30 November 2007

Kau Cim: Chan Buddhist Fortune Telling

Kau Cim is a Chinese fortune telling practice of requesting answers from the sacred oracle lot. It is a practice that originated in China and sometimes known as "Oracle of Guan Yin" in Buddhist traditions. It is based on the Book of Changes (I Ching, Yijing). Although not strictly the name of the practice itself, Kau Cim is often referred to as Chien Tung, or informally as Fortune Sticks by westerners.

The prediction begins with the cup storing a number of the sticks. The querent thinks silently or whispers it to the deity about their question. This part needs to be done decisively as one should not shift questions or hesitate on the question in the middle of the routine. The shaking of the cylinder results in at least one stick leaving the cylinder and being dropped onto the floor. In most cases, if multiple sticks leave the cylinder, those fortunes would not count. Each stick, each with a designated number, represents their answer. Answers can be consulted by a temple priest or can be interpreted by strips of paper with answers in correspondence to their number on the stick that read their fortune.

Once a single stick jumps out, that stick will have a number on it that will correspond to a number (1 - 100) on a answer paper. The writing on the piece of paper will provide an answer to the question. Interpretation maybe needed to comprehend the answer.

In many cases, an offering is made prior to the asking of the question in order to carry good favor from the higher powers. These offerings typically consist of incense, fresh fruits, cakes, a roasted pig or fowl, or cash donations.

The stick result is analyzed by an interpreter, who has a book of Chinese poetic phrases and stories. The interpretation is generally short ranged, typically covering no more than one year, using Chinese New Year as the starting point. The interpreter typically charges a small fee. Often, interpreters provide other services such as palm or face reading.

Because the accuracy of the prediction very much depend on the interpreter, some people run the result through a number of different interpreters to see whether similar results are drawn. The interpreted answer is usually a historical Chinese story re-told in modern sense. The story is basically the forthcoming event the querent is about to experience.

29 November 2007

Western Chan: A Concluding How-To

Buddhism is a complex religion, without a single voice, with many faces, and many representatives holding many different views. It's tremendously easy for a newcomer to get lost in the quagmire of beliefs, ambiguous language, customs, teachings, superstitions and myths that have produced a Matta-like painting of this unusual and expansive religion. Yet we must not allow ourselves to miss the forest for the trees. The Chan sect, as Master Hsu Yun repeatedly taught, is about discovering that inner light which is Buddha Nature. The effort required is not in the seeking, but in the letting go.

Follow the path and avoid samsaric involvement with groups and organizations. Follow that path to the Dharma that works for you. Each of us is unique in our own disposition, aptitudes, abilities, and interests - there is no single path to the Dharma to conform to. Recognize the institution of Zen as just that, an institution, and not the Path itself. Follow your life where love takes you - as a dancer, a writer, a teacher, an artist, a carpenter, a parent … every activity is an opportunity to live Chan. In the words of Empty Cloud, "Our everyday activities are executed within the Path itself. Is there anywhere that is not a place for practicing the Path? A Chan Hall should not even be necessary."

28 November 2007

The Context of Chan

The context in which we view a thing has a great influence on our perception of it. It is a great influence on our perception of Zen.

When we first learn about something it's with our senses and we know all too well that they can mislead, tricking us to believe that things are one way when they are, in fact, another. We enter a Buddhist temple and see a giant statue of the Buddha, smell the fine aroma of incense, and hear the chanting of monks: we are enveloped in a sensory extravaganza of delight, or awe, or bewilderment, or confusion, depending on our predisposition to, or attitude toward, the experience. Zen always exists within a context, as does everything, yet the very nature of Zen allows it to adapt to an infinite variety of external contexts because, by itself, it is without context. The pure context of Zen is our Inner Being - our life force -- the essence of which is devoid of subjective sensory experience. It is a metaphysical context, and as such, it is also an indescribable one.

Yet it's the sensory and mental experiences of our lives, and specifically, of our encounters with Buddhist teachers, statuary, literature, etc., that give us an impression of what Zen is. To avoid being misled, it's important to remember that these are all merely impressions of Zen, not what Zen is.

A culture in which Zen Buddhism has established deep roots has no problem with defining the context of Zen and, in fact, its native adherents often view that context as synonymous with Zen itself. We see this exemplified by the many customs and regimens an aspirant is told to adhere to and obey - bowing, chanting, styles of sitting and walking meditation, food regulations, garment regulations, social protocols, and the like - before being privileged to gain Zen training. The challenge for such cultures is that they can easily, if involuntarily, lead a seeker into the trap of mistaking the finger for the moon - mistaking outward impressions for spiritual understanding: mistaking religious decorum for transcendent wisdom.

Yet, as far as I know, nobody has figured out a way to introduce Zen to a newcomer without surrounding it within some kind of context. We can say that the general context has always been Buddhism - but the specific context has varied tremendously from country to country, culture to culture, and teacher to teacher. A culture new to Buddhism, such as our Western one, faces the extreme challenge of creating a sustainable context for Zen to exist within.

In the West, Chan Buddhism is most often nestled within Buddhist temples founded and managed by peoples of non-Western origins. Culture and language differences form natural barriers for Westerners. Some Asian Buddhists perceive Westerners as "unable to grasp" Buddhism in general and Zen in particular, possibly because they feel unable to connect with Westerners socially and linguistically. In response to this attitude, there are many Westerners who perceive Asian Buddhist teachers as the only ones who can "get it." Both groups tend to identify the context of Zen with the Asian culture itself.

In order to hurdle this artificial perception of Zen Buddhism, we not only need to create a new context in which we learn about and "practice" Zen, we need to recognize that Zen is not implicitly bound to Asian cultures. It belongs to no single group of people, to no single culture or country. It is defined only by the context in which we, individually and uniquely, experience it.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us with the essential ingredient of Zen - ourselves. It leaves us with our own pursuit of the divine through willful effort, devotion, humility, and self-sacrifice.

Does this mean we, as Westerners, are free to throw away the cosmetic structures of traditional Asian Buddhism - chants, malas, sutras, statuary, incense, rules, etc.? No, quite the opposite. It means we embrace it all, recognizing these things as valuable stepping-stones on the spiritual path. They may or may not be the same stones we tread, but as long as they are used, they serve a valuable purpose. Zen is an extraordinarily difficult discipline to undertake, and it's rare to find an individual who can not benefit from the fragrant smell of incense, the serene presence of Buddha statuary, the deep reverberations of chanting - all these things can help propel us into that state of spiritual awe - that numinous state that we thrill to encounter every time. A mala, or rosary, is something we can carry with us in our daily lives as a permanent reminder to "be present" in ourselves. Such contextual surface features are important because they lead us toward an inner life.

And, simply put, that's where we want to be. That is the pure context of Zen.

27 November 2007

The Gong An (Koan) and Hua Tou

Many people equate Zen training with gong-an (koan) study due to the fairly frequent use of this teaching technique in Zen monasteries. Koans are one of many different techniques that teachers have used over the centuries to help students break through the rigid mental framework that obscures the higher domain of Self. In China, the use of the gong-an dropped as teachers began to recognize that students were more prone to intellectualizing them than to using them as vehicles to penetrate their own mind. They were backfiring -- raising

the barriers rather than lowering them. The hua-tou was the next step in the evolution of this practice and, because of its great simplicity and pointed directedness, it's still often used in China today. Both hua-tou and gong-an studies are excellent methods, but they are not relevant for all people.

The gung-an
Today the gung-an is predominantly used in Japanese Soto and Rinzai sects - though not all of them - as a means of starting students with a Zen practice. They are also used conveniently as seeds for sermons. Translated, gung-an means "public case." An example from the "Book of Serenity, One Hundred Years of Zen Dialogues" is titled "The World Honored One Ascends The Seat". The Dialogue contains an Introduction, a Case (the heart of the gung-an), a Commentary, a Verse, another Commentary and some Added Sayings. In this example, the Case is:

One day the World Honored One ascended the seat. Manjusri struck the gravel and said, "Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma; the Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus."

The World Honored One then got down from the seat.

With some consideration and a little historical background, this short dialogue elicits numerous questions, ideas, and meanings that go far deeper than may be initially obvious. The beauty of these literary devices leaves little wonder about why collections of them have been so well preserved over the centuries or why they are still being studied today. Yet, due to the relentless unfolding of time, the context of the vast majority of ancient gong-an's requires a great deal of explanation, explanation that would not have been necessary in the era in which they were written. There are a great many theological concepts that were common knowledge to students a thousand years ago that have now nearly vanished; consequently, the study of ancient koans can require so much background knowledge that the purpose gets lost in the study - they become of more academic interest than religious use. There are, fortunately, a few Zen teachers who have recognized this and are creating contemporary koan collections that are more helpful for students of modern western cultures.

The hua-tou
The hua-tou is a much simpler approach with the same intent as the gong-an: to pierce the veil of ego through pointed concentration to reveal the essence of Self. Instead of dialogues and commentaries and verses, and more commentaries, and more verses, we have a simple idea to ponder: "Before you were born, what was your original face?" or "Who is reciting the mantras?" or "Who is dragging this corpse around?" or even simply "Who is eating?" In the hua-tou, there is no place for dialogue, for discussion, for commentary, for verses: there is just the unanswered question to contemplate. All hua-tou's are essentially the same; they all have the same answer, an answer that cannot be verbalized - only realized. Hsu Yun told his students: "When you begin looking into a hua-tou, grasp it tightly, never letting go. It's like a mouse trying to chew its way out of a coffin. It concentrates you on one point. It doesn't try different places and it doesn't stop until it gets through. The objective is to use one thought to eradicate innumerable other thoughts." But he cautions us that this is not a method to be used lightly or indiscriminately: "This method is a last resort, just as when a poison arrow has pierced someone -- drastic measures must be taken to cure the patient."

Some people have asked me if it's necessary to have a teacher when working with a gung-an or hua-tou. The answer is yes and no. Some ancient koans are so deeply laced with cultural accents that a student studying them needs enough background information just to get started. In such cases a teacher can be extremely helpful. But since the fundamental intent of both the gung-an and hua-tou is to develop one-pointedness of mind through contemplation, independent work with them is essential for them to serve their purpose. I have also been asked, how does one know if one has succeeded in penetrating a hua-tou or gung-an? When we approach them with integrity, devotion, and intensity, we'll know when they have rung a bell for us. It will always be apparent if they are still opaque or if they have opened themselves up to illuminate us. Once we "get it," the need for verification will seem as silly as an Olympic gold-medalist in the 100-meter freestyle event asking one of her competitors if her stroke was any good!

26 November 2007

Dharma Transmission and Lineage

While most of the world's great religions rely on the sanctity of words to convey the Truth of their religious doctrines, moral codes, etc., Zen Buddhism makes no such claim as it has no such written document or collection of documents. Instead, Zen Buddhism relies on the concept of Dharma Transmission to "preserve" the teachings of the Buddha. We conceive that the nature of Ultimate Reality is received by us as a "transmission" -- a transmission with no relevance to written or spoken language -- and that this Ultimate Reality is identical to the Mind of the Buddha.

Dharma Transmission can be a difficult concept to grapple with, especially as our entire lives revolve around language. We think with language, speak with language, and write with language -- basically, there's no way to escape language. Yet here is a religious sect that says there's no other way - we've got to put our thoughts aside entirely if we are to find our True Nature. We Buddhists consider the thinking mind to be a sense organ, on par with our senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and our tactile sense. The senses do not define us; they are merely an aspect of our impermanent physical nature, temporary and always in flux. It is our True Self alone - our Buddha Nature - that is absolute, unchanging and infinite: to know this on a deeply intuitive level is to be enlightened.

How does Dharma Transmission happen? There are several interpretations. According to the few passed-down teachings we have from our dear friend, Shakyamuni Buddha, it happens through following the Eightfold Path which culminates in deep reflection and meditation. If we do the work, he said, enlightenment would follow: the essence of his teachings would be complete.

In this sense Dharma Transmission is an unfolding of the realization of Reality that takes place as we delve into the nature of our lives in a very deep way. When we enter the actual state of meditation our ego-self disappears -- our sense of personal identity vanishes. When we have experiences that lead to new awarenesses in this state, they seem to come "from out there somewhere". They are not from us, because we - our sense of personal self -- don't exist. The term "transmitted" seems perfectly natural to us. Where these realizations and experiences come from, we can't say.

In another way, the concept of Dharma Transmission has taken on other functions in the history of Buddhism - of maintaining a familial lineage to our founder, Mahayogi Gautama Siddhartha of the Shakya clan, of maintaining a hierarchical structure in temples and monasteries, and of empowering disciples to teach through the recognition of One Mind. These alternate uses of the terminology can still serve a practical purpose but should be considered separately from the spiritual essence of Dharma Transmission that happens through spiritual labor.

Maintaining Lineage
A follower of the Buddha Way may ask, how do we know if we have received the true Dharma? The true teachings of the Buddha? As we discussed, one way is by following the Buddha's Eightfold Path and experiencing enlightenment for ourselves. But another, and often more popular way in the history of Buddhism, is for our master or teacher to "transmit" the Dharma to us. The Dharma might also be transmitted to us during an ordination or other ceremony. All of these approaches appear to have been employed at various times in the past. It's interesting to note that few, if any, historians believe that the thread of Chan has been continuously "transmitted" in the person-to-person fashion. History bears witness to many breaks in lineages and improvised "recovery plans" attempting to reattach the various ends of broken threads. Despite controversy between historians and some monastics on this, the Dharma can be viewed to have been transmitted circumferentially behind the gaze of the Zen institutions by the practitioners themselves - by those people who sit in meditation behind closed doors in their homes or engage in practice throughout their family and work lives. These individuals have created, through the course of history, a complex intertwined web of connections that, though undocumented, can easily be imagined to date back to our founder.

Establishing Ecclesiastic Hierarchy
In some Buddhist organizations hierarchy is established through a formal ceremony intended to be symbolic of receiving Dharma Transmission. The monk or nun is thus elevated in status to lead a group of lay disciples who have not yet received the official "seal" of Dharma Transmission. Of course, problems with this occur all to frequently when this power is bestowed upon someone with less spiritual awareness than the title implies. I leave the details of such problems to Mr. Lachs to explore but will warn lay practitioners to proceed with care and common sense in their pursuit of the Dharma: cultivate great doubt, great faith in your abilities to commit to the Path, and great fortitude and perseverance. Don't rely on others to bring the Dharma to you. "To become a Buddha [Enlightened One]," Master Hsu Yun said, "is the easiest, most unobstructed task. Do it by yourself. Do not seek outside yourself for it."

Empowering Disciples to Teach
There are numerous instances in history when a student ripe for teaching needs a strong prod. He may shy away for feeling unqualified, unable, or unsure of him- or herself. She may actively avoid seeking clerical roles in a congregation. Yet such people may be the exact people who need to be guiding others because of their level of understanding, their compassion, and their humility. In such cases the Master/Dharma teacher may (and this often happens in private) "bestow" Dharma Transmission - a mutual recognition of One Mind -- upon the devotee as a way of letting him or her know that he recognizes her spiritual achievement and believes in her ability to protect and spread the Buddha Dharma. It is not something the devotee waves like a flag in self-aggrandizement to enlist awe from others or to gain congregants.

The history of Buddhist lineage, tied together with Dharma transmission, offers from a sociological and anthropological point of view a fascinating look into how societies and cultures can adapt to change despite tremendous obstacles. Buddhism has changed with the tides over the centuries by adapting or altering meanings of terminologies and, while this has sometimes posed significant problems for Buddhist institutions, it speaks to the adaptability of human nature and mankind's unfaltering quest for deeper understanding of himself. Dharma transmission is as valid today as it was a thousand years ago because of our need to feel the living pulse of Zen in our lives - on an unconscious level we recognize that we are a unitary whole, timeless and spaceless, as completely integrated with the Buddha's own life as with our own. And if we look deeper still, we find we are just as much a part of all the teachers that guided Siddhartha and of those that guided them, ad infinitum.

So while we might easily question the authenticity of Dharma transmission on some levels, there is nothing to question on the deeper levels - the fact that Chan Buddhism is alive today is testimony enough.

25 November 2007

The Chan Master

All groups need a hierarchy in order to function and Buddhist sanghas are no exception. Accountability creates a healthy organization, be it in a company, a country, a ship's crew, or in a Zen sangha. While Japanese Zen and Chinese Chan hierarchical structures differ, they both include the office of Zen Master.

A master serves several functions in a sangha: as a teacher and resource for practicing students, as a guide or "coach", as a leader or co-leader of ceremonies, as a disciplinarian, and often as an administrator. In addition, a master is usually responsible for the financial health of the temple, the spiritual health of the temple's constituency, maintaining a healthy public image in the community, and assuring that the temple provides needed community services as it's able. A master is also expected to possess the highest moral and ethical standards and great depth of spiritual insight. How rare it would be to find such an individual who could meet these demands! In fact, considering these things, one must wonder how many people would actually seek such a position except those in search of power and fame.

In Chinese Chan, Grandmasters sit at the very top of the hierarchical structure. There are few Grandmasters in the world today yet it's ultimately with them that the responsibility for the overall health of the Zen institution resides. At least in China. In the United States and most other Western countries this structure does not exist. There is no higher authority to a master and this is where the system can quickly break down. A master in the West has no accountability and the potential to create his own umbrella of protection through the misuse of Zen's mystic language has been realized more than once.

The Chinese hierarchical structure is elaborate and confusing to the uninitiated. Below the Grandmaster tier is the Master, and under the Master is the priest/monk or nun. Masters and monks are split into several levels as well, each serving different functions within the monastic setting. Such complex hierarchy was found necessary in China centuries ago when there could be several thousand monks living together. Ordinations involve much pomp and ceremony. Still today, the highest level of monk below "master" is created through a series of complex ceremonies lasting several weeks, with no fewer than 10 Grandmasters presiding.

The historical need for structure and order has directed the development of the present day hierarchical systems - systems that in many cases are overkill for the proportionately smaller constituencies found in most western temples and home-based groups. Historians tell us that depth of spiritual attainment has never been a paramount condition for rising in the ranks of Buddhist groups, and some speculate that ability to manage others has been valued most highly over the centuries. This is not surprising considering the lack of allure of such positions to someone more interested in spiritual pursuits. Indeed, some of the most famous Chan teachers were in fact never ordained (e.g. Layman Pang).

A challenge for Buddhism in the West has been in the layman's perception of the Master, or Monk/Priest, as a fully enlightened individual when it may have never been assumed that he or she was enlightened, or had even introductory spiritual experiences when given the robe and bowl. There is also a perception among lay-practitioners that teachers of Eastern descent are enlightened while those of Western descent are not: that somehow East trumps West. As Stuart Lachs documents in Means of Authorization: Establishing Hierarchy in Ch'an/Zen Buddhism in America, these assumptions by lay practitioners have been especially troublesome for Buddhism. But there is a stark reality at work. When there are many more people seeking to enter the Dharma gates than there are people who have actually entered them, to maintain the structure of the organization there is often no other choice but to enlist the unenlightened in positions of authority, for such people may have the needed skills to keep the group together despite limited spiritual insight. Yet the effects of such situations can lead to horrific results for students, as Mr. Lachs illustrates with numerous examples in the aforementioned paper. This paper summarizes many of the dangers that students face when they elevate their teacher - their Master/Roshi - to the status of an Ideal Form (archetype), a projected form of hero worship uncharacteristic of Zen. Master worship should never be allowed of a student by any teacher of a Mahayana Buddhist tradition - one of the distinguishing features of the Mahayana. It takes a spiritually advanced teacher to recognize it when it happens and arrest it.

The student-Master relationship has been tremendously misused and abused in the West. On too many occasions sangha leaders have misrepresented the Dharma, involved themselves in sexual relations with their students, misappropriated funds, and, more frequently than might be imagined, put their students in psychiatric hospitals. Most disturbing is that these behaviors are frequently considered permissible by the sangha, chalked up to "enlightened behavior beyond the understanding of a normal person."

Perhaps one of the reasons for such abuse lies with the term "Master" itself, as it implies mastery of something. In the case of Zen, that something would be Zen. Donning the hat of "Zen Master" or "Roshi" sets in motion a variety of conflicts. For one, Zen is not something one masters, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. While "Zen" technically means meditation or contemplation (Dhyana), its meaning in the scope of Mahayana Buddhism reaches far beyond that into the Ideal Form of Self. Contemplation is not something we master, it's something we do -- like breathing. And in the mystical sense, enlightenment does not mean that we have attained the status of an Ideal Form, e.g., of Buddha Amitabha, it means we have come to realize our True Self; that we have come to directly recognize the unitary, infinite, nature of existence - a nature that is, in its very essence, us. Just because one has spent 10,000 hours on the cushion does not mean one has experienced enlightenment, and just because one has experienced enlightenment does not mean the road ahead will be without challenging trials and tribulations. Having recognized our Buddha Nature does not predispose us to remain in a state of enlightenment all the time. In fact, it's extraordinarily rare for a person to be able to maintain the continuous inner discipline of the enlightened mind while interacting with other people, holding a job, raising a family - or leading a sangha.

Siddhartha experienced enlightenment through hard effort and subsequently devoted himself to helping others experience enlightenment for themselves. After his death, he became a model for the enlightened mind - an Ideal to aspire to, in much the way that subsequent great teachers became models for what could be achieved in a lifetime. But the Buddha became more than that. He became a savior figure - the Buddha Amitabha, a celestial Buddha, an androgynous Ideal Form through which one could attain Divine Union1. We mustn't mistake the model for the man, for they are at opposite ends of the spectrum: one is a spiritual being - an Ideal Form; the other is a physical being - flesh and blood. In Buddhist lingo, to become a Buddha is not to become an Ideal Form, but to become a fully enlightened human being. To represent oneself as "The Buddha", or as "sitting in for the Buddha" goes beyond misrepresentation. It would be on par with a Christian minister saying he's "sitting in for Christ." It wouldn't take long for him to be defrocked.

Perfect Master religions (e.g., the Theravadin form of Buddhism) rely on the student identifying the Master as an Ideal Form. This works insofar as the Master has a tremendously deep level of spiritual awareness and understands, at least on an intuitive level, the dynamics and processes of the student as he or she engages in the participation mystique.2 But Mahayana Buddhism, in which Chan is nestled, is not a Perfect Master religion and confusions over this have tainted the image of the role of the Master to the extent that the term has been inextricably mutated into something that was never intended. Mr. Lachs reminds us of this. In searching for a more appropriate term to use for a Zen teacher than "Master", he writes:

"Perhaps one place to look is the old Buddhist idea of kalyana-mitra, that is, the idea of a spiritual friend. In this view, the kalyana-mitra is not idealized and elevated to a position beyond human and human frailty, but is viewed as someone having more insight, more experience, knowing more, displaying patience and the ability to listen, the merit of learning coupled with good meditative knowledge, a deeper understanding that a fellow practitioner can look to for guidance, advice, and help, as a mentor. One is a kalyana-mitra by being in relationship with someone else or others. This is a relationship between friends with a common interest, though one person may have more knowledge and experience than the other. The relationship is the responsibility of both friends and both bring something to it."

It will be a step forward in the history of Western Zen if we can drop the "Zen master charade" - elevating a human being above and beyond human form, above and beyond an "ordinary person." Not only is there no need for it, it leads people into the abyss: it creates an impression that however much spiritual insight one may attain, one will never attain enough to match that of this fictional, imaginary, super-human who the aspirant sees as all too real. It leads to the apparent dichotomy of superior vs. inferior - comparisons and separations that tear at the fabric of Zen.

I vote to adopt Stuart Lachs' suggestion and use Buddhism's ancient term that so well describes the desired role of a Zen teacher: kalyana-mitra. This is a term that not only avoids student/teacher separation and isolation; it does not elevate the teacher above the human into the realm of a contrived fictional being.

Sometimes I'm asked by aspiring Zen students how they should go about choosing a master to study under. There are several sides to this question. Not insignificant is the assumption that a master is required to make headway with Zen, a myth that has been and continues to be propagated by the institution of Zen. Mysticism, of any name, is an entirely personal and independent spiritual discipline. There is no reliance on doctrines or ceremonies or scriptures. Or masters. It is our own willpower and energy turned inward that creates "Zen Mind." A Zen teacher can help keep us focused on the task, help us limit distractions and "hold our hands" as we traverse difficult terrain, but no teacher, master or other person can do the difficult work for us. No person, beside ourselves, can instill the faith, fortitude and spiritual desire needed to succeed on the path. Anyone seeking a teacher - kalyana-mitra - should keep this in mind. Any authoritative Zen leader that emphasizes himself -- his credentials, his lineage, his personal spiritual attainment -- as fundamentally important should be avoided. But beyond this, every person we encounter on our journey has something to teach us. Every experience we have, be it painful or joyous, is a lesson for us if we attend to it as such. Even the most arrogant or conceited people have something to teach us about ourselves and can be a guide for us on the Path. We can only be grateful to them.

24 November 2007

Western Chan: Transition and Turmoil

Whenever a religion enters a new region dominated by an ethnic culture differing from that of its originating source, a certain amalgamation of ideologies, ethicalities, as well as prevailing myths and superstitions of the newly introduced religion and the antecedent religions takes place. Buddhism is an especially interesting case, as it has spread world wide and taken on many different flavors everywhere it's gone. When Buddhism entered China, as early as 50 BC by some accounts, it quickly began mixing with Taoism and various regional ethnic cultures. Over the course of the following 700 to 800 years Chinese Chan emerged. When Buddhism later entered Japan over 500 years later from Korea, it merged with Shinto to form a new flavor of Chan Buddhism. The Zen sect wasn't introduced in Japan until nearly 1000 years after it had been established in China: in the late 12th century the Rinzai (Lin Chi) sect was introduced by Eisai; and in the early 13th century the Soto (Tsao-tung) sect was introduced by Dogen. By the time Zen entered the scene in Japan, Japanese Buddhism had already had more than a 500-year history.

Zen first entered the United States and other parts of the West predominantly through Japan, so it's not surprising that Japanese culture has strongly influenced our ideas of Zen from the beginning. An interesting development over the last few decades has been the introduction of Korean Zen and Tibetan Buddhism - each of which also have uniquely different belief structures, ideologies, and practices.

It's not surprising that Western Buddhism is undergoing a tremendous identity crisis, and that, in fact, the term Buddhism, can have hugely different meanings to a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism than, say, to a Japanese-lineage Zen practitioner or a purely Chinese-lineage Chan practitioner. Areas of differentiation between the numerous flavors of Buddhism include the idea of reincarnation, sutras, koan practices, vegetarianism, marriage, ecclesiastic hierarchical structure, as well as various superstitions and myths. The list of variances between them is endless, as would be expected when similar religions with no common "bible" have developed independently for thousands of years in vastly different cultures. In fact, nobody knows what the Buddha actually taught - nothing was written down until many generations after his death. (The only thing all Buddhists around the world seem to agree upon unquestioningly as originating from Shakyamuni Buddha are the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path).

To add to the confusion and chaos, the wide range of interpretations of Buddhist terminology from one sect to another has lead to infighting between Buddhist groups, among teachers, and between sangha members. Frequent scandals involving misuse of power and authority through exploitation of congregations has cast a bitter shadow on Zen Buddhism and many of its representative institutions in the West. And, while there's no debate here over which "path" is the best -- they are all great if approached with the right attitude -- the simple fact that there are so many different presentations of the same thing has had the effect of obfuscating rather than clarifying Zen for many.

The challenge we face is how to keep what's good of the Chan path, while adapting another culture's ways of thinking and doing things in such a way that we don't undergo a psychological rift that can only serve to sever us from that Path. In a Western culture that emphasizes individualism over collectivism, as well as scientific approaches to knowledge over intuitive ones, we face obvious challenges when we try to integrate ideas and methodologies from Eastern cultures. Fortunately, social and cultural aspects of the institution of Buddhism are not fundamental, or even required, ingredients of Zen.

The Chan Sect: Chan has historically set itself apart from mainstream, orthodox, Buddhism, but it has not until recently rejected the moral and ethical foundations historically considered prerequisites for Chan practice. Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud), considered the greatest Chan master of the 20th century, taught that before one is ready to begin Chan one must be morally, psychologically, and spiritually prepared: "There are four prerequisites concerning methods of practice," he said: "deep faith in the law of cause and consequence; strict observance of precepts; immovable faith; and choosing a method of practice." With these things taken care of, we are ready to tread the ancient Buddhist mystical path of Chan:

"The objective of Chan practice is to illuminate the mind by eradicating its impurities and by seeing into one's true self-nature. The mind's impurities are wrong thoughts and attachments. Self-nature is the wisdom and virtue of the Tathagata [Buddha]. The wisdom and virtue of Buddhas and sentient beings are not different from one another. To experience this wisdom and virtue, leave behind duality, discrimination, wrong thinking and attachment. This is Buddhahood." - Empty Cloud

While D.T. Suzuki was tremendously influential bringing Zen into popular western culture, his approach to Zen was strongly academic and his tendency was to view Zen as it's own unique "thing," distinct, independent, and isolated from it's religious, Mahayana, heritage. Whether or not this was a new twist in the history of Chan, successive teachers from various sects have perpetuated this Zen "isolationism". In addition, somewhere along the timeline, the Noble Eightfold Path lost its significance as a guide for practitioners to help them cultivate moral and ethical lives. Recently the extreme emphasis on "following the five precepts" has effectively substituted a simplistic ethical code of conduct for the complete Eightfold Path (which includes this ethical code). Thus, instead of regimens based on the more challenging but meaningful disciplines of Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action (where we have the precepts), Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration, we are left with the false impression that if we simply "don't kill, don't steel, don't engage in illicit sexual activities, don't lie, and don't use drugs" that we'll be riding the path to Nirvana. Somewhere we forgot that abiding by the precepts is merely a prerequisite for Chan, not actual Chan practice.

Zen in Transition: Japanese-lineage Zen groups have had a good amount of time to "test the waters" of American culture through numerous teachers and their congregations, yet a huge number of these groups have suffered greatly due to inherent incompatibilities between an alien culture forced upon an unprepared Western Mind. These incompatibilities may themselves account for much of the contemporary Zen isolationist paradigm.

Few people have done a finer job of identifying the numerous troubles Western Zen institutions have dealt with than Stuart Lachs. With over 40 years of Zen training under numerous teachers in the US, he has been witness to many fiascos. Principally, he has noted widespread misuse of power by representative teachers and an underlying alienation of teachers and students from their own culture. The many stories I've heard from students and read in books and articles from authors such as Mr. Lachs and Michael Downing (c.f. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center) suggest that the terminology associated with Zen is often misunderstood, misconstrued, and misappropriated by teachers and practitioners alike, either intentionally or unintentionally. Such misuse of Zen's language has had the effect of leading individuals astray and has had a further deleterious effect on Zen Buddhism in general.

D.T. Suzuki, Stuart Lachs, Carl Jung, Hsu Yun and many others have made similar comments that we must not ignore: for Zen Buddhism to flourish in the West, adaptive changes must be made that allow a mutual embracing of our culture with the essence of Zen. This has been the natural course of Buddhism for nearly two thousand years as it has migrated from one country to another, so there are no new ideas here. There is no reason for us to reject our own sensibilities, our own cultural identity, for that of another that is alien to us by way of its own unique heritage and cultural history.

Stuart Lachs has identified where many of the dominant problems lay and has touched on a few ideas for solutions; implementing solutions, however, is the responsibility of the Zen institutions and their representatives. Until the dominant voices of Western Zen recognize the need for change, change will be tediously slow and the challenges for Western students will continue and grow.

Keeping and open mind: We Zen practitioners strive for an "objective eye" - to recognize things as they are (bhutatathata) rather than as we think or feel they are. Yet we have traditionally shunned listening to the academicians, theologians, and other researchers who have studied Buddhism from an historical, psychological, or religious viewpoint. "What could they know of Self Knowledge?" we ask arrogantly. We ignore the fact that many of these individuals are themselves long-time practicing Zen Buddhists. We might also observe that wisdom is not the exclusive domain of Zen Buddhists!

For us to intentionally turn a blind eye to any form of knowledge not only limits our understanding of the world in areas that could be vital to helping other people discover the Dharma, it also isolates us from our own culture and from society at large. Any psychologist will attest to the psychological damage this estrangement can cause an individual. We may also reflect on the Buddha's first step on his Noble Eightfold Path: Right Understanding. To understand something clearly, we must be open and receptive to information about that thing from every direction. And we must drop our own beliefs and opinions in order to attain that receptive mind. Understanding dissipates fear, removes ignorance, and enhances wisdom. It also helps us solve a lot of real-world problems.

Chinese Chan: While Japanese-style Zen schools have been here in the West for many decades, Chinese Buddhism has been here mostly in temples that serve ethnic populations of Chinese immigrants. This has produced inherent barriers for Westerners - predominantly in the areas of language and custom. It's not surprising that most of the problems we've seen in Zen temples have arisen in the Japanese Schools, for these are still the schools that dominate the Western Zen landscape. Proportionally, however, Chinese and Korean Zen Buddhist sects have also had their share of problems.

As founder and Abbot of one of the oldest Chan temples in the United States, Hsu Yun temple, Grandmaster Jy Din expressed great disappointment that his temple attracted so few native Westerners. It was his belief that ethnic temples could never adequately serve the native Westerner due to the vast differences in culture and language unless Western culture could be allowed "in the door." Eager to make Chan available to all Westerners, in 1997 he created the Internet-based Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun (ZBOHY). In accordance with Master Jy Din's vision, how do we preserve the essence of Chinese Chan while adapting the many culturally based Chinese approaches to those that will appeal to, and work for, the Western student? There is obviously no simple answer, but learning from the mistakes of Zen teachers and sanghas that have come before us seems more than prudent, as does listening to the words of advice and warnings from our academic friends who have studied and interpreted the history and evolution of Buddhism as it's spread throughout the world. Since Buddhist terminology is central to understanding Buddhist practice and theology, we'll begin to explore this subject by starting there. In the upcoming essays I'll touch on some of the more frequently used terms found in Buddhism and how these terms relate to the Chan path, in general, as well as to the institution of Chan. As we go, I'll try to differentiate between the Dharma thread that is the Path, and the human element that has defined the institution of Zen. I'll discuss, to the best of my ability, the role of a Master, how the position is defined and its roles in the propagation of Zen. And I will also look at the concept of lineage and its relation to Dharma Transmission.

23 November 2007

Blogspot Problems

Here in China, we're currently blocked from all sites on blogspot.com. So instead of my planned picture posts that I was supposed to do this week, I'm going to have a non-Chinese friend post some articles on so-called "Western Buddhism" and how it relates to Westerners, especially those who've come from a Western religious background. Once I'm unblocked I'll resume my picture posts on the great traditions of Buddhism.

22 November 2007

Blog Post #100: To my beloved readers

From the poll, it seems that we have at least 65 readers, and possibly many more than have not taken the poll. I am so happy that so many are interested in my little piece of the world wide web. I am also fascinated how we have people from many faith traditions, but that the number of Buddhists and Christians seems to be equal. In celebration of 100 blog entries here at "Ecumenical Buddhism" I have added links to all the bloggers who have commented on any of the entries here at http://ecumenicalbuddhism.blogspot.com/. Also, I will (if the Great Firewall of China allows me to even post at all) for the next 7 days, just post pictures from seven Buddhist traditions: Chán/ Thien/ Seon/ Zen Buddhism, Vajrayana/ Tantric/ Diamond Vehicle Buddhism, Tibetan (A branch of Vajrayana) Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism, Shingon (A branch of Vajrayana) Buddhism, Pure Land (A branch of Mahayana) Buddhism, and Mahayana/ Great Vehicle Buddhism; to share some pictures of pure beauty of the world-wide sangha.

21 November 2007

Zen in a Christian Context

Zen Essence

The point of all life is to be in heaven as individuals, as groups of individuals and in creation as a whole. We are made in the image of God means being in heaven or uniting with God or being your real self or being whole, thus being holy — all mean the same thing. This state of being is realized and begun in the here and now. Jesus Christ is our best example of a person who is in this heaven. His followers are enabled to do the same (as he himself said); otherwise there is no point for us to follow him. Increasing your ability to love — in the Christian sense of not being in the way hindering others becoming their real selves — is also a path towards existing as our own true consciousness. In the Zen sense this true consciousness is not a dependence on things that are not really oneself. The less one becomes dependent the more is the share of that heaven.

Zen Understanding

Love has always been central to the Judeo-Christian path: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind & strength; love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus Christ says: Love your enemies; and, A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.

The word Zen comes from the Japanese version of the Chinese equivalent (ch'an) of the Sanskrit word dhyanam, which is a term from Yoga meaning stilling or focussing the mind in meditation. The experience is of finding oneself through becoming able to see truly, that is to say, without mistaking things that are not really part of you.

The word Zen is being used to refer to the entailments of real Christian love: the stilling of one's being by accepting the needs of other people to be more important than your own, and the focussing on becoming our real self by allowing our dependency on people and things (that are not us) to be dissolved rather than pursued.

Zen Christianity is not in relationship with Zen Buddhism, except insofar as Zen Christianity is to Christianity what Zen Buddhism is to Buddhism. Everything in Zen Christianity is an interpretation of Christianity rather than because it may be seen in Zen Buddhism. However, it is clear that zazen, the meditation style used by Zen Buddhism, can be used in Christianity as well, and is relevant at least for individual spiritual progress. It is not a religion, faith group or church.


Being in heaven has to be defined as the most real state of being. For us there can be no other meaning of real than being without dependence on things that are not us. Such is possible in faith. In Jesus Christ we are given an example that being human is not a barrier to being in heaven.


We are not our real selves when we realize that we act against our own best interest and become dependent on things or people that are not really us; for example, our high or low self-esteem — both are dependencies on what other people think of us. Jesus Christ showed us the ability to let go of attachments to things and other peoples' control or recognition, in his case to the extent of physical death. This is why he and others like him have been central to real progress in human life. For instance, we may experience a situation in which we are confronted with something we just cannot do or would not do. Turning the other cheek requires us to accept such painful situations as being called to allow our love to be increased, but not by a willed suppression of desires or a fake humility, which is only a postponement of real change.

The dark night of the soul is known when my dependency on something that feels essential to me — a source of the meaning of my life — is discovered as not at all part of my true self . It is then dissolved, and I change in such a way that I no longer need that which previously limited me.

Some people react to the need for inner change by trying to simplify their exterior lives to a minimum — both materially and mentally (such as by giving up thinking for themselves); for instance, in joining secluded groups or fundamentalist sects and cults. In reality, there are many ways to live, so that the need for a specific set of tensions and motivations is best met by the variety of situations that ordinary life presents. It is therefore necessary to connect with the world and creation, so that the world in general changes as we change.

It may seem that one’s life is not long enough for significant change. Many people go through life changing very little, or perhaps on significant events, and many without apparently making any spiritual progress at all. Faith is our potential, a way in which are given enough time, not only to change sufficiently, but to do so within our own free will as our desires mature towards storing up our treasure in heaven and not on earth.


Atonement is about being one with God. It also refers to what Jesus Christ achieved by dying on the cross. The view of what Jesus achieved is based on greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Loving our fellow men entails wishing them to become who they really are. It means helping them to believe that letting go of their unreal dependencies will lead them being more real; even though those dependencies at present may define their "reality" (deceptively). In allowing himself to be put through physical death Jesus showed us the greatest possible faith in the actual source of reality.


Forgiving our neighbor for something is when we no longer need anything out of that particular situation. It is letting go. By becoming independent of whatever it was we also give freedom to whomever we are forgiving. Being forgiven does not automatically set one free never to repeat the offence. Forgiving is seventy times seven.

Lao Tzu’s Advice

A real statesman is the source of unity for the people. That entails him or her to be whole and at peace within oneself. It means being independent of things external and conventional. Thus, a real sovereign would be somewhat divine, or at least closer to the divine than the ordinary people.

20 November 2007

The Trinity Festivals of Ancestorism, Taoism, and Buddhism

Historical records illustrate the Hungry Ghost Festival was actually a Taoist event which originated from the Southern Song Dynasty, Liang Wu Di. This occasion is still a key traditional Chinese festival to this day.

Yu Lan Jie of Buddhism befalls on the 15th of the 7th lunar month, adding more mystical elements to the Zhong Yuan Jie.

A touching tale lies behind Yu Lan Jie that is the story of the mother of Mu Lian. It is said that Buddha had a disciple called Mu Lian. As Mu Lian's mother was sinful in her previous life, she turned into a hungry ghost who was condemned to wander the Earth, never able to rest.

With the guidance of Buddha, Mu Lian prepared an assortment of food and delicacies for the monks from all around on the 15th of the 7th lunar month and combined their merits to release his mother from her torment. As a result of his actions, his mother was saved.

Yu Lan Jie has been celebrated ever since. Normally, fresh fruits such as lychee and longan, together with incense money, paper clothes and Du Die (passports in the nether world) are served as offerings. In general, the Buddhists will perform certain ceremonies on this day to express their filial piety.

Zhong Yuan Jie can be divided into 3 segments, namely Shang Yuan (15th of the 1st lunar month), Zhong Yuan (15th of the 7th lunar month) and Xia Yuan (15th of the 10th lunar month, 24 November in 2007).

Shang Yuan Festival is the birthday of the Ruler of Heaven; Zhong Yuan Festival is the birthday of Emperor Shun, the Ruler of Earth while the Xia Yuan Festival is the birthday of the Emperor Yu, the Ruler of Water. Three of them are referred to as the Trinity Rulers and are worshipped by Taoists. They rule the heaven, earth and water respectively. They have accomplished great achievements and brought good fortune to this world, which is why they are worshipped as the Trinity Rulers.

Emperor Yu, the Ruler of Water, is as filial as Mu Lian from Buddhism. Hence Zhong Yuan Festival is also known as Xiao Zi Jie (Filial Son Festival). Based on the concept of filial piety, every household would worship their ancestors and the lonely spirits on the Hungry Ghost Festival. This helps them accumulate good deeds, ensures their safety and for things to go smoothly.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama on Differing Religious Traditions

"I see all the different religious traditions as paths for the development of inner peace, which is the true foundation of world peace. These ancient traditions come to us as a gift from our common past. Will we continue to cherish it as a gift and hand it over to the future generations as a legacy of our shared desire for peace?"

19 November 2007

A Buddhist Report on Universal Truths

"No matter how many sorrows you suffered, you insist your belief. You will finally gain what you pay, and suffer the wrong for your done.

Everything comes for fate and goes for fate.

Just as the aroma, you need only to enjoy it, do not need to ask where it comes from and where it will go. It comes with the wind. Therefore, it will go with the wind. Everything will go like the aroma; you cannot escape from it, and could not keep it.

The best way for us to help the world is not to create things, but improve our soul. Just like the batteries, it is only a container of electricity. Objects are only the container of soul.

Only when we have elegant soul, we could be elegant. Only when we have good character, we could make the life colorful. No matter how beautiful things are, if they were made by bad character, they would be like the beautiful useless batteries. The more they are, the more pollution there will be.

We all like the batteries, wealth is its figure, and status is its appearance, the function is the electricity. We could only see the figure, the appearance, not the function. However, only the function, which could not be seen can light the life."

18 November 2007

Ten Wholesome Qualities In Our Minds

In the broadest conception of the path, in the vast context of spiritual practice, we cultivate and nourish certain qualities that support and propel us forward into freedom. The Pali word parami refers to ten wholesome qualities in our minds and the accumulated power they bring to us: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolve, lovingkindness, and equanimity. . . . Parami does not come from some being outside ourselves; rather, it comes from our own gradually accumulated purity. A Buddhist understanding of reliance on a higher power would not necessarily involve reliance on some supernatural being. It is, rather, a reliance on those forces of purity in ourselves that are outside our small, constricted sense of I, and that constitute the source of grace in our lives.

17 November 2007

Christian Practive of Centering Prayer and the Buddhist Practice of Zazen

Centering Prayer is a method of prayer, which prepares us to receive the gift of God's presence. It emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God. At the same time, it is a discipline to foster and serve this relationship by a regular, daily practice of prayer. Centering Prayer is drawn from ancient prayer practices of the Christian contemplative heritage, notably the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, Lectio Divina, (praying the scriptures), The Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.. It was distilled into a simple method of prayer in the 1970's by three Trappists (this is another name for Cistercians, a subset of the Benedictines) monks, Fr. William Meninger, Fr. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating at the Trappist St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The following method of Centering Prayer is drawn from the writings of Father Thomas Keating.
  1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your openness to being changed within. (Examples: Jesus, Abba, peace, grace, trust, love)

  2. Sit in moderate comfort, eyes closed, back straight, chest fully open.

  3. Settle briefly, and silently introduce the sacred word.

  4. When you become aware of thoughts, return gently to the sacred word

  5. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

  6. Expect to experience distracting thoughts, including bodily and emotional feelings, perceptions, images, memories, reflections, insights, and commentaries. Remain detached from both pleasant and difficult distractions. They will go away. Expect casual thoughts, flashy ideas, psychic phenomena, reflection on the quality of your prayer, theological or psychic breakthroughs, and emotionally charged thoughts. Let them go gently past, and return to the sacred word.. Thoughts, even highly charged ones, are normal. Don't repress or become attracted. Simply return to the sacred word.

Of Zen or other Buddhist practice, here is a little background and some resources for those who wish to explore further. The following is the barest outline of Zen practice, and I urge those interested in this practice to seek out one of several Zen centers.

Outwardly, the practice of Zazen (sitting meditation) and Christian contemplative practice have much in common. Thomas Merton found during his trip to Asia that, while those concerned with theology of Zen and Christianity could find little common ground immediately, the actual practice of the monks was remarkably compatible. This has been my experience as well. The differences between Christian and Zen thought and practice emerge most clearly in the absence or unimportance of a deity in most (but not all) Buddhist thought.

Central to Zen practice is the practice of Zazen, or sitting meditation. Some teachers of Zen recommend the detached observation of the thoughts during Zazen. Others suggest counting the breath to 10, starting over when the attention wanders or when 10 is reached. Buddhist sects other than Zen teach meditation techniques that include chanting and visualization.

16 November 2007

An Interview With Jusan Frankie Parker by Jean Crume, editor of The Ecumenical Buddhist, a publication of The Ecumenical Buddhist Society

Jean: As I recall, you received a copy of the Dharmapada from a Corrections Officer when you had asked for a Bible? Could you tell us that story and the effect it had on you?

Jusan: I discovered the Dharmapada in December of 1988 while in "the hole." I was a mad, mean and very cruel inmate. I was always giving everyone a hard time. The guards had to throw me in the hole and I was yelling and screaming and cussing then and I demanded a Bible. The only book you're allowed in the hole. During the day they would take your mattress away from you so you have very little to do, so I'd read the Bible when I wasn't pacing the floor, hating everyone for doing this to me. The guard, thinking he was screwing me over, threw in a copy of the Dharmapada at me and said. "here's your God damn holy book", and laughed. Then he closed the door real fast so I couldn't throw it back at him. I yelled and screamed, then, when I got tired, I sat down on the floor and looked at this "heathen book." It was simply the greatest gift I had ever received! Later, maybe a year later, with tears in my eyes, I thanked that guard for his gift. He, naturally, thought I was quite insane. From that day on, I've tried to live a life in concert with Buddha nature. "Inside the Buddha there is a sentient being; Inside the sentient being there is a Buddha." I kept that copy of the Dharmapada until about a month ago when I gave it to a friend, one who has started his journey as a seeker. That Dharmapada led me to other books and an even deeper thirst for the Dharma.

Jean: What did your early practice consist of?

Jusan: I used to sit and try to meditate based on the instructions in "We're All Doing Time", a book on spirituality for inmates by Bo Lozoff. Then a friend got me the address of Robert Aitken Roshi in Hawaii. Aitken Roshi sent me additional books. My "meditation" consisted of sitting on a folded blanket and counting my breath. I still can't sit in the full-lotus posture, and I go back to my breath-counting practice on occasion. My practice is perhaps more Zen in style rather than Vajrayana, but I suspect that it all leads to the same thing.

Jean: How has that practice changed?

Jusan: Well, now I have a shrine in my cell, and on it resides a six-inch brass Buddha which Anna Cox generously gave to me. I have decorated the shrine with origami paper flowers that I've made, and a photograph of Lama Tarchin Rinpoche who gave me the Three Refuge Vows. I now fold up the end of my mattress and I practice sitting for about 25-40 minutes at a time, twice a day. Four in the morning is the best time to practice; it is the quietest time of the day on Death Row. In 1990 I decided to shave my head as a devotion to the Buddha. I knew that it would help me to live a life that would reflect my Buddha nature, in hopes that others who saw me on a daily basis would want to be like me, i.e., a Buddhist (I was a real proselytizer; I was convinced beyond doubt that what was good for me was also good for others!) What I did learn was: If you're going to have a shaved head and have been indoors all winter, when it's sunny out, wear a hat! My head is burnt!

Jean: What practical impact has your practice had on your life in prison?

Jusan: I think it would be better if someone else answered this question. I will say I've tried to live as the Buddha taught we should. Through contemplative practice I've learned patience, the greatest thing you can have in a prison environment. Now I smile more often than not. I enjoy every second, and I've learned the most important thing a sentient being can learn - how to die. Every night when I close my eyes to sleep, I think I am dying. Soon I may be murdered by the state. I'll die with a smile on my ugly old face; they may not understand, but you'll know.

Jean: What has been the most difficult obstacle in your practice?

Jusan: The publication review committee that approves books for prisoners is composed of Fundamentalist Christians. They used to stop books I'd ordered from coming to me. This activity caused me stress and tested me. I tend to view all obstacles as a test. I had many talks with the committee and my attorney. We finally came to an agreement.

I've had to fight with the facility administration and employees every step of the way. I've had to fight a warden who lied to have me put in the hole to ruin my record. He's no longer here; he was fired. The warden who followed him said something to me that made me the proudest I've ever been in my life. He said he wished that all the inmates were Buddhist if they would live like me.

Jean: I find that when I think of you and your dedication to practice and the Dharma that I experience tremendous compassion for all beings who are struggling to make sense of life. But, in spite of your difficult situation, you always seem to find the positive aspects of even the worst events. Could you tell us a little about how you see your role in spreading the Dharma?

Jusan: Good question. I used to think, "Boy! as soon as I reach enlightenment I'm going to teach!" Then I realized that that day was too far away so I'd better try and do something now. People see me practicing Tai-Chi in the yard. They see me at peace with the world and they see me always smiling. That, my friend, is how you spread the Dharma - smile, be happy. I once read a book where the question was raised, "How do you spread the Dharma if the person you meet is blind and dumb?" - the answer is a hug! Kindness, a hug, is a smile, a smile that can be felt. Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a science. It is example. It is a method of liberation. I feel liberated, and soon my be liberated from this world. I change, as all things change.

Jean: Thank you for taking this time with me. Is there anything else you would like to share with the Sangha?

Jusan: Yes. Thank you all for accepting me into your family - a person you knew to be the worst that society could offer, yet you have accepted me nevertheless. I trust that I have not let you down in any way, I trust that this world will be helped in some way by my death. I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha gave me refuge. Thank you my friends. Y'all take care . . . live by example!

The Ecumenical Buddhist Society is a non-profit, non-sectarian meditation and education group which promotes Buddhist practice. Teachers of many Buddhist traditions come to Little Rock through the sponsorship of the society to offer teachings. If you wish to receive more information, please write to EBS Buddhist Center, Gans Place Carriage House, 1010 West 3rd Street, Little Rock, AR 72201.

15 November 2007

Li Ching-Yuen

Li Ching-Yuen or Li Ching Yun (Pinyin: lǐ qīng yún; Traditional Chinese: 李清雲) (Szechuan, China, 1677 A.D. - 1933 A.D.) is said to be one of the oldest persons who ever lived in our century, dying at 256 years of age.

Li Chung Yun was born in 1677 in Chyi Jiang Hsie, Szechuan province. He spent most of his life in the mountain ranges gathering herbs and knowledge of longevity methods.
In 1748, when he was 71 years old, moved to Kai Hsien to join the Chinese army as teacher of the martial arts and as a tactical advisor.

In 1927 Li Ching-Yuen was invited by General Yang Sen to visit him in Wann Hsien, Szechuan. The general was fascinated by his youthfulness, strength and prowess in spite of his advanced age. His famous photo was obtained there.

Returning home, he died a year later, some say of natural causes, others claim that he told friends that "I have done all I have to do in this world. I will now go home.", and then allowed his spirit to depart.

After Li's death, General Yang Sen investigated the truth about his claimed background and age. He wrote a report that was later published. In 1933, people interviewed from his home province remembered seeing him when they were children, and that he hadn't aged much during their lifetime. Others reported that he had been friends with their grandfathers. The truth about his long life may never be solved.

References about Master Li Ching-Yun

The Time Magazine article says that in 1930 Professor Wu Chung-chieh, from Chengdu University, found records from the Chinese Imperial Government congratulating Li Ching Yuen in his 150th birthday in 1827.

In his book "Ancient Secrets of Youth" Peter Kelder brings a remarkable tale about Li Ching Yuen, told by one of his disciples, the Taiji Quan Master Da Liu. He told that at 130 years old Master Li encountered an older hermit in the mountains who taught him Baguazhang and a set of Qigong with breathing instructions, movements training coordinated with specific sounds, and dietary recommendations. Da Liu reports that his master's said that his longevity "is due to the fact that I performed the exercises every day - regularly, correctly, and with sincerity - for 120 years."

Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming, in his book "Muscle/Tendon Changing and Marrow/Brain Washing Chi Kung." says that Li Ching-Yuen was a Chinese herbalist skilled in Qigong who spent most of his life in the mountains. In 1927 the National Revolutionary Army General Yang Sen (揚森), invited him to his residence in Wann Hsien, Szechuan province, where the picture shown in this article was taken.

Chinese General Yang Sen wrote a report about him, "A Factual Account of the 250 Year-Old Good-Luck Man.", where he described Li Ching Yuen's appearance: "He has good eyesight and a brisk stride; Li stands seven feet tall, has very long fingernails, and a ruddy complexion."

Stuart Alve Olson wrote in 2002 the book "Qigong Teachings of a Taoist Immortal: The Eight Essential Exercises of Master Li Ching-Yun". In this book he teaches the practice of the "Eight Brocade Qigong" learned with the Taiji Quan Master T. T. Liang (Liang Tung Tsai), who learned it from the General Yang Sen.

The praticants of Jiulong Baguazhang, also known as Nine Dragon Eight Diagram Palm, claims that his art was conceived by the Daoist sage Li Ching-Yuen.

The Taoist Master Liu Pai Lin (劉百齡), who inhabited São Paulo, Brazil, from 1975 until 2000, had in his classroom another photograph of Master Li Ching Yuen unknown in occident. In this photo his face is clearly visible, as are his long and curled fingernails. Master Liu had met him personally in China, and considered him as one of his Masters. He used to say that Master Li answered to him that the fundamental taoist practice is learn to keep the "Emptiness" (Wu Wei). Master Liu's son, Master Liu Chih Ming, teaches in CEMETRAC the 12 Silks Qigong, as transmitted by Master Li.

Chinese herbalist

Li Ching-Yuen is also reported to be a real Chinese herbalist, proponent of the use of Gotu Kola and others Chinese herbs to conquer longevity.

An interesting sidelight was thrown upon the unique properties of fo-ti-tieng (Gotu Kola) by a 107 year old Indian sage named Nanddo Narian, who claimed that the herb provides the missing ingredient in a man's diet, without which, he can never control disease and decay. He found it to be, in practice, the finest of all herbal tonics and nutrients.

The results of the studies performed upon Gotu Kola by the French in Algeria revealed what appears to be a new vitamin not known in any other food or herb. It was described as the "youth vitamin X" that exerts a rejuvenating influence upon the ductless glands, the healthy functioning of which is, the means by which the brain and body are maintained for healthy activity.

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14 November 2007


If Zen reflects an amalgam of Taoism and many Buddhist elements, NeoZen is defined as Zen with minimal Buddhism and a psychological approach to Zen, based on constructionist underpinnings. The essence of NeoZen is a synthesis of ‘EastWest’ mentalities for a new spirit in the art of living. NeoZen is a combination of Zen and western ways of living and the merits of hardwired science. The inclination to seek refuge in a guru seems to have increased now that adherence to religious creeds is on the decline. NeoZen’s message is to look inwardly and to be ‘a light unto your self’, an effort to close the gap in the millennia-lasting competing quest between ‘rational knowledge’ and ‘intuitive wisdom’. A seminal effort to have ‘the twain’ meet, was Austin’s ‘Zen and the Brain’ (1998) that took up where D.T. Suzuki’s Zen (absolute realism) left off. This perennial psychophysiology is supplemented by clinical meditation that discerns the functions of psychotherapy versus personal growth. Students may need psychotherapy to secure psychological balance enabling one to grow with NeoZen. Zen stems from Chan, which can best be categorized as a non-theistic, non-esoteric, no-nonsense, and down-to-earth Taoist way of living. Chan does not fit easily into the container ‘Buddhism’. A capsule history is presented of the heyday of Chan and Zen that started in the 6 th century and allegedly began with the legendary Bodhidharma and brought forth pioneers like Hui-neng, Ma-tsu, Huang-po, Lin-chi, and Wu-men. One major aspect of Zen is the koan, a technical device of paradox to help awaken suddenly and engender enduring satori. Another one is wuwei (going with the flow, while nothing remains undone). NeoZen also provides a postmodern constructionistic psychology of ‘rational-science-intuitive-wisdom’, a transcultural and social approach that strives for emotional happiness through the awareness of consciousness as total emptiness and meditation amidst all daily activities.

13 November 2007

A retired Orthodox Christian Bishop on religious syncretism and the Buddha nature

The Lotus Meditation Center is led by Fa Jiàn MelChiZeDek. He was born and raised in Europe before moving to America. His degrees are in Philosophy, Theology and Montessori pedagogy. Fa Jiàn's academic areas of most interest are Eastern spirituality, linguistics and education. He has served as a Christian minister for over three decades before retiring and teaching Zen.
"My master made a point of telling me early in my work with him that all religions are the same. They are all about being human and recognizing our fundamental nature – call it God, enlightenment or Buddha nature, true, inner being, and such. That is all the same. The differences are only at the conceptional level, i.e. in the relative. At the non-conceptional, mystic level, i.e. in the absolute, there are no differences at all. Once someone truly finds this “God” – it validates any religion that led there."
Over time, Fa Jiàn has facilitated study groups in Lao Tzu and was trained in Zen meditation by various teachers since 1998. Fa Jiàn received the Precepts from the Chinese Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu (Xu) Yun by Abbot Chuan Zhi in the lineage of Hsu Yun.

12 November 2007

Taoist and Buddhist Origins of All Modern Martial Arts

The Indian monk named Bodhidharma Sardili (also known as Da Mo in Chinese) traveled from India to China around 500 B.C. It is said that he visited Shaolin monks in the Henan Province. While there, Bodhidharma awed the resident Chinese monks with his mastery of meditation. The secret was physical discipline which Bodhidharma saw lacking in the monks. He trained them in exercises designed to strengthen the body and thus their endurance. According to legend, Bodhidharma had attained such a level of control that he was able to bore a hole through a wall simply by staring at it for a number of years in meditation. These series of exercises the monks used evolved into kung fu. This is why Bodhidharma is credited with spreading Chan (Zen) Buddhism to China and for forming the modern kung fu.

Taoist practitioners have been practicing Tao Yin, physical exercises similar to Qigong that was one of the progenitors to Tai Chi Chuan, at least as early as the 500 B.C. era. In 39-92 A.D., "Six Chapters of Hand Fighting", were included in the Han Shu (history of the Former Han Dynasty) written by Pan Ku. Also, the noted physician, Hua Tuo, composed the "Five Animals Play" - tiger, deer, monkey, bear, and bird, around 220 B.C.[9] Taoist philosophy and their approach to health and exercise can still be seen in the Internal styles of Chinese martial arts.

With regards to the Shaolin style of martial arts, the oldest evidence of Shaolin participation in combat is a stele from 728 A.D. that attests to two occasions: a defense of the Shaolin Monastery from bandits around 610 A.D., and their subsequent role in the defeat of Wang Shichong at the Battle of Hulao in 621 A.D. From the 8th to the 15th centuries, there are no extant documents that provide evidence of Shaolin participation in combat. However, between the 16th and 17th centuries there are at least forty extant sources which provided evidence that, not only did monks of Shaolin practice martial arts, but martial practice had become such an integral element of Shaolin monastic life that the monks felt the need to justify it by creating new Buddhist lore.[10] References to Shaolin martial arts appear in various literary genres of the late Ming: the epitaphs of Shaolin warrior monks, martial-arts manuals, military encyclopedias, historical writings, travelogues, fiction, and even poetry.[11] These sources, in contrast to those from the Tang period, refer to Shaolin methods of unarmed combat, as well as combat utilising various weapons. These include the spear (Qiang), and with the weapon that was the forte of Shaolin monks and for which they had become famous—the staff (Gun, pronounced as juen).[12] By the mid-16th century, military experts from all over China were traveling to Shaolin to study its fighting techniques. The fighting styles that are practiced today were developed over the centuries, after having incorporated forms that came into existence later. Some of these include Bagua, Drunken Boxing, Eagle Claw, Five Animals, Hsing I, Hung Gar, Lau Gar, Monkey, Praying Mantis, Fujian White Crane, Wing Chun and Tai Chi Chuan.

9. Dingbo. Wu, Patrick D. Murphy (1994), "Handbook of Chinese Popular Culture", Greenwood Press, ISBN 0-313-27808-3

10. Shahar, Meir (2000). "Epigraphy, Buddhist Historiography, and Fighting Monks: The Case of The Shaolin Monastery". Asia Major Third Series 13 (2): 15–36.

11. Shahar, Meir (December 2001). "Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice". Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61 (2): 359–413. ISSN 0073-0548.

12. Henning, Stanley (1999). "Martial arts Myths of Shaolin Monastery, Part I: The Giant with the Flaming Staff". Journal of the Chenstyle Taijiquan Research Association of Hawaii 5 (1), Shahar, Meir (2007), The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial arts", Honolulu: The University of Hawai'i Press

11 November 2007

Shaolin KungFu is not true WuShu without Buddhism (and Taoism)!

What does Shaolin mean?

It is a place of cultivation for yourself and to yourself only. The art of Martial Arts arises from the idea and philosophy that a healthy mind requires a healthy body.

Before the body can be strengthened, one has to realise that Shaolin upholds Buddhism because it is an education systems from which modern post-graduate and continuous education originates from.

Buddhism in itself is not [just] a religion. It is a form of education. Over the centuries, due to the influence of taoism, when Buddhism was introduced, many followers have a habit of offerings to the Heavens that they find hard to abandon...so they adopt it.

In Shaolin, people may enter as outside disciples or Reverends. the reverends cannot marry, eat meat, etc. They will have 6 eyes burned to their scalp. One for every text of rules.

The ones without the eyes on the scalp are probationary monks who are there to learn the art of Martial Arts and nothing else. they are not interested in the cultivation aspects of it. If they are, there is available another group in the Temple that they may enroll into for further education.

A small history first...

What does 'Kung Fu' mean? Like many other terms used in connection with the Martial Arts today, the term 'Kung fu' is often mis-applied. Translated literally, kung fu means 'excellence through hard work' or 'skilled achievement'. Therefore one could be said to display 'kung fu' at cooking or at computer programming.

There is nothing inherently martial about the term, but in the 1950s, the Hong Kong film industry started using the two characters 'Kung Fu' for their martial arts action movies and the phrase has been closely associated with Chinese Martial Arts ever since - particularly in the West.

Professionals refer to the practice of Chinese martial arts as 'Wu Kung' or 'Wu Shu' which connote the specific martial (Wu) development of skill (Kung) or art (Shu).

What's the difference between Traditional Chinese Martial Arts and Karate/Judo/Taekwondo?

Chinese martial arts were formalised over two thousand years ago, and were developed primarily by Buddhist and Taoist monks. Thus, the Chinese are universally acknowledged to have have the oldest, best-proven systems - almost all other legitimate systems will acknowledge the debt they owe to the Chinese systems, which spread throughout Asia. Methods such as Karate, Judo or Taekwondo were developed hundreds of years after the formalisation of the Chinese systems, and as such, owed much of their development to Chinese martial arts systems - Karate, as first taught by Southern Chinese monks and practised on Okinawa, was originally called 'Tang Te' which translates as 'Chinese Hand'. The characters were later changed to 'Kara Te' ('Empty Hand') during a period of strong Japanese nationalism.

What are Traditional Chinese Martial Arts?

In Chinese culture, there are the so-called 'five excellences.' These are: Calligraphy, Poetry, Painting, Music and Martial Arts. The objective in mastering any of these arts is to achieve a state of calmness and equilibrium which the Chinese refer to as 'enlightenment'.

Mastery of any of the excellences would grant this state of peace and balance; traditional martial arts grant further benefits as well - health, fitness and the ability to defend one's self or others.

In trying to understand these arts, it is important to realise that in China, they were developed primarily by Buddhist and Taoist monks whose goal was to prolong their lives. The key for these aesthetes was to enrich themselves spiritually - self-defence was of secondary concern. However, when monks were sent out from the temples to gather alms, the harsh reality of having to defend themselves arose and the techniques that they had developed and practised purely for health reasons had to be adapted to deal with the threats of the outside world.

The systems that these holy men developed spread throughout China and across Asia, some being adapted for purely combative use, some strictly for health development, some for theatrical performance while others retained the essence of the original arts - to prolong and enrich the life of the practitioner, with the added benefit of providing an effective system of self-defence, should the need arise.

10 November 2007

Interfaith Interactions Done Right

Terry Holmes and John Westerhoff's, Christian Believing, offers these guidelines for interfaith interactions:
We need not enter into a dialogue with a Buddhist or a member of Islam to win or lose. Our intention ought to be that we will both win. It is highly doubtful, given the cultural context in which Buddhism exists, that such a dialogue will result in the baptism of many who were previously Buddhists. It is improbable that it will result in theological agreement between the representatives of two very disparate systems of belief. It is altogether possible, however, that in our point of contact we will find enrichment which will flow over into the beliefs of each religion...
Holmes and Westerhoff list these "points of contact" between the major world religions, as identified by Friedrich Heiler, a German historian of religion. The following are common beliefs held by Judaism, Islam, Zorastrianism Mazdianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity:
1. A belief in the reality of the transcendent; the "holy other."

2. That the transcendent is immanent in human hearts.

3. This transcendent and immanent reality is the highest good.

4. The reality of the divine is ultimate love.

5. The way to God is through sacrifice.

6. In loving one's neighbor, one is loving God.

7. It is the love of God that leads to union with God.
An example of how to highlight these "points of contact" without compromising our own beliefs was recently offered by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury in a greeting he offered to the Hindu community:
...The desire and the ability to celebrate is a profound part of the human personality and is a gift of God in creation. When celebration is from a perspective of love of God and is in thanksgiving for the blessings that we receive from God, then it is all the more to be welcomed and encouraged. I congratulate you on the way in which you have brought the celebration of the festival of Diwali to the communities of this country and have enabled the perspective of faith to be more widely appreciated.

The Hindu communities have brought so much to the life of this country, and in so many different aspects. In business, education, culture and religion, Hindus have led the way in demonstrating what it means to be a lively, integrated and distinctive community to the great benefit of all. It is my hope that especially at this time of year, this contribution should be more widely recognised and acknowledged.

Each of our festivals has its own distinctive character and meaning and is rooted in our respective understandings of the nature of God. But Diwali, coming as it does when Christians are approaching the season of Advent and Christmas, provides an opportunity to celebrate those things that we hold in common. It is my hope that Christians and Hindus should renew and further develop the local and national frameworks within which we can explore and appreciate both our common and our distinctive characteristics...
The five day Hindu festival of Diwali, also known as "The Festival of Lights" includes some customs that are quite similar to our Christmas traditions, such as the exchange of gifts and festive meals. You can learn more about Diwali here.

09 November 2007

From the News: Ecumenical Buddhist Fellowship Welcomes All Faiths

A group of 10 people pulled their chairs into an oval to meditate and discuss the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama during the weekly Buddhist Sangha, or community gathering...

Baptists, Methodists and Catholics gathered for the Sangha West Volusia on Feb. 1 in the First Unitarian Universalist Church in DeLand. Some said they use the teachings of the Enlightened One, the Buddha, along with their Christian faith. There were men in shorts, barefoot women and a young mother rocking her 17-month-old daughter. Some sat cross-legged on the floor, some leaned on wooden kneelers, and others used cushioned chairs to meditate on the topic of the day:

People of all faiths are welcome at the ecumenical Buddhist fellowship, which started meeting in August 2004.
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