Saturday, February 26, 2011

Now, In Entering Into Zen

I’m borrowing the title of this post from a passage of Dogen Zenji’s Fukanzazengi – A Universal Recommendation for True Zazen (as translated in Yoshida, 2008). Fukanzazengi (pronounced foo-kahn-zah-zen-ghee) is a work that ranges from the seemingly mundane physical aspects of seated meditation, to the paradoxical nature of thinking of not thinking, to the ineffable quality of the ultimate reality that seated meditation allows us to experience – all within the confines of two very dense but quite accessible pages. Please check the related links section of this blog for Rosan Yoshida roshi’s translation of Fukanzazengi if you would like to have it available as you read on. I’ll be spending the rest of this post elaborating on some of those seemingly mundane physical aspects of seated meditation – zazen. Before I do, though, let me introduce you to a quote from Dogen’s Bendowa, which – like Fukanzazengi – affirms Dogen’s conviction in the absolute primacy of the practice of zazen: “When one displays the buddha mudra with one’s whole body and mind, sitting upright in this samadhi even for a short time, everything in the entire dharma world becomes buddha mudra, and all space in the universe completely becomes enlightenment” (as translated in Okumura, 1997).

It has become part of our practice at the Missouri Zen Center to read Fukanzazengi at the close of each full day of sitting. Clearly, a full day of sitting zazen is not something that most people do right from the start – although I have heard of it happening. My reason for mentioning that in this context, however, is to communicate the fact that zazen is something that is routinely done with great intensity – perhaps for a dozen or more sittings per day over the course of many days even. Thus, care should be given to the mechanics of sitting so as to make it as pain-free and strain-free as possible. This is just as true for a single period of zazen as it is for a whole day; for just as the tiniest of stones in one’s shoe can become excruciating over the course of a long walk, so postural difficulties can grow to be unbearable over the course of even a single period of mediation.

I’m going to assume that you are an absolute beginner without any specialized meditation gear and without any prior experience sitting zazen. I’ll concentrate on the half lotus posture because I think that most people, with a little stretching and preparation, will be able to sit in this way. If you find that you are way more flexible than I’m giving you credit for, then try the full lotus posture on for size. If you give the half lotus posture your concerted effort and find that you are in pain – perhaps due to an injury or something – then realize that there are other postures such as the Burmese posture, which I will discuss, and the seiza postures, for which some diagrams are included at the bottom of this post. Either way, once you grasp the big picture you’ll be able to determine precisely what you need in the way of sitting cushions (zafus) and sitting mats (zabutons) and seiza benches. You’ll be able to find these things for sale online. Okay, here goes.

Now, in entering into Zen, a carpeted floor will do fine. If you only have hardwood or tile floors on which to meditate then use a folded blanket or a doubled over yoga mat or a bath mat or something in order to cushion your knees. I don’t necessarily recommend meditating on your bed. The springiness of the mattress can magnify any of the inadvertent movements you might make. Rustle up a couple or three sofa pillows (they compress so easily). A doubled over sleeping pillow (or two) could also be used. Okay, before we continue, please do me a favor. Touch the fingertips of your right hand to the inside of your left elbow. (Believe me, my madness has a method.) Now – with your right fingertips still touching the inside of your left elbow – fold your left arm over and touch the upper part of your right arm . This is what you’ll be doing in a moment with your legs, so please take a moment to assimilate what I’ve asked you to do. Okay, carry on.

Getting Your Foundation In Order

Situate your pillow or pillows on whatever floor covering you’ve selected. Start with enough that you have about six inches of sitting height even after they’ve compressed. As you will see, the height of the cushion will be something that you will need to adjust as you learn more about sitting and your body. In general, taller people will need a taller cushion. Also, the same person may need a taller cushion for sitting half lotus than they would for sitting full lotus. Sit toward the front half of your cushion or cushions with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Now, draw in your right foot toward the left side of your body and let your right knee touch the floor. Okay, remember touching your right fingertips to the inside of your elbow? Well, draw your left foot into position in front of your right shin and knee, and let your left knee drop to the floor such that the toes of your right foot nestle into the space behind your left knee – just like the fingers of your right hand nestled into the space at the inside of your elbow. (I told you my madness had method!)

Let’s take stock of where we are so far. We’ve got our buttocks on the cushion and both knees on the floor. Our legs are resting parallel to each other right on the floor in front of us – left leg in front of the right. If it happens to be the case that your left knee is not touching the floor, check to see whether the toes of your right foot are in the way. If they are, then adjust them so that they fit into the hollow behind your left knee. You might also check to make sure that you are sitting on the front half of your sitting cushion, that your cushion is high enough, and that your back is arched slightly. If your knees still don’t touch the floor after adjusting for all of these things then it could be that your hips are tight. Check the related links section for the link to Erich Schiffmann’s website. You’ll find some hip opening stretches there that will be helpful. And remember, stretching should never hurt!

Okay, you’re doing great! Now “dish” your pelvis forward as if it were a bowl (it is rather bowl-like) that you are tipping forward. Arch your back slightly (not severely) and sit upright. You are in what’s called the Burmese position – at least from the waist down. This is a good position in which to meditate, so consider yourself successful even if this is all the flexibility you can muster for right now. Now, pull your left foot up onto your right thigh. You may need to bring your knees just a little closer together to do this. Pull your right foot back a little if your toes end up in the way after you do this. If you’re able to keep your left foot up on your right thigh without pain or strain – congratulations – you’re a shoe-in for the half-lotus position! If you feel as though you’re straining to hold that position or if you feel like your left foot wants to slide down off of your thigh, then let it. Did it land on your right calf? Fantastic! Consider yourself to have achieved a quarter-lotus. If that is still not comfortable, recall that you already know how to sit in the Burmese posture – at least from the waist down. So, you still can’t get both knees on the floor? Keep up the stretching, but for now try putting a small pillow or a wadded up sock under the uplifted knee. This will keep tension from building up in your body because of having to actively hold your position. (You’ll be doing this on some level even if you think you’re not.)

I cannot stress enough the importance of getting into a position where your buttocks and your knees form a tripod. This tripod forms a stable foundation for the rest of your body. If you’re feeling asymmetrical at all at this time – straining to keep your left leg up on your thigh or your calf, or straining because one of your knees is hanging up in the air – this strain will only become more pronounced over time. Take some time now to adjust. Maybe you need to be sitting on a higher or lower cushion. Maybe you need to sit a little bit more forward on your cushion (you should be sitting on the front half). Maybe if one of your legs or knees or ankles is less flexible than the other you will need to start over – switching legs. Maybe you need to spend some time working on stretching out. At any rate, you should not need to hold yourself into position, and you should not be in pain!

Above the Waist

Find a good place for your hands to settle into a mudra – left fingers overlapping your right fingers (convention) and thumb tips lightly touching. Where you end up positioning your mudra will depend upon your sitting style and the proportions of your body. Full-lotus meditators may find that their hands are resting on their ankles. Others may find that their wrists are supported by their thighs. It’s important to find a place for your hands that does not require you to hold them into place. Having to hold your hands in place will almost certainly cause strain to travel up your forearms to your shoulders and into your neck.

By the way, there is nothing magical about this mudra. Those of you who may be struggling with overcoming a fundamentalist religious upbringing can rest assured that this is not – I repeat, not – a secret hand signal to the devil! (Please believe me, I say that with great compassion and understanding.) We simply need something to do with our hands while we sit and this mudra works great. Additionally, you will find that you can make use of your mudra to gauge what’s going on with your mind. Is the oval of your mudra collapsing over time? Perhaps you’re battling fatigue. Are your thumb tips about to drill into each other? Perhaps you’re stressed or anxious or angry. Are your thumb tips drifting apart? Perhaps you’re losing focus.

Notice the angle between your torso and your thighs. It’s greater than a right angle, right? If it’s not then you’re either not sitting on a cushion or you’re sitting in the same old cross-legged position that you sat in as a kid! Please study the pictures and reread the description of what to do with your legs. This is extremely important. You want to have enough room for your diaphragm to move freely – expanding and contracting with ease. This will allow you to breathe without any movement other than your abdomen going in and going out, i.e. your chest will not be heaving, your shoulders will not be moving, your entire skeleton will be able to remain stationary.

Some people have a hard time “finding their breath.” You may be someone who carries a lot of tension in your back and chest from day after day of stressful living. This stored tension might keep your breath up in your chest where it will be shallow and more rapid. You want to let your breath drop down into your belly, so to speak, and here’s a trick to help you do just that: Take a deep chest breath, letting yourself heave away as much as you want. When you exhale, exhale completely, even going as far as pushing the last of the air out of your lungs. Now, take another chest breath and exhale completely. Stay there for a second or two longer than you would otherwise. Notice that feeling of wanting to take a breath. When that feeling of wanting to take a breath becomes a feeling of needing to take a breath then let your belly expand. Feel how the movement of your abdomen draws in that next beautiful breath. Keep doing that until you settle into doing it naturally.

Now, tuck your chin in slightly and direct your gaze downward at the floor a few feet in front of you. Keep your eyes open. The light will help keep you alert, and having your gaze directed downward will help to minimize thinking. How’s that, you say? Well, do you remember from reading cartoons how whenever a character is thinking the cartoonist draws the eyes gazing upward? Oh, you don’t believe in research gleaned from the funny pages? Then think about what happens when someone loses consciousness – their eyes roll back in their head. And if you’re not buying that either, then just notice where your eyes are the next time you catch yourself lost in thought during meditation. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that your eyes have rolled back in your head.

Keep your mouth closed and your tongue against your upper palate. Try to keep your jaw and throat relaxed. In combination, this will minimize the buildup of saliva and allow any saliva that does form to just slip down your throat without you ever feeling the need to swallow. Oh, and try not to have your chin tucked in too tight. Doing so can constrict your throat and bring about an annoying tickle in the back of your throat that will not subside until you’ve swallowed umpteen times.

Putting it all Together

So there you have it. That is the physical form of zazen. Make use of it to settle deeper and deeper into physical stillness. Your mind will follow. Breathe naturally, at an unforced rate and depth. In the beginning, if you feel like your mind is simply racing from one thought to another, you may want to count your breaths. Count your complete breath cycles from one to ten, one to ten… You may lose count after six, or you may realize that you’ve blown right past ten and gotten all the way up seventeen; don’t worry about it. Just start counting all over again. This is not a failure on your part; it is a success. Whenever you realize that you’ve lost count or counted too far, you have brought your awareness back to the present moment. That is what meditation is all about – bringing your awareness back to the present moment. Some people might feel that breath-counting is cumbersome, and yet still they need something to help focus their mind. In this case you might want to try “watching” or “following” your breath, as it is called. This is simply a matter of following the ebb and flow of your breath. Perhaps you pay attention as your abdomen goes in and out. Perhaps you notice the sensation of your breath as it flows into and out of your nostrils. Let thoughts come and go, neither pushing them away nor grabbing them and holding onto them. Let them be like clouds flowing across the bright sky of your mind. Let them be like waves overhead as you sit on the bottom of the ocean. We are not trying to be enlightened. We are not trying to be buddhas. We are just sitting. When we are just sitting – with no goal in mind, without trying to do anything, without utilizing any tricks or techniques – we are practicing shikantaza. Let me close now with the final sentences of Fukanzazengi: “Practice in such a way constantly and you will never fail to realize suchness. The treasure house will open by itself, and you will appreciate and use it at will” (as translated in Yoshida, 2008).

A special thank you to Rosan Yoshida roshi and the Missouri Zen Center for permission to use the images appearing here from the Missouri Zen Center’s website and the Manual of Zazen.

Okumura, S., Leighton, T. D. (1997). The wholehearted way: A translation of Eihei Dogen’s Bendowa with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi. Tuttle Publishing. p.22. (Original work published 1231)
Yoshida, R. (2008). Fukanzazengi: A universal recommendation for true zazen. Missouri Zen Center website. (Original work published 1227)
Yoshida, R., Eilers, R. W., Ganio, M. (1979). Manual of zazen. Missouri Zen Center.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Spectrum of Meditative Experience

I began collecting my thoughts for this post with a fairly straightforward objective in mind: provide a reasonably comprehensive review of the mechanics and usefulness of the traditional postures for seated meditation – zazen. I knew from the start that in order to achieve that objective I’d need to talk about appropriate stretching to at least some degree. Why? Well, first of all, the issue of flexibility (or lack thereof) comes up nearly every time I provide instruction to a group of beginning meditators. Stiff legs, tight hips, and sore backs just seem to be endemic in our increasingly sedentary society. Secondly, even though it is such a common issue, it doesn’t seem to be something that we in the Zen tradition are all that willing or prepared to discuss. When I think about it, though, that makes perfect sense. Japanese monks probably only rarely exhibited the difficulty that we Westerners have in molding ourselves into the full or half lotus position; and even if they did, I suspect that the sense of decorum within the monastic setting would have almost certainly precluded them from getting all sprawled out – in their robes no less – trying to open up their hips and stretch out their hamstrings! Oh, and then there’s the issue of liability, at least for our contemporaries, with respect to suggesting that somebody stretch their body in some unknowingly contraindicated way. Better to just leave the whole issue alone, right? Well, no. I really do think a little bit of knowledge about stretching will benefit meditators of all experience levels – but especially beginners.

Realizing that it would be a non-starter to talk about stretching without providing at least one visual accompaniment, I set out to find a good online resource that I could reference. And that’s when my original idea for this post got derailed. You see, as I was browsing the internet looking for resources, I was struck by the narrowness of focus or the outright inaccuracy of much of what I was finding. With respect to accuracy, for instance, one ostensibly reputable yoga resource included a description of the full lotus posture accompanied by a photograph of a woman sitting in what we always referred to when we were kids as “cross-legged” with her knees sticking up in the air. Regarding narrowness of focus, I’m referring to photographs of practitioners clearly straining to hold a position that must be considered magical in and of itself due to the fact that there was no accompanying explanation as to why someone would want to get themselves into such a position in the first place. That said, I did find some very good information on Erich Schiffmann’s website. He is advocating what, from my understanding, is a historically authentic approach to yoga – a practice wherein the various asanas are considered preparation for entering into the full lotus position in order to meditate for long periods of time. I have included a link to his website as well as a few others under ‘Zazen’ in the related links section. (Please note that stretching should never hurt.) If you check out those links you’ll be very prepared for my next post. I did say that I got derailed from my original objective, didn’t I?

Anyway, the process of browsing the internet looking for the aforementioned resources got me thinking about meditative practices in general – why we do them, and what they offer us. It got me thinking of my own life and the various meditative practices that I engage in and how they fit into my overall approach to spiritual practice. The result of this exploration is the following diagram. Please note that I refer to it as “A Spectrum of Meditative Experience” and not “The Spectrum of Meditative Experience.” Upon reflection, you will be able to construct a similar diagram of your own that incorporates what is unique to your spiritual/meditative practice. In fact, I hope you do. I think it could be instructive. Now, when I speak of meditation I’m simply referring to the focusing of the mind. By that definition anything can be a meditation. Life itself can be a meditation if you approach it in that way. However, it’s quite clear that not all meditative practices are the same.

The left hand side of the diagram represents how things can be for us sometimes – when we’re not approaching life as a meditation, that is. Unfortunately, that’s most of the time, right? Life when we’re in this mode is lived without awareness. Life when we’re in this mode unfolds according to the dictates of our karma – our “habit energy,” as Rosan Yoshida refers to it. Life in this mode is lived without free will. After all, where does free will reside if not within awareness? In the “action without awareness” mode we prioritize the activities of our life in the way that we’re socialized to do, and we respond to adversity in the way that has become our habit. In this mode our happiness or sadness or contentment is all dependent upon the ebb and flow of “good things” and “bad things” within our samsaric existence. When I become aware that I’m having a “bad day” in this regard, I often declare to myself: “I need to go for a run!” Yes, running helps to focus my mind so that I can see things more clearly and deeply and with greater perspective. I actually find it to be much more meditative than my placement of it on the spectrum might convey. My reason for positioning it where I have is as follows: If I’m running on a safe and easy path in the park my mind might end up wandering off and veering into some karma-driven realm of thought that isn’t much better than the one that prompted me to go for a run in the first place. Now, if I’m running on a rugged trail somewhere it’s a different story. There isn’t much room for the mind to wander when you’re flying down some treacherous goat trail where one false step will have you tumbling head over heals! Yes, that is a little bit more meditative an experience. Then it’s more like rock climbing. Actually, rock climbing is not something that I’ve done very much of at all, but I’ve done enough of it to know how focused your mind can be (needs to be) when you’re hanging by your toes and fingertips high up on a rock wall.

Somewhere in between more absent-minded running and focus-your-mind-like-your-life-depends-on-it rock climbing or trail running is what I refer to as “yoga as a workout.” This is when I’m approaching yoga practice as a means to an end. Usually I’m in this mode because I’ve got a running injury for which I need some especially focused stretching in order to heal. Sure, I’m approaching my yoga with mindfulness and awareness under such circumstances, but my intention has become – dare I say it – a tad bit mercenary and not that far removed from my usual habit energy. Most of the time when I’m doing yoga practice, though, I’m approaching it more meditatively and with greater purity of intention. Yoga is a practice that requires focused awareness for a sustained period of time, and over the course of that period of time the mind becomes more and more still. But what really makes yoga work from my perspective is when the teacher guides us through a good selection of asanas that get me all stretched out and supple and in the present moment and tired enough that my mind is pretty still. Then they let us catch our breath for awhile in the corpse pose before having us sit up and get into one of the lotus postures for a few minutes of meditation. Ah! The only problem, though, is that it’s always, oh, so brief! As you can see, I’ve put this variety of yogic experience right next to zazen, and for all practical purposes it constitutes a long introduction to zazen. Thus, I must give it its due and recognize it as a potentially transformative practice. The only reason I qualify that statement at all is due to the fact that I simply need more time on the cushion.

Okay, I’ve not forgotten t'ai chi. T'ai chi is a wonderfully smooth meditation in motion – one that never fails to calm and focus my mind. An almost constant awareness is required in order to navigate the subtle movements and shifting of weight that comprise the t'ai chi form (and constant awareness is required to do it well). But even though I hold it in such high regard, I’m just a little bit shy of being able to call t'ai chi a transformative practice – for me. Many people will disagree with me on that point, I’m sure, perhaps making the point that if I really gave myself up to the practice then I would think about it otherwise. So, if that is your point of view, then I’m already listening! For now, though, and for the foreseeable future, I’m considering seated meditation to be the ultimate meditative experience for me. I consider seated meditation – zazen – to be transformative rather than merely translational.

If you’ve read my post titled Transformation (or accessed the link in the related links section to some of Wilber’s thoughts on the matter) you already know what I mean by that. Translational practices calm us, console us, improve and enrich our lives, make us “better” people, and imbue our lives with meaning; however, they do not provide the total release from the confines of the small self that transformative practices do. When we’re sitting in zazen with still body and still mind, we have achieved a state wherein we are free (even if only briefly) from the confines of our karma-generated existence. I will elaborate on this point in my next post, but for now let me simply close by saying that it is the potential to realize this state of karmic cessation (nirvana – the “windless state,” as Rosan Yoshida describes it) that makes the practice of zazen a truly transformative practice.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mind Is What the Body Does

Each of us, I’m sure, has at least one fond recollection of something that a teacher showed us or said to us that tweaked our way of approaching meditation just enough to allow everything to fall into place with a great big “ahhh!” Maybe it was a gentle nudge that guided you into your perfect posture, or a simple turn of a phrase related to some issue that you were wrestling with. Maybe it was the first time you ever saw your teacher settle into zazen with the sense of great purpose that she did – because all of the other times you’d been facing the wall! For me it was when my teacher, Rosan Yoshida, said to us: “We become enlightened with the body – not with the mind.”

Yes, we’re all pretty focused on the mind, aren’t we? And perhaps that is to be expected given the lengths that we go to in describing its nature: Mind is like a wild ox in the forest that we need to seek out and tame. Mind is like pure, still water. Mind is like a monkey chattering and swinging from branch to branch. Mind is the entire world. Mind is like a puppy that we need to keep picking up and putting back on the newspaper. Mind is like a mirror reflecting everything. Of course, all of these descriptions are useful depending upon the context, but apparently what I needed to hear most of all at the time was something that would pluck me from my ‘all mind, all the time’ cloud and place me back firmly on the ground. “We become enlightened with the body,” Rosan said, “not with the mind.”

Now, some of you are probably way ahead of me right now and thinking to yourself: “Wait a minute. Mind and body aren’t even separate from each other in the first place, are they?” Indeed, that reality is readily accepted in Buddhist circles, but it is true from a strictly scientific perspective, as well. You simply have to follow the chain of causation. “Mind is what the brain does” is a phrase often used by neuroscientists in describing the relationship between the mind and the brain. But the brain doesn’t just do what’s inside of the cranium in which it is housed. The brain is connected by nerves and blood vessels to all other parts of the body, checking their orientation in space, and sampling whatever biochemical information they might have to convey. It would seem then that the mind is not just what the brain does; the mind is what the body does. But why stop there? The brain, via the various senses organs connected to it, monitors everything that the body comes into contact with. For example, the sun (93 million miles away) and the eye (right here and now) combine to create sight – processed within the brain and subsequently wondered about by the mind. Thus, the statement “mind is the entire world” would not seem to be a nonsensical contention even from a Western scientific perspective. For now, though, let’s simply focus on the fact that the mind and the body are not separate at all. Let’s just try to remember that the mind is what the body does.

The traditional physical posture of zazen – seated meditation – is specifically designed to bring about stillness of mind. I will go into this in much greater detail in my next post, but I’ll touch on the highlights here. The stability of the tripod made by our knees on the ground and our buttocks on the cushion is like the stability of a tripod on which a camera might sit. The cushion raises our buttocks to an appropriate height above the knees such that the angle between our thighs and our torso is open enough to allow for smooth and unhindered abdominal breathing – the type of breathing that doesn’t require any heaving of the chest or movement of the shoulders and ribcage. The mudra that we make with our hands in our lap allows for a minimum of strain to be placed on the forearms, shoulders, and neck. Having our eyes slightly open and cast downward helps to keep us alert and helps to minimize the tendency to slip into prolonged episodes of thinking. Yes, everything about this physical posture leads the mind deeper and deeper into stillness. To use an analogy that Rosan often uses: the mind is like water sitting in the bowl of the body. When the bowl (the body) is still, the water (the mind) becomes still – thereby allowing its clear nature to arise.

If you’d like another analogy, perhaps you can think of your entire body as being a system of lenses that, with proper adjustment, allow you to bring the true nature of your mind into clear focus. Or maybe you’d like to think of your body as a “stillness machine” that generates stillness of mind as long as you have all of the proper settings “dialed in.”  However you prefer to think about it, it is essentially a matter of setting up the appropriate physical conditions for stillness of mind to occur. So, take full advantage of the physical posture of zazen. Actualize its potential completely. And always remember, we become enlightened with the body – not with the mind.  

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Buddha Under Construction photoraph courtesy of Kongsky via:

Sunday, February 13, 2011


My previous post ended with a provisional definition of a spiritual journey as “any enduring spiritual practice undertaken with the intention that it bring about transformation.” At the time I left largely unexplored this thing called transformation, so that will be the focus of today’s post. I’ll provide some theoretical context later on, but for now let’s begin by diving right into the words of two of the most revered figures in their respective religious traditions: Thomas Merton, a modern day Trappist monk (now deceased), and Dogen Zenji, a 13th century Japanese monk and founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism.

Thomas Merton describes the Christian experience of transformation as an emptying out of personal ego from the vessel that is this human form so that God can inhabit it to the fullest. Merton (1968) writes:
This dynamic of emptying and of transcendence accurately defines the transformation of the Christian consciousness in Christ. It is a kenotic transformation, an emptying of all the contents of the ego-consciousness to become a void in which the light of God or the glory of God, the full radiation of the infinite reality of His Being and Love are manifested. (p. 75)
Dogen Zenji, in perhaps his most quoted of all passages from the Shobogenzo’s Genjokoan (as translated in Okumura, 2010) writes:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be verified by all things. To be verified by all things is to let the body and mind of the self and the body and mind of others drop off. There is a trace of realization that cannot be grasped. We endlessly express this ungraspable trace of realization.

Now, it is not my objective at the present time to explore the universality of transformative experience. However, if I can plant the seed of wonderment as to whether that just might be the case then I will have paved the way for what will almost certainly be the topic of an entire post down the road. So, in order to whet your appetite for such a future post, as well as to make the most of the fact that I have your attention in the present moment, I will point out (just in case it is not already obvious) the similarity between Merton’s ‘emptying out the ego-consciousness’ and Dogen’s ‘forgetting the self.’ Furthermore, I’d like to put forth the possibility that Merton’s concept of ‘becoming a void in which the glory of God can be manifested’ and Dogen’s concept of ‘being verified by all things’ just might be – depending upon your willingness to look beyond the mere surface appearance of words to the reality underlying them – the same thing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to digress for a moment and state that, while the decision to consider these two particular quotations in sequence is my own, my inspiration for doing so comes from the writings of Thomas Merton. You see, it was Merton, a Christian, who first reached out to this Zen Buddhist (and erstwhile Christian) with his book Zen and the Birds of Appetite in which he attempts to find common ground between Eastern and Western religious experience. Merton, in turn, was similarly influenced by Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki and his book Mysticism: East and West. As usual, we stand on the shoulders of giants. I feel especially indebted to Merton for allowing me to integrate my Christian heritage into my Buddhist practice (or at least to begin the process of integration). You see, changing religions can be fraught with difficulty. It involves a pushing away of one thing and an embrace of another. Of course, my Buddhist practice has subsequently brought me to the realization that pushing away and pulling towards are merely different manifestations of attachment – both of which hinder the realization of true freedom. Okay, back to the matter of transformation!

Ken Wilber is a contemporary theorist in the field of human development and transpersonal psychology who has pored over an abundance of the world’s religious, psychological, and philosophical literature looking for that which is universally human. Just as stage theorists such as Freud, Piaget, and Erikson posit that human development progresses through various developmental levels, Wilber posits that human consciousness progresses through various developmental levels. However, unlike most stage theories that culminate with healthy adulthood, Wilber’s model of the levels of consciousness reaches above and beyond what we commonly think of as normal and healthy adult consciousness. Some critics contend that this model is not as universal as is suggested – that it follows too closely the Hindu conception of metaphysical reality to the exclusion of alternative views of reality. Regardless, his exposition of the two important functions of religion – translation and transformation – resonates deeply with me. In Wilber’s model, translation refers to that which takes place at each given level of consciousness. Transformation, however, refers to the movement from one level of consciousness to another (Wilber, 1980, 1998).

Wilber finds religion to be uniquely suited to the late egoic level of consciousness (on which the vast majority of us reside) for both the process of translation and the process of transformation. For instance, the search for existential meaning, the determination of that which is of value, and the need for consolation as we face the various trials of existence are all well served by religion. These are all translational processes. However, for those adherents who avail themselves of its potential, religion can provide a path towards transformation. Oftentimes transformation is not so much a chosen activity (as with a spiritual journey, perhaps) as it is something that commences when the process of translation begins to falter – when meaning breaks down, when value begins to erode, and when consolation can no longer be found (Wilber, 1980, 1998). Wilber (1998) states that “authentic transformation is not a matter of belief but of the death of the believer; not a matter of finding solace but of finding infinity on the other side of death. The self is not made content; the self is made toast” (p. 141).

Speaking of “authentic transformation,” let me return to the writings of Merton in order to touch on the potential pitfalls along the road to transformation. While transformation is indeed a break from an old way of being, a discarding of an old and outmoded sense of self, it is also true that transformation can be real or it can merely be perceived as real. It can be the case that various transitory experiences of transcendence might actually serve to strengthen the ego rather than signal its demise. Merton (1968, p. 73) says:
These [transcendent experiences] become the crowning glory of egohood and self-fulfillment. We doubtless admit that in transcending itself the ego does indeed go “beyond” itself, but in the end this proof of spiritual elasticity is all to its own credit. The further it can go without snapping, the better and more respectable an ego it is. In fact, the ego trains itself to be so completely elastic that it can stretch to the vanishing point and still come back and chalk up another experience on the score card. In this case, however, there is no real self-transcendence. The “trip” that is taken is ultimately a release for and an intensification of ego-consciousness.
So, it seems that the importance of a teacher or a guide as one negotiates his or her path toward transformation cannot be discounted. A close and intimate community of practitioners might also serve this function of encouraging the practitioner to keep their ideas and experiences in proper perspective. I’m thinking of the format of the Quaker Meeting (Religious Society of Friends), for instance, wherein the individual who feels called to speak (ostensibly) by that of God within himself/herself can have the veracity of that calling tested as his or her words are heard by the broader community.

At this point, let me close this already heavily Merton-influenced post with another quote that reveals the potential for a Christian to understand Buddhism even better than a Buddhist and the potential for a Buddhist to understand Christianity even better than a Christian. (Mind you, I am not including myself in this latter camp of which I speak.) Merton (1968) writes of the potentially dangerous road toward transformation: “That is why a St. John of the Cross is so hostile to visions, ecstasies and all forms of ‘special experience.’ That is why the Zen Masters say: ‘if you meet the Buddha, kill him’” (p. 77).

Merton, T. (1968). Zen and the birds of appetite. New Directions.
Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing genjokoan: The key to Dogen’s shobogenzo. Wisdom Publications. p.2. (Original work published 1233)
Wilber, K. (1980). The atman project: A transpersonal view of human development. The Theosophical Publishing House.
Wilber, K. (1998). The essential Ken Wilber: An introductory reader. Shambhala Publications, Inc. 140-143.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Spiritual Journey, Anyone?

While it is true that we are all spiritual beings, there are as many ways to manifest that spirituality as there are people. Some people find their spiritual home amongst the prescribed beliefs, doctrine, and rituals of an established religious tradition. For others, spirituality flourishes within the very process of opening up to experience, reflecting upon its meaning, and adjusting their lived values accordingly. Still others find their spirituality nurtured by taking part in those activities that make them feel most joyfully alive: gardening, running, engaging in the arts, doing yoga, experiencing communion with nature, etc. But, while it is true that we are all spiritual beings, is it also true that each of us is on a spiritual journey?

What exactly does it mean, anyway, to be on a spiritual journey? Does it require a pilgrimage of some sort – to Mecca, or the Holy Land, or the site of a great miracle? Does it require time spent in a monastery or in seclusion from the distractions of ordinary life? Perhaps some element of danger or physical hardship is associated with it – as with a spirit quest or the circumambulation of a great mountain. Some might take a different tack altogether and insist that we are all on a spiritual journey merely by virtue of being alive, whether we choose to be or not, whether we think we are or not. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that you are absolutely free to think about this in whatever way rings true for you. However, I will attempt to boil down to their essence these various ideas regarding what constitutes a spiritual journey.

First and foremost, in my mind, is that a spiritual journey is a process of transformation. Regardless of whether it requires any actual physical movement from one location to another, metaphorical movement is taking place – movement away from separation and towards integration, movement out of darkness and towards the light, movement away from falseness and towards that which is true, divine, holy, eternal, etc. And while this process of transformation might not necessarily require any physical danger or hardship, it may indeed be accompanied by psychic danger or hardship. In order for transformation to occur the old self must fade away, and even though the old self might dwell in isolation and darkness and falseness it is the only self we’ve ever known – and that can make it a scary thing to lose. No, you probably shouldn’t (you probably wouldn’t) even embark on a spiritual journey unless you’re open to being changed – and not merely changed in the sense of toning up your spiritual muscles, so to speak, or giving your spirit a good makeover. No, the transformation that waits at the end of a spiritual journey is a radical and earth-shattering type of change that results in seeing the self and the world in an entirely new way.

Openness to change points to another important element of a spiritual journey – intention. The intention to be transformed rather than to simply gain satisfaction or contentment or peace of mind (not that those are bad things!) is what pushes us to take those first steps of a spiritual journey. Thus, a journey to a holy place is not necessarily a spiritual one if it is undertaken with an attitude more akin to a tourist blithely collecting memories in order to provide a richer backdrop to his same old sense of self, or if it is undertaken with the closed heart of a practitioner doing something merely out of a sense of obligation. Openness to transformation is what makes all the difference between two people sitting side-by-side on a church pew week after week – one whose presence is predicated on maintaining status within the community, or making his family happy, or keeping at bay a wrathful God, and another whose presence reflects her sincere desire to transcend the fleeting physical nature of being and touch that which is eternal. Given, then, that intention is so important to the quality of the spiritual experience, it is the lack of intention that, for my way of thinking, precludes the journey of life from being considered a spiritual journey. Indeed, it might be spiritual and, yes, transformation may occur, but if that transformation results solely from the vicissitudes of existence and not from the ongoing exercise of free will – like the gnarling of a bristlecone pine by the buffeting winds – then it hardly seems appropriate to consider it a spiritual journey.

Lastly, it is this ongoing exercise of free will that prompts me to include the passage of time – appreciable time – in any definition of a spiritual journey. So, while one might sincerely intend to be transformed by the performance of three prostrations before an altar, for example, and in fact one might actually be transformed by the performance of three prostrations before an altar (who am I to say it couldn’t happen), it would seem somewhat hyperbolic to refer to that single isolated element of spiritual practice as a spiritual journey! No, a great journey requires fortitude and dedication – the ability to weather the lows and not be distracted by the highs. It requires us to wake up day after day and affirm our intention anew. Such intention can only be tested by the passage of time. And so it seems that a spiritual journey must be accompanied by enduring intention.

In closing, then, I’d like to propose the following provisional definition: A spiritual journey is any enduring spiritual practice undertaken with the intention that it bring about transformation. What do you think? Is this a definition that works for you? Does it ring true as you reflect upon your own spiritual practice – your motivation for engaging in it and your hope/desire for what lies at the end of the road? Hmmm…, I guess now we need to dig a little deeper into this thing called transformation, don’t we?

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Friday, February 4, 2011

Calm Abiding

The weather is lousy outside, with sleet coating the roads and trees and windows, and a foot of snow on the way. At least, that’s what I’ve been hearing on the local news – the foot of snow that is. The sleet I can see with my very own eyes. I can hear it, too, peppering the windows when the wind picks up – first from one side of the house and then the other. Like a kid home from school on a snow day, I stand at the window surveying the backyard where everything is all covered with white or dripping with icicles. Absent is the usual activity of squirrels dutifully checking on their stashes of nuts, and rabbits hopping tentatively about as if they’ve only so much energy to spare, and starlings flitting en masse from lawn to tree to who knows where. They all seem to have simply disappeared. The squirrels I know are up there in their leafy nests, huddled together, swaying with the wind. And the rabbits I know are down in their grass-lined burrows, as the world grows quieter and quieter with each new layer of ice crystals that falls across their entrance. The starlings are more of a mystery, though, at least to me. They just seem to have faded away into the nooks and crannies of the world – amongst the leaf litter that collects under the bushes, or in the abandoned nests of other birds, or in any secluded hollow they could find – there to abide until the storm has passed.

I think of them all - the rabbits and squirrels and starlings - calmly abiding out there in the frigid cold, hunkered down in places that are becoming more and more encased in ice with each passing moment. There is great wisdom in their abiding. I know that first hand now, but only after many years of living. There is great trust in their abiding – more trust than I can usually muster. As they huddle in their chosen places, with whatever tiny collection of food they might have assembled, or none at all, they abide with innate trust that the storm will eventually abate, and it will do so before their strength runs out. They know that because they are of this world and so they fear not that the world might conjure up a storm too furious, or too long-lasting for them to survive. They know they simply have to abide. And so they wait, without any anxious fretting, or contingency planning, or cursing of their circumstances, or pining for a day when spring will come and food will be aplenty and living will be easy. No, they simply settle into calm abiding.

 Calm abiding isn’t easy for us humans to do. We’re so filled with ideas about what is fair and what should be. We’re so used to setting our own agendas and deciding what is right for us. We’re so socialized to struggle with and fight against anything that we decide is not in our best interest. After all, that’s what strong people do, right? They stick up for themselves. They make things happen the way they think that things should happen. Yes, that’s the way we usually live our lives – until, that is, we can’t. And that’s the part that we seem to forget.

“You’ll be tougher than boiled owl by the time you make it across Wyoming,” the old woman said as she rang up my can of soda and bag of chips somewhere in the middle of the hundred miles of a whole lot of nothing in between Shoshoni and Casper. Yeah, that’s right, I thought, rather enjoying the prospect of being tougher than boiled owl. I’d already made it over the mountains all right, and the hundred mile ride through rattlesnake country was going pretty well. How bad could the Great Plains be after all of that? Of course, it wasn’t but two days later that I collapsed, dehydrated and exhausted and on the verge of heatstroke. And as I recovered in the welcome shade of a highway overpass – vowing to roll out my sleeping bag right then and there if I had to, regardless of whether it fit into my plans or not – I realized that what the old woman meant by being “tougher than boiled owl” wasn’t at all about any prideful sense of achievement. It was about learning to abide. Yes, and by the time I was done crossing Nebraska I'd learned without a shred of a doubt that you do what you can and you do what you must and above all else you learn to abide.

So, when the storms of life rage – when the cold settles in all around you and the winds of annihilation howl – remember those rabbits and squirrels and starlings out there, calmly abiding. Sure enough, listen to whatever anger and fear and bewilderment you might be feeling, but just keep breathing all the same, for those feelings are like the wind that roars outside while you are safe and warm in the burrow of your breath. Breathe in and let it fill you up. Accept its gift with gratitude. Breathe out and trust that another will arrive to sustain you, for you are of this world and the world still has a place for you. Breathe in and let if fill you up. Breathe out and settle into stillness. The storms of life may rage, but you are alive and calmly abiding.

Copyright 2011 by Maku Mark Frank

Frozen Forest photograph courtesy Evgeni Dinev via: