What am I? How many of us take time to ask that question in a serious vein and take time, lots of time, to investigate what we experience when we ask that question of ourselves?
Zen practitioners will sit quietly for hours and days and weeks doing just that. According to Zen Master Bon Soeng, they do that to be ALIVE in the fullest sense of what that means, vibrantly awake to the present moment. “What am I?” is not the only question, but it is at the core of many questions that have no rational answer that foster deep shifts in consciousness through meditation.
Born into a Jewish family, Jeff Kitzes, found himself alienated from the culture in which he grew up and was drawn to meditation at an early age. On a journey in search of Don Juan (the hero of the fiction/non-fiction books of Carlos Castaneda), he found himself at a zen monastery in Mendocino, California and then at a retreat with Korean Zen Master, Seung Sahn of the Kwan Um school of Zen. He says that when he first saw Seung Sahn, he saw someone alive in a way he had never experienced; he became his student for life.
After years of practice, Jeff was initiated as a Zen Master and given the name Bon Soeng. He has been the leader and primary teacher of Empty Gate Zen Center. Empty Gate has a home in Berkeley, CA, a center in Boise, ID and offers teachings online. See https://www.emptygatezen.com/. Many of Bon Soeng’s dharma talks (Buddhist teachings) are posted on YouTube and can be found through Empty Gate website.
In my conversation with Bon Soeng, he reveals a very open attitude as to the activities of his students. Aware that many spiritual teachers have abused their power, he is very much committed to individuals having free choice over their own lives,. This includes the use of psychedelics and cannabis which he feels is an individual choice and, in fact, may be of benefit to their lives and Zen practice.
Bon Soeng says that his lineage is committed to the Bodhisattva path, committing ones life to the benefit of all sentient beings. His students find their own way of understanding that and taking actions as they find themselves directed from within through their practice.
I just posted my YouTube and Podcast conversation with Bon Soeng. Please check either out here to hear the inspiring journey to the Zen path of awakening.
You can watch many of his wide ranging Dharma Talks at https://www.emptygatezen.com
After our zoom conversation, it occurred to me that I hadn’t asked a very important question. Essentially it is “how does meditating, Zen or otherwise, develop a person who behaves ethically?” Do we just assume that “being more alive or awake” would lead people to behave with each other and the Earth in a healthy or “good” way?
I ran the question by Bon Soeng and this was his response. Being that we are friends, this will lead to many more conversations.
Ethics have obviously changed over the Millenia. Zen arose in China between 500-700 AD. Indian meditation was practiced well before the Buddha ever appeared and Taoist meditation predates Buddhism in China. The ethics of those places in those times were very different than ours. One of Trump’s main nuclear arms advisors was a Buddhist chaplain. During WWII the Japanese Zen establishment sided with the government in their war effort. Many monks in Burma rose up to exile the Rohingya from their territory. And, many monks in Burma rose up to join the democracy movement.
So, I can’t really say that meditation and practice will lead to a particular standard of ethics. Rather, I think culture drives the particular standard of ethics for a society. In modern America it is mostly white left wing types who seem to be drawn to Buddhism and Zen. I suspect the “left-wing” values are more important in the creation of modern American Buddhist convert sanghas than the ethics espoused by Buddha more than 2500 years ago. We have found voice in Buddhism to values we hold dearly. Care for others, compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity, service, and non-materialism are parts of Buddhist teachings. They resonate for us, so we like it. Just like any pick and choose practitioner of religion, most of us ignore the parts of the teachings that we don’t relate to or agree with, like the confucian views of hierarchy and fidelity to family and country (which my teacher espoused).
My Zen tradition is based on the Bodhisattva way. That way is service to all beings. Zen Master Seung Sahn said: “For me, suffering appears. For all beings, no suffering.” To focus on the welfare of others is the practice of uprooting self-centeredness. Self-centeredness is the great mistake. When “I” becomes the most important thing, we all suffer. To live the Bodhisattva way is to practice. It is the playing field of our life. If we truly take up this vow, we dedicate our lives to the healing and growth of the whole in each and every moment of our life. A life lived from this vow can become a life which benefits all sentient and non-sentient things. This is meditation in action in our daily life.
One more point. When we practice a meditation which focuses on What am I? we learn about ourselves and become more aware of our actions and the conditions that lead to those actions. This awareness can grow into wisdom, which allows us to act in less unconscious and hurtful ways. We act out of our psychological blindness less and in that way bring healing to the world. So, our practice directly impacts the wellbeing of others. Whether that extends to systemic issues is less clear to me.
I hope these thoughts help. I am very interested in the questions that have arisen for you and look forward to the challenging conversation we could have in looking in to those questions.”