I work at such an amazing place…a college that has recently been offering mindfulness classes, practices, and techniques to faculty, staff, and students alike, for personal enrichment. These are often in the form of weekly, afternoon sessions or an occasional, special lecture. As I mentioned in my last post (10 Reasons to Play in the Water), I had the opportunity to spend one of my lunch hours attending a lecture by Zen Buddhist Master Jian Hu.
I think most of us (myself included) have a very loose understanding of “Zen”…mindfulness, presence, meditation, concentration, tranquility…but how many of us have heard it explained straight from a Zen Buddhist Master? Not I! Here are some highlights of what I learned. (Let’s see if I understood it well enough that I can repeat it!) Where possible, I’ve offered links to expand on what Master Jian Hu shared.
According to Master Jian Hu, everything we know about Zen we learned from a man who lived 1500 years ago. He was an Indian prince, the third son to the king, who became interested at a young age in the teachings of the Buddha. Eventually he became a monk and travelled to China to teach. He is considered the founder of Zen Buddhism. You can read more about him here: Boddhidharma.
The Most Precious Thing in the World
Through a story of Boddhidharma and his brothers trying to value the worth of a pearl presented to a great master, we learned that the most precious thing in the world is our own minds. It is our minds that actually give value to any object. A pearl tossed aside in a jungle is not going to have value to the animals around it, while a pearl in a king’s hands may have great value, but only because of the value the king gives it. So, everything around us is inherently empty, meaning that the value changes according to the situation and what value the human mind grants it. Therefore, the most valuable, precious thing in the world is our own minds. Of course, the question becomes, if we all have the most precious thing in the world, why don’t we feel wealthy and powerful?
The reason we don’t feel wealthy and powerful is because we don’t know how to use our minds. This is where Zen comes in. Zen is the state of the mind and how you look at the world. To achieve Zen, you’ve achieved enlightenment. To achieve enlightenment, you’ve rid yourself of suffering. To rid yourself of suffering, you’ve learned how to control your mind. In essence, Zen isn’t something you believe in or not; it is using your mind to be happy and end your suffering.
Learning to Use our Minds
Meditation is one of the keys to learning to control our minds because it teaches us to stay in the present, to be aware of what we’re doing in the moment, and to do it with a calm and nonjudgmental mind. In Zen teaching, the mind is like water. The “dirt” in the water of our minds is made up of greed, anger and ignorance. And it is external circumstances that stir the water and dirt into mud. How do you clear muddy water? By being still. And this is what meditation helps us achieve. The goal is that eventually, with enough meditation and practice, our minds get still enough that we can see the “dirt”…see the things that causes us pain and suffering.
Everything is a Gift
Suffering comes in many forms. For example, people being mean to us; saying negative and hurtful things. We can’t control what others do, only how we react. What if, instead of reacting negatively, we act positively. For example, we think of everything as a gift. Master Jian Hu asked us what we do when we receive a gift we don’t like. We don’t accept it. So if someone is mean to you, first you thank them, because they have given you the opportunity to practice this principle. And then you return their gift. In other words, you choose not to accept and keep their negativity and hurtful words. You just return them with gratitude.
Everything is Incremental
Another form of suffering for many of us is stress. Many of us experience stress when we think about the past or future. But if we are being mindful and simply staying in the present, focused on what we need to do at that moment, we can reduce our stress. Another way we create stress is by continuing to think on something that causes us worry. Master Jian Hu pointed out that in Zen teaching, everything is incremental. Meaning that everything is temporary and will end. Not just relationships and lives, but thoughts too. A thought comes and then it goes. The problem, the stress and suffering, come from the fact that we keep recreating that thought. It becomes a habit. But if we can learn to control our minds, we can break that habit and let that thought…that pain, that worry, that stress…go.
Karma is the Principle of Causality. It means action. Good karma is creating a positive impact on the world; bad karma is creating suffering. You can also think of it in reverse. In order to create something you desire, create the right karma, or actions. All we need are three things to do that: 1) the awareness that we have a mind, 2) using it to learn what we need to do, and 3) reflecting on our mistakes.
Judgement is Empty
Finally Master Jian Hu told us a well-known Chinese story about an old man and his horse. (I have searched the internet for the closest rendition of the story and found it here: A Blessing in Disguise.) The moral is that there is no point in judging a situation because the value of the situation is not fixed. In other words, something we may think of as being horrible (losing a prized horse, as happens in this story) could actually be a blessing (when the horse returns with a mare, so we now have two horses!). At the same time, something we may think of as being a blessing (having a second horse to increase our wealth) may be a misfortune (when that horse slips and falls, causing our son to break his leg). And so on. The point is, there’s no point to judging because the value of a situation is not fixed but always changing.
After listening to Master Jian Hu for just an hour, my mind was on overload (in a great way!) and I had five pages of notes! Others stayed for a meditation practice led by him, but I had to return to work. Still I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from a Zen Buddhist Master, even if it was just an hour and I could only absorb a fraction. I think the parts that spoke to me most at this point in my journey were the story about the Chinese man and his horse…learning not to judge or get caught up in whether a situation is good or bad because it’s going to change anyway…and about thinking of the mind as water with the goal of trying to still it enough to identify the “dirt” that muddies it.
I know that was a lot of information! But let me know if anything jumped out at you. Or if I got anything wrong!