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A chapbook worth of years ago, I was taking instruction at a Zen Monastery. I had already tried Zen on my own and with some local groups. I was pretty well versed with the basics and thought it was time to get more serious with a residency.

On my first weekend retreat, we would wake up before dawn, eat a very quiet and basic breakfast before about 8 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent dinner in the zendo (oryoki) and some silent work practice.

When I the opportunity to talk 1:1 with the abbot, he asked me how my zazen was progressing. Za means “sitting.” Zen comes from the Sanskrit and means meditation. My early zazen was all about concentration and focusinf on following or counting my breath. But I thought I was ready to move to zazen as self-inquiry. That wasn’t going very well, I told him.

I explained that I could not seem to empty my mind  and though I could dismiss thoughts, another one soon replaced it.

“You have monkey mind,” he told me. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in the tree.”

It wasn’t an original observation. Monkey mind is a real thing. It is a phenomenon that is especially noticeable when you are trying hard to be still.

Being mindful and still is a good thing sometimes, but the monkey isn’t into it.

You need the monkey.  That brain lets you move from task to task and think fast. Pretty important in this fast-paced world. But you need to be able to turn off the monkey brain. Just like you need to turn off the TV news and music and conversations and life’s noise sometimes.

How do you do that? I have tried lots of “techniques” with limited success. One general approach is to give in to the monkey mind. That’s what I did at the monastery. I don’t mean that I stopped meditating. I gave the monkey some space.

When I’m writing, especially poetry,  I let the monkey take me other places.

When I want him to hop off the tree, I sometimes chant a little mantra. I sometimes meditate and focus on a point somewhere in the room. I especially like doing some walking meditation. That is kinhin which is often practiced between long periods of the sitting zazen meditation. I can walk and focus on something while the monkey follows me at a distance hopping from tree to tree beside and behind me.

 

Some people advise that you should tame the monkey. I’ve made peace with the monkey.

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I read a post this past week by Parker J. Palmer called “Notes from a Week in the Winter Woods” and I was jealous of his week away. This past week has been tough and escaping to a cabin in the woods on a silent, solitary retreat sounds very good.

He took a few daily notes each day. Nothing formal. And posted them on the On Being blog. Here are a few of his notes  with my own.

It’s 9:00 p.m., an hour before Quaker midnight, but I’m going to turn in anyway. I’m drowsy and at peace. The fire I’ve been staring into seems to have burned away the worries that tagged along with me.

I like this idea of a 10 o’clock “Quaker midnight.” In the woods, camping in a tent or a cabin without electricity, the night is shorter. The daylight goes and you light your little world with a fire, a candle, a flashlight, but you tend to go to bed earlier. That’s a good thing.

The Taoist master Chuang Tzu tells about a man crossing a river when an empty skiff slams into his. The man does not become angry, as he would if there was a boatman in the other skiff. So, says Chuang Tzu: “Empty your own boat as you cross the river of the world.”

I had heard this story before. In The Way of Chuang Tzu, Thomas Merton did his own versions of the sayings of the most spiritual of Chinese philosophers. Chuang Tzu. He is one of the Taoist sages that transformed Indian Buddhism into a Buddhism in China which evolved into what we know by its Japanese name of Zen.

“If a man crosses a river and an empty boat collides with his own skiff, even though he be bad tempered man he will not become very angry. But if he sees a man in the boat, he will shout at him to steer clear. If the shout is not heard, he will shout again, and yet again, and begin cursing. And all because someone is in the boat. Yet if the boat were empty, he would not be shouting, and not angry. If you can empty your own boat, crossing the river of the world, no one will oppose you. No one will seek to harm you”

In solitude, I can empty my boat. Can I do it when I’m not alone? Maybe. “Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people — it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others.”

That quote comes from Palmer’s book (one of many!), A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life.

This week I have been trying to empty my boat, but the river is crowded and people want to climb in and I don’t feel like I can leave them out there in that icy water. And people are watching me from the shore. And other boats are drifting downstream towards me as I row upstream. I don’t know if anyone is in them. I don’t shout at them, but it is frightening.

I just want to stop fighting the current and drift downstream to a place of peace and serenity.

“The Monk and the Fish” is a little film from 1994 by animator Michael Dudok de Wit. It is about a monk who tries to catch an elusive fish. Some viewers see Christian symbolism. Some see Buddhism.

The animator has said it is about rising above duality. He was inspired by the Ten Ox Herding Pictures, a series of Zen poems and images from 12th Century China. They illustrate the journey to enlightenment through the story of a man’s struggle with a wayward bull.

Each frame is hand-drawn in ink and watercolor and it also feels more Eastern. The short film was nominated for Best Short Animated Film at both the Academy Awards and the British Academy Film Awards.

The Five Hindrances are the obstacles identified in Zen practice that arise in meditation, as well as in our lives. Each of them has its own way of diverting us off the path.

They can lead you off the path of your Zen practice, but also off the path in life, even if you don’t practice meditation or Zen Buddhism.

In that odd Zen way, as with koans, the hindrances turn you from your practice and they are your practice.

If we had no negative emotional states to confront, we wouldn’t be on the spiritual path at all.

The hindrances are desire, aversion, laziness, restlessness and doubt.

Sensory desire (kāmacchanda) is the particular type of wanting that seeks for happiness through the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and physical feeling.

Aversion or ill-will (vyāpāda) can be the kinds of thought related to wanting to reject, feelings of hostility, resentment, hatred and bitterness.

Laziness AKA sloth-torpor (thīna-middha) is the heaviness of body and dullness of mind which drag one down into disabling inertia and thick depression.

Restlessness (uddhacca-kukkucca) is the inability to calm the mind.

Doubt (vicikicchā) is any lack of conviction or trust.

Which one is the most harmful to your own life practice?

Deconstructing Zen: Apples and Oranges, Strings and Branes, and the Buddha s BellyI saw someone’s review of Deconstructing Zen: Apples and Oranges, Strings and Branes, and the Buddha’s Belly on Amazon and it reminded me of how often people attach Zen to other related and unrelated things. That particular book mixes Zen with consciousness (logical) and Zen as a way to “deconstruct” physics, philosophy, poetry, and literary analysis (maybe not so logical, or at least, not so intuitive).

I do agree that there are many paths to understanding. I also think you can actually “find Zen” in the everyday life of every day.

But it does get a bit annoying to consider contemplating the empty fullness of Buddha’s belly with Zen magnet spheres.

I like the taste of Zen Tea, but there is no true connection there other than the idea of practitioners sand monks drinking tea. Even less so with marketing  Zen vitamins , Zen “cigarette” rollers, a Zen spa robe, Zen baby items or the many books that use Zen in their title whether or not they have anything to do with that form of Buddhism.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not attracted to books “about Zen” that also seem to be about something else.  Two books that I especially found instructive as well as entertaining are Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (who I have written about before). Zen in the Art of Archery sounds suspicious, but is a classic Zen reading and a good example of using Zen in other practices. I would put it much higher on the list (actually, on another list) from books like The Zen of Tennis.

There is a force that connects all things. That probably makes many modern Americans think of the Force in the Star Wars films, but it goes further back.  It is the Tao.

When I first read the little teaching story below – many years before Star Wars or reading Joseph Campbell or studying Zen Buddhism – I thought of the George Harrison song, “Within You, Without You”

“We were talking-about the space between us all
… we’re all one, and life flows on within you and without you.”

There once lived a young, curious fish. He was inclined to ask his older and wiser friend many questions.

“I always hear of this thing called the ocean,” the young fish said. “What is it?”

“Why, the ocean is that which surrounds you on all sides,” replied the older and wiser fish.

“That cannot be,” protested the young fish. “If it truly surrounded me on all sides, I would be able to see it!”

“You cannot see it because the ocean is both within you and outside of you.”

“But how can I tell if it exists if I cannot see it,” asked the bemused young fish.

“You cannot see it, but you can feel it,” replied the older fish.

Lao Zi

Lao Zi, regarded as father of Chinese philosophy and founder of the Taoist school of thought in ancient China .

The Tao or Dao (pronounced dow) is a Chinese concept signifying ‘way’, ‘path’, ‘route’, or sometimes more loosely, ‘doctrine’ or ‘principle.’ The concept of Tao was shared with Confucianism, Chán and Zen Buddhism and more broadly throughout East Asian philosophy and religion in general.

Tao signifies the essence or fundamental nature of the universe. In the foundational text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, Laozi explains that Tao is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but the underlying natural order of the universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe. Tao is thus “eternally nameless.”

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