contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Zen Buddhism

MADE OF THE SUN, MOON AND STARS

“Just as a wave doesn’t need to go looking for water, we don’t need to go looking for the ultimate. The wave is the water. You already are what you want to become. You are made of the sun, moon and stars. You have everything inside you.”

If I had authored the words above, they would be a clear statement of my stance as a modern Druid. In fact they were written by the Vietnamese Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, who has spent the latter part of his life making Buddhism accessible to westerners. For me, this shows the wider resonance of his core understanding. Indeed he continues by using the language of a third tradition – the best known to most westerners – to develop his theme.

“In Christianity there is the phrase, ‘resting in God’. When we let go of all seeking and striving, it is as if we are resting in God. We establish ourselves firmly in the present moment; we dwell in the moment. We rest in our cosmic body. Dwelling in the ultimate doesn’t require faith or belief. A wave doesn’t need to believe it is water. The wave is already water in the very here and now.

“To me, God is not outside us or outside reality. God is inside. God is not an external entity for us to seek, for us to believe in or not to believe in. God, nirvana, the ultimate, is inherent in every one of us. The Kingdom of God is available in every moment. The question is whether we are available to it. With mindfulness, concentration and insight, touching nirvana, touching our cosmic body or the Kingdom of God, becomes possible with every breath and every step.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Art of Living London: Penguin Random House UK, 2017

MUSICAL MEDITATION: THE SHAKUHACHI FLUTE

Shakuhachi flute music is a meditation for players and listeners alike. It is dance of sound and silence, of movement and stillness. Some people call it, ‘blowing Zen’. In this music, a rise and fall of notes gives way to space and stillness, which in turn give way to a rise and fall of notes. Eckhardt Tolle identifies shakuhachi flute music as a portal to the experience of consciousness being conscious of itself – and so a direct realization of what he calls the Deep I.

Bamboo flutes first came to Japan from China in the 7th century CE (1). The current shakuhachi was developed in Japan in the16th century. It is called fuke shakuhachi because of the instrument’s role in the Fuke sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism. Monks known as komusu (priests of nothingness, or emptiness monks) who used the shakuhachi as a spiritual tool. Their songs were paced according to the players’ breathing and were considered meditation as much as music.

Their spiritual practice required them to move from place to place playing the shakuhachi and begging for alms. The monks wore wicker baskets over their heads, as a symbol of their detachment from the world. But the world being the place that it is, it was more like a semi-detachment. Travel around Japan was restricted by the Shogunate at that time, and the Fuke only got their exemption by agreeing to spy for the authorities and allowing the Shogun to send out his own spies in the guise of Fuke monks. In response to these developments, several particularly difficult shakuhachi pieces became known as tests. If you could play them, you were a real Fuke. If you couldn’t, you were probably a spy and might very well be killed in unfriendly territory. With the Meiji Restoration, beginning in 1868, the Fuke sect was abolished along with the Shogunate itself, and shakuhachi playing was banned for a number of years.

The Wikipedia article on shakuhachi (1) provides information about the instrument and its capabilities, as well as its current international popularity and the formal link with Zen broken.. There is an International Shakuhachi Society which maintains a directory of notable professional, amateur and teaching shakuhachi players.

(1) https://en.wkipedia.org/wiki/Shakuhachi/ (NB This reference gets you to a page where you will need to type in Shakuhachi)

BOOK REVIEW: THE GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT IN LIFE

The Greatest Achievement in Life is a free e-book available from http://www.suprarational.org/ as a printable pdf, published in 2012. Author R. D. Krumpos looks at five traditions of mysticism, in which mysticism is understood as a direct intuition or experience of God, or of an ultimate Reality not conceived as God. Mystics are described as people whose religion and life are grounded “not merely on an accepted belief and practice, but on what they regard as first-hand knowledge”. Krumpos himself speaks of finding that “preeminent Reality is the holy One in All and All in the wholly One”.

The five mystical traditions examined are those embedded within Hinduism (e.g. Vedanta, Tantra), Buddhism (Zen, Vajrayana), Judaism (e.g. Hasidism, Kabbalah), Christianity (e.g. Gnostic and Contemplative currents) and Islam (e.g. Sufism). I imagine that many people reading this blog will be working outside these traditions. But I recommend the book to anyone with a serious interest in mysticism, however you define it, given that the influence of these traditions is pervasive to the point where it can be virtually unconscious. As a person on a modern Druid path committed to inquiry and with a leaning towards mysticism, I have found Krumpos’ work very helpful in reminding myself of what the ‘five traditions’ are pointing to.

The book is brief and divided into two main sections: Five Traditions of Mysticism and Mystical Approached to Life. Within these sections there is a further division into short chapters, which can be read either in sequence or independently of the whole. Krumpos draws heavily on the words of well-known mystics themselves, as well as offering his own commentary and reflections. The book can either be seen as a source and reference book, or as a practitioner aide. It includes sentences and paragraphs that can themselves be used as a basis for formal contemplation. It is not just an ‘about’ book, though it serves that purpose well.

The traditions presented are seen as having much in common at the core, and The Great Achievement bears witness to that commonality. Yet there is enough interior diversity to make it clear that mystics in these traditions are not all the same, or saying the same thing, in the way that is sometimes lazily claimed. Overall Ron Krumpos’ sense of ‘direct experience’ and his definition of gnosis describe a gold standard for what ‘the greatest achievement’ is, based on the accounts of the mystics cited and discussed. In the second half of this book, the focus valuably shifts from the nature of mystical experience itself, to a consideration of its implications for how to live and serve.

For me, the cultural moment in which The Great Achievement has been offered is significant one. Perennialism’s ideas have been popularised and repackaged over the period since World War II at an ever increasing rate. There is now an extraordinary global spiritual hunger at least partly influenced by the spiritual paths that it includes – some, indeed, speak of a ‘spiritual market place’. This is a promising development, yet one with its downside. Krumpos’ work reminds us what these older traditions are and where they stand. For readers in new (or new-old) spiritual traditions with a different approach, the book offers opportunities for comparing and contrasting the fruits of the five traditions with those of their their own chosen paths. Krumpos does acknowledge the value of shamanic and indigenous traditions, and practitioners within these traditions, reading this book, might be inspired to develop this conversation further.

BOOK REVIEW: WESTERN ANIMISM

Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism. Highly recommended.

Melusine Draco is an established Pagan author, here writing mostly about Japanese culture. She draws on her Shinto upbringing by her father, a martial arts instructor and countryman. She contrasts the Abrahamic stigmatisation of Paganism and Animism in the West with the peaceful co-existence of Buddhism and Shinto in Japan, to the point where the line between them can be “decidedly hazy”. She suggests that the Japanese approach makes positive spirituality and living easier. All it really takes is “time to appreciate white clouds against the bright blue of a winter sky; the whisper of falling rain; the aroma of freshly baked bread … if we make a practice out of seeking out the positive, we tend to find it everywhere – even on ‘bad, black dog days’ when we can still hear water dreaming, or listen to the stones growing”.

In five relatively brief chapters, Melusine Draco covers a great deal of ground. She discusses Ki, “the unseen life force in our body and everywhere”, and the sense that there is no dividing line between the divine and human. She describes Kami, “the most ambiguous of spirits” and talks of “sermons in nature”. She describes a Zen teacher who, at the beginning of a lecture, paused to listen to a songbird outside the window, and then dismissed the class. She explains Kensho moments, sudden insights and awakenings that help us on our way. Exercises to facilitate such moments are scattered through the book.

Draco evokes a culture that celebrates life and its transience; stylises and thus sacralises everyday skills and activities; and pays respectful attention to nature, including Kami. Religion itself is based on respect rather than faith. Drawing on these riches, Draco suggests an alternative wheel of the year inspired by Japanese festivals and adapted for the West. A chapter on the Zen garden includes a wider discussion of sacred space and the use of plants. Her final chapter looks at Zen arts and aesthetics – including wabi-sabi, “defined as the beauty of things ‘imperfect, impermanent and incomplete’”. It also covers a Japanese view of concentration, meditation, contemplation, and the differences between them. For Draco, “contemplation is that state of consciousness which brings clairvoyant power. It must, because the basis of contemplation is a clairvoyant perception, a kind of spiritual intuition”.

Anyone interested in Japanese spirituality, and willing to be inspired by it, would benefit from reading this book.

Melusine Draco Western Animism: Zen and the Art of Positive Paganism Winchester UK & Washington USA: Moon Books, 2019 (Pagan Portals series)

HOODED HERMIT

Winter in the  Wildwood Tarot lasts from Samhain (1 November) to Imbolc (1 February), whereupon the spring quarter begins. The hooded man, hermit of this deck, is shown as solstice figure whose influence pervades the whole winter. The image depicts a hooded figure, staff in the left hand and lantern in the right, standing by a great oak tree. The lantern illuminates a door in the tree, which itself suggests, through cracks in its timbers, an illuminated space inside. A wren sits on a stone nearby.

There is power in this image. The world tree, standing for life and wisdom, is both source and refuge. The hooded hermit seems to model intention and training, and his lantern and staff are potent tools. The wren once won a contest to be king of the birds by riding on the back of an eagle and thus flying highest. An animal ally, perhaps.

The face of the hooded hermit is hidden: no visible sign of a forest rebel; no sign, specifically, of a man. Does this suggest a talent for invisibility or shape-shifting? Perhaps. But what I chiefly sense is a Zen emptiness, of which Thich Nhat Hanh (2) says: “At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.” According to another Zen writer (3), “the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’ …a flowing occurrence, and the outward form ,,, was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

I am not a Buddhist and I do not seek to appropriate the hooded hermit for Buddhism. Similar ideas about the emptying out of personality to make room for a greater life can be found in Taoism (4) and Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (5). There’s a reminder here that path and goal are one, and that an emptied fullness of experiencing is available at any point of the journey.

(1) Mark Ryan & John Matthews The Wildwood Tarot Wherein Wisdom Resides London: Connections, 2011. Illustrations by Will Worthington

(2) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(4) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Power and the Way Boston & London: Shambhala, 1998 (A new English version by Ursula K. Le Guin, with the collaboration of J.P. Seaton, Professor of Chinese, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

 (5) http://www.headless.org

POEM: MATSUO BASHO

In imagination,

An old woman and I

Sat together in tears

Admiring the moon.

Matsuo Basho The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches London: Penguin Books, 1966. (Translated from the Japanese with an introduction by Noboyuki Yuasa.) The strongly Zen influenced Basho lived from 1644 – 1694 and is considered one of the greatest figures in Japanese literature.

AT-HOMENESS REVISITED

A year ago, I wrote: “within my Sophian Way, I have found healing and grounding in a flowing now, the site of an unexpected At-Homeness. Everything else grows out of that”(1). This post is to re-affirm this insight and to take it forward.

I wrote of a ‘flowing now’ since ‘now’ is not a frozen unit of time but a living stream of experience. Past and future can indeed be conceived and imagined, but only within the flowing now. The experience of At-Homeness can either steal up of itself or I can invite it by slowing down and attentively companioning the flow as it moves, whatever is going on. It is a way of marking this space and time as sacred. My opening and attention are a sacrament, the means through which the flowing now – all that I can be sure of in this life – is recognised and blessed.

I didn’t invent the term At-Homeness. It comes from the proponents of ‘bio-spirituality’, who say (2) “that the beginning of a bio-spiritual awareness … is finding a way to some larger At-Homeness written deep within bodily knowing”. For them, an enabling and loving attention to the body and its processes gives the felt sense of At-Homeness a chance to ripen. My experience of Focusing over the last 15 months tells me this is true. My experience of Headless Way (3) opens up a world of vivid shapes and colours, all boundaries gone, no self in sight. Immersed in this world, I experience a lightness of being, and stillness in a world of movement. This, too, is At-Homeness in the flowing now.

I sense now, more clearly than before, that I am not at home in the realm of abstractions and absolutes. I do not find Sophia there. I flourish, rather, in processes and relationships. I can stand as awareness only through being aware (a process) of something/someone (a relationship). I find the love and magic in the cosmos, as well as its stresses and horrors, only within the play of movement and connection.

For me, Thich Nhat Hanh’s understanding of ‘Interbeing’ provides the most helpful presentation of a non-dual spirituality (4). “The insight of inter-being is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else. The insight of impermanence is that nothing is static, nothing stays the same. Interbeing means the absence of a separate self. Looking from the perspective of space, we call emptiness ‘inter-being’; looking from the perspective of time we call it impermanence”. Another modern Buddhist writer adds (5), “if you look at experience there are not fixed elements or even moments; there is simply a process, a transformation … the Buddha called himself tathagata or ‘that which is thus coming and going’. He described himself as merely a flowing occurrence, and the outward form that took was constant, calm, compassionate availability to people who came to him for help.”

Reading this, I am pushed uncomfortably into the recognition of my own volatility. I explored this theme in October 2017 (6). However, because I found Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on long periods of sitting meditation, not right for me, I appear to have lost some of this insight, at least consciously. I am somewhat comforted that ‘At-Homeness in a flowing now’ at least preserves the gist, and the simple practices I’m using work well within an ‘inter-being’ framework. This is not so much because of its Buddhist origin, as because as an approach it seems to me to be on the side of life, relationship and movement. It brings me down to earth and closer to Sophia (Prajnaparamita, Guanyin).

(1) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2018/08/20/

(2) Peter Campbell & Edward McMahon Bio-Spirituality: Focusing as a Way to Grow Chicago, Ill: Loyola Press, 1985

(3) www.headless.org/

(4) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

(5) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(6) https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/

ENLIGHTENMENT IS NOW

“Enlightenment is always enlightenment about something. You don’t need to practice eight years to have some enlightenment. Enlightenment is our daily business. If you practice mindfulness and concentration you may get insight, or enlightenment, several times a day. Just breathing in, you can be enlightened about the fact that you are alive. To be alive is already a miracle. While breathing in and making one step, we allow the light of mindfulness to be lit like a candle in our heart. We know that to be walking on this beautiful planet Earth is a wonder. And that kind of awareness and insight can bring peace and happiness already. We don’t want anything else. To be alive, to breathe in, and to make one step, is already wonderful enough. This is already enlightenment. And with the light of mindfulness in us we become a saint, we become a Buddha, we become a bodhisattva. We are a light for the world.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

HAIKU BY SARYU

Without a brush

The willow paints the wind

 

Zen Haiku, selected and translated by Jonathan Clements

London: Frances Lincoln, 2000

 

DAYFLY

“The brief dayfly dies before evening; summer’s cicada knows neither spring nor autumn. What a glorious luxury it is to taste life to the full for even a year. If you constantly regret life’s passing, even a thousand long years will seem but the dream of a night.”

Yoshida Kenko A Cup of Sake Beneath the Cherry Trees Kindle edition of a Penguin Classic. This is a selection taken from Essays in Idleness and probably written around 1329-31 CE. Translated into English by Meredith McKinney.

The son of an administration official, Kenko was born Urabe Kaneyoshi and served as  guards officer in the Imperial palace. He became a Buddhist monk in later life, living in a hermitage within a Zen monastery. He has been seen as the most important Japanese literary figure of his day, retaining something of a secular lens on the world despite his monastic standing.  He also wrote: “it is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and commune with someone from the past whom you have never met.” I like him for writing that sentence, and I like being able to read it.

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