Luckily, being heartbroken is a perfect opportunity to practice the dharma. Good news for those of us with achy breaky hearts. But why? Because you have already had the rug pulled out from under you. You have already experienced a great loss. You know what it is to walk in groundlessness, with so much stripped away. In this state, you are open to something new. How about the Heart Sutra, the great Buddhist teaching on compassion?
The Heart Sutra doesn't seem like an antidote to a broken heart at first. There are no, ahem, warm fuzzies here. No consolation, no reassurance, no nothing! In fact, the primary word in the Heart Sutra is the word "No"! Many Zen student's say they don't like the Heart Sutra. "It's too negative."
The Heart Sutra is a concise and shocking teaching directly from Avalokiteshvara, the gender fluid bodhisattva compassion. This courageous warrior, also known as Quan yin and Kanzeon, expresses their experience of the highest teaching of the Buddha in this sutra. Their insight was not based on intellect but came through their practice and life experience.
Then one of the principal disciples of the Buddha, a monk named Shariputra, began to question Avalokiteshvara. This is an important point. Even though a great bodhisattva was teaching, the profound meaning emerged only through questioning. Nothing is taken on blind faith.
Avalokiteshvara answered with the most famous of Buddhist paradoxes: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form.” When I first heard this, I had no idea what it was talking about. It just made no sense, and my mind drew a blank. The sutra, like life itself, is inexpressible, indescribable, inconceivable.
What is this emptiness, anyway? It's not vacancy, or nihilistic nothingness. Rather, it points toward the fact that nothing has a permanent form, but rather is in a process of becoming and falling away. So the "emptiness" in Buddhism is our lack of permanent and separate existence. We are interdependent, and we are becoming, anything is possible.
When we perceive the experiences of our lives as empty, without any barriers or veils, we understand the perfection of things just as they are. So when Avalokiteshvara says, “Form is emptiness,” they're referring to this simple direct relationship with the immediacy of experience—direct contact with heartbreak; with love and hate. We go beyond our story of right and wrong, of blame or grievance. We keep pulling out our own rug. When we perceive form as empty, without any barriers or veils, we understand the perfection of things just as they are. One could become addicted to this experience. It could give us a sense of freedom from the dubiousness of our emotions and the illusion that we could dangle above the messiness of our lives.
But “emptiness is form” turns the tables. Emptiness continually manifests as war and peace, as heartbreak, as birth, old age, sickness, and death, as well as joy. We are challenged to stay in touch with the heart-throbbing quality of being alive. That's where practice comes in, meditation and study. If you'd like to join a small group studying the Heart Sutra, join us here!
I'm just back from the annual meeting of the Lay Zen Teacher's Association in Joshua Tree, CA. What a wonderful, warm-hearted and deep-spirited group of humans! The meeting was truly special, and I learned more than I can possibly capture here. Much of that learning happened casually, in conversations over meals, in watching the practices of others, and seeing the ways we are different (and similar). I came away deeply encouraged about the future of the dharma and the many ways it is illuminated.
The meeting kicked off with a presentation by Ryodo Hawley of ZCLA on "The Threes of Zen." He talked about a workshop he has offered to give people an overview of what happens in Zen practice, how our attention can move from our habits and opinions, to a more observational stance, through simple presence, then on to inquiry and bodhisattva action. His model is elegant, and we found ourselves referring to it often as the conference went on.
Next I offered a training in "Meditation and Trauma." I taught the group about how trauma impacts the brain, and how that can show up in meditation practice. I sought to help each participant become a trauma-informed Zen teacher, able to work with people whose trauma may be activated with kindness and skill. The feedback on the workshop was really positive, and many people reflected on the sometimes subtle ways trauma can show up in spiritual work--including for teachers.
The next two days included many wonderful panels and break-out groups. I learned about sangha leadership, the council process of group communication, working with aging and dementia in the sangha, Zen and social justice, and talking about whiteness. I offered a session called "Koan Innovation," in which we talked about creative ways to bring koan work to groups. We also had some ceremony, and people from different sanghas took turns leading morning meditation and service.
Oh, and we had some fun! (Zen charades, anyone?) The lunar eclipse was marvelous and clear in the dark desert sky. Some of us went to a local hangout for dinner and a beer, and we also went hiking in Joshua Tree National Park (yes, it was open and free, no trash to be found!) What stands out the most is the utter kindness and lack of pretense of the people there. LZTA has become like a family to me, and I plan to return as often as I can.
Words from my teacher Joan Sutherland Roshi on our election this week.
If you can vote, you have the immeasurable honor of casting yr ballot for those who can't - for Black and Jewish Americans gunned down while they worship ... for students gunned down at school ... for every Native American and African American and Latinx person whose vote was stolen from them ... for children ... for refugees met at the border by the military ... for people you will never meet, living in countries affected by our policies ... for the generations of our foremothers who couldn't vote ... for the climate and the waters, the animals and insects struggling against extinction - as if we're one tribe
as if we're one tribe.
Vote what you love and what has loved you ... Vote what you believe in, vote what you don't believe in anymore so it can find its way back to you ... Vote the sunrise and the sky-filled stars, cousins with feathers and aunties who graze, grasses that bend in the wind and grasses that push up through the pavement ... Vote yr broken, fierce heart ... Vote for the day after tomorrow, which will come
which will come.
Make yr vote as wide as the sky, as steady as the earth ... Make yr vote a prayer.
An old story: The enlighted lay practitioner Vimalakirti became sick. A group of bodhisattvas were curious about how such an enlightened person could fall ill, so they went to ask him about it. They asked him, "Why are you sick?"
Vimalakirti said, "I am sick because the whole world is sick. If everyone's illness were healed, mine would be too. Why? Because bodhisattvas come into this world of birth and death for the sake of all beings, and part of being in this world of birth and death is getting sick. When everyone is liberated from illness, I will be, too."
Like Vimalakirti, I haven't been feeling too good lately. I'm feeling tired, exhausted really, and pretty beaten up. I am prone to fits of rage and despair. My body is in it too, dysregulated in distressing ways. Our latest social trauma, the Kavanaugh debacle, has so many of us contending with both personal and political re-traumatization that can feel soul-crushing. It's literally sickening.
It's a sickness with many names: patriarchy, ;ate-stage capitalism, plain old greed, take your pick. I'll let the other brilliant writers take on the nature of this illness, and it's prognosis. In the mean time, we have to find a way to live in the midst of this shit show. What's a bodhisattva to do?
Vimalakirti points the way. We are each sick because our world is sick. In other words, we are interdependent with each other. The world and I have one condition; I am the sorrows of the world. When the world is healed, I am healed, and we can each have a role in that. It's a poignant thing, to be very sick together, and still able to find ways to offer healing.
Bodhisattvas are born in the moment any of us takes a deep breath, rolls up our sleeves, and does the next right and courageous thing. In Buddhism we take up the Bodhisattva Way to help us become more and more discerning of this path. It involves taking vows that help show us the way, as well as practices that allow us to live into this Way. It's pretty helpful at times like these. And it's pretty helpful to do it together.
I'm getting ready to present on a panel on "mindfulness" tomorrow at the APA conference now happening in San Francisco. (If you happen to be there 8-10 am tomorrow swing on by!) By the way, have you ever meditated like this? Me neither!
Other presenters will be talking about the clinical applications of mindfulness in our work as psychologists. I was asked to talk about "mindfulness" from the point of view of the Zen tradition. I have lots of thoughts, and will share a few.
First, I think it a really good thing that many people are benefiting from learning mindfulness meditation. It has become an outpost of presence and sanity in our otherwise insane world.
However, it is crucial to be aware that mindfulness is not the same as meditation, and certainly not Buddhist meditation. The contemporary practice of mindfulness has a number of radical differences from the practice of Zen.
First of all, Zen practice includes meditation in the context of a system of ethics, and in the presence of an old spiritual and religious practice. Mindfulness, along with concentration and inquiry, are the traditional foundations of meditation practice in Zen. These practices are taken up in a community, with a teacher, and in the context of study of spiritual teachings. Practitioners go through training on the Buddhist ethical system, the precepts and the paramitas, in conjunction with meditation practice.
Zen practice is not taken up for personal self-improvement, though that may be a welcome side effect. Rather it is taken up so we may wake up to the radical truth of interdependence. When we truly witness and live into our place in the family of things, the only thing to do is to take up the bodhisattva way, at the heart of our tradition. We vow to be a part of the awakening of all beings (including but not limited to ourselves), as best as we are able.
Mindfulness as a psychological technique is torn out of the cultural, spiritual, and religious context of Buddhism. And, along the way, it inverts the spirit of practice, toward a commodity that can be used for personal healing or self-improvement. It becomes a goal in itself, something to do well or poorly, an offering at the buffet of self-improvement goods. It is something that is measured, calculated for benefit, optimized, and commodified. It is offered in expensive retreats, corporate training, and as a remedy for depression, stress, and other ailments.
My other concern about the mindfulness movement is that it privileges the conscious mind and our control of it. It's no wonder mindfulness has been so utilized in cognitive-behavioral approaches. Mindfulness as often taught emphasized becoming more aware of the conscious mind and what happens in it. All good stuff! However in Zen we also take up the aspects of the mind that are not in our awareness, the unknown, embryonic states, weird and tilty places, intimations of the vastness. In this way I see Zen practice as a great complement to psychoanalytic psychotherapy!
As a Zen teacher, I worry that Westerners will come to think that mindfulness is what meditation practice is. While mindfulness practices can be really helpful, they are just one strand of a deep and rich tradition, with many other practices, teachings, and ancestral wisdom.
Given the dominance of the mindfulness and vipassana practices these days, what does it mean to practice Zen? How is it different? And how does it impact one differently as a therapist or practitioner? If you have thoughts, please comment!
Suddenly I realized for myself the fresh breeze that rises up when the great burden is laid down.
Most of us go through life with a feeling of struggle. We may have the feeling that there is something wrong with us that we must fix. Or perhaps it's a constant sense that the world is not the way we want it to be, leading to chronic resentment and distress. And, of course, there's our partner, our parents, or kids, or boss, who definitely need to change in order for things to be alright.
And, when we begin to meditate, we find struggle there too. Our mind wanders constantly, and we have the sense of not being able to do it right. We imagine that when we meditate we should be calm, present, and compassionate, but so often that's not at all what's happening. It's easy to give up.
At the core of our struggle is not wanting to be with life as it is. We feel a constant need to figure out the problem and fix it, with ourselves, with our relationships, with society, and even in our meditation.
In fact, we become addicted to struggle. We have formed our identity around it, around our narrative that "The problem is.... (fill in the blank)." We put tons of mental and emotional energy into trying to fix things so that they are the way we think they need to be, and then casting blame when this doesn't work.
Constant discontent. Constant struggle.
How can we, like Fayan, put down the great burden and experience the fresh breeze of intimacy with the world as it is? We can begin to explore this in our meditation.
The key is acceptance of what is, without judgment. Your mind, just as it is, even in it's jumpiness or confusion or anxiety, doesn't need to change. We can welcome our experience with kindness and curiosity, just as it is.
Put down the great burden of struggle, of judgment and comparison, of right and wrong, good and bad.
Beyond our attempts to "fix" and control life, there is a way to walk in the fresh breeze of life as it is. I'll meet you there.
As Tim began his first meditation retreat, he began to notice a contraction in his heart that pained and frightened him. His old fear that his heart could just stop was happening, and his panic was rising. His teacher had told him to simply notice sensations and feelings, so he tried to just sit with what was happening.
Tim had respect for the teachings, so he followed the instructions, even as his experience of panic and pain grew larger. “What is wrong with me that I can’t do this simple thing?” he thought. He began to attack himself internally, blaming himself for his overwhelming emotions and his failure as a meditation student. He also became frightened that everyone in the meditation hall could see what was happening to him, and were judging him. Eventually the feelings became so overwhelming that he ran out of the retreat center.
Tim’s experience is not uncommon. Many meditators have suffered trauma, often more than they are consciously aware of. While meditation can be an important way to work with physical, mental, and emotional states, including trauma, it needs to be approached with skill and care.
Trauma in Meditation
Traumatic experiences are more likely to emerge in meditation than in everyday life because we don’t have our ususal ways to distract ourselves. Anyone who experiences overwhelming feelings, physical pains, or repetitive attacking thoughts during meditation may be having a version of PTSD. This can happen to people who don’t think of themselves as having trauma in their lives.
Other signs of trauma that can show up in meditation are insomnia, anxiety, depression, and physical pains or problems of a vague or unexplained nature.
A Team Approach
There are ways to work with traumatic states that arise in meditation, but skill and care is required. It’s best for the practitioner to work with a meditation teacher with awareness, training, and experience in working with arising trauma. Many traditional teachers and practices don’t take emotional states into account. However a growing number of contemporary teachers also have training in psychology and can help a student to navigate these difficult waters.
It is also best for the practitioner to have a therapist skilled in working at the interface of meditation and trauma. She or he will likely need a safe place, in addition to the meditation center, to talk about difficult things that have come up in life, and to develop skills to notice and respond to traumatic states as they arise. Meditation alone is unlikely to resolve trauma.
Meditating at the Edge of Trauma
For people who are feeling overwhelmed by their thoughts or feelings, seated meditation isn’t the best practice. Try walking meditation, or doing a simple activity such as washing dishes. If what’s happening in your meditation is too much, change it up. Go into nature and touch the earth.
To begin to use difficult states as a path of self-discovery and healing, have the support of a skilled teacher or therapist. The trauma researcher Peter Levine says that titrating painful states is key. It is important to be able to move back and forth between an experience of safety, such as a pleasant or neutral sensation in the body, and allowing for the edge of the traumatic sensation. As the trauma state gets more intense, move back to the felt sense of safety. This oscillation will, over time, allow for the distressing state to be held alongside and within a sense of safety and connection.
Indeed trauma can be used as a fuel for radical self-discovery and healing. However the path is long and intense, and must be navigated with compassion, skill, and care by all involved.
I've been keeping company for the past few weeks with No-Gate Gateway, David Hinton's luminous new translation of the Mumonkan. This collection of koans (or sangha cases, as Hinton calls them) has been widely used for centuries, but until now most of our English translations have been done from the Japanese. Hinton is a translator and scholar of classical Chinese, and at the heart of this text is his fresh explication of the history and meaning of the original characters in the koans. Hinton emphasizes Zen's roots in Taoist philosophy, especially the dialectic between what he calls Absence (emptiness, formlessness) and Presence (form, existence). I believe No-Gate Gateway will help make koan practice vital and approachable for the next generation of Zen students.
I found No-Gate Gateway to be a fresh and exciting approach to these koans. Over and over, koans that are old friends gained new energy and layers of meaning. The introduction alone is essential reading for any student of Zen. Here he puts forth his "wilderness cosmology" of a universe in perpetual transformation. Hinton describes the character for Absence as originating in a pictograph of a woman dancing with foxtails streaming from her hands, an expressive and evocative depiction that belies any sense of nihilism. The character for Absence can also be used for a simple "no" (as in mu and wu), and this doubling of meaning threads throughout the text. He says that in meditation, "eventually the stream of thought falls silent, and we inhabit empty consciousness, free of that center of identity. That is, we inhabit the most fundamental nature of consciousness, an that fundamental nature is nothing other than Absence."
Hinton translates the first koan in the collection, often know as Chao-cho's Mu, as follows:
A monk asked Master Visitation-Land: "A dog too has Buddha-nature, no?"
"Absence," Land replied.
No-Gate Gateway offers a fresh, intimate, and clear take on koan practice, and, I believe, will help the Mumonkan to continue to dance for the next generation of Western Zen students. Because it is anchored in the rhythms of nature, it helps us respond in times of ecological crisis. Because it is wildly poetic, it captures the sweep of the koans, from the inexpressably vast to the deeply personal. And because it is rooted in an understanding of ancient China, it helps us anchor our practice in our own times.
There are aspects of this book that I am grappling with. Hinton's new terminology can feel overworked and reliant on his explication. For example, a term he uses as synonymous with Absence is origin-tissue, defined as "reality as a single tissue, undifferentiated and generative." While I appreciate the poetry here, it's hard to imagine this as a usable term. Similarly, he translates the names of people and places in a way that is hard to get used to. Chao-cho is now Visitation-Land, another shift that is provocative and hard to adapt to.
Western models of the unconscious mind have shifted in exciting ways over the past one hundred years. From Freud's repressed and dynamic models of the unconscious, we have expanded to think about relational, cultural, and ecological dimensions to the aspects of mind of which we are not consciously aware. An emphasis on making the unconscious (more) conscious is at the heart of contemporary depth models of psychotherapy.
Meditation is also a way of coming into relationship with our unconscious mind in a different way. Anyone who has done a meditation retreat knows that aspects of the hidden mind swarm around, and it's not easy to distract ourselves. The first five or so years of my own practice was a messy karmic purge of old fear, rage, and desolation. As usual the practice was just to sit with it, not avoiding or fixing or dramatizing.
And, in meditation, there are moments when all the stories drop away, when our personal psychology gives way to the vastness. We have experiences of deep stillness and absolute interconnection. What we consider to be the "self" is radically altered. Though, for better and for worse, our personalities remain!
Buddhism has a fascinating model of the "storehouse consciousness" in which all the seeds of our karma, and those of generations preceding us, incubate and give rise to our current karma. One fruit of meditation, according to this teaching, is to understand and uproot this karma. But, that's a topic for another day--one I hope to teach soon.
In a life of practice, we become intimate with many aspect of the unconscious. Here are a few I notice. I'm curious about your experience!
-The everyday level of shifting moods, habits, and relational patterns, our "autopilot."
-The deep personal unconscious, the stuff that repeats and reminds us of our childhood and which we'd do anything to escape but we can't... (And which we secretly hope meditation will fix but really we just marinate in it.)
-The aspect of the unconscious that is bigger than the self. From the relational dynamics between two people to currents present in generations of families, cultures, and groups of all kinds. At this level we know we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
-The level of the Absolute. This is impossible to talk about, but we try with language like God or emptiness. Here we find that any personal or transpersonal unconscious is co-extensive with everything, creating a vast and beautiful flow.
Each of these levels of Mind are present at all times, but mostly we are unaware of them. How they relate to each other, and how we can skillfully work with them, is a fascinating work in progress. I look forward to talking together about this!
The Zen tradition has passed through patriarchal cultures, in China, Korea, Japan, and now in the West. Yet, somehow it has maintained a strong yin character, a connection to the fertile, receptive aspect of things. In his book “China on the Mind,” Christopher Bollas says that Eastern thinking is based on the “maternal order,” while Western thinking tends to privilege the “paternal order.” The maternal order is experiential, receptive, and pre-verbal. It is strongly present in the relationship with the early mother. In the maternal order are felt experiences of being an embryo and fetus, being born, being an infant, and the mother-infant bond. It tends to not be expressed in language, but rather it is presentational in nature. That is to say, it can best be expressed by gesture, body, breath, rhythm, coherence, and patterning. The patriarchal order, on the other hand, is based in words, logic, discursive thinking, and evaluation.
So I’m setting out to explore the maternal order of the Zen tradition. I’m starting with Prajnaparamita, the Mother of all Buddhas. Prajnaparamita is, in one incarnation, a goddess who embodies perfect wisdom. She offers clarity of view, transcendent insight into the way things are. But don’t think this means she is pointing to some kind of ideal. Her kind of perfection isn’t something we have to strive to attain. Rather, it’s the nature of things inherently, just as they are.
Prajnaparamita is also the Great Mother, the source of everything, who was worshipped and venerated in the early Ch'an tradition. She is Mother, matrix, guide, gestational body, original love and care. In the sutras, at times she is adored for her generosity, beauty, and fecundity.
In another manifestation, Prajnaparamita is also a group of very important early Buddhist sutras that marked the turn to the Mahayana tradition. The Heart Sutra is a distillation of these teachings, and is chanted in Buddhist gatherings around the world. These sutras are understood as coming from the understanding of the goddess Prajnaparamita; this is her wisdom, her care.
Traditionally, Prajnaparamita is the locus of the tathagarbha, the womb of being. It is from her womb that all things are born. She is the loom of origins, the source. And because she is marked by perfect wisdom, so everything that comes from her womb is marked by Buddha nature. Everything (even you) is whole and complete just as they are. This is the opposite of original sin; it is original perfection, even amid the difficulty and imperfections of life. We are born of Prajnaparamita, and we always have the potential to realize our Buddha nature, in any moment.
Because Prajnaparamita can be powerfully apprehended by her presentation, it’s important to describe her attributes. She is often depicted seated on a lotus throne. The lotus represents the beauty and perfection inherent even in our muddy everyday experience. She carries a sword to cut away delusion. The sword is not used aggressively or violently, but rather to clear away confusion and mistaken views and attachments that obscure our access to her wisdom. She has a sharp quality in a way that can be helpful, to release delusions that keep us small and stuck. Finally, she is beautiful, adorned with jewels, and with a lovely face and body. In this way she allows us to fall in love with her, to gaze upon her with adoration, and also to bring this quality of devotion to other aspects of experience. When we step outside and feel in awe of a tree or flower, we have the same experience of appreciation for the beauty of the world. I recommend getting an image or statue of Prajnaparamita and allowing yourself to meditate in her company.
Finally, we come to Prajnaparamita’s mantra. Mantras aren’t used much in Zen, but this one is an exception. We find it at the end of the Heart Sutra, and it’s a powerful invocation of the Great Mother. Like all mantras, the power is not so much in the meaning, but rather in the energy of the sound itself. Chanting Prajnaparamita’s mantra will invoke her into your practice, and may connect you to her capacities to give and receive love and comfort, to offer a gestational body, and to give nurturance and guidance. Try reciting the Prajnaparamita mantra 108 times and see what happens. Here it is.
Gate gate paragate parasam gate bodhi svaha
Zen is not usually seen as a devotional practice, but invoking the wisdom and generosity of Prajnaparamita can be a source of immense comfort and support.
Reposted from 2016.
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..