Next week (on Tues. Oct. 27, 2015) I’ll be in Cincinnati, Ohio as part of a presentation about the music of John Cage. In order to prepare me to talk about Cage’s relationship with Zen Buddhism, the director of the event sent me a book called Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson.
At the beginning of chapter seven Larson has this to say about Zen; “In countless Zen stories, the practitioner asks profound questions and gets no answers — throws himself against his own walls time and time again — gives up and goes off to sweep the graves of his ancestors.”
John Cage’s most famous manifestation of what he learned from Zen Buddhism is his composition 4’33”. Probably everybody knows about this composition by now. It’s the one that instructs a pianist to open the lid covering the keys and then close it and open it again two more times indicating a total of three movements, each with a different length. At the end of a total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the pianist closes the lid for the final time then exits the stage.
In this way, Cage is trying to be like a Zen Master, answering his audience’s request for music with silence.
This little koan-like move that has served Zen teachers so well for hundreds if not thousands of years is one of the easiest things in the world to figure out. There’s no need for anyone to ever throw themselves against walls and give up. It’s so simple it’s kind of pathetic how many people react to it in entirely the wrong way.
So now, at the risk of getting everyone else in the Zen teacher club pissed at me for giving the game away, I’d like to spill the whole secret.
There is no silence.
These teachers are not answering their students’ urgent questions with silence. Nor is John Cage answering his audience’s request for music with silence.
Go to YouTube and look up any performance of Cage’s 4’33”, put on some headphones, turn them up and listen. I’ll wait.
What did you hear? Was it silence?
The pianist didn’t play anything on the piano. But you weren’t listening to silence were you? Maybe the pianist shifted on her stool and made it squeak. Maybe the audience shuffled around or whispered amongst themselves. If some smart-ass made a version with the sound turned all the way off, then you no doubt heard the whirring of the fan in your computer, or your idiot neighbor on his loud motorcycle, or your own stomach gurgling, or birds or crickets chirping. What you did not hear was silence.
Zen teachers who refuse to answer their students’ questions in words are never answering with silence. It’s a way of indicating that life itself is the answer the student is searching for.
Words are useful. They can really mean a lot. Nobody should ever be dismissive about the power of words.
But words are limited. By their very nature, they limit things. An apple is an apple because it’s not an orange or a pomegranate or a quince. The word apple is limited in its scope. That’s why it works to indicate a specific fruit. But you can’t eat the word apple. The word is not the thing.
Sometimes when a question is too big for words, the best answer you can give to it is to not say anything at all. Just listen.
So if you ask a Zen teacher something and she says nothing in reply, don’t throw yourself against a wall. Listen.
Listen to the sounds around you expressing the truth that you’re seeking. Listen to the kids playing down the street. Listen to the wind rattling the leaves outside. Listen to that idiot with his stupid fucking motorcycle.
Reality is explaining itself to you right now, at this moment.
If you’re looking for a place to listen to silent answers, consider helping me and my friends in Los Angeles make a place where you can come and do that with us! Contribute to our fundraiser to make the Angel City Zen Center come alive! Every little bit helps a lot! Click here to learn more!
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October 27, 2015 Cincinnati, Ohio Concert:Nova
October 30, 2015 Canton, Ohio ZERO DEFEX at Buzz Bin
November 6-8, 2015 Mt. Baldy, CA 3-DAY RETREAT
April 23, 2016 Long Island, New York Molloy College “Spring Awakening 2016”
October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany)5-Day Retreat
Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!
Every Saturday at 9:30 there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!
Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website, dsla.info
* * *
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“Thinking about nirodha-satya, which he interpreted as “the philosophy of action,” my Zen teacher sometimes used the word evaporate — as in, when we are sincerely devoted to our action, thoughts and feelings evaporate.
Does sincere devotion to action mean doing something? Or does sincere devotion to action mean not doing anything?
There again, how about insincere devotion to action?
Answer that one, mother-“£$%&*!
Dogen taught that there should be thousands and tens of thousands of questions like these.
But setting such questions aside, for the moment, evaporate is a useful word in suggesting the disappearance of what never had any solid substance to it in the first place. “
The action is just sitting.
Thanks for the reference to the beat poets and their engagement with Buddhism.
Nice. Reminds me of a talk your old buddy Barry Magid gave a while back: What is the meaning of life? Yes, is the meaning of life.
Oops, I got all fancy and put ‘what’ in parentheses, resulting in the word disappearing instead of being highlighted as I intended. So let’s try this again:
What is the meaning of life? Yes, ‘what’ is the meaning of life
“What is the meaning of life? Yes, ‘what’ is the meaning of life”
You fixed it for Barry the first time, Buddy. Let me fix it back for you.
Yes is the meaning of life.
I once attended a concert that consisted only of Cage’s composition 4’33”.
I don’t remember anything about it at all.
I think I got it.
But that’s my “I” right now looking back; there apparently was no “I” to get anything at the time.
What was it I got out of the performance? I don’t know. I remember sitting down, being vaguely excited, anticipating something, watching the performer start to fuck around with the piano, then…
“When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.”
“When you find your way at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.”
In other words:
“One sage clarified True Mind (Reality) when he saw peach blossoms and another realized the Way when he heard the sound of tile hitting a bamboo.”
Maybe Cage is expecting the gum on the seat and the cough in the back row to do the trick, which I guess is always possible.
“Although actualized immediately, the inconceivable may not be readily apparent.”
As in: his or her legs just got up and walked out, being as they weren’t ready for that jelly.
Perhaps l will clarify True Mind selling a meatloaf…
Let’s cut the crap, clear the smoke-screen, lay bare the facts:
1) Soto Zen sits 40 minutes
2) Rinzai Zen sits 30 minutes
end of story.
With deliberate belly-breath, lordosis-kyphosis ensues, and 30 minutes becomes an age.
‘Sitting is just standing on the sit bones’, is the actual point of the fundament.
And Rinzai Zen is PURE EVIL.
“In countless Zen stories, the practitioner asks profound questions and gets no answers — throws himself against his own walls time and time again — gives up and goes off to sweep the graves of his ancestors.”
What are all those blogs comments? Aren’t they more or less answers? It seems to me that they are indeed much more answers than questions. What are questions? What are answers?
Anyone here has heard about formless questioning? Kind of a question which you simply cannot imprisoned into a fix form; into words. What is it? Or more simply What? This question What?, should eventually bring you closer and closer to a questioning without form, where one cannot stand on anything at all, where darkness and doubt will haunt you day and night.
Blogs comments, it would seems, goes entirely in the opposite direction, instead of going against our own walls, time and time again; against this formless questioning. Most blogs comments including mine, are answers; answers to questions such as ‘What could I say or write that could make me look smart, well informed, original, etc.’ John Cage 4’3” composition is an answer to one of those questions.
And then we have ‘ gives up and goes off sweep the graves of his ancestors’. This giving up is what is meant by letting go, which has now become kind of a very popular slogan: ‘Let go!’ But there are many different ways by which we can interpret this ‘giving up or letting go’, we can give up looking at a web page and go to another one (shifting our focus) we can give up a relationship (escaping dilemmas and conflicts), we can give up doing something, etc.
But could we really give up so easily on a formless questioning? I think it was Rinzai who said; no doubt, no awakening, small doubt, small awakening, big doubt, big awakening. A genuine formless questioning will simply throw you into a very deep abyss of despair, right into the darkness, into the real depth of your own being, where this sense of self will very slowly and progressively melt away. Then what?
What could ‘goes off sweeping the graves of the ancestors’ means? Sweeping off, cleaning away, isn’t this somehow letting go of all hearsay, of all knowledge, all sutras, including all those of past patriarch, in such a way as ‘ I now stand on my two feet’?
‘To lead you to an overwhelming question, Oh, do not ask ”what it is” ‘ TS Eiot
Good luck with your talk, Brad. You can hear Cage talk about what went into composing 4’33 here:
Listen to the beginning of “Q & A, Part I”
Also in Part 2 he talks a bit about how DT Suzuki presented Zen to his class.
One day I was looking for something, and as usual, it was right in front of me. So my wife yelled at me. “It’s right there!” This is really the essence of Zen. What you are looking for is already right there. This is the cypress tree in the garden; it is a dried shit stick. Just sweeping the graves of your ancestors is already the truth.
The practice of Zen is a ‘what’ practice. Someone who does this practice is a ‘what’ person.
I said to the Zen Master, “People sometimes accuse me of trying to sound like Un-mun. But I do not know this Un-mun. So I ask you, what is Un-mun’s dharma?”
He replied, “Today!.”
4’33”, the original arty-farty. Self-indulgent contrivance if you ask me. Yes, John, the silence can speak, very clever, but can you speak from the silence?
‘Course, Brad sits 25 or 30. Brad is Soto.
My good friend who is kind enough to offer me tea, when I can get up his way, sits 25; he’s a Shunryu Suzuki fan.
Antaiji sits 50, last I heard. I always wondered if that’s because they seemed to take issue with the Soto-shu, for awhile there, and they were (and are) making an extra effort to prove their authenticity. Gold Mountain, the ch’an school here in Northern California, sits 50 as far as I know, and some of the Theravadan-derived schools in the USA similarly sit 50; could be they also feel they have something to prove, I think.
Then there was the temple in China that Bill Porter visited, that sat 30-45-60-90 in rotation. Keeps the riff-raff out of the monk’s hall, I guess!
I guess I’m just interested in what I perceive to be the principal difference between Soto and Rinzai; it’s not koan-study, both schools do that. In Japan, Soto temples don’t usually offer dokusan, or at least they didn’t used to. Why would emphasizing study be more suited to a shorter period? Or am I totally wrong when I characterize the length of the sitting periods in the two schools?
I’m thinking there’s something that happens between 25 minutes and 40 minutes that Soto finds integral, and Rinzai finds superfluous.
Maybe one of Brad’s contributions here is sitting shorter periods like a Rinzai school to make zazen more inviting to Westerners, even though he’s self-professed Soto. I do find something happens after 25 minutes that seems integral, but then again I have yet to sit more than 3 days’ worth of those 40 minute periods (and I’m not drawn to Rinzai to find out if 25-minute periods would work better for me).
Anybody know how many 25-minute sittings they do in a day, in a Rinzai sesshin? Or am I just totally lost in the woods, on the length of their sittings?
“Anybody know how many 25-minute sittings they do in a day, in a Rinzai sesshin? Or am I just totally lost in the woods, on the length of their sittings?”
It’s up to the place. As far as I know, every place (Soto & Rinzai) ranges between 25 – 50 minute periods, and that can change depending on the season if they have Ango.
Are Soto folks really rigid about sitting length?
I don’t see how they can be uptight about it if it aint specified in Dogen’s Fukanzazen-ji.
I don’t know much about what, if any, doctrinaire views exist about sitting times, but it seems to me that strict rigidity in this regard wouldn’t make a lot of sense. The Sanbo Zen group I sat with for about a year in Dallas liked to sit for three 25 minute intervals separated by 5 minutes of kinhin.
From a modern perspective, it makes sense to consider the risk of deep vein thrombosis if one wishes to sit for anything longer than a half hour or so, and thirty minutes on a daily basis seems to suit me.
The late British Chan teacher, John Crook, toured Chinese monasteries a few times. The monks were often nonplussed to have a Westerner ask if he could join them. One monk thought he could discourage John by saying they began at 3 am. “I can do that,” John said. The monk explained that they sat for a period of two hours, then an hour and a half, then 45 minutes. “OK!”
John said that soon after they began sitting, he could hear someone softly snoring. It seemed to be the abbot. After about ten minutes, the abbot abruptly realized he was sleeping, and quietly went back into meditation. “That’s when I realized I was sitting with real Chan monks,” John declared.
Interesting that the length increased in the series you mentioned previously. I feel, after a rest period, your ability to concentrate diminishes with time, so you should do your longer periods earlier, as in the case of the monks above.
Sitting up to two hours is safe enough for most people, I think. It’s probably wise to condition yourself gradually. Once you enter samadhi, though, one seems capable of physically enduring stillness for very long times, up to weeks.
I agree. I’ve sat all damn day and not found it really different from 15 minutes if you fall into it and stay there. Nothing suggests time has past either way. As to “weeks” it can be years if you can drift like that. I know people will scoff, but it happens, seriously, it does.
Re: years vs. weeks — I wrote on the conservative side for credibility’s sake. Guess that’s pointless.
Don’t know exactly what happens to the body, or to “objective time,” but the importance/relevance of such things just kind of, uh, evaporates.
Somebody ‘splain this Mt. Baldy schedule to me- they’re not really sitting 1-hour and 2-hour periods, are they?
A typical Dai-sesshin schedule:
3 am wake up
3:10 formal tea
4:30 – 6:30 zazen/ sanzen
12:30 work period
12:50-2:30 zazen and showers
3:45 -5:30 zazen, sanzen
6:30 gyodo ( walking/chanting)
7:00 -9:00 zazen, sanzen
From my limited experience of the R-shu, I speculate about 10 mins of kinhin per hour factored into the ‘zazen’. A slightly brisker kinhin than Soto’s largactil shuffle.
So, not a 25-minute zazen, sounds like 50. Lookin’ like I was all wrong!- s’funny, some Zen Centers break out zazen and kinhin in the schedule and others just say “zazen”.
I know at Jikoji in the Santa Cruz mountains they are experimenting with open periods, where you have two hours and you can break it up sitting and walking any way you like.
‘A stick of incense ordinarily burns for thirty to forty minutes, a good length of time for a single sitting of zazen. Indeed, in the Zen monastery one sitting is called isshu, “one incense stick.”’
(from the “Rinzai-Obaku Zen, the Official Site of the Joint Council for Japanese Rinzai and Obaku Zen” website)
Likewise, from the “Tekishinjuku, Kyoto Kokusai Zendo” website:
“Koban: Coaster for incense sticks, which are used to determine the length of zazen.”
That’s apparently a Rinzai temple.
In Three Pillars of Zen, I believe Yasutani says the optimum time for a sitting period is forty minutes. He explains that this is the normal amount of time before the attention fatigues. When I began to meditate, I followed this dictum religiouslyp, feeling anything less was practically worthless, and anything more, wasted. In this, I caused myself needless suffering and harmed my approach to zazen. Indeed, it’s more important to sit every day, if even only for three breaths. It’s better to have a playful, friendly attitude than a samurai, grit-your-teeth determination to do it, no matter how big the pain or deep the boredom. And though Yasutani was right about the forty minutes, you can find your “second wind.”
At Pioneer Valley on Sunday’s, we used to sit with Issho-san for fifty minutes and walk for ten. Makes it easy to schedule. At Boundless Way, James Ford thought twenty-five minutes was sufficient.
Rinzai sits for the time of a joss stick? Would that be a twenty-minute stick, or a three-hour stick?
“But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
Not very long periods at all…
And each block seems like there is a dokusan (sanzen)… so there is going to be lots of activity every period… people getting up, going in and out of doors, ringing bells and whatnot.
The sittings are mostly 30 minutes with a few at 45 minutes.
No one or two hour sits. Brad hosts only zen wimps.
This must be the Mt. Baldy Zen Center’s own schedule. We rent the Mt. Baldy Zen Center but we follow a different schedule. You won’t find a sesshin of mine where people have to wake up at 3:50 am!
My guess is they do the typical 25 minute sits like other Rinzai temples but in blocks of an hour or an hour and a half.
You’re going to be near my neck of the woods (Dayton), and it doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to attend the event as of right now (that sucks!) I hope I can change things around by next Tuesday and go.
As far as I know Rinzai sits are kept short to keep people’s legs from falling asleep so they can stand up at an instant if a sword fight breaks out. This is also why they face the center of the room during meditation. In addition, their kinhins are done at a blistering pace, the reason being a fast moving target is far better than a still one. I don’t think the Soto school truly understands the risk of archery arrows and spears flying over a monastery wall during an evening meditation ambush. I don’t know what’s up with the half-dead flaccid zombie trot that passes for kinhin over in Soto land, but to me, it seems like you guys don’t even care if you get picked off or not. You can choose to live in lala land if you want to, but the world is out there my friends and it doesn’t give a damn how mindful you are.
Ninjas were trained to flick a shuriken at anything that moved in the dark. Soto kinhin evolved, like the three-toed sloth, as defence against that. Bandits, shinobi, and sundry marauding ne’er-do-wells couldn’t detect a slow-shuffling monk in their peripheral vision. They thought the temple was abandoned, and went home.
Likewise, when you face the wall for zazen, the ninja can’t see your eyeballs and he mistakes you for furniture. We call it …
Well enjoy your slow, gradual ass-whooping then. I prefer to live in the real world thank you very much.
This is the way of nature. This is the way of all things.
Meh. Wax on slow. Wax off slow.
I’m slowing down the tune
I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon
I want to get there last
It’s not because I’m old
It’s not the life I led
I always liked it slow
That’s what my momma said
I’m lacing up my shoe
But I don’t want to run
I’ll get here when I do
Don’t need no starting gun
It’s not because I’m old
It’s not what dying does
I always liked it slow
Slow is in my blood
I always liked it slow:
I never liked it fast
With you it’s got to go:
With me it’s got to last
It’s not because I’m old
It’s not because I’m dead
I always liked it slow
That’s what my momma said
All your moves are swift
All your turns are tight
Let me catch my breath
I thought we had all night
I like to take my time
I like to linger as it flies
A weekend on your lips
A lifetime in your eyes
I always liked it slow…
I’m slowing down the tune
I never liked it fast
You want to get there soon
I want to get there last
So baby let me go
You’re wanted back in town
In case they want to know
I’m just trying to slow it down
By all means, take your sweet-ass time. It’s not like the world needs you or anything.
I realized long ago, I’m pretty useless for most purposes.
Missing the edit button. And the beautiful John Cage-esque frisson of “39 undefineds and 0 seconds remaining”
Sometimes. Face to face perhaps.
But less direct routes it says, “I don’t care.”
But the “teacher”, doesn’t have any claim over the meaning because they didn’t respond.
My favourite response is, ” Talk to my secretary. “
I think when the Buddha did it, it meant he approved of a persons understanding?
To me, that silent treatment always meant “piss off.”
My other favourite Zen Master manoeuvre is “29.95$”
No reference point?
In this very moment, the Dude abides.
The Dude abides nowhere…
The Dude is not in.
It’s not easy being green.
Me On October 6 camping,
+Thought bubble (Why did I leave my pipe home)
Getting back is the hard part.
Super Adult crazy fun times.
Thanks, Shinchan Ohara and Alan Sailer, for the clarification.
I’m still confused, as to whether there is a difference in period lengths between Soto and Rinzai. I know that I originally thought Rinzai sittings were 25 minutes, 30 minutes is in that ballpark, but I can’t seem to pin it down online.
At Jikoji, they list the exact start and end times of zazen and kinhin periods during sesshin, except for the new 2 hour open periods.
I can almost tell when 30 minutes is up, and when 40 minutes is up, without a clock, by what’s going on in my body. Almost. That’s recent, maybe it will pass.
Denis Kelly, scary to hear him talk of his own disrespect for someone else’s boundaries as beneficial. I don’t think these things can ever be a one-way street, so I try to talk to myself and listen for someone else, and remind myself that the truest action is traceless.
Good luck with that, Mark. Akathisia, the bomb!
10 mins kinhin per hour: I was thinking like… troop in; sit 25; trot 5; sit 25; trot 5; sit 25; trot 10; sit 25; troop out …would be a two hour zazen period.
Dunno if there’s a rinzai/soto split – I always assumed sit lengths were at the discretion of the teacher.
Denis Kelly’s little anecdote is disturbing. Old Linji can go shaft himself with a dried shit stick.
Various things wrong with that story.
1) The guy he attacked wasn’t one of his long-time students. He was just a random stranger from a men’s group. What if he’d had a latent psychosis? What if he’d decided to go hang himself when Kelly’s actions triggered his PTSD?
2) The guy had a cold. Any shrink’ll tell you that colds are often a proxy for unexpressed grief: ‘weeping on the inside’. Left alone for a couple of days in silence, he might well have felt his emotional wounds, cried, and become a stronger person. [… or not. I wasn’t there, don’t know the guy].
3) Getting the crap scared out of you is the best cure for the common cold. Your immune system gets suppressed by the adrenaline/cortisol rush, so the symptoms go. There is no Zen miracle here.
4) In a panic situation, people will do anything to pacify the aggressor (particularly if there’s a history of abuse, which the video hints at the guy having). No wonder the poor victim sat zazen like a good boy scout for the rest of the sesshin, once Kelly had a quiet, paternalistic chat with him. Stockholm syndrome?
5) If I’m right, Kelly just blocked his victim from seeing the true nature of his suffering, and set him on a path of blindly following ‘authority’ figures out of fear of violence. Nice work, Zenji.
6) Wake up! The whole Zen-teachers-can-read-your-soul-because-they’re-so-wise thing is a crock. The whole skilful-means-includes-fucking-outrageous-behaviour thing is a crock. Encouragement sticks and 3.50am are just mediaeval Japanese S&M – and not necessary for Zen (but if you’re kinky that way, go right ahead). Soto is nearly as infected with this crap as rinzai.
Rant over. I think zen practice is a good thing, despite the above. And Brad seems like a good egg. I might endow his new temple with a few beans next time I get paid, and ride the merit wave.
Dennis Jun’Po Kelly…. Eido Shimano’s heir.
(Who know’s what such distinction is worth now – Transmission documents from a stranger on the street written in crayon would be worth more I reckon.)
I was in the beginning of my first year-long residence at Zen Mountain Monastery when Daido came back from his transmission ceremony – he was so disturbed and shocked by what he saw there at Dai Bosatsu that the told the Ad person for the Mountain Record on the spot “Take them off. We won’t advertise for them or do buisness with them ever again.”
And I’m fairly certain that we never did.
You guys are as soft as Charmin.
Charmin triple-wrapped over an iron glove. 😉
mtto, the edit option is absent without leave, over the side without a flotation device, went out for lunch and never came back- is that intentional, was there a problem with the plug-in?- curious.
The Four Great Tasks
Cambridge Day Retreats, June 2015
Enjoying this, thanks for posting.
I’m a Stephen bachelor true.
It’s like Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. The audience sits there waiting to be entertained and distracted, but the characters keep on pointing out that everyone’s in the theatre hanging around trying to distract each other! As one character says :”It’ll pass the time” another retorts “The time will pass anyway”
i listened to the youtube link and i don’t get it. Maybe i’ll have a cup of coffee and not drink it. It’s very Zeny but…i don’t get it. Brad’s explanation however, made me sort of get it. I get what Brad’s saying…and it blows my mind. the YT link though, I don’t get why everyone was so excited…were they thinking to themselves “i’m so fucking Zen, man…people will hear about me being here and say to themselves ‘Johnny is the real deal man, he’s fucking Zen…did you hear what he did!!?? it’s like this fucking orchestra who like play the song but they don’t use anything…the notes are in the silence, man” said every stoner…ever.
Have you ever really looked at your hand?
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