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Zen Discipline and Marking Milestones at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan. In this passage, Kaoru and his fellow novices just celebrated a major milestone (the “Registration” ceremony), which removed their provisional status and made them into resident trainee monks.

From Eat Sleep Sit, p. 184:

There isn’t the slightest trace of relief or jubilation at having passed an important milestone. … Even though our status had altered, we were in no state to know what to think about it. Certainly the registration ceremony was an important rite of passage, but our daily lives were not about to change. That’s the nature of Zen discipline. Attaining high office or completing long years of discipline does not alter one’s treatment either. Zen discipline is not a staircase or a means of getting somewhere, it is rather about the successive moments of life — of existence itself. It means being fully aware in body and spirit of the fact of your life, and continuing to cultivate and practice the best way to live as a human being. This is the meaning of Dogen’s words, “Dignity is itself the Dharma. Propriety is itself the essence of the house.”

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February 18, 2011 at 8:18 am

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February 14, 2011 at 6:18 am

Mindfulness and death preparations

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From Dying with Confidence by Anyen Rinpoche (page 13 & 20):

During our lifetimes we generally pay a lot of attention to our bodies, but rarely think about what goes with us when we die. We cannot, of, course, take any physical or material aspect of our lives with us when we die. It is only the consciousness that goes with us. It is also the consciousness that experiences suffering or, more accurately, is able to perceive the experience of suffering. Most importantly, it is consciousness itself that can be transformed into wisdom during the dying process. The majority of the time we are focused on maintaining our physical body and material environment, when we actually need to place our attention on practice! Realizing this can help us shift our focus and motivate us to practice every day.

… Just as all of us make great effort to maintain our everyday lives, we should make similarly great effort in our preparations for death. If we are living and practicing the essence of the Dharma teachings, there should be no difference between our spiritual practices while we are living and those that we engage in at the time of death. One practice that we all share on the path, no matter what other teachings we have received or practices we have committed to, is training in mindfulness to ensure that in our last moments we will be able to make good use of our death.

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February 11, 2011 at 7:20 am

Posted in Meditation, Sadhana


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  • Journey Into Buddhism Trilogy (the Yatra Trilogy): Just stumbled upon these gorgeous (travel) documentaries from writer/director John Bush. The cinematography is mesmerizing, and you’ll learn about Buddhism as practiced across several Asian countries. Highly recommended!
  • The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview:

    Having lived in Cambodia and China, and traveled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing world—where the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to fac­tor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.

    Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobs—explaining nature and guiding morality. Their suggestion that science does these jobs better is pretty convincing. As Harris puts it, “I am argu­ing that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” I agree with Harris here and even spilled significant ink myself, back in 2001, to show that Stephen Jay Gould’s popular science/religion diplomacy of “nonoverlapping magisteria” (what many call the fact/value distinction) is incoherent. The horse­men’s mistake is not their claim that science can guide morality. Rather, they’re wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, eth­ics is barely relevant in non-Western religions. It is cer­tainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the “morality job” tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practi­tioners would even notice.

    Buddhism, for example, is about finding a form of psy­chological happiness that goes beyond the usual pursuit of fleeting pleasures. With introspection and discipline, Buddhism and other contemplative tradi­tions attempt to find a state of well-being that is outside the usual game of desire fulfillment. Bud­dhism aligns metaphysically with the new atheism and psychologically with the humanistic tradi­tions. Many of the new atheists have recognized that Buddhism doesn’t quite be long with the oth­er religious targets, and they reserve a vague respect for its philosophical core. I’m glad. They’re right to do so. But two days in any Buddhist country will painfully demonstrate to its Western fans that Buddhism is an elaborate, supernatural, devotional religion as well.

    … Religion is not really a path to morality, nor can it substitute for a scientific understanding of na­ture. Its chief virtue is as a “coping mechanism” for our troubles. Powerless people turn to religion and find a sense of relief, which helps them psychologically to stay afloat. Those who wish to abolish religion seek to pull away the life preserver, mistakenly blaming the device for the drowning.

  • A Workout Ate My Marriage: There have to yogis and yoginis in a similar boat as the couples described in this WSJ article.

    With exercise intruding ever-more frequently on intimacy, counselors are proposing a new wedding vow: For fitter or for fatter. “Exercise is getting more and more couples into my office,” says Karen Gail Lewis, a Cincinnati marriage and family therapist. Newlyweds have long recognized the risks of potential sickness, infidelity and ill fortune. But few foresee themselves becoming an exercise widow. After all, the idea that one’s beloved will take the occasional jog sounds appealing—until two miles a day becomes 10 miles, not counting the 20-mile runs on weekends.

  • What is spiritual materialism?: This old lecture, reminded me a of a recent Dharma talk (by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron), which I highlighted earlier.

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February 7, 2011 at 7:20 am

The Lust for food at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan. An earlier post contained excerpts about vegetarian meals at Eiheiji. In this post, Kaoru describes what happens when monks subjected to unrelenting pressure, aren’t given enough food!

From Eat Sleep Sit, p. 172-174:

Ancient Buddhist regulations treat the act of eating as a kinds of defilement. To us at that point, eating did seem like something furtive and dirty. Unable to content ourselves with what we were offered, we were assailed by uncontrollable cravings that deeply wounded our self-respect.

… In the common quarters, informal meals are prepared by the trainee in charge, who must also prepare meals for the two adjacent residences and clean up afterward. This involves bringing in trays of dishes from the neighboring residences to be washed in the sink. Every day, several trainee monks would gather when the trays came in, and proceed to fight over the leftovers. I stood dazedly by, watching others snatch up morsels and cram them into their mouths by the fistful, feeling troubled and guilty for having seen something I should not have. To think that these were human beings — it was all inexpressibly sad.

… Once you get away with something bad, without suffering even a reprimand, it often happens that you develop a new set of values accordingly. In time, I forgot that initial sense of emptiness. Rationality didn’t enter into it. When people are locked into a world of unrelenting pressure, their sense of reason, I found is all too vulnerable. And no amount of reason could fill an empty belly. Everyone was left with that most primitive of instincts fully exposed — the lust for food.

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February 4, 2011 at 8:03 am

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  • How to Deal with Criticism Well: 25 suggestions grouped into Personal Growth, Emotional Benefits, Improved Relationships, Time Efficiency, and Self Confidence.
  • Mindfulness meditation training changes brain structure in 8 weeks:

    … For the current study, MR images were take of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation – which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings and state of mind – participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images were also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval. Meditation group participants reported spending an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness exercises, and their responses to a mindfulness questionnaire indicated significant improvements compared with pre-participation responses.

    … “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.” says Britta Hölzel, PhD, first author of the paper and a research fellow at MGH and Giessen University in Germany. “Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”

    Amishi Jha, PhD, a University of Miami neuroscientist who investigates mindfulness-training’s effects on individuals in high-stress situations, says, “These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training. They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an 8-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amydala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.” Jha was not one of the study investigators.

  • States Help Ex-Prisoners Find Jobs: It took a fiscal crisis to make public officials realize that compassion and forgiveness, does make sense in certain situations.

    All told, the 50 states and the federal government spend $69 billion a year to house two million prisoners, prompting many budget cutters to see billions in potential savings by trimming the prison population. Each year, more than 600,000 inmates are released nationwide, but studies show that two-thirds are re-arrested within three years.

    “An exorbitant amount of money is dedicated to incarcerating people,” said Nancy La Vigne, director of the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute. “There are ways you can go about reducing the number of people incarcerated. The best way to help them successfully integrate into society and become independent, law-abiding citizens is to make sure they get a job.”

    Pushed by faith-based organizations and helped by federal stimulus money, California, Michigan, New York and other states expanded jobs programs in recent years to give prisoners a second chance and to reduce recidivism. The nation’s overall jobless rate is 9.4 percent, but various studies have found unemployment rates of 50 percent or higher for former prisoners nine months or a year after their release.

  • Slow food meets mindfulness:

    Food can be a source of genuine pleasure and gratitude if approached in the right way, but usually we’re too busy doing other things or caught up in our own thoughts to even taste what we’re eating. (Audio below)

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January 31, 2011 at 7:54 am

In the end, just three things matter

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From Jack Kornfield on Twitter:

In the end, just three things matter: how well we have lived, how well we have loved, and how well we have learned to let go.

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January 26, 2011 at 8:36 am

Posted in Meditation, Quotes, Sadhana


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