Thursday, May 18, 2006

Empty-Handed I Go

Empty-handed I go, and behold the spade is in my hands; I walk on foot, and yet on the back of an ox I am riding; When I pass over a bridge, Lo, the water floweth not, but the bridge doth flow.

It just isn't safe to go anywhere or do anything without an umbrella of insurance for protection these days. If we want to set out on the dangerous roadways, we must make sure that we have automobile insurance, first to ensure that we can protect ourselves and afford to repair any damages caused by other drivers, second, to compensate others for damages we have caused, and third, to protect us from those who do not have insurance. We must also have insurance to pay for our expensive medications treating serious conditions with few alternative treatments, and the majority of medications which mask problems that can be treated without medication, but require discipline, which is what is truly lacking in the patient. There is insurance for the home, for the teeth, and for our pets. We live in constant fear that everything will be taken from us and so we try to ensure that we are protected. The walls we build are never high enough.
In the spiritual world, we see many who grasp hold of Buddhism for whatever reason, but leave a small portion of their old ways and beliefs behind, like a bit of insurance, just in case it turns out that things turns out badly. It seems that we want a little bit of spiritual insurance so that if the Buddha can't magically solve all of our problems, we can go back to our old religion and cash in our insurance, proving that we never left in the first place. If we imagine two Olympic sprinters tied together at the ankle by an eight foot rope, one sets of to the north and the other to the south, and soon, they will turn in a circle or pull against each other. We cannot set off into the open ocean without form when our ship is still heavily tied to the shore. Until we are brave enough to live without that bit of insurance, we will not know the fruits of the path. As Eiji Yoshikawa says in the final sentence of Musashi, "The little fishes, abandoning themselves to the waves, dance and sing and play, but who knows the heart of the sea, a hundred feet down? Who knows its depth?"


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Bricklayer

When I first began to write music, the lyrics would find me at odd times of the night and would not allow me to sleep until they were put to paper. The music would enter my head but the drive to have it put down was not the same. I was still young, and very undisciplined, and my mind found far to many distractions. At first I planned to put my songs to music but lacked to time and would do it later. When I had the time, I realized I lacked the proper instruments. Later I was able to buy a few different instruments. Then I realized that I lacked the proper recording equipment. No matter how far I progressed, I always lacked a cable, a machine, a device, or some technique.
For years these barriers followed me and no matter how hard I pursued music, new walls seemed to be built in front of me. How is it that one man can have so many obstacles for so small a thing, I wondered?
And then one night the power went out in the apartment and none of the devices, machines, or fancy equipment worked. There were no lights to read by or any other form of entertainment. I reached for my acoustic guitar. Now this acoustic guitar was not an expensive model with grand tone, made from exotic wood from an exotic location. It was a budget guitar. I grabbed my guitar in the dark and thought of all the walls in front of me. It was then I could see the concrete on my own hands. I had built those walls. I feared the progress. Somewhere inside I feared going outside of the known. I had learned the comfortable music. The music in my head was not comfortable. It did not conform to theory and scales that I had studied. And so I vowed to never study the music theory that I had worked so hard to learn for years. I would not live in the "box". The music in my head did not live there and that was why I could not find it. I had been laying bricks in confusion, creating my own suffering rather than taking the harder road.
That night I started with the lowest string and I began all over again. No more complex jazz chords and theory. I wanted to find the tones in my head. I wanted to find the tones that lie in the strings, in the guitar, and in my skin. With trial and error, month after month, starting with a night in darkness, I learned how to sing my own tune.
We watch others lay the bricks in front of them and then ask why they don't make progress. We know the reason. When we focus on our own lives, we fail to have this insight and become the bricklayer. We find the pleasure and then build the wall and find the pain, only to tear it down and find the pleasure again. This distraction keeps us busy until the gray hairs set it and Father Time calls for us to merge with the soil. Perhaps we should all choose to stop this profession. There is no future in it.


Wednesday, May 03, 2006


As a child, I came in contact with the strange sayings and actions of Zen teachers indirectly through the reading of Asian literature. I was drawn to their odd quotations, but had little idea to their true meaning. At this time in my life, a mere child, I did not study Buddhism directly and I did not even know how to meditate in the traditional manner. Being very introspective and curious about my world and mind, about words, concepts, and the origin of everything, I would often use any available time to think over these things.
Like many children, one of my chores was to mow the lawn. At that time I felt that my family had picked the home with the largest backyard possible, with the steepest hill, to ensure to largest possible area for me to mow. While mowing the grass, the back and forth motion, cutting across the lawn, and the repetition of the small motor would gradually draw my mind inwards, deeper and deeper, soon separating thought and word, mind and concept. Mind would function in streams of thought outwards of the normal medium devoid of subject and object, only to pop back in for a moment, then back out. It seemed as if it were a hybrid stream of thought, rotating between the two.
It was during one of these streams of thought that a quote from Teh-shan (780-865) entered my mind. Teh-shan would enter the hall with a big stick. "If you utter a word I will give you thirty blows; if you utter not a word, just the same, thirty blows on your head." While reading this it had seemed little exotic Asian wisdom, not to be understood in the West. While cutting the grass on a hot summer day, halfway between words and non-duality, I found something else. The mowing stopped. I stopped moving. I felt like I stopped breathing and that everything in the world stopped moving. In my own little form of meditation, I had a taste of something I had no name for. When I was later told not to name it, I needed little explanation.
Just yesterday, while driving on the Interstate, a driver turned on his left turn signal from the far left lane. I though to myself, you can't turn left from the far left lane on the Interstate. A similar reaction followed. Just as words are not to be embraced, we also cannot think that the only meditation is the form on a pillow with legs crossed, or that the only koan are in the form of words. Sometimes they take the form of turn signals at 65 mph.