So this is part two of my end of year reflections! In complete contrast to my enthusiasm for making some measurable outward changes as blogged about a few days ago, I also am thinking about how invaluable it has been for me this year to spend so much time in silent, sitting, formal meditation.
Most of my teachers are from the Theravadan / Insight Meditation lineages, although I’ve been also very influenced by Dōgen and Suzuki Roshi’s teachings from the Sōtō Zen sects. In all these traditions, it’s a given that meditation (Buddhist meditation that is, not ‘McMindfulness’) is the central practise of any person practising Buddhism. In my limited experience as a meditator, I’ve never really been able to explain how sitting still and watching my breath has brought about any benefit, insight or wisdom, yet I’m convinced it has.
Last week I came across a new translation of one of Dogen’s most famous texts, the 95-chapter long Shōbōgenzo [treasury of the True Dharma Eye]. The author is Brad Warner, and the title is Don’t Be A Jerk (And Other Practical Advice From Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master). Brad Warner is an American Zen monk, who has studied Dōgen and practised Zen for more than 30 years, mostly in Japan. His book is EXACTLY what I wanted – he translates the classic text paragraph by paragraph, and puts it into modern chat, giving it a whole new burst of energy. Suddenly, this undecipherable medieval, Japanese text has come to life. That’s not to say there aren’t still riddles and spiritual paradoxes – this is Zen Buddhism after all.
Dōgen was VERY big into zazen. Here are some of Dōgen’s words, as ‘translated’ by Brad:
The experience of zazen is eternal. It’s the same for everyone. We touch the deepest experience of all human beings throughout history when we allow ourselves to be truly quiet. Zazen is the authentic way into Buddhist practise. Gautama Buddha himself taught zazen. Every other master after him, in India and China got whatever realisations they had from doing zazen. So I’m gonna promote zazen here in Japan. It’s super ridiculous to imagine that reading sutras and chanting is going to lead to enlightenment if you don’t actually meditate.The reason I recommend zazen is that it is the practise of immediate realisation and direct experience of the truth. Zazen is the complete path and the whole truth of Buddhism. You should either get serious about meditation or just give up the game. Listen. How about you just set aside your doubts and check out some zazen for yourself?
Last night, New Year’s Eve, I listed to an online dharma talk by one of my teachers, Taraniya. She is a wonderful story teller who clearly has had deep realisations of her own and explains the dharma in very easy to understand yet inspiring language.
Taraniya suggests that this whole experience of ‘cleaning up our act’ (AKA Don’t Be A Jerk) is completely and utterly dependant on our capacity to relax and pay attention to what’s happening and how we feel. In other words, sit down and meditate. At some level she says, it doesn’t matter what we think or feel. What matters is that you know, directly, what the experience of it is. Taraniya has this great phrase – the mind might be ignorant but it’s not stupid. Being aware of repetitive thoughts concerning a situation where I acted unkindly, feels painful. By paying close attention to this, we can get very sensitized to our own patterns of behavior. This is why, slowly, through this awareness, our mind eventually cottons onto things and starts developing new habits. In a way, what is happening is we are making full use of the propensity in our being, that we are all so familiar with, to move towards pleasure and away from pain. In the unawakened state, this propensity is entirely used up in the realm of self gratification. But if we can free it up from that, then it can be raised to towards a higher purpose. We are actually engaging that human tendency, but in the interests of our own freedom and the happiness and welfare of others. And it starts with meditation. Or ‘sitting down and shutting up’, as Brad describes it.
Only when our minds are calm can we have even a prayer of being able to understand the true nature of this experience we call life. I like to believe that this isn’t just a secret that only Buddhists were onto.
Meister Eckhart said ‘Nothing in all creation is so like God as stillness’
Rumi said ‘The only real rest comes when you’re alone with God’
Mother Theresa was asked what she says to God when she prays and she said
“Nothing, I just listen”.
So then, what does God say to you? the interviewer asked.
“Nothing, he just listens” she replied.
Somehow, sincere prayer or meditation does bring wisdom. When we pay close attention with energy and curiosity and an open mind, we start to see the true nature of all things, and this, allows us to make better choices. So we are back to part one, and the bananas.
I would like to offer my deepest thanks to all my teachers, and especially to remember those who have guided me and supported me in 2016 – Sharda Rogell, Jeremy Logan, Sister Vīrañāni, Gloria Taraniya, and Ed Brown, and the trustees and staff at Wangapeka Retreat Centre.
And I would like to thank some amazing cooks whose recipes and writings have amused, inspired and fed me this year – My Darling Lemon Thyme, My New Roots, Alexandra’s Kitchen, Yotam Ottolenghi, David Leibovitz, Lazy Cat Kitchen, The First Mess, Minimalist Baker, Love and Lemons.
Happy New Year!
*this is a new translation of Zen Master Dogen’s words, offered by American Zen Monk Brad Warner!
Starry Sky Photo, by Miroslav Petrasko