Temple of Peace

Lotus in the fire
January/February 2009

A question from Vietnam
(Adult practice - Part XXXXII)


Before continuing to examine the zazen posture, I would like to share an exchange I had with a young university student from Vietnam.

To abbot Muho of Antaiji:

After reading your article Lotus in the fire- A broken precept, I think I have some ideas and thinking about Buddhism dharma:

About sexual desire, at my college, once an American teacher told me that, for a Westerner, sex is an essential need in life when we discussed about Buddhism’s view of sex. Once I read from a Buddhist textbook that Japanese monks married because they want to create opportunities for other monks to reborn and practise dharma in the next life. In Vietnam, monks are forbid to married, drinking, eating meat, enjoy music or films. I refer to follow those rules and the rules of Gautama Buddha for a monk but I against nothing. In my opinion, I think if Japanese monks married, they should only commit sexual conduct when they want to have childrens not to have sex for pleasure or seeking for pleasure in sex. I learnt that at the time of Gautama Buddha, many monks asked him how to avoid sexual desire when it appear in our mind? Buddha reply that monk should follow his breath and realize that everything is changeable. Beautiful girls will surely turn into old women and then die. We also will die in no time. Keep thinking about a decaying corpse turning eventually into bones and dust. We should avoid evil and selfish desires by find out and understand its root and its nature (everything is born and destroyed continuously even our daily mind’s activities and everything connected each others by karma, cause and effect) not by trying to avoid and against it. I guessed this is what Buddha meant when he indicated “control sexual desire”. Sex is based on male and female’s bodies. Since our bodies are getting old and decaying day after day so what is the point to run after the desire. This is what I’m thinking. So, watching our mind’s activities (our thinkings and emotion), find out its roots (since Buddha taught that everything in life appear or disappear based on causes and effect) from that we make the desire unable to control our activities and following our breath are the most important things for a zen monk to practise. I learnt that the utmost important part in Dharma practice is “ right concentration” and the awareness teaching of Buddha. Awareness teaching is the teaching to live peacefully in this moment, according to this, zen monk should concentrate to aware and realize what is happening in 4 areas: body, sensation, mind’s activities, and the objects of mind activities. That concentration is right concentration. At the first area: body, zen monk concentrate on his breath coming in and going out, the state of his body: sit, move, lie, stand, concentrate on body parts and the process of a decaying body until it turn into dust and finally, on the work we are doing. At the second are: sensation, zen monk concentrate on his sensation, there are 3 states of sensation: joy, suffering, neutral: not joy, not suffer. They are created and destroyed continuously in our mind and connected to each other by cause and effect. At the third are: mind’s activities, aware what’s our mind doing: desire for something, angry,... in sum up, concentrate on the state of mind in the present moment. Finally, at the fourth area: object of mind activities, zen monk concentrate on 5 obstacles of freedom (desire, angry, lost concentration, excited, doubt) whenever they exist in our mind, on 5 elements of human (body, sensation, perception, innermost feeling, awareness), on 5 senses and their objects, on 4 Noble Truths, on 7 elements of enlightenment (mindfulness, discernment of phenomena, diligence, joy, pliancy, samadhi, equanimity). Buddha claimed that who practise the right concentration diligently in 7 years will surely reach the true freedom, there are people only need 7 months or even in 7 days. I try to find a place so that in everyday life, I can practise these teaching when doing work and zazen and I found Antaiji is the perfect place. Most of pagodas in Vietnam now, especially in big cities like Saigon (I’m living in Saigon now), monks make a good living on their parish and ceremonies they perform also. I heard that some of them also stealthy eat meat and commit sexual conduct. Some of monks in Vietnam now have the nick-name: “police monk” because they are not real monks, they are hidden agents of Communist Government disguised as monks to control and prevent monks from lead the parish to raise against Communist rulers. Back in Vietnam war, a Catholic Government of South Vietnam was overthrowed by Buddhist movement because that Catholic Government tried to abolish Buddhism and to endeavour turn Vietnam to become a Catholic country. After the war, Communist Government confiscated many Catholic Churchs and Buddhist Monastery’s estate, banned the “Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam”, and formed their own Buddhist Community named “Buddhist Church of Vietnam” under the support of Communist Government to take control of monks and their parish. There are a few Buddhist movements to against Government from unreasonable confiscated citizen and Buddhist monastery’s land until now but all of them end up in violent repression.

Vietnamese Buddhism is also dead as in most temples in Japan, in Vietnamese Buddhism, even monks have ranks before their name as in military based on their study of Buddhism dharma at Vietnam Buddhism University, higher rank monk earn more respect, money and take higher position in Vietnam Buddhist system, the highest ranks monks, of course, must be supported by the Communist Government. One day, coming to a Vietnamese pagoda near my home with my intent to have a dharma talk with the monks there, I quickly disappointed when I saw that monks lie on the floor watching TV while waiting for "customers" call them for another funeral ceremony for them to perform. When I asked is there any Zen practice in this pagoda, they reply: "none", they only teach how to pray for a death man's soul. With the downfall of Buddhism in this age, I wonder when will Maitreya Buddha will be born. I think I will stop here. I'm trying all my best so that one day I can practise at Antaiji, and I always follow Buddha's teaching of right concentration.

Hoping you and Antaiji community will reach farther on the road of freedom from suffering and rebirth.

H. T.

Sorry about my bad English.
Dear H. T.,

thank you very much for your e-mail.

I think what you wrote is a very accurate description of the process of vipassana practice, which has a very strong relation to Zen practice, although there are some differences. In general, Zen practice is not so much about making things concious (and therefore not so much about understanding), but about becoming one with reality. So a little doubt I have is: Even if I understand that evrything is suffering and I also understand the reasons for the suffering (i.e. craving), this intellectual understanding does not always help me to reach liberation. Actually, both in the West in Christianity as well as in many Buddhist countries there are many examples of high ranking monks with a lot of understanding who still have not liberated themselves from suffering and sometimes even are involved in perverse sexual practices, with children for example. Therefore I am not sure if it is so easy to say: Concentrate on your breath, concentrate on impermanence, and you will understand suffering, understand the cause of suffering, understand the oath to end suffering, and in seven years you will be liberarted. I have the feeling that it is more tricky.

Best regards,

To Master Muho, Abbot of Antaiji temple

I understand what you mean when you state that high ranking monks with a lot of understanding who still have not liberarted themselves from suffering.

And this is my understanding:

The more understanding they have they still have not reach liberarted because they are already getting stuck to their knowledge. As you said: zen practice is not so much about making things concious (and therefore not so much about understanding), but about becoming one with reality. I totally agreed with that idea, I remember Buddha once said: the meaning of the finger which point to the moon is to make us possible to see the moon, not to stuck to the finger but we can’t see the moon without the finger. So, have a lot of knowledge is to put it into practice, into reality, we still can’t get nowhere with our knowledge wander round in our mind all day. “Reading words, forget words to get the ideas, already get the ideas, forget the knowledge to put it into everyday life practice”, this is the reason why I need an environment like in Antaiji, a place I can forget my knowledge to put it into samu, into zazen, into conversation and living harmoniously in Antaiji community. Buddha also said his teachings mean to put into practice, not to worship it. I think what the Buddha mean here: understand suffering, understand the cause of suffering, understand the oath to end suffering is not the same as the understanding we used to have in school but understanding here mean that to see it clearly with your own “eyes” which can be gained through knowledge and practice (the eyes of enlightenment). I’m a third year student, I understand the structure of atoms, but actually I never able to see an atom with my own eyes or by my own experience in reality. So it’s just I received informations from others and make myself believe that I really understand it by just remember those informations. Chinese Buddhism compare Buddhism dogma as a map, and zen monk will use that map to go to the reality through zazen. But how possible can we go to reality without a map? Only when we reach the destination, we never need any map anymore. Without the map we may take more time or even getting lost. Reality experience differ from what we make our mind able to think it out. For example: we can’t used our mind solely to make us to see the sweetness in our tongue. We must actually eat some sugar, for exapmle. We can only use our mind to recall that sweetnesss as information of memory from our last experience. As in the case of “craving will lead us to suffering”, we all know that, but most of us can’t escape from it because, I think that, we never recognize that we are in the “craving” state of mind, when that state was born. Without recognition, we can’t know the process how to neutralize it which must be discovered by everyone for himself or herself.

I’m sorry that I talked too much and suddenly I find myself as the scholar in a zen story like this:

A Buddhism scholar came to a Zen master to ask him about Zazen. The master offer the scholar tea and keep pouring tea into scholar’s cup. Until tea overflow the tea cup, the scholar said: “Please, master, tea already overflow the tea cup. Why do you keep pouring tea?” Zen master reply: ”Like this tea cup, your mind is full of knowledge. How can I express the meaning of Zen to you if you won’t drink up the tea ?”

Thank you very much for remind me that practise Zen is about becoming one in reality. Since everything in reality including us created, exist, destroyed and connected together by karma. I almost forgot this. If my feedback can be published in the lotus in fire, I'll be very happy that I can do some little thing useful for Antaiji community.

My best wish to Antaiji, H. T.
Dear H. T.,

only a few hours ago, I received a question about a book by the famous Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, which has to do with our topic of discussion. Here is the question:

I'm reading now a book by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book is a kind of very thorough introduction to Buddhism. In this book he explains about meditation in which one should try for each of the four noble truths work in three stages. If we take the first,

1. Recognition: one should recognize his suffering as suffering (for instance fear should be recognized as fear).

2. Encouragement: one should encourage himself to understand suffering (I should understand this is fear)

3. Realization: suffering is understood (I can see my fear)

For the scond:

1. Recognition: there is a reason for this suffering.

2. Encouragement: I should understand the way that led to suffering (I should understand why I'm afraid)

3. Realization: The reason is understood

And so forth for the other two.

He says that the realization is possible through many practices of mindfulness (It is still not clear to me what he means by mindfulness but it seems to me he means awareness to everything around you here and now).

To my question:

From my own (short) experience it seems as if shikantaza cuts through. From the moment I started practicing "Just Sitting" all (most of) my suffering, all (most of) my complexes dissolved withoul living a trace and realization and understanding rose. It didn't happen completely right a way but never the less it didn't take very long and it continually grows. I manage to live without an effort (or so I think but it may be only a story I tell myself).

For me "mindfulness" is a fruit of shikantaza and not a seed of enlightenment.

So for me his explanation seemed unneeded. From your experience and understanding, Is shikantaza really as I describe able to cut through suffering and complexes like that? Am I only imagining the effect? You have seen many people practice, can you tell me if there is something in common to the practitioners and to the results of this "good for nothing" zazen?

My answer:

When I wrote the "Stop being mindful!" article in the adult practice series, I was thinking also about this approach that you encounter a lot in the meditation communities. I think Thich Nhat Hanh is influenced a lot by the Theravada practice of vipassana. For me the problem is: The more we try to be "mindful" and "understand", the further we get away from the reality of what we try to be "mindful" of or "understand". We are always split in two: The mindful observer and the object of our mindfulness. So for me it is more the other way:

First we think we understand something, for example suffering. We analyse our suffering as if it was lying on a tray in front of us, objectively, without any relation to us (step 1).

Then we might "encourage" ourselves to allow that suffering to be part of ourselves, we start to relate to it in a real way, finally embrace it completely (step 2).

The realization is that the suffering is never different from our very existence. We are suffering, suffering is us. And: We are just we, suffering is just suffering! (step 3)

The same for the reason of suffering: First we might tell ourselves that we understand the reason for our suffering (step 1). But second we might encourage ourselves to let the truth come closer, see it in a different light (step 2): We do not UNDERSTAND the reason, we ARE the reason. We do not HAVE a problem, we ARE the problem (step 3).

And then we do not have to UNDERSTAND the solution, we have to BE the solution. And so forth.

You might think about the example of a long animal (maybe a snake, or a dragon?) that is discovering a tail in front of his eyes, telling himself "This is a tail, I understand it". But on close inspection the animal discovers that it is not only a tail, but it is his OWN tail: "This is indeed MY tail!" And finally: "I am this tail, the tail is me. I am I, the tail is the tail!"

For me this is shikantaza - cutting through to reality indeed, as you say, not so much about being "mindful" of this and that.

The question I ask myself is why so many people fall for this "mindfulness" approach? Maybe they first have to discover the power of our conscious mind, the possibility of dealing with things from a higher, detached, almost objective perspective. But I have the feeling that many modern people have made this discovery long ago, maybe even before we became teenagers. Our problem is not a lack of understanding or objective analysis. It is a lack of reality. We have forgotten to get back down from our high point of watching and analysing reality, and being one with reality!

This - in short - is shikantaza. Just sitting here now. For real. With my tail.

Best wishes muho, antaiji

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