That was Zen; this is now.

That was Zen; this is now.

Monday, July 5, 2010

All in One, One in All

One Japanese anime I have been privileged to watch, the "remake" of Fullmetal Alchemist known as Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, which follows the now-completed manga to an unusually faithful degree, has one segment which has distinct Zen overtones.

While still relatively young children, the two brothers at the heart of the story are given a test by the woman they wish to study under to learn the driving force of the show, Alchemy. The two are placed on an uninhabited island in the center of a lake and are to survive for one month, and come back with the meaning to a cryptic phrase: "One, and All."

The would-be teacher had no actual intention of leaving the children truly unattended, placing an employee at her husband-and-wife store on the island to "supervise" and act as a masked marauder making life more difficult for the children (while offering subtle clues as to how they might survive the ordeal). Forced by starvation to learn how to live off the land, the hard realization strikes them that if they die, they will simply return to the soil like everything else; the world will move on without their lives. They are not separate from the world around them; as the old English poem states, "No man is an island."

This also led to another thought: both of them were also part of the world. They had every bit as much right to live as other living beings. They used plants for shelter and firewood. They ate ants, caught fish, and apologized to the next cute bunny they caught before regretfully killing it for food. The brothers knew from experience that if they did not eat, something else would: a fox caught a rabbit that got away, feeding it to her own young. That is the way of nature.

At the end of the month, the would-be sensei's boat returned, and the two had their answer.

The first said, "All is the World!"

The second said, "One is Me!"

The sensei blinked, laughed heartily, revealed the employee sent to see that they did not actually starve to death, and finally accepted the pair as her apprentices.

This is the lesson the brothers learned, adapted to English syntax:

We are a part of the world, and the world is part of us.

Alas, as any viewer knows, the brothers' knowledge was not complete; they still thought fate could be cheated and were cursed for their blasphemy against the cycle of life, doing many good and great deeds in their search for redemption and restoration, but always reminded that there are still limits to human power. Their journey ended with both stronger, and humbler, than they began.

Our journey continues.

Article first published as All in One, One in All on Technorati.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Zen Flower Power


Zen began with a flower.

Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism and regarded as the Supreme Buddha, once ascended to a teaching dais bearing a flower, said to be a lotus flower. Without saying a word, he raised the flower to his followers.

The net effect was to leave the lot of them staring dumbfounded, except for Maha Kashyapa, who would become the most revered of the Buddha's early disciples, who made a subtle smile.

What had the others expected? They were focusing on what the meaning of the flower must have been, what it represented, what kind of deeper truth it must have held for the Buddha to have focused such attention on it.

Let me begin with a simple proposition.

Sometimes a flower is just a flower.

In the context of Buddhist talk of the impermanence of happy things and the staying power of unhappy things from which we need liberation, and talk of reality as perceived by our eyes and minds being just an illusion, it's easy to dismiss a flower as irrelevant. That, really, was the Buddha's point: people expected rational creeds: analysis, scholasticism, doctrine, and intellectualism. The idea of communicating through the visual image of a flower's beauty was lost on people.

In fact, it wasn't really communicating through the image. It was communicating the image itself.

In other words, the flower's beauty wasn't the messenger; it was the message.

This leads me to my second proposition:

There is Truth in flowers.

I am not referring to our perception created by light rays hitting the back wall of our eyeballs, activating receptors that give a heads up to the brain. I am referring to the flower existing and being part of the natural world.

Many people spend a great deal of time rejecting what they don't like about the modern world; that is, the world humans build. Humans, however, did not build the natural world. The beauty of a flower is a wonder that we did not create. It exists apart from the structures invented and developed by our rational minds.

The world is bad enough as it is; we do not need to harden our hearts to simple, natural beauty that brings joy and tranquility, however fleeting, to our spirits. We do not need to quantify or qualify natural beauty; we need simply appreciate nature for what it is, and be grateful that we can experience it at all.

Thus, there is a noble quality to flowers. They contain an element of Truth, for they show us what exists beyond the chains of our own minds.

Our challenge is to open our minds and let the Truth in.

Article first published as Zen Flower Power on Technorati.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Applied Zen for an Active Life

sword cut

Per my last article, you don't need to be a monk to learn, or even master, Zen.

Now, let's talk about getting there.

Zen as Prelude to Action

The samurai did not shave their heads (unless they were retiring!), yet they were nonetheless practitioners of Zen. Monks might have been expected to be the true masters of Zen, but everyone was free to try and live according to its fundamental principles: liberating the mind from worldly vices such as greed, anger, and ignorance.

This does not, however, mean that Zen need be a passive endeavor, doing nothing but accepting the world around us.

Certainly, acceptance is a key issue. Truth is all around us; it stares us in the face every day, yet we do our utmost to deny and repel it with our minds. This feeds our ignorance and fuels our anger. Greed leads to frustration, which fuels our anger. Anger blinds us to Truth.

When we are angry, we are fighting ourselves. For the warrior, anger means wasting energy fighting yourself instead of the opponent. In some battles, this waste will prove fatal.

Thus, the Zen-practicing warrior accepts the truth as it is before him. If he is stronger than his opponent, he accepts that is true; he also accepts a weaker opponent can kill him. If he is outnumbered four to one, he accepts that; if he must fight, he makes taking his life a costly endeavor.
Acceptance is the prelude to action.

Here, Zen is not passive; it is inner calm, employing the principle of One Mind to focus on the task at hand without prejudice, denial, or anger. The warrior is 100% focused on the task at hand. He wastes no effort feeling sorry for himself and applies his entire mind and body to that which is expected of him.

This is how samurai hoped to live up to duty and honor.

Zen In Motion

There is a simple, practical reason a samurai could not fight with half-measures: a sword cut without proper follow-through is only half as powerful. A samurai must not only cut; he must see the cut through to the very end. Only in this manner will he succeed in felling his opponent in a single blow.

A martial artist must remain loose except when landing a blow. Relaxation frees the body to flow and engage in a highly skilled dance with the opponent. Timing is critical.

Zen works in motion because it allows you to do one simple, hard, and critical thing: Free your mind.

Zen is a tool. How we use it is up to us.

Article first published as Applied Zen for an Active Life on Technorati.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Zen Without Zen

You do not need Zen to find Zen.

What could I possibly mean by this?

You don't need the trappings of Zen Buddhism, the organized religion, to find Zen, the attitude. You do not need to shave your head and become a monk to find enlightenment.

Of course, some think that it helps. Also, it allows someone to find material support while focusing solely on enlightenment. Yet not only is this not realistic for most of us; it is not required at all.

Reciting mantras is not required. Again, some may find that it helps. Others will find this impractical or beyond the point.

Did samurai shave their heads to practice Zen? No, they only did that when they were retiring from being samurai. They found Zen through the little things in life: the practice of arms, the tea ceremony, the appreciation of quality, the acceptance of natural beauty, and so forth. This was their Zen.

Zen means "meditation." Zen is simply about what you can appreciate beyond words. It does not mean no words at all; it means, words are irrelevant. Zen is about appreciating things without words.

So why do we recite words to find Zen? Why do we ponder koans that seem to have no logical answer (mainly because they don't have logical answers)?

We do this because we are very devoted to our logical strictures. However true this was in old Japanese society, it is far more true for our modern world, based on the logic of Aristotle and on the data of scientific experimentation.

At some point, we have to say: enough.

Zen does not require the song and dance of Zen. It does not require monasteries, or monks, or even koans. These are simply ways to slap us in the face to snap us out of thinking logically. They amount to getting people to think more about thinking less.

That is something of a paradox, is it not?

The paradox of Zen is that what we think of as Zen is unnecessary, if only we would stop needing to think so hard of it at all.

Zen is about tearing down the walls. To truly reach enlightenment, we must tear down the walls of even Zen itself. Some people do this after years of study and being neck-deep in the structure of the religion of Zen.

Why wait?

Zen without Zen is the search for direct enlightenment, going straight to the source. Like shaving one's head, it isn't for everyone. Yet, it is something that everyone can pursue and that everyone can achieve, if they can only learn how to let go of the weight of the world.

Isn't that the purpose of all this?

Article first published as Zen Without Zen on Technorati.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

One Mind

Karate Kick at Sunset
The words "One Mind" are a direct translation from the Japanese 一心 (isshin). Like many concepts, this means different things to different people in different contexts.

To the martial artist, One Mind is unity of thought.

The martial artist puts his hand around the handle of a hammer. He grips the texture of the old wood, feeling the grain against his palms as any slight sweat he might have is channeled away ever so slightly, leaving his grip secure. He lifts the implement, feeling its balance against the strength of his hands. The weight is balanced towards the head of the hammer. To feel its "balance" is to acknowledge its imbalance.

He smells the faint whiff of tempered steel and the remnants of the preservatives in the wood. The environment is ever-present: his own breath, his own heartbeat, the feel of the air around him, the feel of the ground beneath the shoes on his feet. He tastes the air. He hears his breath, and faintly, the beating of his own heart, but more importantly, he feels these things. He knows they are there because they announce their presence to his senses.

Yet, the martial artist feels something before him that cannot be seen, that cannot be heard, that cannot be smelled, that defies the taste, that cannot be touched, but that he knows nonetheless is there: a wall. This is a wall of perception, a wall of complication, a collection of restrictions around him that obstruct his spirit.

In one instant, he smashes the wall with the hammer, shattering it into a thousand tiny pieces.

By breaking down the wall of perception, he is left with nothing but himself, forgetting even his hammer, which never existed to begin with.

This is One Mind.

One Mind is breaking down the walls that obstruct our thoughts as if a tangible thing. While intangible, these walls obstruct our minds, and therefore, our actions. The martial artist breaks down these walls to free his mind and release himself from fear, doubt, and hesitation, and thus achieve unity of thought.

To non-martial artists, One Mind means freeing the self from worrying about the self. Resentments about one's position in life, the behavior of other people, and simple random luck, simply wither away, dissolving as if morning mist burned away by the rays of the rising sun. The aromatic scent of the breeze through the evergreen forest replaces the mist, leaving the mind uncluttered and devoid of complications.

The real problem is how to tear down that wall.

Article first published as One Mind on Technorati.

What Is Enlightenment?

Let's start with something easy, but hard. What is enlightenment, anyway?

What follows is my own opinion, not the teachings of this or that Zen master. Ultimately, one's path to enlightenment is individual. No one can just hand it to you. This is my attempt to define enlightenment in some small way.

So far as I can tell by distilling the words of those who are Zen monks, enlightenment is tearing down the walls of logical society, orthodox philosophy, and what is generally thought of as "rational thought."

Enlightenment is realizing that there are things beyond these structures. Perhaps, it is more that there are things that fall beneath the cracks of these structures, things that cannot be appreciated properly through use of them.


Think about words you might use to describe this image. What comes to mind? What words can do justice to this image? Think about it for a moment.

Whatever words you have just summoned into your mind, are useless for achieving enlightenment.

It is not so much that words suffice, as that they distract. Words establish boundaries within which the image must exist in our minds. Words are shackles and chains that restrict where our thoughts may lead.

As a linguist and writer, I am all the more sensitive to the limitations and drawbacks of the written and spoken word. Some things should be understood without words, simply for the raw visual, emotional, and spiritual power they possess.

The beauty of the sky does not need you to describe it. All that is required, is that you accept it.

This is one small piece of enlightenment: a window into the uncluttered soul.

Article first published as What Is Enlightenment? on Technorati.

The Importance of a Fresh Perspective

boat_in_water-t2初心 (shoshin) combines the Japanese kanji for "beginning" and "heart." Though 心 does represent the physical heart - look at the big image closely, it shows the valves of a human heart - it also refers to the figurative heart: the mind, the spirit, etc. From this, we arrive at the usual translation: Beginner's Mind.

A Fresh Outlook

Too often, we human beings are burdened by preconceptions. We do not come to a problem with what the law calls "clean hands"; our minds are polluted by external influences prejudicing us towards particular outcomes. These prejudices may be based on what we consider to be common knowledge, or represent a particular political or social viewpoint.

Regardless, preconceptions are weights upon our minds that must be cast off in order to view something with an open heart. By setting aside what we know, or think we know, we ready ourselves for new knowledge and fresh appreciation.

The beginner starts with a lack of knowledge, an openness to knowledge, and an eagerness to acquire knowledge. A beginner does not know right from left; these things must be learned. However, a beginner possesses boundless energy. By reproducing this spirit within ourselves, we touch upon the passion that drives us to expand our universe to include that which we did not know previously, and perhaps simply missed because we were blinded by old perspectives.

Instead of merely thinking outside the box, Beginner's Mind is emptying the box: clearing the mind of the clutter that interferes with viewing things with the eagerness, hope, and energy of a child.

Clearly, to do this for everything would be to act as though we know nothing, and never knew anything. On the other hand, to clear the mind of preconceived notions for one particular case allows us to approach that case with a clear, focused mind, untainted by the past.

Though this is a concept in Zen, it is also the foundation of the scientific method. To begin an inquiry in earnest, we must isolate a question and strip away prejudice, examining it solely on its own merits. In turn, we propose hypotheses and test them, allowing tangible, measurable evidence to take center stage. From this evidence, we derive conclusions and gradually develop theories to better explain the results.

This said, we must guard against empiricism being mistaken for all existence. The Beginner's Mind is intangible, yet is quite real nonetheless.

Article first published as The Importance of a Fresh Perspective on Technorati.