I agree with what James Ford Roshi says in this post. I’m often frustrated at how many people assume that if you’re a Zen practitioner, you must also believe in various kinds of “alternative” medicine. 

If an “alternative medicine” actually works, it quickly stops being alternative. if a medicine has been “alternative” for a while, then it must be quackery.

Zen and horror: Our worst fears are always realized

What is the thing that we fear most? Some will say death, others will name other catastrophes, but it all amounts to the same thing: the loss of the certainties we cling to.

This is the heart of all that scares us, and so it is the fuel that powers every horror story. In Stephen King’s novel Pet Sematary, there is a scene so chilling that nothing that follows matches it, even though there are 300 pages left.

A boy’s dog has died, and the town drunk takes him to a certain place and tells him to bury it there. Later, the dog comes home, alive. The boy sits outside with the dog and nervously waits for his father to get home from work, wondering how he’ll react when he sees the dog. When his father gets home, he simply tells the boy, “He needs a bath, Jud. He stinks of the ground you buried him in.” And he goes inside the house.

More frightening than a burial ground that brings the dead back to life is the realization that his father knows about it, and so does everyone else in town. Things are not they way the boy always thought they were. Life and death no longer make sense. His reality has collapsed.

The reason horror novels are so enduring is that they are essentially true. However hard we try to construct, organize and control life, it never works. We fear the dark because of what we cannot see.

Zen practice is frightening because, if we really do it, it collapses our realities, and does not replace them with others. Nothing we believed turns out to be true, including any beliefs about Zen. Nothing can be held on to, including who we think we are. How much we suffer depends on how invested we are in our beliefs. Meister Eckhart wrote:

The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.

The Most Common Trap Meditators Can Get Caught In

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Zhaozhou often quoted this saying by Sengcan:
The great way is not difficult
if you just don’t pick and choose

I read a blog post by someone describing a first visit to a Buddhist meditation center. As naturally happens, the writer separated the experience into things she liked and things she didn’t. She liked stillness and silence. She didn’t like chanting. She doesn’t like altars. She didn’t like the ritual aspects. She concluded that if she pursued meditation, she would have to find her own way of doing it, presumably a way that she liked.

I think this is the most common trap we can fall into when beginning a meditative practice, and many of us continue to get stuck in it even after years and decades. For as long as it’s about you, your ideas, your preferences, you’re separate from it. You might as well just head to a bar or turn on the TV.

To get wrapped up in what “I” like or don’t like is to miss the point. The real question is, “Who is this that likes this and doesn’t like that? Who is this that likes stillness and silence but not chanting? Who is this that doesn’t like altars? Who is this that doesn’t like ritual?”

Who is this? What is this?

Robert Burns: Scottish Zen

Today is the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, and one of the great Zen poets of the West. Sadly, I haven’t managed to find any vegetarian haggis in Portland.

But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white - then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm. 

A haiku is not a poem, it is not literature; it is a hand beckoning, a door half-opened, a mirror wiped clean. It is a way of returning to nature, to our moon nature, our cherry blossom nature, our falling leaf nature, in short, to our Buddha nature. It is a way in which the cold winter rain, the swallows of evening, even the very day in its hotness, and the length of the night, become truly alive, share in our humanity, speak their own silent and expressive language.

R.H. Blyth