Thursday, November 3, 2011

Zen Chopsticks By Len Barrow

We here at Zen waterman have not done a Zen philosophy oriented article for a while so I thought I would have a go at it.  This article has to do with a land-based program yet we will see how the Buddhist ideas inherent in the activity could be applied to our ocean activities

Every year I run a program with a few other teachers at Roosevelt High School (RHS) on Oahu.  It’s a really beautiful project.  The students learn about compassion and kindness by proactively helping the homeless  through  the Honolulu Institute for Human Services (IHS).  The program is called RHS for IHS. The IHS is the key institution for helping the homeless on Oahu in Hawaii. 

My motivation for engaging in this program is not religious.   Despite this they come primarily from Zen Buddhist philosophy.  As we shall see in the forthcoming story, the core of Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Zen in its scope) is compassion and kindness for others.  The motivation to help others is the natural outcome of meditation and paying attention.  This sounds weird but we shall explore this phenomena  later in this article.

Here is another unusual fact about the Zen practice.  According to the great Masters of old; without the motivation of compassion for others (Bodhichitta) focused in your practice, Zen is worse than poisonous garbage.   In fact Zen done in self-interest is called “Zen sickness” in which one turns into a “hungry ghost clinging desperately to grasses and reeds”  by the old masters.   Trust me, you don’t want to be a hungry ghost!

 I therefore try my best to steer away from my ego in the water and on land.  It is the most difficult thing that I have ever tried to do.  Despite this, social projects based on others well-being help me along the rugged Zen road.

As we were developing the program with my fellow teachers a question arose:    How the hell do we get self-centered, arrogant modern teenagers to engage in compassionate social action?”.  It was almost impossible to do it with adults and must surely be harder with teenagers given their egoism and our culture of selfishness.

We came up with a solution.  I would give them a little Zen parable (among other things).  This story worked extremely well in getting the students to have compassion for others.  If a fourteen-year-old high school student can understand this to the point that they take social action, we as adults should be able to comprehend this mythology and take social action also.  The “myth” goes something like this:

One day long ago a man was practicing Zen and managed to attain enlightenment.    His insight was so great that it allowed him to visit heaven and hell.  The man decided that he would visit hell first.  As he entered the hell realm he was surprised at what he saw.  There was a great rectangular table that was twenty feet long and a number of feet wide.  There were ten people seated on one side of the table and ten people seated on the other side of the table.  On the table were luxurious foods and the finest beverages that the lands could offer.  Saphron and ambrosia scents wafted through the air.  Well the monk was quite impressed.  He stated “jee wiz, well hell is not that bad after all”.   His thoughts were suddenly interrupted when he saw intense anger and frustration on everyone’s contorted faces.  He quickly realized that the people were frustrated as they  could not eat their food as their chopstiks were over three feet long!  They could only look at it and they were extremely hungry, angry and sad.  Hence, the hell dwellers  spent their days yelling at each other and blaming the person opposite them for their predicament.

The monk asked the folks in Hell “how long have you been here?”.  One individual viciously spat back and said, we have been like this for ten Kalpas!……(In Sanskrit:  literally 10,000,000,000,000 trillion years!).  The monk was aghast!  He thought that hell was a really messed up place.  The monk wondered what force could curse people to such a grim place?  He hastened to get out of hell and go to heaven.

The monk then visited heaven.  To his surprise he saw the same exact things that he saw in hell!   There was a great rectangular table that was twenty feet long and a number of feet wide.  There were also ten people seated on one side of the table and ten people on the other side of the table.   To his amazement the people had great expressions of happiness and joy.  In fact in their demeanor,  the monk noticed a great serenity and calmness.   The monk was perplexed as he saw that the occupants of heaven had the same three foot chopsticks!   

The monk sat and watched the occupants of Heaven do something miraculous yet so simple.  The heaven dwellers would use their huge chopsticks to pick up food from the other side of the table and HELP feed the other out of compassion and kindness.  This act was kindly reciprocated by the person on the other side of the table and all were well fed, utterly content and wonderfully happy.  The monk attained a deeper enlightenment when he saw this.   He thought  “To help another through compassion are the keys of enlightenment”.   The monk also thought to himself that those in hell are in hell for the sole fact that they don’t help each other.

The monk reflected “how amazing it is that Heaven and Hell are exactly the same place”.  He went back to his life with the conviction to be  kind and compassionate to all beings with a will to help all.  The monk lived happily ever after.

Well what does this have to do with the surf?  I have another quick little story showing how you can apply the “Zen Chopsticks” spirit to the surf.  I saw two beginners a few months ago floating around at Ala-Moana.   Everyone in the surf was talking like “oh great,  these people are just going to get in the way”.  The locals were getting very frustrated and flustered at the novices.   In a way they were creating their own hell by not helping them. 

I am lucky because I am a teacher at heart and I asked the surfers if they wanted to catch waves.    They heartily agreed and I positioned them to catch a swell.  As each beginner caught waves they became very happy.  Happiness is contagious.  I was laughing my head off as they caught long rides while expressing gigantic smiles on their faces.  It brought me back to a time when I was a beginner.  This period was marked by pure stoke.  I was so happy and conversely they were surf stoked.  We have become wonderful friends since.

The point being, by helping others I was creating a heaven out of a hell!   Mind you, in Zen, Heaven and Hell are the same place.   In this philosophy,  it is to the extent  that you are compassionate and helpful that shape what world you are in.  If you are a jerk to people, welcome to Hell.  If you are GENUINELY  compassionate and helpful, welcome to heaven.  Can you now see that  this is so?   It is really that simple.  If 120 fourteen-year-old students at Roosevelt High School can understand this and take social action with the homeless (they raised over 2,000 dollars and 2 TONS of canned goods), I hope we as mature adults can grasp this wonderful phenomena.

In this world of hyper-capitalism,  ultra-violent video games, and pure narcissism,  people wonder why they are so miserable despite having the luxuries of modern materialistic life.   The answer is elementary.    Quite simply they don’t choose to help others.   Sometimes I am amazed at the behavior of some Americans (like myself).  I am not a saint but it is my professional Anthropological opinion that it is almost  ” hip” to not care for others  in America.  It is cool to flaunt your selfishness.  If you don’t believe me “just turn on your t.v.” and flip through the channels.  You may also choose to play your child’s video games, where you can literally shoot prostitutes after copulating with them (Grand Theft Auto) and bayonet enemy soldiers in the face (while getting points for it!?).  Has not caring become part of our culture?  

If it is we are in trouble.   In a Zen view,  not caring and being selfish will only lead a person to exist in a hell realm as a hungry ghost clings to brushes and weeds.  When people don’t care about the environment and trash mother earth we get global warming and the like which is already affecting our happiness.  In a way we have all collectively created a type of hell.   When people don’t care about the social environment and others  well-being you get social abuses like homelessness, war, violence in the ocean,  spousal abuse, elderly abuse and child abuse.  Again these are types of hells which we have collectively allowed to be created.  If you want to understand the universe,  just look in the mirror.

A question arises:  where do you stand?  Are you truly happy or frustrated?  If you are not content , maybe moving outside of yourself to help strangers may be a solution to your sadness.  It is not that hard to do once you get started. 

In short, just spread da Aloha!!!!

Thanks to all the RHS teachers who developed this program. You are all bodhisattvas (Buddhist compassion super- saints) and you don’t even know it!  That’s you Mr. Kim da surfa.   Cheeeee haaaaa.

Aloha Len Barrow

Occasional Letters:  Nov 1, 2011

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