Finding Home

“In America, people keep arguing for rights, but what we need is consideration.”

Peace vs. Harmony

At the temple, Osho-san and I talked a lot about how Eastern thinking influenced interpersonal interactions in Asia. “In the past, there was no word for peace 平和 in Japanese, there was only harmony 調和. When we talk about peace, somebody is always giving peace to somebody else, sometimes even forcing it onto them. It is uneven. But in harmony, there is coexistence.” He described harmony like crossing your hands together. “There is nothing forced on anybody. For example, we live together with nature in harmony. Where my hands cross is where we understand each other. But while there may be some things that we might not see eye to eye on, where our arms don’t touch, some things I don’t understand about you, I don’t mind. I just accept it.”

harmony

It was surprising to hear Venerable Yifa say something very similar here in China. “In the West, people always talk about rights, but what about obligation?” Obligation to your family, friends, society. “Many people nowadays are scared of commitment, but in commitment, you don’t lose something. It is fulfilling because it pushes you to do more. This relates a lot to relationships and activities in college, we try to squeeze these things in with our busy schedule and end up either burned out or giving up on them. But if I keep sticking with what I already do, how can I push beyond my old habits. I want to commit and push myself to do things I cannot currently imagine.

The most important thing in meditation is your determination. No pain, no gain. – Venerable Yifa

If you ask anybody who knows me, most people would describe me as an easy-going guy that goes with the flow of things. During meditation, we talked about how determination was the most important thing. My thoughts will wander, my legs will hurt, but I need to be determined to bring my focus back to my breathing. You have to commit to sit. This past year, I’ve thrown myself into uncomfortable situations to strengthen my discipline and learn more about myself. Indeed, I have committed to meditating in monasteries this summer, committed to Swarthmore, but I don’t feel that I have a strong sense of determination driving my life forward. So it’s about time for a change.

If you like it, it’s a blessing. If you don’t, it’s cultivation. – Venerable Yifa

I’ve learned so many things this past year, and even summer so far, that the 1 year has felt like 3. Determination, like discipline and memory, is a muscle that I have to keep training. So one idea that I have is that when I get back to college, I can have like a commitment board with post-its of things I want to commit to that week (starting small) like doing cardio every day, meditating every day. Another commitment I learned from somebody here at Woodenfish is the 100 day meditation challenge he learnt from his Taoist Kung-Fu school: where you essentially count to 100 everyday, but there cannot be a break in concentration. If you are on 51, for example, and start to get sidetracked on excitement, you have to restart from 1. Writing about this now, I feel this fire of determination that I want to keep fueling. Discipline and determination actually sound awfully similar, but I think this new dress on the idea is what I needed to commit to something bigger than what I already am doing.

Finding Home

On my last day in Kyoto, they cooked my favorite meal for lunch – curry rice! We got to eat casually, drinking tea and chatting about our plans for our lives after this.

“I’m going to the master’s monastery in September, but after that I don’t know.”

“I’m going to finish university then join the military. But after that, I don’t know.”

“I’m going to be staying here at the temple, Sam, how about you?”

“I’m going back to college, but after that, I don’t know.”

People that are not worried about the future. People who coexist with everybody practicing compassion and consideration. People who have a sense of challenge and discipline. Wanderers. So far this summer, I have been able to put these eastern philosophies into words and practice, but I feel that they have been with me my whole life.

I feel like a fish going back to sea.

fish-home.jpg

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Staying in a Zen Temple: Sesshin 接心

The last 3 days at Fumonken have without a doubt been the most intense and hardest thing I have experienced in my life. Every month, there is a period (usually 1-7 days) of intensive meditation (zazen) called Sesshin 接心, which translates to touching the heart-mind. This is quite a beautiful phrase, but experiencing it is a whole different world. I asked Eh-san (who has been living at the temple for 2 years now) how Sesshin is, and he described that “it was hell,” then chuckled a little after. Haha, man was I in for a treat. Below is the schedule of a day of Sesshin:

Sesshin Schedule
04:00 : Wake up, little toilet, morning sutras. Zazen
07:00 : Breakfast. Cleaning.
08:30 : Tea time
09:45 : Temple job
10:30 : Zazen
12:00 : Lunch, get some restseiza
13:30 : Temple job
15:00 : Tea time, bath time
17:30 : evening sutras, Zazen
20:30 : Dinner
21:00 : Zazen
23:00 : All lights off.

 

The chunks of zazen time were broken up into 30 minute sessions each, with a 3-5 minute of a standing meditation break in between each one. Also, we would have 15 minutes of kihin (walking zen) after every 2 sessions. The sutras and mealtimes were also fairly challenging because we had to sit in seiza the whole time. I think by the time we had our 5th zazen session, my knees already felt like breaking and I felt as if there was an acupuncture needle stuck in the nerve of my hip being rotated
acupuncture-big
around. However, the worst part was realizing that it was only the 5th out of 18 sessions, and that it was only the first day. I remember that when we had a 15 minute break for brushing our teeth at night, I just went into my room and collapsed onto the floor, too sore to crawl under my mosquito net, just lying there with an impending reminder  that I only had 10 minutes left.  For sure, there were times when I wished that I had never come to the temple, but that was when persisting was the most important. It was as if the pain and distractions grew exponentially, and if I didn’t keep up my practice, I would just drown in my sensations and thoughts and not get anything out of it. The stakes literally increased every minute, but there was no way that I was going to give up, not this time. I think that meditation is my ultimate challenge, I need the determination to withstand the temptations to fidget, move, complain; and I didn’t want to be somebody who couldn’t sit without moving for more than 15 minutes forever.

 

Training only begins when it gets hard.

 

For the first time in my life though, I experienced a type of samādhi, a state of complete serenity, tranquility, and concentration. It is said that there are 66 moments of time in a snap of a finger, and I felt that I could experience every 66 of those moments. Yet it wasn’t only just concentration, I also withheld my sati. It was like having a very strong concentration on one thing, and a very strong awareness of my surroundings. Samādhi and sati, each two wings of a bird. The pain was still there, but it didn’t matter anymore. It is quite hard to put in words, and as Venerable Yifa put it: meditation is not something you understand, but something you realize.

At the end of it, I learned and experienced a lot during this Sesshin. I definitely got something out of it, but the process was hell – I told myself that I never wanted to do anything like this ever again. But these challenges of determination are sort of addicting. I have to admit that during Sesshin, I had a tint of excitement coursing through my blood (albeit it wasn’t going to my legs as I was losing feeling 🙂 ). I’m not sure if I would recommend this to everybody, but I think you should try everything at least twice. Training only begins when it gets hard, so I guess the only thing to do now is to go back and face it again!

Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or Spirituality?

When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.

However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.

I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.

Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.

Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.

7 Dimensions of Religion

1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.

2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others

3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.

4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.

5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.

6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.

7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.

And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.

For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.

What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?

What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?

Preparing to Learn: Emptying Your Cup

There was a foreigner who visited a Zen Master to study with the master. The foreigner was a scholar with an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and came prepared to have big debates regarding Zen. After making the customary bows, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.

The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, the master poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”

The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup, you are full of ideas about the Buddha’s Way. How can you ask for a taste of my tea if your cup is already full? I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

While this story shares a simple message, I feel that many of us get too caught up with arguing and being correct rather than having humility and being ready to learn. The quintessential image of a college classroom that comes to mind is centered on politically and intellectually charged individuals arguing left and right about what is true and what is not. However, while engaging in such a dialectic is certainly beneficial, it is hard to believe that we know everything, especially as young first years in college. We should consider our education in such a way, whenever we walk into a classroom or engage in conversations seeking for advice.

Sticking to what we already know is easy, but growing and cultivating knowledge requires emptying our cup of ego.

Tea Time: Westernization of Japanese Culture

Tea time is one of my favorite parts of our daily schedule at the temple. We all gather around a fireplace usually after cleaning the temple or eating to relax and enjoy some tea and food. It is also one of the least strict activities at the temple, the only rule is that we sit in seiza at the beginning when we greet everybody, then we can change to whatever comfortable sitting position. At Fumonken (the temple I’m staying at), it is very relaxed and everybody is telling jokes and laughing. I’ve also learned many interesting things about how Japanese culture has shifted after Japan’s push to westernization.

In Japan, many words are starting to be adopted from English. Especially among younger people, it can be seen as cooler to use the adopted English words rather than the original Japanese words. Osho-san gave us an example: “architecture” in Japanese is 建築 (kenchiku), but more people are starting to say it in Japanglish, pronouncing the English syllables in Japanese (something like arkitekchoru). Representing the words like this is called katakana, and we were talking about how this was bad because while Japanese people can read it (like letters in an alphabet), the etymology and meaning behind the original kanji characters is lost. Like in Chinese, every character has a history behind it, so in a sense, Japanese history is being lost as more and more people replace original characters with empty syllables.

Another interesting thing we talked about was how the philosophy of Japanese education has changed. From Tao, Zen, and even Japanese marital arts, 守破離 (shu ha ri, each character roughly meaning follow/obey, detach/break, leave/separate) describes the stages of learning to mastery. How it goes is that a student strictly follows the rules of their master, eventually getting to the point of mastery where they can break those rules and surpass their master. Nowadays, most people think about 破離 (ha ri), the 守 is dropped – there is no more obeying. Osho-san said that Japanese people started to focus more and more on talent (very Western) and forgo the discipline of following the rules. “If there is no more following, what are they supposed to break from?” But staying at a traditional zen temple, the important dedication to obeying rules is very clear.

fireplace-tea-time

Zen: Dealing With Pain

The first obstacle most people face when meditating is pain, well at least it is for me. But I never thought I would be able to overcome it from the sound of water droplets. The water fountain was full from the morning rain, and throughout our evening zazen we could hear water dropping from the bamboo pipe to the basin.

sam-shih-fumonken-fountain
The fountain (on the left)

Drip, drip, drip.

My knees are killing me, I’m starting to lose feeling in my feet.

Drip, drip, drip.

I need to shift my legs, I can’t stand the pain anymore.

Drip, drip, drip.

I’m listening to the water, and I realize that I’m not thinking too much about the water like I am with my pain. It’s as if the water is passing by me through time. I hear it – then when it stops, I let it go.

Drip, drip, drip.

Wait, why don’t I treat my pain like this? My pain is just like the water, I feel it, then let it go. Almost instantly (and kind of scarily), my obsession with the pain dropped. It’s like when you are sitting at a cafe and you hear other people chatting around you. You don’t dramatize the chatter, you just hear it and accept it as a part of the background. The biggest thing for me was not making such a big deal out of the pain – before I would be complaining about how long I’ve been sitting, plotting how to move my legs as silently as possible. However, I just needed to treat the pain like the drops of water I was hearing.

It was also at this time that I realized I’ve been doing meditation incorrectly all my life. I’ve grown up with Vipassana meditation, and one of the major things we learn to do while meditating was to mentally note the sensations in out bodies.

Hearing, hearing, smelling, smelling, pain, pain.

But now, I believe I’ve been thinking about noting pain incorrectly. I’ve heard teachers tell me that as you noted the pain, it would eventually go away. So then I started to think of the noting as a way to ease the pain. I would be noting “pain, pain, pain…” ultimately hoping that the pain would go away. I started to get frustrated if the pain didn’t go away, was I meditating correctly? The purpose of noting is to detach yourself from the sensations that are arising.

Think about why it is so easy to just accept the dripping of water and the chatter in a cafe: they are easy to pass by because they are not a part of you, you don’t own them. So to do the same for pain, you can not think that you own the pain. The pain is not part of yourself, and thinking about it as cafe chatter really helps. And ultimately, we’ll want to detach from our bodies and leave behind our notions of the “self” (anattā, Pali).

Zen: Fixing sleep issues

“Why do you sit zazen with your eyes open?”

“Because if your eyes are closed, you are too focused on yourself.”

“A lady once asked a zen master for help because she had trouble sleeping. He told her to spread open her arms and legs, open her eyes and mouth as wide as possible – open all holes in her body. She was then able to sleep.”

That night during zazen, I was not having trouble sleeping, but rather I had a lot of pain in my knees from sitting. The more I focused on the pain, the more intense it seemed, I felt like I was going to go crazy from the pain. So I decided to give the story a try. I couldn’t spread my legs open, but I opened my mouth, nose, eyes, and hands as wide as possible. Rather than trying to ignore the pain by focusing on something else, opening everything intensified my senses. My nose picked up the strong scent of tatami mats, I saw everything in the garden in front of me, I heard the silence in the room, and I could feel myself sitting on the zafu (cushion).

fumonken panorama
Panorama of Fumonken’s Zazen room facing the garden

But the pain in my knees did not go away, it was there with everything else. However, I did not know if the pain increased or went away – I knew there was pain and that was it. This opened me to a whole new dimension of this quote:

 

Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right here in the imperfection is perfect reality. – Shunryu Suzuki

The pain certainly did not go away, which would have been the ideal (yet unreal) solution. Opening all my senses allowed me to take in everything around me, including the pain, and for the first time I felt like I was alive, the perfect reality. I then started to understand why this would help you go to bed. Are you starting to see the connection too?

People that have trouble sleeping are probably too in their heads while they are lying in bed. Having a monkey-like mind jumping around keeps us awake. Yet spreading open your body, feeling every muscle stretch in your face, feeling your back on the firm mattress, hearing the wind blowing from outside puts you in the present reality (sounds pretty cliche, but one can really only understand by doing). This brought me back to the very first thing Oshō-san (the head monk) told me when I initially arrived:

Knowledge is action.

Then it also hit me, chopping wood is in fact the same thing as zazen. Like Chuang Tzu’s Cook Ting story (I talk about it in this post about Confucianism and Tao), when you have been chopping wood for a long time, you let go of the distinction between you and the knife. Like Cook Ting, you let go of the distinction between you, the knife, and the ox. Like in zazen, you let go of the distinction between you (self), the pain, and the environment. You accept everything simply as they are.

fumonken-screens
Evening zazen, with closed shoji (sliding screen doors)