Zen Gardens, and the pursuits of the mind

A Zen Garden represents the human mind.

Large stones sit in the garden as if rising up out of the pebble carpet. Around these large stones are usually ripple patterns in the pebble carpet, representing movement or a disturbance in the pebble carpet caused by their uprising from beneath the carpet layer.

Everywhere else that the large stones do not ‘rise up’, the pebbles are usually set out in meticulous lines, representing order or harmony.

You contemplate a Zen Garden from a balcony. Sometimes this balcony is entered through a special gate house, where you take off your shoes before entering.

The idea is that each large stone represents a thought arising in the mind. But what you must realize (sic.), is that you are not the large thought arising. Neither are you the ripples and disturbances caused by the arising of the large thought. Neither are you the bliss represented by the ordered pebble carpet, because if you identified yourself with that bliss (or nirvana), it would just be another large thought, and not the same thing as that bliss itself. You are instead the person who observes all of these things, gets up, turns around, and walks out.

Over time it is possible to still the mind in sitting meditation enough that when you do have a large thought arise, no other thoughts surround it. In this state of mental clarity it is possible (though difficult) to investigate that thought a little bit.

This is not the object of meditation, and not really something to distract oneself with. But occasionally it just happens.

Sometimes when it happens, reflecting on the first large thought encourages the arising of lots of other thoughts, and before too long there is no clarity and calm; only monkey mind.

Provided the still and clear state is maintained, however, it is possible to just look deeply into the one large thought which has arisen.

Again, it is easy to start judging it as a good, bad, wise, or silly thought. This, again, is not much use as an exercise. This is not what I mean by investigating a thought.

But it is possible to ask yourself, what is behind this thought? If I acted on this thought, who would gain what? What would I stand to gain?

Through such questioning, it is possible to notice that most thoughts – perhaps as much as 90% of thoughts* – are not relevant at all to things which must be done today. Instead they are supporting some kind of drama, or story, or power game that you (we all) are involved in creating.

And so it is that the mind (the ego) is almost always pursuing some kind of power game; some kind of pursuit towards grandeur (even if it is negative grandeur).

In the same way, some say “what is ego anyway?” or “how is it possible to function as a human being without ego?’, and that is because it is very difficult to overcome the ego. In terms of the pursuits of the conventional mind, the ego is taking up so much mental energy that it becomes impossible to imagine one’s self without it.

*I believe Eckhart Tolle suggests something like 98%.


Compassion in Buddhism is not ‘being a good person’

After a recent email discussion with my Zen master, I’d like to share a very difficult learning about a very subtle thing.

It has been a knot on the path for me, and has come up in many different forms, but the most recent one has been the most powerful. In sharing it, I hope to step through it and on to greater things, and also hope that the sharing of it may help others too.

The question of whether we have many lives does appear in Buddhism, and the different strands have their own way of responding. In Zen we usually prefer to talk about reincarnation as something which happens many times in one life time; every time you ‘wake up’ again to the here and now – the suchness of reality beyond individual thought, and into the power of the One consciousness in everything. Invariably this happens many times – sometimes many times in one day.

That said, the best words I can use to find what I’ve experienced these last few weeks is that I’ve remembered something very deep. I can see why the Tibetans talk in terms of taking many life times to work through karmic cycles. It’s this. I chose to come to earth at the specific time and place that I did for a reason. That reason is because it is a time of a great shift in human culture – a shift which is beginning to become more apparent now, and less the conversational preserve of weirdo’s, drug users, and marginalised others (druids, shamans, native peoples) alone.

But why did I come? I came because I wanted to help. Wanting to help has always been a very powerful energy for me. I’m mostly aware these days of the psychological reasons for that urge to be there. But having explored those, I’m becoming aware that there may be other reasons – earlier reasons. Reasons from a previous lifetime even, to want to help.

And this has borne itself out in all sorts of ways. Sometimes I really have helped and, I think, made the lives of some others better. I’ve even helped to save a few lives.

Other times I have thought I’d helped, but have really just imposed my own wants and needs on to others.

That latter point is difficult enough to discover, and not learned by many for a long time. But there is an even subtler layer to all this. Even when I act (as an agent of change) and I think I am doing good – I may not be doing good at all. The suffering in another which I believe to be removing for them could well have been a positive energy at work helping that other achieve a higher stage of self-realization, and my work has only served to starve them of it and put the lesson (which will repeat) off for them a little longer.

Compassion, in Buddhism, is not ‘being a good person’. Zen Buddhists (who take inspiration from Buddha, Dogen, and Taoism alike) would point here to the lesson of the tao (pronounced ‘dao’), symbolised in yin and yang. All the time I am “intending good” I am coming from my small self, my ego, and really just caught up in whatever is the “doing bad” I can see – wherever that is coming from. And doing so gives more energy to that “doing bad”.

Buddha’s way is equanimity. Seeing all things from a still, dispassionate, unjudgemental place within. A place which does not discern dualistically between good and bad, right and wrong. To reach that equanimity requires dying to the small self, the ego, and extinguishing the flames of the three poisons (anger, greed, ignorance) again and again until my good and bad karma eventually reach a balancing place and I am caught up in neither, but free to be a pure spiritual being having a rich human experience.

This also is not something to “try to do”, like trying to be good. It can only happen through practice, effort, time, and patience; the karmic storehouse.

This is Buddha’s idea of heaven on earth. The bodhisattva vow. However innumerable are all beings I vow to save all of them from my own suffering caused by illusion, anger, and greed, for that is all I can do and the best thing I can do. Peace on earth, starting with me.

This is a million miles away from the heaven on earth people of good will are “willing” to make happen. It pains me to see that in Buddhism’s encounter with Western culture (now roughly two to three generations in, so still very new), many people are (just like I’ve been doing) confusing ‘compassion’ and ‘service’ with ‘doing good’, which requires attachment to a fixed idea of a self who does the doing – a self who knows better. An ego.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a zen master, coined the phrase, ‘engaged Buddhism’. But if you read his teachings closely you’ll see that when asked to explain what he means by that phrase, he just means Buddhism with great commitment; perhaps in response to the energy of consumer individualism, of religion shopping, that he won’t have seen in his native Vietnam so starkly.

In his latest book, The World We Have, he gives an urgent call to action, but his reasoning is very finely balanced. He reasons that to not take action on climate change is to lose this round of human civilisation, and possibly dharma attainment along with it. Attainment of the dharma is such a rare thing that it is worth trying to protect from loss, and so  a time has come to get more “activist”. But not for any cause; only certain causes. And even then he draws us back to the essential task at hand. ‘if you want to help the environment, you must help the environmentalist’ (meaning yourself).

But people have jumped onto ‘engaged Buddhism’ from this eminent figure to support their own ideas (probably hangovers from earlier interactions with Christianity) of why Buddhism is good, why Buddhists are good, why I must do good things.

And none of these ideas are Buddha’s Way.

We have to let go of them. We have to let go of wanting to be a good person. A person who does good things.

Eckhart Tolle says that the world gives us exactly the kinds of suffering we need to wake up.

Buddha never spoke about shielding others from suffering and pain. He only showed us how to find a Way out of our own cycles, snares, traps, programming (if you will), and into life lived just as naturally and beautifully as it really is – without any layers of drama or illusion at all. And in that beautiful place, things happen. It’s like the universe opening up like a flower in the morning sunlight, and doing this deep within your heart.

It’s OK that there is no Buddhist Red Cross when there isn’t. It’s OK that there is no Buddhist soup kitchen when there isn’t. The measure of the suffering and pain each of us faces is in balance with the amount of anger, greed, and ignorance we have because this is how the universe is guiding us into ever higher forms of being. When there is no anger, greed, or ignorance left, neither will there be pain and suffering – whether caused to ourselves or by others however far away.

This does not mean that Buddhists should never do good acts. Neither does it rubbish all the Buddhist talk of ‘compassion’. When compassion arises in a moment and in the space between the Buddhist and the object or subject, it arises, something changes, and then it goes away again. Good acts can arise in the same way, without duality, and without a self who does the good. But this is not a self who does good, nor a self who is a compassionate human being and hence a wonderful Buddhist.

Surrendering to the divine will (if that’s your language), when there is no self left to do the surrendering, and no dualism between a body-mind in space-time and the eternal life source before and beyond and sustaining all time, space, and movement goes beyond surrender, beyond intention, beyond interior experience, beyond will, beyond me, beyond ego, beyond self. It comes, and it goes.

Here is to not being a good person any more.

We are all awakening as One.

How clever, really?

There sometimes seems to be too much analysis placed over the top of some things in the recent history of our species. Perhaps this is because the historical details are indeed complex.

But this results in not seeing some really basic things.

For example, war.

One way of seeing war is that we had the Great War because the technology had arrived, and so we could. One century we did not have very good pistols, or any aircraft. The next century, we did. So the race was on to see who used the technology for dominance first; much like male gorrilas fight for group domination.

Then one decade we did not have very good aircraft, or any fitted with guns, and the next decade we did. So we had another war to continue the previous one, only this time with better weapons; maybe the challenge for dominance was left open. Again, just like gorrilas.

Then, unlike gorrilas, the capacities changed mid-war. We entered World War 2 without any missiles, and ended them with some. So came the cold war. Thankfully, for us, this particular dominance challenge still remains open – a question we hope will never be answered.

Not satisfied with this, the male members of our species tried missiles in space. Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ project was the culmination of the cold war. The arms race was really the same race for domination through strength all along.

Clumsy apes doing what apes have always done. How clever are we, really?

What’s really exciting, however, is that if looked at this way there is lots of potential opening up. The Arab spring of 2011 testifies to a new kind of phenomenon. People are still clambering over each other to use new technology to change the game, but this time it is social media being used by mass movements in order to remove certain alpha males.

Again, we are suddenly able to do something we have not done before, and so a kind of race happens and we do it. The technology is leading us.

What would be really clever would be generation of technology mapped to holistic interpretations of outcomes. But we clearly ain’t evolved enough for that yet, and in the meantime we’re busy wiping ourselves out with every move!