Zen Talk: The Mundanity of Zen is the Essence of Its Profundity

“Zen is not some kind of excitement, but merely concentration on our usual everyday routine.” – Shunkyu Suzuki

I think that’s a point that people miss a great deal. Zen is existing in the present by having control over our minds. It’s not some exciting, shining AHHHHHHH that endures at every moment overpowering all that is. Zen is existence in the moment, or as Suzuki puts it, “concentration on our usual everyday routine.” Most of us are thinking of other things as we shower in the morning, brew our coffee and travel to work. We are planning, daydreaming, dwelling on yesterday or lord knows what else.

Zen is not doing all of those things with a feeling of blessed majesty surrounding us. Zen is doing each of those things with complete awareness of what we are doing and total existence in the moment. Zen is taking the shower and feeling the hot water as it courses over our bodies. Zen is smelling the coffee brewing and basking in its aroma. Zen is seeing all that passes us as we make our way to work. Zen is not being distracted by the constant running of our minds but existing in the constant presence of the moment.

Practice mindfulness and being present. Enjoy your life in each moment as it happens. Don’t constantly plan for the future and dwell in the past. Live moment to moment. That is, in essence, living.

What do you think about this quote? What does it make you think?

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Zen Talk: Getting What We Need to Get What We Need

“When you are deluded and full of doubt, even a thousand books of scripture are not enough. When you have realized understanding, even one word is too much.” – Fen-Yang

I love the extremes provided in this quote, considering that it comes from a religion and school of thought so steeped in moderation. But in essence, isn’t it telling us the value of moderation?

In the first place, these aren’t extremes. They are steps one shy of extremes. That is, when a thousand books of scripture are not enough, we have not reached the extreme we desire. Will more do it? Similarly, when we have achieved understanding, one word is too much, but the extreme – not a single word – is that actually going to be the right path?

In short, no words and all the words are never the solutions because in a certain mental state, neither has the value we need it to have. Scripture is always there, but understanding is not about the scripture. It is about us – what is within us. When we are deluded and full of doubt we have nothing, but when we understand we need nothing. But we always know something in either state and can’t forget to separate the two – knowledge and understanding – in order to achieve the latter and appreciate the former.

When we have buried ourselves in our books of faith and still struggle, it is important to remember that the struggle is within us and not about the knowledge and the book and the faith and the scripture. Likewise, when we have achieved understanding with calm and certitude we cannot neglect that which now has value to offer us because we are not looking to it for things that are not about it. We have looked to ourselves and found what we needed.

What do you think about this quote? What does it make you think about?

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Zen Talk: The Power of Quieting Your Mind

“To a mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” – Chuang-tzu

This is the essence of mindfulness – of becoming aware of our thoughts so much that we can stop them, see beyond them and into what is actually going on in the world because we have ceased to concern ourselves with the overwhelming distraction of the self. Oh, to achieve that.

Our minds are so loud, clambering always. When is your mind not prattling on inside your head? It’s constantly mulling over the days events, questioning our actions, decisions and judgments, planning for the future, calculating and scheming, asking questions and providing answers. And is there anything wrong with that? No, that’s natural.

The problem is when we let our thoughts get the best of us, repeating themselves again and again, rehashing the same issues and conversations to the point that we prevent ourselves from living in the present moment, from seeing the world around us.

And how do we calm our minds, silence and still them? Mindfulness, of course, which I’ve discussed in past Zen Talk posts. We must become aware of each of our thoughts and only with our awareness will we begin to control and calm them. And then, as Chuang-tzu tells us, the rest of what the universe has to offer will be opened to us. The universe, as it were, will surrender itself to us.

What do you think about this quote? How do you practice mindfulness?

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Zen Talk: This Just Resonated In My Head And I Had to Share It

“It is everywhere.” – Chuang-tzu

I don’t know what it is about these three words, but when I read them they just stuck with me. It. What is “it?” The obvious answer is Zen or the Tao or for others, God, but then you start thinking about what “it” could be to so many different people and it becomes never-ending.

Who knows what it is? When I first read this I didn’t assign anything to it. I just read the words again and stopped. It is everywhere. Is the “it” important? Somehow I think less so – less than knowing the characteristic of it: that it is everywhere.

There’s something so satisfying about these three words in this order:

It – is – everywhere.

What do you think about this? What does it make you think about?

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Zen Talk: Everyone Must Take His or Her Own Path

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought.” – Basho

What a great message. Many people think they should follow in the footsteps of giants, as it were, taking the path that they took in order to, presumably, arrive at the same end. Basho, however, has challenged this notion by telling us that we should only be seeking the end that great men sought and not attempting to follow their paths to get there.

I take this to mean that what they accomplished (presumably, enlightenment, but perhaps also any other form of higher knowledge) was wonderful, worthy of our admiration and of attempting to achieve ourselves, but that each of us has a unique path by which we must get there. It’s a very personal journey.

For instance, when I want to go to Frankfurt from San Francisco, there are a few paths I can take (most easily by plane) and everyone who takes that journey goes on one of them. Seek Frankfurt – take the standard path. Accomplishing what great men did – achieving enlightenment – is not about taking their path, however, though we’re going to the same point: an achievement of greatness.

We must find our own way there, because each of us has his/her own problems and issues and blinders that must be conquered and overcome. We cannot presume that the path will be the same as others took or else we would not be our own person. So, in seeking ends that others have, don’t follow their path. Make your own. That’s how life is lived and the sought after ends reached.

What do you think about this quote? What does it make you think?

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“Cherokee Hair Tampons” and Miss Information Teach about Western Fetishization of the East

I absolutely love this episode. At first, I wasn’t entirely keen on it, but after realizing the extent to which it was illuminating western misconceptions about eastern culture and religion, I couldn’t help but love it.

Note that the stupid, hippie, holistic moron named Miss Information is actually “misinformation.” It seems obvious but it’s amazing how many times you can watch the episode before getting that….

Is this whole episode to say that there is no value in holistic medicine? No, but it is to say that many westerners don’t really get what they’re talking about when they refer to it and they conflate ideas like “spiritual” and “natural” with “eastern” and in this case, Native Americans!

We greatly oversimplify these traditions and assume that Indians (corn Indians, not rice Indians) have some magical powers that the rest of us don’t and that they’re in touch with things spiritual and natural and the earth and blah blah blah. We assume that their religions are all nature and so simplistic, but they are, like other religions with which we are familiar, quite complex. They include rituals, beliefs and traditions far more complicated than we give them credit for because we like to fetishize them and make them into something that we can idolize for what we consider ourselves and our religions not to be.

This misguided and unhealthy approach leads to misconceptions about Native American and eastern religions and slights them rather than honoring them, as we assume. Miss Information encapsulates that element of American society and reminds us that we shouldn’t be self-righteous hippie douches when it comes to other cultures that we just don’t understand. There are many ways to learn more, but hers is not one of them.

What did you think of this episode? What do you think of holistic medicine? What do you think of eastern religions and western fetishization of them?

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Religion in the News: The Olympics Opening Ceremonies and the World’s Arrival in China

As most of you probably know and as many of you likely watched, last night the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympic Games took place in the Beijing stadium known as the Bird’s Nest. I don’t know if you watched it, but I must say that from the bottom of my heart it was truly a spectacular event.

I cut it off shortly after the U.S. team marched (I was tired), and so I didn’t see the official opening words of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao or the words of the head of the IOC. Honestly, I would have liked to, but oh well. What I cared most about was the presentation by Zhang Yimou, an unbelievable display of Chinese history. It was one of the most sensational performances I have ever seen.

Symbolism and Performance

As many of my loyal readers will know, I love history and religion, and this performance was a masterpiece encapsulating both of those elements. Plus, the symbolism was fantastic. Many may not know the importance of the number 8 to the Chinese but the word 8 is ba, and an incredibly similar word means prosper and wealth. The Chinese pay more money to live on the 8th floor of buildings and in apartments with 8 in the number. Two 8s together (88) means double joy and happiness. The telephone number 888-8888 was sold for $270,723 in China, if that gives you any idea. What’s my point? That 8-8-08 being the opening ceremonies of the Olympics is no laughing matter or accident. Moreover, 2008 performers were in each different piece of the ceremony.

Chinese Religion and History

Westerners often fetishize eastern religions, particularly Buddhism but also Taoism. Though I’m guilty as well, I’m also slightly troubled by the fact, and thought that these ceremonies were an excellent way of the Chinese demonstrating that their religions, history and traditions have more depth than we tend to understand. Of course, it doesn’t help these ideas to try to sum up Chinese history in a few hours of performance pieces, but it was nonetheless truly a sight to behold.

Chinese characters of harmony were displayed in the most fabulous ways, calligraphy and painting were done by dancing men on an enormous moving canvas, and Tai Chi, the ancient art of body movement to enhance the flow of the chi was performed for the entire world in amazing ways. 2008 dancers in green outfits that lit up created an enormous flying dove with their bodies.

My description, as I look back, is a smack in the face of this amazing performance. Truly, you should go watch it online. The incorporation of Taoist and Buddhist thought and symbolism into multiple performance pieces designed to display China’s proud history was remarkable and makes me excited for what’s to come.

Idealistic Hopes for the Future

Those who know me may think I’m an idealist, and so might you after this next paragraph. I hope that these Olympic Games are a new beginning for China. Much of the symbolism of the performance was about opening China up to the world and welcoming it with harmony. The Great Wall was created and then replaced with flowers that symbolize this transformation.

It is my hope that this is the beginning of China relaxing its strict policies about protest, becoming more democratic, and doing the right things internationally (Taiwan, Tibet, etc.). I’m not suggesting that the day the Olympics is over all will change and be well, but I do hope that when we look back in 20 or 30 years, we look at this event – this opening of China to the world for the Olympics – just as we look at ping pong diplomacy and Nixon’s visit today. Well, even better than that.

Yes, it’s idealistic, but China is a growing powerhouse and one to be reckoned with, and I only hope that this event marks a visible turning point in its history when it realizes the value of being a part of the world order and some of the democratic values that go along with that.

What do you think? Did you see the ceremonies? What was your favorite part? What do you think about China and the future in light of these Olympic games?

Don’t forget to tune in tomorrow for Zen Talk. To check out last week’s Zen Talk, click HERE. To check out last week’s Religion in the News article, click HERE.