Sheng Yen, Shattering the Great Doubt

Shattering_the_great_doubtI have been practicing Chan Buddhism for over a decade, but diligently only in the last few years. I’d say rather that for a long time I had periods of diligence that over time grew shorter and shorter, until at one point I stopped practicing. It soon enough became clear to me that I needed the practice in my life, I started up again, and while I’m still far from a perfect practitioner I am diligent in a way I never have been in any endeavor over the whole course of my life thus far.

A few months ago I made the drive north to Riverside for the first time in a while to hear, in the flesh, a Dharma talk from my teacher, Gilbert Gutierrez. To make the connection to the book, Gilbert is one of Sheng Yen‘s Dharma heirs, one of, if I’m correct, only seventeen and the only one in the Americas. Gilbert was my introduction to the practice and while I abandoned him for a spell he never abandoned me. Gilbert, that night, taught the huatou method to his group and gave me a huatou on which to work. Fairly soon and in anticipation of a 7-day retreat at Dharma Drum Los Angeles, I bought Shifu’s book–Shifu means “teacher” or “master”–on the method.

Typical of Sheng Yen, the book is of the highest caliber. What I will say is that, like everything I’ve read of his, it is intended not so much as a treatise on a subject but as a means to encourage and develop practice. I don’t feel like I’d give someone one of Shifu’s books as a means to understand the ideas behind Chan, or Buddhism generally. But if one wants to get a sense of what one concretely does as a practioner or how the exchange between teacher and student goes, he’s ideal.

Shattering the Great Doubt consists of transcripts, edited, certainly but not so much that they lose the spontaneity and humor of Shifu’s actual talks. This book, more than others I’ve read from him, retains his humor. That alone is worth a ton. A book like his Faith in Mind is something of a classic, and it too was drawn from talks. This one, and a companion volume on the Silent Illumination method, retain at least in part students’ questions with Shifu’s responses. It reads at least in large parts more like a transcript, which of course it basically is, than a book. This is a good thing for me.

I should say something about the actual method, because while on the one hand I’m writing this simply as part of my larger project of documenting what books I read, on the other hand I would hope that some practitioner stumbles here looking for information on the practice. I’m no Dharma Teacher to be sure, but I’m happy to share experiences.

The huatou method basically consists of the meditator using a particular repeated question as the object of her or his meditation. One simply asks the question over and over in one’s mind. Like other methods, like, most commonly, awareness of breath, the mind inevitably, and generally quite quickly, wanders off from the method, in this case the question. The practice then, at least initially, is to bring he attention back to the method. With extended use the minds gradually settles on the question and rests there. The broader purpose of the method is to rest develop doubt, not a doubt of not believing but a doubt of not knowing but wanting to. The doubt builds and, ultimately, shatters. What’s left is the experience of one’s true nature, as it’s called in Chan.

So, less of a book response than a response to the method itself as I practiced it. Have I gotten results? By all means. I have generally practiced Silent Illumination, or in the Japaneze shikantaze, “just sitting” and taking one’s sitting body as the object of awareness in the method. I worked with the huatou quite a bit. Where Silent Illumination produces in me a wide openness and stillness, the huatou seems, entirely predictably, more focused and with an intensity that Silent Illumination does not encourage. Master Sheng Yen, in the book, talked at points about wielding the huatou as if it were a vajra sword, cutting through delusion. This seems about right. Gilbert said that the danger in Silent Illumination is that precisely because it is such a gentle method one can drift off to all kinds of places relatively easily. The huatou is at some level easier to stay on, and it seems to really effectively clear the mind. Certainly it is a practice worth having in one’s toolbox.


The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, trans. John Blofeld

400000000000000528334_s4I recently did a short retreat, and the immediate result of it was that I want to go on a long retreat. That to me seems a great thing.

I have in the past approached Buddhist texts–in this case the word scripture is appropriate–as I approached other books, or at least other expository texts. I read them to understand some thing, or even more basically to know what some thing is. Huang Po, the text, is nothing if not expository, and the book can suit this purpose.

At this point, though, I don’t find myself reading a book like this to find out what it says as much as I look to it for encouragement and direction in my practice. I have been told by more than one qualified teacher that this is the proper role of scripture in practice: guidance and encouragement. I am all for intellectual understanding but that’s not where I am right now. It makes me feel good. I feel like I am at a point where I am dedicated to practice more than I have ever been, and moreover that I am so based on the firm foundation of results.

But to the book. What struck me immediately upon rereading Huang Po was the clarity of the text. Many Zen texts have a reputation, deserved in a way, as being difficult to understand, or cryptic. It seems to me that much of this problem is that we read these texts as we would a modern expository text when in fact the text such as it is was not written as such. Think The Blue Cliff Record or Linji. The first is a series of teaching tools to be used by a teacher with a dedicated student, historically with monastics. The Blue Cliff Record is used to provoke, not explain, and so we will be confused if we approach it as an explanation. The record of Linji’s teaching, illuminating as it is, is a record of a few talks and many more anecdotal interactions between teacher and student, punctuated with shouts and blows. Outside of the context of dedicated practice, the interactions are nonsensical. If we see Linji working to provoke realization in students, it’s more comprehensible.

The record of Huang Po’s teaching, as it stands in this book, works vastly better as expository text. Without doubt, it wasn’t precisely intended as such. Yet I have not come across a more useful and clear exploration of the use of the term “Mind” as we find it in Zen/Ch’an that Huang Po. Were one to use it academically, the book would be enormously useful.

But for me, the academic use of the book is beside the point. What I will say is that as I read it I found it very comforting and encouraging. Comforting because reading it felt like it was giving a name to experience I’ve had in practice. Aha, I thought, this is familiar. Encouraging because it tells me I’ve hit on something practical that works and that I should keep going.

Sheng Yen, Faith in Mind

I certainly don’t know if Faith in Mind is the book I’d recommend someone read first if they wanted to get a taste of Master Sheng Yen‘s instruction, but of the books of his I’ve read, this feels to me to be the most characteristic.  The form is very typical: there is a complete text, in this case the poem, “Faith in Mind,” attributed to the Third Patriarch of Ch’an, Seng Ts’an, followed by Sheng Yen’s commentary alternating with the relevant portions of the text.

Sheng Yen’s commentary derives from talks given at retreat.  He clarifies his approach in the introduction:

…I did not adopt a scholarly point of view or analytical approach.  It is not a formal commentary on the text; rather, I use the poem as a taking-off point to inspire the practitioner and deal with certain issues that arise during the course of practice. (2)

This, were I to point to any singular virtue Sheng Yen had in his instruction, is precisely why he was a “Master.”  I have not encountered any instruction as useful for actual practice as Sheng Yen’s.  This is not to denigrate anyone else, nor, a worse error, to suggest that Sheng Yen lacks anything as a theoretician.  On the contrary, his persistent focus on the technical aspects of practice, its practical effects, and the ensuing problems those effects present is itself a theoretical perspective of the highest order.

I first read this book early in my practice.  My teacher had been using it in his own instruction, so it seemed like a natural place to go.  I have a distinct memory from that point in my life of getting a very specific instruction from the book that has been of paramount importance in my entire practice since, and which literally saved my mental neck on more than one occasion.  The passage was indeed there on second read:

When practicing, it is sufficient to just keep your mind on the method.  It is unnecessary to reflect on how well you are doing, or to compare whether you are in a better state now than you were half an hour ago…Hold on to one method and go into it as deeply as possible (29-30)

I have never gotten more mileage out of any instruction than I have from these lines.  My only business when I am on the cushion is my method.  Practically, all the stuff people talk about, like the body falling away and only the method remaining, the method falling away, etc., that all may come, but as soon as I have any sense that I can not be on the method, I need to get my ass back to my method.  As soon as there’s any choosing, choose the method.  Such simple instruction, but not at all commonplace.

Hsing Yun, Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment

I sit at one of Hsing Yun’s temples, on Park in San Diego.  One afternoon, I walked into their bookstore, having read earlier in the day some of Huineng’s commentary on the Diamond Sutra, and what stared out at me but this?  I couldn’t help but, contrary to habit, buy the thing.  Just finished it.

I read a post a bit back on another blog, reviewing in a way the book, Democracy’s Dharma.  The author noted:

generally Madsen shows the Taiwanese organizations breaking down along occupational and socioeconomic lines: Tzu Chi for service workers, Fo Guang Shan [Master Hsing Yun‘s organization] for managers and entrepreneurs, and Dharma Drum for artists and academics.

Dharma Drum is my lineage, but living as I do in San Diego I sit at a Fo Guang Shan temple, so how I understand Four Insights for Finding Fulfillment is conditioned by my experience in the two places.  So, I will say that it’s my own issue that my first feeling when going through the book was that this was a very expedient means: lots of discussion of very practical concerns the likes of which I would imagine businesspeople (precisely as the quote above intimated) would have, followed by practical advice, reference to anecdote, and a quote with citation from the Diamond Sutra.  The Sutra itself is an appendix.

They call us practitioners for a reason, because I certainly haven’t got this ego thing worked out.  I will say that what I felt at first in the book was skimming the surface–no discussions about unmediated mind, the nature of mind and phenomena, etc.–built as the book progressed.  The quotes from the Sutra became longer, and the discussions of the substance of the Dharma became lengthier, on their own terms rather than in reference to typical situations one encounters in what we imagine to be real life.  Master Hsing Yun takes a different tack than Sheng Yen did, but he is absolutely dealing with the same thing.

I am at a point now where I have enough confidence in myself to actually make a point about how Buddhism goes down in North America.  I have not lived in the same town as my Dharma teacher for many years now, and though I listen to his talks via the internet, I have also looked for instruction where I am.  Face to face is good.  So, I’ve stumbled into a lot of stuff on my way.

Here’s the point: a bunch of upwardly-mobile young white people started practicing with these amazing Asian teachers, and then, in the name of expedient means, started teaching all kinds of stuff in the name of the Dharma while completely losing the plot.  I’ll put forward that there’s a lot of underlying white nonsense happening: we will drop the archaic Asian superstition and have a Buddhism for the “West.” This is Orientalism at work.

Master Sheng Yen and Gilbert, my teacher–as well as all kinds of other people, like Master Hsing Yun–employ expedient means, but they put the real point

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering
No cessation of suffering, and no path.

in their talks and books.

I am pleased that at this point I can distinguish shit from Shinola.

There I am, with my teacher.  So:

  • You can talk about psychology in your Dharma, but only if you use it as a door to Ch’an, or Zen, or whatever you call it.
  • You can incorporate martial arts into your program, but only if there’s a point where you drop the fighting and experience non-duality.
  • You can tell someone that practicing can help their recovery, but only if you’ll help that person get to the point where their recovery is there to help their practice.
  • Last, Buddhism is not a brand.

An accomplished practitioner here who facilitates a sitting group I attend told me, when I pointed out some of these concerns that he couldn’t see how the Dharma was the Dharma if there wasn’t any satori in it.  He comes from a Japanese lineage but the point is obvious.  Sheng Yen tossed you in the deep end fairly quickly, and Hsing Yun and Thich Nhat Hanh take different tacks, but in all three they put it all on the table so the people who are ready for it can go.  That I can work with.

Victor Pelevin, Buddha’s Little Finger

I picked up the Pelevin‘s Чапаев и Пустота, in English, “Chapaev and Void,” published with the English title, Buddha’s Little Finger, at the library and was immediately enthralled.  The introduction–part of the novel, in fact–claims the text to be the true telling of the story of Chapaev, narrated by Petka–you might say, “Petey,” in English–potentially titled, ‘The Garden of the Divergent Petkas’, the introduction written, apparently by the

Chairman of the Buddhist Front for Full and Final Liberation (FFL (b)) (IX)

Needless to say, I dug it.

Pelevin, my acquaintance had told me, actually practices Buddhism, and from what I read in an interview, he seems to me to be very serious about it, and not at all smug or off-putting in that way that some…well…judging mind, judging mind…He speaks:

I only study and practice my mind for which the Dharma of Buddha is the best tool I know: and it is exactly what the word Buddhism means to me. And I also totally accept the moral teaching of Buddhism because it is the necessary condition of being able to practice your mind.

That sounds about right, to me.  I found myself, not a third of the way through the book, realizing that it is best approached as a case-study, or koan to use the Japanese most familiar in the United States, like in the Blue Cliff Record.  Chapaev is the master, and Petka–as well as others–the students.  Petka, early in the novel, references the house-on-fire metaphor from the Lotus Sutra:

I should say that I was not in the least bit afraid of death.  In my situation to die was every bit as natural and reasonable as to leave a theater that has caught fire in the middle of a lackluster performance. (29)

That I know the feeling precisely only increased the humor of it, for me.

It is worth bearing in mind Linji, of whom I have written before:

The Master [Linji] saw a monk coming and held his fly whisk straight up. The monk made a low bow, whereupon the Master struck him a blow. The Master saw another monk coming and again held his fly whisk straight up. The monk paid no attention, whereupon the Master struck him a blow as well.

Chapaev uses a Mauser, rather than a fly whisk, but the principle is the same.

A sudden thunderous crash burst upon my ears, startling me so badly that I staggered backwards.  The lamp standing beside Kotovsky had exploded, splattering a cascade of glycerine across the table and a revolver appeared in his hand like magic.

Chapaev was standing in the doorway with his nickel-plated Mauser in his hand[…]

‘That was smart talking there, Grisha, about the drop of wax,’ he said in a thin, hoarse tenor, ‘but what’re you going to say now?  Where’s your great ocean of beans now?'[…]

‘The form, the wax–who created it all?’ Chapaev asked menacingly.  ‘Answer me!’

‘Mind,’ replied Kotovsky.

‘Where is it?  Show me.’

‘Mind is the lamp,’ said Kotovsky.  ‘I mean, it was.’

‘If mind is the lamp, then where do you go to now it’s broken?’

‘Then what is mind?’ Kotovsky asked in confusion.

Chapaev fired another shot, and the bullet transformed the ink-well standing on the table into a cloud of blue spray.

I felt a strange momentary dizziness.

Two bright red blotches had appeared on Kotovsky’s pallid cheeks.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘now I understand.  You’ve taught me a lesson, Vasily Ivanovich.  A serious lesson.’

‘Ah, Grisha,’ Chapaev said sadly, ‘what’s wrong with you?  You know yourself you can’t afford to make any mistakes now–you just can’t.  Because where you’re going there won’t be anyone to point out your mistakes, and whatever you say, that’s how it will be.’

Without looking up, Kotovsky turned on his heels and ran out of the barn. (200)

Yes, this is absolutely funny, creative, surreal, etc., but it is also very much the work of someone who is seriously engaging with Buddhism as a practice.  Satire, it seems to me, is the proper vehicle for Buddhist teaching, certainly Ch’an (Zen, in Japanese).  Ch’an masters are, as a group, vastly funnier on average than the population as a whole.

A last bit, which very much reminded me of a teaching I received from my Dharma teacher:

‘Let us start at the beginning.  There you stand combing a horse.  But where is this horse?’

Chapaev looked at me in amazement.  “Petka, have you gone completely off your chump?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘It’s right here in front of your face.’ (150)

The seriousness with which Pelevin has obviously approached Buddhism is evident here.  You know you are dealing with a clod if he or she talks about emptiness and denies the reality of things in particular.  That’s a cop-out.

Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart

I had never read Pema Chodron before, but I had been somewhat wary of her work, due to my own prejudices.  People I knew casually and liked, but who struck me as very bourgeois Buddhists (I know, I know…judging mind…) raved about her.  That worried me.  Also, I came to Buddhism via a meditation group led by a Mexican-American man, fully-credentialed (received the transmission from Sheng Yen), but who practices using his birth name.  I understand that it may be part of the deal in some traditions or organizations for people to adopt a new name when taking monastic vows, and this may be the case with Pema Chodron.  She may not have had any choice in her name.  That said–my own prejudices–I have met too many white people who ostentatiously go all wisdom-of-the-East, and I steered away from Pema Chodron I think out of a semi-conscious association of her, because of her name, with those people for whom I had a great distaste.

Then, my life fell apart, I started to get back to my practice, and in conversation with a Zen priest for whom I have a great deal of respect I was recommended Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.  Time, I figured, to drop my prejudices, which at some basic level I can no longer afford, and give her a go.  I nabbed the library’s copy and went.

So, I’ll start by saying that I found much of value in the book.  She makes a very basic point which is worth making: falling apart is impermanence by another name, and is thus the basic characteristic, along with emptiness, of samsara.  When things fall apart, the self wants to avoid it–and you can be sure that my own self has done precisely this.  However, she recommends embracing the condition of falling apart, of sitting with it, literally in the case of sitting meditation practice, and metaphorically as well.

For whatever reason, I’ve developed what I will admit is an aesthetic when it comes to particular practices called “Buddhist.”  It’s taken directly from Sheng Yen’s method(s), which in essence sought to maintain, though clarify, systematize, and such as it were distill the various techniques bequeathed him by his various teachers.  This he did, exceptionally well.  He was seen during his lifetime, and now, too, I suppose, as an innovator, and this he was in two ways, in his systematization of technique just previously mentioned, and also in his insistence that all of these techniques were available to lay practitioners as well as monastics. What he explicitly did not do, however, was develop new techniques.  He taught that one should have an absolute faith in the method at hand.  Mixing methods or making them up out of thin air was not his game.  Even someone like Thich Nhat Hanh, who uses his skill as a poet to develop new gathas, always grounds himself in a rigorous attention to tradition.  What might seem a whole-cloth innovation in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is as often as not based very directly on material he gleaned from above all the various Pali scriptures which he, broadening his textual base from typically Zen scripture, re-introduces to his own Zen technique.  So, he innovates by digging into scripture that is, at least in their oldest extant written form, older than the oldest Mahayana text.

I write the above to preface my preference in When Things Fall Apart.  Pema Chodron, as far as I can see, is at her best when relating the most basic and most traditional teaching.  What struck me in the book as most beneficial personally was a moderately lengthy discussion of the practice of Tonglen.  What people–or at least what I need, is very practical instruction, particularly when in a difficult time.  I don’t have time for theory.  I need to know what to do when I sit my ass down on the cushion, because just watching my breath just doesn’t cut it when I’m in a total crisis.  I’m not that accomplished a practicioner.  Tonglen practice, a Tibetan practice with which I had no familiarity as I have basically no familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism, was of great help.

Now, to my prejudices, and how they were confirmed.  I would say were I trying to look better than I do that “I don’t mean to criticize someone who clearly is more accomplished a practitioner than I am, but…”  However, I am trying to do that.  There are real problems with Chodron’s approach.  Maybe it’s a function–she mentions working with a homeless person in the book, which, while homeless people are not the only ones who need help, are definitely people for whom things have truly fallen apart–of the need to make money in order to do other kinds of work that don’t generate a lot of income, like, for example, working with homeless people.  Homeless people don’t give lots of “dana,” for example, and don’t buy new copies of Buddhist books.  Upper-middle class people do, and in Buddhism in the United States, particularly for a white writer, that means you aim at upper-middle class white people.  These are people who do not respond well to having their social self-delusion exposed.  So, if you want them to buy your next book, you push gently, or, in Chodron’s case, you don’t push at all.

Above all, you communicate the misapprehension that somehow racism in the United States is a matter of differing but somehow equal opinion or perception, that is to say, rooted in self-centered conceptual (samsaric) thinking.  Witness this, from the chapter called “Widening the Circle of Compassion”:

But suppose someone does not agree with us? Then what happens? Do we find ourselves getting angry and aggressive? If we look into the very moment of anger or aggression, we might see that this is what wars are made of. This is what race riots are made of: feeling that we have to be right, being thrown off and righteously indignant when someone disagrees with us.

I would want to look more specifically at wars to judge whether or not they are questions of differences of opinion.  That’s surely part of it.  Race riots, on the other hand, are by no means functions of difference of opinion.  Race riots, first off don’t happen very often.  The L.A. Uprising of my lifetime, was not a race riot.  Race riots in the United States have been as often–I might wager most often–started by white people against black or brown.  Witness, among others, the Zoot Suit Riots.  In something like the riots after Dr. King’s assassination, riots in Watts or Detroit, we do not have presented a counter-argument in response to a (white) argument.  We have people who have been pushed beyond their limits by intolerable circumstances with no legitimate or even non-violent means to create positive outcomes.  It’s not a question of two equal sides, both mired in their own subjectivity.  It’s a question of unequal power relations, and anyone whose sympathy lies with the powerful has some sickness to deal with.  That said, it’s a comfortable thought to white people to see racism as a mere difference of opinion–well, I don’t see it that way but you are entitled to your opinion–rather than a question of unearned privilege.  Chodron seems to not see this clearly.

Also, Chodron privileges, like so many white people, Chinese and Japanese culture over other Asian societies.  Unmistakably:

Referencing Bodhidharma:

a painting of Zen master Bodhidharma. (73)

Referencing Katagiri Roshi:

As the Zen master Katagiri Roshi often said…(56)

Referencing Thich Nhat Hanh:

As the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says…(75)

I don’t hear Buddhists refer to Thich Nhat Hanh as anything other than a Zen Master.  He’s not just a teacher: the man is a Master.  But, he’s from a little country, it seems.  Not good, and very off-putting.

The book, to be sure, was not without merit, as I indicated.  I got another Pema Chodron book as a present, so I will give her another shot.  If your life does fall apart, as mine has, I suppose the best bet is actual practice and talking with an actual teacher.  I’ve been lucky enough to have the San Francisco Zen Center as a resource and recently Deer Park Monastery, in Escondido.  Actual practice is the thing.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go

As should be clear, I’m in a process of trying to get my Buddhist practice back.  The main point isn’t even the daily sit–meditation, that is–though I have been vastly more consistent over the last couple months than I had been in the six years before, much to my improvement.  The point is, as my teacher always said, to not leave my method, so to speak, on my mat.  That is to say, it’s easy to be all “Zen” and calm when sitting on a cushion in a silent place.  Being in the world and keeping a mind of non-attachment without avoiding or disengaging from the world is the hard part.

Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are is Thich Nhat Hanh‘s translation and commentary on Linji, often transliterated Lin Chi and, in Japanese terminology Rinzai.  Linji is most famous as the master who instructed his students to kill the Buddha should they ever meet him on the road.  Less well known is that he also included parents in that particular teaching.  I practice Buddhism and read it, and so I have a greater familiarity with its history and lineages than probably most people, but I am by no means an expert.  Having said that, Linji has a reputation as being extreme in his teachings, though positively so, extreme in his absolute rejection of all labels and concepts.  Hence, his instruction to kill the Buddha.

Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the most gentle people I could imagine, and having been physically present at his teaching I can attest that he very literally radiates a gentle, opening calm.  Reading Linji–actually, students’ records of his teaching–the two masters seem very different personalities.  Linji shouts at his students, as a tool of awakening, to jog them out of conceptualizing thought, for example.  So too does Linji bemoan the low level, to give it a name he didn’t, of his students’ practice, always chasing as it were an enlightenment that very simply doesn’t exist.  Nhat Hanh, in his commentary, often contextualizes Linji, noting that what might seem to us harshness was in fact compassion, not only the compassion that comes from a friend correcting a friend–a deep compassion but often a hard one–but also that, for example, Linji didn’t hit his students.  Times change, and with them notions of acceptable behavior.

Nhat Hanh is absolutely right to point to Linji’s compassion, which can be easy to miss.  Almost constantly, Linji admonishes his students with something like the following:

My friends, at this very moment your own wonderful function is no different than the wonderful function of the masters and the Buddhas.  It is only because you lack confidence that you are looking for something outside of you.

This is a very deep teaching, easy for me to intellectualize and which I have not yet really penetrated in practice.  That lack of confidence of which Linji spoke seems to me to be the normal mental condition of people, certainly in the United States, with its consumption/credit driven economy based on stimulated perception of people’s inherent deficiency in themselves, and definitely in my case.  This is Linji’s basic teaching, as far as I can tell as someone who by no means has been given leave to teach the Dharma, and if one bears this in mind one can see how thoroughly that teaching reflects, going backwards in time, the basic teaching of the Buddha, reformulated for a different historical and cultural context and, moving forward, in teachings of people like Thich Nhat Hanh and Master Sheng Yen, to name the two with whom I am most familiar.  Nhat Hanh’s stress on mindfulness is precisely Linji’s point, phrased differently, and this is absolutely clear in his commentary on the main text.

I am almost of the mind to say that the book is not fundamentally about practical things, because Thich Nhat Hanh, who as I’ve noted before in my response to The Sun, My Heart, has written so widely and in the case of many books with an extremely practical focus, which is to say, how one sits, or a particularly meditation exercise, etc.  Before I started practicing Buddhism I read various sutras, more for intellectual satisfaction than spiritual, though one should properly say that one can find an open door to practice through intellectual pursuit and possibly that was the door through which I passed into Buddhism.  I haven’t read a sutra in a few years, and that was the short Diamond Sutra in Nhat Hanh’s translation and commentary.  Having said that, sutra study, and in that I will included texts like this Record of Linji, should be seen as fundamentally practical manuals if they are to be of any use.  One cannot, however, come to them cold, that is, without a healthy practice, and get anything more than an intellectual understanding of particular ideas.  Linji pointed out at one point that monks sitting in silent meditation seeking enlightenment was just the creation of more karma and the perpetuation of samsara–the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth–just the same as any number of activities we would label “negative” or “bad.”  The same can be said of sutra study for intellectual pursuit.  It’s not that it’s bad, but the Buddha taught in order to give methods by which people could free themselves from conceptual thought, among other things.  To end the digression, I found that, reading this at a time when my daily practice is more consistent, I found myself thinking more about what Linji’s insistence that we should not look outside of ourselves in terms of what that means for me to actually do, both physically and intellectually.  This is not easier than intellectualizing scripture, though in a literal sense it is simpler.

The nice thing about Linji–it’s odd to put it this way, but there it is–is that he, and Nhat Hanh echoing him, make it very clear what one needs to do.  Drop everything, be who you are, where you are, without concepts.  Obviously, that’s not easy, but that kind of clarity is rare.  I feel like people should make points like that all the time, but they don’t.

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Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart

Cover of "The Sun My Heart"
Cover of The Sun My Heart

Thich Nhat Hanh has never disappointed me, either in the fairly large number of books of his I’ve read or when I was lucky enough to attend a week-long retreat at which he gave Dharma talksThe Sun My Heart is no exception, and, truth be told–I’m actually reading another one of his books at the moment–I don’t expect there to ever be an exception.  You don’t have to be a Buddhist to get a lot from his work, and indeed he makes very explicit and to my mind successful attempts to reach out to practicioners of other faiths, though most particularly Christianity.

I got the book from the library and read it a few weeks ago, but haven’t written about it until today, and I don’t have the copy in front of me, so I imagine what I write will be more tangentially related to the book than usual.  I can’t remember if it was on the back cover or in an introduction that mentioned that the book was a follow-up to The Miracle of Mindfulness, which is the book that made Nhat Hanh’s reputation in the anglophone world.  This connection is likely a matter of marketing more than anything else, which is fine: I’ve been to Plum Village, Nhat Hanh’s home/monastery in Bordeaux, and I can vouch that he really doesn’t have any possessions.  He’s the real deal.  So, marketing considerations just go to fund the community of practicioners, not his own bank account, which doesn’t exist.

I think it was reading a book by Master Sheng Yen, the recently deceased–let’s say, “transformed”–Chan (“Zen,” in the Chinese) master in whose lineage I started practicing Buddhism, and in it he said that in all of his books he, Sheng Yen, keeps repeating the same thing, over and over.  That’s true in a way for Nhat Hanh as well, though probably less so as he sees himself very much as a writer, which Sheng Yen didn’t.  In any event, The Sun My Heart makes that same, basic Buddhist point that Sheng Yen makes and that Nhat Hanh made in The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Sit your ass down, literally or metaphorically, drop your concepts, and be in the present moment.  Then, you can be happy.  Indeed, it is not possible to be happy in anything other than the present moment.  That’s really it.

Nhat Hanh is very prolific and I imagine that he writes nearly every day.  I’m fantasizing, of course, but for a reason.  I imagine that his method is to respond to whatever is passing through his head, be it what’s going on in the news, a book he just read, etc., and respond to it as a practioner.  Much of The Sun My Heart refers to quantum physics, a favorite subject of many Buddhists because it seems to confirm the basic ontological observations the historical Buddha made 2,500 years ago.  The connection is not an original one–Thich Nhat Hanh, I have to think, was not the first Zen monk to make it–but, typically, Nhat Hanh does it exceptionally clearly and exceptionally well.  He is a deeply gifted writer (and speaker, if you ever get a chance to hear him in person), in that his words are absolutely clear and simple and at the same time stimulate very deep and, at times, complex thought, at least in me.  That week I spent at Plum Village was taken up largely by me chewing over Nhat Hanh’s talks, which, as I heard them, were easy listening.  His writing is the same: very easy to read, and prone to stimulate deep thinking on, among other things, being.

Formally, the book feels to me like a very, very long Dharma talk.  There are themes to which Nhat Hanh returns throughout the book, and episodic returns to a pair of characters, a Vietnamese orphan who stayed with Nhat Hanh, and a friend and interlocutor of Nhat Hanh.  Periodically, the book re-visits the two, as if to check in.  That said, the subject matter changes from practical advice on both meditation and maintaining mindfulness off of one’s cushion–the tricky part, anyone who’s tried it can tell you–to the periodic references to quantum physics, to discussions of particular aspects of Buddhist thought.

Anyone who knows me will know that I compare everything I like to good jazz, particularly to bebop and the post-bop of the 1950’s.  Bearing that in mind, the comparison here actually has some validity: it’s always seemed to me since I started (and stopped, and started again) practicing Buddhism that good Dharma talks, or Dharma books, are like good jazz.  The teacher, like the musician, is so attuned to the essence of the material that she or he can play with it and let it go, so to speak, without dropping it.  A bop musician has mastered the form in order to let it go and let the performance attune itself to the particular situation of the moment.  Good bop goes where it will be is never out of place.  So too with a good Dharma talk, or in this case, book.  The Sun My Heart, were one to label each section with subject matter, would seem to bounce from topic to topic.  Really, that’s discriminating mind getting in the way.  The whole book is, like Sheng Yen pointed out, really making the same point, over and over, though from different angles, and, importantly, really well.  The book was a great help to me as I restarted my practice.

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