Shorter? Longer? Sittings / 3 [video]

When the usual daily sitting meditation period is suddenly extended, without any warning, there is the tendency to think that something is “longer” than usual. From the standpoint of before-thinking mind, “don’t know,” nothing could be further from the truth…

Moment has no border, no edge or boundary. So, it has no length.

(Insta-bite excerpt from the longer teaching-video, “Moment = Infinite Time”.)

Offering Flowers to the Buddha

In temple culture in Asia, as in church culture in the West, we sometimes receive flower-offerings for the temple. Someone makes a donation — a one-time donation, or an ongoing donation — which we then use in part to purchase fresh flowers at the local farmer’s market. The flowers are carefully cut and arranged. In temples, an entire art-form has been born from this tradition of good people supporting temple-work by making donations which can appear as offerings on the altar.

Every Saturday morning is the “farmer’s market” located in an old square, the Kornmarkt, a few meters from the front door of the Zen Center Regensburg. We secure these really, really fresh wild grasses and edible flowers and aromatic wild leaves which provide unbelievable salads for the rest of the week. By doing this, we support local farmers, sustainable agriculture, local economies of scale, limit our CO2 footprint, and enjoy really really clean super-fresh hearty veggies that can steam our practice forward with clear mind and clean bodies.

If we receive a “flower offering” donation, we prepare an arrangement of flowers that is picked out at the market to brighten our Dharma Room. Then, when guests come for practice during the coming week, they are greeted in the Dharma Room after a hard day of work and so much existential suffering with bright colours, and a scent which is beyond Asia’s holiest incenses!

While I was pruning the flowers, one of the residents asked, “How can we make flower offerings? Our altar doesn’t even have a Buddha on it? What are we offering to?” This is a very interesting question.

We say “flower offering” not because the flowers are “given” to something, like a “god” or a Buddha. Rather, in the moment that a person enters the Dharma Room and sees the flowers, or smells them — BOOM! — in that moment, these flowers have reflected off their Buddha-nature. That is the way a Buddha is offered flowers — BOOM!, in that instant, inside and outside become one. Perceiver and perceived are revealed as continuous reality, not separate states or objects or “things.” At the surface of the mirror, when the viewer perceives the scent or absorbs the experience of these unnameable colours, at that micro-thin layer of perception “happening,” Buddha is revealed. Buddha-nature “receives” the scent, receives the color. The tired, hectic mind might rest, if even for a nano-second, from its cares. Buddha receives the offering, and is happy.

This weekend, I cut and prepared the offering. It was nice to pare and prune each stem of flowers. An intimacy grows when we hand-pick and hand-prepare living things. The thumb-fingernail gets greened from severing excess leaves off with s sharp finger-pinch. The finger-skin is scented deeply. The gentle nature of the flower penetrates the soul, and something comes alive. Unbloomed baby-buds are given a space to earn their blossom without being crowded or choked out by the already-bursting blooms.

During the preparation, in the kitchen, Ioannis and Y put away our groceries while I sat with the flower-offering. We had Dharma discussions. They asked questions about how to convey certain teachings to beginners and friends. A buzzing bee was trying to leave the room through a glass window. Buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzzzzzzz, buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzz-buzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. It could see clearly the blue Bavarian sky, with the sun arcing up over the tile grooves across the Gasse. But it could not reach its home through a glass-concept that it could not understand. Buzzing-bouncing off the invisible glass, it wanted so much to get out through pure effort alone. But it did not have the wisdom of a 5 year-old: it cannot open the window. It does not know that this invisible-seeming glass is, in fact, an impenetrable hindrance. It will die buzzing against that glass and never make it one single new centimetre forward.

Such is our own minds. The buzzing-bee, attracted by the color and scent of these late-September flowers, came into the room, and could not return to its home. It could see infinite freedom right through that glass, but it could not get through.

Flowers are ready. We three carry the vases to the Dharma Room. We arrange them on the altar, and in front of the standing Bodhisattvas who oversee our efforts to look inside. Lighting a stick of incense, we three all step back and bow on the bare floor three times. Our Dharma Room is very happy. No-Buddha Altar is happy, too, and it bows to our Buddha-nature and says, “Thank you very much!” Our Buddha-nature says to No-Buddha Altar, “You’re welcome, Me! Have a wonderful Moment!”

[[ Photos by Do Tzong // Y. Bang ]]

If anyone wishes to make a donation for our Saturday Flower Offering, please contact the Zen Center for details: zen.center.regensburg@gmail.com. We will make an offering in your name, and the name of your family. Any monies left over will benefit the Zen Center Regensburg’s weekly salad-fund.

The Heart Sutra: a Timeless Dialogue on Emptiness

I just encountered this translation of “The Heart Sutra” by Professor Robert Thurman. It is the same matter as the one we chant in our Zen Center, but is extrapolated out from the pithy, tight chant that we do twice a day, giving a more fine-grained insight into the dynamic of this epic conversation.

I share it here because it can “fill in the blanks” for people about what is “going on” in the sutra that we chant twice daily: It is an elegant dialogue with Sariputra and Kwan Seum Bosal, as the Bodhisattva (called Avalokitesvara) comes out of a meditation period, and clearly expresses the true nature of reality: devoid of self-existent substance or separate objectness.

Heart Sutra Translation by Robert A.F. Thurman
In Sanskrit: Bhagavatī Prajñāpāramitā-hṛdaya-sūtra
In Tibetan: Chomden Dayma Sherab Parchin Nyingpo’i DoeIn
In English: Blessed Lady Buddha Transcendent Wisdom Heart Sūtra

Thus did I hear on a singular occasion. The Blessed Lord was dwelling on the Vulture Peak at Rājagṛha, together with great communities of mendicants and bodhisattvas. At that time, the Blessed Lord entranced himself in the teaching samadhi called “Illumination of the Profound.”

Just then, the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero, was realizing the profound transcendence of wisdom; and he realized that his five (bodymind) processes are void of any intrinsic reality.

Thereupon, moved by the Buddha’s power, Venerable Shāriputra addressed the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero, thus: “When a noble son wants to engage in learning the profound transcendence of wisdom, how should he practice?”

Then the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero, addressed Venerable Shāradvatiputra thus: “Shāriputra When any noble son or noble daughter wishes to engage in the practice of the profound transcendence of wisdom, he (or she) should realize it in this way: these five bodymind processes should be truly realized to be void of any intrinsic reality. Matter is voidness. Voidness is matter. Voidness is not other than matter; neither is matter other than voidness. Likewise, sensations, conceptions, mental functions, and consciousnesses are also void.

Shāriputra! Thus all things are voidness; signless, uncreated, unceased, stainless, impeccable, undecreased, and unincreased. Shāriputra! Thus, in voidness there are no matter, no sensation, no conception, no mental function, no consciousness, no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mentality, no form, no sound, no scent, no taste, no texture, no idea. There are no sense-media, from eye- to mentality-[sense-medium]; and there are no [consciousness-]media from the visual- to the mental-consciousness-medium either. There are no ignorance and no cessation of ignorance, and so on up to no old age and death and no cessation of old age and death either. Likewise there are no suffering, no origination, no cessation, no path, no intuitive wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment either.

Therefore, Shāriputra, because the bodhisattva is without attainment, she lives in reliance on transcendent wisdom; his spirit is unobscured and free of fear. Passing far beyond all confusion, she ultimately succeeds in nirvana. And all the buddhas who live in past, present, and future rely on transcendent wisdom to reach manifestly perfect buddhahood in unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.

Such being so, there is the mantra of transcendent wisdom, the mantra of great science, the unexcelled mantra, the uniquely universal mantra, the mantra that ends all suffering. It is not false and to be known as truth—the transcendent wisdom mantra—as follows (tadyathā):

[OṀ] GATEY GATEY PARAGATEY PARASAṂGATEYBODHISVĀHĀ // 3x

“Shāriputra! Thus should the bodhisattva, the great hero, learn the profound transcendence of wisdom!”

Thereupon, the Blessed Lord arose from that samadhi and applauded the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero; “Excellent! Excellent! Noble son! So it is! So it is! One should practice the profound transcendence of wisdom in just the way you have taught it, and even the transcendent buddhas will joyfully congratulate you!”

When the Blessed Lord had spoken thus, the Venerable Shāradvatiputra, the noble bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the great hero, and everyone in that audience and the whole world, with its gods, humans, titans, and fairies, rejoiced, and all applauded what the Buddha said.

Translation 2020, By Robert A.F. Thurman via the on-going Online Menla Yogic Sciences Teacher Training manual, All Rights Reserved.

The Subtle Algorithm of the Original Face

You open your Facebook account, and immediately, at the top of your feed, is a photo you posted some years ago. The photo is given back to you and you are asked if you would like to share this photo again. There is some peppy accompanying message like “A look at your friendship from 3 years ago. Would you like to share this? This will not be shown unless you share it now.” Every time I see this, I shudder. You feel it in the back of your head. The Matrix is offering to harvest some more of your battery-power through your digital plug.

I never connect with this whole “throwback”-culture birthed into our over-willing, ever-challenged attention span by social media. It is a trick and a trap dressed up as normal nostalgic reflection. I guess it started as a gimmick contrived by social media techie people to get us to rehash material we have already posted, for the express purpose of getting people who are already “connected” with us to show how their “likes” about me have changed over the intervening years, etc., thereby giving the Peeping-Tom algorithm more juicy chances to scoop up information: How often do they connect? What are the gaps in between? What does their “like” or “share” do to influence other people in the “shared” relationship? What affiliations in his network have changed, due to observable changes in interaction through this: who remains a frequent “liker,” who avoids this, and who has totally cut off interaction?

So, the data-crunchers and their AI are looking at the difference between past and present. The algorithm is hungry for fresher blood, as well. Encouraging you to send this out again (because you are always nostalgic!), it seeks to assess the quality of newer associations: the people who have become “friends” with you in the two or three years since that photo was originally posted (or the people tagged in it, or who “liked” it the first go-around) can now have it thrust under their noses — anew, thereby giving them fresh bait to react to, thereby giving the tech overlords even more information about who you are connected with, and amidst that, who you seem to be connected with closely, and to learn who you used to be connected with who you have suddenly not interacted with for some weeks or months or years, and who might also pass up a chance to “like” or “share” this throwback post that they are, in fact, tagged in. “Oh, this is how their connection changed,” the algorithm determines. “This is the distance or enhanced closeness between them.” Especially if there has been an “unfriending” in that intervening period, between people who were frequent fellow-“like”ers and sharers, this is important information about our psychology and temperament, as well. A model of our behaviour and impulses can reliably be mapped out for the advertisers to whom this data will be sold.

And so our tech watchers have devised these false-cultures to use that nuance of insight to compile predictive algorithms (and to update predictive algorithms already created about that you and every relationship that is admitted on their platform), based on these actions that either happen or don’t happen based on this “old” information that you are sharing anew, by participating in this throwback. I just have this intuitive sense that that’s what these companies are up to by offering you a chance to recycle some bait which you previously tossed out for consumption.

Several years ago, there suddenly appeared on Facebook all of these “ten-years past” photos from people alongside a new photo of their present-day self. It was this new game presented by Facebook and everyone was suddenly participating in it. It was immediately clear to me that some Silicon Valley smarty-pants had created a very ingenious (and patently manipulative) tool for getting people to refine and perfect AI systems, in particular, facial-recognition software: By an millions of individuals voluntarily posting a photo of how they “used” to look ten years ago, alongside a photo of how they look today, the photo-scanning algorithms could have an Everest-sized mountain of information for training facial-recognition softwares to make more accurate predictions of how faces change across populations, over time. Through this, such software could be reliably constructed that would need only one photo of you today (of which we share reams) in order, later, to be used in making inferences about your future-current appearance, for use with law enforcement or (if marketed to states like China) sold to nation-states that have a vested interest in knowing as much as possible about its citizenry and that citizenry’s movements and activities out in the “real” world. No one has ever told me that this is what they are doing: I have just sensed it, intuitively. It was such a sudden phenomenon, appearing one day out of the blue, where everyone seemed to be going for the bait whole-hog and doing this comparative social game, and doing it so willingly. And, again, the analysis of “likes” or “shares” or not from people who previously interacted with you, gives more insight into the ebb-and-flow of your psycho-emotional world than you would ordinarily reveal to some new friend in a bar or at a party. But you had just done that.

What an ocean of real-world data for an algorithm to play with, and nobody guarantees where the fruits of such algorithim-development flow. I was surprised to see so many really good, intelligent people pulled in by this, without even stopping for a second to consider its implications. The social media overlords had found a game familiar to our most vulnerable child-like selves — Hide-and-Seek — and had appealed to all sorts of fundamental vanities and need for self-revelation, sharing, and affiliation, to create a bait for its test-rats to enter the maze and perform some very, very revealing tasks. And they had gotten a trove of data that will be used on future populations, in contexts we have no control over. Reason No. 718 why I am glad never to have produced children into this game!

So, for these reasons (which I only feel in my gut, and have no evidence for but experience), I have never once re-shared something in this social media “throwback” function. And it is why this photo will not be posted on social media, apart from this blog, which no one looks at anyway. In any event, because I have lived some years with a much more public-facing role than most FB users, there are thousands of images out there that face-recognition softwares could have a field day using to predict my future appearance!

But today, the FB gods just slipped this photo under my nose — a throwback to something which happened here at ZCR two years ago. The ego-juicy bait was laid out there for me to “share,” to see which fish would nibble and cough up some predictive information for them to update their scary mechanics. Since I have never engaged this function before, for them, there was no wish to do it now.

And yet, I had an emotion, as all reflections on the past do, no matter how benign. This is a small group of our family here who practiced together in utter silence and don’t-know flow for three days, ending on September 18, 2018. Some of them knew nothing about one another before starting. And yet, by the conclusion of three days’ looking at their Original Face in silence, such inexpressible joy and connectedness arose as a result. People had joined from several cities in Germany, someone else had flown in from California (from Silicon Valley, actually!), from Switzerland, Greece, and Austria. Several different cultures and races and vastly different backgrounds: experienced meditators and the inexperienced, gay and straight, wealthy and (shaky), straight-arrow teetotaling and out-and-out cannabis-friendly, college-educated and only-high-school. And on the last day of retreat, during the closing “circle talk” where retreat ants break their silence and share their experiences, there were expressions of love for one another. Several described to others what a powerful example of effort was made by some them — so powerful, in one case, that one member whose inner experience in the silence — things deeply buried which were being revealed to her attention for the first time — was so overwhelming that, when she decided to leave the retreat, the sincere effort of another participant (who she had never known previously) inspired her to stay, and she ended up becoming super-clear, and feeling such eternal gratitude to that fellow retreatant that at the “circle talk” immediately preceding this picture she said, “I love you. I have never said that to someone who I just met three days ago.” And there were several similar revelations, as there often are on these sorts of intensive silent group-journeys, sometimes called “Zen retreat.”

The Original Face — how stunningly beautiful. It defies machine-learning. It has no predictive properties. It cannot be manipulated or monetised. It can be “liked” and “shared,” but it does not leave any tracks anywhere. Even the vast properties of AI cannot touch it or name it or describe it or market it. Without gender or nationality, it is never born, and never dies. And that is certainly news worth sharing.

“What did your face look like before your parents were born?” September 18, 2018. Zen Center Regensburg.

Myong Hae Sunim’s Very Special Tea

A good friend in Lithuania sent me this tea. It just arrived at the Zen Center today.

This tea is from flowers and herbs which were picked, sorted, and dried by Myong Hae Sunim in the days just before she got in that ill-fated car on August 1. They come from her mother’s garden at Sunim’s childhood home. It was her final project in the last weeks of her life — making a truly medicinal tea for her students to boost their immune systems to resist coronavirus. Sunim did not live long enough to see these herbs gathered and packaged. The project was completed by a sincere practitioner named Jordana Gonzalez, who helped Sunim’s grieving mother bring her daughter’s last service of love to fruition.

Containing peppermint, marigold, rose petals, black currant, thyme, sage, rock rose flower, linden flower, lemon balm, and raspberry leaves (among others), this is truly a pure cocktail of life prepared by a hand that no longer exists anywhere — the hand of a nun who devoted her entire short life to waking up and helping others to wake up. Now, I’m not much of a tea guy. But this is definitely something I am experiencing with a very special feeling.

Tomorrow is the 49-Day Memorial Ceremony for Sunim. There will be a very big Dharma gathering at Su Bong Zen Monastery in HK, her base-temple. At the same hour as this ceremony, our Zen Center residents and guests will enjoy together this blessed elixir with mindfulness, gratitude, even reverence — tomorrow and over the next few weeks. In the sipping of tea, we join with her generous soul and Great Vow.

Thank you, Myong Hae Sunim. (And Jordana.)