Follow Your Heart

An Excerpt from Chapter 5 of “Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi” by Brian Leaf

I have since found that feeling good about my work is absolutely crucial to my happiness. When I work a job that is out of line with my values, I become depressed, and when I am in dharma, following my heart, doing what I believe in and what feels right, I am filled with energy.

The Buddha called this “right livelihood.” He taught that one who seeks liberation cannot hope to find freedom on the backs of others. Right livelihood is critical to the spiritual path; often when people are out of line with their values they have to numb out or shut down, not only because they are bored and uninterested but also because the pain of being outside their morals or their heart’s call is too much to bear. Interestingly, yoga brings these issues to the surface. Many times I have seen students of yoga realize that their job is hurting them. Sometimes making a change is too much to face. In these cases, people usually stop practicing yoga, and the revelation fades.

One time I was in a new relationship and had moved far away from New Jersey to be with my girlfriend. I had been practicing yoga consistently for years, but without even noticing, I gave it up. A month later, browsing in a bookstore, I stumbled onto a quote from yoga teacher Dr. Jeff Migdow: “When people do yoga consistently they’re much more open to change. That’s the key: If I’m not open to making changes, then I won’t let myself be aware.”

The quote was a slap in the face. As if waking from a daze, I realized that I had not done postures in a month. And I saw that I had avoided yoga because it sharpened my awareness and showed me that I was unhappy. But because I had been unwilling to make a change — to move and leave the relationship — I had stopped doing the thing that increased my awareness. In this way, yoga is a catalyst that demands truth.

This truth includes, but is also subtler than, simply doing what is right or wrong, ethical or moral. It means listening to your heart’s call.

I love to share this with my tutoring students. I remember a student, Aidan, was considering college majors and said, “I’d love to be an architect, but the world needs environmental activists, so that’s what I’ll do.”

Aidan is correct. We do need environmental activists. But I believe that even more, we need people who are passionate about what they do, living from their heart. I don’t think one can actually serve the world best by assessing what the world needs. I think, instead, we serve the world best by responding to our heart’s call. Not our ego’s call, mind you, but our heart’s.

As an environmental activist, Aidan might make a difference. That’s true. But as an architect, Aidan will be following his bliss. He’ll be fulfilled and happy. He’ll be lit up and creative. He’ll be a beacon of light and energy. And, I trust, his environmental concerns will still find a very effective, perhaps more effective, medium — maybe he’ll design green buildings or discover environmentally sustainable building materials.

Joseph Campbell told his students, “If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living…Wherever you are — if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”

And so, in our spiritual Easter egg hunt for the Keys to Happiness, we come to key number two:

Follow your heart.

Notice what gives you a feeling of rightness, ignites your creativity and passion, and makes you feel most alive, and pursue that.

Before every major decision, ask yourself, “Which choice feels right, is in line with my values, ignites my creativity and passion, and is an expression of my true self?”

And by the way, following your bliss does not automatically mean giving up your nine-to-five job at the insurance company to dust off your old Fender Stratocaster and get the college funk band back together. Sometimes the boring job at the insurance company is just right. Your bliss might be the paycheck that feeds your family and allows you to spend happy evenings and weekends together. Or not. Following your bliss only means tuning in to and following not your ego, not your mind, but your heart. Put another way, it means setting aside what you want and doing what God* wants for you. And God, I believe, communicates through our hearts and through a feeling of passion, vitality, and rightness.

About Brian Leaf:
Brian Leaf, M.A. is the author of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. He draws upon twenty-one years of intensive study, practice, and teaching of yoga, meditation, and holistic health. Visit him online at http://www.Misadventures-of-a-Yogi.com.

Excerpted from the book “Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi” ©2012 by Brian Leaf. Published with permission of New World Library http://www.newworldlibrary.com

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE!

Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi Video Contest

To celebrate the launch of his new book, Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi, author Brian Leaf is hosting a video contest with the theme “Insightful Yoga Comedy.” Video entries must be related to yoga, funny, insightful, and one to three minutes long. Each contest entry will be judged according to how well it meets these requirements. The Grand Prize winner will receive $250 and a signed copy of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. Two runner-ups will each receive $50 and a signed copy of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi. Entries are due by 1/15/13 and must be submitted to misadventures.of.a.yogi@gmail.com. Give it a try!

Videos must be:
1. One to three minutes in length
2. Generally respectful of others. No videos intended to slander or harm any other person or their public image.

To enter, send a link to your video to misadventures.of.a.yogi@gmail.com along with your name, age, and city of residence. Write “Video Contest” in the email’s subject.
All entries must be received by midnight January 15, 2013.

Videos will be judged by Brian Leaf, author of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi, according to how well they achieve the contest’s themes (related to yoga, funny, insightful).

Winners will be announced on the Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi facebook page, www.facebook.com/Misadventures.of.a.Yogi, on Wednesday, February 20th at 3pm ET.

One Grand Prize winner will receive $250 and a signed copy of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi.

Two Runner-Ups will each receive $50 and a signed copy of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi.

Must be eighteen years or older to enter. No purchase necessary. Decisions are final.

Good luck!!

The Tibetans and The Grateful Dead

By Huston Smith

Mickey Hart, a drummer for the erstwhile Grateful Dead, is also a serious ethnomusicologist who now works with the Smithsonian Institution. Fascinated by the Tibetan monks’ multiphonic chanting, he put the infrastructure of the Dead to work and helped organize six sellout coast-to-coast tours with twelve of the Gyuto monks.

One evening the monks were returning to Mickey’s ranch, in Northern California, after a performance in the University of California’s Zellerbach Auditorium, in Berkeley. When the van reached the Marin side of the Richmond Bridge, out of the blue the monks asked the driver to pull over to the side of the road. They told Mickey that they sensed evil in the vicinity, and they wanted to alleviate it. Little did they know that at that moment they were passing San Quentin, a maximum-security penitentiary. Visibly moved, they asked if they could go into the prison and bless the inmates.

Mickey was skeptical, but he asked the sentry on duty, who referred the matter to his superior. The monks were admitted to the entrance, which was separated from the prison proper by about twelve yards. On the opposite side was an electric fence featuring elevated cages, which housed sharpshooters with cocked rifles.

The prison chaplain told us about a Christian group of prisoners who met regularly to pray and sing hymns. They were summoned, and for about half an hour they alternated with the monks, one group singing and praying, and the other group chanting. The monks were so moved by their encounter with the prisoners that they returned several times to repeat the ritual.

Later, I accompanied Mickey to the San Francisco Airport to say farewell to the monks, who where returning to India, for their final tour had ended. As the stairs for boarding the plane descended to the runway, the monks regrouped themselves and chanted a farewell blessing on the land that they were leaving. The passengers in the corridor who were proceeding to their departure gates were so captivated they stopped and clustered around the monks, listening intently. As the last monk disappeared into the plane and the door was closing, a woman asked us in wide-eyed wonder, “What was that all about?”

As if to answer her emphatically, Mickey shouted out to the departing monks the famous line from Star Wars, “May the Force be with you!”

Then, turning to me, Mickey said, “What am I saying? May the Force be with me! They already have it!”

About Huston Smith:
Huston Smith is recognized and revered as the preeminent teacher of world religions. Smith has taught at Washington University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the University of California, Berkeley. He has written fifteen books, including the classic “The World’s Religions”, which has sold over two million copies in many translations, and the New York Times bestseller “Why Religion Matters”. He has been bestowed with twelve honorary degrees and was the focus of the five-part television series “The Wisdom of Faith” hosted by Bill Moyers.

From the book “And Live Rejoicing”. Copyright © 2012 Huston Smith. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com

Hardcore Zen Strikes Again!

I’m a big fan of Brad Warner. Getting to interview him back in 2011 was a real nerve wracking experience for me! The thing I’m learning with Zen Buddhism is that every person that explores it has to find someone that can explain things in a way that they can understand, and for me, Brad Warner is one of those people. Perhaps it’s because Warner drifts around the edges of my interests. Obviously I have an interest in Zen Buddhism and he is a Zen priest and author of books on the subject of Zen Buddhism. I am a huge music fan and Warner is involved in, or was involved in, the underground punk music scene. I’m a big geek about assorted things; he’s a big geek about Japanese giant monster movies. Warner actually lived in Japan and worked for Tsuburaya Productions. Eiji Tsuburaya, who founded the company, directed the special effects on all the classic Godzilla movies. Also, he swears a lot, which of course I do too.

Warner’s latest book, “Hardcore Zen Strikes Again!” revisits the early years of his website, the contents of which formed the basis of “Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth About Reality”. “Strikes Again” even features a complete chapter that didn’t make it into “Hardcore Zen” called “The Whole Vegetarian Thing”, which was pretty fascinating. So I, like Warner, am confused as to why Wisdom Publications didn’t include it. Oh well, we get it now! Each essay gets an introduction and an afterword so that you’re given some perspective and additional context as to what Warner was thinking, or what was occurring, when the original website post was written. Considering there is sometimes as big as an eight year gap it’s refreshing to see how much or how little Warner’s views have changed with time.

Obviously “Hardcore Zen Strikes Again!” is wonderful for fans like myself, amused by fun facts (Did you know that originally Warner wanted to call “Hardcore Zen” “Sit Down and Shut Up”?) as much as new writing. That said, there is still something there for those looking for an enjoyable Zen read or an introduction to Brad Warner’s work.

Exploring the Misleading Mind

By Karuna Cayton

According to the ancient and time-tested theories of Buddhist psychology, we have an inalienable right to be happy. Yet we have very little understanding of what actually makes us happy. We look for happiness in all the wrong places — outside of our own consciousness.

Contrary to what we might think, our happiness is not determined by whether we have a large house or a tent, a BMW or a moped, abundant wealth or very little money, or even whether we’re married or single. Howard Hughes was extremely wealthy but was also, seemingly, a pathetically unhappy man. On the other hand, Mother Teresa seemed pretty happy living on very little, helping the destitute and dying in Calcutta. Of course, certain conditions, such as living in freedom or poverty, can have a bearing on our well-being. But they do not determine our ability to attain ongoing, stable, enduring happiness. This can only be achieved with a balanced mind.

Problems arise from a misperception of reality. We misapprehend our self — our identity and personality — and we misapprehend the rest of reality, whether it’s other people, cars, houses, or trees. As Anais Nin says, “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” We are constantly coating what we perceive with our own interpretations, projections, judgments, and past experiences. However, if I do not experience things as they truly are, then my reactions to those things will be in error. This is a simple way of explaining how problems arise. The problem is not in the problem; it’s in the misperception.

For example, when my wife says to me, “Why do you always leave your dirty dishes on the counter?” I immediately project onto her words. An “I,” a self, an experiencer reacts with “I am offended. I don’t always leave my dirty dishes out. I am tired. I work hard. I am entitled to sit and watch TV.” And so on. The moment I’m accused of being a slacker, all kinds of self-identities arise. But are these “selves” really who I am? They are who I think I am, which is the problem. At the moment of being accused, I think I am only the person who is feeling accused. This is a false perception, a trick of the mind. But if I believe I am, truly and solidly, an accused person, then I will respond as an accused person. Accused persons respond defensively. Or aggressively. Or they get depressed. Or…

So, what are we to do? The only long-term solution, is to get ahold of this wild mind that flirts around from emotion to emotion like a hummingbird flying from flower to flower. To get ahold of the mind is to train the mind. If we are overweight, we don’t become thin just by recognizing that we’re overweight. We have to retrain ourselves in the way we deal with eating. And, so, it is the same with our untamed, untrained mind and its disturbing emotions. Success demands a slow, consistent application of mind training techniques such as contemplation, mindfulness, discriminating wisdom, and self-care. No one can do it for us, but even a little effort will pay off.

There are four steps we can initiate that, when applied consistently, can create real change in our lives:

Step One is to realize we have a choice to take control of our mind and, thus, control of our happiness. In other words, we can be conscious, mindful, and aware. While this awareness is a choice, it is an unexercised mental muscle that needs constant retraining.

Step Two is to settle the mind, now. In brief, just connect with your breath. Gently close your eyes and with alertness watch the inhalation and exhalation through the nostrils or the rising and falling of your stomach. Watch it like a swan floating across a pond. Count each inhalation and exhalation as one breath. Count through five and then backward to one. Relax with focus.

Step Three. With the mind gently focused on the breath, become aware of what emotion is arising. To keep it simple, just acknowledge one of the three primary emotions: (1) agitation or anxiety, (2) longing, wanting, or desiring, (3) confusion, dullness, or ignorance. Just acknowledge the emotion without getting involved.

In Step Four, allow the emotion to dissolve into space. Emotions aren’t static. They are moving phenomena, so don’t get in the way of allowing an emotion to evaporate. Typically, we freeze this movement like a moving waterfall freezes in the winter. Just let it naturally dissolve with a sense of gentle control. Your control here is merely watching what really is happening and letting go. Control by not controlling, not holding. The emotion just arises, abides, and falls away.

It is odd that we can describe our hands or our face but if we’re asked to describe our mind we can only offer vague, nebulous descriptions. That’s because, not examining the mind, we don’t know the mind. Knowing how our mind really functions is the first step to mental balance and health and, yes, greater happiness. We need to become explorers – curious about our idea of self, our mind, our emotions, how they function and how we can master them. As such, we’ll seek the knowledge, contemplation, and wisdom to become our own best therapist. Our discoveries become the pathway to solving our problems and revealing a happier and healthier way of being.

About Karuna Cayton:
Karuna Cayton, psychotherapist and author of “The Misleading Mind”, spent twelve years working with Tibetan refugees in Nepal and studying with Buddhist masters. His Karuna Group practice applies Buddhist psychology to individual and organizational clients. He lives in Northern California. Visit him online at www.thekarunagroup.com.

Based on the book “The Misleading Mind: How We Create Our Own Problems and How Buddhist Psychology Can Help Us Solve Them” 2012 by Karuna Cayton. Printed with permission from New World Library.

Mastering Meditation: Three Steps to Peace, Health, and Inner Joy

By Tobin Blake

One day, a great prince living in ancient India experienced a life-changing revelation. He looked out across the land—his land, his people, his world—and realized that he was an alien there. This was not his land; these were not his people; this was not his world. Despite the prince’s wealth and worldly power, a deep emptiness stirred within him, and he wondered who he really was beyond his earthly role as a royal. Where had he come from? Who was he in truth? Was happiness really possible in this world?

The prince’s name was Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as the Buddha, or the awakened one. Historically, Buddha is the most well-known advocate of meditation, but you do not have to be Buddhist in order to meditate. In fact, Buddha himself lived twenty-five hundred years ago, but meditative practice was not new even during his time. It had already been a part of human existence for at least a thousand years, and probably far longer. The practice is fundamentally nondenominational. At its core, it is a universal spiritual exercise that has been cherished by many millions of people from every major spiritual tradition.

There is a reason meditation has been treasured through the ages by so many people. During meditative practice, you switch your focus from the world outside you, to the world within you, from a state of activity and thought, to a state of stillness and inner silence—toward your core self, which is your highest spiritual self and essence of your soul. Your core self is the part of you that existed before your physical body was born, and which will continue to exist after your body dies. It is the essential life force at the center of your being that is independent of your body, personality, and even the passage of time itself. Your core self does not age. It requires no food or sustenance, and it is impervious to sickness and attack of any kind.

Meditation is a tool that gently liberates you from all the thought stuff in your psyche that conceals your core self. This is what makes the practice such a powerful and healing experience. As you open up to your spiritual self, remarkable things begin to happen because you are aligning with the natural creative Energy of the entire universe, which is sometimes referred to as Source Energy. It is the same Energy that creates and sustains all life across the physical cosmos, and the benefits of connecting with it are easy to see. People who meditate regularly experience huge drops in the incidence of heart disease, cancer, depression, and many other physical and psychological illnesses. There is also an indescribable natural joy that comes from regular meditation, as well as boosts in creativity and self-confidence. Yet these are mere surface effects of something much more profound: when you become still, silent, and so at peace that you are able to go beyond the constant clamor of your thoughts, just like Buddha you will gradually begin to awaken to the timeless, immortal self that is locked within you. This experience is the true gift of meditation, and it is just as assessable today as it was twenty-five hundred years ago when Buddha walked the earth.

To master meditation, the most important thing is to relax. Do not try too hard. Instead, simply focus on letting go and relaxing into peace. The more at peace you become, the deeper your meditations will be. This is what makes the practice so easy. It does not require effort; it requires the opposite of effort—stillness, silence, and rest. You don’t have to shut off your thoughts and focus perfectly. You don’t need to struggle to make something special happen. Just relax deeply, and allow the sensation of inner peace to fill your mind. In this sense, all you really need to learn is the gentle art of letting go. As you quiet down, your mind will naturally turn inward.

To begin, try the following exercise once or twice a day for five to ten minutes. As you become more comfortable, gradually increase the amount of time to twenty minutes or longer.

Step One: Relax. Find a quiet space and adopt a comfortable, seated position. Sit up straight and try to relax. Take a few deep breaths and feel all sense of tension and stress begin slipping away. This should be considered a quiet, sacred time for reconnecting to your core self and its natural abundance of Source Energy. The more peaceful you are able to become, the more healing Source Energy you will absorb.

Step Two: Peace out. After you sense the beginning stages of relaxation, start thinking the word “peace” every time you exhale. For example, breathe in, breathe out, think peace. Breathe in, breathe out, peace, and so on. Concurrently, relax your body just a little more with each out-breath, and feel as if you are sinking deeply into yourself, beyond your body and thoughts, and toward your core.

Step Three: Concentrate. Many random thoughts will pass through your mind as you attempt to meditate. Try not to get caught up in them. When you do, however, don’t kick yourself. Gently but firmly return to relaxing deeply and repeating the word peace.


About Tobin Blake:Tobin Blake is the author of Everyday Meditation: 100 Daily Meditations for Health, Stress Relief, and Everyday Joy. He has taught meditation and spiritual awakening at Unity centers, private schools, and colleges. Visit him online at www.TobinBlake.com.

Based on the book Everyday Meditation ©2012 by Tobin Blake. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. www.newworldlibrary.com

Fearlessness

by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche (An Excerpt from “Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath”)

We have to recognize the nature of fear before we can experience fearlessness. We cannot simply run away from fear. We have to get close to it. We have to be intimate with it. Fear does not arise without cause. If we understand the nature of fear, we can move beyond it. We have to be patient and give everything some space.

Everyone has personal views. However, when you become attached to your view, you become very rigid, like plywood that will not bend. This disturbs your sense of equilibrium, and you lose your sense of humor. You no longer have control of your view; rather, your view has control of you. It would be analogous to a man loving his girlfriend so obsessively that she feels compelled to run away from him. He becomes far too close due to his loneliness, insecurity, and fear.

The Buddha taught us that the highest view is to be free from all views. This supreme view will not remain with those who are insecure or fearful. This view will not stay with those who are territorial. This view is confident and complete in its own place. There is nothing that is outside the perimeter of this view. Those who understand this all-encompassing view are always fearless. Due to the fact that this view is complete in its own place, it does not need any manipulation. This is the profound view.

This view is very naked and direct. Because it is so naked, like a live electric wire without insulation, you have to be cautious. You know what will happen if you touch it carelessly. If you are skillful and know how to handle the wire, you can harness its power and enjoy an abundance of light. In our tradition, it is taught that raw thoughts and emotions must be handled with awareness and skill. Otherwise, there is a real danger that we will hurt ourselves and others through careless and coarse indulgence.

Many of us are afraid to get close to this wire. We try to escape, rather than learning how to work with its power. There is an abundant supply of electricity, but not so many electricians. There may be many who are intrigued by this view, but only a fortunate few who learn how to benefit from it. If you are not interested in learning how to harness this power, do not be too hard on yourself. It’s okay. One can take a more gradual approach. There is a time and place for everything.

Everything we perceive, think, and feel emanates from this wide-open view. This is the fearless view. This view is absolutely unbiased. It is completely free from discrimination. We tend to think that we are better than others. We fabricate a hierarchy in our minds and place ourselves on the highest tier. This sort of bias does not exist at the beginning; it comes afterward. In timeless purity, there is no corruption and no judgment.

Light and warmth radiate from the sun. As the sun shines on the earth, it does so without discrimination, equally illuminating all. But if we lack the proper view, we might blame the sun for not being bright enough or warm enough. Perhaps the sun is too low in the sky or there are too many dark clouds. But the sun is always radiating, whether we can see its light or not. This is the absolute view. This eternally brilliant light exists within every individual. The wisdom that exists within you is the best teacher. This self-arising awareness is your ultimate friend and your dearest companion.

This wisdom is always pure, and this purity brings freedom. There is fearlessness in this basic purity. It is like a lotus flower. Although it is planted in the mud, the flower is always free of stain. It draws nourishment from the mud but is never tainted by the mud. When it blossoms, it is spotless and radiant. It is completely free from the mire that surrounds it. You do not have to reject what you have or start over. Just remain in the mud and grow. Draw on its moisture and nutrients for energy.

Within this purity, everything is accomplished and complete. We can develop unwavering confidence in this view. Wherever there is mind, there is the potential for actualizing this unblemished view. We can share our warmth and kindness with everyone — there is more than enough space in this primordial purity. This view is not narrow or limited in any way; it is vast and expansive. So we can explore, and we can look far beyond our limited views. Then we have the ultimate view, and there will be fearlessness in every moment of our lives.

About Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche:
His Eminence Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche is the spiritual guide of Shyalpa Monastery in Kathmandu, the founder of the Tibetan Refugee Childrenʼs Fund, and the heard of Ranging Yeshe, Inc., a nonprofit that organizes teachings and retreats throughout the United States. Buddhafield, in Millerton, NY, is the future site of the Center for Enlightenment and Rinpoche’s seat in the US. He has lectured at Harvard, Yale, Wesleyan, and the Naropa Institute. He lives in Nepal and New York. www.shyalparinpoche.org

Excerpted from the book “Living Fully: Finding Joy in Every Breath” Ó2012 by Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche. Printed with permission from New World Library.

Tsai Chih Chung Speaks

A month or so a go I went to a book signing for the lovely ladies who wrote “Wicca: What’s the Real Deal?” because if you recall I quite liked the book. The signing was at a used book store in Rensselaer, NY called Good Buy Books so of course Jim and I had to do a little shopping, right? One of my finds that day was a book called “Zen Speaks: Shouts of Nothingness” by Tsai Chih Chung and translated by Brian Bruya. Little had I realized what level of awesomeness I had stumbled upon, for unbeknownst to me, I had picked up a little bit of Taiwanese art/publication history.

Tsai Chih Chung (C.C. Tsai, Cai Zhizhong) is an artist, an animator, a cartoonist. At the age of 15 he started his career in comics as an assistant at a cartoon company, and his career continued to blossom from there. However, it was when he decided that retelling some of the greatest stories and philosophies from Chinese history in an artistic comic format with more modern updated language that his work reached a global audience. When his first book of this kind, “Zhuangzi Speaks: The Music of Nature”, came out in Taiwan it was an immediate success. Soon four of Tsai’s books of this kind occupied the top four spots on the bestseller list, until other authors insisted that comic books no longer be included on lists with “serious literature”. (Sound familiar Gaiman?)

Needless to say, I love “Zen Speaks”. I’m no stranger to the mini Zen tale, having worn out the spine on my copy of “Zen Flesh, Zen Bones”, but Tsai Chih Chung’s art and perspective breath new life into many of these stories. And his art, his adorable, adorable, adorable monks, well, I love them populating my favorite tales.

Here is one of my favorites, “Carrying A Woman Across A River”.

Apparently at some point they did an animated version of Tsai Chih Chung’s work, because here is “Carrying A Woman Across A River”.

I thought the original art was better. And by better, I mean the original monks were cuter, and thusly, better.

Since I loved “Zen Speaks” so much my husband surprised me and for Hanukkah he got me copies of “Zhuangzi Speaks” The Music of Nature” and “Sunzi Speaks: The Art of War”. I’d love to tell you how they are, but I’ve only flipped through them, but haven’t read them yet. Here are my problems; one, I keep rereading “Zen Speaks”, two, when I finally convince myself to set aside “Zen Speaks” to start another one I freeze with indecision flipping through both books unable to decide which one to read next because they both look so good which leads to me rereading “Zen Speaks” again.

Tsai Chih Chung’s comics of the Chinese classics are not the easiest to come by, and are priced varyingly, but if you stumble across one somewhere, or happen to be poking around online and find one at an inexpensive price, I hope you consider giving it a try.

This is a video for the line of animated videos they’ve made based on the books. It’s in English and does give a little bit of an overview of the work.

You can also learn a little more about the artist at TSAI Gallery.

Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia

Where on Earth do I begin? “Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia” by Andrei Znamenski was totally alien to me. Knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism? Minimal. Familiarity with the politics of Eurasia in the 1920’s and 1930’s? Nonexistent. An understanding of the variety of interpretations of Shambhala and its associated prophecies? Nope. Are you now frightened of this daunting book? Well don’t be.

Author Andrei Znamenski breaks everything down to its most basic parts to help bring order to this chaos. He begins by explaining the assorted legends, myths, and religious tales of Shambhala and its association with those living in Mongolia, Tibet, and surrounding lands. To sum up, Shambhala is a legendary kingdom hidden somewhere in Inner Asia. It’s considered a land of purity and enlightenment and home for a more spiritually advanced and possibly technologically advanced civilization. Of course most modern Buddhists consider Shambhala a spiritual place to be found within oneself, but Znamenski carefully outlines a period of time when Shambhala was considered an actual location that those of pure intention could find.

The next layer to be added to “Red Shambhala” is an explanation of the Bolshevik revolution that took place in 1917. This was when the Bolsheviks, a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, came to power during the October Revolution phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks were an organization consisting primarily of workers who considered themselves the leaders of the revolutionary working class of Russia. This is where Znamenski starts to introduce you to some of the future players in the quest for Shambhala.

What comes next is the unbelievable true life story of how the idea of Shambhala was a tool used in assorted political and megalomaniacal schemes all focused on the conquest of Mongolia and Tibet. Alexander Barchenko wants to find Shambhala to learn the sacred wisdom there and believes by introducing the elite of Red Russia to the knowledge of Shambhala he will be able to make the Communist project in Russia less violent. The elite see Barchenko’s theological journey to Inner Asia as a chance to plant the seeds of Communism in other lands. Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg travels to the east, and uses the legend of Shambhala as a tool to unite the nomads of Mongolia in an effort to restore monarchies. The Roerichs, Nicholas, his wife Helena, and their son George, attempt to establish a Buddhist-Communist theocracy. Nicholas poses as the reincarnation of the fifth Dalai Lama, obviously not counting on the politically shrewd living Dalai Lama of the time. And those are just a taste of the eccentric, larger than life characters that really truly lived, and very much tried their hand at king making and empire building.

After reading “Red Shambhala” you’ll come away with new insights into the history of Communism, Tibetan Buddhism, and the use of propaganda. They say real life can be stranger than fiction, and Andrei Znamenski’s research proves that phrase to be very, very true.

“Red Shambhala” releases in June 2011.

10 Questions with Brad Warner

1. In October 2010 I interviewed Grace Schireson, author of “Zen Women”. I asked her to explain the difference between Zen Buddhism and other branches of Buddhism. Her response was:

“What isn’t Zen? It is the branch of Buddhism that emerged after Buddhism wed Taoism in China. It is said that Zen is not dependent on words or scriptures (as many other Buddhist practices are), and that it is a direct pointing to Buddha as one’s own life. The word Zen actually means meditation. The basis of all Zen practices is meditation rather than studying Buddhist scripture or belief in a system. In Zen you are expected to meditate and just get it with little explanation of what the ‘it’ is.”

In order to provide my readers with as complete a picture of Zen as possible, I’d like to ask you if you agree with her description or have anything to add to it.

Like she says, Zen means meditation. I usually explain it as a reform movement that began as a response to the way Buddhism was becoming more like a religion with a focus on ritual and dogma. The originators of Zen stripped it down to just the meditation practice.

Later on a huge body of Zen literature developed. But even the Zen literature isn’t about dogma or belief. It consists mainly of attempts by Zen teachers to express their experience of meditation in writing. A certain amount of ritual exists in Zen. But even Zen ritual is in the service of the meditation practice.

2. What made you decide to write about your experiences in studying and practicing Zen Buddhism?

I had been a wanna-be writer since junior high school. I used to write science fiction stories and make comic books. I was also a songwriter. I worked for a film and TV production company in Japan and I wrote a number of scripts and things. They were all rejected. But some of the ideas in them found their way into our movies and TV shows, un-credited.

I also wrote several novels, which I was never able to get published. So I wrote about my Zen experience mostly out of frustration. I didn’t want to quit writing. So I just wrote about Zen to keep myself in practice. I never really intended the book that became Hardcore Zen for publication. I thought I would give it to my nephew who was 14 at the time and very interested in philosophy. I only sent it out to publishers because I knew how to do that by then. I never thought anyone would want to publish a book about punk rock, monster movies and Zen.

3. In your books, you share a lot about your own life, but your 2009 book “Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate” is incredibly intimate. You discuss your mother’s passing, your job ending, the unraveling of your marriage, and more. Was it hard to share so much of yourself? Did you ever look at the screen and think, “Should I really be talking about this with the anonymous public?”

It was very hard. The ending of the book was especially brutal. I was between apartments at the time and the people at the San Francisco Zen Center were kind enough to provide me a room for a few weeks while I had nowhere to live. I remember sitting in that room typing and re-typing and re-re-typing the last chapter. I had headaches and all sorts of stuff over that one.

I felt that it was necessary to really turn myself inside out for that book. I had to get at everything, expose everything. I still feel that was really an important book. I hate being grandiose. But I think it’s not just important to me, but important to the history of Buddhism. No Buddhist teacher has ever written a book that intimate.

People think all those books with wildly imaginative descriptions of some guy’s supposed enlightened state are really important. But those books are just science fiction novels for people who don’t like reading about space ships. Zen Wrapped in Karma is about what it’s really, actually like to be a Zen teacher.

4. I haven’t gotten to read it yet, but your latest book is ” Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between”. Speaking of incredibly intimate, how did you feel tackling the subject of sexuality in a culture that is pretty obsessed with it in one way or another?

It felt good, mostly. I think that book was really necessary. People are really hung-up about sex. The Buddhist view says that sex is important and should be taken seriously. But it also says that washing the dishes is important and should be taken seriously. We have a really unbalanced view of sex. We focus on it to the point that we lose focus on everything else. And we still make a mess of our sex lives.

I think the Zen approach can help. You take a vow not to misuse sexuality. But that’s a very open thing. Nobody tells you what constitutes misuse of sexuality. You have to figure that out for yourself, because everybody’s actual experience is different. So you are the only one who can determine what is or is not a misuse of sexuality in your specific case.

5. On my Facebook page one day I said that I found reading books about Zen very relaxing, but found meditation very stressful. A bunch of people “liked” that status. Are my friends and I freaks (totally not out of the question), or is this something you hear from other people?

Meditation can seem stressful and books about meditation can seem relaxing. That’s because lots of books about meditation are kind of like fantasy novels. They provide you with a kind of escapist dream.

The problem is that that dream is actually taxing your brain. It feels relaxing at the moment. But it’s exciting you, stimulating you. The act of reading itself is relaxing. But the material is creating a kind of tension.

Meditation, on the other hand, exposes you to yourself. You become acutely aware of the stress you have. I don’t think meditation produces stress, except perhaps if you’re really ambitious about having some kind of mystical experience. That can be stressful! But when you simply sit and allow yourself to be as you are, you start seeing stuff you’ve ignored. Some of that is stress.

In becoming aware of this stress, you simultaneously begin to see what you can do about it. Sometimes you resist. I know I do. For example, you might come to realize that some activity you had thought was harmless was actually doing damage. You’ll realize that you have to stop doing that thing. But if you’re like me, you often don’t want to stop. So a certain degree of stree appears right there. But it’s a very useful type of stress.

6. Obviously I’m not expert on Zen, but it seems to place a lot of focus on the here and now, this moment, and now this moment, and this one. How contentment can be found in exactly this moment. So how do Zen Buddhists approach issues that make this moment obviously less than content? For instance I have my personal hang up with the situation in Zimbabwe, where a president has run amok and gone from liberator to oppressor (complete with the beatings and torture and all that the job of oppressor entails). How would a Zen Buddhist in Zimbabwe behave? Should they be content in the moment? Does Zen mean passive acceptance of the status quo?

I don’t know how a Zen Buddhist in Zimbabwe should behave because I’m not a Zen Buddhist in Zimbabwe. The only thing I could do would be to speculate. But that kind of speculation would be useless. I don’t even know enough about the superficial details of the situation, let alone what it really feels like to live in it.

The question for me would be more along the lines of, what can I do about the situation in Zimbabwe? What concrete things can I do that might have some effect? If there are things I can do, I would do them. Once I had done those things, I would try to set the matter aside. It doesn’t do any real good to worry about things I can’t change. I can sit and think about concrete ways that I might be able to change those things. And that does some good. Maybe a lot of good. But just fretting about it doesn’t help anything.

When it comes to your own stressful situations, that’s what I try to focus on. Getting worried about other people’s troubles in far away places is a kind of abstraction. If you can do something for those people, do it. We place a lot of value in our culture on “being concerned.” But most of what constitutes “being concerned” is a lot like the way some people are “concerned” over their favorite soap operas. We watch it and fret about it. But we don’t really do much of anything.

7. Your books are filled with amusing footnotes. I’m prone to inserting odd thoughts parenthetically into my articles (You know, like this.) What was New World Library’s reaction when they first saw your wise cracking footnotes?

I think New World Library liked the footnotes. Some people think they’re funny. Some people hate them. I have fun with them. But I’m trying to get away from it because everyone is doing footnotes now.

8. For my readers who aren’t familiar with you or your work, they may not realize that you’re also a big fan of Japanese giant monster movies, even having worked for Tsuburaya Productions (home of the original Godzilla). I have to ask, in your opinion, what is the best giant monster movie of all time? (Thank you in advance for potentially making my holiday shopping much easier!)

I have to correct you there. Tsuburaya Productions didn’t make Godzilla. But even people in Japan think they did. Eiji Tsuburaya, who founded the company, directed the special effects on all the classic Godzilla movies. But he did that while working for another company called Toho. The stuff Tsuburaya Productions makes is a lot like Godzilla. Their big character is Ultraman, a superhero who is as big as Godzilla and fights Godzilla type monsters.

My favorite Japanese monster movie used to be called “Monster Zero”. That’s how I knew it as a kid. Then they released it to video as “Godzilla Vs Monster Zero”. And now they have put it out on DVD as “Invasion of Astro Monster”. It’s so confusing! It’s about aliens from Planet X who use mind control to make Godzilla and Rodan attack Tokyo and send their own monster Ghidorah the three-headed monster to help them out. The star of the film is Nick Adams, who was a hot up and coming actor in the fifties who had fallen on hard times by 1965 when the film was made. So he traveled to Japan and did a few monster films there. That story is really interesting in itself.

9. Given your punk rock background, comfort with using curse words in your writing, your honesty about your personal life, and general disdain for many of the Zen groups to be found in the United States, would you say you get a lot of angry letters and emails, or an epic amount of angry letters and emails?

I get a few. Not as many as you might imagine. I tend to focus on the angry ones and make a big deal out of some of them because they’re often from people who would like to consider themselves unflappable serene Buddhists. They’re sort of funny.

Ever since I started the blog, though, most of the angry people just leave comments. I get an epic amount of angry comments on my blog. There was even an article in Tricycle magazine about the comments on my blog. People just vent on there like crazy. Some of it is really petty and insulting. At the moment I’m not even reading my comments section because it got really nasty.

Certain things tend to set people off. It’s a blog on the Internet, so if I say anything about people being on the Internet too much, the commenters get angry about that. If I say things that seem to go against the prevailing notion that all Buddhists should accept anything that anyone claims is Buddhism, people get upset about that too. Like when I’ve been critical of some of the stuff that strikes me as abuses of Buddhism, using words like “Buddhism” and “Zen” to sell things that have nothing to do with Buddhism or Zen, people get angry about that.

10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question.

Why “Magic Buffet?” Is that like “Magic Bullet?”

I guess the question is, “Magic Bullet” like the infomercial blender or “Magic Bullet”, like the bullet which struck President Kennedy in the back and exited through his throat? Actually, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like either of those things. At least I hope….

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”, “Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate” and most recently “Sex, Sin & Zen”. His writing appears in media ranging from Tricycle and Shambhala Sun to Suicidegirls.com. Visit him online at www.hardcorezen.blogspot.com.

10 Questions with Grace Schireson

1. I won’t start by asking, “What is Zen?” I’ve been lead to believe that by asking, Zen will already be lost. So instead, could you explain to my readers the difference between Zen and other branches of Buddhism?

What isn’t Zen? It is the branch of Buddhism that emerged after Buddhism wed Taoism in China. It is said that Zen is not dependent on words or scriptures (as many other Buddhist practices are),and that it is a direct pointing to Buddha as one’s own life. The word Zen actually means meditation. The basis of all Zen practices is meditation rather than studying Buddhist scripture or belief in a system. In Zen you are expected to meditate and just get it with little explanation of what the “it” is.

2. Until seeing your book on the shelf in a bookstore I hadn’t realized that you really don’t hear that much about women in Buddhism, and even less when discussing Zen. How is it that women show up so infrequently in Buddhist texts?

Buddhism emerged from Hinduism. Hindus believe(d) that to be born a woman was a punishment for poor behavior in a previous lifetime. Since you have been doomed to the lower rungs of humanity as a woman, it is hard to understand why/how you might have anything to say. While the Buddha and his emerging religion tried to establish themselves as less superstitious and more egalitarian, considering women as chattel was part of the surrounding culture in India. In China, there were different beliefs about women, but they boiled down to the same treatment—women belonged to their fathers first, their husband’s second, and their son’s third. If they missed having sons, they belonged to their brothers. Because women were historically seen as lesser beings across Asia (and pretty much all over the world), much of this treatment crept into the Buddhist religion. It was difficult for women to get an education, to travel or to be respected as the leader of a community. Buddhist women who did manage to enter training and succeed in teaching a community were later erased by misogynistic monks establishing an all male lineage. In Zen “lineage” became the measure of authenticity. All Zen teachers claimed to trace their teacher’s credentials back to his teacher’s credentials and so on back to the Buddha. This “lineage” myth erased the contributions of women, and coincidentally, established beyond a doubt that men could fully reproduce or single handedly father men, eliminating a need for women at all.

3. What provoked your interest in seeking out the stories of the women who practiced Zen?

When I became ordained by my male teacher I realized I had no idea how to embody the job of Zen priest. There were a few Western teachers for me to emulate, but unlike the rich literature describing the Zen patriarchs, there was almost nothing suggesting the archetype of the female Zen master. Note that the word “master” itself is a gendered word. There is no equivalent engendered female term for female “master” or “mastery.”

4. What can modern Zen practitioners learn from Zen’s female ancestors?

What we call Zen in the West is entirely based on the teachings developed by Asian male monastics. It is as if we were to base the science of developing team spirit entirely on the techniques of Army boot camp. Army boot camp is just one way of training young men, it does not represent a thorough or complete synthesis of motivational training. Currently, the way Zen is taught is from the perspective of male monastic training. It does not include training from married teachers about integrating spiritual training and family life. It does not include training on how to make use of spiritual development in the world of work outside the monastery gates. Currently in the West, more than 50% of Buddhist practitioners are women, and more than 50% of Buddhists adults are married. Wouldn’t it be wise to find relevant training experience? Many female Zen ancestors had been married prior to entering training, many of them practiced within a family setting, and often the female Zen masters needed to support themselves financially through work in the community. This makes the training and teaching of female Zen masters applicable to the style of Buddhism that is evolving in the West with many Zen Buddhist teachers married and working in the world and Zen students and practitioners doing the same.

5. Is there anything that women in particular, Zen practitioners or not, can learn from these women?

The most important learning is the Nike slogan: “Just do it.” How do we tap into our own wisdom and power and not be submerged by only serving as the caregivers or beauty queens we are often programmed to become? We also cannot get lost in anger or woundedness about the fact that women are not given full opportunity. We need to note that this unfairness towards women is still sometimes true, get our shit together and accomplish what it is that matters to us. Throughout history women have used ingenuity and endurance to accomplish amazing things, this should be no less true for those of us today who have both legal and economic power that were unavailable just 100 years ago.

6. Your book, “Zen Women”, is filled with all sorts of fantastic stories about early female Zen practitioners. Do you have a personal favorite?

I love Otagaki Rengetsu who lost husbands, children, family and her home by the time she was 30 years old. After all those losses, she maintained her spiritual practice as her basis, and she transformed her losses into beautiful art. She did not repress her pain, or use positive thoughts to banish it; instead she contained her suffering within the compassionate, concentrated and flexible mind that she generated with her Buddhist meditative practice. This Buddha mind absorbed and transformed her pain suffering from which she produce beautiful poetry that expressed her losses in the most subtle tones. By not fully articulating or describing her own personal story, she invites us to join her where we accept and allow ourselves to be touched and understood. For example in a poem to her children who had died so young she wrote the following poem:

To My Beloved Children

My final message:
Flowers blooming
With all their heart
In lovely Sakurai village.

In this poem she names an historical site, Sakurai village, where a samurai lord said good-bye to his samurai son as they went off to die in battle. And yet, now the place is made lovely by each person—whether infant or samurai—blooming completely as him/herself within the web of human love and loss. All we can do is be completely ourselves, and add our presence, our brief flowering scent to the village which becomes beautified by our being.

7. Since women have sometimes had an awkward history within Buddhism, I’m curious if you’ve seen any criticism of your focus on Zen women?

Yes, there has been criticism, but not from the direction of trying to redeem Buddhism’s past mistakes. I have seen two critical reviews by readers, who both said they had not read the whole book; both criticized the view as “not Zen enough.” Interesting criticism from a layman to a Zen Abbess (me). One critique from a woman, suggested that I had not sufficiently honored the traditional heroic Zen women. Obviously, she did not read the book. I did not spend 10 years of my life studying and writing about these women because I wanted to devalue their contribution.

8. In “Zen Women” you discuss “The Appearance of the Zen Zombie” which discusses what I think may be a common belief about how Zen practitioners, male or female, behave. Can you explain what a “Zen Zombie” is for my readers?

The Zen Zombie is a Zen student or a Zen teacher or practice leader who has decided to eliminate or repress feelings in the interest of trying to be like a Zen person. They walk around in Zen robes, at Zen centers, trying to look beyond feelings and holier-than-thou. Obviously, this is an occupational hazard for all religions. If you want to know what the opposite iteration of Zen practice is, refer back to question 6 and reread how Rengetsu integrated—rather than repressed—painful feelings.

9. Last question, many of my readers spend time pondering how to survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse, but I don’t think any of them have considered a possible Zen Zombie uprising. Any survival tips?

I believe the Zombies have reached their peak strength and are on the decline. But just in case, if you meet any Buddhists who say that feelings don’t matter, and there is NO self, women should run immediately to their nearest chocolate shop or head for your favorite clothing shop for a quick dose of self affirmation. Men may instead select from the following options: sports, watches or cars.

10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question!

How do you balance the buffet—inclusion of many spiritual options– with encouraging selection of one practice so that spiritual seekers may develop depth and commitment?

Honestly, I don’t. That said, I don’t do anything to hinder or dissuade any of my readers from choosing one practice to explore in depth. I’m fairly certain that many of my readers already have committed to a singular practice, and really only read The Magical Buffet for the rum jokes.

About Grace Schireson:
Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson is the founder and head teacher of the Empty Nest Zen Group, Modesto Valley Heartland Zen Group, and the Fresno River Zen Group. Grace is a Dharma heir in the lineage of the great Shunryu Suzuki-roshi—founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Grace has practiced Zen meditation for more than 35 years and is author of the book “Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters”. In the United States she has undergone her Soto Zen training with Sojun Mel Weitsman-roshi of Berkeley Zen Center—from who she received Dharma transmission from in 2005. Grace also has trained in Rinzai Zen in Japan under Keido Fukushima-roshi, retired abbot of Tofuku-ji Monastery located in Kyoto. She has taught classes on Zen throughout the United States and has also been trained as a clinical psychologist—teaching Asian methods of quieting the mind using techniques suitable for Westerners.

To learn more about Abbess Schireson and Empty Nest Zen, visit their website.