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Zen practices for daily life

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Anshu Bahanda: Two monks encountered a woman trying to navigate a muddy puddle. One of them picked her up and put her at the other end and then they carried on. The other monk said to the first monk, ‘You know, we’re not meant to actually touch women. Why did you pick her up?’ So the first monk says, ‘I put her down ages ago. Why are you still carrying her?’ This story gives us a powerful lesson in known attachment, which is a Zen philosophy. And that’s what we’re going to be talking about today. Zen practices for daily life. Welcome to Wellness Curated. This is your host, Anshu Bahanda. And today, as I said, we’re going to be talking about Zen practices for daily life in our fascinating series, Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times. I have two very special people with me here today. We have with us today Professor Rubén L. F. Hábito. He’s the Zen Roshi of the Sanbō Kyōdan lineage, and he’s a professor of world religions and spirituality, director of spiritual formation at the Perkins School of Theology. He’s also written a book on Zen and spiritual exercises. And I’m also excited to present to you Shozan Jack Hobner, who is a Zen monk and he’s known for his wit and his wisdom. He also received the Pushcart Prize and if you haven’t seen his YouTube videos, I would suggest you do so. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Now, from what I understand, Zen is from the japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism, and it emphasises meditation and intuition rather than studying the scriptures and the ritual.

Professor Rubén L. F. Hábito: That is correct. And more than just intuition and wisdom, it emphasises a way of life that is open to the world, that cultivates a heart of compassion. That is the distinctive point of Mahayana, that it makes vis a vis other schools that compassion is the key as to whether you are living an awakened life or not.

AB: Wonderful. And I wanted to talk about this famous kōan, which is— chop wood, carry water. And it was about how enlightenment doesn’t just have to be, you know, this great thing of you sitting in meditation. It also includes the mundane tasks like, I believe there was a famous Zen master who said, before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. So, Jack, talk to me about this concept in Zen, about being fully present in whatever you do and how can we apply that to our lives today?

Shozan Jack Haubner: Yeah, I love that kōan— chop wood carry water, because in the heart of the coldest winters at the monastery, I realised the kōan has also chopped water and carried. And that’s about the essence of the teaching. I was taught that Zen has very few moving parts. It’s a very simple practice. The less complicated, the better. There’s a story wherein a student asked the Zen teacher Ikkyu, a famous Zen master and a poet. He said, ‘Okay, there are thousands and thousands of sutras. If we were to put them on paper, they would fill every hall in this building, from the floor to the ceiling. But I want you to summarise all of the teachings in just three words.’ Ikkyu said, ‘No problem. Attention, attention, attention.’ So, for me, being in the present moment is about paying attention to what’s actually happening on the outside and on the inside. So not getting caught up in ideas or fantasies, notions about what I wish was happening, about what I hope will happen, about what I’m upset that happened in the past. But I’m attending. I think the latin word for attention, etymologically, means to tend to. To tend to pay attention, to tend to what is actually happening. My teacher called this making relationship. You make relationships continually with reality on the inside and on the outside. That, in a nutshell, for me, is manifesting in the present moment. And as the present moment. 

Prof R L.F. H: May I offer a comment to that? We come back to that earlier story of the monk, of the two monks who met the lady who needed to be helped in crossing the muddy water. The second person was holding on to the rules. This is what we have to do. This is what we can’t do during certain situations. So that person was, in a sense, attached to something in his mind that involves what a Zen monk should be. Whereas the second or the first person who just saw the woman and then just went, oh, may I help you? And then just carried her and then let her go, was precisely giving the example of that person who is totally attentive and present and spontaneous and offering what the moment calls for, in a sense, in a way of freedom and also of compassion. So that story really illustrates what Zen is about.

SJH: Thank you for bringing up that story, because I just wanted to say the beautiful thing about that story and the beautiful thing about the Zen masters that I’ve met and really resonated with is their ability to be spontaneous and be present and not be moralistic or judgmental. So in that story, we have someone who… The problem in Zen is not, for example, attraction to a woman or touching a woman. In this case, the monk is not supposed to touch a woman. The problem is attachment. The problem is attachment, right? The joy of life in Zen monks is one of the things that drew me to the practice. They were unlike some of the catholic priests in my upbringing. They were not so stern and life denying. They were life affirming, but they didn’t attach to the content of their experiences.

AB: Rubén, I want to ask you about Zazen or the meditation, the seated meditation. Now, it’s becoming very, very popular, and I believe it’s about thinking, about not thinking or letting the thoughts come and letting the thoughts go. How do we start on the path of Zazen? And what challenges do you think we’ll face initially?

Prof R L.F. H: Basically, Zen entails three points. One is taking a posture conducive to stillness. Second, breathing with attention. And thirdly, allowing the mind to be calm and come home to the here and now with every breath. Try it. It sounds simple, but it’s not easy. So there are different kinds of postures you can take. And sitting, the seated posture, with its very, very clear prescriptions for how to sit in a way that is fully attentive, can be given. But you can also do walking meditation. You can also be fully in stillness while walking, or you can be in stillness while washing dishes, as the famous example of Thich Nhat, the late Zen master from Vietnam, offered in his book Miracle of Mindfulness. 

AB: Rubén, you talked about some of the mundane tasks as well, that you can go into a Zen space with. So, Jack, why don’t you talk to me about the mundane tasks which are also so important in our everyday life? How do we incorporate that into our Zen practice, like housework or commuting or washing dishes?

SJH: Well, interestingly, at the monastery, the mundane things, actually, you don’t incorporate them into the practice. They are the practice. Life at a monastery is split up into a bunch of different activities and different responsibilities. So, for example, about eight, nine months into my 13 year stay, I found myself in the kitchen, and my job was to be a kitchen Buddha and to make rice, make soup and to make bread for 30-40 people day after day after day. And the practice, you have to turn that activity into Zen practice or you go crazy because you have no sleep and you’re bored and you’re tired and you’re aggravated. And so you’ve got to take all that energy and put it into the, there’s just the physical activity of taking care of people through food preparation. So I was taught that in the same way you give your thinking, perseverating mind to breathing in the zendo, when you’re doing zazen meditation practise and dissolving that self into the practise of shikantaza or just sitting in the same way, when you’re chopping carrots, you’re giving yourself to that activity. And when you give yourself completely to an activity, you forget yourself. And that’s the practice. That’s all the practice is giving completely, and then the self is gone. I was taught. And then, of course, it comes back a moment later, and then the practice is to repeat the same activity. So that’s the amazing thing. Whether you’re brushing your teeth or sitting in a chair like this, for me, the practice always comes out of my head, where I usually am, and into the situation completely, as completely as I can. My teacher would talk about giving 100%, because sometimes it’s easy to sort of hold back a little bit, but the practice is to give yourself completely. And then the self is forgotten. The self is gone.

AB: So, Rubén, I want to ask you about this other kōan of ‘The Raft’, where a Zen master tells his students, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Now, I know that a lot of the Zen kōans are paradoxical anecdotes, but what did he mean by that? Can you explain this to us?

Prof R L.F. H: So when we have an object of our devotion, or we’re looking forward to meeting the Buddha, because that’s the idea that we have been setting for our lives, then that becomes, that itself becomes an attachment. So when we come to a place in life where we experience something, ah, this is the Buddha, or, now I’ve gotten it. I have Kensho, so called the Japanese term for seeing your true nature that is awakening. Then many people tend to say, now I’ve gotten it. Now I’m special. Now I’m Buddha. And that’s the kind of Buddha that you need to kill and come back to the ordinary reality and live as Buddha, forgetting about what Buddha is all about. A very, very helpful way of saying, don’t get attached even to the idea of Buddha. Would you agree, Jack? 

SJH: Yeah. Completely. Completely. Yeah. We get ideas in our heads, especially if you sit for a while. Then you have some sort of opening, and boy, do you chase after that opening again and again and again. But it’s gone, and the past is gone. And no matter how deep the experience was, the years accumulate, and you have to wake up in the morning and you have to brush your teeth, and you have to keep manifesting the dharma or your Buddha nature over and over and over, moment after moment after moment. And it gets pretty heavy to carry ideas and scriptures and teachings around with you. So it’s a beautiful teaching to kill the Buddha. It’s very, very direct. It frees you of your ideas about what you should be. You’re free of those ideas. Yeah. 

AB: And is it something about killing the ego? 

Prof R L.F. H: Exactly. The ego is also the one that gets attached to it, so let that go also. 

AB: So I wanted to also ask you about the kōans. Now, these are always paradoxical. There seems to be a deeper truth that’s being tried that they’re trying to uncover with every story.

SJH: One of my favourite classic kōans is you look in the mirror, you know what your face looks like now, but what about before you were born? What did your original face look like? Kind of stops the mind. My teacher used to give very bespoke kōans for his western students. Kind of tailor made for us, because we came to Zen practise with so many expectations, and he was constantly trying to pull the rug out from under those expectations. The practice of kōans was called Sanzen. So we would go into the Sanzen room individually, one on one, to do kōan work with our teacher, and a great deal of pomp and circumstance. You’re doing a bunch of great bows, right? First, when you enter the room, then you sit down in front of the teacher. You’re doing more great bows. And then you do a thank you bow, and then you say, my kōan is. And you give him the kōan. Right? And then you answer the kōan. But sometimes the kōan was very simple. He might just point to the flower in the room and say, when you see that flower, where is God? Where is Buddha? And you had to express with your whole being an answer to the kōan. There’s a term in Japanese called Taitoku, which means to apprehend with the whole body. So you had to answer with the whole body, express the apprehension with your whole body. Very spontaneous, nonverbal, non-logical, almost non-rational. And it sounds very complicated, but really what you’re doing is you’re getting out of your way, you’re connecting with the teacher. Oftentimes, I found kōan practice was a pretext to interact with the teacher. 

AB: Interesting. So explain to me how when you’re saying it was nonverbal and you would use your whole body, explain to us how. 

SJH: Okay, so, I mean, sometimes it was very… It was a very odd exchange or interaction when you incorrectly answer the kōan, which you almost always do. The teacher just rings the bell, and you’re out of there. So sometimes an interaction can be four or 5 seconds. Sometimes you would do your great bows entering the room, and I would be coming towards my teacher, and he would just ring his bell because he knew already I was going to give him a dumb answer, and so I would have to leave. So at one point, after answering the kōan incorrectly, many times, when you see the flower, where is God? Where is Buddha? I looked at the flower and I flowered. And then my teacher… I didn’t give an answer. It just happened. And my teacher said, ‘Ah, good, okay.’ And then he said, ‘But why?’ And I said, ‘The life in the flower and the life in me is the same life.’ So very intimate. Intimate but not personal interactions. That was my experience of doing kōan work with my teacher.

Prof R L.F. H: If you ask me, well, I could name a handful, but one that comes up right now inspired by what Jack just related, is the kōan where the monk, the new monk, comes to a Zen master and asks, ‘Master, I have just entered the monastery, sold all my belongings. I have tried to set aside all my worldly attachments, and here I am. I’m ready. Teach me.’ And the master first asks him, ‘Have you had your morning meal?’ Then the monk says, ‘Yes, I have.’ ‘Then, okay, go and wash your bowls.’ That’s the kōan. So the two movements in that kōan are there. Three, in fact. The first is, are you ready, like that monk, to really give away your worldly belongings? Maybe not literally. You don’t really literally sell everything and just become bereft of any material possessions, but let all of your attachments out of you and just come with that inner freedom of being ready to receive the dharma with your whole being, is that the state of mind that you’re in? And so if one has determined that, yes, I’m ready, and I can give my all to the dharma from the place where I’m living my life now then, the question then is, have you had your meal? And it’s not just about eating your breakfast or lunch or dinner, but have you had your fill? Is your heart already filled with that inner peace and inner joy that allows for a compassionate heart in you? And if you cannot say yes to that yet, then that’s the thing to really address. So first, how do we do that? How do we find where that meal can be? And this is where Zen practice comes in. We are given the instructions for sitting, taking a posture conducive to stillness, breathing with attention, and allowing the mind to come to the here and now and just live with that modality of always being in the present moment. And as you continue a habit of life that takes that as your basic mode, then somehow or other, at some point, something might come and make you realise what you’re looking for is right here, right now. You don’t have to look elsewhere. It’s not in the afterlife, for one, or it’s not somewhere in the Himalayas or in another place where there may be ideal situations, but it’s in every here and now that we are given in this day to day life. And that’s what the experience of so-called Kensho, or awakening, is about. Once life is filled, I know why I came and I know why I was born on this earth. Now I can live in this way. Then the Zen master says, okay, wash your bowls. In short, as the New Yorkers would say, forget about it. Let that idea of your Kensho get out of your mind and just live from day to day and stay in that place of the holy, wherever you are, whatever you do, even when you’re in the bathroom or when you are doing some cleaning stuff, that is also holy, that is also beautiful, that is also pure. 

AB: Thank you. Thank you. That was lovely. I want to ask you another thing. What is the concept of the Zen garden?

SJH: I have a friend who is almost a master in Zen gardening, and I’ve worked with him on a few projects. Precision. It’s almost like an intuition. During COVID he’s starting up a Zen training centre, a retreat centre in the Alps here at an old gasthaus, which is an old German- Austrian building. And we worked together during COVID. We had a lot of time, so we worked together on doing a Zen garden. And I really watched how his mind worked. So much of what he did was just standing there and kind of looking and looking and looking and then getting a sense for what the mountain was doing and then letting that replicate in the garden. So it seems precise, but it’s very natural and very flowing. So I’ve never looked at Zen gardens the same after that. I’ve always looked at them very alive. Now, when it comes to the form, boy, is the form precise. How you hold your hands when you’re doing a Gassho, the exact angle. Not like this. Not like this. Like this. And it seemed initially we could say, anal retentive. Like, I thought, these people are way too precise. And as a Catholic, I thought there’s too much of a fixation on the rules here. But what I learned was, you know, the term Zen comes from the, the term Chán, which comes from Thiền, which means single pointed concentration. So I talked earlier about doing an activity so completely that you dive into it and forget yourself. Sort of fixation on form is really just to give your mind something to do so that you’re thinking, how should I do my hands? How should I bow? They tell you exactly how to do it, and then you can do the activity completely. You don’t have to think about how it’s done. You know how it’s done because you’re taught. You know how you’re supposed to sit in the zendo. You know how you’re supposed to bow in the zendo. There’s nothing for your mind to do, no direction for it to wander, no choice to be made. The form is a tool to allow you to give yourself completely and to focus your mind. Because again, the term Zen means single pointed concentration. Bring your attention to one point. 

Prof R L.F. H: A Zen garden that is known by many tourists around the world, and of course, by the Japanese… 

AB: Are you talking about Ryōan-ji in Kyoto? I’ve been there.

Prof R L.F. H: Yes, there is a model Zen garden that is there for everyone to see. One would think that if you just see the pictures, that it’s a huge thing, but when you go there, it’s just a nice little garden in a backyard. But what I’d like to know about this is, if you go to the other side of that same temple, just walk through the corridors of the temple. On the other side, there is a small well, and that well has a mouth to it with a metal piece where there is a hole where the water spouts and surrounding that are, four Chinese characters, Japanese, which can be translated in English as— I only know contentment. And those four characters have a common part where there’s a hole in the middle. ‘I’— the ware in Japanese has that zero underneath it, and the ‘only’ also has a zero beside it. And the contentment has the zero on top of it and only also has that.  So I only know contentment. ‘Ware tada taru o shiru (吾唯足知)’ in Japanese.  The suggestion there is that that contentment comes from knowing your nothingness, your emptiness, allowing your heart to be empty, throwing that ‘I’, ‘me’, ,mine’ away, and allowing it to be filled with the gifts of the universe that wells up and gives nourishment to all. So once you have emptied yourself of your little ego, then you will find your heart filled with contentment and joy and gratitude that you can share with the rest of the world.

AB: Thank you, Jack, in your videos, you often explore sort of the humorous side of your life at the monastery. Tell us, is humour an important aspect in Zen philosophy?

SJH: Yeah, it seems like it is really important in Zen. And that’s one of the things I’ve always appreciated from the Zen teachers that I’ve met, their sense of humour. I asked my Zen mentor once, ‘Are there any sins in Zen?’ And he said, the only sin is selfishness. Or you could say, taking yourself too seriously. And that’s literally one of (the sins), for me, anyways. The core teaching in Zen is called Anattā, it’s the Sanskrit word, and it means not self or no self. And it’s as esoteric and as deep and as profound and as far reaching a teaching as you want to make it. It has profound implications and it has in my life. But it’s also very simple. Literally, don’t take yourself seriously. And, you know, when you do the practice, after a while, you start to realise sometimes really serious questions when you come all the way through them, they often times have very funny answers. I mean, there’s this great story about this very tortured Zen student who asks his master, like, ‘I am suffering, I am terrified of death, what happens after we die?’ And the Zen teacher considers this and he says, ‘Why are you asking me this question?’ He says, ‘Well, you’re the Zen master.’ And the Zen master says, very honestly, ‘Yeah. But I’m not a dead Zen master.’ You know, it’s a serious question, but it’s a funny answer, right? And it’s a truthful answer. It’s a wise answer. It’s an answer you can kind of sit with. And there’s a lot of this in the Zen tradition. So Zen humour is not so much something you consciously cultivate. It’s just something that comes out of a life of Zen where you’re not clinging to anything and you’re not taking your life too seriously. And therefore each and everything becomes a source of joy and a source of a new, fresh outlook in life. 

AB: From the practises that you have learned, is there anything that you can recommend to help us achieve peace and clarity?

SJH: Zen, for me, has always been a practice of doing. So I want to share a practice that I came up with recently because I was not doing my meditation practise day-to-day, and I knew I wasn’t going to do it even if I committed to it. So it’s a very, very simple technique. So, first of all, meditation for me is sitting still and taking a posture, as Rubén said. Rubén came up with three ways to approach Zazen meditation practices which I think are very helpful. So people can review that from this podcast. Following giving oneself completely to the breath, the mind wanders. Bring it back to the breath over and over and over. That’s the practice of meditation.  But how do you get yourself to do it? I’m going to tell you. I have this little glass right here. I have seven coins in it, right? So in my girlfriend’s bedroom, she has a desk, and I put this glass down on the desk and I take the seven coins and I put them on top of the desk. And every time I’m in her room and we see that glass and we see those coins, we’re reminded today is a day when we have to sit for 20 minutes and we take, and when the sit is done, we take one of these €1 pieces and we put it in the glass. You’d be surprised at the reminder, having that, just having that reminder there on the desk. Because we forget our commitments, right? We completely forget them. But when we have a reminder right there and we have a job to do today, I have to sit in one spot for 20 minutes, and then I get to put the €1 coin into the jar. And at the end of the week, wow, the jar is full. You know, I mean, I’m a monk. I did this for 13 years. I meditated for thousands of hours. And still it’s hard for me, day after day after day, to do my practice. But something very simple like that, you can sit for 30 seconds, if that’s all that you have, or you can sit for an hour, 2 hours, whatever your commitment is, put that coin in that glass for the day and give yourself to your practice. Something wakes up inside you. I’ve noticed when you commit day after day after day to the practice in that way. 

AB: Wonderful. Rubén? 

Prof R L.F. H: When we look at the world now, we see the enormity of the issues. We have these wars going on in different places, and we see poverty and hunger, we see domestic violence, we see a lot of discrimination and violence. How can my practice make a difference? Well, I am always reminded of the story of a father and a little girl, about five years old, walking by a beach end. And they come upon this beach where it’s a wide sand area close to the sea. And on this beach end it’s sunny. And there are these starfish lying there. They were, they were taken by the waves to the sand, and then the water receded and the starfish were there, left to die in the sand. And so the little girl just saw them, and one by one, she lifted one and threw it into the water. She said, ‘There you go. There you go.’ And then the father, in a knowing kind of way, said, ‘My dear, you can’t make a difference. See, there are thousands of them.’ ‘Well,’ the little girl said, ‘I can make a difference in this one. And then this one.’ So playfully, she just did what she was doing there and without thinking of the enormity of the task. So if we as individuals can do what is before us, then that is our little contribution to easing the darkness. Just like lighting a candle in the dark.

AB: As we wrap up, it brings to mind this quote, this Zen quote that is used a lot in our household, which is— in a beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in an expert’s mind, there are few. And it takes me to the story of a Zen master. So the student went to learn from the Zen master, and he was pouring tea for the student. And when the cup got filled with tea, the zen master kept pouring, and it overflowed, and the student said, ‘What? Stop. Stop. What are you doing?’ And the Zen master said, you’re just like this cup. You’ve come to me so full of preconceived ideas and notions and your own knowledge that Zen has no place to go into, into you. So I would love to hear your view on this.

SJH: It reminds me of so many interactions with my teacher when we would drink tea and we would just sit down and sit in silence and maybe say a few words, but mostly just, just sit together in silence, and nothing really needed to be said. After a while, I learned not to come to him with too many preconceptions about Zen, too many ideas, too many questions. Just sit and do the simple activity, for example, of partaking in tea with him. And in that way, we would manifest to bring things full circle, the present moment together. And that was all that was needed. We wouldn’t be able to manifest Zen together in that way if I came to him with my teacup overflowing with ideas, questions, and thoughts, etcetera. 

AB: Thank you, Professor Rubén and Shozan Jack Haubner, for joining us today in our series, Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living.

SJH: Thank you. 

Prof R L.F. H: Thank you, Jack. And thank you, Anshu.

AB: Thank you for joining us today. And for those of you who are listening, we hope it was useful to you, and we hope you learned something new. Do join us for our next podcast which is going to be on Buddhism. Till then thank you, and may your life be full but your cup be empty. Please can I request you to subscribe to Wellness Curated our podcast. And on YouTube we’re Wellness Curated by Anshu Bahanda. If you subscribe to us, we can carry on getting you these podcasts for free. Thank you so much.