Friday, July 22, 2011

Blood pressure, protection, and the Buddha’s robe

Back in the late seventies, when I was travelling with Baba Muktananda, it was customary for the devotees to ask for a “spiritual name.”  Initially Baba would come up with a name on the spot as the person kneeled before him, but as the crowds got too large, he handed the person a card with a name on it.  Although the process seemed impersonal to me, I nevertheless asked for a name.  Baba read the card, said “Ahhh,” and handed it to me.  My name was Rakshā, meaning “protection.”

Within that tradition the Guru is seen as one who protects the devotee.  And “mantra” means “that which protects the mind” – which is pretty cool actually.

Now that I no longer practice that yoga, and I practice Zen, I take refuge and protection in the Buddha, the dharma [the teachings], and the sangha [the community of practitioners].  I especially like to visualize the buddha robe, the “okesa” that is worn over the shoulder of a Buddhist priest or monk, as a sacred object.  Being [probably over the top] devotional, I love to imagine bowing to my teacher’s okesa.

The last few days I have been freaked out over my blood pressure.  Every time I see the insouciant expression “meditation lowers blood pressure,” I think, “Yeah, right.”  I meditate daily, but my blood pressure is all over the map.  For the last week or so, my blood pressure readings have been really high, at around 160/115.  Are these real numbers? I had developed so much anxiety around this that I couldn’t get a real blood pressure measurement because I was so anxious.

So I sat in the nurse’s office.  She took my pressure – 155/109 – and told me to relax.  She said that she would return later and would take it again.  I don’t think you can tell someone to relax. But I imagined an okesa.  I imagined being enveloped in the protection of the okesa.  Minute after minute, I took refuge in the okesa. When she returned my blood pressure had dropped to 130/85!

There is a mystery here concerning the nature of protection, devotion, and faith.  I think that no matter what the object of devotion – the guru, the Holy Mother, or an okesa – the important thing is the devotional act of seeking refuge or protection with all your heart. 

It is open-ended prayer, devotion, and faith.  Faith in “…” with no predicate.  Praying for protection – as an act independent of the object of devotion – is that which protects.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Dogen's Cypress Tree


“Why did Bodhidharma come from the west” is studied by all the buddhas,
but cannot be answered by the buddhas.

What object could ever answer my question?
What intention, what thought?
One cannot say “This is it.”

And yet old master Zhaozhou points to the cypress tree in the garden.

The monk is unsatisfied, saying “don’t show this person an object,”
but he is not admonished, because he, his question, the master,
and the cypress tree are all echoes from emptiness.

We do not make a pilgrimage to an ancestral shrine.
We bury the shrine and study this together.


“The cypress tree becomes a buddha
when space falls to the ground,
and space falls to the ground,
when the cypress tree becomes a buddha.”

This is not a matter of mutual dependence
or circular thinking.
This is not a matter of time or space
or becoming.
This is not a matter of “once it wasn’t but now it is.”

A cypress tree does not practice to become what it is.
Buddha nature is not a seed within the cypress tree
that one day will be expressed when the time is right.

And yet, old master Zhaouzhou sees the space that exceeds
a hundred thousand claps of thunder
and a time not yet measured,
where we become buddhas together.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Yanguan’s “Rhinoceros Fan”

One day Yanguan called to his attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros fan.”
The attendant said, “The fan is broken.”
Yanguan said, “If the fan is broken, then bring me the rhinoceros [buddha-nature].”
The attendant had no reply.
Zifu drew a circle and wrote the word ‘rhino’ inside it.

For many, many years, whenever I heard someone say that “Everything is perfect,” it used to really piss me off.  Obviously everything is not perfect: there is suffering and starvation and molestation and war and the ongoing destruction of our planet.

So I was really interested in my negative reaction to my teacher’s commentary on this koan, in which he said that “Everything is already broken,” because it has occurred to me lately that everything – in a way – is actually perfect. 

Often meditation instructions include visualizing one’s thoughts as clouds coming and going against an infinite, blue sky.  And, actually, thoughts are like clouds.  They are instantaneous neurochemical connections.  They have no innate, substantial being.  They are events, not things.

Other than frank, physical pain, how could we find the location of “thing-ness” or suffering or brokenness? There has been, of course, suffering in each of our lives, but where is it now?  Now – in this moment – it is just an idea, insubstantial, changing, and, in a sense, unreal.

Yesterday I went to our zendo in Pacifica.  The morning was bright and full of birdsong.
I sat and composed this little verse:

On this radiantly beautiful morning,
Sitting in the cool zendo,
I simply cannot find brokenness.

So just as the attendant in the rhinoceros fan koan could not bring the broken fan, maybe we cannot “bring” our brokenness into this instant moment.

Wow!  What joy and freedom in that!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Nothing Holy

In case two in the Book of Serenity, Emperor Wu asks Great Teacher Bodhidharma,
“What is the meaning of the holy truths?”
Bodhidharma said, “Empty – there is no holy.”
The emperor said, “Who are you facing me?”
Bodhidharma said, “Don’t know.”
The emperor did not understand, and Bodhidharma went to Shaolin, where he faced a wall [did zazen] for nine years.

Now that I am retired and my life has opened up spacious time, I consider what I am doing.  I want everything “to count” in some way.  I have been considering doing nothing.  What would happen if I just stopped?  If I just sat zazen or just sat in my chair all day gazing at the ocean?  I think that if I dropped all my projects and just sat, maybe something new would unfold and reveal itself to me.  So I decided to try to do this.

So far I have not been able to sit for very long, but I have my justifications: I have to floss, shop, cook, sleep, eat.  So I will put these activities in the category of “I have to do this, so it doesn’t count against my objective of doing nothing.”

Then there are some work related activities that I have to do and want to do:  study math for my upcoming tutoring classes; do work for Everyday Zen.  So that doesn’t mean I have made some kind of detour from doing nothing, because it is “important” work.

I am sitting (on and off the cushion) about three hours a day.  So that constitutes the holy.  Zazen – facing the wall on my cushion – qualifies as meaningful activity.

But my puppy reminded me that “there is no holy.”  She deposited a neat, discrete turd on top of my meditation cushion.  Thank you puppy!!

So, while some activities seem more holy, more meaningful, this may not be the case.  Maybe everything is holy, and, therefore, nothing is (separately) holy.  But still, it seems to me that I could perform all actions with the attitude that everything is holy.

Maybe this is possible.  Maybe not.