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Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

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Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby Carol on Fri Dec 11, 2009 6:37 pm

I just came across this article in Shambala Sun by Norm Fisher: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Norman Fischer is founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation and a former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. He is the author of Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up and Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms.

I recommend this article to all beginners, a very good orientation. (Since he's not a Rinzai teacher I have a couple of quibbles about his description of koan zen, but they are minor.)

Some excerpts:

Most of us associate Zen with black robes and rock gardens, but do we really know what it is? Norman Fischer takes us through the principles and practices of the major schools of Zen.

1. A Zen Wave

[...]a Zen wave broke on North American shores in the middle of the twentieth century. It probably didn't begin as a Zen wave at all, but rather as a reflex to the unprecedented violence the first part of the century had seen. After two devastating world wars, small groups of people here and there in the West were beginning to realize, as if coming out of a daze, that the modernist culture they had depended on to humanize and liberalize the planet wasn't doing that at all. Instead it was bringing large-scale suffering and dehumanization. What was the alternative?

[...]

2. Zen Roots

What is Zen, and how does it differ from other schools of Buddhism?

Unlike Christianity, in which early wild schisms led eventually to centralized control, Buddhism has always been open-ended and various. While a few key concepts (like the four noble truths, with their simultaneously gloomy and hopeful view of human nature) have always held firm, methods, philosophies and interpretations have differed widely.

[...]

Gradually, Indian and Central Asian Buddhism began to be reshaped by its encounter with Chinese culture. This reshaping eventually led to the creation of Zen, an entirely new school of Buddhism. (The word "Zen" is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese "Ch'an," which means “meditation.” Here we use "Zen" because it is the word generally used in the West. Ch’an, though, did not come to Japan and become “Zen” until around the eighth century.)

Bodhidharma is the legendary founder of Zen in China. He is said to have arrived in China about 520. (Buddhism had by then been known in China for about 400 years.) He was soon summoned to the emperor, who had questions for him. "According to the teachings, how do I understand the merit I have accrued in building temples and making donations to monks?" the emperor asked. Bodhidharma, usually depicted as a scowling, hooded, bearded figure, shot back, "There is no merit." "What then is the meaning of the Buddha's Holy Truths?" the emperor asked. "Empty, nothing holy," Bodhidharma replied. Shocked, the emperor imperiously asked, "Who addresses me thus?" "I don't know," Bodhidharma replied, turned on his heel and left the court, to which he never returned.

He repaired to a distant monastery, where, it is said, he sat facing a wall for nine years, in constant meditation. [...]

[...]
Like most Zen masters, Bodhidharma left little written material. But here are four Zen dicta ascribed to him, which are always quoted to illustrate the essential Zen spirit:

A special transmission outside the scriptures.
No dependency on words and letters
Pointing directly to the human mind.
Seeing into one's nature and attaining Buddhahood.


This shoot-from-the-hip Zen spirit appeals to the American mind, which is as iconoclastic and anti-authoritarian as it is religious. In any case, it appealed to me and to the many others like me who were and are looking for a direct route to awakening. It has also appealed, over many generations, to millions of Buddhist practitioners in the Far East, who, conditioned by the Taoism and Confucianism that had been imported everywhere from China, could easy relate to the Zen message and style. Although the Zen school created controversy at first in all the countries it spread to, it eventually became by far the most successful school of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam. By the mid-1980s, the Zen traditions of all these countries had been transmitted to America.

3. Zen Methods

Although Zen eventually developed traditions of study and ritual, its emphasis on personal experience has always made it a practice-oriented tradition. The practice is meditation. "Sitting Zen" (Japanese: zazen) has, as Bodhidharma's legend shows, always been central in Zen training centers, where monks rise early each morning for meditation practice and do long retreats consisting of many, many silent unmoving hours on the cushion. Zazen is an intensely simple practice. It is generally taught without steps, stages or frills. "Just sit!" the master admonishes, by which he or she means, sit upright in good posture, paying careful attention to breathing in your belly until you are fully alert and present. This sense of being present, with illumination and intensity, is the essence of zazen, and although there are many approaches to Zen meditation, they all come back to this. Life's secret, life's essence, and the truth and power of Buddhist liberation all come down to this intense and illuminated presence which is beyond words and concepts. Though it cannot be explained, it can be experienced and expressed through the daily actions of a Zen life.

[...]

Zen schools are more or less divisible into those that emphasize a curriculum of verbal meditation objects—like koans—and those that do not. Emphasizing daily life practice as zazen, Soto Zen centers generally do not work with a set koan curriculum and method, though koans are studied and contemplated.

[...]

4. Zen Schools

Zen has had a long and varied history in several different Far Eastern cultures. Each culture has produced a tradition that is recognizable as Zen, but differs slightly from all the others. Vietnamese Zen is the one most influenced by the Theravada tradition. It tends to be gentle in expression and method, to emphasize purity and carefulness, and to combine Zen with some Theravadin teaching and methodology. In China, Zen eventually became the only Buddhist school, inclusive of all the others, so contemporary Ch'an includes many faith-based Mahayana practices that existed initially in other Buddhist schools, especially faith in and repetition of the name of Amida Buddha, the savior Buddha who will ensure rebirth in an auspicious heaven to those who venerate him. Korean Zen is the most stylized and dramatic of the Zen schools, and also the most austere. Korean Zen includes prostration practice (repeated, energetic full-to-the-floor bows of veneration) and intensive chanting practice, and has a hermit tradition, something virtually unknown in Japanese Zen.

[...]

5. Lineage and Teacher

A key Zen story, shared by all the schools: Once Buddha was giving a talk on Vulture Peak. In the middle of the talk he paused and held up a flower. Everyone was silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile. Buddha then said, "I have the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, the ineffable mind of Nirvana, the real form of No Form, the flawless gate of the Teaching. Not dependent on words, it is a special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust it to Mahakasyapa."

This story, however historically unverifiable, represents the beginning of the Zen transmission, said to start directly with the Buddha. The story tells us two things: first, although the Buddha taught many true and useful teachings and techniques, the essence of what he taught is simple and ineffable. Holding up a flower is one expression of this essence. Second, the very simplicity and ineffability of this essential teaching requires that it be handed on from master to disciple in mutual wordless understanding. There can't be a Zen training program with exams and certifications, with objectives, goals and demonstrable, measurable mastery.

[...]

Although the Zen teacher must embody Zen and express it in all his or her words and deeds, a Zen teacher is not exactly a guru, a Buddha archetype at the center of a student's practice. To be sure, respect for and confidence in the teacher is essential if one is to undergo the transformation in consciousness that Zen promises. But the Zen teacher is also an ordinary, conditioned human being, simply a person, however much he or she has realized of Zen. This paradox—that the teacher is to be appreciated as a realized spiritual adept and at the same time as an ordinary individual with rough edges and personality quirks—seems to go to the heart of Zen's uniqueness. Through the relationship to the teacher, the student comes to embrace all beings, including himself or herself, in this way.

6. Taking the Path of Zen in the West

I've said that Zen is essentially monastic and depends on the intensive practice of sitting meditation. In the West, however, most Zen practitioners are not monastics. While this may seem strange, it is not at all strange if we consider "monastic" to be an attitude and a level of seriousness, more than a particular lifestyle. Unlike Zen laypeople in Asia, whose main practice is to support the monastic establishment, Western Zen lay practitioners want to understand Zen deeply and to practice it thoroughly, regardless of what their life circumstances may be. In this sense, all Western Zen students are "monastic," regardless of their life circumstances. All of them do some form of monastic-style training within the context of their lay lives. They sit meditation regularly, either at home or at a local temple, attend retreats and live their daily lives with full attention (or at least coming as close to this as they possibly can). They take lay or priest vows, and even sometimes enter monastic training at one or more Zen centers for periods of time.

[...]

For someone who is interested in taking up Zen practice in America, the approach is not difficult: surf the Web or the phone book, find the location and schedule of the Zen establishment nearest to you, show up, and keep showing up as long as it suits you. Eventually you will learn the formalities of the local Zen meditation hall (most groups offer special instruction for beginners), and if you feel comfortable you will continue to attend meditation when you can.

Eventually you will sign up for dokusan (private, intense, formal interview with a teacher). At some point you will hear about a one-day sesshin (meditation retreat) and you'll try it out. You'll no doubt find it a daunting and at the same time uplifting experience. After some time you'll be ready to attend a seven-day sesshin, and that experience will feel like a real breakthrough to you, regardless of how many koans you do or do not pass, or how well or poorly you think you sat. Sesshin is a life-transforming experience, no matter what happens.

[...]

What will all this effort do for you? Everything and nothing. You will become a Zen student, devoted to your ongoing practice, to kindness and peacefulness, and to the ongoing endless effort to understand the meaning of time, the meaning of your existence, the reason why you were born and will die. You will still have plenty of challenges in your life, you will still feel emotion, possibly more now than ever, but the emotion will be sweet, even if it is grief or sadness. Many things, good and bad, happen in a lifetime, but you won't mind. You will see your life and your death as a gift, a possibility. This is the essential point of Zen.
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby youngzen on Wed Dec 23, 2009 4:22 am

Hi this is some good stuff. I was allready familiar with some of the info, but found your post informative and in agreement with what I am learning and seeing now.
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby Carol on Wed Dec 23, 2009 4:30 am

youngzen wrote:Hi this is some good stuff. I was allready familiar with some of the info, but found your post informative and in agreement with what I am learning and seeing now.


I'm glad you found it helpful. I did too.

:Namaste:
Practitioners who cultivate the personal realization of buddha knowledge dwell in the bliss of whatever is present and do not abandon their practice.
~Lankavatara Sutra
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby ckatgo on Sun Jan 17, 2010 1:38 pm

I read that article a long time ago. I have saved it and still go back and read it from time to time. Good stuff!
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby open on Wed Dec 21, 2011 2:56 am

Thank you :Namaste:
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby Bob Skank on Wed Dec 21, 2011 3:36 am

open wrote:Thank you :Namaste:

Be sure you read Brian Victoria's Zen at War and Michael Downing's Shoes Outside the Door, no matter how long it takes, to get a balanced perspective.
Bob
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby Oheso on Fri Oct 18, 2013 1:35 pm

Bob Skank wrote:
open wrote:Thank you :Namaste:

Be sure you read Brian Victoria's Zen at War and Michael Downing's Shoes Outside the Door, no matter how long it takes, to get a balanced perspective.
Bob


then make sure you read this, to get an even more balanced perspective:

http://sweepingzen.com/zen-war-author-b ... ndo-cohen/
and neither are they otherwise
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby Michaeljc on Sat Oct 19, 2013 4:05 am

I enjoyed reading it (the OP). A nice reminder

m
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby Gregory Wonderwheel on Sat Oct 19, 2013 8:06 pm

Zoketsu Norman Fisher has a great sense of humor and it is expressed in his teachings.

Since he was writing an essay and not a book, of course there are details missing, such as events before the 1950s that prepared the shore for the “Zen wave” that came after WWII.

And since he was writing for people with little to no knowledge of Zen Buddhism, he was writing for the elementary level of understanding. Still, some of the points may be clarified for beginners.

Unlike Christianity, in which early wild schisms led eventually to centralized control, Buddhism has always been open-ended and various.


Part of this was cultural. The culture of Buddha’s time was one that had accommodated diversity of views. Buddha joined the wandering mendicants known as shramanas and studied the Dharma of several of the most well known teachers of Dharma that he could find. When he became a teacher of the Dharma his followers became followers of the Buddha Dharma, the Dharma of the Buddha. So within the Dharmic culture, there was an implicit understanding that the Dharma of different teachers would stand or fall out of favor depending on the merits of the Dharma, not upon some divine need to impose them on others. Hundreds of years later when Emperor Ashoka became a convert to Buddha Dharma he encouraged missionaries of the Buddha Dharma to go out into the greater world but he did not impose Buddha Dharma on his own citizens and he demanded that all religions be respected within his realm We can see the great cultural difference as well as the religion’s institutional difference between the social outcomes of the conversions of the two emperors Ashoka and Constantine.


Gradually, Indian and Central Asian Buddhism began to be reshaped by its encounter with Chinese culture. This reshaping eventually led to the creation of Zen, an entirely new school of Buddhism.


Beginners should know that this is not a universally agreed upon view. In part it depends on what connotation is meant by the word “Zen” or “Chan.” Zen as an identifiable school of Buddha Dharma was formed in China as the School comprised of the people claiming lineage to Bodhidharma, one of the many important Indian monks to come to China who was among the top three in prestige and influence along with Kumaraijiva and Paramartha. So we can say the “School of Zen” was created in China, but the School that Bodhidharma himself brought to China was not called the Zen school until 300 years after his death. At the time of Bodhidharma, his school was called the “One Vehicle School of Southern India” (南天竺一乘宗). So the name “Zen School” was new, but the school itself was not new, only renewed under a new name, and was the continuation of the school that Bodhidharma brought to China. Though there are legends about Bodhidharma (just as there are about George Washington), Bodhidharma was a real person, not just a legend.

This sense of being present, with illumination and intensity, is the essence of zazen, and although there are many approaches to Zen meditation, they all come back to this. Life's secret, life's essence, and the truth and power of Buddhist liberation all come down to this intense and illuminated presence which is beyond words and concepts.


Though it won’t make any sense to a beginner, it is fun to see Zoketsu teaching “Intense Illumination” rather than “Silent Illumination.” This change of the word “Silent” to “Intense” addresses one of the concerns aimed at zazen practice as a practice of “doing nothing” in the literal sense of being like a “bump on a log.” The idea of intense illumination also creates a contextual bridge to Zen master Linji’s use of brilliance and illumination in his teaching.

Zen schools are more or less divisible into those that emphasize a curriculum of verbal meditation objects—like koans—and those that do not. Emphasizing daily life practice as zazen, Soto Zen centers generally do not work with a set koan curriculum and method, though koans are studied and contemplated.


It is a misunderstanding to call koan inquiry a practice of “verbal meditation objects.” In other words, when attention is on the breath, I would not say that practice is having a non-verbal physical meditation object. All schools of Zen, not just the Japanese Soto school or lineages, view daily life practice as zazen and vice versa. Whether the attention is on the breath or on the koan, the meditation is not on an object. To objectify either the breath or the koan, takes the method out of the field that can be called Zen mediation.

There can't be a Zen training program with exams and certifications, with objectives, goals and demonstrable, measurable mastery.


I agree in the sense of taking exams and certifications like the SAT test or a civil service exam. But actually every Zen teacher uses their own measure of demonstrable mastery as the guide for certifying a disciple as a teacher.

Although the Zen teacher must embody Zen and express it in all his or her words and deeds, a Zen teacher is not exactly a guru, a Buddha archetype at the center of a student's practice.


This is very important for the beginner to learn. An essential practice of Buddhism is to be aware when the Buddha archetype becomes objectified or projected. If it is, then Zen Master Linji’s admonitions “if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” Of course this means to kill the projection, not the person upon whom the archetype is projected. To realize that the Buddha archetype is our own most inner teacher is the meaning of the terms “Buddha Nature” and “Inner Tathagata” (tathagatagarbha) and “Seeing into one's nature and becoming Buddha.”

I've said that Zen is essentially monastic and depends on the intensive practice of sitting meditation. In the West, however, most Zen practitioners are not monastics. While this may seem strange, it is not at all stange if we consider "monastic" to be an attitude and a level of seriousness, more than a particular lifestyle.


Perhaps this can be understood better by using the original name of “home leaver” instead of monastic. Buddhist monasteries, and thus “monastics” were not created until many years after the Buddha’s worldly death. At the time of the Buddha, there were two kinds of divisions making four categories of followers of the Buddha Dharma: men and women, home makers and home leavers. In fact, the Buddha taught that the home leavers should not establish monasteries because that was too much like a home and would create home-like identities related to the monastery. This teaching by Zoketsu echoes the teaching of Zen Master Linji (d. 867) who taught that there could be home-leavers who actually never left home, and home livers who have actually “left home.” Here is the koan from the Record of Linji:

Record of Linji wrote:Said on ascending the hall, “There is one person who for eons is in the midst of the path but is not departed from the shelter of home. There is one person who departs from the shelter of home but is not in the midst of the path. Which one is appropriate to receive the offerings of humans and heavenly beings?”
He then descended from the seat.


Unlike Zen laypeople in Asia, whose main practice is to support the monastic establishment, Western Zen lay practitioners want to understand Zen deeply and to practice it thoroughly, regardless of what their life circumstances may be.


Though this is a generally true statement, it should be remembered that it is not a universally true statement. For example, the most well known Zen Master of the 12th century Dahui Zonggao (大慧宗杲) (1089–1163) taught his many lay students who wanted to practice Zen deeply and stated that the koan method was the best Zen practice method for lay people whose life circumstances were not able to devote the time to extended sitting practice.

Zoketsu Norma Fischer's teachings are available as audio files and are as fun to listen to as they are intensely illuminating.

_/|\_
Gregory
Why you do not understand is because the three carts were provisional for former times, and because the One Vehicle is true for the present time. ~ Zen Master 6th Ancestor Huineng
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby nomouthcrow on Sun Jan 03, 2016 4:36 am

Link in OP is dead, here's a live one for those interested:

http://www.dharmanet.org/ZenPrimerNorman.htm
“A shooting star, a clouding of the sight, a lamp, An illusion, a drop of dew, a bubble, A dream, a lightning’s flash, a thunder cloud— This is the way one should see the conditioned.” ~ Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā
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Re: Nothing Holy: A Zen Primer

Postby Aldoned on Mon Jan 11, 2016 4:07 am

one of the many important Indian monks to come to China who was among the top three in prestige and influence along with Kumaraijiva and Paramartha.
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