A Joyful Mind

By Myokaku Jane Schneider on June 13, 2020 –

About 20 some years ago I painted a picture called, “Blest by Everything.” It was my interpretation of the last paragraph of a poem by William Butler Yeats called, “Dialogue of Self and Soul.” It’s the last paragraph of the dialogue and the Self is speaking. I think the words express a meditative mind such as we cultivate in zazen. On the cushion, while watching our breath and observing emotional and mental changes we relive many moments of our lives again, sorting through every mistake, every ignorance and confusion we have lived. On the cushion in slow motion we sit through it all, having the time to look and carefully study our past and present actions of body, speech and mind. I especially like the last paragraph that sums up the reflections of the Self.

“I am content to follow to its source

Every event in action or in thought;

Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!

When such as I cast out remorse

So great a sweetness flows into the breast

We must laugh and we must sing,

We are blest by everything,

Everything we look upon is blest.”

In the poem he seems to say that he’s willing to go inward and study everything that has made him who he has become and forgive himself all of it. He’s willing to live his life again, with all the ignorant actions, the suffering caused for himself and others, his youthful obliviousness, all the mistakes and is ready to face it all again. 

“Measure the lot, forgive myself the lot, When such as I cast out remorse So great a sweetness flows into the breast We must laugh and we must sing,..”

It reminds me of sayings like, “The right place at the right time,” or, “Everyday is a good day.” There’s a willingness expressed to just be and work with reality as one finds it. That’s not so easy to do if we think we have all the answers to questions before they even appear. ‘The right place at the right time’ is the ability to let go of defensive habits and the delusion of ‘knowing,’ and in the midst of such vulnerability, to meet experiences directly and act according to ‘right action’ in the moment. This can happen anywhere, like at home, in the zendo, on the street or at work. If these experiences are looked on as learning experiences, then ‘everyday is a good day.’

In the poem by Yeats, ‘everything we look upon is blest’ seems like an unrealistic point of view, with violence, suffering and cruel acts happening everywhere. Yeats also lived in a time of unrest in Northern Ireland and was no stranger to trouble. This poem was written later in his life and is touching because of the juxtaposition of the times and his insight. ‘Blest by everything’ doesn’t mean only wonderful things happening if we see them, or ’good or bad things happening, and we can ignore the bad and latch on to the good.’ Blest by everything means a mind of equanimity and non-discrimination. Whatever circumstances we meet and how we respond determines whether we’re in the ‘right place or the wrong place, the right time or the wrong time.’ If we’re open and willing to learn, then we’re always in the right place at the right time,’ and ‘everything we look upon is blest.’ Into dark unhappy places with such a mind we can bring composure, peaceful intentions and compassion.

Composure may seem too detached, but composure is not the enemy of emotions, and emotions are not incompatible with a calm mind. If you study yourself before and after meditation, you’ll probably see that after you settle down, your emotions are freer and lighter. Your ability to laugh is easier than before. These are some of the fruits of developing composure. When composure is not present, laughter and emotions can be a little too much or not at all.

In the poem, “we must laugh and we must sing, we are blest by everything,” the words express a joyful mind and heart. A ‘joyful mind’ expresses calmness, self-possession and equanimity’ A joyful mind is tranquil at the center with movement surrounding it. An excitable heart doesn’t have a still center and motion is everywhere with no tranquillity. ’Joyful’ doesn’t mean to laugh at individual things, because some things are not laughable. But we can move through dark moments with a joyful mind, which helps us to pass through them without being corrupted by negativity. 

Our very insides may be gripped by the madness of the moment, or the anguish of loss and suffering, but a joyful mind will bear it all without being crushed, because a joyful mind rests safely on a true, indescribably, vast nature, one’s ever-present buddha-nature. A peaceful mind rests on the peaceful ground that is oneself.

On Gratitude

By Yozen Peter Schneider, November 28, 2020 –

Everyone knows that Thanksgiving is a traditional time for remembering what we are grateful for.  Though it was Lincoln who made the day into a national holiday, to a boy from New England it was all about the Pilgrims commemorating having survived their first year here.   For us now it is the time when families reunite.  Perhaps in keeping with the Pilgrims inviting the local Native Americans, who had taught them how to get by, our family often had to dinner someone who wasn’t a relative.  Who the Pilgrims were giving thanks to was their God, of course.  Buddhists who have had an opening are said to feel great gratitude that  is not addressed it to anyone or thing in particular.

Though I started writing this last week, I turned out to have a personal reason for being grateful on Thanksgiving Day.  Jane came home from the hospital then. She had had shortness of breath for several days and so on Monday made an appointment to talk to our doctor on Wednesday, but someone on Tuesday noticed what Jane had said her symptoms were and called to speak to her, and on listening to her voice, recommended she go to the Kaiser ER immediately.  She ended up staying for two nights so that tests could be run to try to find the cause of her condition. Tuesday night Jane did call me at 11 to say that a nurse had stopped by to say, “No covid.”  Being without Jane and worrying about her was like suddenly finding myself in a two-dimensional world.  On Thursday morning her doctor concluded that she was fine, and Impossible burgers and fries from a Burger King drive thru was our improbable and likely to be unforgettable Thanksgiving dinner.  I felt full of gratitude sitting home Thanksgiving night watching TV together.

You may wonder what you have to be thankful about in 2020, besides a candidate having won or remaining in good health, what with worries about the political situation or the virus and your loss of freedom to do what you want to or go where you want to, or lack of work, or children being home-schooled, or plans being cancelled; the list goes on. There is one thing we all can be grateful for: our practice.  We will show this In the Bodhisattva Ceremony today in paying homage to the Three Treasures.

When the kokyo chants, “I take refuge in Buddha,” our reply will be, “Before all being/immersing body and mind,/deeply in the Way/awakening true mind.”  This is saying that in following the example of the first treasure, Shakyamuni Buddha and those who teach us now what he taught then, we dedicate ourselves to sitting with all of our body and mind. This respect we have for Buddha is as much for our inner nature.  Answers to why people practice can vary greatly or may not sound significant.  It could be because our Buddha nature is why we sit.  Though it may not be recognized yet, not listening to that nature is apt to be the cause of our getting in trouble.

Our response for what is chanted next, “I take refuge in Dharma” is “Before all being,/entering deeply/the merciful ocean/of Buddha’s Way.”  With this we accept that the second treasure is always around us giving us help.  After all, it is through Dharma that our inner nature communicates to us.  In our taking the precepts, they become the language through which it speaks.  Once we understand this fully, we will no longer need someone else’s words to lead us.  “Going beyond good and bad” and “killing the Buddha” are expressions of this freedom we will find.

Finally, we follow “I take refuge in Sangha“ with “Before all being,/bringing harmony/to everyone/free from hinderance.”  This is our pledge not to let greed, anger, and foolishness disrupt our community.  Living together peacefully will be the result of not letting such expressions of self separate us from each other through causing conflicts.  While our inner natures are independent and don’t require help, we in our relative world are interdependent and must rely on the support of others.  People do need people.  So here we are today.  Being physically together would have been nice, but that we are here is what matters.  Sitting together without being able to sit together like now is sort of like being in a committed, long-distance relationship. 

That we practice is due to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  It is because of them that we can feel gratitude for being alive.

On Budda Nature

By Yozen Peter Schneider on June 6, 2020 –

In honor of Shakyamuni, we call who we really are our “Buddha nature.”  All of us have this, though just hearing about it won’t get us far.  A few may have begun to practice because of it, but many more are likely to because something in their lives isn’t the way it ought to be.  The latter was what legend said led Gautama to abandon his life as a prince and begin to practice meditating.  

A popular conception is that meditation is for calming the mind.  Sitting does slow thinking down, but it is better not to think of it as being good or bad depending on how we feel about it.  Even those who start sitting wanting to straighten out their lives won’t end up doing it to change themselves.  Rather, they will be doing what Buddha himself did: they will be sitting just to sit.

The problem is that our small self becomes a barrier between what we experience in daily life and Buddha nature.  This self is interested mainly in taking care of itself, wanting what it wants when it wants it but not when it doesn’t.  It is the source of suffering equally for those with an abundance of self-confidence and those with little of it, for those who believe in their own abilities and those who don’t.  Either way, in liking, disliking, or not caring about things, the small self is relying on the Three Poisons of avarice, ill will, and ignorance, and in doing so, is fully supportive of both the desires that feed it and the fears that defend it.  It also lacks interest in anything outside of usual ways of thinking.  What matters most for Zen Buddhists instead is believing in Buddha nature, which doesn’t have such limitations and cannot be represented by any qualifications that we might choose to put on it.  

Buddha nature is thus not easy to define.  It shouldn’t be said that it is something we possess, since it is us who are a part of it, while to say that we have Buddha nature separates ourselves from it.  It is also not completely correct to claim that Buddha nature is always with us, as this would be assuming that we and buddha nature are not the same.  A further difficulty in describing it is that it acts like a mirror in reflecting anything and everything except itself and so is unable to be self-identifying.

What is true is that we are expressions of Buddha nature.  Everything being this, when we see something, we are seeing Buddha nature.  What we hear or touch is Buddha nature.  Though everything is, there is no way to separate Buddha nature from ordinary life, as our only knowledge of it comes from each of the things that it is.  In other words, we can see form but not emptiness. 

Terming this ‘Buddha nature’ is fitting in that it makes the name of a specific person into the universal, symbolizing by this the inseparability of form and emptiness.  Form is emptiness as we are each but a part of the whole; emptiness is form as the whole can only be experienced in each of its parts.  We talk of getting to Mars to continue our exploration of the unknown when we needn’t go any further than ourselves.  Each of us has the solution in ourselves, though without ‘knowing’ it, since we only know things that can be ‘known,’ and Buddha nature cannot.  

Nevertheless, as Buddha nature is something discovered in humans by humans, believing in it isn’t like having faith in a God or creator.  Confidence that there is Buddha nature does encourage us to go on making effort without any direct knowledge of it.  In the religion of my youth, I would have gotten in hot water if I had asked an adult whether knowing oneself wasn’t the best way to know God.

Why we meditate, then, is to be fully ourselves.  Japanese Soto Zen founder Dogen Zenji called this “settling the self on the self.”  He also said that meditating is a sign of enlightenment and that we didn’t do it to become enlightened– though that may happen–but to be enlightened.  Even Dogen’s understanding will not get us closer to Buddha nature, but we do need to realize and accept that it is here, has always been here, and will always be here.  What we don’t need is time to try to figure it out Buddha nature. Use that time to sit.

The Unknowable

By Myokaku Jane Schneider during BMZC Sesshin on May 23th, 2020 –

Sitting sesshin in the midst of everyday life conditions will bring a new perspective on your life if you can stick it out. Someone said, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” That’s surely a difficult way to test your understanding of reality, not that they’re difficult but that our expectations are difficult. And that’s what most of us will experience in this time. Mostly it’ll just be pins to our ego balloons for the duration, but when finished, if we can hang in there and really be present, we’ll have a new perspective on ourselves and our place in the world. Even if we live alone, expectations still rule, and body, speech and mind habits are a comfort to rest on, and hide in. Putting them aside for two days could be complicated and leave us feeling vulnerable.

Now you have a chance to put practice in the zendo and at home, together and see what you can do. It may not be as difficult as you think, because there’s a time limit of two days. In that time, whether it feels uncomfortable or not, at first, try to look on all present as buddhas, your home as a temple, your food as nourishment of the spirit as well as the body, and the trials of the pandemic as a sesshin of daily life. Look on the push and pull of situations as a way to develop skillful means for your own balance, as well as for the rest of the household. Call up the Precepts, the 6 Perfections, the Eightfold Path and the Four Cornerstones of Practice to guide you. Ration your speech and give your words carefully, so that information and entertainment take on new meaning as well. Put aside your struggle for personal control, and limit interior and exterior complaining, and rely on Big Mind, instead of self, to drive the course of two days. You might relax into the situation and trust the world more, that is, come to trust yourselves more. The outcome of such a plan would be to rest yourselves, unreservedly, upon your indescribable, great nature, like resting in a boat moving safely in unknown waters. You may learn a new perspective of reality. The two days of sesshin would become a short term intensive learning of entering into the ‘unknown’ within a ‘known’ situation.

Peter quoted something from Suzuki Roshi yesterday that was really interesting. Suzuki Roshi  said that ‘enlightenment was, “not about attaining something, but forgetting everything.” That could seem alarming to us until you relate it to something familiar. If you always see someone as a person you know and can predict, more or less, what they will say anddo, that person has a comforting aspect to be around, even when you don’t particularly like them. You can try to set ‘your own behavior in stone’  to compensate for it, but that will just freeze everything more. It’s even more difficult when love is in the picture. You really want to prevent change from disturbing your oasis. But here is where the most interesting part of practice happens.

If you take away the comforting aspect of a person or situation, and the ‘unknowable’ enters the relationship, it shows how little we’re in control in a big, empty world. When the ‘knowable’ disappears, we feel the wind of eternity blow through; we feel our mortality; our touchstone of reality disappears. But our version of reality as ‘knowable’ is a delusion and this is what we have to do to see reality clearly. We must learn to live with a touch of the ‘knowable,’ and a touch of the ‘unknowable.’ Your spouse is your spouse and not your spouse, your child and not your child, your house and not your house, your pet and not your pet, ’you’ and ‘not you.’

When the ‘unknowable’ happens,‘all possibilities’ blow through your being. That can’t happen when all the doors to experience are closed and locked. But when they’re open, you begin to experience all of yourself. You meet yourself as you don’t know ‘you’ and ‘you’ as you know yourself. When that begins to happen, you won’t need to lookat an incredible movie to experience ‘incredible,’ or do extraordinary things to experience ‘extraordinary.’

Practice in sesshin in a zendo is usually loud/noise-free, talk-free, interruption-free and the opportunity to be of benefit to everyone, whether in bowing, chanting, sitting, helping in the kitchen, sweeping outside, or in giving general support to everyone by following rules and encouraging silence and meditation. If someone is difficult, great effort is made by everyone to keep the balance, while protecting the person from our own demanding selves. That happens in a special situation of zendo practice. Can you do that in an ordinary, familiar situation? Can you forget that you know the person, the place and the usual situation and, instead, meet that person in a new, unknowable place and create a new response? Can you remake yourself on-the-spot, as it were? In times of difficulty, can you turn to the guides in this practice, like the Precepts, Perfections, Cornerstones or Eightfold Path, instead of the usual brooding, questioning and clinging to past behavior as your guides? The practice guides are there to help us to travel through the ‘unknowable’ safely.

You want to be happy, and I hope that you find happiness in your lives. But aside from happiness in daily life, a bigger goal would be to look for what sustains us in our quest for freedom from self, which is the sustaining power of joy. Happiness springs from our usual understanding, from our self-nature and opens nothing new, except more ‘knowable.’ Joy springs from the ‘unknowable’ and opens many doors to new understandings of the world and us. If you want to continue the round of birth and death, of limited expectation and activity, then ‘happiness as a goal’ is for you. But if you want to know yourself as the ‘unknowable’ and ‘move in mysterious ways,’ freed from the tyranny of self, then cultivate the ‘unknowable.’ Look past the ‘knowable’ and put aside ‘comfortable’ for these two days and reach into the ‘unknowable’ of the interior and exterior. Unlock the doors and let the ‘indescribable’ into your lives. For a sustained practice of two days, you can do it. We all can.

Sit quietly for yourself; sit for the world. Maintain balance where you are, inside and outside, for yourself and for the world. Dedicate your efforts to the healing of the world. The very healing energy that you bring up from pure intention heals you as well. Keep in mind this sesshin to bow for the world, chant for the world, eat for the world, bathe for the world and relate to everyone as you would wish to have in the world. For two days let’s make a peaceful world in our households that we would like to see everywhere. Let’s dedicate this sesshin to everyone, everywhere.

Life Is for the Living

March 21, 2020

What this time of the COVID-19 pandemic brings home to us, beyond the danger, is that we are meant to live and won’t let anything keep us from doing that. Life pledges itself to live, and if need be, to fight to live. On a venial level, we see survival of the fittest in the hoarding of toilet paper or even surgical masks. Of more interest is our being called on to stay indoors not so much to protect us from getting a virus that a great majority of people are unlikely to suffer much from, but so as to reduce the chance of the health of others being seriously compromised. This suggestion to do things for the sake of others should sound natural to Zen Buddhists, as it simply recommends that we act like bodhisattvas. To be fair though, Christians shouldn’t have a problem with this either, as it is equally reminiscent of the “Golden Rule” of Jesus that we learned as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Indeed, all religions must have something similar.

I’m reminded of a story that Dainin Katagiri Roshi told me when we were traveling together. He said he had heard it from his mother. It is about the difference between heaven and hell, starting with the fact that they are physically exactly the same. Both are infinitely long rooms with people sitting on either side of an endless table with all sorts of delicious-looking food on it. The only stipulation is that people have to use the chopsticks left there. However, as these are about forty inches long, they are impossible to eat with. In hell, everyone is trying over and over to feed themselves and not succeeding, while in heaven everyone is feeding the person opposite them. This is how a Bodhisattva lives.

Though it may be insensitive now for me to say this, Buddhism teaches us that in a sense death is merely a thought in that it is like any of the other thoughts that pass through our minds when meditating. As they may be there for a moment and then be gone, what they are about doesn’t matter much. Thoughts are only a problem if in paying attention to them, we get caught up in emotions.

Dogen dealt with the relationship between life and death in the Genjo Koan. He compared it to that between firewood and ash. As firewood has with its own past and future, and ash its own past and future, they are independent of each other, and so it cannot be said that firewood becomes ash. Firewood is firewood and ash is ash. The same is true for life (or ‘birth’, one word meaning both in Chinese, and death). Life doesn’t become death because life is complete within itself until the moment it ends. W can sort of see the truth of this on those screens in hospitals rooms showing vital signs; the heartbeat pulse line has disappeared when the flat line appears. Neither is there at the same time. The two sides of a coin provide a similar analogy. If the head is up, the tail isn’t. It follows that where life is, death isn’t. If life is life then, and death is death, then death is not our concern, and it doesn’t make sense for us to be afraid of it. And in fact, more people seem more anxious about the future than fear death itself.

What we become more as we practice is bodhisattvas, ‘enlightened’ on one side (bodhi) and ‘beings’ (sattvas) on the other, doing our best to take care of ourselves and others

Legend has it that it was shock at seeing instances of actual sickness, old age, and death that caused Gautama to leave the family palace. One of his answers to why we suffer is found in his simile of the two arrows. While we can do little about the pain from a real arrow, something can be done about that from a second arrow, which comes from our having unnecessary thoughts and feelings about the first.

Much of our life is spent in dealing with suffering from the three most common types of these thoughts, the so-called poisons of avarice, hatred or fear, and foolishness. The importance in practice of getting rid of these mainly likes and dislikes is featured in the second of the Bodhisattva Vows: “Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.” It implies that it is not life but our thoughts about it that are the problem.