The Instrument of Freedom

An excerpt from The Meaning of Happiness by Alan Watts

We have examined something of the meaning of unhappiness, of the war between the opposites in the human soul, of the fear of fear, of man’s consequent isolation from nature, and of the way in which this isolation has been intensified in the growth of civilization. We have also shown how man is intimately and inseparably connected with the material and mental universe, and that if he tries to cut himself off from it he must perish. In fact, however, he can only cut himself off in imagination, otherwise he would cease to exist, but we have yet to decide whether this elusive thing called happiness would result from acceptance of the fact of man’s union with the rest of life. But if this is true we have to discover how such an acceptance may be made, whether it is possible for man to turn in his flight into isolation and overcome the panic which makes him try to swim against the current instead of with it. In the psychological realm this swimming against the current is called repression, the reaction of proud, conscious reason to the fears and desires of nature in man. This raises the further question of whether acceptance of nature involves just a return to the amorality of the beast, being simply a matter of throwing up all responsibility, following one’s whims, and drifting about on the tide of life like a fallen leaf. To return to our analogy: life is the current into which man is thrown, and though he struggles against it, it carries him along despite all his efforts, with the result that his efforts achieve nothing but his own unhappiness. Should he then just turn about and drift? But nature gave him the faculties of reason and conscious individuality, and if he is to drift he might as well have been without them. It is more likely that he has them to give expression to immeasurably greater possibilities of nature than the animal can express by instinct, for while the animal is nature’s whistle, man is its organ.

Even so, man does not like to be put down to the place of an instrument, however grand that instrument may be, for an instrument is an instrument, and an organ does what it is made to do as subserviently and blindly as a whistle. But this is not the only consideration. It may be that man has a wrong idea of what his self is. In the words of the Hindu sage Patanjali, “Ignorance is the identification of the Seer with the instruments of seeing.” Certainly man as instrument is an obedient tool whether he likes it or not, but it may be that there is something in man which is more than the instrument, more than his reason and individuality which are part of that instrument and which he mistakenly believes to be his true self. And while as an instrument he is bound, as this he is free, and his problem is to become aware of it. Finding it, he will understand that in fleeing from death, fear, and sorrow he is making himself a slave, for he will realize the mysterious truth that in fact he is free both to live and to die, to love and to fear, to rejoice and to be sad, and that in none of these things is there any shame. But man rejects his freedom to do them, imagining that death, fear, and sorrow are the causes of his unhappiness. The real cause is that he does not let himself be free to accept them, for he does not understand that he who is free to love is not really free unless he is also free to fear, and this is the freedom of happiness.

About Alan Watts:
Alan Watts (January 6, 1915 – November 16, 1973) was a British-born American philosopher, writer, speaker, and counterculture hero, best known as an interpreter of Asian philosophies for a Western audience. He wrote over 25 books and numerous articles applying the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy to our everyday lives.

Excerpted from the book “The Meaning of Happiness: The Quest for Freedom of the Spirit in Modern Psychology and the Wisdom of the East”. Copyright ©2018 by Joan Watts and Anne Watts. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.

Zen Bunnies!

Who doesn’t love cute bunnies? Seriously, does anyone ever think, I have no interest in adorable bunnies? Since one of my favorite things to do online is look at cute animals, when I was offered a chance to check out “Zen Bunnies: Meditations for the Wise Minds of Bunny Lovers” I was all in. Talk about truth in advertising, it is a whole book of photos of little bunnies paired with assorted Buddhist and mindfulness type quotes. The author credit on the cover is “Gautama Buddha and the editors of Mango Publishing”.

Is this a scholarly work for practitioners of Buddhism? No. But is it the perfect gift for any occasion? Absolutely. The combination of cute bunnies and thoughtful quotes make it an excellent gift for just about anyone, for any reason. Perhaps even for yourself to enjoy.

To learn more about “Zen Bunnies”, visit here.

Good news! Mango Publishing was nice enough to provide a copy of “Zen Bunnies” to give away to one lucky reader! I’m using my usual Rafflecopter option, so see how to enter below. Contest ends Saturday, Sept. 29th at 11:59 PM eastern. No social media platforms are sponsoring this contest.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Oops He Did It Again!

It may seem weird to use a Britney Spear’s song title for a book review about Zen Buddhism. However, we’re talking about Brad Warner’s latest book “It Came from Beyond Zen! More Practical Advice from Dogen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master”. Warner is well known for dropping some popular cultural throughout his books. (Full disclosure, I doubt he’s a Britney fan.)

As for truth in advertising, the title fits the reality. Again, Warner goes through the teachings of Dogen and breaks it down so us non-Japanese speaking, non-Chinese speaking, non-practicing Buddhists can understand the frequent twists and turns that Zen writings can take. First Warner translates the texts into a layman’s translation, then follows that with some information about other English translations and explains his personal interpretations on what each writing means. Therefore, Warner is one of my favorite writers when it comes to Zen Buddhism. He works hard so it’s accessible for everyone.

I know it’s a short review, but what more can I say? Researched, thought provoking writings presented in an accessible, fun manner.

Learn more about “It Came from Beyond Zen!” here.

Buddhism 101

When it comes to religion, I’m quite the fan of Buddhism. And believe me when I say I have read more than my fair share of intro to Buddhism type books. That’s why I’m excited to tell you I recently read my new favorite book of the genre, “Buddhism 101” by Arnie Kozak, PhD.

The cover describes “Buddhism 101” as a “Crash Course in Buddhism”, and what an amazing crash course it is! Despite its diminutive size, perfect for carrying in a purse (ask me how I know), “Buddhism 101” leaves no stone unturned. Kozak covers everything Buddhism, not just separating schools, but discussing the subtleties of the religion as they vary by country. He starts at the very beginning, before Buddha was Buddha, and leads you through a time line that eventually spans the globe to today.

“Buddhism 101” does more than just describe the religion, it addresses many questions that a specifically Western audience might ask, and discusses Buddhist practices in the modern Western world. Want to know enough about Buddhism to discuss it intelligently? Want to see if Buddhism is right for you? “Buddhism 101” will handily address both those questions.

Learn more about “Buddhism 101” here.

Don’t Be a Jerk

Brad Warner is one of my favorite authors on the subject of Zen and I loved his latest book “Don’t Be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dōgen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master”, which is his interpretation of Dōgen’s “Shōbōgenzō”. This is a book that has greatly influenced all of Warner’s writing and I assume his practice. I found “Don’t Be a Jerk” interesting and inspiring. I’m happy to get to share an excerpt from the book’s introduction with you.

Don’t Be a Jerk
An Introduction from Brad Warner

It used to be that nobody outside the worlds of stuffy academics and nerdy Zen studies knew who Dōgen was. And while this thirteenth-century Japanese Zen master and writer is still not one of the best-known philosophers on the planet, he’s well-known enough to have a character on the popular American TV series “Lost” named after him and to get referenced regularly in books and discussions of the world’s most important philosophical thinkers.

Unfortunately, in spite of all this, Dōgen still tends to be presented either as an inscrutable Oriental speaking in riddles and rhymes or as an insufferable intellectual making clever allusions to books you’re too dumb to have heard of. Nobody wants to read a guy like that.

You could argue that Dōgen really is these things. Sometimes. But he’s a lot more than that. When you work with him for a while, you start to see that he’s actually a pretty straightforward, no-nonsense guy. It’s hard to see that, though, because his world and ours are so very different.

A few months ago, my friend Whitney and I were at Atomic City Comics in Philadelphia. There I found “The War That Time Forgot”, a collection of DC comics from the fifties about American soldiers who battle living dinosaurs on a tropical island during World War II, and Whitney found a book called “God Is Disappointed in You”, by Mark Russell. The latter was far more influential in the formation of this book.

The publishers of that book, Top Shelf Publications, describe “God Is Disappointed in You” as being “for people who would like to read the Bible…if it would just cut to the chase.” In this book, Russell has summarized the entire Christian Bible in his own words, skipping over repetitive passages and generally making each book far more concise and straightforward than any existing translation. He livens up his prose with a funny, irreverent attitude that is nonetheless respectful to its source material. If you want to know what’s in the Bible but can’t deal with actually reading the whole darned thing, it’s a very good way to begin.

After she’d been reading “God Is Disappointed in You” for a while, Whitney showed it to me and suggested I try to do the same thing with “Shōbōgenzō: The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”. This eight-hundred-year-old classic, written by the Japanese monk Eihei Dōgen, expounds on and explains the philosophical basis for one of the largest and most influential sects of Zen Buddhism. It’s one of the great classics of philosophical literature, revered by people all over the world. However, like many revered philosophical classics, it’s rarely read, even by those who claim to love it.

I immediately thought it was a cool idea to try to do this with “Shōbōgenzō”, but I didn’t know if it would work. I’ve studied “Shōbōgenzō” for around thirty years, much of that time under the tutelage of Gudo Wafu Nishijima. Nishijima Roshi was my ordaining teacher, and he, along with his student Chodo Mike Cross, produced a highly respected English translation that was for many years the only full English translation available. I had already written one book about “Shōbōgenzō”, called “Sit Down and Shut Up” (New World Library, 2007), and had referenced “Shōbōgenzō” extensively in all five of my other books about Zen practice.

My attitude toward “Shōbōgenzō” is somewhat like Mark Russell’s attitude toward the Bible. I deeply respect the book and its author, Dōgen. But I don’t look at it the way a religious person regards a holy book. Zen Buddhism is not a religion, however much it sometimes looks like one. There are no holy books in Zen, especially the kind of Zen that Dōgen taught. In Dōgen’s view everything is sacred, and to single out one specific thing, like a book or a city or a person, as being more sacred than anything else is a huge mistake. So the idea of rewriting Dōgen’s masterwork didn’t feel at all blasphemous or heretical to me.

But “Shōbōgenzō” presents a whole set of challenges Russell didn’t face with the Bible. The biggest one is that the Bible is mainly a collection of narrative stories. What Russell did, for the most part, was to summarize those stories while skipping over much of the philosophizing that occurs within them. “Shōbōgenzō”, on the other hand, has just a few narrative storytelling sections, and these are usually very short. It’s mostly philosophy. This meant that I’d have to deal extensively with the kind of material Russell generally skipped over.

Still, it was such an interesting idea that I figured I’d give it a try. My idea was to present the reader with everything important in “Shōbōgenzō”. I didn’t summarize every single line. But I have tried to give a sense of every paragraph of the book without leaving anything significant out. While I’d caution you not to quote this book and attribute it to Dōgen, I have tried to produce a book wherein you could conceivably do so without too much fear of being told by someone, “That’s not really what Dōgen said!” Obviously, if a line mentions Twinkies or zombies or beer, you’ll know I’ve done a bit of liberal paraphrasing. I have noted these instances, though, so that shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

About Brad Warner:
Brad Warner is the author of Don’t Be a Jerk and numerous other titles including Sit Down & Shut Up, Hardcore Zen, and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. A Soto Zen priest, he is a punk bassist, filmmaker, Japanese-monster-movie marketer, and popular blogger based in Los Angeles. Visit him online at www.hardcorezen.info.

Excerpted from Don’t Be a Jerk ©2016 by Brad Warner. Published with permission of New World Library. http://www.newworldlibrary.com

10 Mindful Minutes: A Journal

I’ve always liked Goldie Hawn. When I was younger I watched her on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”, “Private Benjamin”, “Protocol” (No, dear, I’m not a chicken; I’m an emu.), “Wildcats”, “Death Becomes Her”, and “First Wives Club”. I like that her and Kurt Russell are still together after all these years. I’m not saying I’m an expert on all things “Goldie”, I’m just saying it came as quite a surprise to find out that she’s kind of a well-known figure in the mindfulness movement.

It turns out that Goldie Hawn is an author! She has written an autobiography, “A Lotus Grows in the Mud”, and “10 Mindful Minutes”. Both books ended up on New York Time’s bestselling author’s list! This was all news to me when I was approached to review “10 Mindful Minutes: A Journal”. As you may already have guessed, I never read “10 Mindful Minutes”, so the good news is the journal is effective whether you’ve read the previous book or not. No more talk about the past then, let’s focus on the here and now and “10 Mindful Minutes: A Journal”.

Goldie Hawn at a book event.

The Journal is authored by Goldie Hawn with Jennifer Repo. I’m not sure how much of whose voice we’re hearing when reading the entries but there is a welcoming warmth in the tone of the writing. The book isn’t focusing on deep, obscure meditation practices. You’re reminded of the basics: sitting comfortably and focusing on your breath. The chapters are divided into specific areas of reflection, such as Discovering Empathy, Transforming Anger, and Cultivating Optimism. In the sections you’ll find meditation exercises, and most important to the book, space to journal your reflections after you finish them.

“10 Mindful Minutes: A Journal” works at guiding readers towards a daily reflective meditation practice so that after all the pages are filled, hopefully the practice still remains.

Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden

by Karen Maezen Miller

In the early summer of 1997, my husband and I found ourselves in the backyard of an empty house on a quiet street in Sierra Madre, a suburb of Los Angeles. The backyard was Southern California’s oldest private Japanese garden, an oasis of ponds and pines that had stood mostly intact since 1916. It seemed like paradise with our name written all over it. We knew in our bones that the place could only be ours, and with it, the little house alongside it. The next day we put money down and a month later, moved in.

Once we arrived, we hit the bookstores and local nurseries. We studied up on Japanese gardens: their esoteric architecture, history and symbolism; and the very special way to rake, weed, prune, plant and water. We sought opinions, called in experts, and asked for conservative estimates — ha! — to redo this or that. The more we learned, the more we doubted. It was too much work. We were fools, without the right tools, training, or time. No wonder no one wanted to buy this place but us. It wasn’t paradise, but a colossal pain in the neck.

One day I ran across a single line in a thick book that made it all simple. It told the original meaning of the word “paradise” before it became a mythical ideal, imaginary and unattainable. Before it pointed somewhere else.

The word “paradise” originally meant simply an enclosed area.

Inside the word are its old Persian roots: pairi-, meaning “around,” and -diz “to create (a wall).” The word was first given to carefully tended pleasure parks and menageries, the sporting ground of kings. Later, storytellers used the word in creation myths, and it came to mean the Eden of peace and plenty.

But looking at it straight on, I could plainly see. Paradise is a backyard. Not just my backyard, but everyone’s backyard: the entire world we live in, bounded only by how far we can see.

There was only one thing to do. I began to garden. I got scratched, tired, and dirty. I pouted and wept, cursing the enormity of the task. I was resentful and unappreciative. But when I ventured afield, sidelined by things that seemed much more entertaining or important, I always came back to this patch of patient earth. Time after time I realized that the living truth of life is taught to me right here, no farther than the ground beneath my feet.

Sixteen years later, I do not know the chemistry of soils or the biology of compost. I have not mastered the nomenclature; I do not know the right time or way to prune. What I have learned instead is this: paradise is a patch of weeds.

What loyal friends, these undesirables that infiltrate the lawn, insinuate between cracks, and luxuriate in the deep shade of my neglect. Weeds are everywhere, showing up every day, my most reliable underlings. Weeds keep me going.

The most common weeds in the yard are crabgrass, dandelion, and chickweed. The most common weeds in the world are greed, anger, and ignorance.

Here are ten things to do to spare your garden from stubborn entanglements:

1. Blame no one. Blame is a powerful barrier: like prickly thistle, it spreads pain and disaffection. Blame turns the garden into a menace.

2. Take no offense. Consider the energy we expend to prolong fictional injuries. How hard is it to get over what’s already over? I know: it’s hard. But there’s a way.

3. Forgive. Forgiveness reconciles the rift between self and other. Forgive someone today—forgive yourself today— and feel the rift recede. Suddenly, it’s much easier to move on.

4. Do not compare. Satisfy yourself with what you have in hand. It may not look like much, but this right here is everything.

5. Take off your gloves. A nurseryman once told me, “A real gardener doesn’t wear gloves.” Native intelligence flows through your fingertips, wisdom received in direct connection with the world, telling you know how deep to dig and how hard to pull, when to gather and when to release. Self-defenses make you timid and clumsy.

6. Forget yourself. The world needs a few less people to own their own greatness and few more to own their own humility. When you can face reality without camouflage, yours is the face of compassion.

7. Grow old. It isn’t easy, it’s effortless.

8. Have no answers. In Zen, we don’t find the answers; we lose the questions. It’s impossible to comprehend the marvel of what we are, or to understand the mystery of life’s impeccable genius. Weed out the confusion that comes from trying to understand.

9. Seek nothing. Just for one moment take my word that you lack nothing. Have faith in yourself and the ground where you stand.

10. Go back to 1. The gardener’s job is always just beginning.

See more of Karen Maezen Miller’s beautiful garden and learn more about “Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden” in this four and a half minute video.

About Karen Maezen Miller:
Karen Maezen Miller is a Zen Buddhist priest and teacher at the Hazy Moon Zen Center in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Hand Wash Cold, Momma Zen, and most recently Paradise in Plain Sight. Visit her online at www.karenmaezenmiller.com.

Adapted from the book Paradise in Plain Sight ©2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.

Living the Season

At this point in my life I’ve read quite a few books about Zen Buddhism, and since it’s me I’ve forgotten a healthy chunk of what I’ve read. (Seriously, I’ve got an awful memory, even for things I really want to learn and retain.) However, despite my crappy memory I feel quite certain I’ve never encounter a Zen book quite like “Living the Season: Zen Practice for Transformative Times” by Ji Hyang Padma.

Often Ji Hyang Padma shares stories from her own life and own experiences making “Living the Season” part memoir. The Zen Buddhism discussed in the book is based on what is practiced in Korea, which you rarely read about in the West. I’d never seen it before so I found that very interesting. I learned that my favorite goddess, or Bodhisattva if you hang with the Buddhists, Kwan Yin, is referred to as Kwan Seum Bosal if you’re a Korean Buddhist. “Living the Season” has loads of exercises. Once Ji Hyang Padma gets you meditating the sky is the limit. Literally. One of the exercises is sky gazing!

Ji Hyang Padma’s writing is sincere in acknowledging what most of us already know, we’re in a time of upheaval and change. Her message is to understand how we’re all connected and work to be of service to each other and also be of service to our planet. All of this is conveyed in her beautiful voice, filled with authenticity. “Living the Season” is a story, a Zen practice, and a mission statement, not to be missed.

The Meaning of Life

By Brad Warner

In Zen we often say there is no meaning of life. When people first hear that, they think it sounds depressing. It sounds as if we’re saying that life is meaningless. But we’re not. We’re saying that any meaning you assign to life is, by necessity, incomplete. It cannot be otherwise. Trying to assign a meaning to life is like trying to stuff the whole ocean into a bucket.

But you can also say there is a meaning of life. It’s another one of those contradictions.

There isn’t a meaning of life in terms you could express as “Life means X, Y, and Z.” Yet meaning and life are intimately intertwined. Nishijima Roshi often said that there are two aspects of life, matter and meaning. These two aspects, he said, are manifestations of the same thing. It’s a different way of saying, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”

Matter is matter. It’s books and tables and birds and 1962 Fender Jazz Bass guitars and so on. Meaning is that other, more nebulous side of life that can’t really be quantified. We experience meaning, so we know it’s real, even if we can’t weigh or measure it.

But what about when bad things happen to good people? If there really were a meaning of life and if there really was a God, surely my mother would have been spared the suffering she endured. If there really were a God there would be no war, disease, poverty, lousy boy bands, or crappy movies with all-star casts. How can there be any meaning to life if shit like that exists?

I get that. But the God I believe in doesn’t perform miracles. (More on that in a later chapter.) And the God I believe in isn’t just good, if good is just that which stands in contrast to evil. Joshu Sasaki Roshi, the Japanese Rinzai Zen teacher whom I quoted in the title of this book, said, “You are educated all your life to venerate God and reject evil. Zen education is totally different: it teaches you how to swallow God and the devil at once.”

When we talk about bad things happening to good people, using the word God can be problematic, as it can be in general. We tend to think of God as an independent agent who can work magic and fix bad situations. We have a long history of thanking God for things we like and cursing the devil for things we hate.

Many modern, rational people generally don’t believe in that kind of God. I certainly don’t. But we don’t need to leap to the conclusion that just because there isn’t a giant Santa Claus figure sitting on a throne up in heaven, therefore there is no meaning to life and there is no God.

The life we are leading right now is a manifestation of God. That we are alive is all the evidence we need to prove that God exists. I don’t mean that we need to postulate the existence of God to explain the fact that we’re here. I’m not talking about God as the first cause of everything. I’m saying that our direct experience of life is God. Life is God experiencing God, just as Dogen said when he said we are the eyes and ears “it” uses to experience itself.

As for annihilation, it is one of the crucial aspects of life that makes it what it is. It’s a cliché to say that we love our lives more because we know we’re going to lose them. But it’s not just that we will lose our lives at some undefined time in the future. We lose our lives every second of every day. The nature of the present moment is change, is annihilation.

It’s trendy these days to talk about “the now” and to celebrate the present moment. And that’s fine. It’s a good trend. But people often forget that the nature of the present moment is the total annihilation of what has gone before. The present moment is highly destructive as well as creative. This is why many of us fear it so much. The present moment is killing us!

But even this is a beautiful thing. The destructive power of the now, of God, is its way of creating us anew at every moment so that we can be here to enjoy its amazingness.

About Brad Warner:
Brad Warner is a Zen priest, filmmaker, blogger, and Japanese monster-movie marketer. He’s the author of Hardcore Zen; Sit Down & Shut Up; Sex, Sin & Zen; and most recently, There Is No God and He Is Always with You. Visit him online at http://hardcorezen.info/.

Excerpted from the new book There is No God and He is Always with You ©2013 by Brad Warner. Published with permission of New World Library http://www.newworldlibrary.com

The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime

There is a lot to be said for a children’s books that entertains and educates both children and adults. So buckle in because I have a lot to say about “The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime: Tales of Compassion and Kindness for You to Read with Your Child – Delight and Inspire” by Dharmachari Nagaraja.

The collection was inspired by the Jataka Tales, traditional stories offering guidance and wisdom which are believed to have been told by Buddha himself. The stories are focused on explaining the eight great principles that underpin Buddhism, known as the Eightfold Noble Path. “The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime” also gives a brief overview of Buddhism, ideas of how to work with the stories and storytelling, and introducing meditation to children, if you’re so inclined.

However before you think Nagaraja brought us a book that is all work and no play, let me set your mind at ease. “The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime” is filled with adorable and charming tales. You and your child won’t feel as if you’re being beat over the head with some sort of overbearing Buddhist message when reading these stories. Like the best children’s tales, there are lessons to be learned, but I wanted you to know it wasn’t some sort of indoctrination text. What it IS, is filled with stories of monkeys wearing high heels, beautiful horses mastering fear, little boys battling water serpents, tree spirits savings goats, and a Queen of monkeys teaching humans what it truly means to be a leader.

Monkeys with desserts and heels. Love it!

Last we’ve got to talk about the illustrations. “The Buddha’s Apprentice at Bedtime” is full color and fully illustrated. The art so adorable! I did a couple of scans that don’t do it justice, but you’ll at least get the idea, and the idea is that the art is fantastic! The book credits Sharon Tancredi with commissioned artwork. I’m not sure if that means we should be crediting Tancredi for all the magic the art imbues into the book or not, but the illustrations are a big part of what makes “The Buddha’s Apprentice’s at Bedtime” a great book.

Did I choose it for the spirit? Nope. I loved the goats and the camel.

And that’s what Nagaraja has given us; a really great book.