The Importance of Nothing

This week, Zac led our Sangha examining the concept of “nothing to do”.

He played a talk by Gil Fronsdal, available here:

Here are some of Zac’s other notes:

Saṁyutta Nikāya 12:15:
That things exist, O Kaccayana, is one extreme of view. That things do not exist is another. Rejecting both these extremes, the Tathagata points out the Dhamma via the middle.

Buddha is your mind
And the Way goes nowhere.
Don’t look for anything but this.
If you point your cart north
When you want to go south,
How will you arrive?
– Ryokan (1758–1831)

Do Nothing | Shinzen (see p. 40 in Five Ways)

Basic Instructions:
Let whatever happens, happen.
Whenever you’re aware of an intention to control your attention, drop that intention.

Free and Easy

A Spontaneous Vajra Song
-By Venerable Lama Gendun Rinpoche

Happiness can not be found
through great effort and willpower,
but is already present,
in open relaxation and letting go.

Don’t strain yourself,
there is nothing to do or undo.
Whatever momentarily arises
in the body-mind
has no real importance at all,
has little reality whatsoever.
Why identify with,
and become attached to it,
passing judgment upon it and ourselves?

Far better to simply
let the entire game happen on its own,
springing up and falling back like waves
without changing or manipulating anything
and notice how everything vanishes and reappears, magically,
again and again, time without end.

Only our searching for happiness
prevents us from seeing it.
It’s like a vivid rainbow which you pursue
without ever catching,
or a dog chasing its own tail.

Although peace and happiness
do not exist as an actual thing or place,
it is always available
and accompanies you every instant.

Don’t believe in the reality of good and bad experiences;
they are like today’s ephemeral weather,
like rainbows in the sky.

Wanting to grasp the ungraspable,
you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you open and relax
this tight fist of grasping,
infinite space is there –
open, inviting and comfortable.

Make use of this spaciousness,
this freedom and natural ease.
Don’t search any further
looking for the great awakened elephant,
who is already resting quietly at home
in front of your own hearth.

Nothing to do or undo,
nothing to force,
nothing to want,
and nothing missing –

Emaho! Marvelous!
Everything happens by itself.

“Simple Gifts”
written by Elder Joseph while he was at the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Simple Gifts – Yo-Yo Ma and Alison Krauss

Original Face

This week, Payton took a different look at the concept of not-self which we have been discussing by considering the classic Zen koan, “Original Face”. It is first presented in the Platform Sutta,

This very moment, before thinking good or bad, show me your original face.

Payton began with excerpts from a talk by Max Erdstein, available here:

The talk explored the meaning of a poem by Dogen with the same title:

Spring, Flowers
Summer, the Cuckoos
Autumn, the Moon
Winter, Snow that does not melt
Each season, pure and upright
– Dogen, “Original Face”

Then Payton played excerpts from a talk by Stephen Batchelor, available here:

Stephen looks at the Koan from a more practical perspective, pointing out that in the original version of the Four Noble Truths, the words “noble truths” were not present, leaving just “The Four”. Or, as the talk suggests, “The Four Noble Tasks”.

Further Reading

This is also the essence of Dogen’s koan, “Why is practice necessary if we are already innately enlightened?” He had his reasons for asking it that way, and I had my reasons for asking it my way, but it all boils down to that one thing – we’re already there, and yet practice is necessary. He solved it when he realized that practice is how we express it.

Examine your own life and look deeply at the questions and conflicts that bug you – the ones that really get you. Look at them very carefully. Then clear away irritation and opinion – “I don’t like this,” “That shouldn’t be” – let all that drop away. This doesn’t mean you surrender to what you think is wrong, but you sit still with it and drop all the extra baggage. Be very still and let the underlying question arise. Then you sit still with that until you come to the one wordless question. The answer to that cannot be put into words, you simply open to it. Just like you can’t tell a paraplegic how to accept his situation – but someone can demonstrate it. That’s what it’s like.

Transcript of a Dharma Talk by Kyogen Carlson:

Somatic Meditation

Last week our focus was on Anatta/non-self. This week Joey built on that topic, drawing from a tradition of somatic meditation developed by Reggie Ray and articulated in a dharma talk by Adam Baraz. The talk includes exercises in somatic meditation that allow for a sense of expansion and spaciousness beyond the tight ‘selfing’ many of us get caught in.

Adam’s talk (labeled with his father’s name) is here:

The books which Joey read from are:

Reginald Ray, PhD. Touching Enligthenment: Finding Realization in the Body. pp. 198; 223-226, 237-238.

Will Johnson. The Posture of Meditation. p. 17-18.

And here is the poem that was read:

Free & Easy by Lama Gendun:

Happiness cannot be found through great effort and willpower
But is already present in open relaxation and letting go.
Wanting to grasp the ungraspable, you exhaust yourself in vain.
As soon as you open and relax this tight fist of grasping
Infinite space is there: open, inviting and comfortable.
Make use of this spaciousness, this freedom, this natural ease.
Don’t search any further, looking for the great awakened elephant
who is already resting quietly at home in front of your own hearth.

Finally, here is an additional resource on Somatic Meditation:

Non-self: Buddha’s Second Discourse

This past week, Sam guided the Sangha’s discussions. We listened to a talk by Joseph Goldstein, as well as one of his guided meditations, on the Buddha’s second discourse. In particular, we considered how dukkha arises as a consequence of identification with the body and with consciousness.

“Dukkha and Non-Self” by Joseph Goldstein,  2/9/18, IMS retreat The Path to Awakening,  49:07-1:17:30,

“Cutting through the identification with consciousness, the knowing mind” by Joseph Goldstein,  2/10/18, IMS retreat The Path to Awakening,  0:00-15:25

He also provided the pithy quote:

“We are here and it is now. Further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.”

― H.L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy

Vedana – Warm Hearted Insight

This Sunday, Patrick guided our reflections, exploring how awareness of feeling tone (pleasant, unpleasant, or neither; called vedana in Pali) can help cultivate a warm heart and a greater internal awareness. A short talk by Gil Fronsdal helped to illuminate this understanding of both worldly and spiritual feeling tones, and the benefits of distinguishing between them.

Gil’s talk is available here:

The Way of Tenderness

This past Sunday, Mike Blouin led our reflections, continuing to explore other dimensions of the relationship between engaged buddhism and personal practice. Sharing his own perspectives as well as drawing from “The Way of Tenderness” by Zen priest Zenju Earthly Manuel, who brings her own experiences as a lesbian black woman into conversation with Buddhism to square our ultimately empty nature with superficial perspectives of everyday life, Mike extended the range of our reflections over the past several weeks.

The book is available through here:

Below are some excerpts from the book.

Excerpts from: The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

On Oneness:

Inclusiveness underlies oneness. Being aware of the multiplicity in oneness requires that we recognize the collective nature of our lives. It is crucial that we see the variety of lived experiences within oneness in order to see who we really are as living beings. We have mistaken our sameness for being human. Our sameness stems from the fact that we share the same life-source as a flower or a bee. But we are nonetheless inherently different in form. When we speak of race, sexuality, and gender – when we speak of our embodiment – we speak of all of us, not just “those people” over there (pp. 39 -40).

When we see multiplicity as the varied expressions of nature we are better able to understand that all living beings on the planet exist within oneness. To say that all living beings exist within inherent oneness is to say more than ‘we are all one’ or that ‘we are all in this troubled world together.’ It isn’t as if we are all different but contained in some larger encompassing vessel. We are not like passengers inside a leaky boat. Oneness existed before us and before the troubled world. Nothing can leak into or submerge oneness. It can’t be possessed – it is not ‘our’ oneness. See the multiplicity of oneness means to acknowledge that there is an innate nonhistorical experience of oneness that we have no control over. It is ungraspable. We are not one. Oneness is itself and we are within it.

When we try to manipulate the nature of our oneness into a flat, one-dimensional sameness, we choose to ignore the concurrent multiplicity of nature. The sameness of being one does not erase difference. We need not make a union of sameness and difference, for they are already perfect – two aspects of the single dynamic relationship that is the nature of life. When we look out onto the garden and see curly willow trees, roses, succulents, collard greens, and plum blossoms, we are witnessing oneness. We don’t have the power to create it (p. 54 – 55)

On the Body as Nature:

Everything we experience is because of the body. The body mediates our lives. We work to preserve the body even though we know we will eventually lose it. Our identities slip from one birth to the next. From birth to birth we end up embodying humanity. Yet we are often advised to let go of identifying with our personal embodiments for the sake of enlightenment.

In the face of such guidance, some find more reasons to hold on to identity and others try to detach from the body. Our personal experiences as straight people, as brown people, as men, as women, as non-men, non-women, may grow more intense. Or, on the detachment end of the spectrum, we may become too aloof and lose sight of everything and everyone around us. There is still attachment to experience even in the act of being aloof. When we detach we suppose there is something to detach from. Who or what is it that is attached to or detaches from embodiment. Identity is what we are struggling with (p. 94).

Granted choosing not to drop identity is a departure from the view that identity is an obstacle to awakening. We are departing from requiring others to drop the labels and categories of race, sexuality, and gender, as this would end discussion of such identities. Identity is not taboo. I am not speaking of identity as a source of suffering, of illness, or that which proves the existence of pain; rather I am speaking of identity as a source of both personal and social awakening. I am not speaking of identity in the way it has been used to divide; rather I am speaking of a clear and undistorted identity that exists as a part of nature. I am speaking of identity that has its source in nature and not the mind.

This type of identity resides naturally within us, just as the identity of a tree resides with it. The tree doesn’t need to detach itself from being a tree to end its suffering. It is a tree in the midst of all things. If we add to the tree’s identity, superimposing inferiority or superiority on it with our minds, then we would be distorting its identity and our actions would be based on a distorted appreciation of the tree (p. 102).

To simply say ‘We are not our bodies’ is to flatten and eliminate all of the nuance that appears in teachings like the Satipatthana Sutta, which teaches mindfulness of the body. The body, it says, is comprised of the five skhandas, or aggregates: the physical body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness (the five senses and thought). We are our bodies from the perspective of these conditions.

However, each of these aggregate conditions depends on the others and is interrelated to all things. So the meaning of the saying ‘We are not our bodies’ is that we are not a singular entity but an aggregate that exists in interrelationship. ‘Not our bodies’ means that our bodies are not ours alone, free from being conditioned by the existence of others. In fact we are in dynamic relationship with all that lives with all bodies (p. 107).

Social Transformation – part 2

This week Jeffrey continued our investigation of racism and buddhism with a review of basic concepts and definitions about racism. This was followed by a discussion of how the self is constructed by both social elements, e.g, racial identity, and personal experiences, e.g., experiences in our families. All of these elements are similarly conditioned and contribute to the illusion of “I” as a self, thus there really is no substantial dichotomy of “personal transformation” and “social transformation.”

See last week’s talk for more resources: