Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reflections: Self – The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Someone not too long ago asked me the question “What is self?” It’s an important question, because ‘self’, either directly or indirectly, is behind our motivation for just about everything. So after mulling it over, here are a few pieces that may frame part of an answer.

1) ‘Self’ is a set of physical, mental, and emotional reflexes we acquire at birth and these reflexes evolve as we grow older.
2) ‘Self’ is what perceives, interprets, judges, and reacts to the external world.
3) Our sense of ‘self’ is the cause of our suffering, in the Buddhist sense of suffering. But ‘self’ is also what will experience 'enlightenment' (whatever that is) if we’re lucky enough.
4) We should try to be true, honest, and compassionate with our ‘selves’, because if we aren’t, it’s a big drain on our resources – physical, psychological, and emotional. Our ‘selves’ can become our own worst critic. It’s from a healthy or free self that we can most compassionately answer to our responsibilities and cope with the external circumstances and changes that arise in our lives. I should add that, right now, I really don’t know what a healthy or free self is, except that in my personal dictionary it may be equated with enlightenment, and that while I’ve always said I’ve never been in the practice for the end-gaining of enlightenment, I do, very much, want to be psychologically healthy and free.

Several years ago now, I moved beyond occasionally meditating primarily for stress relief and ‘energy clearing', began a personal daily meditation practice and joined a local Sangha. That transition was accompanied by a belief in the concept of ‘no self’, because allowing my inner critic and bag of reactive mental and emotional reflexes to continue unchecked was no longer an option. In contrast, now that some years have passed, an indirect effect of zazen (sitting meditation) has been an expanding sense of ‘self’ that more and more seems to include other people and the world. Is this one possible interpretation of ‘not self', as opposed to ‘no self’?

A concept likely involved in this transition, for me, was: “Don’t take things personally.” I began to see that most people were acting and responding from a bag of mental and emotional reflexes, much like, though obviously separate, from my own. I began to see through their actions and responses to where they might be coming from, and that became more important or, at least interesting, than responding reactively. There was ‘self’ in others, and I could feel their suffering and wanted to help. But how? In most cases, there’s very little that actually falls into the ‘help’ category that people want from me. I don’t know where this gets me, other than feeling helpless. What I do know, at this particular moment, is that I find myself drawn to helping people in dire indisputable need; hoping to be alert enough, and not so lost in my routine and my 'self'-centered thinking, to be helpful in daily encounters (yeah, the 'self'-centered thinking is still there to some extent); and, most of all, drawn back to the cushion for zazen. Right now? No, right now it's time for dinner.

Many thanks to my Twitter Sangha, those who prompted the question, and those who were around while I was mulling this over.

Fine tendrils of sun
eased through the gray fog, lighting
beauty this morning.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Shobogenzo Haiku (Chapters 1-7)

I am only beginning my journey through the Shobogenzo, but it has already ascended to a high place in my list of 'favorites'. I originally intended to write these haiku to side-step my tendency to over-analyze things. I have found that Dōgen's Shobogenzo is poetry already. Many of the phases in the haiku below are taken directly from the text. As a result the credit for these haiku goes to Dōgen, and Nishijima and Cross who worked to preserve the original phrasing and share it with us. I have merely assembled the phrases into a haiku, much like a jigsaw puzzle, and I hope correctly. These haiku are by no means a complete representation of each Chapter and are works in progress. My humble understanding could change at any moment!

Chapter 1- Bendōwa (A Talk about Pursuing the Truth)
Zazen Samadhi -
The Dharma blooms forth, anchored
By this floating stem

Breath ringing the bell,
The worlds in ten directions
Resonate Dharma

Chapter 2 – Maka-hannya-haramitsu (Mahāprajnāpāramitā)
Holding all the threads
Of wisdom, having to do
With a tender heart

Cloaking the body
With prajnā-pāramitā –
Radiant mantra

Chapter 3 – Genjō-kōan (The Realized Universe)
The whole moon and sky
Reflected in just one drop
Not knowing it's dew

In dust, out of frame,
Innumerable dharmas
Past my single shape

Chapter 4 – Ikka-no-myōju (One Bright Pearl)
Floating downriver,
Not fishing for gold-scaled fish --
Gensha, the layman

A ceaseless stirring,
Ten directions held within
One shimmering pearl

Chapter 5 – Ju-undō-shiki (Rules for Accumulated Cloud Hall)
The hall of clouds -- home
To Buddha's truth and harmony
Like milk in water

Chapter 6 – Soku-shin-ze-butsu (Mind Here and Now is Buddha)
Clear, no mist or mud,
Mind's original essence --
Shared and eternal

Coming home to truth --
Relaxing into the arms
Of the infinite

Chapter 7 – Senjō (Washing)
Essence purified --
Not a goal, but the doing --
Washing is Buddha

Wash body like mind
Til water runs clear, so all
Retain the Dharma