Sweeping

In Zen China, the legendary poet Han Shan is often seen in ancient paintings beside his friend, Shide, who usually has a broom and a wild grin. That broom tells us a lot about Shide; it displays his mind. 

Today as I was sweeping near my doorway, I remembered a scene from 30 years ago at a Zen center.  I was in retreat in downtown L.A. and for some reason I had a quiet room off the zendo, which I appreciated.  One morning, as I was leaving my room for the chore period, and feeling ambiguous about showing up, I stepped onto the porch and saw our teacher on his hands and knees sweeping the dust. I was surprised that a person of his position would have done such an ordinary task. But as I considered him, I was humbled by his wide, generous idea of duty to the center and his students. 

To return to the Zen person, Shide–I think his broom is a symbol of ordinary action, the ever-present possibility that action is close at hand. Shide’s sweeping is active participation in the dharma, and nothing is too ordinary to be overlooked. So, for Shide, there’s no sitting around. 

I’m sure Han Shan and Shide knew they were ordinary people in ordinary settings–like us. Yet, they are shown as awake and fully engaged, almost always able to find a kind of nirvana in their situation.  

Like This

May 5, 2020, Dharma Talk, Bill Cooper, Bellevue WA

In Stephen and Martine Batchelor’s new book there is this quote by Dahui:

“The one who can recognize dim and dull is definitely not dim and dull.”[1] What do you think about this? Even better, can you just see the point? 

Here we have Buddhism, or at least Zen, in its completeness. We are encouraged not to get lost in self judgement, or any thought, dim or dull, but to come back to the practice of mindfulness, being aware. 

Aware of what? One could answer the present moment. OK, and how do we do this? Mindfulness is linked to states of recollection and remembering, but not necessarily of past events. I believe this teaching encourages us to remember the present moment, to recall our practice of mindfulness, and to do it in the present. 

This is not my teaching, or interpretation. It’s stated throughout Buddhist texts, oftentimes as, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching and thinking. In contemporary teachers I find it in writings of Ajahn Sumedho, most recently in his book “Don’t Take Your Life Personally.” Here is some of what he has to say: 

I encourage you therefore to trust in the awareness of the present and to carry it through by really working at it, by really questioning. When you start thinking about yourself…notice that it is a mental state you are creating and then notice simply that it is ‘like this.’ 

It isn’t a question of denying those things [our thoughts] but you will no longer identify or attach to them; you will rather recognize that it is ‘like this.’  [2]

(I have to qualify this last sentence. We may occasionally recognize or be able to see that it is ‘like this,’ but it won’t become a permanent mental state– that would in fact violate the Buddhist teaching of impermanence.) 

So, please don’t look for a big experience in your practice or something confirming how wonderful or enlightened you are. Those are daydreams. Mindfulness is the practice of remembering to be aware of what’s in front of us, and fortunately, it’s ordinary and always here. It’s like this.


[1] What is This?, Batchelor, Martine and Stephen, Tuwhiri, May, 2019, p. 108. 

[2] Don’t Take Your Life Personally, Sumedho, Ajahn, Buddhist Publishing Group, 2010, p. 88.

Poem by T’ao Ch’ien

Who can speak of immortality when simply

staying alive makes such sad fools of us?

We long for those peaks of the immortals, 

but they’re far-off, and roads trail away

early. Coming and going together, we’ve

always shared the same joys and sorrows.

Resting in shade, we may seem unrelated,

but living out in the sun, we never part.

This togetherness isn’t forever, though.

Soon, we’ll smother in darkness. The body

can’t last, and all memory of us also ends.

It sears the five feelings. But in our 

good works, we bequeath our love through 

generations. How can you spare any effort?

Though it may be true wine dispels sorrow,

how can such trifles ever compare to this? 

(Translated by David Hinton

Copper Canyon Press, 1993)

Buddhism and Taoism

It can be helpful to remember that much religious or spiritual philosophy is metaphor, adding a non-literal, poetic expression to our thinking. 

I’ve found several ideas in Taoism to be helpful, not only for appreciating my practice but also adding a beautiful metaphor. One such is the idea of tzu jan

When Buddhism began arriving in China around 200 AD, it was met by the indigenous philosophy of Taoism. Taoism developed from the oral stories and feminine influence in the Paleolithic time, before the more hardened, militaristic patriarchy which came later. 

From tzu jan comes the metaphor of “the ten thousand things,” in other words, tzu jan is the whole of the universe coming forth. Literally it means “the self ablaze.” It is a poetic expression of the emerging, generative nature of all that is–and we are a part of it. 

Perhaps when we’re sitting in meditation the flow of images and thoughts that often occurs, wave upon wave, is not something to be shunned, or viewed as irrelevant. Can we perhaps appreciate our images our glimpse of this endless generative process, “the way things are,” an endless arising and passing. 

And all the notions we may have about ourselves: our desires, plans, and joys, are also a part of this flow, coming and going, arising for a time, then returning to an unknown, the Tao, only to reappear later in another form.

A Clear Explanation

The article Helping Yourself to Help Others by Prayudh Payutto is a clear explanation of Buddhism in terms of virtue, meditation and wisdom. There’s also a pragmatic tone to Payutto’s talk, in that his view, as well as much of Buddhism, considers the source of our problems as located in the way we experience our world through our mind. For instance, the practice of virtue is undertaken not for it’s intrinsic goodness, or to directly benefit others, but so that we may benefit from the positive state of mind that results from its practice. After we have taken care of our thinking we can help others. Also, Payutto discusses in very clear terms the practices of sati and samadhi.

Qualities of Reflective Meditation

Image

Green River, July 21,2013
Green River, July 21,2013

Several months ago I received a paper called “Fundamentals/The Ground,” which was written by several teachers in Reflective Meditation.

The first question to consider is this new name of Reflective Meditation. What do we mean by reflective? There are several implications. It’s a word that invites curiosity, meaning to ponder, meditate, turn, or consider. Also the image of a mirror comes to mind.

In reflection practice then, we are encouraged to consider and reflect on our meditation period, both its content and processes. We can do this by writing about it, discussing our experience, or some other way that we find meaningful. We are learning to meditate by these various processes of reflection—about thoughts and feelings that occurred during and after our meditation.

This can be difficult for some of us who are uncomfortable with the aspects of our meditation that are chaotic, confusing, or personally unacceptable. We may prefer neat, organized stories, with more immediate relevance. Instead we get deep, oftentimes surreal images and strong contradictory feelings, or banal thoughts about our jobs and daily interactions. For those of us who came to meditation for peace, or an exalted state, these experiences often contradict our expectations. And this is exactly why we are encouraged to reflect, because if we don’t, we’re likely to disregard our meditation as meaningless, the way most of us dismiss our dreams. But reflection helps us to increase our awareness, not just of our confusion and chaos, but of the endless variety of conditions that make up our lives.

You may wonder if the Buddha taught this. It’s a good question. I think once you know what to look for you will see examples in the suttas of a thoughtful, reflective approach to meditation. For instance, in the second sutta of The Middle Length Discourses, called All the Taints, are these statements regarding restraining the taints:

“Bhikkhus, I say that the destruction of the taints is for one who knows and sees, not for one who does not know and see. Who knows and sees what? Wise attention and unwise attention. When one attends unwisely, unarisen taints arise and arisen taints increase. When one attends wisely, unarisen taints do not arise and arisen taints are abandoned” (p. 91). So it is through developing wise attention—perhaps reflection– that one follows the Path.

There is also the instance in sutta 63 of The Middle Length Discourses, The Shorter Discourse to Malunkyaputta. “Then, while the venerable Malunkyaputta was alone in meditation the following thought arose in his mind.” Here he has thoughts and feelings of frustration about the Buddha not declaring a position on several speculative views, such as whether the world is eternal or not eternal. He goes to the Buddha and presents these questions, describing first that they arose in his meditation. The Buddha then responds to the question; he recognizes what the monk had been thinking in meditation and he addresses it. He doesn’t say something such as, that’s just a thought, let go of it. The Buddha uses the monk’s memory, his reflection of his meditation, to teach the dharma. I see this as an instance of valuing our and others’ reflective thoughts in meditation, and it is not very different from the Buddha encouraging us to become aware of and perhaps work through these ideas.

Much of the time in meditation– and afterwards–we are seeing the dukkha or dissatisfaction of our lives. I suggest that this seeing is oftentimes the same as reflecting, and it’s one way we can learn the Dharma and more importantly, to reduce the causes of our suffering. By looking at all aspects of our experience—things we like and don’t like, things we understand and don’t understand, things we accept and don’t accept—we are able to see through our dukkha. We are able to see more clearly.

My Favorite Picture

Bodh-Gaya

Bodh-Gaya

This is my favorite picture of Bodh-Gaya during my visit in January of 2013. It is the traditional location of the Buddha’s enlightenment. There were hundreds of Tibetan monks chanting for most of the 2 days I was there.

All experience is like a dream, but this was more dreamlike than most.