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Beginning Buddhism

Buddhism as a tool, maybe the sharpest and kindest tool held by us sentient beings, a tool for dismantling, cutting away and through, unmasking, demystifying. A tool for tearing down and transmuting the crazy checkerboard of duality, of Yes-No, Good-Bad,ln-Out.

A tool, like an alarm-clock, for waking up.

Buddha, in Sanskrit, means Awake. Maybe we could call Buddhism Waking-Up-ism, or how-to-wake. Actually I could call it whatever I want, and miss it, utterly, entirely miss it. It is not something you can call.
"When Shakyamuni (Buddha) saw the morning star and was enlightened, he said, 'I was enlightened instantaneously with the universe.' "

What, my father, my mother, and many other people, want to know, does this have to do with us; two thousand five hundred years later— we have the same problems. Suffering, birth, death, old age, sickness, sorrow. No matter how fast and intricately our machines move, we are still human. The use of Buddhism doesn't seem to be how to escape, how to become God-ized out of our humaness. It is more like something Geshe Wangyal, an old Lama with a face like beaten gold, who lives out in suburban New Jersey, told me: "Face it. Don't run. Turn around and face it." Obvious enough, in one sense. But in things "spiritual" it seems we are always looking for the way out, the melt, the union, the higher...
Like the man who discovered gravity, Shakyamuni Buddha got to work under a tree. What he discovered was as real as gravity. In fact, he touched his hand to the earth as witness. As solid earthy fact. What he found, after years of study with the most efficient ascetics, yogis and philosophers of his time, was that he had to work bv himself, on his own mind. His own mind was the working basis. So he sat, folded his legs, folded his hands, and sat some more.

As Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche said, meditation is manual labor. Two thousand five hundred years ago Buddhism began in India and then migrated to China, Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Sikkim, Bhutan, Mongolia. Within each country schools developed, each with their special taste and flavor. Today, almost ail the schools are represented in North America. It is a unique situation. After centuries of separate developing in the hothouses of various cultures all the schools seem destined to try to put down roots in rocky, concrete soil of America.

What is emerging is a Western Buddhism, which because of the difficulty of the soil it is growing in will be that much stronger and vigorous. But it doesn't seem to me that the direction ought to be ecumenical, in that timehonored american tradition of making everything into one big cosmic stew. Rather, we need each school, undergoing the changes it must to survive in this new home.

If Buddhism is a tool meditation is the cutting edge, double-edged. It is not in its moral teaching that Buddhism has something special, but in the method of realization, of meditation. Buddhist meditation, in its most basic and common form, does not depend on either an external object or higher power. It is not mental gymnastics. Sitting and paying attention to what is there, to the mind— if mind is there. Often the breath, one's own breath, serves as a kind of a path, sword, or reminder, something to come back to. This is the central power of Buddhism. Without practicing sitting all our spiritual talk is like the squawking of hungry crows.

Regularity of sitting matters. One little trick I've-used is to try and sit everyday, even if only for five minutes, even if only for a few seconds. It almost always turns out longer, of course, but it is a neat way around the mind's idea that "there isn't enough time now."

The tool of sitting is best used with some periods of longer practice than would at first seem to make any sense at all. Many centers provide a chance to experience long hours, even days, of sitting. (Usually broken by walking-meditation, work, rfteals, tea.) In Zen Buddhism a week-long period is called a Sesshin (mind-gathering). It is a case of quantity changing quality, of hours passing like waves through successive layers of mind. At many centers it is not necessary to be a "member" to take part in these intensive meditation periods. Use them to provide the discipline, bells, atmosphere, telephoneless quiet so hard for many of us to find at home. In Zendos (Zen meditation halls) there is often some chanting, and a style, which to a newcomer, might seem rigid. All that order, however, frees you to look right into the chaos. Another good place to experience an all-day sitting is at one of the Dharmadatu centers (see below), inspired by Trungpa, Rinpoche. The style is less formal than Zen, while following the same basic pattern of sitting and walking.

Rinzai Zen uses koan practices, in which the interview (sanzen) with the teacher plays an important part. Rinzai tends to demand a heavy commitment and training before you get to the koan. One exception to this is the Zen Master, Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who uses beginning koans especially adapted for Westerners. He seems to love to travel and holds Sesshins at various places around the country. (See Cimmaron Zen Center, below.)

Another form of intensive meditation practice is the retreat. The idea here is awesome. You just disappear. Either an apartment, a cabin, tent, cave or mountaintop are favorite spots. Cut off from entertainment and occupations you are back at the beginning. There is only one person now, and one mind, which has a way of filling all of space.

If you don't have extensive experience of meditation it's probably good to settle for no more than a week. Any longer and you need a support system, either someone to bring you supplies or a nearby, but not too near, place where you can pick them up. Tail of the Tiger, a meditation community in Vermont, provides you with cabin, stove, wood, and food for thirty-five dollars a week. They have a policy of being open to everybody; the only problem is that they are booked months in advance. If anyone knows of any other places with retreat facilities open to the public, write the Epilog. It could be a good way for a together commune to provide a needed service and make a little income.

It's good to remember in these meditation practices that body and mind become magnified. That's easy to forget when you've been on retreat for two weeks; so it might be a good idea to have someone who is relatively calm and clear stop by to see how you're doing, and remind you that you are seeing things through a high-powered microscope.

Which brings us to the teacher, guru, roshi, master. Many of us came to Buddhism in the first place because it taught a spiritual path which relied on no-one and nothing. Buddha's last words were, after all, "Everything that is conditioned passes. Be your own light." But now we find that the schools which have come West are brought here by human beings. Buddhism has always been passed along, transmitted, by one human being to another. Many of my friends find it hard to see this; as if it is somehow impure. The two poles of reaction are that it should come from 1) the gods, God, or higher forces; or, 2) be found purely by ourselves, with no outside help whatsoever. But for me the very human-ness of Buddhism is that it depends on specific people who each have their own style. This is one of the things that gives Buddhism its salty quality. It's one thing to read all those books and to space out in your own meditation— somehow it's when you run into another human being that you are shaken, grounded out of your subjective sky, and the whole process becomes more real.