This is a Zoom recording of a Dharma Talk given on January 9th, 2021 during zazenka of Northern Lights Sangha in Ontario, Canada.
In this Dharma talk we discuss how returning to the Original Mind is the essence of Zen meditation practice. In the second part of the Dharma talk we look at five necessary conditions we need to cultivate in order to mature our Zen practice. Furthermore, four additional practices are recommended by Shakyamuni Buddha when faced by particular obstacles in meditation practice. Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings are from Chapter 4 of Udana, Meghiya Sutta found in Pali Canon.
This is a recording of Zen Teisho given during Northern Lights Sangha’s Zoom zazenkai on December 5th 2020. In the first part of the Teisho we examine a letter written by Zen master Engo. In the second part, we briefly look back at the past year and the society we live and practice in today.
If any of you are just starting out in your Zen practice and are interested in attending an online Introduction to Zen class, you can write to email@example.com so I can gauge any potential interest in organizing such a class.
For this week’s Dharma offering I am posting another excerpt from my book. In this short peace, our Zen practice makes an appearance in the guise of a donkey.
A Donkey for the Zendo
In the Near East there are many folk tales featuring Nasreddin. They say that he was a simple man. He was so simple that people could not tell if he was a wise man or a village idiot. One of the stories is about how he always walked between two towns leading a donkey. Since there was a border between these towns, at the crossing the border guards were convinced that he must be smuggling something. On the donkey’s back, Nasrudin had tied a pile of dried straw. No matter how thoroughly they searched the straw, the border guards could never find anything valuable. Because they never found any contraband they had to let him pass. Years later, one of the guards went to visit Nasreddin and asked him, “I am retired now, but I’m dying to know. All those years ago, what were you smuggling?” Nasreddin answered, “Donkeys.”
Zen students can be the same as these border guards. I too was that way. We are always looking for something special in our Zen practice. So we tend to miss the obvious. We miss that the essence is right here, not somewhere else. Buddha nature is just this nature. Buddha mind is just this mind. We always search for the truth in the straw. In our case, the straw is a tangle of thoughts and emotions. We don’t recognize the Mind that carries the whole world on its back.
Once we are familiar with the Mind, we cease our fascination with the straw. We become aware of clarity. We come to understand than we have never known anything but clarity even if we failed to recognize it. Even if we may feel we are apart, we accept that we originate in clarity and we inevitably return to clarity. The whole world arrives at our fingertips and nothing is missing.
All the suffering we create comes from not knowing this simplicity. The only appropriate response to our predicament is to laugh. We are abundantly rich, yet due to the nature of our ignorance we have become impoverished. We are free, yet we are afraid of that freedom. Zen meditation practice is staring at the ‘donkey’. We stare at the donkey until we can see nothing but the donkey. The donkey is our vast true self that we always ignore.
Sometimes I think that we should buy an old donkey for the zendo. I could grow carrots for it. People could come by and pet the donkey. If somebody came and asked for some Zen instructions, I would say, “Why don’t you go and pet the donkey?” I think everyone would enjoy practicing in that way.
In petting the donkey, Zen practice would become something beyond the abstract conceptual realities we create for ourselves. Zen students would be forced to ‘get out of their heads’ and understand with their hands. Touching the donkey would become an act of enlightenment. Finally we could appreciate the simplicity of Zen. Zen would become something tactile, something we could feel. In time, instead of imagining Zen practice to be remote, always just beyond our reach, it would become something close at hand. The Zen master would not be an imposing, stern or forbidding presence, but rather just another harmless donkey caretaker.
For this week’s Dharma offering I have posted a recording of last week’s zazenkai’s teisho on youtube. It is a zoom recording so the video and audio quality is not the best. You can watch and listen to it here:
I would like to thank everyone for their kind words and sympathy that was offered to me and my family. In difficult times like this it is easy to recognize that one’s Sangha is the true refuge.
I was asked frequently about my ‘unpublishable’ book. I called it ‘unpublishable’ because it is not really a book but rather a collection of thoughts that has managed to escape from the discipline of Zen practice. This is why this book is titled One Hundred and Eight Confessions. In lieu of the weekly Dharma talk, I have decided to share another selection.
Moonlit Crane Zendo
Not knowing what I was doing, some years ago I opened a zendo. Our zendo is just a small room in an old farmhouse on the edge of civilization where farming was always marginal. Today, the fields surrounding the house are overgrown and the forest is reclaiming them back. In a red plastic flower pot by the garden gate, sometimes a morning glory will bloom. Come springtime, the old, disused barn will be taken over by a pair of ravens and in the big hay field east of the house, cranes will come and dance.
It is pastoral and quiet here. The countryside around the zendo is sparsely populated. In this rural setting you will find hunters and fishermen, lumberjacks and cattle ranchers. They are largely oblivious to the presence of our zendo. We are hidden, while being in plain sight. Neighbors go about their lives, family and friends, work and church on Sundays. When we do come across each other, we always wave and smile.
Sometimes people do come and sit with me – two or three, four or five, never a crowd. When people come, it always feels different from when I meditate alone. When they arrive, they come carrying their burdens, and even though our zendo is very small, there is enough space for all of the guests to leave those burdens behind. In the silence of our zendo, it is easy to let go of unnecessary things. Returning home, they return unburdened. However soon enough, the spaciousness that was found in the zendo fades. The ashes of home-spun life weigh us down. We get entangled in the thicket of our days. Any possibility of practice is lost.
When I first opened the zendo, I did not know that zendos are places where we dump and leave behind our worries. The incense that burns there is the scent of relief. I did not know that the door to the zendo always remains hidden no matter how often one has walked through it in the past. As with our practice, this door has to be re-discovered day by day, week by week, season by season.
A few days ago my father passed away in Belgrade, Serbia and I thought it appropriate to post something to share with our Sangha. My father’s life wasn’t always the easiest one, having lived through two wars. In the second world war, his older brother was taken to a concentration camp and his father was in the partizan resistance while he stayed at home with his mother and took care of the family farm. He was only ten years old.
While my brother and I were growing up he was a respected physician and together with our mother tried and succeeded in giving us a happy childhood. With the coming of the civil war in the 90s Yugoslavia, he lost his job and never fully regained his footing. Last few years his health gradually declined. He passed away at 88, cared for by my mom and my brother.
In place of a regular Dharma talk, I would also like to share an excerpt from my ‘unpublishable’ book. This short piece is called Death.
Autumn is the most beautiful time of the year to depart, with maples and oaks dressed in yellow and red, air pungent with the scent of wet leaves. One stops sweeping, lets go of the rake and reflects back on what once was. A thousand memories rise up and nothing ever seems gone. You let nature carry you now. It is easy to let go and disappear as forests and fields go to sleep. As the day falls quiet, the harmony of autumn evening appears. In the villages and towns, all around, the first lights are coming on but one does not notice, for in the mind the silent gallop of a hundred black horses fly. Thus, we follow along with the geese into the grayness of the autumn sky.
For those who stay behind, the most surprising thing about death is that nothing happens. After we lose someone we love, the days carry on the same as before. The morning sunshine is still warm and the sounds of the calling birds remain the same. You are yet again as alone with your thoughts as you ever were. The only thing that is different is that there is this gaping hole where a loved one used to be. A stark empty hole.
Our memories of the loved one remain fresh. They are imprinted onto the pattern of our days. We see them in everything we touch and yet behind it all, the dark hole hovers silently. No matter how much we try to fill this gaping emptiness with memories or with sadness and despair, it remains just as dark and void. Death is bottomless. And suddenly we face a wall of fear. What once was is not anymore. Shaken and uprooted we have lost our place in life. We are forced to confront the inconceivable.
How one deals with this inconceivable nature of life and death is a personal matter. A zen way is to see this bottomless chasm of grief as a rip in the veil of our ordinary, everyday confusion. Prompted by the loss of our loved one, we yearn for the simplest way of understanding our grief. If we have the courage to directly stare into the rip in the fabric of our ordinary perceptions we can find the limitless space there. This limitless space is the very essence of life and death. To recognize that is to awaken.
On the other hand if we become afraid when confronted by the vastness of death, we miss this singular opportunity. Instead our minds get overwhelmed with grief. In trying to escape our pain, we gorge ourselves on denials and false certainties, resentments, philosophies, religions or food. Over time we become gradually frozen by this encounter with death and our vitality dries up.
However, we do not need an encounter with death to see that everywhere we look is shot through with holes. This reality is all we’ve ever known. The whole world keeps appearing and disappearing unceasingly, like clouds forming and dissolving against the blue sky. Recognizing and accepting this, we release ourselves into solace, peace, true ease of mind and humor. With our grief diminished, we are now able to recall the joys of the loved one’s life we shared. With the melting of our fear we embrace the warmth of life which gives rise to generosity of spirit and gratitude. Thus we remain.
As for those loved ones who are departing with the geese this fall, as trees shed their leaves year after year, the great northern forests will continue to honor you. This unending change of the seasons will always remind us of the sounds of your footsteps. In the end, let a thousand candles light you on your way.
We will be continuing our online Dharma class this Monday September 21st. Last week we discussed awareness and how it relates to meditation and mindfulness practice. This week we will extend that discussion to The Four Immeasurables. If you are interested in attending the class, you get get more information and the Zoom links at our Online Zen page.
If you missed the first class but are interested in attending the second class you can catch up and review the material by listening to it here:
This Monday September 14th, we will be starting a free online Dharma class on Zoom. The class will include meditation and Dharma talks. For more information and to get the Zoom link please check our Online Zen page. I hope everyone had a great summer and I’m wishing you an enjoyable fall. See you all on Zoom.
This week’s Dharma talk is a follow up on last week’s where I discussed the need to orient ourselves toward awakening. In this week’s talk I address two dangers of Kensho, namely getting discouraged if we can’t get any insights or getting complacent if we do. As always it will be available for ninety days from the time of this post. You can listen to it here: