply if taken narrowly: that Ekayana is an exclusive form of Buddhism. For example, those Buddhists who are already familiar with the term Ekayana, or the One Vehicle, through the Lotus Sutra may be surprised to learn that the Ekayana doesn't mean believing in the Lotus Sutra as the one and only best teaching of Buddha. This mistaken belief about Ekayana -- taking it to mean only one framework of belief based on one sutra as the "One Vehicle" -- is as mistaken in the Buddhist context as the mistaken notion that taking Jesus as personal savior is the only "one Way" in the Christian context while denying that every other view of Christianity has any legitimacy. Such narrow mindedness is best known under the label "fundamentalism" which, as a human dilemma, affects Buddhism just as much as it affects every other religion. Taking one sutra or another as "the One Vehicle" is the mistake of literalizing the Ekayana and seeking the Buddha's Dharma of Ekayana in the words of the Buddha and not in the practice, realization, and manifestation of Buddha's awakening.
Woven in the history of Ekayana are several common themes which may be outlined as: (1) Buddhism is the religious science of the One Mind, (2) the One Mind is known by many names such as Dharmakaya (the body or essence of Dharma), Buddha-nature, Tathagata-garbha (the womb of the One-Who-Comes-Thus), Sunyata (Emptiness), Alaya-vjnana (the Storehouse of Consciousness), etc., (3) since all the teachings of Buddhism, including both Mahayana and Hinayana, are essentially teachings about the One Mind they must be taken as an organic whole and this reconciliation of apparent oppositions or contradictions within Buddhist teachings is the synthesis of Ekayana, (4) as all beings share equally the One Mind there is an absolute basis for human equality, (5) realizing this absolute basis of the One Mind is not accomplished as an intellectual pursuit but must be accomplished by experiential practice, and (6) since all people share This One Mind there is no fundamental distinction between monk and lay practitioner in the potential for -- or actual realization of -- awakening in Buddhism.
The Ekayana has played a crucial role at every stage in the outward movement of maturing Buddhism from its birthplace in the borderlands between India and Nepal. Ekayana was central to the development of what became known as the Mahayana when Buddhism spread to Southern India and northwest into Kashmir and across the Hindu Kush where it met the Silk Road in what is now Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Ekayana also played pivotal roles in the transplantation of Buddhism to China, Korea, and Japan. Now that Buddhism has come to the West, and especially with an emphasis on lay practice, it is necessary for Western Buddhists to at least understand and appreciate -- and hopefully realize -- the meaning of Ekayana for Buddhism to become meaningfully alive within our Western cultural framework. It should not be a surprise that the religion of Buddha's enlightenment has met fertile soil in the West today where we can see the ecumenical spirit of Ekayana working unconsciously in the Western Buddhist communities as it touches those aspects of the Western psyche that are Ekayana in spirit and grounded in the psychological and philosophical traditions of gnosis, the Age of Reason, and the Western Enlightenment. When individuals awaken and express their awakening, which then comes to a shared awareness in a living community, then that is the presence of the living Ekayana of Buddha Dharma.

#end Introduction#

The outline of the essay continues with the following section headings:

Bodhidharma's Ekayana
Ekayana in Pali Scriptures
Ekayana in Mahayana Scriptures
Ekayana in Chinese Buddhism
Fazang's Ekayana
Huineng's Ekayana
Zongmi's Ekayana
Ekayana in Japanese Buddhism
Prince Shotoku's Ekayana
Hakuin's Ekayana
Ekayana Today