James Martini archive

Tag : zen (8)

Bad Buddhist

Categories: Buddhism, Life
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Published on: November 22, 2011

I occasionally frequently have days when I wonder if self identifying as a Buddhist isn’t a combination of irony and an attempt to pull the wool over other people’s eyes. I’ve been reading a lot more books on Buddhism and Buddhist themed blogs recently and I’m constantly struck by the gulf between my experience and the experience of other middle class white Americans who similarly self identify as Buddhists.

I don’t care about enlightenment. This isn’t false modesty, I don’t doubt that there some state of being in which one perceives and groks the nature of existence but such a state seems so distant from my daily mental locus that it’s like looking at the moon; beautiful but infinitely out of reach. I struggle just to not be a dick to people in my immediate vicinity

I think dharma names are silly. Maybe it’s because I did the whole goth thing back in the 90s and hung out with people who referred to themselves with fanciful names dripping with angst and import (you know who you are). I think it’s great that Rob Wierzbaski from Scranton has taken up meditation and instruction from a saffron robed teacher from the roof of the world. I admire his dedication and the discipline of the vows he has undertaken. When, however, he is referred to or refers to himself as Tendo Dorje I either have to stifle either a smirk or a sneer.

I’m suspicious of dharma transmission. I have a very different and more mundane take on the Flower Sermon. The Buddha silently holds up a flower, everyone is wrapped up in what he means by this, one person, looking at the flower, smiles. I’m sure that somewhere an enlightened tulku just had a shooting pain in his left arm as a result of how wrong I am but it honestly makes more sense to me than mental telepathy.

I masturbate about as frequently as I meditate. Okay, a lot more frequently. I sometimes wonder if there’s really that much of a difference but, in general, I’m far more relaxed after one than I am the other.

I have an Indonesian style Buddha head statue on my desk that was given to me as a wonderful gift by my loving wife. I don’t bow to him. I don’t pay homage to him. Truth be told, I don’t even dust him all that often. I do, however, wonder what music he listens to when I use him as a rack for my headphones.

I guess when it comes down to it there is a lot about Buddhism that speaks to me. The Four Noble Truths make sense although I’ll admit the third is a leap of faith. A lot of the things you’re supposed to strive for as a Buddhist strike me as things we could use more of in the world. Kindness, introspection, inner and outer peace, all pretty good things.

I saw Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back as a kid and wanted to be wise like Yoda. I had a philosophy professor in college who one said I had sainthood within my grasp which is a hell of an ego boost for a twenty-something year old but, in retrospect, is more like a gypsy curse that has taken the form of the 800 pound gorilla of unrealized potential.

Anyway, time to wash the dishes and vacuum the house.

Okay so the Buddha, the Pope and a Rabbi walk into a bar…

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: November 20, 2011

This morning it was my turn to “lead” the discussion at the UU Buddhist Meditation group (four or five guys that meet weekly, gab, and sit). I spent some time over the last week trying to figure out what I was going to talk about, wrote down a bunch of notes regarding the nature of impermanence etc and finally opted for a version of a joke about the Pope debating a Rabbi. More fun than a discussion of the First Noble Truth and much more in keeping with my attitude towards Buddhism i.e. lets not get too serious and forget that we’re supposed to be working towards being happy.

I’m happy to say I didn’t have to read it but told the story without consulting my notes although it wasn’t exactly word for word. I did, however, add some dramatic flair and the discussion afterwards was no less interesting than any other time.

The Gentle Art of Zen Mondo

The Joshu region of Japan is known for the dry winds that bluster down from the mountains and for the konnyaku plants that grow in the fields. The plants’ potato-like tubers are sliced and dried, then boiled and shaped into deliciously chewy patties, which are also called, simply, konnyaku.

In southern Joshu, on the outskirts of the town of Annaka, there lived a konnyaku maker named Roku. Born and raised in Edo, he might have spent his whole life there, but a tendency to drink heavily, gamble unluckily, and frequent houses of ill repute made that untenable. Having exhausted a lifetime’s worth of credit in just 20-some years, he left the big city behind, worked hard to learn his present trade, and was eventually able to set up his own shop. He had a certain charisma and soon came to be seen as the unofficial head of his neighborhood. Occasionally, young men who had been living too fast in Edo would show up on Roku’s doorstep and he never failed to help them.

Hachigoro showed up in somewhat worse shape than most. Not only had he parted with his last yen, but due to a bout of venereal disease, he had lost all of the hair on his head as well. Roku, though, saw this loss as a possible advantage and said, “I think I may have a job tailor-made for you.”

The nearby temple had been without a resident monk, without a bikkhu, that is, for some time. Gonsuke, the temple boy kept the place tidy, but he was too young to take over as head bikkhu. Hachigoro didn’t know a sutra from a koan, but he was old enough. “And besides,” added Roku, “you’ve got the look. Your head is pre-shaved! Come on, you can wing the rest.”

Thus Hachigoro was appointed head bikkhu. The original plan was to have Gonsuke give him a crash course in the basics of Buddhist ritual and, in fact, they did manage to pull off a funeral together. However, they also spent quite a bit of time over dice, with Hachigoro teaching Gonsuke the basics of gambling ritual. As a result, novice Head bikkhu Hachigoro was grossly unprepared when, one bright morning, a traveling bikkhu appeared at the gate and issued a mondo dialogue challenge.

Gonsuke met this real, bona fide bikkhu out at the gate and returned to the temple pale and short of breath. “Now we’re in trouble,” he told Hachigoro. “You can’t turn him away. In Zen Buddhism, and this is a Zen temple, you know, if a bikkhu is challenged to a mondo dialogue, he must accept. And if defeated, he must hand his temple over to the challenger.” Hachigoro rubbed his bald head and whined, “You mean he’s trying to drive me out of my own temple? That’s not fair. I don’t do mondo!”

The two decided to do the only sensible thing. Hachigoro hid in the closet and Gonsuke told the traveling bikkhu that his master was out of town. The bikkhu replied that he would return tomorrow, and the next day if necessary. In fact, he would come every day for the next year.

When the coast was clear, Hachigoro emerged from the closet, sneezed, and declared that they had better take the statue of Buddha and the other paraphernalia, skip town, and sell everything to an antique dealer. He and Gonsuke were busy packing when Roku came by to see how ritual practice was going. “Zen dialogue?!” he guffawed, “What are you worried about? That mondo mumbo jumbo, how hard can it be?”

“Harder than konnyaku, I’m afraid,” sighed Gonsuke.

“No sweat. I bet the guy’s bluffing. I’ll tell you what: tomorrow I’ll dress up as head bikkhu and we’ll see if he’s for real.”

The statue of Buddha was returned to its pedestal. Next morning when the traveling bikkhu arrived as promised, Roku was waiting for him in the main hall, seated in full regalia with his head freshly shaved.

After a deep bow, the challenger posed his first question: “When wind blows through a pine tree, a unique sound is made. Respectfully I ask, is it the voice of the wind, or the voice of the pine?”

Roku hadn’t a clue, so he said nothing and simply glared. At first, the traveling bikkhu was puzzled, but then it dawned on him that this was surely the advanced, deeply esoteric “silent mondo” technique. He nodded, closed his eyes for a moment, then glaring back, he placed both hands in front of his chest and made a circle with his thumbs and forefingers.

Roku shook his head and held up both arms in a big circle. Next the traveling bikkhu thrust out both hands with his 10 fingers spread. Roku responded by thrusting out his right hand only, fingers spread. The challenger bowed in acceptance, and held out his right hand with just three fingers raised. Roku threw his head back and, with his right hand, pointed to his right eye. With that, the challenger sighed, stood up, and walked out.

Gonsuke had been watching the entire mondo from a crack between the sliding doors. Still, he didn’t know what to make of the exchange, so he ran after the departing bikkhu and asked how it had gone.

“Well, I made a circle in front of my chest, asking your master, of course, about the state of the human soul. He responded with a large circle, meaning “as spacious as the spheres.” Then I inquired about the Ten Directions of the world. He indicated that the Five Great Laws would preserve them. When I asked about the Three Great Teachings, he pointed out that they are always here right before our eyes. That’s when I realized he was far too enlightened an opponent for me. I’ll return years from now, once I’ve attained a deeper understanding.”

Gonsuke was truly impressed. Who would have imagined that Roku, the konnyaku maker, was a Zen expert!?

But back inside the temple, he found Roku fuming: “That bastard must have passed by my shop and seen me working or something. He starts his mondo thing, but then stops, gives me a good looking over and a knowing little nod. I could tell he recognized me, dammit, because he made the shape of a konnyaku with his fingers. He was saying, ‘Your konnyaku’s about this small,’ so I made a jumbo konnyaku with both arms to show him how wrong he was. Then he asks, ‘How much for 10?’ So I show him, you know, 5 yen. Now get this! That bikkhu asked for a stinking discount — ‘Give ’em to me for 3 yen.’ Well, that’s when I told him to stick it in his eye!”

 

 

Achievement Unlocked: The Third Gem’s The Charm

Categories: Buddhism, Life
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Published on: November 13, 2011

My friend Jim has restarted the Buddhist meditation group at the local Unitarian Universalist church. I’d gone previously a few times when it was being run by James Ownbey (so many Jameses) but didn’t really stick with it. At the moment it’s being held at 10am in the office of the minister rather than in the main hall. The down side is that the office faces onto the foyer and the church is quite active before 11am services so concentration is proving to be challenging.

It’s pretty nondenominational in terms of the school of Buddhism. While the previous James seemed more involved with the local Tibetans, Jim is decidedly zen in his leanings. It’s probably best described as Reformed Western Buddhism.

The central UU webside still lists James Owenby as the primary contact and links to a URL that no longer exists. I’ll have to talk to Jim about getting that fixed at some point.

Shaving the Buddha

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: September 17, 2011

I like shaving. A lot.

This might be surprising to friends and family because I frequently sport a day or two’s growth. You’d expect that as my favorite grooming activity I’d do it as frequently as possible but there’s a cap on how often you can reasonably pick up a razor without going after other parts of your anatomy.

Quite a lot of meditation is wrapped up in focus and, at least in some traditions, mindfullness. There are entire traditions based almost entirely in simply paying attention to what is going on, what you’re doing, what you’re thinking and being focused on what is as opposed to what was or might be.

I don’t think there is any other activity that so absolutely focuses the mind as drawing a piece of incredibly sharp metal across your throat. When sitting my mind wanders and drifts. When shaving there is only the blade. Lack of attention or attempting to hurry is rewarded with immediate correction. When I think about it, I’ve picked up a razor and put it to my throat far more times than I’ve sat on a cushion and attempted to train my wandering mind which is probably why, in those few moments, I have what I struggle for the rest of the day: presence and patience.

For one minute, a few times a week, everything falls away and I’m absolutely connected to what is happening. I’m not worried, I’m not afraid, all the mental static goes silent. A tool designed to divide what is one instead unites what is divided.

This Blog Sucks

Categories: Life
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Published on: August 25, 2011

I think that this interview with Ira Glass pretty much sums up why I’ve always bailed out of many of the creative endeavors I’ve begun. Thanks to WWdN: In Exile for bringing it to my attention.

So if you’re reading this crap blog on even a semi-regular basis (sorry Jyllian) be prepared for it to suck. A lot at first, maybe less a few years down the line. Who knows, twenty years down the line when I’m shaking my liver spotted fist at kids with their direct neural interfaces and semi-autonomous matrix zones this blog may continue to suck. Maybe I’ll achieve perfect zen beginners mind and suck as much at the end as I do at the beginning.

Which brings me to what I love about zen, nothing to achieve which takes long, difficult years full of hard work sitting down to accomplish. You achieved enlightenment? That’s nice, did you remember to take out the trash and scoop the cat box?

Author’s disclaimer: not an enlightened being by any stretch of the imagination.

I shouldn’t love this but I do

Categories: Buddhism, Gaming
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Published on: August 15, 2011

 

Is that so?

Categories: Buddhism
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Published on: April 22, 2010

An old story regarding maintaining one’s composure and equanimity regardless of what life throws at you.

Hakuin was a famous Zen master in Japan. He lived in a remote village and was often praised by his neighbours as a man of pure living.

Once, a beautiful, unwedded girl in the village was found pregnant. Being a very conservative village, the family was furious. The girl refused to confess who the man was, but after much beating and harasssment by her parents, she finally named the master Hakuin.

In great anger, the girl’s family confronted the master, but all he would do was calmly say, “Is that so?”.

After the baby was born, it was brought to Hakuin and he took very good care of the child. He begged for milk and other things the little one needed from his neighbours. By this time, Hakuin’s reputation was completely destroyed, but that didn’t trouble him. He was often scorned by the villagers, but that didn’t bother him, either.

A year later, the girl-mother finally broke down and confessed the truth. The baby’s father was not Hakuin, but a young man who worked nearby. The girl’s parents went to Hakuin at once and begged profusely for his forgiveness, and to get the baby back.

Hakuin willingly gave back the baby and all he said was, “Don’t worry about it. Go home”.

Escrima, sore shoulders and Zen Master Dogen

Categories: Buddhism, Taekwondo
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Published on: March 13, 2008

It seems that every time I think that I’ve the body trained enough to work (well at least to get by if not perform at the level I want) without getting too sore, we do something different and I find a whole new set of muscles that haven’t been doing a damned thing for the last decade.

Last night we did some sparring and I took a shot right in the shin splint which is a whole universe of pain but following that we did escrima. Since I’d never done it before I didn’t get to spar with them but I got to practice the basic heaven six drill. I’m not used to having both arm up and swinging like that but I did get going pretty well with the gentleman who was teaching me the drill. So of course this morning my shoulders are both sore as hell. Fun though. I probably enjoy swinging a weapon more than trying to limber up and train my stiff old frame to be one. Which means, of course, that I need to focus more on the latter.

On a totally different note, my wife got me the zen day calendar for Christmas. I’ve had one page that I saved sitting on my desk for the last two months so I thought I’d put it here as well just so it doesn’t get lost:

Refraining from all evil, not clinging to birth and death, working in deep compassion for all sentient beings, respecting those over you and pitying those below you, without any detesting or desiring, worrying, or lamentation – this is what is called Buddha. Do not search beyond it.

Dogen

When I first read this I got stuck on the respect/pity part but, after thinking about it for a while, that is probably a reaction to how we frequently conflate pity with superiority rather than simply recognizing pity as sympathy and sorrow for the pain of others. Similarly there shouldn’t be resentment in admitting that there are people with a clearer view and greater compassion than my own any more than I would resent admitting that there are people who are better at math.

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