Zen Master Cho-Ban

Sometimes our world is turned upside down and we need to learn how to grow all over again

Sometimes our world is turned upside down and we need to learn how to grow all over again.

I have been toying with an idea for a novel and here is a draft of the opening of the book.

He was a well-known and respected Zen teacher. Some even called him a ‘Zen Master’! Although this was always said with utter reverence, he always had to chuckle when he heard it. Visions of his orange robe turning into a superhero’s costume, complete with cape, would roll across his mind’s eye.

One time, during an open teaching session at a University, someone asked him a question. They addressed him as ‘Zen Master Cho-Ban’.  His answer was:  “Why yes, of course, we are ALL already superheroes!!”

The questioner, and the rest of the crowd, gave a nervous laugh, not quite sure what to make of that answer.  …Considering that the question was: “Do you recall any of your past reincarnations?”

He authored a handful of books and was the default ‘leader’ of Zen Buddhism in the West. His enlightenment was said to have occurred when he was only 22 years old. He remained ‘low-key’ for years, as it was very rare for someone to realize that someone of his young age could be an enlightened being. His teachings went mostly unrealized. People want a Buddha, a saviour, a religious and spiritual leader to be old, have a long white beard perhaps, to, well, look Enlightened!

Over the years, his face aged, his body aged and his presence, well, it simply was undeniable. People often did double-takes after interacting with him. His way of teaching was like the planting of a seed. And his seeds were the fast germinating kind! He loved planting seeds. Sometimes they grew right away, sometimes they didn’t grow at all. But like any plant knows, you can produce hundreds or thousands of seeds and if only one germinates and grows, that means success. In fact, sometimes when people called him ‘Zen Master Cho-Ban’ he would say “Oh no, I am Johnny Cho-Ban, AppleSeed Master!” and pretend to throw apple seeds all over the person, laughing.

Sometimes people thought this was hilarious! Sometimes people thought he was like a child! Sometimes he was planting Seeds not for the person he was interacting with, but for the person watching from the side. He tried to plant as many Seeds as he could. Always being Johnny AppleSeed!

He was the West’s version of the Dali Lama. Now, what a silly thing to say, but it gives the context in which he was viewed, outside of the Buddhist community. He was a household name.

Then one day the hammer fell. Literally. On his head. From 2 stories high. BAM! He was rushed to the hospital. He cracked his skull and injured his brain. He was unconscious for many days. Then one day, he woke up and his daughter was by his side. He looked at her, deeply into her eyes and blurted out: “What the hell are you looking at?!” She was frozen with shock! After a few moments, she was able to finally reply, to which she said “Papa?” with tears in her eyes… both for joy he woke up and sadness at his words. He then said: “Perhaps that is correct. I do not know. I do not feel well. Leave me alone.”

His daughter was oh so ever confused. Her father was alive, yes, but he was different. His memory was not all there and he was, well, grumpy! Who was this man who woke up?

She said to him: “I will do whatever you ask of me father, but please tell me this: Where did my Papa go?”

He listened and thought deeply about this. He just looked into her eyes, without talking and just contemplated her question. It was this question that become the focus of the rest of his life. For now, he replied ;” I just don’t know. I feel like shit. I hate this. I remember Cho-Ban, the appleseed man. He was weak.  I am stronger than him. Now leave and let me be”.

She gave him a kiss on the cheek and with eyes full of tears, she said goodbye and she would see him later on.

He laid in bed, nurses and doctors now aware he was awake and they were all around him, taking notes, and all the stuff medical people do. He lay there, in a bad mood with bad memory. He thought of Cho-Ban. He knew him deeply, but it was as if he knew him as a different person. He was not Cho-Ban.

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Luna Fish

LunaFish. She wasn't always looking this grumpy!

LunaFish. She wasn’t always looking this grumpy!

One of my cats had been suffering with an illness that was not going to get any better. She was slowly starving to death and my wife and I decided that we should not let her suffer any longer. What a horrible position to be in, to decide in taking a life. What a worse place for my cat to be in.

Luna-Fish was her name. She was born in Woodstock, New York and flew over when my wife and I moved to England. She was your typical ‘scared-e-cat’. She got spooked by any abrupt noise or movement. Plastic bags and guitars were the worse!

Now, I know cats can’t speak, lol, but she was telling me it was her time. She asked in her own way. She knew. The day the vets came to the house (She was such a gentle and skittish kitty, that we wanted to put her to sleep at her home, to be as comfortable as possible), that day, I had her on my bed. My wife and I took turns sitting with her while the other watched our kids. Luna had spent the past few weeks living under the bed. She loved under there, but it had become the only place she stayed. I crawled underneath to pull her out. She wasnt happy about it, but she also didn’t really stop me either. I put her on top of the bed. And we just sat. And sat. I cried, oh bucket loads of tears. Luna understood.

My mother-in-law took over watching the kids, so my wife and I spent some time together with Luna. She was in constant pain, but now, at that time, she seemed to let go of her suffering, she was, well, relieved. And she was so strong, so brave. She laid up against my leg and rested her head, her chin on my thigh. It was complete gratefulness and love. She was ready. It was horrible yet beautiful. My wife reminded me to be happy for Luna, not sad, but my heart poured tears.

I miss Luna. Where did she go? I don’t know but I wish her well and thank her for being part of my family. She was such a special cat.

 

Boats

I like this boat!

I like this boat!

Living with an ‘invisible’ illness can be difficult to manage sometimes. Sometimes, I feel fine, sometimes not so fine. On the outside, i look fine and i usually act fine, so its hard for other people to know what I am going through. On support group websites and the like I see lots of things like ‘what not to say to someone who has chronic illness’.. .and it will say things like ‘don’t tell me to change my diet or to be positive or i need to exercise more or tell me you are tired too’…. Sometimes i can relate to why these things could be upsetting, but usually they are said with an air of compassion, of trying to help. However, sometimes they are said with blame attached, as if it is all my own fault and if I just exercised and ate more fruit I would be healed. It is the same as telling someone with clinical depression that they just need to snap out of it and just be happy.

I try not to tell anyone how exhausted i am or what pain i may be in (Except my wife and well, i guess everyone reading this,lol!). Everyone has something invisible they are dealing with, and has to work with and might never go away. We are all in the same boat, sometimes the waters are calm and smooth, sometimes they are choppy and scary. But we are all in a boat. And we all have the same destination.

Buddhists are encouraged to meditate in groups…. it is like sailing all our boats together, tying them up and make the stability and direction stronger than the individual boats alone combined. We are social animals, we work best as team-mates. We all experience suffering of one kind or another, so lets join together to end each others suffering. How? Love and understanding. Understand that every person, every being you interact with, has something they are working through, or will have to work through at some time, and that everyone passes away.

A zen teacher once gave a talk about his work in prisons.. with inmates on death row. It was a sobering talk. Then he said something I will never forget… ‘We are all on death row.’ Yeah, of course we are, and we all know that… we will all die someday…. but for me, those words hit home…. and I carry that with me….. So, what do we want to do with our lives?

We are all in the same boat.

The Sun shines after a drizzle filled morning while birds fly passed majestic rainbows. A dead mouse lies on the path and a puppy gives it a good sniff.

How did we get here?

Buddha

Buddha

How did we get to where we are? Sometimes we may wake up one day and realize we are in a situation we never expected or planned. Sometimes thats a good realization, sometimes it might be a nightmare. We might rehash in our minds decisions we made, and get upset with ones we feel were very bad ones. Why did I do that

It doesn’t matter. Only through the good and the bad of our past are we where we are now. Maybe we hate where we are now, maybe we love it. It doesn’t matter. 

Pema Chödrön has taught: “Start Where You Are.”

I love this teaching. Where else can we start? lol. We can’t have a do-over with our past. We can’t act in the future. Starting right here, right now, is all there is. So, lets drop all our baggage, both good and bad, and start here, right now. 

This is why a drunk man who wants to hear the Dharma, with a pure heart, is already more advanced than someone who has studied all the Sutras. 

“Oh, i will start meditating tomorrow, oh, i will wait until my flu is gone.. oh, i will wait until all my bills are paid….”.. Right now, even if in debt, drunk, filled with flu or disease, surrounded by chaos and being pulled by different people in different directions… what better time to practice the Dharma? Or not even Dharma, just to practice living our lives, not putting them on hold. Sure, there is suffering, and Enlightenment doesn’t pay your bills or rid you of bad influences, but if we accept our lives, good or bad, and accept ourselves, to ourselves, in our heart, we can start to feel some freedom, and tears may flow down our cheeks from the release .. the release of the grip on our hearts, the grip we hold ourselves. Lets let go our our grip, our hearts will pump fuller, free-er and sing our own song. 

Listen to your song, it is absolutely beautiful, glorious and only wants to make you smile, along with all beings.

Mindfulness in pain

Your next move? Push the pain away? Move towards it? Is there not another way? The Middle Way.

Your next move? Push the pain away? Move towards it? Is there not another way? The Middle Way.

It is always easier to focus when we are in a good place, both physically and mentally. Sometimes we aren’t in that place, perhaps we feel we are never in that place!

We may sit to meditate and then the neighbors decide it is time to drill holes in the walls to put up shelves, or the traffic outside gets really noisy, or the birds are fighting outside…. “Oh, only if everyone would just shut up I could actually focus my mind and meditate properly!”

Sometimes it is not even things outside our body’s… maybe we have a bad headache, or a migraine. “Oh, i simply can’t focus, my mind is under attack and I need to lay down!”

Well, in Zen, it is said that a good situation is a bad situation and a bad situation is a good situation! lol. So, when we are in these bad situations… can we not find out how come this is actually a good situation? Surely a noisy drill pounding into your head, with a migraine no less, is not good! lol. But, it is good, in a way, a ‘zen’ way…. what can we learn from this situation? Bodhidharma got clonked on the head with a rock.. OUCH! but BAM.. he realized his inherent nature in that moment. When we are suffering, weather in a minor way or in a major way, this suffering provides us with the opportunity to explore it, to kindly and gently, with tenderness, to ask ourselves why it is we suffer and where it is born from… When we get past answering this questioning with “I know where it comes from, it’s from that stupid drill!”, we can begin to truly explore it… with love for ourselves.

Laying down, because the brain is ravaged with a migraine attack, does prevent us from doing sitting meditation, sure, but we can do better meditation! It is like when a person is facing death and all of a sudden they start praying to God…. their love, their heart, is true in those moments, and they beg for help, and become open to help. Prayer has the power to transform ourselves, it opens our heart-minds and allows Truth to flow into our sight.

Buddhism is not about escaping pain, but it is also not about seeking pain. The Middle Way. When pain arrises, we can explore this, or we can rest, whatever we choose, if it is with deep love for ourselves, then all will be OK.

Seeing clearly

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Big Ben’s tower

Seeing clearly is something one may hear when studying Zen. This is not just simply vision with our eyeballs, but being clear-minded.

Seeing clearly involves living without using our mental attachments, our models of reality.

I have a great Zen teacher inside me, when i get ‘brain-fog’. This is when, due to ailments I have, my brain simply doesn’t fire on all cylinders, if you will. Memory, trains of thought and cognition are difficult. It comes and goes, sometimes not so bad, others times, not so good.

When my mind is cloudy, and I feel this ‘brain-fog’, I have a great teacher. Seeing clearly is something, when studying Zen, that I feel should be sorta like it sounds…. crystal clear perception, seeing into the heart of all things. When I have brain-fog…. it is like being drunk in a dark forest in dense fog… how is clear sight possible then?! lol. But, it is possible, and this is what it teaches me. ‘Seeing clearly’ is beyond thinking clearly…. One doesn’t need to think clearly to see clearly!

So, things that may seem a hinderance to the Way, are, of course, our allies, and all things lead us home, we just need to see that clearly.

Escaping Pain

You can run, and you can hide, but always right arounf the corner you will be staring right back at yourself, or a sheep!

You can run, and you can hide, but always right around the corner you will be staring right back at yourself, or a sheep!

Having lots on your plate to get done while having chronic fatigue is difficult. When this extends over an extended period of time with minimal relief on the horizon, it can be more than mere deflating. Being mindful of each moment, as that’s all there really is, certainly is the best mode of attack, if you will. However, one thing I have noticed, is that it is times like these, where difficulty can be safely predicted to be constant for the foreseeable future, that being mindful of the present can be experienced as unrelenting stress and pain. This is certainly one of the birthplaces where ‘escaping reality’ takes place. Now, i don’t want to give the impression this is how my life is, because whilst individual moments may be experienced in this way, many other moments are magical. Such as holding my wife’s hand, or flying my 4 month old daughter around the house like Superman, or rather Supergirl I suppose! Last night my 3-year-old son wanted to help me get stuff from the attic, but I explained it was too dangerous. Then, as I was finished, and about to move the ladder back outside, I took him up the ladder to show him the great mysterious unknown above. The look on his face was of pure amazement and exhilaration! He felt like the luckiest kid on Earth I think! lol.

Back to ‘escaping reality’ … Sometimes people use booze or drugs. Many people use television or surf the internet. Perhaps more dangerous are the subtle escapes, like, for example, reading books. Things that have positive connotations, such as reading, can remain forever hidden as a possible obstruction. We all know watching too much tv or drinking too much booze isn’t really good for us.. but how many people think that reading too much is bad for us?! Only nutters! lol.

If we do feel the need to escape, to have a stiff drink, or a good read, perhaps we can try to be mindful of those moments, and, when we are, something magical happens, the escape drops away and we are where we started, where we always have been. Sure our problems will still be there after the next chapter or the next episode, but if we can face our escape head on, then we learn to not be so afraid of our problems and feel we can live within them. Over time, the need to have a stiff drink or a good novel fades away and our problems and pain are best ‘solved’ head-on, with loving compassion for ourselves.

Sarcoidosis

Is this the tree's cone or the Universes?

Is this the tree’s cone or the Universes?

 

Sometimes our bodies seem to let us down. But whose body is this? Sometimes you hear how a persons body is just a vessel for the soul, for one’s inner spirit. This way of thought can provide benefit, as it is a form of non-attachment, which is central to Buddhist teachings. However, it also ultimately falls short in the end. It creates an attachment to the ‘soul’. In Buddhism, sometimes you hear or learn the idea of non-self or that there is no soul. 

How soulless! lol.

Image

Vessel

Of course there is a soul. But what the Buddha taught is that there is no unchanging self. This is called ‘anatta’ and just as ’emptiness’ does not mean ‘nothingness’
, non-self does not mean we are nothing! This understanding can be used to realize how, in Buddhism, the belief of past lives exists. How could a Buddhist believe in past lives if there is no soul to be passed along?! lol. From my understanding, Buddhism speaks of rebirth but not reincarnation. Although they seem to be the same thing, there is a subtle difference. Some would say it is a Buddhist get out clause! lol. 

But, whose body do we have? ‘My’ body has sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disease, which sometimes hides and pretends to not exist, then sometimes it engulfs my body and makes life difficult. Of course I feel many different emotions, we are all human, and I feel sad, mad, sorry for myself, think ‘why me?’ and lots and lots of thoughts! 

Speaking of thoughts, I can feel how my brain chemistry gets affected by the disease, misfiring neurons, and creating floods and droughts of neurotransmitters. Perhaps thats just my mind making a model of what really is happening, but the model fits. It doesn’t really matter, but what is important is being ‘aware’. 

Sueng Sahn, a Zen master, once said that a good situation is a bad situation and that a bad situation is a good situation. What he meant, in short, was that if your life is good, you may become complacent and get lazy in realizing your inherent enlightened nature. All that good food and that big house hides the Buddha that you already are! But, a bad situation creates desperation to end the suffering, and they say that neccecity is the mother of invention. Many non-religious people will pray to God when their life is in danger.

Sure, I wish my body was in a better condition, I worry about the demands it places on my family, the limitations of interacting with my 2 year old son. Sure, I wish my body was in a good situation and also my realization of my inherent nature was also in a good situation! lol. Sometimes, of course, people are ‘lucky’ to have the double positive. But, sometimes people have the double negative… bad situation and bad realizations. It can be a self-feeding vicious cycle. 

So, it is easy to be sad and mad with my body, but it is empty and I try to think the Universe really does know what it is doing, so it makes my body suffer to help end the suffering of all beings by helping me realize my true nature. So, it is a painful blessing, not something for me to condemn, but also not something to be praised. 

Once it has been said that no one became enlightened without circumstances, and for the Buddha himself, this took the form of Venus.. once he saw the planet in the sky.. BAM! He got it. 

So, all circumstances can birth enlightenment, so it can happen at any time. Just as a radioactive atom can decay at any moment, only the correct conditions inside the atom will allow this to occur. Some atoms have a greater chance of decaying than others, just as some circumstances in our lives give a better chance of realizing our enlightened nature. 

This is why Zen is so very strict and disciplined. It says ‘Hey, the Buddha figured out a good way to see Venus, so lets do that! .. sure you might see Venus if you stare at the ground, but it is unlikely… you would need perhaps a puddle to reflect the night sky or something, but if you look directly where Venus pops up on the horizon, you have a better chance to see it! so lets go!!

We are already perfectly enlightened

see what grows!

In times of difficulty, the message from the Buddhas can help us through… We are already all Buddhas. Starting where we are is not only the best place to begin, it can be the only place to begin. It is also where we end. Starting right here, right now, we are all Buddhas. Clear-minded, drunk, diseased with dementia… are all included. Nothing is seperate from Universal Enlightened nature. Though we may not understand, and even if we do conceptually, we may not realize how it can be true. Here is where faith lives. Deep faith that we are already 100% a buddha, with nothing more to add and nothing to take away. Here we are, right now. Lets start here with our faith and trust this is truth and see what is allowed to grow in our hearts.

Just as mud may hold numerous seeds of all types of plants, we don’t know what may grow until the conditions are correct… warmth, air and water… let’s see what seeds are hidden inside our souls, our hearts. We always will be surprised yet never in doubt that it never was there.

Overwhelmed.

Dragonfly, dragonfly, fly me up to the sky, drag down the Moon, bring her to me, in our hearts we shall sing.

Its been a stressful time in my life, on many fronts. Some very positive, some not so positive. I am moving house soon, and this is a welcome event, though wrapped with stress and complexities. My health has been sub-par recently and I find my brain sputtering, like a car engine with bad spark plugs. My glands are painful and I am very run down.

I am an American living in the UK and I am recently experiencing feelings of being a foreigner due to some restructuring at my employment. Although I have permanent residency here, I am still technically an alien and this might cause some issues in keeping my job. I have verbal assurances it wont but nothing in writing yet.

So, in times like these, where I have to be very focused and attentive and keep track of multiple highly important things going on, I have been keeping a quote from Pema Chodron in my mind: “Start where you are”.

I love this saying. It is so obvious, so simple, yet so full of wisdom. I am frequently feeling overwhelmed and lacking the necessary cognitive tools to navigate through this phase of complexity; however, keeping this phrase in my mind’s eye has proved very helpful and calming. Centering.

This, and also lists, many many lists!!!

Most people have times in their lives like this… very complex, very busy and feeling more than just a bit under the weather… During these times, meditation is very interesting to say the least. We see how fast our minds are racing, for me, my thoughts seem to be a collection of many many dogs, all of whom are chasing their tails…. All these thoughts going circular, never settling and just creating more stress . Clearly seeing our situation, whether calm or chaotic, is very important. My ‘vision’ is very hazy right now, due to my brain’s sparkplugs needing cleaning, so to speak, but I can see clearly that I am foggy, and that’s ok. I still know the moon is up there, behind those clouds, beyond my foggy ground and its pull, its gravity, can always be felt and I can never be separate from it, even if I tried!

My deep faith in the Universe’s love makes me smile, that, as well as coming home to my wonderful wife and my little boy, 2 years old, who now regularly is calling me ‘papa’. How wonderful!