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Beginner stuff
Answer
1/28/12 12:18 PM
I've a few questions that some of you vets can probably nail very fast. First, three pieces of context setting:
  • Although I'm interested in the Mahasi Sayadaw tradition (and perhaps specifically the stuff Daniel Ingram has written about), at the moment the only local meditation center I can find is Zen (soto). Now to my beginner's eyes, meditation is meditation is meditation, and the chanting and stuff they do is at worst just superfluous cultural fluff that won't do any harm. So my working hypothesis is, just get on down there and practice. So I've been doing that for almost two weeks, attending one or two zazen (although see question 3) sessions a day.
  • Presumably it's not too heretical to say that one implication of Ingram's stuff is that some of the more traditional forms of Buddhism may not be as "effective" (for want of a more vague word) than others. Surely that's exactly what his book is trying to deal with?
  • I have a bad back and when meditating I sit in a chair, following the guidance given by the local zen folk

So, questions:

  1. *Is* zen an effective approach in the short term, at least when I'm a beginner?
  2. Is it effective in the long term? (If so, maybe I should just forget about the Mahasi thing and stick with Zen)
  3. According to Brad Warner, meditating in a chair is simply not zazen. Is he right? Should I care? Is zen simply impossible for me?
  4. If any of the above mean that I should not be pursuing zen, is it possible to follow the Mahasi tradition in the absence of a Mahasi teacher in my area? How?


thanks.

RE: Beginner stuff
Answer
1/28/12 12:39 PM as a reply to Johnny Froth.
I'm sure you'll get more answers but in the meantime here are mine, offered loosely as always:

Does zazen work?

Well, as a rule of thumb, the more unstructured the approach, the more explicitly developed your concentration needs to be to get anywhere with it. I've not been a Mahasi noter, but from what I gather from friends who've used that technique, the beauty of it is that concentration will develop naturally to some extent just by focusing on the technique of noting. Noting, if it works for you, seems to be great in that it provides instant feedback as to whether you are practicing (if you're noting you're practicing) as well as cutting through the confusion that can arise in less structured practice (what should I be doing? oh yeah, "noting: confusion about what I should be doing"). That said, with a degree of calm abiding in which the arising and passing of thoughts can happen freely as just one of six sense fields without pulling you into the stories/content of those thoughts, then a more unstructured bare awareness practice can be just as effective as anything else, although maybe in a different way.

Chair or sitting:

Seriously, don't worry about it. Brad's 100% right and he's also 100% wrong. Don't worry about it ;-) Totally doesn't matter IMO.

Following Mahasi tradition:

Read MCTB, practice accordingly, get a practice thread going here and you will get lots of helpful feedback.

Good luck ;-)

RE: Beginner stuff
Answer
1/28/12 12:48 PM as a reply to . Jake ..
Re Chairs

I don't have experience of Zen or noting but I can tell you that Jake is spot on. You can do meditation in any of the four positions (standing, walking, sitting or lying down) - personally I like to use a meditation stool when sitting, but mostly my bed (or the sofa!). You're training the mind, not the body.

RE: Beginner stuff
Answer
1/28/12 1:54 PM as a reply to Bagpuss The Gnome.
I've done a lot of zen practice and it has been great.

anapanasati (breath watching) is incredible practice, so is koan training, zazen, shiken-taza, etc.

especially chanting. When chanting, keep your focus on the sound of your own voice, the vibrating of your vocal chords. Do not permit your mind to wander. Its not just 'cultural fluff', it is excellent practice handed down for 1000s of years because it yields results.

It would be good to know the differences between soto zen and other teachings before you get too 'deep', so to speak.

Soto zen differs from rinzai zen in that the 'enlightenment experience' is deemphasized.

In fact, many soto/kwan-um zen schools deny there is a difference between pre-awakening and post-awakening life.

Heart sutra: no cessations, no path, no attainments nothing to attain.


This is different than sayadaw/ingram, who put a premium on stream-entry / path-moment.

That being said, go and meditate as much as you can! Do not fret the tradition! most, if not all sanghas have much to share, and there's a reason why zen proliferated all the way to america.

remember the canonical advice when getting caught up in 'this' buddhism vs 'that' buddhism:

they are all just fingers pointing at the same moon.

comment on bad back:

I too have a bad back (disc problems).... I used to meditate in a chair. Now I use a cushion. After you get past the first month or two, developing the correct muscles and attuning to discomfort, there is no position more stable for your spine than formal zazen posture. If it is only ~30 minutes a sit, you won't do any real damage to your back. Unless your doc says otherwise, my advice is to tough it out; it WILL get better.

oh... and just because you are at a zen center doesn't mean you can't practice mahasi noting.

How, you asked? NOTE EVERYTHING.

RE: Beginner stuff
Answer
1/28/12 7:43 PM as a reply to Johnny Froth.
Johnny Froth:
  • According to Brad Warner, meditating in a chair is simply not zazen. Is he right? Should I care? Is zen simply impossible for me? thanks.


  • If you need to sit in a chair, then by all means do so. In some Zen centers they can be very rigid about the sitting/posutre ascpect of it. When I first got interested in mediation and Zen back in the late 80s, I kept forcing my right knee down where it would not easily go until I needed orthroscopic surgury. I've mediated in a chair ever since. I still have problems with said knee from time to time.

    Old Zen saying: "Pain in the knees is the taste of Zen". . . what an understatement..

    RE: Beginner stuff
    Answer
    1/30/12 9:34 AM as a reply to m m a.
    m m a:
    When chanting, keep your focus on the sound of your own voice, the vibrating of your vocal chords. Do not permit your mind to wander.


    Cool, thanks.

    And what about soji (temple cleaning)? (I was brushing mats this morning, and I was trying to do it "mindfully", but I'm not really sure what that means, if it's the right approach, and how to do it if it is.)

    RE: Beginner stuff
    Answer
    1/30/12 11:26 AM as a reply to Johnny Froth.
    Johnny Froth:
    ...at the moment the only local meditation center I can find is [something other than this cool thing I have been reading about elsewhere].


    Brother, you are so not alone! Anywhere in the world, surely we can give enormous benefit-of-the-doubt to any group of people who care enough about any of the kinds of things we might care about (personal improvement, attaining enlightenment, eradicating suffering, finding God, helping others...) to have gone to the effort to establish and run a meditation centre, and to welcome newcomers and/or outsiders to sit and/or play with them. And then we start to notice the details. I am starting to think that this might be like a parable for the entire "waking up" game.

    Johnny Froth:
    Now to my beginner's eyes, meditation is meditation is meditation, and the chanting and stuff they do is at worst just superfluous cultural fluff that won't do any harm.


    As others have already commented, yes and no. At the very least, meditation is either concentration
    (samatha) or insight (vipassana) -- or some "jhanic" both/together fusion -- and the distinctions resolve into a panoramic spectrum including that particular band of the spectrum wherein meditators, if asked, deny that they are meditating at all. People are funny, including, dare I say, you and me.

    As for the chanting, some people think that the actual "vibrations" of the chanting have some special quasi-magical beneficial qualities; others think that the experience of the chanting offers an opportunity to meditate with an awareness of the vocalization; yet others think that the content of the chants themselves is helpful (notwithstanding that it is all in some incomprehensible foreign and/or ancient language). Personally, I find chanting beautiful but not while I am trying to meditate, thank you very much. I am leaving in two days for a 10-day course where there is some chanting in the mornings; I intend to meditate elsewhere and am very grateful that it is optional.

    I believe that "cultural fluff" is generally misunderstood. The greatest need of any human being is to make sense of the world, but not everybody's way of doing so will make sense to everybody else. Their quasi-religious, trance-inducing, meaning-soaked, highly formalized, and rather sacred behaviour may be "fluff" to you. Your critically analytic, Internet-searching, borderline-irreverent, skeptical enthusiasm... well, for all you know they might have an entire technical vocabulary to describe that from their point of view.

    Meanwhile, sitting with others is extremely helpful for all kinds of reasons which at least include the obvious ones having to do with motivation, structure, discipline, and stamina.

    And just to validate what you said, yes it makes less difference to a beginner where they start or how they try to proceed. However, I don't get the impression from the energy that you are pouring into this that you are going to remain any kind of utter "beginner" for very long.

    Johnny Froth:
    I have a bad back and when meditating I sit in a chair...


    I have given this question an enormous amount of consideration. My back is fine, but I am six and a half feet tall and my knees are delicate. When I started meditating ten years ago my options were limited for quite some time. I too used a chair until I made a custom bench for myself. Over many years, I have trained myself gradually to be able to sit, as I now can, on a cushion in a "normal" lotus. Along the way I have developed a fully adjustable meditation bench which I imagined would be useful for people in exactly your situation, although I have not developed the business or brought the DanaBench to market. I am now ambivalent about whether doing so would be genuinely helpful, or whether it would just give people one more consumer product to screw around with and project their blame onto instead of doing a few 10's or a hundred or two hundred hours of disciplined and focused training.

    My point is that lot of people start out sitting in chairs, and many of them (like me) do progress to sitting much like "everybody else" with time and practice. If this is your path, then just sit any way you can, log lots and lots of "cushion" time, keep asking questions, accept what is offered that is helpful, help others along the way if you can, and enjoy the ride!

    RE: Beginner stuff
    Answer
    1/30/12 12:26 PM as a reply to Johnny Froth.
    Johnny Froth:
    ...the chanting and stuff they do is at worst just superfluous cultural fluff that won't do any harm.

    Just for the record, since a few people seem to be taking minor offense, in the above, the phrase "at worst" was carefully chosen, and is operative.

    RE: Beginner stuff
    Answer
    1/30/12 1:16 PM as a reply to Tarver .
     Tarver :
    Johnny Froth:
    Now to my beginner's eyes, meditation is meditation is meditation, and the chanting and stuff they do is at worst just superfluous cultural fluff that won't do any harm.


    As others have already commented, yes and no.

    Just to push back a *tiny* bit, but I do want to be clear that I was describing not what meditation is, but how it appears to me as a beginner. And as such there's no "yes and no" about it. I may be a beginner in meditation, but I am the world's leading expert on how things appear to me. (I think you got that but I just want to be clear.) And there's the same scope for misunderstanding here:

     Tarver :
    Their quasi-religious, trance-inducing, meaning-soaked, highly formalized, and rather sacred behaviour may be "fluff" to you.

    It's actually *not* fluff to me. In fact I don't know what to make of it, so I do it, respectfully, for now.

    Look, a primary part of my rambling ranting questioning is this. Ingram claims that this stuff has real and powerful effects. He also claims that it has a dark side about which one should take care. My working hypothesis is that he is right and I'm tentatively feeling my way by guiding my nascent practice in the directions he provides.

    In that context -- i.e. I am taking the man very seriously -- I am alert for dangers. So my point about the chanting was not to denigrate it, but rather to say that precisely because is *at worst* fluff, it must be relatively safe. In other words, whatever it is, I am reasonably confident it is not some kind of demon-summoning spell which will result in me being chewed up by a 125th level Efreet emoticon That, I assume you would agree, *would* be worse than cultural fluff.

     Tarver :
    Your ... borderline-irreverent, skeptical enthusiasm... well, for all you know they might have an entire technical vocabulary to describe that from their point of view.

    Indeed. But it bears saying that many of the problems of our world stem from insufficient skepticism and far far too much reverence being paid to things and non-innocent people that just don't merit it. I feel bad if I actually upset or harm an innocent person. But upsetting ideas and beliefs? I think one of the best things we can do to ideas and beliefs, especially the ones we care for, is try to upset them. As John Stuart Mill said:

    However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.

     Tarver :
    And just to validate what you said, yes it makes less difference to a beginner where they start or how they try to proceed. However, I don't get the impression from the energy that you are pouring into this that you are going to remain any kind of utter "beginner" for very long.

    Well we'll see. I blogged this morning that in an analogy with weight training I feel as if for the past two weeks my main effort has been simply to avoid banging myself on the nose with the bar. Today I felt for the first time like I was able at least to hold the thing horizontally, and knock out a couple of bench presses. But I'm still working with the bar alone. Maybe I'll soon be able to slap on some 5lb discs and try those.

    RE: Beginner stuff
    Answer
    1/30/12 2:25 PM as a reply to Johnny Froth.
    There is a passage in MCTB coming up soon in your syllabus that deals with the balance between wisdom and faith. I see in you a kindred spirit, much like me: heavy on the wisdom.

    There are two other passages coming up in MCTB that I would like to point out to you, at the risk of going out on a limb. The first uses the phrase "if you want to be liked" with reference specifically to arguing these kinds of analyses with Zen folk, like perhaps for example the very kind you are sitting with. Be prudent. I know you are, but still...

    The other sentence that comes to mind is, in full: "You might be astounded at how easy it is to bruise the egos in the conventional psychological sense of those who have seen through the illusion of the ego in the high dharma sense." Among other things to develop mindfulness of, here you are on the extroverted fringe of the extroverted fringe, quoting Mill. You say: "I feel bad if I actually upset or harm an innocent person. But upsetting ideas and beliefs?" A lot of people, perhaps most people, including some otherwise rather enlightened people, sometimes have trouble distinguishing their ideas and beliefs from themselves.

    And one final word apropos the chanting (which, be it established, neither of us is denigrating): I used to sit with the local Shambhala community, one group of which concluded their sittings with an invocation that included a line to the effect of "cutting the aortas of perverters of the dharma" -- and this in plain English. I just never got the hang of it.

    RE: Beginner stuff
    Answer
    1/30/12 3:33 PM as a reply to Tarver .
     Tarver :
    ...the balance between wisdom and faith

    Unfortunately almost 40 years of Christianity, the latter half of that of the dogmatic "born again" kind has not left me looking very kindly on "faith".

     Tarver :
    I see in you a kindred spirit, much like me: heavy on the wisdom.

    I'm certainly heavy on the thinking-about-things; not so sure about the wisdom. It's a minor worry to be honest. On the way back from zazen this morning I was listening to a BuddhistGeeks podcast from Daniel Ingram and Hokai Sobol. One of them talked about how some people are just slow learners (but the implication being, that's fine, although progress will take longer). I've never been a slow learner in my life -- but I'm wondering if that means I may well be when it comes to practice. Maybe it's just very much harder to still the scientifically trained[1] mind than others?

     Tarver :

    There are two other passages coming up in MCTB that I would like to point out to you, at the risk of going out on a limb. The first uses the phrase "if you want to be liked" with reference specifically to arguing these kinds of analyses with Zen folk, like perhaps for example the very kind you are sitting with. Be prudent. I know you are, but still...


    It's good advice. In fact, one of the reasons I'm asking these questions here and not simply talking to the local zen folk is that I'm not sure I'd be able to ask without offending them (my problem, not theirs). I get the feeling people are a bit more robust around here emoticon


    [1] Or, rather, the argumentative contrarian. I'm sure there are scientists of great ability and achievement in practice.

    RE: Beginner stuff
    Answer
    1/30/12 5:53 PM as a reply to Johnny Froth.
    Johnny Froth:
     Tarver :
    ...the balance between wisdom and faith

    Unfortunately almost 40 years of Christianity, the latter half of that of the dogmatic "born again" kind has not left me looking very kindly on "faith".



    It depends on how you define faith; in the context you cite I have similar feelings. As Tarver suggested, see MCTB as it handles this very well.

    Ken McCloud, a teacher who has been really successful at giving this stuff a useful, practical western context (especially the vajrayana stuff) defined faith as the willingness to be open to whatever arises in ones practice; that works well for me.

    Eric