Sunday, April 28, 2013

SHINTO---OR LIVING MINDFULLY WITH THE KAMI

I have made something of a study of Shintō, both here in Australia as well as in Japan, and for the most part I see much to admire and like in this quite unique system of spirituality.

As is the case with Buddhism, Shintō is a religion in some of its manifestations but not others. To the extent that it is a religion, it is one that is unique and 'peculiar' to Japan, and one that primarily consists of numerous rites, customs, and festivals.

We can also say this---Shintō is not really an ‘ism’, but more of a teaching or set of teachings. Ritual, as well as the observance  of ancient festivals, ceremonial customs and sentiments, pilgrimages to old shrines, and not belief, lies at the heart of Shintō, and ritual can be very, very transformative. Never underestimate the power of religious ritual.

So, what exactly is Shintō? Well, Shintō is the authentic, primal, indigenous ('native'---although the Japanese were not the original 'natives' of Japan) spirituality of Japan with its roots stretching back to about 500 BCE. It lies at the root, and the heart, of Japanese pride and patriotism, culture, social and family structure, ethics, artistic and sporting life, and much else. Some have referred to  Shintō as both the 'soul of Japan' and the 'Japanese way of living.'


Today, there is a great deal of interest in the West in this spiritual and at times contradictory path which has no dogma or doctrine, no founder or central figure, no idols, no concept of absolute or original sin, no sacred books as such, and no mandatory precepts or commandments. Shintō, with its respect and reverence for nature---Shintō calls it ‘Great Nature’---and its acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of all things, has great relevance to the Japanese as well as non-Japanese.

If you want to appreciate the fragility and yet preciousness and here-and-now-ness of life, delve into Shintō. If you want to stay rooted in nature, and show respect, gratitude and love toward nature, indeed all living things, Shintō has something special to say to you. If you want a simple, flexible, and largely naturalistic spiritual system with no religious fundamentalism attached to it, and little theoretical speculation about the supposed afterlife, and which provides numerous opportunities in this life for personal improvement and mental cultivation (especially by stilling the mind), look into Shintō. If you want to affirm the innate goodness ('no-sin') of human beings, and are sick of religions which divide the peoples of the earth into the 'saved' (or 'chosen') and the 'unsaved' (or the 'rest'), with the latter destined---or perhaps even predestined---to go to Hell, then check out Shintō. If you want to live life to the fullest here-and-now, try Shintō. You will not be disappointed---unless your mind on matters religious and spiritual is well and truly already closed.


The word ‘Shintō’ means, variously, the ‘Way of the Kami,’ the ‘Way from the Kami,’ the ‘Way according to Kami,’ the ‘Kami-like Way,’ and the ‘Way to [the] Kami.’ By way of explanation, the Japanese of Shintō is from the Chinese word tào [dào] (as in Taoism) [modernly: Daoism], meaning, of course, the ‘Way.’ The Shin is to be read as Kami---at least where the character occurs in isolation---the meaning of which I will now proceed to discuss.

So, who or what are the kami? ‘Gods,’ we are ordinarily told, but that is not quite right. Some say ‘angels,’ ‘spirits,’ ‘souls,’ 'spirit-souls,' 'superior and extraordinary beings,' or ‘natural forces’ are better English descriptions, but none of those is quite right. Indeed, there is no one English word that encapsulates what is meant by the Japanese word kami. Indeed, it has been said that even the Japanese people themselves do not have a clear idea regarding the kami. In a narrow but very correct sense, we are talking about the supposed native and indigenous spirits of Japan, as distinct from foreign deities (eg those of Chinese Buddhism), but Shintō is no crude animism despite what you might have read or been told. (Got that?) The celebrated Shintō high priest Yukitaka Yamamoto wrote of the nature of kami in these words: 'any divine being or indeed anything in the world or beyond that can inspire in human beings a sense of its divinity and mystery.' I think that's helpful---and more than sufficient for present and other purposes. This is also helpful---it's the text of a 'Poem Revealed to Mikado Seiwa':

'If we keep unperverted the human heart, which is like unto Heaven and received from the Earth, that is God. The Gods have their abode in the heart. Amongst the various ordinances none is more excellent than that of religious meditation.'

One sensible (in my view) thing about these so-called gods, these kami, is that they are not all unfailingly just and benevolent. Indeed, some are quite nasty and cruel. Such is life, especially the workings and effects of natural forces. This, for me, makes so much more sense that trying to hold on to a concept of one omnipotent (all-powerful), omnibenevolent (all-good) God where there is so much misfortune and gratuitous suffering in our world.


Anyway, this is how I see it. The word kami is a shorthand description, a code-like word, denoting the innate sacredness or holiness of all life---something that is overwhelmingly transcendent and awe-inspiring, even if it be the extraordinary in the ordinary, and which is sensed as a result of some emotional or intuitive (as opposed to intellectual or rational) stimulus. Speaking personally, although I reject the assertion that there are higher and lower levels of reality, I have no difficulty in recognizing the transcendence, both in time and space, as well as power, of nature itself over human beings, together with our utter dependence upon nature for the continuance of our lives both physically and otherwise. In short, there is a special quality about life that is ... kami-like.

There is said in Shintō to be myriads of kami in and over all things, but collectively they are all one. Again, it is a case of the One---that is, the one life---becoming the many, but remaining forever One. We all are children or descendants of the kami, we all have the ability to get closer to the kami (particularly through Great Nature, which is the 'living scripture' in Shintō), and we all have kami nature (cf buddha nature in some forms of Buddhism), and the innate potential to not only restore our original kami nature but also actually become kami.


Now, one doesn’t have to believe in the literal truth or existence of the kami. I don’t, and I also reject those bits of Shintō that I regard as crass superstition. (I do, however, respect the right of others to see things quite differently, as many do.) For me, the use of the word kami is in the nature of a metaphor, referring, as mentioned, to the innate sacredness and holiness of life---all forms of life. If you want to cultivate your kami nature---that is, renew yourself---perhaps the best way of doing that is to revere and get closer to nature. Shintō reminds us that we all have a duty to properly manage, develop, protect, restore, enhance and conserve the natural environment.

Shintō has no theology in the Western sense, but it does have a very colourful mythology---indeed, more than one of them---to which is appended much folklore. Again, one need not believe in the literal truth or existence of the mythological hierarchy comprising myriads of superior and inferior deities that, it seems, developed out of the old ancestor-cult in Japan.

And gone---hopefully forever---is that rather nasty, grotesque, militaristic, ultra-patriotic national cult of comparatively recent but questionable provenance (namely, 'State Shintō') that was for a time the state religion of Japan. It is no longer a case of Japan being a 'divine country (kami no kuni) which excells all others' ('Oracle of the God of Atsuta'). Nor is it a case of the divine descent of the Japanese race and its [generally assumed to be] 'living god' emperor, who on that ground believed themselves to be superior to the people of other countries, as well as divinely commissioned to force the rule of the sun goddess upon the rest of the world. No, today it is the much more sensible and palatable case that all people come from the same sacred, holy source. Amaterasu, the sun goddess, is thus the mythological ancestor of us all, and not just the emperor of Japan who supposedly was her descendant and representative. Thus, Shintō now ascribes divinity---that is, basic goodness and holiness---to all human nature, not just the Japanese. (If nothing else, Shintō has always shown a remarkable ability to evolve and adapt. It's a pity so many of the world's other religions are unwilling to do the same.)


Shintō ritual and practice provide numerous and regular opportunities all designed to bring us into more conscious---and for the most part, largely spontaneous---communion with nature and the divine. It's all about connectedness---and interconnectedness. We need to cultivate purity, cleanliness, honesty, sincerity, and a reverence and respect for all forms and manifestations of life. A commitment to the all-pervading path or way of Shintō does not exclude the pursuit of other spiritual traditions and practices. As in all religions, love is the ultimate virtue. In the Shintō writing 'Oracles of the Gods of Kasuga,' one reads, 'The Lord will visit the home where love reigns. Love is the representative of the Lord.' In other words, love is divine (cf. 1 Jn 4:8).

So, how might someone who is not Japanese practice Shintō without actually being or becoming Shintō? Well, here are some suggestions---and please note that word, ‘suggestions.’ There is nothing dogmatic in Shintō. There are no 'musts.'

First, spend more time mindfully appreciating Great Nature, and do all you can to protect, restore, enhance and conserve the natural environment. The original Shintō shrines were groves of trees---how appropriate! Develop a reverential sense of the sacred (particularly in trees, plants, animals, forests, lakes, streams, mountains, and all natural matter, but also, of course, as respects your fellow human beings), and learn to live in harmony with nature, for we are not above, beyond or separate from nature as we tend to think in the West. Maintain a real, ongoing sense of awe, reverence and gratitude toward nature, recognizing the interconnectedness of all things. As Shintō teaches, we are all offspring or ‘child-spirits’ of the great original Spirit of Life to which we all ultimately return, and in which we all live and move and have our being. So, treasure the mysterious and the awesome. In the words of the great mythographer Joseph Campbell, 'Shintō, at root, is a religion not of sermons but of awe.' I like that.



Secondly, be 'clean within and without, reflecting the truth like a mirror.' Practise physical (‘outer’ or ‘bodily’) and spiritual (‘inner’) purity---that is, 'pure bodies and pure hearts'---for purification is at the heart of Shintō. We are not talking about asceticism in some narrow flesh-denying sense, nor does Shintō have any silly hang-ups about sexual orientation or behaviour. 'Cleanliness' is said to be the balance of body, mind, and soul. There is a Shintō saying, ‘To do good is to be pure. To commit evil is to be impure.’ That applies at the personal level as well as to society and the world at large. Pollution is ‘evil,’ as is anything that obstructs the workings of Great Nature. Another Shintō saying (from 'Oracle of Atago (the Fire-God)') is:

'Leave the things of this world and come to me daily and monthly with pure bodies and pure hearts. You will then enjoy paradise in this world and have all your desires accomplished.'

The emphasis in Shintō is always on removing obstacles and barriers (within ourselves, between different people, and between ourselves and nature), correcting one's own path---that is, the path that leads to purity and righteousness---and helping to return things to their natural state of purity, radiance, and, yes, godliness. Further, when we speak of purity and purification, we are concerned not just with self but also with the purity and purification of our local community and indeed the whole world, including, of course, and most especially, the natural world. But change begins with oneself. Another Shintō saying I like---this one is from 'Oracle of Tatsuta (the Wind-God)'---is this one:

'If that which is within is not bright it is useless to pray only for that which is without.'



Thirdly, strive to be happy, for Shintō encourages a cheerful and grateful way of life, and places great value on the pursuit of happiness. Use and develop your intuition and practise introspection---but not of an obsessive, self-centred kind---in order to discover the true path.

Fourthly, be sincere in all your actions. Along with purity, sincerity---of an 'open-hearted' and mindful kind---is the guiding principle of Shintō. It is written, ‘The first and surest means to enter into communion with the divine is sincerity.’ Shintō texts refer to 'the great way of single-minded uprightness.' Banish pride. 'If you desire to obtain help from the Gods, put away pride. Even a hair of pride shuts you off from the Gods as it were by a great cloud' ('Oracle of the Gods of Kasuga'). And remember also to practise gratitude and show love, for it has been said that Shintō is essentially a religion of gratitude, love---and mercy. So, if Shintō is a religion, it is certainly a very practical one.


Fifthly, respect the spiritual paths and traditions of others, for no one---and certainly no one religion---has a monopoly on the truth, despite what some misguided but highly dogmatic people would have you believe. Shintō seeks to allow each person's spiritual tradition to evolve freely. So, we are to live in conscious, mindful communion with all people, indeed with all forms and manifestations of life. There is a Shintō saying, ‘The heart of the person before you is a mirror. See there your own form.’ As already mentioned, all people have kami nature, and we ought never to place any artificial barriers---and that includes sectarian beliefs and practices---between peoples of different nations, cultures, ethnicities, and so forth. So, try always to believe the best about people. Then, more often than not, they will 'rise to the occasion.'

Sixthly, develop and maintain a mindful awareness and sense of life as a continuum, embracing the past, the present, and the future. All things---and that includes the memory of persons now departed this earthly life---continue to exist in the omnipresence of the eternal now, as part of life's self-expression. In Shintō the emphasis for the most part is not so much on the continuity of the individual life but on the continuity and flow of life itself. Shintō treasures and celebrates the truth that, though the forms of life are constantly changing, life itself is indestructible and its ceaseless movement is ever onward and 'kami-ward,' so to speak.


Seventhly, you may wish to set up at home your own little Shintō shrine (kamidana). There is plenty of good advice on the internet on how to go about that. And there are some lovely 
Shintō prayers, such as this one.

Eighthly, practise mindfulness with a choiceless acceptance of what is. In the Shintō writing 'God of Fujiyama' we read, 'Every little yielding to anxiety is a step away from the natural heart of man.' There is much wisdom in that. Our 'natural heart'---or natural state of mind---is one completely free of worry and anxiety, for such a mind (cf. our 'original face') is fully rooted and grounded in the here-and-now with no concern for what might---or might not---happen in the future. Seek the sacred and divine in life's ongoing onfoldment, that is, in the so-called ordinary and everyday. In the words of the Shintō writing 'God of a Tajima Shrine':

'When the sky is clear, and the wind hums in the fir-trees, 'tis the heart of a God who thus reveals himself.'

Finally, if you want to go further into the practice (note that word) of Shintō, locate and contact your nearest Shintō organization or practitioner, for you will now ordinarily find at least one---and sometimes, more than one---such organization or practitioner in most countries (especially the larger Western ones). If you happen to live in Japan, well, you know what to do---if you're interested. First and foremost, Shintō is a praxis. Book knowledge, intellectualism, and rationalism are never enough. Indeed, those things can deflect one from the path. The essence of kami is beyond words and reason. In the words of the noted Japanese philosopher and scholar Yamazaki Ansai, 'One should not bring reason to the explanation of Shintō.'

In summary, this is Shintō in a nutshell. Stay close to nature. Show respect and gratitude toward nature and the Spirit of Life. And learn how to grow psycho-spiritually by acquiring, developing and polishing those qualities referred to in this post that are the direct result of one's contact with and reverence toward the Spirit of Life that sustains, animates and nurtures all of life. That, dear readers, is the kami-like way.



Note. The photos of Shintō shrines and related sites and environs were all taken by the author on his various trips to Japan.




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Sunday, April 21, 2013

DON’T LET YOUR LIGHT GO OUT

Tendai is a Japanese philosophical school of Mahayana Buddhism, a descendant of the Chinese Tiantai or Lotus Sutra school.

A student of Tendai came to the Zen abode of Gasan Jōseki (1275-1365) [pictured left], a Japanese Sōtō Zen  master, as a pupil. When the pupil was departing a few years later, Gasan warned him: ‘Studying the truth speculatively is useful as a way of collecting preaching material. But remember that unless you meditate constantly your light of truth may go out.’

‘“What is truth?” [Pontius] Pilate asked’ (Jn 18:38). Well, as I see it, truth is reality---that is, what is. We can read and study all we like, but we will never find truth in a book, not even in a so-called holy book. Truth is all around us, and inside us. It is nothing less than the reality of life unfolding from one moment to the next. Strange, isn’t it? Organized religion of all sorts will try to get you to believe that truth can only be found in one place, and not another, or in one person, and not others, or only on some supposed ‘higher’ plane of being---as if there were such a thing---but that is not the case. Even The Bible makes it clear that the life of God is 'the light of all people' (Jn 1:4). That includes you and me---as well as all others. The 'life of God'---that is a metaphor---is your life, and my life ... right now!

Imagine a sponge in a bathtub filled with water. The sponge is in the water, and the water is in, and all throughout, the sponge as well. Now hear this---you are that sponge. (I mean that in the nicest possible way.) We are immersed in truth at all times---and don't let anyone tell you that is not the case, or that it is more complicated than what I've described.

Yes, every one of us has direct and immediate access to truth at all times, for we are part and parcel of truth. Call it truth, reality, Light, or God, if you will. The word we use to describe it is not that important. What is important is that we maintain our conscious awareness of life as it progressively unfolds.

Gasan referred to meditation, saying that unless we meditate constantly our light of truth may go out. The best sort of meditation is mindfulness, for it is a direct engagement with life itself as it unfolds from moment to moment. Other forms of meditation, usually involving intense concentration of some sort, are more of an escape or retreat from life. No, living mindfully is the way to go.

In a very real and profound sense, the light of truth can never go out. Life, which consists of living things living out their livingness from one moment to the next, waxes and wanes, and constantly changes form. Individuations---call them emanations or manifestations, if you like---of life come and go, even vanish from view, but life itself goes on.

How terribly sad it is that so many people---including a great number of so-called religious people---are not consciously aware of truth (life/reality/light) as it unfolds from moment to moment. Organized religion, in so many ways, is a barrier and an impediment to our conscious recognition and awareness of life/truth/reality, for it puts all sorts of obstacles in the way---especially beliefs.

Don’t let the light of truth ‘die’ on you. Don’t let your light go out---for you are the light of truth, so let that light shine in and as you!


Friday, April 19, 2013

MINDFULNESS AS THE SUSPENSION OF BOTH DISBELIEF AND BELIEF

We all know that things are not always as they appear to be.

In an earlier post I made reference to a great magician of yesteryear---Joe Stuthard (pictured left as well as below). He was one of the greatest close-up and card magicians of all times, but he also toured the world for a number of years with his large stage act. In his performing lifetime he worked in nightclubs and big vaudeville and variety theatres, at carnivals, fairs, showgrounds and circuses, in department and variety stores, and on street corners peddling and demonstrating tricks, many of which he had invented. He was such a great pitchman of magic. As a kid I would watch him for hours, mesmerized.

Joe Stuthard also performed magic on television both in the United Kingdom and Australia, where he finally settled. In fact, he was the first magician to do a gambling exposé with cards on BBC-TV. He also wrote several books and booklets on magic, a few of which (eg Stuthard’s Trilby Deck) are real collectors’ items today. 

Source: The Magigram, 24:12, August 1992, p 29

I have several of Joe's little books including Stuthard’s Svengali Subtleties, which is inscribed by the author, being ‘a book which revealed him as a master exponent of this particular deck’ (The Gen, January 1951), and Stooging Around!, which is all about working with---yes---stooges in your act. Then there’s his Easy Magic Tricks, which was the first book on magic I ever bought and read. I could go on---and I suspect I will. For a while, anyway. Sorry.


I have been thinking a fair bit about Joe Stuthard in recent times. (He died about 20 years ago, and I still miss him greatly. I like pros---that is, people who truly excell in their particular craft or profession.) Not only was it he who created in me a real interest in magic---an interest that persists to this day---but one of his magical creations, the Trilby Deck, has been re-issued recently, and it’s a real gem. For the uninitiated, the Trilby Deck is a combination Svengali Deck and Stripper Deck---assuming that means anything to you. Anyway, once whilst travelling on a train through Canada, Joe was playing with a Svengali Deck---he travelled the world performing and selling Svengalis---and a Stripper Deck, and he wondered if he could blend the two decks together. He did. Hence, the Trilby Deck and the Bi-Co Trilby Deck, the latter being a variation of the Trilby Deck, ‘Bi-Co’ standing for bi (or two) colour, a reference to the two colour backs. The Trilby Deck was, at least initially, a one colour version.

Anyway, the Trilby Deck is much more than a trick pack of cards, it is a whole gaffed deck. In addition to the two above mentioned trick decks, the Trilby Deck now being re-issued is also a colour changing pack as well. If Joe were alive today, I know he would be delighted to see his Trilby Deck available again. (By the way, it’s called ‘Trilby’ after the character and novel of that name written by George du Maurier, a book in which there is a character Svengali, who is a hypnotist.)

In general terms, magic works on a number of different levels but most involve what is known as a suspension of disbelief. When confronted with the ‘magical’ and the seemingly (and actually) impossible---say, the spectacle of a woman being sawed in half---we suspend out innate tendency to disbelief in order to enjoy what is being presented. I always feel sorry for those people---and there are a quite a few of them---who are seemingly unable to suspend disbelief for even a moment. They may be watching some slapstick on television, and all they can say is, ‘How silly! That never happens in real life.’ All very sad, really.

Now, those who are regular readers of my blog know that one of my major themes---some might say it is a ‘fetish’ of sorts---is my assertion that, in order to know, understand, and experience life as it really is, that is, as it unfolds from one moment to the next, we need to give up all---yes, all---beliefs. Beliefs are a barrier, as well as a distorting lens, between what is actually happening, externally as well as internally, and ourselves (that is, the person each one of us is).

But here’s the rub. Although we are always in direct and immediate contact and experience with things-as-they-really-are, we do not always see things-as-they-are at all. Magicians know this so very well. You may think that you see things unfolding before your very eyes as if it were all being captured by a movie camera, reproducing everything in all its detail. In fact, we tend not to see the whole picture but rather only bits and pieces, or patches. We then fill in the ‘gaps’ with memory, conjecture, prediction, expectation, and peripheral vision.

Indeed, we tend not so much to take in the whole picture but rather ‘construct’ or ‘reconstruct’ it. In my earlier blog I referred to the magician’s tool of misdirection, where the magician distracts your attention such that your attention is focused on one thing so that you don’t focus your attention on something else, where the real action (hocus pocus) is taking place. Misdirection works on the principle---and fact---that we miss things simply because we aren't looking at them. That is true in ‘real’ life as well.

Not only do we not see things that are happening before our very eyes, we can also---and this is really fascinating---see things that are not actually there at all. In magic there is a trick called the ‘vanishing ball.’ The magician throws a ball repeatedly into the air and catches it. Then, on the very last throw, the ball ‘disappears’ in mid-air. In fact, the last throw is not a throw of the ball at all. It just looks like it. We see what looks like the  upward trajectory of the ball, but the ball has been palmed by the magician. Now, if the illusion is performed masterfully, we actually ‘see’ the ball ‘rising’ into the air on the last throw and ‘vanishing’ at its apex. It’s a virtual---no, an actual---hallucination of sorts.

So, not only do we routinely not see all that there is, we can even see things that aren’t there at all.

Back to my theme. Do you want to see things-as-they-really-are? Well, give up all your beliefs and misbeliefs about life and how you think, or have been told, it should be---or supposedly is, for that matter. Yes, we need to suspend---indeed, give up, which is even better---not just disbelief but also belief, the latter referring to what we think is the case, what we think we know, what we are told is the case, and so on. We need to direct---gently, not forcibly---our ‘bare’ but intentional attention to and ‘choiceless’ awareness of the here-and-now, that is, the present moment as it unfolds from one moment to the next. Yes, we need to witness directly the nature of reality---and not just witness it, but actually experience it.

So, stop misdirecting yourself, and don’t let yourself be misdirected by others, except when it comes to entertainments and the like. Suspend---indeed, give up---both disbelief and belief.


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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

MINDFULNESS IMPROVES CHILD WELLBEING ACCORDING TO NEW BRITISH RESEARCH


Research released recently by the University of Exeter shows that a schools-based mindfulness program can aid pupils' wellbeing, with a reduction in stress still being reported 3 months after the program's completion.

The key findings from the research are as follows:
 
·         children who participated in the mindfulness in schools program reported fewer depressive systems after treatment, and also 3 months after completion of the program;
 
·         children reported lower stress and greater well-being 3 months after completion of the program;
 
·         the degree to which students practised mindfulness skills was associated with better well-being and lower stress.
 
Bright Futures Educational Trust provided a number of students from Altrincham GrammarSchool for Girls (AGGS) to form part of the sample group for the research.

The Mindfulness in Schools program, known as .b [pronounced dot-be, which stands for ‘Stop, Breathe and Be!’], gives students mindfulness as a life skill. Endorsed by the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford Brookes, the program helps students to feel happier, calmer and more fulfilled, get on better with others, concentrate and learn better, and cope with stress and anxiety.
 
Associate Principal of the Bright Futures Educational Trust, Amanda Bailey [pictured left], says:
 
Bright Futures Educational Trust is committed to innovation in improving pupil attainment, and that's why some of our students were involved in this piece of research.
 
Mindfulness teaches students how their minds work to improve concentration, manage exams effectively and help them see life more clearly through calmer modes of mind.

Mindfulness is already benefiting some of our pupils, and given the strong results of this research we will be giving students at all our schools the opportunity to try Mindfulness for themselves.

For more information about mindfulness and the results of the study, visit the site of the Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP), which is a non-profit organisation teaching secular mindfulness to pupils, teachers and parents using the .b courses.

 




Sunday, April 14, 2013

STOP MAKING EXCUSES FOR YOURSELF

It was the very illustrious Japanese Rinzai Zen master Bankei Yōtaku (1622-93) [pictured left and below right], who was posthumously honoured with the Imperial title Kokushi (‘National Master’), who said, ‘The farther you enter into the truth, the deeper it is.’

Bankei cut to the chase, rejecting the formalism that infested the Zen of his time. His catchphrase cry was, ‘Get Unborn!’ That means, get rid of all the crap that holds you back from being one with the birthless, spaceless, timeless, boundless and imageless ‘face’ of the Unborn Buddha Mind (Fu-shō), which is said to be our true, authentic and original nature [see calligraphy below].

Some spiritual systems refer to the Unborn as the ‘Self.’ I will not try to define or describe the ‘Unborn’ or the ‘Self.’ What I will say is this---think of all those hundreds and thousands of ‘little selves’ (that is, the multitudes of ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ that wax and wane from moment to moment in us). Well, the Unborn (or Self) is ‘something’---actually, in a very deep sense, ‘no-thing’---other than those false selves which we mistakenly take for the true person each one of us is.


Now, a student came to Master Bankei and complained, ‘Master, I have an ungovernable temper. How can I cure it?’

‘You have something very strange,’ replied Bankei. ‘Let me see what you have.’

‘Just now I cannot show it to you,’ replied the student.

‘When can you show it to me?’ asked Bankei.

‘It arises unexpectedly,’ replied the student.

‘Then,’ concluded Bankei, ‘it must not be your own true nature. If it were, you could show it to me at any time. When you were born you did not have it, and your parents did not give it to you. Think that over.’

We do make a helluva lot of excuses for ourselves, don’t we? We behave badly, and say, ‘Sorry, that’s just me. I can’t help it. I’ve always been that way.’ Well, that may or may not have been the way we’ve always been, but it is not the way we have to be, and in truth---I say, in truth---it is never (yes, never) the way we really are. Got that? In truth, we are not that way at all. Each of us is a person among persons, and like all persons we have choices. Yes, sometimes our range of choices is very restricted, or constricted, but we always---I repeat, always---have at least one power of choice left to us, namely, the ability to say, ‘I don’t want to be this way any longer, I want to be different, I want to be better.’ The words don’t matter. The desire for positive change does.

You and I were not born angry, sarcastic, judgmental, jealous, anxious, or whatever. We have become that way---as a result of lots and lots of decisions and choices we’ve made in response to activating events and experiences. No, it doesn’t matter---and it’s certainly no excuse---if you or I have come from a long line (say, several generations) of likeminded, similarly behaved---or misbehaved---people. We still can choose to be different. We can change---if we want change badly enough.

Yes, there is a power that makes all things---yes, all things---new. It lives and moves in those who know the Unborn Self as one.

So, no more excuses for any of us. It’s time to---Get Unborn! Now.


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Monday, April 8, 2013

MINDFULNESS IMPROVES WORKING MEMORY BY DECREASING WANDERING THOUGHTS

The question is---can mindfulness improve test scores?

Researchers in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who have been studying the relationship between mindfulness and mind-wandering, or the tendency to let our minds drift away on ‘task-unrelated thoughts,’ as it is referred to in academic literature, sought to find out.


‘We had already found that mind-wandering underlies performance on a variety of tests, including working memory capacity and intelligence,’ said Michael D Mrazek, a graduate student working with Jonathan W Schooler, a professor of psychology at the university who studies the impacts and implications of mind-wandering and mindfulness. The higher the working memory, or an individual’s ability to keep in mind chunks of information and also use them, the better students tend to perform on reading comprehension tests.

Researchers disagree about the extent to which an individual’s working memory capacity can be enhanced. But in a study published last month in the journal Psychological Science, the Santa Barbara researchers found that after a group of undergraduates went through a 2-week intensive mindfulness training program, their mind-wandering decreased and their working memory capacity improved. They also performed better on a reading comprehension test---a section from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

For the study, the researchers enrolled 48 University of California undergraduates in a study intended, they were told, to improve cognitive performance. Each student was evaluated for working memory capacity, mind-wandering and performance on a GRE reading comprehension section. Then, half the group was randomly assigned to take part in a nutrition program, in which they were educated about healthy eating and asked to keep a daily food diary.

The others took a training that resembled the standard mindfulness-based stress reduction program, which typically meets once a week for 8 sessions. In the Santa Barbara regimen, students instead met 4 days a week for 2 weeks and were not required to devote as much formal practice outside of class. But in the main, the class invoked the secular pillars of the practice, including sitting in an upright posture with legs crossed and gaze lowered, breathing exercises and ‘minimizing the distracting quality of past and future concerns by reframing them as mental projections occurring in the present.’


After 2 weeks, the students were re-evaluated for mind-wandering and working memory capacity and given another version of the GRE reading comprehension section.

Now, the results. The nutrition group’s results did not change. However, as respects the group that took mindfulness training, their minds wandered less and they performed better on tests of working memory capacity and reading comprehension. For example, before the training, their average GRE verbal score was 460. Two weeks later, it was 520.

The results of the study suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences.

Now, here’s the rub. Professor Richard J Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has studied brain function in long-term and novice mindful meditators, as well as Buddhist monks who have practiced meditation for 34,000 hours over the course of their lives, said, ‘If you have people who are out of shape and then do two weeks of physical exercise, you’ll see some benefit. But if they stop exercising, the benefits won’t persist.’

In other words, unless you keep it up, the benefits will be short-lived.

Resource: Mrazek, M D, Franklin, M S, Phillips, D T, Baird, B, and Schooler, J W. ‘Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering’, Psychological Science, March 28, 2013. 10.1177/0956797612459659