Some traditions idealize Buddha and put him on a pedestal—somewhere way above the rest of us. Then, they use meditation and Buddhism as a way to try to live up to that ideal

Buddha was human with all the foibles that go with it. He left his wife the night his child was conceived, and became a homeless itinerant for 6 years. I see this as the act of a man at the crossroads. It took him six years to heal. The essentials of his self-therapy are so meaningful to people who have mental issues today, partly because he has been there and he knows their concerns.

The true Zen spirit looks for Buddha inside rather than outside—it subjectifies Buddha rather than objectifying him. That also brings Buddha to the here and now.

Zen expresses itself with anecdotes. Here’s one about the difference between Buddha and his image:

Once, Ikkyu was staying at a temple. The night was cold and there were three wooden Buddhas in the courtyard, so he made a fire and burned one to keep warm.

When the priest came and saw what was happening, he was angry, “What are you doing burning the Buddha, are you a mad?” he yelled.

In response, Ikkyu started searching through the ashes with his stick.

The priest asked, “What are you doing?”

Ikkyu answered, “Im looking for the bones of the Buddha.”

Here’s a question that appears as #23 in the Koan collection, The Gateless Gate:
“What did your face look like before your parents were born?”

Did you ever wish that you could connect with your father or someone close to you in all openness and intimacy, without their beliefs and habits of thought getting in the way?

A Zen poem by the same Ikkyu as above makes that Koan suddenly come alive:

Hearing a crow with no mouth
Cry in the deep darkness of the night,
I feel a longing for
My father before he was born.

When I studied with Robert Aitken Roshi in Hawaii, my first Koan was Who is listening? That was appropriate,
for during the early morning meditations tropical birds were having songfests outside the Zendo.
“Me” did not make it as an answer. Aitken came back with “Who is that?”
“Joseph” did not succeed either. He dismissed it with, “That’s just a label.”
The answer that finally started my journey was, “Just listening.”

Try hearing sounds, seeing things, and observing events without getting them mixed up with the story that is your self. Just listen. Just let it all happen and observe.

VISUALIZING THE BUDDHA AS A WOMAN

The Zen tradition urges us to find Buddha inside, as the spirit of awakening and love. For a woman, visualizing Buddha as a woman makes it easier to touch the Buddha inside.

For men, this practice can be like a breath of fresh air that makes us see the Buddha in a different light.

WISDOM AND MINDFULNESS

Wisdom and mindfulness go hand in hand.
Wisdom points to a wider perspective.
Mindfulness makes it possible to live from that wider perspective everyday.

  • Awareness is based on observation—observation of surroundings, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. It connects us with our experience.
  • Thinking and awareness also go hand in hand. Awareness appreciates, thinking progresses. During my hikes in the Park National de la Mauricie, I would walk on a path for a while, and suddenly come to a lookout with a vast vista from up in the mountains. I would see the forest, a lake, white clouds, the blue sky, and spend some time taking in that scene. Compared to where I started my hike at the parking lot, the new lookout was very much like an insight. It was sudden, rewarding, and unexpected.
  • Awareness is often like a scene or a photograph, whereas thinking is more like a story or a movie.
  • Awareness works like the indicative tense in grammar: it describes what is. Thinking is more like the subjunctive or the conditional, like, “it would be”, “it could be”, or even, “it should be.” It is a precious faculty that can solve problems; however, it can also create problems.
    What is the difference? Wisdom. Wisdom shapes our thoughts. It is the place thoughts come from.

Thinking takes off from awareness, and goes somewhere.
The phrase ‘train of thought’ refers to the way thoughts follow one another like train cars do.
However without wisdom, it can separate us from where we actually are and what we are doing.
Thinking is like a trip: you get on a plane and it takes you somewhere, except that in thinking this could be an imaginary place. Just observe the destination board at the airport of your mind.
Is this flight taking you to heaven or to hell?
If it is going to hell, change flights.

TIME

Dogen said, “The rat is time, the tiger is time, sentient beings are time, buddhas are time. The truth merely manifests itself for the time-being as an ordinary person.“
Let us not see time only as an abstraction—time is not separate from life. When we are completely absorbed in what we are doing, we lose the notion of time. We become time. The focus is on experience.

When we start thinking about time—the past, the present, the future—self-consciousness begins. Without the idea of time, life just goes on. The blood flows, the breath flows. Let us see time anxiety as a function of the ego-mind. The planets have no anxiety about being late or early. A baby has no anxiety about being born on time.

As I identify with the mind of nature, time anxiety fades. I feel my own breath as nature breathing through me. I become time. And as time becomes life, I see that the present also embraces the past and the future: I contemplate the past and the future while remaining anchored in life. It’s the conscious mind that sees time as an abstract quantity and divides it into an orderly sequence of hours and miliseconds, of before and after. The mythic quality of time is called Dreamtime by Australian aboriginals, that quality comes to life in our dreams where past, present and future seem to be whirling together as in a blender. This is all too real for people with PTSD, but not only for them.
SPACETIME: Time and space are not separate, Here and now form a single entity.
(Relativity Theory also sees time as the fourth dimension of space.)
A last word from Thich Nhat Hanh: “Time is not money, time is life, time is love.”