What is Zen?

BodhidharmabyYoshitoshi1887Some forms of Buddhism center on monastic practice, or other aspects of the Buddha’s teachings, but Zen centers on meditation and mindfulness. It is a word that comes to us from the word Dhyana, which is Sanskrit for meditation. When Bodhidharma* brought Buddhist meditation from India to China around 527 AD, the word dhyana  was translated by the local Chinese to ch’an. From China, Buddhist meditation spread to Korea and Japan, where ch’an was pronounced by the locals as son and zen, respectively. Blame the habits of the human tongue and palate, then, for the exotics, because the word zen simply means meditation.

However, there are implications to the word. Consider the Buddha himself, with his exquisite Flower Sermon, understood only by his disciple Mahākāśyapa.  Ananda was the Buddha’s cousin and principle attendant, and stood out for his retentive memory. Ananda wrote down all the teachings he heard,  passing on the Sūtra Piṭaka (The sayings and discourses of the Buddha, plus poetry) part of the Pali Canon, the earliest written form of the Buddha’s Teachings. But Ananda, who was known for being well-liked, was not the most realized of the Buddha’s disciples.

It is  Mahākāśyapa, the one who understood the wordless teaching of the Flower Sermon,  that inherited the dhyana meditation lineage. When we read the lineage chant at evening service, we are, ideally, reading a list of unbroken telepathically transmitted enlightenment.

When a person consciously holding the Buddha’s transmission is leading a retreat, offering a Mondo session,  conducting an interview, or walking down the street and greeting people, (s)he transmits more than just words or instruction. There is both exoteric transmission, and esoteric transmission underway. It is a face-to-face transmission, best understood by the idea of one candle lighting another.

In this way, meditation, and various understandings and other transmissions of dharma (which basically refers to fundamental mechanics of nature and the universe, often briefly defined as ‘truth’) are passed on from teacher to student, down the line of time. From Bodhidharma’s Chinese lineage, it was Nampo Shomyo Zenji (Chanshi, Zenji, see the pattern?) who brought the Buddha’s transmission to Japan. And from Japan, it is Junpo Kelly Roshi, my Zen Master, that has transformed this living tradition into a more palatable vehicle, leaving out the racism, misogyny, rigidity and any non-inclusive and unnecessary traits, and refocusing the order on meditation: the Buddha’s dhyana, or zen.

So that’s zen – basically a huge, psychic game of telephone from around 500 B.C. Pretty cool, huh?

*Bodhidharma is known to my order as Pu Ti Ta Mo Chanshi, the 29th Zen Master in our Hollow Bones Rinzai Zen Lineage.


Is your spirituality Maverick or Custodial?


What does ‘jihad’ mean? Test your Muslim IQ

With so-called terrorism in the news daily, it’s important to be educated about Islam, rather than simply terrified by a bogey monster named ‘Muslims’. Let’s start with what the recent attacks in the USA, Germany and France aren‘t. Jihad, which we’ve come to understand in the West as the ‘holy war’ championed by Muslim terrorists, actually means ‘struggle.’ Although it fills many of us with alarm, dismay and judgment about the religion, jihad is intended to improve oneself and society as a fundamental religious duty.

The word ‘Allah’ or ‘God’, written in Arabic outside the floating mosque in Thailand’s Andaman Sea.

There are four major categories of Jihad: jihad against one’s self, jihad of the tongue, jihad of the hand, and jihad of the sword. There is a source text that quotes Mohammad the Prophet referring to Jihad against oneself as the ‘greater jihad’, with all other external forms being ‘lesser’. The practice of ‘inner jihad’ is one of the most universally applicable teachings of Islam.

Imagine how much pain and suffering in the world that could be alleviated if we went to war with our lower natures, instead of with each other.We all struggle with ourselves every day – we are our own most worthy opponents, and often our own worst enemy. It is easy to project our issues onto the external world, and to blame others for our misery, suffering, and problems. But in truth, if we learn to take responsibility for everything that happens to us, we will mature more quickly as spiritual beings.
Hate has never yet dispelled hate. If you don’t believe me, read the Christ’s words, or the Buddha’s. Only love dispels hate. This is the truth, ancient and inexhaustible. Adults have at least 12 sub-personalities. It takes a village of subpersonalities to raise an inner child. That is struggle enough, for a lifetime. There is no need to quarrel with the multitudes within others. When we hurt others with righteous justification or vengeance to accomplish an external victory, the ‘victory’ is an empty one. When the external oppressor is gone, the internal oppressor remains. Wherever we go, there we are.On the other hand, when we conquer ourselves, we become more pure, more enlightened and more free. We are able then to inspire others, and to cause external change from a much more powerful position – by our own example. People resent externally imposed change, but when change is inspired to come from within, it sticks.
Transformation of self and struggle against one’s ego and one’s lower nature is truly the noblest form of jihad. If we are going to practice religions, we should be sure we are practicing them for ourselves, and not for anyone else, else, it is moral hypocrisy. If anyone is out there counting sins, you can be sure that the weight of the heart will determine the fate of the spirit.

Lost In Translation: Mono [theism]

AkhenatonHistory recap: Although there are oral traditions older than the Sumerian Epics, (Dogons, Gobleki Tepi) the earliest written records demonstrating religious beliefs start with the Sumerians, whose creation myths and epics were written on tablets.The founding of Ur in Mesopotamia (in present-day Iraq) and the advent of proto-writing around 4000 BC, were the glory days of the region. The gods and goddesses of the Sumerian epics, Enki, Enlil, Ninhursag, Innana, Erishkigal, and Anu, among them, were a badly-behaved lot with colorful myths surrounding their exploits of various geographic areas and their quarrels with each other.

By 2100 BC, the Mespotamiam religion was widespread throughout what is now the Middle-East. Babylon carried on the traditions of Mesopotamia, with its own particular changes. Sumerian Innana (ca. 4500 BC) became the Babylonian Ishtar (ca. 3500 BC) , and the Egyptian Isis ( ca. 4000BC), for example. The Mesopotamian religion of many gods and goddesses did not die out in the region until Christianity took over (@ 100 CE.)