Wednesday, July 26, 2017

International Day of Meditation

A few months ago, I was meditating at my local Zen center, and I did something that I almost never do during practice.  I opened my eyes, and I looked around at my fellow practitioners.  What I saw shocked me. 

The guy sitting directly across from me was wearing black from head to toe.  The sides of his head were shaved, which helped to accentuate his eyeliner.  To my right, there was a young woman sitting in the lotus-position.  Her brown hair fell to just below her shoulders, and her tattoo-covered hands rested in a perfect mudra against her pregnant belly.  She told me once that she'd started practicing Zen because people like to "test" her at home, and meditation helps her stay calm. 

Finally, to my left there was an older gentlemen who looked like he'd come straight out of a John Wayne movie.  He had tan leathery skin, and a propensity for flannel shirts.  I knew from conversation that he was a hunter who described his practice by saying, "I eat what I kill."

That being said, it wasn't the appearance of my fellow students that I found shocking; it was the fact that we were all in the same room together.  A goth, a young mother, a vegan, and a hunter were all occupying space together under the watchful eyes of monks.  We had nothing in common, and yet we were able to sit silently, and support each other's practice.  It was beautiful.

After meditation, we listened to a dharma talk from our teacher and drank tea.  This was the exact chain of events that happened every Tuesday night at the zendo, but it was like I was experiencing it for the first time.  I wasn't just seeing my fellow students; I was feeling them as well.  It's hard to describe other than to say that I felt a connectedness between us that I hadn't noticed before.  Yes, we were all different in terms or race, tattoos, eating-habits, and makeup preferences.  But there was something else underneath; something that was identical in all of us.  

Some Buddhist traditions refer to this thing as the dharmakaya.  Others call it our buddhanature.  These are all fine words.  But for the purposes of this article, I'm going to cop out and state that it's "beyond name and form".  I'm just happy that it's there, and I can become more aware of it through seated meditation.

As a result of this experience, I started a sitting group called Be The Peace, that meets once a month to practice meditation in public spaces.  I'm also working with my friends at The Tattooed Buddha to organize an International Day of Meditation.  On August 5th, individuals and sitting groups from all over the world will meditate as a united, human family and livestream the event!  

I still don't know exactly what I experienced that day in the Zen center.  But I'm hoping that if we can get a bunch of people to meditate together on August 5th, then maybe they'll feel it too.  And if we're truly lucky, everyone will be kinder, and more compassionate as a result.

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Click on the cities below for more event information!

Chicago, IL

Cleveland, OH

Philadelphia, PA

Indianapolis, IN

Vista, CA

Woodstock, IL

Email if you would like to add your city to the list!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Intoku: The Perfect Response To Suffering

Intoku is a Japanese word that translates to, "Good done in secret".  In Zen Buddhism, it's often used to describe the act of doing unpopular jobs without expecting praise or reward. For example, the guy who cleans the Zen center's toilets every day without being asked is practicing intoku. By performing acts such as this it's believed that the practitioner will gain merit and realize enlightenment more quickly.

That being said, intoku didn't appeal to me early in my practice.  In the face of layoffs, rowdy neighbors, and political unrest it seemed like the Zen equivalent of standing around a campfire and singing kumbaya.  It sounded good on paper, but did it really fix anything?  My opinion changed, however, when I noticed how house plants cope with suffering.

Case in point, there's a money tree (Pachira Aquatica) sitting peacefully on my desk as I write this. Sadly, it doesn't drop dollar bills from its branches, but my tree has a remarkable talent for turning carbon dioxide into oxygen.  And it does that all day, every day without fail.

My money tree is completely unperturbed when I have a bad day at work, when my neighbors shoot off fireworks at 2 am, or when disturbing news stories pop up on my social media feed.  It just keeps pulling nutrients from the soil, sprouting new leaves, and purifying the air I breathe without missing a beat.  This is the essence of intoku; to keep doing good works no matter how much suffering occurs around us.

However, the story doesn't end there.  The second part of practicing intoku requires us to do good works IN SECRET.  In other words, we must do them without the expectation of getting something in return.  Of course, that's not to say that receiving validation from others is a bad thing.  But if we're being honest, most kind acts go unrewarded.  People don't always say, "Thank you," when we hold the door for them, children aren't always respectful to their parents, and sometimes bosses don't appreciate our hard work.

But that's where we find the true marrow of intoku.  Because once we learn to do good works without desiring praise, we liberate ourselves.  We stop looking to others for validation, and our acts of kindness become their own reward.  When toilets are dirty, we clean them.  When people are hungry, we feed them.  And we go to bed at night happy in the knowledge that in a world filled with suffering, we made things a little better.

This is something all of us can do.  Each of us has a role to play in the world, and we make life better for everyone when we fulfill that role in a kind and loving way.  Intoku provides a method for doing that.  We just need to be willing to try.

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Empty Your Cup: What Bruce Lee Taught Me About Spiritual Practice

I’ve had a deep and abounding love for martial arts for as long as I can remember.  The strict discipline, the cool uniforms, and the ancient traditions all led me to eventually earn a black belt in Isshin-Ryu karate.  It also led me to watch a ridiculous number of martial arts movies.  Of these, the Bruce Lee films were always my favorites. 

Bruce was a physical genius.  In fact, his punches were so fast that he had to purposely slow down in order for the camera to pick up his movements.  But he was also a great  intellectual.  Now that I’m older, I’ve started to appreciate his philosophy more than his skills with nunchakus

Bruce taught his students that they must become "empty cups" in order to be effective in combat.  That is to say, they had to let go of preconceived notions around punch/ kick combinations, and simply flow with what ever the moment demanded of them.  He called this fighting style Jeet Kune Do, and he summed up its core teaching by saying:

          "Empty your cup so that it may be filled; become devoid to gain totality."

In other words, Bruce was telling his students that they must be "empty" of everything they thought they knew about technique if they were going to become complete fighters.  This is an excellent ethos for martial arts, but I think it applies equally to spiritual practice.

 Our habits might tell us that anger is the only way to respond to injustice, and some people are deserving of our disgust.  But this is a recipe for suffering.  We must be willing to let go of of our preconceived notions in order to progress on the spiritual path.  And that's where Zen Buddhism comes into play.

Zen is a rude house guest, and we’re the soon to be empty cup.  It tips us over each time we sit in meditation until our inner most thoughts come pouring out.  It waits until the red wine of our mental habits seep deep into our white carpet, and then it walks away.  “It’s your wine,” Zen says dismissively, “You clean it up.”

And that’s a problem because we don’t like being empty.  In fact, we’ve carried around our suffering/  mental habits for so long that we’re not sure we can be a cup without them.  So, we dutifully clean up the mess as best we can, and then we refill ourselves with new helpings of anger, anxiety, worry, etc. 

We justify it, of course.  “This is an important project,” we say as we scrub the carpet, “If I don’t have anxiety, that means I don’t care.” “He shouldn’t have said that,” we mutter as we reach for the bottle, "I deserve to be angry.” But Zen is nothing if not patient, and it keeps tipping us over until one of two things happen.
1.       We quit, and move on to another spiritual practice.
2.       We learn that being empty isn’t so scary, after all.
Sadly, there isn’t much to say about the first option.   But the second one is interesting.  Because if we can learn to be okay with emptiness, life becomes simple.  Empty cups don’t make messes when they tip over.  And they can be a container for whatever life needs them to carry.

In fact, when we make the choice to stop filling ourselves with anger, it leaves room for compassion to grow.  And when we break the mental habit of worry, life fills us with contentment.  If we’re really lucky, we realize that white carpet is impractical.  And we learn to enjoy the multi-colored messes that Zen brings to the surface because each one is an opportunity to grow in our practice. 

Bruce Lee was an "empty cup", and he became the greatest martial artist of all time as a result.  Imagine what we could accomplish if everyone followed his example, and let go of their mental habits.

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