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Posts Tagged ‘Zen’

All the ‘good’ books, tell you to live ‘in the present moment’, which sounds like a really great idea.  But, you can’t help but live in the present moment, because that is where you always are anyway, so, it is impossible NOT to BE in the present moment in ordinary attention.

Though, sometimes, in our present moment, we are reminiscing about the past, or dreaming about the future, you have to consider that this is just a quality of the present moment.  ie, ‘in this present moment I am reflecting upon the past’.  Since this comes so naturally to us, I have a hard time labeling it as ‘bad’.

Personally, I think we have to transcend the present moment.  Sort of fly up and look down upon it from above.  From that vantage  point, you realize that it doesn’t matter what is taking place in your present moment.  There is a larger context to consider.

The only analogy I can come up with is a book.  A book has a first paragraph, and a last paragraph, and several other words and paragraphs and chapters  in between.  As you are reading the book, you are focused in on a particular chapter/paragraph/word of the story (your present moment).  But, the story already exists, in a complete form; the beginning is set, the ending is known, it is sitting there, complete on your desk.  You are just temporarily indexed into a specific section of it.

If you could zoom out and see the book on your desk, you’d know that every word is important to the paragraph, and every paragraph to the chapter, and every chapter to the book.  And, there are all sorts of crazy things happening in all of these chapters, some good, some bad… but they are all part of the overall plot.

We can’t say that any behavior in the present moment is good or bad, because we don’t yet know the whole story.  It could be, that in Chapter 3, it is necessary to reminisce about the past, so as to fill in the back story of the plot so that Chapter 4 makes sense.

The really interesting thing is that this story we are living has an infinite number of endings.  At every moment, every decision we make branches down a different logic path and a different group of possible outcomes is selected.  This is ‘Free Will’ in action.  We’re choosing our path through the story line… but we can’t make a wrong choice.  Every possibility has already been factored in… simply put, some stories will end more happily than others.

So dream of the future, or reminisce about the past, or walk through the beautiful woods and smell the air in the present moment!  But whatever you do, pay attention to the story.  That is all that is important.  Don’t drift off and live life, like it is the TV, playing something in the background that you are not really paying attention to.

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Original Music

The shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made of bamboo.  They are played from the end, rather than transversely as many concert flutes are played.  One blows on a reed carved into the lip in much the same way we used to blow on the lip of soda bottles to make a sound.

The shakuhachi was traditionally played by Zen monks known as komusō or ‘Priests of Nothingness’, as a form of meditation known as suizen – ‘Blowing Zen’.  As with sumi-e painting or Zen calligraphy, the monk is instructed to clear their mind, and let the art flow from the ’emptiness’ which translates into English poorly, as emptiness isn’t empty at all.  Voidness is another word used to describe it, but still it lacks in the translation.  However you imagine it, the idea is to let the art flow into and through you and for you to be a worthy tool in the expression of that art.  You are more the brush than the painter.  Songs from the void, played in this manner, were known as honkyoku — original pieces or original music.

Nowadays, the shakuhachi is played in a variety of forms of music, the blues, modern jazz, folk songs, and yes, even honkyoku.  Back in the 18th century, a monk was commissioned to travel across Japan collecting these original compositions, which formed the basic repertoire for formal shakuhachi schools. Today, students are instructed to learn each piece perfectly; every note, every inflection, to learn to reproduce the music exactly as it was originally played.

This seems to me to be the complete opposite of what the ‘Priests of Nothingness’ were trying to do.

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There is an old zen story about a man, who had to chop wood and carry water, and it was such a burden.  Then, he became Enlightened.  After Enlightenment, he still had to chop wood and carry water… and while he was doing the exact same thing, his perspective was totally different, it wasn’t a burden at all, it was a beautiful part of life.

Whatever we do in life, it doesn’t much matter, it is the state of mind that we do it in, that matters.

The parable means to tell us that physical circumstances may not change all that much for us, on the pathway to Enlightenment, but our perspective may change immeasurably.   I’m not Enlightened, but it seems that I have been the happiest in life, when my circumstances were the simplest, most rudimentary, most basic.

I had a scholarship to attend college, and they gave me all my financial aid at the start of the year.  Invariably, by the time the last quarter rolled around, I had no money left, and could work no more work-study hours for the school.  So, in order to eat, I would sell my blood plasma two or three times a week to the local clinic for $8 a pint.  With that, I’d buy a big bag of rice and some simple vegetables.

To supplement my meager diet, I’d take my Hawaiian sling spear down to the beach and prowl the kelp beds off shore for sea bass or rock cod.  I was a pretty successful hunter.  If I caught more fish than I could eat, I’d feed my friends and roommates, with a promise they’d have me for dinner one night that week as well.  Such simple, honest fare was not only good for the body, but good for the soul too.

Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

I live simply today, but I do not have to chop wood.  Though, I have been gazing adoringly upon these small cast iron wood stoves made just for small boats, but I haven’t taken the plunge yet.

However, I do have to carry water. During winter time, in the North East, they turn the water off to the docks, so that the pipes do not freeze.  My boat has 70 gallons of water storage, divided between two tanks.  I drink and cook with bottled water mostly, and use the water in the tank for washing dishes and cleaning up.  We’re so used to turning a tap and having an infinite supply of water at our finger tips, and so it was a bit of a shock to step on the foot pump to my galley sink and hear the pump coughing up air.

The nearest faucet is in the marina’s laundry room a few hundred yards a way.  So, I drag a five gallon ‘jerry can’ up to the showers with me, and fill it in the laundry room on the way back.  Full, the can weighs a little over 40lbs and gives your finger muscles a good work out.  It would take seven trips to fill one of the tanks, but I’ll only make one or two trips.  Then, monitor how quickly I use it up again.  It causes me to be very mindful of my water consumption!  I figure if I’m conservative, and make one trip a week, I can keep things going.

I don’t think I’m experiencing the sort of bliss with this chore, that Enlightenment would bring.  But it does seem to connect me to a vital, basic part of life, collecting water, that I would otherwise take for granted.

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There are many colorful Zen monks found in history, and one of my favorites is Ikkyū.  Ikkyū was born a bit over 500 years ago, probably the illegitimate son of the Emperor and a low ranking nobel woman.  That offered him at least some privilege and he was sent to a monastery and educated well.  Many monks would simply enjoy a comfortable monastic life, but Ikkyū genuinely wanted to learn ‘the truth’, the dharma.  And so, struck out for other monasteries to find teachers who could instruct him. He spent short periods at various monasteries, but found that they had nothing to teach him.  Finally, he did meet an advanced teacher who he studied with for several years.  Upon that teacher’s death, he struck out again and eventually met another advanced teacher who also taught him.

Ikkyū’s own level of enlightenment had grown, and one day, so legend has it, he heard the call of a crow and it sent him into a satori which earned him his enlightenment certificate.  Now, I suspect that enlightenment certificates are about as valuable as the paper they are written on, but, like a college degree today, it does indicate at least some level of achievement by the student.

Though very highly regarded at the monastery, Ikkyū’s teacher promoted another of his students to be the next head of the temple.  Ikkyū didn’t think much of his teacher’s replacement, regarding him as corrupt and not genuinely interested in Zen, and promptly moved out of the monastery, into the brothel across the street. He said something to the effect that it was nice to be around honest people for a change.  A scandal at the time, he saw no problem with his behavior, considering all things holy, including drinking and enjoying sex (let’s all have a round of applause for Ikkyū, thank-you, thank-you very much!).

He became an artist, renown for his sumi-e painting and calligraphy, a musician and composer for the shakuhachi as well a consummate poet.  There is a book of his poems entitled ‘A Crow with no Mouth’ (presumably the crow that prompted his satori).  Eventually, the head of the monastery where he last studied died (the guy he didn’t like much), and they begged him to come back as its head, which he did.  He soon enacted sweeping new policies to get rid of much of the corruption that had long been entrenched in the monastery.

Late in life, in his 80’s I believe, he fell in love with a blind girl in the village (60 years his junior) named Mori, and they made unabashed love in the fields on the outskirts of town.  Many of the poems he wrote of their intimacies can still make one blush today.  I can only imagine how scandalous they were back then.

Ikkyū is a perfect model of what ‘the truth’ is… it’s honest, it’s real, it’s in, and of, all things and in all experiences.  It doesn’t abide disingenuousness or corruption.  It is found in art, in music and in a loving embrace.

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