Archive for November 3rd, 2009

Rinzai differs from Soto Zen in that the former places emphasis on the use of koans: riddles designed by the roshi to befuddle the mind of the seeker and cultivate clear sight beyond ideas and dualism. The practice demands real effort and  energy in working on these riddles to experience the poverty of intellectual understanding in ultimately unravelling them.

These koans take the form of interrogative exchanges in the encounters with zen teachers called “dharma combat” with challenges such as:

  • What was your face before your mother was born?
  • How do you manifest a butterfly without wings?
  • How do you manifest a sailboat without wind?

The goal is direct and full experience of the real: the unadorned, raw experience of the moment without intellectualization; no allusions, illusions or the delusions we often mistake for real knowing. Coupled with zazen ( sitting meditation) and kin hin ( walking meditation), the practice is a tripartite teaching framework for revelation, spiritual discovery, or so-called “enlightenment.”

Many assume that Koan practice is unique to the Rinzai Zen tradition, but it is not. Western Christianity of the first century saw sects of spiritual seekers that focused primarily on the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. The “Thomas Christians,” those following in the school of the Apostle Thomas, practiced a process that placed less emphasis on belief, and more on the  “Knowledge of the Heart”. Adepts of Thomas Christianity facilitated the direct experience of  the “Father” through an intuitive and immediate understanding accomplished by much the same process as the Koan Practice of Rinzai Zen masters.

A source document for this practice is the apocryphal “Gospel of Thomas,” one of the principal texts of the Nag Hammadi Library ( scrolls discovered concealed in earthenware jars in the desert at Nag Hammadi in upper Egypt in 1945). While the Library consists of over fifty texts in thirty codices, this Gospel is notable in that it is completely made up of a series of Logia (or sayings) without reference to stories of the birth or death of Jesus, the mythic detailing of  events or the miracles described  in the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Focusing on any one of these logia serves the same purpose as the koan practice of Rinzai Zen. To show the parallels, here is an especially challenging logion:

“The disciples said to Jesus: Tell us how our end shall be.

Jesus said: Have you then discovered the beginning, that you seek after the end?

For where the beginning is, there shall the end be.

Blessed is he who shall stand in the beginning,

and he shall know the end and shall not taste of death.”

Have you discovered the beginning?

Meditation on the Logia of the Gospel of Thomas is a wonderful practice, one made richer through a dharma combat relationship with a teacher. The entire Nag Hammadi Library offers a plethora of texts that offer the same kind of rich stimulus material for spiritual paradigm shifts. Other extraordinary texts serving a similar purpose are The Hymn of the Pearl and Thunder Perfect Mind.

I strongly recommend the texts and the practice.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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It’s been said that “we are what we eat”. On the surface, this sounds fairly meaningful and provocative, but on closer inspection is a rather feeble comment.

The cliche attempts to invoke a pause in our daily round before we have our next meal in hopes that we consider the wisdom of it. Not a bad idea, but  in metabolizing food, we break it down through the chemical action of enzymes into glucose, amino acids, minerals, salt, and water. So while the cliche is true, it is more a matter of recognizing that everything we eat is, at root, the same essential stuff. We are a complex and continuous reforming of key molecules into which all foods are analyzed. A much more provocative and meaningful idea, with spirituality in mind, is the statement: We are what we think. Now that really piques my interest.

I can recall occasions when I was thinking of something upsetting, and caught myself walking rapidly as if fleeing a threat. I think we all have had racing thoughts to the point of almost feeling feverish and having trouble sleeping because of it. Indeed, our entire physiology responds rapidly to ideas. In my biofeedback practice, I see  the result of ideas on physiology daily,  influencing skin temperature fluctuations and shifts of electromyographic activity as a result of what we are discussing accompanied by changes in EEG (brain waves), EKG and skin conductance. All of these metrics are correlated with the contents of consciousness.

A former client that was a gymnast  struggled with her routine on the uneven bars, always freezing at one point. Though she had never fallen, her fear of doing so, after seeing others become seriously injured , threw a wrench into her otherwise smooth performance. In biofeedback, as she  closed her eyes and described her routine to me , in terms of what she was seeing and feeling,there were marked energy deflections as she approached  that one movement . After learning  corrective relaxation  just before, during, and after that one segment of the routine, she managed to describe it to me with no deflections on these measures. At that point  she was ready to tackle it in the gym, and she was subsequently poetry in motion. This example shows that fear- generating ideas and imagery were the triggers of performance inhibition.

As Shakespeare put it: ” Thinking makes it so.” Though we may adopt vegetarianism, go on regular fasts, participate in regular worship, and pray daily,we yet may be living a disingenuous and fragmented spiritual life. To cultivate a coherent spiritual lifestyle, we must examine the central questions surrounding our habits of mind.

What are we thinking about? What images do we keep in mind? What is our emotional palette, on average? How often do we laugh? What do we read and write? What kinds of art are we drawn to and why? In all, are our mental contents congruent with our other spiritual practices or at odds with them?

There is no debating it, we are what we eat,  but, even more importantly, we are what we think. Taking time daily to check the contents of consciousness is as important to living spiritually as calorie counting if we are on a diet, tracking weight lifted and repetitions if weight training, and clocking distance and time if we are runners. In matters of Spirit, there is no such thing as compartmentalization.

There is no deceiving the Beloved. S/he is closer to our hearts and minds than are we. As Saint Paul said it so well: ” I do what I would not do. I say what I would not say.” Such is the core spiritual dilemma.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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Generally speaking, I am not much of a sports fan, but I do like to watch the Pennant and World Series games. As I watched tonight at different points, I felt the tension at tight moments and the suspense of it all that I’ve enjoyed in the past. At the bottom of the 8th inning I asked myself: ” Would the Yankees actually pull it out and win in the 9th inning tonight ?”

Well, it was not meant to be tonight. Now, with this game behind us, and the Series going to game six in NY, I find myself reflecting on the variables involved in who wins and who loses a game. The skills involved in hitting, pitching, fielding, mindfulness of all the moving parts, strategy applied to the strengths and weaknesses of players on the other team, the weather, the health of the players, etc., are all factors that combine in complex stochastic ways to decide the outcomes. As in all of life, we try to bring the best we have to offer into every moment.  Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t, but outcomes are co-determined by many inter-dependent factors. The allure and emotional engagement of a game (of any sport) is that it plays out, in a bite-sized microcosm, the mix of intention, skill, and uncertainty that is all of life. It reflects, in miniature, the exquisite entanglement of factors in many dimensions that shape the reality of every moment.

Sport is an allegory,  a mystery, and a morality play. It presents the characters on a stylized stage who we watch as each player makes choices in the midst of largely indeterminate circumstances . This is scenario thinking at its finest. We become very concentrated and all our senses are at maximum as we watch everything unfold. We can feel the players’ intensity: their joy and frustration. In exciting moments, we cannot pull ourselves from the action and can think of nothing else. We are on pins and needles waiting to see what the next few seconds will bring. I close my day  thinking of the spiritual value sport can have. Whether we enjoy bowling, tennis, golf, sailing, flying or other forms of strategy gaming, at heart, they all have two things in common: (1) high orders of concentrated energy, and  (2) the marriage of intuition and skill  in responding to diverse and  unpredictable circumstances.

Where is the spirituality in all this?

Spiritual practice arises from anything we do with intent to experience the integral character of all things; interbeing, as Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh refers to it. If we play a game with the same intent and mindset, to simply be wholly present, alive in the moment, and keenly attuned to what’s real, then we are meditating. One may benefit from a conscious intent to either take part in or watch the game as sitting practice and meditation in action . All of this reminds me of the wonderful small book,  the Practice of the Presence, by Brother Lawrence, and the encouragement of spiritual adepts from many traditions to meditate and pray without ceasing.

© Brother Anton and The Harried Mystic, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.


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