Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Dojo of Nature

"My Dojo is nature; it is the universe. This is truly a dwelling, a practice hall and a temple built by the spirit. If you look with the eyes of your heart, you will see that nature is the teacher that possesses all the scientific and spiritual truth that will lead you to enlightenment. It is imperative that those on the path practice with this knowledge held deeply within their hearts."

 Ueshiba Morihei Sensei

To only practice Zen in the confines of the Zendo is to be deceived by forms. The Zendo walls are not the walls spoken of by Bodhidharma, nor are the walls of any cave. The walls you must see and stare down are the obscurations that you have created in your own mind.

 Facing the wall means to face your own barriers, your fears, your stories. Facing the wall means to focus your mind on that which keeps you from seeing clearly. To awaken means to penetrate the wall of your self-imposed ignorance and see the entire world exactly as it is!

Break free from your narrow views and enter the Dojo of Nature. See that there are no boundaries and that every limitation is something you have created or inherited from those of limited understanding. Never pass an opportunity to sit and pierce the walls of ignorance. Get outside, open your eyes and breathe!

Sit in the forest, in the open prairie, on the mountain top; go where no walls stand before you and stare deeply through any walls you yourself have created. You don’t have to go far; the walls you must penetrate are right before your eyes. On the porch, in the park, at the beach, look out! Look out beyond your cave and look out into the limitless Dojo of Nature, beyond the trees, beyond the clouds, beyond the stars. 

Stare intently into the infinity of the Boundless Mind; there you will realize the Dojo of Nature, the temple of the spirit, your only true abode. You will see that Nature is the root of your being, you are no stranger in the world, your consciousness abounds!

When you truly open your eyes, you will see right through everything, your awakened mind will penetrate all obstructions and your mind will be free!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Hermitage of Winter

It was an intimate Fall sesshin at Open Gate this year, a two day respite from the thundering roll of modern life. Rain fell steadily throughout the day on Saturday with Sunday becoming dryer but noticeably cooler. The sound of the rain on the roof and tumbling from the eaves was reminiscent of chanted sutras echoing from distant halls.

The openness of the paper windows and intimate proximity among the fir and cedar trees gives one the feeling of being snuggled in the bosom of Mother Nature; far beyond the artificial cares of the work-a-day world. Every sound of the forest and pattering raindrop drifts through the hall as if it were happening inside. Inside and outside lose their boundaries as sounds mingle with thoughts, both fading away as echoes in the mind.

Autumn marks the beginning of a period of deeper practice for the Wayfarer. Life slows as falling leaves mark the coming of shorter days, winter weather and evenings by the fire. The intimacy that comes with staying indoors and longer hours of darkness that come with the season is ideal for those of us in the contemplative traditions. Traditionally, in southern Buddhism the rainy season was called Vassa and was the only time that monks really stayed in the monasteries. In Zen and the Northern latitudes, this became the period of the 90 day Winter Retreat (known in Korean Zen as Dong Ahn Geo) and is typically the longest period of continuous deep practice.

The word contemplate from which the term contemplative is derived, is from the Latin and literally means “to dwell within the temple” which is important to the student of Zen. While the word contemplate itself often means to; reflect, ponder or study, which is really not what Zen meditation is about, the literal meaning  “to dwell within the temple” is. While I will be the first to admit that my Zen practice also includes plenty of; pondering, reflection and study; my time “dwelling in the temple” is completely set aside from any of these ancillary activities. To my understanding; to “dwell within the temple” is precisely the practice of zazen and although- pondering, reflection and study, do find their way into this contemplative Zen lifestyle; just “dwelling within the temple” without any of these other objectives is the fundamental point.

This temple of dwelling is not the church or meditation hall, or any physical structure that we may find ourselves sitting in, nor is it any specific place we can conceive of and call a temple, but rather the normal dwelling place of the mind. While we may think our practice of “going into retreat” as a physical activity, it is fundamentally a practice of the mind and requires no physical address beyond our own physicality. Contrary to all architectural attempts to capture the humbling grandeur of this primal dwelling space, no Christian Cathedral, Buddhist Temple or Ancient Ziggurat has ever succeeded in capturing the limitless splendor that is the temple of the unbound mind. To dwell in this infinite temple of the mind does not require us to go anywhere, in fact, in the typical enigmatic language of Zen, it only requires that we go nowhere and do nothing.

While it is traditional for monks and nuns to gather and dwell in community with fellow monks and nuns for such a period, it is not a requirement, nor is it even necessary. While such gatherings may be beneficial in regenerating interest and rejuvenating ones practice, the original intent is precisely that; to regenerate interest and rejuvenating ones practice. This tradition is carried on the practice of the Zen Sesshin and should be understood as beneficial in exactly the same way. Thus sesshins are fundamentally refresher courses in finding ones original mind space. Through a period of intensive practice the Wayfarer essentially hits the “reset button” of practice and finds the trailhead fresh and new.

However, for many of us working class wayfarers, ninety day retreats or even seven day retreats can be a stumbling block to our practice, especially if we feel that such commitments are mandatory. In many cases our life situation does not allow us the luxury of stopping the world and going into prolonged retreat. We are often admonished by our Sangha peers for lack of commitment or poor style of practice because “they” have found the time in their busy schedule to commit to sesshin, so why shouldn’t you? This again is a misunderstanding of what it means “to dwell within the temple” They have mistaken the real estate for the experience and in doing so have simply exposed their ignorance.

Since each of us has unlimited access to our original abode; the temple of the mind, there is no need to go anywhere to find retreat. While going on retreats may be helpful for those who are looking for motivation, the Wayfarers journey begins at his or her feet and goes nowhere in no particular direction. We sit at the center of the universe and our theater is a vast as the cosmos. To move with intention to abode of the mind is to travel a thousand miles without a single step. While it is a pleasant luxury to be allowed an extended time for deep unbroken practice, it is still a luxury only for those who can afford the time. However, the true essence of Zen lays in ones ability to find retreat at whenever opportunity arises for what ever period of time life allows.

This is what makes the coming of winter the most opportune time for deepening our practice, opportunities abound. Long winter nights, gray rainy days and hours huddling next to the fire or furnace lend themselves well to “dwelling in the temple”. If we pay attention to the natural rhythms of life, we discover that winter is slower and quieter more often and for longer periods of time. So why not take advantage of such occasions? Even weather driven power outages and winter travel interruptions can become impromptu practice periods for those who seek refuge.

So the concept of Winter Retreat is not just for monastics, nor is it reserved for the wealthy or those blessed with an open calendar, but rather a natural time of renewal brought on by the natural cycle of the seasons. The Wayfarer only needs to recognize the opportunities and make the frequently available occasions of the season a time to deepen practice; a time to renew interest in the benefits of momentary seclusion in the natural rhythms of life. If one were to add up the hours available for such practice through the course of the winter season she/he might be surprised to learn that there was plenty of time for a Winter Retreat taken one day or even one hour at a time.

One does not need to bring one’s ordinary life to a stop in order to benefit from deepened winter practice, one just needs to recognize that every hour that makes itself available is an opportunity to deepen practice. The One Mat Zendo is the perfect hermitage for those who recognize every opening in their calendar as another gateway to the original mind. The rain is falling and long nights prevail, we find ourselves alone. There is no need to go anywhere and nothing more important to do, who can pass such an opportunity?

Let me respectfully remind you,
Life and death are of supreme importance,
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost,
Each of us should strive to awaken,
Awaken, take heed do not squander your life!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Conducting a Solitary Zen Practice

Many people have asked me about the methods of solitary practice. Most of them have experienced Zen from perspective of group practice, with teachers who promote group practice as the only viable way to practice Zen. Although this is a commonly perpetuated misconception, Zen practice is fundamentally a solitary practice. One needs only to recall that the founder of Zen- Bodhidharma (ca. 440 to 528) practiced alone for nine years in his cave (Mount Song near the Sholin Monastery) to understand Zen as a solitary practice.

Zen did not develop into an organized group practice until the time of Daoxin (who has since been granted the honorific title of Fourth Zen Patriarch). Daoxin was the first Zen master to develop an intentional Zen practice community (ca. 630) which would eventually lead to Zen being accepted and adopted by mainstream Chinese Buddhism and ultimately to Zen being accepted as an orthodox form of Buddhism. For the hundred or more years between Bodhidharma and the founding of Daoxin’s intentional community, Zen remained the practice of scattered individuals and small groups of wandering ascetics.

Since that time, the predominant development of Zen sects and monasteries has led to Zen practice being correlated with organized group practice. However, the custom of independent and solitary Zen practice has continued as an unbroken tradition to this very day. Due to the popularity of Zen, it is likely that unaffiliated and/or individual practitioners equal or exceed the number organized group practitioners. In addition to this, group practitioners are encouraged to maintain a “home” practice as well, making solitary home meditation practice the preeminent form of Zen practiced. With the possible exception of a purely monastic practice (where individuals nearly always practices together) group practice should primarily be viewed as a form of training to be applied to our solitary practice. Just as we go to school to learn methods and develop skills that we will apply to our careers, the methods and skills we develop in group practice are fundamentally training for us to take with us and apply to our daily lives.

It is beyond the zendo and away from our teachers and sangha that we must learn to apply what we have learned “in school.” To think that your Zen practice is only what you do in the zendo, or on retreat, is to think that what your learned in school is only useful while you are in school. If we equate our group Zen training and practice (as we should) with our education, we can clearly see that our real Zen practice is what we practice as individuals (and mostly alone) for the balance of our waking hours. Therefore, we should look at the basic structure of group practice as a primer and formulate our personal solitary practice from what we glean from our group experiences.

We can adopt as much or as little as we feel we need from our group experiences and we should allow our individual practices to evolve as we mature in our practice. What we practice in the beginning may not suit us as our life conditions change, so we should not become attached to any specific form of practice. What is important is that we develop a routine that we can maintain without getting overstressed, bored or burned out. We do not want our practice to suffer from complacency, anxiety or apathy. Therefore, we should make sure that what we develop as our personal routine should become a habit that we will maintain like brushing our teeth; making it in a way, a form of “mental” hygiene.

If possible, I would recommend that everyone make a point to experience some group practice before they begin developing their own private regime. Make a point to attend practice with a group as much as you can. The more experience you have with a group, the easier it will be for you to develop your own routine. I know that this may be difficult for some of us living in remote areas, or away from any Zen centers or monasteries, but an effort to do so will be infinitely rewarding. If it is too difficult to maintain a group practice for any length of time, try attending at least one sesshin (Zen retreat) or zazenkai (one day Zen retreat) in order to learn the fundamentals of practice. If this is not possible, try to find a teacher or others with experience who would be willing to share their knowledge and experiences with you. Be wary however of anyone (even a Zen teacher) who claims that what they are sharing is the “only true way”.

We are fortunate to live in this modern society where global communications are prevalent and distance learning is increasing in viability. Between books, audio recording, videos and the internet; we can find instructions and guidance from a variety of sources that can help us develop good form. Now, there will be those who will claim that you must have a teacher to learn Zen, and while it is true that having a teacher usually makes it easier (just like in school) this is not mandatory. This will help you develop your form and give you “live” technical and moral support. Likewise, if you do not maintain a regular group practice, I recommend returning to group practice or attending sesshins as frequently as you can afford (in time and money) to keep your form fresh and keep you from losing interest.

How often to practice

In Zen Mind Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki says that weekly practice is enough for someone who wants maintain a Zen practice. Although I agree that this may be true for some, I have found more frequent practice to be more rewarding. I myself have maintained (for the most part) a six day a week practice for over thirty years. I make no regrets if I should miss a day or two here or there, but I find that if I go to long without practice I can feel the difference. I have always allowed myself one day (traditionally Sunday) to skip practice and frequently forego practice when I travel or otherwise find myself in circumstances where practice would be awkward. I generally recommend a similar schedule to my students and friends, and compare Zen practice with a physical exercise routine.

How Long to Practice

Early on, my meditation sessions were forty-five minutes long. Allowing few minutes to set up, lighting the incense and putting things away this made my daily work-day session run one full hour. However, when I began conducting daily group sessions, I shortened the time to thirty minutes to allow more time for the other related activities. I have found that thirty minute meditation sessions are easy to maintain, given a working family householders’ schedule. How long you meditate should be governed by your schedule and ability and should reflect your long term capabilities to maintain. If you can afford an hour every day without taxing your daily routine and an hour works for you, then do it for an hour, if you can only go half an hour, then go half an hour, what is most important is that you develop a routine that you can maintain for the long haul. Zen practice should be a lifelong commitment.

Where to Practice

Zen practice does not require any special place; one can meditate almost anytime and almost anywhere. However, most people find that maintaining a regular place of practice helps them stay focused and maintain a regular schedule. For most of my life, I did not have room to designate a particular location for practice only. So instead, I kept my cushion and related equipment in a closet and set them up in the same corner of the house every time, returning the equipment to the closet at the end of my practice session. This set up and return was as part of my practice routine and was conducted with the same mindfulness as I would do in an official Zendo. Your place of practice should be a place you always have access to and can practice uninterrupted, otherwise there are no special requirements. Some people I know store their cushion under their beds and just pull them out to sit on them next to their beds, others have rooms complete with altars specifically dedicated to their practice.

What to Practice

Individual practice can vary as much as individuals vary from each other. Your practice could be as simple as a twenty minutes of zazen with nothing else, or be an exact replication of some group practice session you have experienced. Some people reenact every step and recite the complete liturgy they have learned from their group practice, while others simply assume the posture and meditate for the prescribed length of time without fanfare. My personal daily practice consists of conducting an incense lighting ceremony, bowing three times and sitting for thirty minutes. When my timer rings, I bow gassho, return my various accoutrements as I found them and then unceremoniously return to my routine life as a householder.

When to Practice

As with any routine, you should try to keep your practice session on the same daily schedule. This can be mornings or evenings, or even during your lunch hour at work, but it should be the same time in your daily routine so that it becomes automatically what you do at that time. Like brushing your teeth, doing it at the same time every day will help you keep from forgetting to do it, or allow it to become displaced by other things that may seem more urgent. Personally, I am an early riser, so my practice routine has always been early in the morning. After getting up, getting dressed and having my morning tea, I conduct my morning practice exactly the same everyday; this way I have nothing to remember- it is always the same. When I am through with my practice, I get ready for work. This routine is just as automatic as any other it takes nothing out of my day.

What to Practice With

As previously mentioned, the equipment or accoutrements for Zen practice can range tremendously, from virtually nothing to a full zendo complete with altar. In truth, nothing is required more than a place to sit. Any furniture, accruements or attire is purely optional and should be according to what you have or can afford. A proper meditation cushion or bench is certainly helpful, but then again, nothing specific is required. When I kept my equipment in the closet, it consisted of a cushion (zafu), a candle, an incense burning bowl and a small box that held everything but the cushion (candle, matches, incense & incense bowl). An automatic timer is also a good item to have, but you can use the burning time of an incense stick to time your sessions.

As you develop your solitary practice remember to allow it to evolve with your experience and life changes. As your life changes you may find more time and can increase your practice. Or conversely, you may find that the time that you originally set aside was derived from beginners over exuberance and that your life’s situation has changed and you must reduce the scope and/or nature of your practice. Do not be discouraged by this, it is better to modify your practice than to give it up. Also, it is important to remember that if you do ever stop practicing, that resuming practice is simply a matter of setting aside some time to begin again.

Nothing else is ever needed.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Path of the Bodhisattva

Any one of a thousand paths may lead us to the Dharma gate, but once we cross the threshold there is but one; that is the path of the Bodhisattva. This is not to say that the ways of the Bodhisattva are not just as numerous as the paths leading to the Dharma Gate, but rather to say; it is crossing this threshold that makes us a Bodhisattva.

The term Bodhisattva literally means Awakening Being, and refers to someone who has committed themselves to the path of awakening. Once we decide to become Awakening Beings we are but one step away from becoming Bodhisattvas and once we make that step we are instantaneously transformed.

When our thoughts, words and actions are directed from the perspective of awakening, our direction becomes clear. The threshold of the Dharma Gate comes into existence out of our sincere intentions and crossing the threshold happens the moment our intentions become our practice. It is through this practice that our path becomes the path of the Bodhisattva.

We say in the Bodhisattva’s Vow that; Dharma gates are boundless; we vow to enter them all, and we understand that this means that every opportunity is an opportunity to enter the Dharma gate. As Bodhisattvas, we come to see all situations as continuing opportunities to approach life from the perspective of an Awakening Being. Thus it is through our continual reentering that our commitment to the Bodhisattva's path is perpetually renewed.

Each line of the Bodhisattva’s Vow represents another aspect of the inexhaustible approaches through the Dharma Gate. First we say; Beings are numberless; We vow to save them, knowing full well that we cannot possibly save every sentient being, because like life's situations, we never encounter them all. Just as every one of us encounters situations in life differently, we also encounter the lives of other beings differently.

Through our practice of valuing all life, we come to understand that life is the source of consciousness, not just human life, but all life. All living things possess consciousness and are inseparably linked to all other living things in this web of life. Every living thing lives within the continuous cycle of birth and death, where the remains of one become the nutrients of the other. This is the fuel of consciousness, we cannot escape the fact that we are what we eat. Thus as Bodhisattvas, we must approach every living thing with the deepest reverence and respect. To strive to save all beings is to endeavor to minimize the suffering in this life and to help others awaken to the importance of this.

Second we say; Delusions are inexhaustible; we vow to end them. Just as in the case of life’s situations we have endless opportunities to surpass our ignorance. We never really know everything for certain, so we are always struggling to understand the world through the eyes of awakening. Every thing we do not understand is an obvious opportunity to enter the Dharma Gate, but then again, so is everything we think we do understand. This is because everything is constantly changing, including ourselves. Thus with no fixed point of reference, everything we know must be subject to constant review. What we believed as true yesterday, is not necessarily so true today.

We conclude the Bodhisattva’s Vow by saying: The Buddha's way is unsurpassable; we vow to attain it. As Awakening Beings, we know full well, that the challenges in our lives will never end and that our journey on the Bodhisattva’s path is itself the journey of our lives. Through our practice, we come to realize that becoming Buddhas, that is to say; becoming fully awakened beings, is the purpose of our lives, and that the Buddha’s unsurpassable enlightenment is simply the process of our awakening to this fact.

Thus, once we enter the Dharma gate we have committed ourselves to the Bodhisattva's path and although this path may diverge a thousand different ways, it always brings us to the same place, the place of Awakening. The thousand arms and the thousand eyes that are commonly depicted on the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, not only represent the infinite compassion that he/she has for us, but also represent the infinite opportunities that will open to us on our journey along the Bodhisattva's path.

Though sentient beings are numberless; we shall strive to save them. Though delusions are inexhaustible, we shall strive to end them. Though Dharma gates are boundless; we shall strive to enter them. And although the Buddha's way is unsurpassable; we shall always strive to attain it.

May each of us experience our awakening for the benefit of all beings.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Symbols and Spiritual Authority in Zen

A monk once asked master Joshu “Master, where is the Buddha?” Joshu replied “Go inside the temple, he is there.” The monk was surprised with this answer “The Buddha in the temple is only a wooden statue, and I know that you know, that a wooden statue is not the Buddha.” Joshu laughed and said “You are correct. A wooden statue is not the Buddha.” So the monk repeated his question “Then tell me master, where is the Buddha?” Joshu said, “Go into the temple, you will find him there.”

Even though we may recognize that a statue of the Buddha, is not the Buddha, we may fail to understand the significance of this story. Symbolism has become so engrained in our psyche that we cannot let go of our preconceptions, it is only a statue of the Buddha sits in the temple, but for some reason we still seek the Buddha there. Do we think the Buddha is there more than anywhere else? Does the Buddha take up residency where statues are erected? Of course, we say “No.” and yet Master Joshu honestly tells the monk that, when he enters the Temple he will find the Buddha there.

This like going to a church to talk to God, people expect that somehow that God must reside in a church. Why else would there be churches? Isn’t this why they are called “Houses of God?” Where ever or what ever we choose to sanctify automatically becomes a symbolic object of reverence. In this way the symbolic representations of what we actually seek somehow inherits holiness. The cross, the dharma wheel, the altar, the church, the book, the robe, the bowl, the priest- all are symbolic representations of something that they actually are not. The instant we give a symbol special significance we become distracted by the abstraction and what we actually seek becomes obscured by the abstraction.

The purpose of a symbol is to communicate a concept, once we understand the concept the symbol should be abandoned. Like using words to describe something tangible, once the tangible is realized, the words become deficient in being able to accurately describe that which has been realized. For example the definition of the word “ocean” gives us a vague idea of what the ocean may be or look like, but once one has actually seen the ocean, the definition becomes a wholly inadequate description. In the case of Zen and pursuit of awakening, symbolism becomes an obstacle because there is nothing “tangible” to replace the symbol, only great faith in ones own understanding can conquer the dependence on symbolism.

In Hinduism there is a mantra “neti, neti” which means “not this, not this” and is recited as a reminder that all conceptions and symbols are not reality, but rather substitutions that obscure our understanding of reality. A primary component of Zen practice is letting go of symbolism. The quest for awakening becomes the task of cutting through the bindings of symbolic delusion and ultimately experiencing the unbound mind. Awakening is an unveiling, the unwrapping of an imprisoned mind, bound and gagged by the chains of conceptions and symbolism.

The slightest delusion becomes like an iron trap. The statue and the sanctuary anchor us to a place while the priest binds us with ritual chains, stich by stitch we sew our own vestments, binding us to the symbolic holiness of the robe. The spider of delusion spins his web, as the direct pointing to reality becomes a symbolic finger pointing at a rapidly fading moon. We say that we understand that a wooden Buddha is not the Buddha, but lacking faith in our own understanding, we still seek the Buddha in the form of symbols. When we do not have faith in our own enlightenment we become chained to the symbols, we feel that the robe and sutras are somehow indispensable, and without the priest and his ancestral chains of Buddhas past, there would be no Dharma.

But for us to experience the Buddha’s awakening, we must transcend the bounds of symbolism and this includes the symbols of sacred space and spiritual authority. To believe that we must practice in a temple (or zendo) under the guidance of an authorized teacher in order to experience authentic Zen, is an example of seeking refuge in our symbols. Just as the Buddha is not locked up in the wooden statue, our awakening is not bound to the presence of spiritual authorities or communal real estate.

This is not to say, that we cannot benefit from the wisdom of experienced teachers, or have reverence for dedicated places of practice and beautiful architecture, but we must avoid the tendency to allow ourselves to become attached to the symbolism. Just as Zen is to be “A special transmission outside the scriptures; with no dependence upon words and letters…” it must also be beyond material symbolism. The physicality of temples and teachers does not make them essential for our practice, or for the authentic realization of our own Buddha consciousness. Nor is it necessary for us to rely on any outside authority to confirm our awakening, this is again mistaking an external symbol for the authority we already possess.

As Master Rinzai pointed out, most students of the Zen fail to make progress toward their own enlightenment, simply because they have no faith in their own abilities. Rather than trust in their own direct experience of reality, they defer their own understanding and seek comfort in what “authorities” say they should believe. To quote Rinzai: “There are Zen students who are in chains and they go to a teacher who simply adds more chains. Unable to discern one chain from another they are delighted!”

Additionally Rinzai instructs that… “If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill him!” This is because any understanding or interpretation of the Buddha that individuals may conceive as being outside themselves is an impostor. Rinzai goes on to say the same for all Zen Masters and the Patriarchs, ostensively for the same reason, any outside authority becomes a hindrance when the student becomes reliant on outside manifestations. It is therefore imperative that the student of Zen recognize his or her own Buddha nature, before any awakening of Buddha mind can be realized. Only when the Buddha mind is fully realized as being within the individual, can the individual recognize the Buddha mind as being ubiquitous and only when the Buddha mind is no longer bound by symbolism, can Buddha consciousness be realized in all beings.

A monk once asked master Joshu “Master, where is the Buddha?” Joshu replied “Go inside the temple, he is there.” The monk was surprised with this answer “The Buddha in the temple is only a wooden statue, and I know that you know, that a wooden statue is not the Buddha.” Joshu laughed and said “You are correct. A wooden statue is not the Buddha.” So the monk repeated his question “Then tell me master, where is the Buddha?” Joshu said, “Go into the temple, you will find him there.”

So he did…

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Zen Perspective on Enlightenment

The concept of enlightenment is often confused with altered states of consciousness and alternative belief systems. In truth, enlightenment might better be described as "supreme awareness" and awareness does not require us to "believe" in anything. In fact, all that is required of us to become enlightened is that we accept reality without enshrouding it in a belief system at all. Likewise, there is no real need to alter our state of consciousness, we just a need to lift the veil from the consciousness we all ready have. In Zen, this is known as "a direct pointing to reality" and is the very essence of Zen Buddhist teaching.

The name Buddha means the "Awakened One"; the one who awoke from the pervading dreams of belief systems to the ultimate reality of human existence. This understanding of what actually is, rather than believing in something that may or may not be true, is why Zen Buddhism is often called the "Religion of no religion." Unlike other religions in which one must subscribe to a particular premise based on some speculation, Zen only requires that the aspirant simply pay attention to the surrounding world. If observed openly and free from a perspective not influenced by preconceived notions, the world can be seen for what it is, rather than for what we might otherwise hope for.

It was from this perspective that Gautama Buddha recognized what he described as the Four Noble Truths. This four-part description of how he came to understand the ultimate reality of human existence, is actually based on the single premise subdivided into four parts in order to offer both solace and explanation. What the Buddha observed was a continuum where everything in the world operated just as it should. What he concluded was that humanity had simply thrown itself out of balance by collectively desiring some form of alternate reality.

In describing the human condition the Buddha used the word "dukkha". This term is usually translated as "suffering," but it actually has a much broader meaning than just the physical suffering we may endure. Dukkha actually refers more closely to the mental suffering we endure while dealing with the starkness of reality. Dukkha is a borrowed term that originally referred to a wheel that is out of balance and in this example, the wheel that is out of balance is our personal understanding of reality.

Being out of balance with reality, the wheel of our understanding finds constant resistance in all it perceives. This resistance continuously strains against the natural flow of the rest of the universe and the resultant friction is the root cause of our suffering. Our mind, which is how we refer to our wheel of understanding, is constantly reminded that the real world is not at all how we would like it to be. This causes us to resist what we view as the inequities of life and this resistance in turn is what causes our primary experience of dukkha. This mindset combined with the more obvious forms of suffering- pain, disease, old age, fear and death are what led the Buddha to say "life is suffering." Our existence as sentient beings combined with our awareness of everything life includes, leads us to reject the unpleasant aspects of reality and vainly attempt to mentally subjugate them. Such mental wrestling only adds to the friction of imbalance leading us further into dukkha.

Our fear of losses turn even the pleasantries of life into suffering as we realize that everything we value is impermanent and any state pleasure that we may derive from them is only temporary. This realization of impermanence comes from knowing that the universe is constantly in a state flux and everything is continually changing. When things change from what we want to what we do not want, we suffer mentally from the loss. Even when things are going well it is desire that keeps us suffering, for it seems that even when we have everything we need, we have this endless desire for more. Not just more in the sense of more volume, but more in wanting those things and feelings we desire to remain forever. Thus, we are dissatisfied with what we experience as pleasurable because we know (in reality) that it cannot last forever, and with what we experience as un-pleasurable because it seems unfair or unwarranted.

The reason we see things as being unfair or unwarranted is because we witness them from a personal perspective. Even though we may understand that in the overall scheme of things there really is no gain or loss, we take our own gains and losses personally. As long as we see ourselves only as separate, independent individuals, the ebb and flood of things and events appear to come toward and go away from us individually. Seeing ourselves as isolated egos, we suffer these gains and losses. In fact, their shifting has caused no net change in overall reality. Further realization tells us that our own existence, our sense of personal being, is just one more form of impermanence. So, as it is described here, life is indeed dukkha, the suffering we cause ourselves by rejecting reality and intentionally being out of balance with the rest of existence. This is the “first noble truth” and it is not something to believe in, but rather an observable phenomenon available to anyone.

The "second noble truth" has actually already been noted in the descriptions of the first. It states that the primary cause of our suffering is our desires. These are not just the desires for sensual pleasure, but also the desire we all harbor to live outside the universe of constant flux and personal suffering. Primarily, we want to reject what is true and replace it with something we believe we would rather experience. The Buddha called this trishna, or thirst, a constant craving or clinging to what we have or want, as well as a clinging to the notion that we can ignore or reject unpleasant realities. If we honestly investigate what is causing most of our personal suffering, we will find that it is ultimately our cravings, unfulfilled desires and our insistent clinging to things unreal.

Ironically, in the beginning, it is our initial understanding of reality that causes our mental suffering, whereas in the end it is our ultimate understanding of reality that brings us to enlightenment and the end of this suffering. Thus the "third noble truth" is the fact that we can free ourselves from dukkha by letting go of our desires and accepting the realities of existence that we initially rejected. By realizing that we can accept and live in reality as it is and that this is actually easier than living in constant conflict with it, we become enlightened.

Many people misunderstand what it means to accept reality and they misinterpret acceptance as a totally passive acceptance of all conditions and inequities. This notion is patently false. Accepting the realities of the universe does not mean blindly accepting inequities and injustices that are imposed on us by others, or those unfortunate events that happen in the natural world that we are capable of correcting. Accepting the realities of the universe simply means to accept the fundamental workings of existence and our own physicality within these workings. Accepting reality and reprogramming our minds to work in harmony with it rather than fighting it is the principle of the "third noble truth" According to Gautama Buddha this is achieved by participating actively in the universe in a fully aware and fully involved way.

Opening our eyes to reality is the initial realization that ultimately leads us to enlightenment. It is like awaking suddenly from a slumber in which we were forever in the bed of reality and suddenly realizing for the first time that it was even there. The startling thing about ignorance is the realization or revelation we experience when we escape it. We discover that we actually had knowledge all along; we just simply preferred to ignore it. This is why in Zen Buddhism we say that we are all already Buddhas. The primary difference between a person who is a Buddha and one who is not is the fact that the second has not realized his or her Buddha-hood. In short, they are equals with the only notable difference between them being that one of them is awake. This is also why the historical Buddha is called "The Awakened One".

The secondary difference between Buddhas and those who are not yet fully enlightened is the principle of "the fourth noble truth." This is the application of their understanding to their lives and the way they live. Knowing that the universe is as it truly is and accepting this is only the first step. Integrating this most valuable information into the very fabric of our personal existence takes considerable effort. This is because we (human beings) have spent countless lifetimes and generations in the "slumbering bliss" of ignorance and to stay awake and alert requires special attention that the slumber did not. It seems contradictory to say that "ignorance is bliss" in knowing that "all life is suffering" but this only points out that the bliss of ignorance is only another form of self delusion. Like all other transient illusions the bliss of our ignorance is all too soon shattered once reality is unveiled.

Thus, Gautama Buddha taught that once we understood the first three aspects of the "four noble truths" that we should keep our "eyes open" and live a life that reflects an understanding of what is seen in the revelation of ultimate reality. To accomplish this he proposed living our lives in accordance to what he coined the "eightfold path." Each aspect of this eightfold path is prefaced with the Sanskrit word samyak, which is usually translated as right or correct. These terms are often confused with the dualistic notion of right verses wrong or correct verses incorrect. In truth, the term samyak could more appropriately be translated as "holistic", right or correct in this context subsequently means complete, or fully integrated.

Thus, in the example of the first aspect of the eightfold path, which is usually phrased as Right Seeing or Correct View, we could more accurately use the term Holistic Seeing or Holistic View. This would convey the intent of right or correct from the perspective of an enlightened individual. All eight aspects of the eightfold path are simply selected itemized examples of one fully integrated worldview. Each example reminds us of karmic law where everything in a fully interconnected world implicates everything else. So, like fish in the water, our every move sends out waves or vibrations in every direction. Some actions are minor, others more severe but all will have proportional karmic consequences.

Mistakenly, karma is oft thought of as being linear in a sort of a "tit-for-tat" theme. However, in a non-linear universe, which this one certainly is, the cause and resultant effect of most actions go undetected. Unless the cause is unmistakably obvious, the ripple effect of karma usually distributes the effects over a large area and is more often than not, simply undetectable. Over time however, repeated actions cause the waves to build and the momentum to increase, affecting everything and/or everyone in the end. The law of cause and effect makes no distinctions between good or bad actions, so it is up to enlightened individuals to be mindful of everything they do.

Right or Holistic View

The holistically viewed world is radically different from a world that is perceived from a purely personal perspective. Things and events are understood as happening with the perceiver rather than for or against the perceiver. To see the world holistically is to see everything, whether thought, object or action as being interconnected. The enlightened individual should try to see things and events as they apply to the whole of existence and should not try to rationalize favored opinions or beliefs to make them what they are not. This is not to totally negate one's personal perspective, because that would also be incomplete. The holistic view would include personal and impersonal perspectives and would weigh them out proportionally.

Right or Holistic Intention

Since intentions are the same as thoughts, and since thoughts are interconnected along with everything else, one's intentions are similarly intertwined. Doing right actions for ulterior motivations is not the way of the enlightened individual. Those who are awake understand that hidden motives are self-defeating when it comes to karmic consequence. The primary victim of deceit is the perpetrator, who creates personal delusion in believing that false intentions can bring about true results. Thus, enlightened individuals are honest with themselves and try to understand the true motives for their own words and actions. Being holistic in their thinking, they strive to align their intentions with the overall good and work as best they can to keep a proportional balance between the world and personal needs. Additionally, enlightened individuals must be forever willing to admit to themselves when they have slipped back into ignorance and clinging, and recognize these opportunities to shed their delusions.

Right or Holistic Speech

Speech is thought turned into words. Thus false or faulty statements are false or faulty thoughts. Honesty is necessary for personal peace of mind, and since speaking is the same as thinking, false speaking lacks holistic intention. The enlightened individual understands that lies, slander, and gossip cause harm and since everything is interconnected the ramifications permeate everything to some degree or another. Because we are part of this totally interdependent system, the karmic consequences of false speech are ultimately self-harming. One of the greatest harms done in the frequent practice of false speech is that of loss of trust. This is not just the loss of trust by the victims of false speech, but also the reciprocal loss of trust felt by the perpetrator.

Right or Holistic Action

All actions should reflect the understanding of the fully integrated worldview. Since we understand that thoughts and words have ramifications that permeate everything, it is easy to see how much more our actions will somehow affect everything including ourselves. From a fully integrated perspective it can be seen that actions that cause harm to others and our environment will in some way do harm to ourselves. The effects of harmful actions may not be immediately experienced, but as with all other karmic consequences, they will build over time. In situations where similar harmful actions may be practiced by many, every individual contributes to the overall karmic reaction, which could grow to catastrophic proportions. The term "environment" as used here includes any and all descriptions of the term including physical, social and political environments.

Right or Holistic Livelihood

Once it is understood that all actions should reflect our understanding of the fully integrated world, it should be natural to include our professional choices and actions along with our personal ones. Professionally, we usually have more influence and impact on our overall environment than we do as individuals. Our choice of occupation, and business decisions within that occupation, will probably have far greater implications than we can imagine. As a member of a company or corporate structure we join with many others in becoming a collective entity with its own karmic consequences, subsequently our wish to practice right livelihood is greatly compromised by the practices of that corporate entity. Practicing Right or Holistic Livelihood in these modern times is far more complex than it was in the time of the Buddha. However, it is still possible to make individual choices that are the least harmful of the available options.

Right or Holistic Effort

Understanding that all actions cause karmic consequences, the enlightened individual realizes that even actions of good intent can have negative karmic responses. Usually we are faced with choices that have varying degrees of probable negative impact and whenever possible we should always opt for the choice that we judge the least harmful. Right or Holistic Effort requires that we forever strive to make the best possible choices based on our wholesome state of mind. In effect, we are nearly always forced to "choose the lesser of two evils" because we know that karma operates on the principle of equilibrium, where by lesser evils have proportionally lesser ramifications.

Right or Holistic Mindfulness

All of the previous aspects of the eightfold path are successfully accomplished through the process of mindfulness. Holistic Mindfulness includes not only that we try to be mindful of everything we say and do, but also that we be mindful of how we receive our information. We must be observant and aware each moment, so that we do not fall back into the habit of interpreting observations and events from a purely personal perspective. Keeping an open mind and allowing experiences to enter without interpretation from a singular point of view will help maintain holistic thinking.

By being forever mindful of everything we say and do, we avoid the pitfalls of guilt that accompany careless speech and actions, and we rid ourselves of additional and unnecessary suffering caused by this guilt. Such right mindfulness also includes how we treat ourselves when we discover that unintentionally we still cause suffering and harm. As we make such discoveries, we should attempt to rectify what is within our power to change and accept without guilt that which is not in our power to change. To cling to the guilt of unintentional and non-rectifiable wrong actions is self-defeating and contrary to Right or Holistic Effort.

Right or Holistic Meditation

Unlike the western concept of meditation, which should more correctly be called contemplation, Zen meditation is a practice of actually avoiding contemplation. In contrast to the notion of reflecting on deeper meanings, Zen meditation is the process of freeing the mind of preconceived notions and actually not thinking about anything in particular. By practicing Right or Holistic Meditation, the enlightened individual intends to still the mind in order to allow for a fully open perception of reality.

Through self-effort and practice, this meditative state of mind can become free of desire and subsequently abandon the pleasures and pains of dukkha. Those who enter this state of transcended consciousness during meditation attain a clear perception of reality and a peace of mind that they describe as mental perfection and being in bliss.

Thus, the eightfold path as professed by Gautama Buddha is a way for those who are awakened to the realities of the fully integrated universe to live as enlightened individuals. In living in such a way they should be able to minimize self-induced negative karmic reactions and substantially minimize their personal suffering. Even though such individuals will continue to experience and suffer those ordinary discomforts and pains that accompany living in a physical world, they are less likely to compound this suffering with cravings, thoughts and actions that only lead to further suffering.

In the end, just as happens with all transient phenomena, enlightened individuals will face their demise and their individuality will be extinguished. Like everyone else, enlightened or not, they will reach final Nirvana, where there is no suffering or karmic action, no birth or death, no being or not being. But unlike those who never awoke to the realities of the living universe, they will have suffered far less and enjoyed a life where their every action and thought really did make a difference.