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Right: The old Chinese character for empty shows water on the left and a box with a line through it, representing the idea "middle"

Levels of Zen

Zen Ideas

Who Am I?
When you think of yourself, you feel like a separate, permanent thing.  Actually "self" is a thing that is in five parts and constantly changing.  These changes happen many times a second and cause you to see things incorrectly, which in turn causes you to make bad decisions.  The five parts that make "you" are:

1. Your body and the sense organs. These create the next part . . .

2. Sensations. Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings.

3. Conceptualization.  This is where you turn your body's raw data into ideas.  Your delusion becomes evident here.   The raw data could be perceived in many different ways.  Your existing karma Mental imprints created by the volitional thoughts and acts of a deluded mind, prejudices and feelings filter the data and cause you to have incorrect perceptions.  For example, if you are angry and someone unrelated walks in, you will quickly find fault in them regardless of their behaviour.  This is why no one wants to see the boss when they are in a bad mood.  We know that whatever we show them will not be well received regardless of its value.  The process of avoiding the boss then, is an acknowledgement that we believe people's behaviour is sometime irrational because of their inability to see things objectively.  Buddhism merely extends this idea by saying we are always deluded, on some level, by desire, anger and ignorance, so our behaviour too is inappropriate.  A popular idea in psychology is that insane people's behaviour is usually correct from the point of view of the distorted world they perceive.  This is close to the Buddhist concept.

4. Will, mental acts, or mental formations. Volition, attention, discrimination, happiness, resolve, compulsion, concentration

5. Consciousness of self.

You exist.  Don't let anyone tell you don't.  Trendy philosophers sometimes like to say nothing is real or that they don't really exist.  If someone thinks they don't exist, ask them to hurt themselves, or give you all their money.  They won't do it because they know deep down that they are real. 

On the other hand, it's true that you don't exist in a meaningful, permanent, separate way.  It is like a wave.  When a wave travels across the ocean, it appears to be a separate, moving object.  Actually it is just energy making water bump the water next to it.  Most of the water in a wave traves only a few feet.  So you could say that a wave doesn't really exist, but there is merely an energy transfer happening.  On the other hand, this information won't help if you are surfing and get dumped.  You will truly believe in the wave when you wipe out.  So what Buddhism is saying is, you exist, you are just not as separate or consistent as you thought.

Western philosophy hangs a lot on the idea, "I think, therefore I am".
Zen however says: "I think I am, therefore I become."

Why do I suffer?
This was the subject of the Buddha's first lesson after his enlightenment (sometimes called the first turning of the Dharma Wheel).  The Buddha said we suffer by wanting things we don't have and having things we don't want, by being aware from loved ones and near people we don't like.  He described many other sufferings in such way that it was clear we could never make a world where all these conditions weer just the way we like.  It was also clear that money could not solve very many of these problems.  So what causes all these problems?  Desire.  Not the desire own things or sexual desire.  These are the most commonly used meanings of the word because they are so obvious.  The desire the Buddha spoke of includes those desires, but much more.  It includes desire to see ourselves as separate from others, desire to see things in a way that makes us morally good, even desire to treasure and recite the texts and rituals of Buddhism

Unenlightened people need the teachings and rituals and should always respect the Buddha, his image and the monks.  when we are nearing enlightenment, we may lose some of these attachments, because they became hindrances, much like taking training wheels off a bike.  It is karmically dangerous to act like a Master when you are barely a student.  The Buddha likened it to crossing a river (of unenlightened delusion) using a boat (the teachings).  Once you are on the other side, you don't keep carrying the boat with you.  The key point is after you cross the river.

So suffering is caused by desire.  Then . . .

What is the Buddhist path out of desire?
To eliminate the suffering-causing desire you need to start living right.  Specifically you need the right understanding, right thought, right words, right action, right occupation, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (meditation). 

Compassion and wisdom are the centre of this.  Compassionate behaviour creates situations that allow you to develop your wisdom.  Wise beings are always compassionate, since compassion is the most logical response to the world once you see it clearly.  since compassion and wisdom support one another, it should be easy, right?  The difficulty is getting started.  We have good intentions, but we need vows to give those good intentions strength.  Even a small vow is a start.  For now though, if you want to follow the path, the most basic five are:

Not to harm or kill sentient beings
Not to steal (defined as taking something that is not given to you)
No sexual misconduct
Not to lie or engage in malicious talk
No drugs or alcohol

Some Zen newbies turn these vows into laws and debate them like a lawyer, but that's not the point.  If you want to know if it's wrong, ask yourself honestly, what was your true motivation and do you feel guilty about it.

Meditation in essential too.  You should find a good teacher for this.  A good teacher will not constantly hit you up for money.  They will explain things fairly clearly, but not necessarily completely.  They will not make big claims fro themselves. 

You should try to be a good student too.  This does not always come naturally for modern westerners.  It is good to ask questions, but they should always be polite.  If you want to question the teachers statement or qualifications, that's excellent, but should be done private.  To ask these things in front of others looks like grand standing.

If you are sure you're compatible with the Zen path, you should "Take Refuge".  This means going through a ceremony where you declare yourself a Buddhist and seek the protection of the Buddha, his teachings and the Buddhist community. 

Terminology: For those interested in the traditional names

The 5 parts of "you" are called the 5 skandhas
The 4 Noble Truths are
all sentient beings suffer,
desire causes suffering,
there is a way out of suffering,
the way to do this is the 8 fold path

Right understanding, right thought, right words, right action, right occupation, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (meditation) is the 8 fold path.

The 5 basic rules are the Five Precepts.

Refuge is called Taking Refuge in the Triple Gems (the Buddha, his teachings and the Buddhist community are referred to as the triple gems, because in ancient times, people believed gems could protect their owners from harm). 

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