Friday, September 26, 2008

On Zen and Sense

Sakura by JapanEyes529

Q: "...Why Zen Sense?..."

(Anonymous reader)

We will begin this week's installment with a very Zen-like question. One that is simple yet profound: why the title of this column is the way it is.

To tell you the truth, it certainly was not the first title that came to the author's mind. But, after much contemplation, the title seems to appear by itself. And since there could also be other readers that are similarly curious, let us address this fundamental yet critical question together, shall we?

As befits a philosophical inquiry, let us begin with a few assumptions. The first assumption is that the full question probably reads, "Why Zen in the land known for its strength in Theravada wisdom?" The second assumption is a bit more general, "What do you mean by Zen Sense?"

HH the Dalai Lama on Theravada wisdom

The first assumption brings to mind a private audience with HH the Dalai Lama while the author was doing research in Japan two autumns ago.

The very first words from HH the Dalai Lama were a half-exclamation. Upon learning what the author was doing in Japan, HH put his hands together (in the wai form) and lifted them high over his head in a sign of great reverence, saying, "Thailand has the highest tradition of Buddhism!"

Being nervous, the author thought at first that HH the Dalai Lama meant to say, "(But) Thailand (already) has the highest tradition of Buddhism. (So, what are you doing here in Japan?)"

Upon calming down, the author realised that it was HH the Dalai Lama's nature to always make his audience feel promptly at peace since most always become speechless by his aura and tend to forget their own lines. One technique HH often uses, once learning where the visitor is from or which group the visitor belongs to, is to immediately say something that honours the visitor's background and at the same time shows his humbleness.

Still stunned by the way HH honoured Thai Theravada Buddhism, the author managed to stammer in a merely audible voice that in fact the main focus of the author's research was mindfulness. To be precise, the author was comparing Theravada's Vipassana meditation to that of Zen's and discovered with delight that they are essentially the same!

To that, HH the Dalai Lama looked deeply into the author's eyes and smiled his compassionate, knowing smile.

So, there it is, the answer to our opening question in the sense of why we are talking Zen here in the land of Theravada. Mindfulness is the same training whether practiced in Thailand, Japan, Tibet, or anywhere for that matter. Teachers or school traditions may have their own style of passing on this gem of a lesson. However, the goals, the practice, and the short-term and long-term rewards are essentially the same.

Zen as a way of life

Now, let us get back to the reasoning behind the column title. As opposed to the word Dhamma which connotes a complete spiritual liberation, the word Zen gives the vibes of a "work in progress." In other words, Zen or mindfulness practice focuses more on the process rather than on the result.

This connotation goes well with the primary objective the author has in mind for the column - to familiarise the readers with the various ways we could readily add mindfulness into our daily life so that we will benefit from it.

Another subtler implication refers to the fact that the author is also a "work-in-progress", someone who still makes mistakes. Zen realises this human imperfection and thus the need for continued practice to return our mind back to its true, pure essence.

The connotation of Zen that is perhaps best-known by all is on Zen as a way of life. Japanese arts and culture present us with vivid examples. Ikebana flower arrangement, Noh theatre, calligraphy, martial arts, Haiku poetry, painting, the tea ceremony, architecture and landscape, these are just a few. What these all have in common is the spirit of "non-judgmental, intentional awareness, in the here and now", which is the heart of Zen or mindfulness practice.

Why Zen is about senses

Even without its deep association with something that titillates our senses such as arts and culture, Zen is still all about the senses. Stripped to the bare, the practice of mindfulness asks us to be hyper-aware of what comes into contact with all our sensorial perception, namely what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and feel with our mind. One thing at a time, naturally.

The idea is that our mind can perceive clearly just one thing at a time. It is true that many people are prepared to swear that they were born with an ability to multi-task. But if they could see how their mind perceives in the speed of nano-seconds, they would also have to agree that their mind can only do one thing at a time.

This is where a full-scale meditation retreat comes into picture. For those seriously interested in understanding how your body and mind works, a mindfulness retreat experience would allow you to capture that split-second time frame of your life and make a wisdom out of it. Here is the point where mindfulness would deliver a satisfying end result - the true understanding of Dhamma without having to be told by others or without the need to rationalize.

Another pleasant incentive is that secure feeling of knowing that Dhamma could be cultivated in one's own mind "on-demand" - whenever one is mindful enough to "call the shots" in our daily living.

How long would we remain a "work in progress"?

Naturally, we humans need incentives before we put our efforts into something. In this regard, Zen provides real inspiration. The venerable Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, the revered late monk, recognised Zen's strength in bringing an individual to a "sudden realisation." It is up to us, really, to take that first step and try.

The more you are eager to get real results out of mindfulness, the harder you have to try to make time for your first retreat. This is because, to have a chance for that Zen-style "sudden realisation", the late Buddhahasa pointed out that you need to be in a company of a good teacher, someone that could pull all the right triggers in you.

Or, shall we say, you need someone to help instill Zen properly in all your senses?

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Awakening Ballad

Rain of Roof II originally uploaded by Jeff Epp

The rainy season has arrived here in earnest. And what could be more delightful than listening to the sound of tiny raindrops drizzling gently onto different surfaces? This time, there is an added incentive - mini-enlightenment!

As a result of contemporary, urbanised lifestyle, it is regrettable that many of us regard rain as a nuisance, an unwelcome guest arriving at the most inconvenient hours.

The truth is, life unfolds the way we choose to live it. The very same rain ballad can mean a inspiration and refreshing tonic to some, a frustration and let-down to others.

How would you choose to look at it?

The Japanese have a monumental gallery of words for rain-related expressions, not to mention countless nature-imitating sounds to describe the different sounds of the rain and raindrops. Potsu-potsu, shito-shito, poro-poro and (quite similar to Thai) su, tsu, sa, saa, and zaa are but a few.

The pleasure goes beyond nature-imitating sounds. The expression "spring rain (rain in one fine spring day)," for example, carries with it a romantic connotation to Japanese ears. One could almost visualise a scene from a lovey-dovey music video. Thai expressions for rain are probably less romantic, given the fact that we live in the monsoon-ridden tropics. "Rain to shoo away the elephants (fon lai chang)," anyone?

The underlying implication is that the ancient Japanese must have been extraordinarily mindful to be able to differentiate the sounds of rain. At present, paying attention to the different sounds of raindrops has a scientific twist. Scientists now believe that "white noise" has therapeutic benefits for ADHD sufferers and/or those who suffer from insomnia. Commercially-produced white noise CDs usually feature, among others, different sounds of rain and raindrops.

In fact, even without science, our intuition already told us that this must have been the case. Who does not remember lying down in bed during childhood listening to the sound of gentle raindrops on the roof and feel at peace with oneself before drifting off happily?"

Children are among those fortunate few that can listen attentively, non-judgmentally - an important element of mindfulness practice. In Buddhism, there are many teachings relating to the benefits of mindful listening. "Those who listen well will acquire wisdom," is one. Another teaching points out that, to be a valued friend, one should possess the ability to listen objectively without letting emotions or bias take over.

Zen Buddhism gives us plenty of real-life examples of the importance of mindful listening. The Rinzai sect, for example, favours the use of koan - a type of question to trigger the listener's Enlightenment. Those questions usually sound beyond rationality yet making perfect sense to those who have meditated enough.

Want to try one? How about, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Ok, now meditate hard on it. After all, this is a real koan from the 17th century that actually enlightened someone!

Is this real? Had anyone, beside those in Lord Buddha's time, actually got Enlightened by an aural trigger, verbal or otherwise?

The answer is yes. Among others, Ikkyu the Zen monk got Enlightened by the sound of a crow one early morning while meditating on a boat on Lake Biwa.

Yes, humans can achieve Enlightenment from a sound from nature. Whether 15th century Japan or 21st century Thailand. Nature remains nature and so do humans. Our sensorial perception does not change with time. Let us make full use of it!

If you feel the idea of Enlightenment is so far-flung for a layperson, you are not the only one. But don't feel disheartened just yet. The truth is, there are many levels of Enlightenment we can aim for, at least in the beginning. The Japanese have a word for it: kizuku, "awareness". It is known among Zen practitioners since the old days as "small enlightenment." In the simplest sense, kizuku is one's ability to be aware of what goes on with our body and mind. It is when someone becomes mindful naturally.

Which brings us right back to the middle of the rainy season here in Thailand. Why don't we turn our perceived crisis of endless downpours at the most inconvenient hours into an awakening opportunity? Next time, when you are stuck somewhere, either in very, very bad traffic, in shade upcountry, or in a golf course's clubhouse waiting for the rain to stop, try opening your ears, and thus your mind, to welcome each droplet with peace. Practice mindful listening. Simply listen without evaluating, criticising or complaining.

The trick is to allow yourself to immerse in this simple activity for a continuous period of time. Do nothing else, just listen. Pay attention to how different the rain sounds when it falls on different surfaces. Listen to how hard, or how gentle, it is raining at that moment. Notice how each sound of the raindrop simply comes and goes. No sound lasts forever. Perk your ears to catch the changing pattern of the rain as it happens. You will be amazed how much you can learn from this simple, mindful listening experience. If there are any other sounds of nature rising during that period: thunder, birds chirping, a frog croaking, crickets singing, etc, note it, too.

The real learning is not going to be about the rain itself, but it is about you! The first thing you may become aware of is how restless your mind is! Streams of thoughts or feelings simply refuse to go away. Do not force them. Just be aware of those thoughts as they come, accept them (that this thing does happen), and let go. Then, go back to pay attention to the rain attentively. Be persistent. Don't give up.

Once you have mastered this exercise, you will notice a change in yourself, most notably when you have to engage in a conversation. You will realise that most of the time in the past, you were not really listening to what others want to say. You were listening to your own thoughts!

In other words, you are likely to talk to yourself or plan a reply (or retort) all the time while your partner is still talking! Mindful listening to the rain would not only let you know how to relax while listening to anything yet remain suitably focussed, but also how to listen without judgement.

This, in turn, would help you really understand your conversation partner's feeling and the key message he/she wants to convey. Sympathy and compassion will naturally follow. By listening to the rain mindfully, you will discover a natural way to cultivate positive mental quality in your heart. It is dhamma in its purest form - from nature, to nature.

Given this month's weather trend, it is probably raining now outside. It is your chance to get Enlightened! Don't wait, act now.

Until next week, let us stay mindful.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Swimming Therapy

As appreared in Bangkok Post Real Time Friday September 12, 2008

Photo from BBC News, UK

What do Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Michael Phelps have in common?

For sports enthusiasts, the answer could be - plenty. Categorising all the superlatives known to describe them, we can perhaps narrow them down to two. Besides their physical prowess, the other extraordinary strength these athletic superstars have is their superhuman quality of focus.

Sports writers liked to describe Woods when he was closing in on a title as "in the zone." That is common parlance for the psychiatric diagnosis called hyperfocus. Before this year's US Open the press seemed to zero in on Woods' legendary nerves of steel, fuelled by Woods' own account that his late father's efforts to test his focus included dropping a golf bag while he was practicing a putt and even hiring military psychological specialists to try to "break him down."

If you think honing on concentration skill is tough enough for a healthy person like Woods, imagine what it would be like for a person suffering from ADHD, or Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Wouldn't it be, well, simply a nightmare?

Ask Michael Phelps. He was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 9 and was on medication until 11. But, according to his mother, swimming was his saviour. It is very regimented, sequential, and, shall we say, requires a monumental amount of focus. Phelps' ADHD was finally in control. And, let's just say, the rest is history.

But you neither have to suffer from ADHD or train for the next Olympics in London to reap similar benefits from a healthy swimming therapy. Swimming is relaxing yet invigorating. Think "runner's high" without damaging your knees. Besides, living in Thailand means the blessing of being able to swim all year round. Even in the current rainy season, it hardly rains all day. You are almost always guaranteed to have a healthy morning sun.

Interested? Here are a few meditation techniques you can try adding to your routine the next time you go swimming. Just choose the one that feels right for you.

First, the samatha approach. Samatha is often translated as "calm abiding" or "peace abiding." It is designed to enhance sustained voluntary attention, and culminates in an attention that can be sustained effortlessly and for hours on end.

The easiest and perhaps most fitting for an activity such as swimming is watching your breathing, anapanasati. Simply glide through the water and pay most attention to the way you inhale and exhale. Do not force it. Just keep your regular breathing rhythm you normally use when you swim. Continue to do it throughout the swimming session.

You may be surprised to discover that your mind keeps wondering away from your focus on the breathing, and may be away from swimming altogether! Don't worry, it is the nature of the mind. Just bring your attention to the breathing whenever you realise the drift. If the wandering mind bothers you too much, use anchor words that would keep you focussed on your breathing: in/out, etc. Count each lap you are doing in your mind, if you want, while focussing on the breathing.

Want an added feel-good bonus? Try another type of samatha technique: the metta or loving-kindness meditation.

In practicing metta meditation, you are cultivating your loving-kindness for others. Although, a typical metta meditation session starts with giving loving-kindness to yourself before moving on to your loved ones, friends, teachers, strangers and even enemies, in swimming it may be more practical to just focus on only one target for the whole session.

Many meditation teachers believe that, with activities that involve bodily movement, the "unlimited" type of metta may be the best. This means you give your loving kindness to all sentient beings.

Use a short phrase in your own language that feels right and natural to you, and repeat it over and over in your mind as you are doing laps. For starters, you may begin with the standard, "May all beings be happy, peaceful, and free from suffering." Feel free to adjust the wording to fit your own style. (The author likes adding the number of the lap to the phrase.)

When you use your own language and wording, it feels more natural for the mind to feel a "boundless, warm-hearted feeling" towards all beings. Use positive wording. For example, "May you be happy," instead of "May you not get depressed."

NB: As you go on swimming with metta, you may feel that your swim become slower as both your body and mind become more relaxed. If you love speed, go for mindfulness meditation (see below) and save metta swimming for the warm-down laps.

The benefits of metta meditation are immense. HH the Dalai Lama wrote many books about it. If you feel that you are the active type that could not stay still on a meditation cushion, try adding some metta and compassion to your swim!

Do not want to focus on your breathing alone or do not really feel like giving loving-kindness to all sentient beings yet? There is another type of meditation for you, vipassana, or mindfulness meditation. The basic idea is to heighten your total body-and-mind awareness while you swim. Be careful, this is not the same as swimming while letting your thoughts take over.

For an easy start, try "mindfulness of the body" first. At each stroke, kick, body turn, or when you come up for air, pay attention to how your body moves without analysing or judging. Again, you may find that this is difficult at first as your mind would always drift. But once you get the hang of it, you will be able to enjoy swimming in an extraordinary way. You may notice, for the first time, the different ways the water moves against your body and the pleasant warmth of sunshine on your back and shoulders. If you feel happiness arise, note it and simply let go. Then, go back to paying attention to the way your body moves through water.

What is the dhamma for this story? Well, for one thing, if you continue to do mindfulness type of meditation, dhamma will arise by itself in your mind. Sceptical? Curious? Well, just try for yourself and you will be amazed.

By the way, all the athletes cited above have set up their own foundations to give back to society, especially children, the blessings they themselves have been receiving. A sign of "boundless, warm-hearted feeling toward all sentient beings" resulting from their rigorous mental training? Quite possible, really.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Calm Amid Chaos

As appeared in Bangkok Post Real.Time, September 5th, 2008

Chaotic Living

Even without extra chaos brought to us now and then by the wind of political nature, we human beings already find ourselves in one type of chaos or another.

Whether we are a homemaker, a billion-dollar dealmaker, or a combination of both, every single day of our life brings with it an undeniable possibility that we might run into something chaotic.

Not a New Phenomenon

It is easy to be mistaken that our daily chaos is the result of hectic, contemporary lifestyle of people belonging to post-modern society. But if we carefully examine people’s life throughout history, we will find that things are not that much different between a 21st-century businessman and a 17th century busy samurai. Yes, samurai.

One does not need to be a history buff to come across the legends of Japan’s feudal warriors. Until today, they are still being immortalized by countless films, books, TV series, manga comics, anime, games, re-enactment, martial arts, you name it.

The Samurai’s True Appeal

But the most interesting point is the samurai’s true appeal. For what truly made those feudal heroes stand out was not their martial prowess itself, but their ability to remain calm, cool and collected in any given situation.

In other words, these feudal warriors knew a thing or two about how to remain calm amidst chaos.

Let us step back in time, then, to see what we can learn from the samurai.

To Overcome Suffering, the Samurai Adopted Zen

Amidst the constant skirmishes that came with the first establishment of a shogunate in the 12th century, it is not difficult to imagine the samurai’s plight. It is precisely because of this reason that the warrior elites began to adopt Zen. The warrior needed something to help make their physical and mental suffering bearable.

And it must have worked, for in subsequent periods, Zen has spread from the power elites to warriors in general, eventually made its way to the public.

Zen is all about mind-training. Zen master D.T. Suzuki once said that when the unconscious is tapped, it rises above individual limitations. Suzuki called these powers superhuman and recognized that it work wonders.

The Mindful Samurai Found Wisdom

The core of Zen is mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is the practice whereby one is intentionally aware of what one perceives through the six perceiving organs (the mind being the sixth) in the present moment, non-judgmentally. And if the mind happens to concoct up thoughts or emotions upon that perceiving moment as it usually does, one simply takes note of it and let go.

Mindfulness is applied to both bodily actions and the mind's own thoughts and feelings. In Buddhism, mindfulness is prerequisite to insight and wisdom. Achieving this wisdom is a transforming experience, propelling one to lead a purpose-driven life.

Through their continuing effort of practicing mindfulness in every waking moment, the feudal samurai have grasped the true nature of things and become liberated. It is this very liberation that gave them peace of mind at all time, even in the face of death, let alone daily chaos.

Learning from the Peacetime Samurai

Contrary to conventional wisdom, samurai is not all about fighting. Take the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868), for example. It was the period when Japan first united as a country for the first time and was enjoying an unprecedented peace.

Basically, the samurai have basically become civil servants, educators and social builders in general. Arguably, their experience should be most applicable to us non-warriors. What can we learn from them, then?

Pick a Favorite Activity, then Apply Mindfulness

In a manual to train young samurai during the Tokugawa Period, Budo Shoshinshu, the author Daidoji Yuzan offered two types of advice. The first is to be mindful in everything one thinks, says and does.

But Yuzan must have realized that this is easier to say than to do. Because he included a second, complementary suggestion—engage your body and mind at all time with activities that are conducive to mindfulness cultivation.

His choice of activities range from the typical warrior’s pastime—martial arts--, to a more culturally refined ones: tea ceremony and calligraphy.

Samurai 12
The author's samurai sword sensei, Fukushima Sensei, practicing Zen meditation with samurai sword in a park. Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post.

So, go ahead, pick your own favorite pastime and apply constant mindfulness to it. One you get the hang of it, you can move on to a more challenging task of applying mindfulness into every chore you have to do. The first surprise you might find is that, with mindfulness, suddenly what you normally dread or find it boring does not seem to be so bad.

Be a Samurai At All Time

The most challenging goal of it all is to do like Yuzan suggested, applying mindfulness in everything you think, say and do. It may feel daunting at first. But, like they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, doesn’t it?

Besides, the reward is very tempting. By being constantly on guard of your body and mind, you are on your way to be one of those legendary samurai. Come rain or shine, or even chaos, for that matter, your mind will be calm. With that extraordinarily composure, anything is possible, going down in history included.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Be an Olympian

As appeared in Bangkok Post Real.Time, August 29, 2008.

For the past two weeks, the athletes were not the only ones who have been riding the emotional roller-coaster. As the world watched in awe the drama of epic proportion that was slowly unfolding one day after another, valuable life’s lessons emerged.

Let us reflect for a moment, then, on what we could learn from the latest grandest sports fest of mankind.

First, the success stories. This Olympics has its fair share of fairy tale stories, of jack-who-kills-the-giant and dark horses (no pun intended, as there were many disqualified doped horses over there in the equestrian event).

The lessons from success story are pretty much straightforward: you reap what you sowed. Hard work and constant effort pays off; unwavering spirit is rewarding, etc.

But it was the other type of story that could produce more valuable lessons. It is the story of defeat, unexpected outcome, and disappointments.

There were certainly plenty of such story in this Olympics. Viewers in Thailand may recall a broadcast of a medal ceremony for weightlifting, the one that a Thai weightlifter won the Gold. It is more than obvious that the bronze medallist for the event was not very happy. She has been putting on a rather sulking face, not to mention her refusal to join the other medallists for the mandatory all-hands-up press shot. She left the podium abruptly, airing her anger for the whole world to see.

She certainly was not alone. In Greco-Roman wrestling, an athlete had to be restrained by coaches and teammates from attacking the referees when he learned that he lost the match and had to settle for bronze. His anger burst would continue throughout the medal ceremony when he infamously left the podium and threw his bronze medal angrily on the floor.

The abandoned bronze medal. Photo from Telegraph, UK.

Certainly such display of discontent could have raised eyebrows. The world probably had expected top-level sportsmanship from athletes who are supposed to be the best of their country. But let us hold our judgment of others right there. For, we, too, until we are Enlightened, are not immune from such emotional wreckage. And we’d better be grateful that when we sport such outburst ourselves, there would be no TV crew around.

The most we can do is to hope that those angry athletes would one day become mature and realize what they have done. The damage is on themselves, really. Imagine the day when they become parents or grandparents. The image that they would rather forget would remain to haunt them forever, in many digital formats. As a fellow human being, we should feel really sorry for them and can only offer them our compassion and best wishes. May they soon get over their suffering and be ready to give their best for the society they live in once again.

Come to think about it, there would probably be hundreds of other athletes who would be so happy already to be in their place, meaning winning any medals. Many others would also say they would be thrilled just to make the finals. Still, more others would beam happily already throughout the Games, savoring the pride of being able to represent their country and knowing that they have contributed the best they can.

This Olympics proves that, for many of us, happiness seems to be conditional. We must “win” or beat others in order to become happy. And when an unexpected event happens, many of us can not accept it and let go. Perhaps what we can do is learn how to achieve unconditional happiness. One way to do that is to practice mindfulness.

Mindfulness training will enable us to see one indisputable truth—that all things are impermanent. Things won’t always be the way we want it. Besides, there must be a higher purpose in life than just earning a piece of metal tied with ribbon, don’t you think?

In fact, we don’t even have to be top athlete of our respective nation to experience emotions of Olympic proportions. There should be plenty of examples in our everyday life, or that of those around us, that move us immensely.

Think about when we see people rise without hatred, anger or fear from life’s trying moments, be it domestic violence, financial meltdown, or natural disasters. Don’t we feel inspired and hopeful? More importantly, those real-life heroes around us make us believe in humanity once again. Don’t you think that sound pretty much like the Olympics’ Dream? Perhaps, as an Olympian of life’s Mind-Game, the best we can do is to believe in ourselves and others. For faith in humanity is all we need to make this world a better place.

The choice is ours, really.