...to the practice of Mindful Zen
"Applying Theravada mindfulness to Zen koans"
Don't just sit there - do something!
Don't just do something - sit there!
This website is about practice; we try to minimize philosophy. As Red Pine says in his commentary on The Heart Sutra:
Buddhism is better understood as a skill or an art to be practiced and perfected, rather than as information and knowledge to be learned and amassed.
So let’s get the philosophy out of the way right up front. Here's the secret that most Zen practitioners know: Everything is mind alone. Nothing has ever happened. There! Now we can get to work.
This is a ten step course in the practice of Beginning, Intermediate, and Advanced Zen. The ten ox-herding pictures provide the ten step framework.
The first three steps are easy Beginning Zen practices. They include important preliminary steps that the Buddha said must be taken prior to entering the sixteen step meditation that led to his enlightenment.
1. Present Moment Awareness
2. Loving Kindness meditation
3. Silent Present Moment Awareness.
The universe surrenders to the mind that is still.
Lao Tzu was a humble guy- his name means "old man," or "old sage," i.e., he never used his real name. His thoughts are important because Zen is a blend of classic Buddhism, i.e., the teachings of the Buddha, and the teachings of Lao Tzu, the founder of the Taoist path.
The sixteen steps are found in the four steps of Intermediate Zen. They are explained in the same order they were taught by the Buddha in The Anapanasati Sutta, sutta 118 of the Majjhima Nikaya.
The Anapanasati Sutta was spoken by the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. After generations of oral transmission by monks and nuns, it was finally written down several hundred years after his passing.
Due to its antiquity, it is largely unknown in the West and is quite obscure in the East as well.
Now, thanks to the Internet, the most important talk the Buddha ever gave - describing the steps he followed to enlightenment - are no longer hidden in obscure texts known only to Theravada Buddhist renunciates and a handful of scholars.
Intermediate Zen begins with step four that provides the Buddha's instructions - not philosophical pronouncements but four concrete steps that we can actually practice - on developing mindfulness by practicing mindfulness of the body.
Step five provides the Buddha's four concrete instructions on developing mindfulness of feelings.
Step six provides the Buddha's four concrete instructions on developing mindfulness of the mind itself.
Step seven concludes Intermediate Zen and provides the Buddha's four concrete instructions on developing mindfulness of mind objects.
Advanced Zen begins with step eight where we apply the super power mindfulness developed in Intermediate Zen to the doctrine of dependent arising.
We apply the super power mindfulness developed in Intermediate Zen to koans in step nine.
The tenth and final step includes non-meditation practices.
This is a rather lengthy website and it continues to grow so we may want to bookmark it for future reference. There is too much content here to absorb in one visit.
It includes Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced practices that are good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end.
Although the Hsi Lai temple complex in LA may be the most spectacular (but not the largest) of all Buddhist temple complexes in the continental U.S., it is merely one of thousands of Buddhist temples in the western hemisphere.
The temple's name announces that Buddhism has come to the West. ("Hsi Lai" means "Come to the West.")
We use the term "Zen" in its broad meaning of meditation. The course is not limited to the practices of the Zen sect of Buddhism. We include all (I think) of the Zen practices, but we also include practices from other Buddhist schools, including the Theravada school, the Mahayana school, and the Pure Land sect (Zen and Pure Land are sects of the Mahayana school).
In this course, we use the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures as our guide and equate each picture with one of the Ten Dharma Realms. With each step of the course, we figuratively (metaphorically?) rise from a lower dharma realm and enter into the next higher dharma realm. At the tenth step, we arrive at the first dharma realm, the realm of Buddhahood.
We tie the Ox Herding pictures to the dharma realms as a teaching tool to help us understand the benefits produced by each practice.
Zen practice can be hard. It is not easy to be a full-time practitioner, a monk or nun who has left home to dedicate all waking hours to waking up.
However, this program is for lay people, people who spend most of their waking hours attending to school or work and family matters.
If we are lucky enough to live near a Zen (Japanese influenced) or Ch'an (Chinese influenced) center having a sanctioned teacher, or at least a senior student of a sanctioned teacher, we should at least visit, participate in the scheduled events, and perhaps become a member. A good list of Zen Centers in the U.S. is published by the American Zen Teachers Association. Further lists, including centers all over the world, are maintained at BuddhaNet (not restricted to Zen centers) and Zenguide.
When we finish this course, we will know what goes on in Zen centers and we won't feel intimidated by them. Zen centers are welcoming and the people there will help our practice grow.
Most of us believe that Zen is impenetrable and mysterious. "What is the deepest wisdom of Buddhism?" Answer: "The cypress tree in the courtyard!"
Or sometimes the answer is: Three pounds of flax!
Here you will learn why such answers are given.
Just remember it's a grand illusion
And deep inside we're all the same.
Getting started as a beginner is easy. An hour from now, you'll be a Beginning Zen practitioner!
But ten years from now, thirty years from now, we'll still be practicing Zen. It's not a hobby, it's not something we try awhile and then walk away from.
We have no affiliation with the Zen River or the Vista Zen groups; we use these photos just to depict typical Zen practice groups. Note that some people are sitting on cushions and some are in conventional or ergonomic chairs and they are not monks or nuns.
Zen practice in the West is primarily a lay practice by people who lead money-driven lives. As such, it is much more relaxed than the classic Zen or Ch'an practiced in Asian monasteries where the discipline is strict, money is not touched, heads are shaved, and no chairs are to be found.
We will learn what is meant by Stream Entry, the Once Returner, the Non-Returner, and Nirvana.
More importantly, if we persist, we will experience Stream Entry.
Here we will learn (and experience) why the Buddha said: "We are the happy ones!"
Buddhism is not involved in a rivalry with any religion. It is a religion, as Roshi Philip Kapleau explained, only to the extent that we have to have faith that the practices lead to increasing wholesomeness.
That's almost like saying doing push-ups is a religion. We have to have faith that our muscles will develop if we do the work. But no increased wholesomeness awaits those who persist in their push-up practice.
The Buddha also said that speculation was a waste of time.
Buddhism is a practice that develops mindfulness and results in liberation from the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth. Heavy stuff, but we really can't ignore that aspect of Buddhism.
Some entrepreneurs travel the world, promoting Buddhism as a means for stress reduction, anger management, and other cool results. They make money holding seminars, selling a product.
But the Buddhism they preach is far from authentic Buddhism. People can practice yoga for stress reduction and anger management; they can take long walks in the sun to treat depression or excessive worry.
But the practice of Buddhism reaches places untouched by the mundane world. To demote it to just another stress or anger management program is a ludicrous waste of its teachings.
Buddhism is practiced by ordinary people of all religions and all cultures. People who lack faith in their religion or philosophy may fear it, but those who don't do not.
Buddhism has no supreme God that sits in judgment on human beings.
Therefore, Buddhism has no sacred texts that are the word of a supreme God.
Buddhism recognizes that the Great Chain of Being does not end with us humans, i.e., the human dharma realm is not the highest dharma realm (it's the fifth of ten!).
Buddhism has no gurus, no one to worship, no quarrel with science and nothing to fear from past or future scientific developments.
Buddhism respects the great teacher who was known as The Buddha, The Enlightened One, but does not worship him.
As we progress through this course, we'll understand what happened when Moses went up to the top of Mt. Sinai and conversed with a bush that was burning but not consumed by fire.
Every visitor to this website who practices the ten steps of this course with diligence will climb that same mountain and have the same conversation with the same burning bush.
A year from now, we won't be the same person we are now. Of course, that will happen whether we take this course or not! But the change will be for the better even if we just practice the first three steps of Beginning Zen and never get to koan practice.
If you resolve to master this course at all three levels, a year from now you'll be glad you did. We look forward to hearing from you at Contact Us when you "complete" all three levels.
But feel free to Contact Us at anytime.
We put "complete" in quotes because practice has no beginning and enlightenment has no end...Dogen Zenji.
This site will seem quite strange at times to those who are unfamiliar with Buddhism. However, truth be told, it is the conventional, mundane world that is really the strange one...
Some people tell me they don't want to become enlightened because it is the end of all being. The Buddha said, however, that the views of eternal life promoted by theistic religions or eternal annihilation promoted by the non-religious were both wrong views.
Both views are wrong because they presuppose a self that can go to a retirement home in the sky or that can be snuffed out like a candle flame.
"What arises is only suffering arising, what ceases is only suffering ceasing."
- The Buddha, the Kaccanagotta Sutta
The Buddha said he taught only the arising of suffering and the cessation of suffering. The ten dharma realms of the Mahayana or northern school and the thirty one dhamma realms of the Theravada or southern school are just planes of existence, planes created by ignorance, i.e., planes that don't exist at anuttara samyak sambodhi - full and complete, perfect enlightenment.
The dharma/dhamma realms exist only in the illusion caused by human ignorance.
Our animal minds, awash in sense desire, create dreams and fantasies and that's what we are - ignorance-born minds filled with stupidity, unaware that nothing has ever happened, i.e., that everything is mind alone, and suffering as a result thereof.
That's why the Buddha told us to wake up and taught us how to wake up.
Through daily practice that is "diligent, ardent, and resolute" (words of the Buddha) we gradually realize that the mundane world is just a mirage, a fantasy, a dream without substance, nonsense created by a deluded mind.
As a poet translated the closing lines of The Diamond Sutra:
"So I say to you -
This is how to contemplate our conditioned existence in this fleeting world:
Like a tiny drop of dew, or a bubble floating in a stream;
Like a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A star at dawn,
Or a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.
So is all conditioned existence to be seen."
- The Buddha
As the mirage fades with daily cultivation, we discover that Nirvana/Nibbana is all there is and there never was anything else.
Builders used to put up large billboards by busy highways to advertise their developments to commuters stuck in traffic, saying:
If you lived here, you'd be home now!
A Buddhist-inspired New Yorker cartoon provided the perfect retort:
If you lived now, you'd be home here.
Thanks to the Buddha's ancient teachings, as interpreted for modern readers by the down-to-earth, easy-to-follow instructions provided by the Venerable Ajahn Brahm, whom we are about to meet, we can guarantee that at this website we will learn how to live now, and to be home where ever we are.
When we experience the beautiful breath for the first time, we'll be happy that we stumbled here. We just follow the practices, every day, until they become second nature. We will eventually see the nimitta, the sign of Nirvana, during the ninth of the sixteen steps.
If we follow the concrete, step-by-step instructions disclosed by the Buddha, we will wake up.
For advanced Zen/Ch'an practitioners who are working on koans, here will be found the Buddha's instructions on how to develop the mindfulness required to penetrate koans.
There were no koans in the Buddha's day, but the instructions he left us in the Pali Canon can be applied to Zen koan practice.
Those instructions are ignored by modern day Zen teachers, just as koans are ignored by modern day Theravada teachers.
Like two ships passing in the night, each with a cargo the other could use, the Zen and Theravada schools ignore one another. They have been doing so since the advent of the koan (gong-an) in China about a thousand years ago, fifteen hundred years after the Buddha's lifetime.
The advantageous union of these two strong but independent traditions is made possible by the insight (found only at this website, as far as I know), that the super power mindfulness taught by the Buddha in The Anapanasati Sutta can be harnessed by Rinzai Zen practitioners.
Super power mindfulness can also be harnessed by anyone for any wholesome purpose. Artists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers, students, carpenters, writers, police, preachers, athletes, electricians, Walmart employees...anyone who wants to can harness the super power mindfulness taught by the Buddha and bring that super power mindfulness to bear on any problem or interest.
If you're a Catholic, a Protestant, a Mormon, a Jew, a Scientologist, an atheist, an agnostic, a contrarian, a Hindu, a Jain, a hater of all religions, or whatever, we invite you to take this course and develop the super power mindfulness taught by the Buddha.
But phooey on using Buddhism to become a better artist, a better athlete, or whatever.
To those who tour the world, selling mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) seminars, reducing Buddhism to just another self-help program, we offer three cheers, in Chinese:
Phooey! Phooey! Phooey!
OK, so phooey is not really a Chinese word, but it ought to be. And I like the joke.
Actually, I have met only one teacher of MBSR and he is a great guy who is very sincere and doing a lot of good work (far more work in the field of Buddhism than I have ever done). So I hereby acknowledge that the above Chinese version of the hip-hip-hooray cheer doesn't apply to all MBSR teachers.
And in penance I offer this link to his website.
But we practice Buddhism for one reason only: To wake up for the benefit of all sentient beings, not to attain the side effects of lower blood pressure and all that stuff the MBSR programs offer.
The first three practices appear in Beginning Zen.
Why do you suppose Zen students and their teachers roar with laughter when a koan is penetrated?
Because everything is mind alone.