Bells

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On your arrival you might hear a bell sound and suddenly people around you have stopped still, stopped talking, and stopped moving. It might be the telephone ringing or the clock chiming, or the monastery bell sounding. These are our bells of mindfulness. When we hear the sound of the bell we relax our body and become aware of our breathing. We do that naturally, with enjoyment, and without solemnity or being stiffed.
Thich Nhat Hanh


by Joseph Hall

In the monastery, your days are filled with constantly ringing bells. There are bells to call you to whole hearted practice; to wake up in the morning, to go chop wood, to eat, to go to the zendo, there is even a final bell after you sit on the cushion to remind you that it’s time to actually start meditating, just in case you started off by pondering the details of your life. In the monastery, there is little in the way of verbal instructions, bells do most of the talking. Since you can argue with a solid tone, you eventually learn to surrender and see that what you needed to learn is apparent right in front of you. The bells turn out to be your most important teacher as they constantly tell us, ‘just do this, now’. The problem with trying to practice zen in the midst of an everyday life is that there are no bells. As we run about our days down the hill, it’s easy to forget that we are in the middle of the greatest revolution in Buddhism. We are doing what the Buddha’s monks didn’t plan on, which is to take Buddhism out of the monastic community and practice it everywhere we go.

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When I left Tassajara, the difference between an intentional community and the rest of the world became painfully obvious one evening as I held a brand new iPhone 5 in my hand and realized that underneath everything, there was this constant sensation of being lost. Sure, I could track all my data and keep to my schedule, but there weren’t any bells to remind me to drop the detritus of what I was doing and step fully into the next moment. Without the sound of the bell, things felt empty - and not in the zen way. That feeling, in turn, made it pretty clear that something needed to change.

Since the device in my hand had more computing power than NASA used to land a person on the moon, it seemed clear that it was time to let go of the self pity and accept that my problem was not actually the lack of bells, but my relationship to the simple calls of the world. This phone was ready to go just about everywhere I went and it could learn things, so I tapped a button and to see what it could do. I spent the rest of the day downloading apps and exploring their capabilities. By the end of the afternoon I had cobbled together a series of apps that created a structure for daily life in the world, helped me create new habits and kept me connected to my communities. Whenever possible, I set the notifications to ring a bell.

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Properly configured, the phone was enthusiastic about teaching me Zen. In the morning, it’s black and empty screen lit up and rang a bell to wake me. Throughout the morning the bells let me know when it was time to meditate, shower and eat. My breakfast was recorded on an app and calories counted, which helped me sort through the delicious choices that life on earth had to offer. Maps guided me to locations and also reminded me to practice zen driving when I left the house for work. Other apps tracked my time and even billed the clients for me, while also making sure that I heard a bell to do the mini meditations that I had intended to do throughout the day.

One thing I noticed, was that when I found myself in an unexpected conversation the sound of the bell from the phone made it easier to segue back into what I had originally intended to do.

So I started learning how to live the life of a guerrilla monk in the midst of the world. The most important thing I learned though had very little to do with the iPhone, which while it was often my teacher, was still just an object. What it taught me, was that the bells are always ringing, I just had to change my relationship to them in order to hear their message. At Tassajara, I arrived with the clear idea that the bells were my guide, and learning the sounds and inflections of each was my practice. Bell rings, you go. No problem. Down the hill though, the problem wasn’t actually the lack of bells, but there were so many bells that I was tuning them out. I was going to have to figure out the bells I needed for this constantly adapting life and to adopt them.

So here’s what I learned about bells. You always have the option of being a monk, all you need to do is decide that the world is your monastery. There are bells constantly ringing around you and it’s up to you to decide which ones you are going to align yourself with. Each bell has something deep to teach you that is only revealed when you commit yourself to it. The deepest teachings of Zen are hidden in a meditation bell and many of the secrets to a long life are intrinsically intertwined within a traffic light. You just need to make it your practice to shift when they ask you to.

Your life is filled with practice opportunities and your phone is pretty good about keeping track of the ones you don’t want to forget. It can remind you to give your wholehearted attention to things and ring bells for you.

Meditation timer apps are a good place to start. I tried a lot of them and didn’t find one I liked. Numbers going by on a timer seem to be an invitation to think about the time going by, and yet a completely motionless app can become a distraction when one wonders if it is working. Most of the good ones seem to be created by people who have some sort of method or service that they would like to sell. And finally, for zen people, we seem to notice that most of them use a Tibetan bell. All of this was enough to make me learn a programing language.

This turns out to be far easier said than done but now Pop Up has its own meditation timer app.

I can now tell you that the reason why these apps love Tibetan bells is that it’s a lot of work to get a Keisu bell to sound decent on a tiny speaker. To make it happen, you have to learn how to practice with frustration as you try to gather the images and sounds of your world and squeeze them into your pocket. What we built was a simple meditation timer app from the perspective of Zen people. There’s not much to it and it has nothing to tell you about the benefits of meditation or to track your progress. It opens to a circle and a slider so you can set set your time. Tap the screen and it’s just the circle, three keisu bells to remind you that you just created a zendo where you are, and an ink stroke slowly erases the the circle. When the screen is completely empty, the keisu rings once, just as it does at the temple. And, of course you can mute the bells or change over to a white screen just in case you prefer a black on white kanji look. You can find it for your iPhone or iPad on the App Store. Mac and Android coming soon. Ok that’s enough about the app we built…

Like I said, mediation timers are just one place to start equipping your inner temple with bells.

Monk’s have a schedule to train them and so can you. A quick trip through your calendar app and you can map out your day. Don’t forget that your phone knows where you are and this can be a conduit to deliver well timed insight. All you need to do is say, ‘Hey Siri (or Google or Alexa), remind me to take three deep breaths whenever I arrive at work,’ and you have a new strategy for walking into the office. Anything tied to a time or place is a space where you can put a bell. A quick trip through settings and you can uncover the bell tones your device was shipped with, or just leave the notification sounds as they are.

If you have take the last paragraph on with enthusiasm, you are going to notice very quickly that there is suddenly a lot more going on with your phone. Just like a real monastic, you are about to discover what every novitiate learns: these infernal bells can make a person kind of crazy. Here you are, fully immersed in something, and, out of nowhere, a notification comes in to do something else, or perhaps you are already engaged in the task and way over these constant reminders. It’s a relentlessly painful experience and every bell becomes the source of irritation. Just like the new monk, you are learning an important lesson about the futility of arguing with bells, or clocks, or calendars. If you don’t shift your relation with these things, they will start to rule your life.

It’s just a bell, a tone moving through the air. It is not a command, and it can’t force you to do anything. If you experience it as ‘someone’ coercing you against your will, this will be difficult. Fortunately, there is no reason to feel any sense of failure here, because I don’t think any monastic has ever escaped coming to a place where they are in the midst of something and wanted to curse back at the bell in rage. This is a very fortunate lesson. The problem isn’t the bell. The bell is neutral, the problem arises from all our projections, associations, and attachment to a moment which has already passed. Since the bells will never stop, the only way to escape is to change our relationship to it.

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A bell is simply a note sent from your finest self to remind you of its intentions. Now that you are in the future, it is completely up to you what you will do with the present moment. It is simply an invitation to step out of the place where you are rushing about and to let go of the moment we get lost in. It’s an opportunity to pause and enjoy the resonance of sound and the precious life that brought us to the place where we can receive this gift. At the monastery, a bell rings, monks listen to it resonate, and step into the next moment to make their choices. You too, can simply dismiss these notifications in gratitude for the music that tells you that you are on a path.

Beyond keeping time, an iron, bronze, or brass bell serves little other purpose than to teach us how to turn our life into practice opportunities; teachable moments that we create for ourselves. The most important bells are the ones that ring only in our heads. These bells can turn our challenges into places where we grow.

Any place in our lives where we struggle to do our best is a good location for a bell. This is especially true when we notice that we seem to have a patterned response that isn’t working so well. We can make a decision to set aside the desire to win an argument and shift our effort to learning how to avoid the argument. These arguments with life come in myriad forms of course, but we can arrange them in such a way that our challenges will ring a bell for us.

As a building contractor, there was a time when it seemed inconceivable that a structure could be built without a liberal application of cursing and occasional bursts of anger when additional force was required. While this is apparently standard practice in modern construction, it was not helpful in my day to day life. As I began to work with my anger, I began to notice that it sometimes arose without my knowledge, but it could be recognized by a high rate of cursing. Looking at this, I noticed there was also certain laziness involved, that I didn’t have to search for the best word to communicate something and it was also a shortcut that allowed me to inflict my emotions on others without having to explain how they arose. So, I decided to make my cursing a bell. This was simple. I resolved to stop cursing and when I heard the words come out of my mouth, to let go of the conflict I was immersed in, and examine why such a simple thing as choosing the most helpful words seemed to be out of reach. There were a lot a bells the first year and they could be frustrating. There I was, winning a ‘debate' and suddenly WTF came out of my mouth. So, now I had to apologize, concede whatever I needed to in order to deescalate the situation, and take a look at my own dang self rather than trying to gain the ground I was getting lost in. A few years later, I had forgotten what I lost in all those disagreements I surrendered, and the anger was not so strong anymore. It became a lot easier to work with people. My head seems clearer and I enjoy the sounds of people and bells.

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There are a lot of useful places for a bell. Any place where we would like to grow is a good location for a marker and there are many practices to help us wake up. When trouble comes, rather than seeing it as trouble, we can be reminded that this is a place where we can resolve to forget about our patterned behavior and exercise the best of our selves. Just like when someone says ‘Thank you’, and we say ‘You’re welcome,’ creating bells like this can turn adversity into gratitude. When we notice anger, we can resolve to make that an opportunity to do olympic level compassionate listening training. When someone tells us about a complex problem, we can ask, “how can I help?” When we recognize a topic that we tend to avoid, we can instead make it our practice to work on our curiosity and lean into it.

Whether we place them intentionally or not, there will always be bells in our life. Any place where there is a habituated response is a place where a hidden bell rings. So it seems useful to move them around a bit. It’s also useful to recognize the ones that are producing a reflexive response that isn’t so helpful. Some of the bells will be well and good where they are, but perhaps could be heard and responded to a little more fully. In the end, though, it’s not so much the sound of a bell, but how it resonates within you. That is where the beauty of a bell is revealed.

As Zen moves from the temples to the world that surrounds them, we all have to figure out a way to carry the bells with us. Zen, after all, is mostly conveyed in silence and the sound of bells resonating through it. They provide the constant reminder that every moment is and opportunity to wake up. It is up to you to figure out how to construct these bells in such a way that they can be carried with you and heard across the travels of the day. They are, after all, the music that guides us.



If you are curious about the Pop Up Zendo App, we would be grateful for your support. The button below will allow you to download it and if you were kind enough to leave a review, I would smile for the rest of the day and the rest of the world would be able to find it.


The wandering mind

The wandering mind

Zen is clear that it is not about seeking happiness. Just telling a teacher that you practice zen to get happy will usually be met with a scowl and the words, “Zen is not a method of Self Improvement.” It’s not that zen has a problem with happiness, in fact Dogen even tells us that “Zazen (sitting Zen) is the Dharma gate of ease and joy,” so it can come as a relief to know that happiness is allowed. It’s just that the Zen masters of old knew the same thing that we all learn, that trying to be happy tends to get in the way of being happy. So while we don’t any emphasis on it, it does seem to be a useful barometer to give us some insights on our practice.

Gratitude

Gratitude

Like Brother David says, we are on a journey that requires courage. So a crucial question arises - where will we find the courage to let go and truly be alive? It’s a big question and one that goes way beyond the confines of Zen or even Buddhism. Brother David is a Benedictine Monk from Austria, so if he is writing this, finding this courage seems to be a universal quest. This is so important that I am not going to write about it here since it seems that this kind of courage can only be found on the journey of your life. And it is your life.

My meditation Doesn't Seem to Be working

My meditation Doesn't Seem to Be working

When three people ask the same question in a week, it’s easy to come up with a topic for your blog.

All three were sincere about their practice and they were regular in their sitting, however in the midst of their deepened awareness each noticed that a deep intuition seemed to be arising, 
    
    “…my mediation doesn’t seem to be working.  Should I be doing something else?”  

Zen Driving

Zen Driving

On this side of the monastery walls,  it seems like people are always trying to find time and space to practice.  Between our work, family, meals and a full array of errands, we might feel fortunate to fit a morning sit in before we head out into the world in a rush.  In this moment that arises as the door closes, we might discover the greatest and most overlooked opportunity for Zen practice in our lives - the commute. 

Following the breath

Following the breath

I learned breathing from butterflies. One day I was sitting at Tassajara, and I felt in tune with the breath of everything. The trees were breathing. About twenty butterflies were sitting on hot rocks, very white hot rocks, with clean water cascading between them. The butterflies were all breathing at once, opening their wings, and I tuned them in. It was very fantastic to feel that.       
Kobun Chino Otogawa  

Building Your Home Temple

Building Your Home Temple

If you live in a home, the path to your cushion goes right through the world of myriad things.  There are notifications on our devices, children wanting to eat, every distraction does the dance of importance, and even when we do make it to the zafu, sometimes a face-licking dog seems to be siding with Mara - an ancient deity who incessantly pestered the Buddha and who’s primary motivation seems to be to keep us from meditating.  It’s at least good to know that it’s not just us.  Apparently, if there’s a deity involved in what we are going though, people have been trying to fit practice into a hectic life for a very long time…

A Mission

A Mission

Kobun Chino Otogawa came to America with a vision which he never fully articulated with words.  While Suzuki, who brought him to this country to help establish the first Zen monastery at Tassajara, had a delightful gift for translating zen into quotable English phrases, Kobun is most often described in terms of movement, grace and a sense of presence.  Zen is an embodied practice and in Japan very little of it is ever explained.  Having taught the forms of Zen at Eijeiji, and being a skilled calligrapher and kudo archer, Kobun was classically trained and adept in forms, and yet he appeared to be reluctant to perform and teach them - conscious of the fact that his way might get in the way of your way.  Instead he seemed enamored of the vision of what could arise if the seeds of Zen were to take root in new ground.  

Geography

Geography

The purpose of a fishtrap is to catch fish, and when the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words? He is the one I would like to talk to. 

Zhuangzi

 

 

The Transcendental Nature of Shoes

The Transcendental Nature of Shoes

Instead of looking inside the words in our head for meaning and chasing our emotions into an imaginary past, we can realize that our mind is actually the buildings and trees around us and hidden in them is everything we are looking for. The mind not only invents the questions, but also the answers. We live in a maze of our own making. The solution to it is nothing more than walking through a world of wonder.

Building a Structural Framework for the Breath

Building a Structural Framework for the Breath

The thing your average buddhist spends the most time on is watching the breath.  Dauntingly, this simple practice immediately becomes frustrating as the ever helpful ego steps in and tries to run the show.  The next thing you know, you are sitting there with a growing feeling of awkwardness which occasionally transforms into another feeling...growing suffocation.  From there, myriad forms of hilarity can ensue.  The ego, it turns out, is really not good at respiration.  Thus, we practice with the breath for exactly that reason.

Awareness Practice

Awareness Practice

In zazen, we seek to become develop our sense of awareness of the world around us, to open our senses to every detail, and to discover the hidden impact of our slightest actions. We do this by sitting in front of a wall and staring at it. Sometimes this works, of course, and the boundaries between ourselves and the room seem not so hard anymore. Sounds drift in from outside, and we allow them to intermingle and intertwine with our mind as they pass. As the practice period continues, this deepening awareness allows us to see, on the large scale, our connection to the earth and our role in global warming. On a smaller scale, as attendance has grown over the last several months, our practice has also deepened our ability to hear every #*%& sound in the zendo.

The American Practice Period

The American Practice Period

Long, long ago, deep within the Indian subcontinent, Siddhartha Gautama sat beneath a Bodhi tree and found something that the people who met him afterward called enlightenment.  In time, he found himself living in a place called Deer Park, surrounded by people who were calling him Buddha now, and they had come to hear him teach the things that he had learned which had brought him first to the Bodhi tree and then to Deer Park.  Before long, there were more monks than the local community could support and this fact illuminated another truth, that the time had come to send the monks out into the world.   The work of a Buddha is always larger than the place where he sits.  So, calling them together, he sent his senior monks outwards, to begin to radiate the teachings into the surrounding forests, fields, villages and towns.  Each of them had different abilities and travelled to different places and purposes, but all of them carried two instructions,  First, when the moon was full, they were to gather in groups and renew the vows that guided them along the path.  Second, when the rains came, they were to return toDeer Parkfor the duration of the monsoon season to practice together.

Wax On – Wax Off

Wax On – Wax Off

One of the disappointing things about Zen is that I always thought there was going to be more wax on – wax off.  Like most people, my idea of Zen was formed at the movies and in dormitory conversations and in the occasional buzzed hot tub speculations.  The twin pillars of  eastern philosophy were Shogun and the Karate Kid, where Arnold from Happy Days turns out to be a totally cool old Samurai dude living in LA who teaches young Daniel-san karate by making him wax his car over and over again.  Just when Daniel-san is about to quit, Mr Miyagi gives him is first karate lesson and Daniel-San discovers that he already knows how to block the attacks - it’s the same motion as putting the wax on and wiping it off.

A Pocket Buddha

A Pocket Buddha

2500 years of fascination with a single individual have cultivated fields and fields of prose and poetry, with each age and each sect adding more and more words to a body of writing larger than any library.  As Buddhism has deepened over the centuries, the number of perspectives has grown exponentially and any statement of “fact” about the Buddha can be challenged from all sides as soon as it arises.  Even if a lifetime of scholarship were endeavored to the cause, one would be hard pressed to gain a complete understanding of the facets of Buddhism in a single incarnation. Each of us, then, is left to fashion our own construction of the Buddha.  Dauntingly, this is like trying to remake a crystal vase from the shards of glass found in a dustpan.

Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind.

Hardwiring the Brain: The new science of sculpting the mind.

Within the last generation, what we thought we knew about the brain has completely overturned, as new testing devices and methods have been created to begin the process of accurately measuring and mapping the mind.  These discoveries have been nothing short of revolutionary.  While the brain is not the mind, it is the physical basis of the mind and understanding the machinery behind the curtain renders the mind trainable, not just in concept but as a physical reality.  Twenty years ago it seemed to be a scientific fact that the brain was static and the focus for brain health was on the conservation of a finite number of brain cells.  Then, just as Steve Jobs was being “permanently” removed from Apple in disgrace, nueroanatomists were beginning to direct incredibly sensitive scanners inside the cranium.  It was discovered that inside the brain, just like in the world of Apple, real genius, even what the organism is and does, is not nearly as fixed as the experts thought. What has emerged since then has been the unveiling of a brain that is regenerative, reconfigurable, and trainable.

Jedi Mind Training 101

Jedi Mind Training 101

So you’ve slogged through a little bit of practical neuroscience and you’re beginning to notice that everyone is talking about rewiring the brain which is fascinating but you’re the kind of person that would rather just get in there and do it.   This of course has always been the hallmark of a young Jedi. George Lucas didn’t just sit at his desk and make Star Wars up.   Lucas was driven to create a story that would describe the path of personal transformation, the way in which we become who we are, and how we might even transcend ourselves.  The creation of this story involved a spiritual journey of its own, and Lucas’ guide was Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist who studied the myths and religions of all times in search of their commonalities.  Campbell’s belief was that truth could be found behind the group of  metaphors which held constant across cultures.  For the film he was conceiving, Lucas chose the Japanese Samurai as his archetype.  The weapon would be the sword in the form of a light saber, the religion, Zen in form of something we would all come to recognize as The Force.

Metta Sutta

Metta Sutta

Thus the Buddhadidn’t trouble the monks with the technical details of the existence of tree spirits.Instead he went directly to the root of the problem.When we do harm to others, we become attached to consequences of our action.When we rationally determine that we have escaped the consequences, our deeper minds, often correctly, come to believe that justice, lies hidden somewhere in the world around us.Since the internal monologue has dismissed our cautions and proceeds headlong into self centered action, the mind simply communicates beyond words and as artists have done to avoid despotic censorship since the beginning of time, simply weaves the truth into the fabric of an acceptable story. If our actions are harmful, a feeling of nemesis begins to take form.