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Flip flopping along the middle way

Flip flopping along the middle way – examining my Buddhist practice

Recently I’ve been struggling with my Buddhist practice, this is nothing new, over the last ten years I’ve changed the core of practice several times.

I began in late 2005, firstly as many others who approach Buddhism by reading and home practice, the following year I began weekly practice in Sheffield with a small Zen group with Bob Bowles, as always money was tight and I wasn’t able to attend the retreats.

In 2007 the Zen group changed it’s schedule, it was now on the same night as my main Aikido class (Tuesdays) having recently passed 1st Kyu, I had to make the choice between Zen or Aikido practice, I chose Aikido and continued onto take my 1st Dan in April 2008.

Throughout 2007 to 2009 I continued to practice Buddhism in the Zen tradition at home. I also tried a few NKT meetings and did some Buddhism correspondence courses.

After getting married in 2010, I decided to try and re-establish contact with Bob Bowles, only to find that the group had closed.

I took a break from any kind of regular practice, for over two years (I continued to read and study) in 2013 I read a book about Nichiren Buddhism and I began to chant at home, the following year I became a member of the SGI and took part in local district meetings and events (I also took my grade 1 exam with the SGI) in the following year I began to organise and host meetings and events.

However I often had a feeling of what if…

Flip / flop / flip / flop…

So in the late summer of 2015 I returned to my Zen practice with a small group in Bolsover (run by Mark Shawcroft originally part of the group in Sheffield) I attended the seven day retreat last year (taking the money from my savings) I asked Kaizen Sensei about taking Jukai, but this would take time and more retreats (which I couldn’t afford) so after some post retreat depression I began to chant again, hoping to re-connect with my SGI practice.

Now my former district has been disbanded, and more and more I feel despondent with my practice, I simply don’t enjoy gongyo or feel any connection with my gohonzon at the moment.

So I’m in that same situation again, do I drag myself reluctantly in front of the gohonzon to perform a half hearted gongyo, or do I enjoy sitting in silent meditation in my own practice, in the knowledge that I may never be able to afford attend retreats or take my vows (jukai).

Flip / flop/ flip /flop…

I know that to make any progress, I have to make a strong commitment to my practice, am I simply taking the easy way out and running away from my SGI practice because I feel deadlocked, or is my reluctance (to chant) brought on by a deep seated feeling that, that particular practice just isn’t for me.

So here I am at the moment, I was told this year by an SGI leader (with no experience of any other form of Buddhism) that you can’t mix your SGI practice with Zen, you can’t practice mindfulness alongside Gongyo, also that I have to practice at Sheffield now, it seems that I’m not free to choose where to practice.

Is my desire to go back to meditation practice, a simple case of laziness, It’s all very well to escape to a Zen retreat and feel great for a few days, breathing in the incense infused  country air, and soaking up the silence, while robed priests ring bells, but that isn’t the reality of my life either.

My Buddhist practice has to make sense and pertain to my life, this will take a lot of self investigation and reflection….

Alex Man UK seminar 2017

So last weekend (March 11th &12th) was the Alex Man UK seminar in Sheffield, hosted by Sifu William Lai.

I could only afford 1 day, so I went along on the Saturday, the course was well attended, even though the attendance was fairly exclusive for friends and students of William Lai or of the Chu Shing Tin lineage of Wing Chun.

The course was very heavily theory based and the Saturday especially was mainly based around a series of lectures with physical demonstrations to highlight certain points.

Apparently the Sunday seminar included more physical interaction and exercise.

I think at my level (beginner) a lot of what was being taught went over my head, and personally I would have benefited from a more hands on approach, but still it was enjoyable and I was able to take some notes, maybe some of the information will fall into place later in my development.

There was a lot of focus of relaxing our posture, and allowing energy to flow up and down the spine, term like Tai Gong (rotation of the pelvic floor), but I’m not going to try to explain them here, as I don’t have the depth of knowledge to explain sufficiently.

 

Some Basic Course Notes (Saturday 11th) 

Wing Chun starts with Sui Lim (nim) Tao

Sui Lim Tao, means little idea, so small thoughts, small steps one by one, step by step – this is the learning process, step by step.

Learn to be mindful, be mindful of what your body is doing, where you are holding any tension in your body and then slowly relax.

Training and learning are not the same, learning can take just an instant, whereas you have to train over and over (a term Alex Man often used was one hundred thousand times).

Walking is natural we don’t have to think about how we walk, when to hold tension and when to relax, we just walk, we need to train our Wing Chun (hundred thousand or many hundred thousand times) until our Wing Chun becomes natural like walking.

Continue to relax and open up your joints, don’t hold any tension in your muscles.

Those words left unspoken

We had a nice meal out with my Dad and stepmother on Sunday, partway through the meal my wife Karen, asked me if I was going to mention the adoption process, which we restart in May, and to ask if Dad would be one of our nominated referees, at the time I said that the atmosphere was too loud (a bustling pub restaurant on a Sunday lunch time) and we would have time before May to ask.

I received a phone call on Monday night, informing me the my Dad had suffered a stroke and was in hospital, we went to visit both Tuesday and Thursday and even with just that short time there has been a marked improvement in his condition, although the recovery process will be a long one, and none of our lives will be quite the same again.

That phone call on Monday came about ten minutes before I needed to set off for my Wing Chun class, I could have spent the evening pacing the house wringing my hands in worry, instead I went training and as always pushed my self to the limits, and realised that one of the greatest gift my father gave me was that introduction to the martial arts, taking his shy, scrawny eleven year old son to the local Karate dojo and training along side me for a few weeks, until I got settled….thirty odd years later I realised that going to the gym to the Wing Chun class was a continuation of that journey, continuing the story that he started, his gift to me, and mine to him.

Many Nichiren Buddhist’s in that situation would have gone straight to their Gohonzon and started chanted, I picked up my bag and went to a martial arts class, I’m not sure what that means on a deeper level, but it will be worth looking into this year…

Do I wish that I had mentioned the adoption, sure, amongst other things, I also wanted my Dad to spend more time with his grandchildren and just be around them more, telling them the same stories we heard when we were growing up, those same old stories, those same old jokes….

 

Our voices can hurt or help others, but sometimes the conversations that stay with us the longest are those left unspoken.

A Question of faith

I’ve been struggling with my Buddhist practice recently (nothing new really), this coincides with some Buddhist studies I’m undertaking at the moment, and I suppose as with any study undertaken, it makes you re-evaluate what and why you are doing something.

I’m looking into the concept of ‘kuon ganjo’ a Buddhist phrase translating to roughly ‘time without beginning’ and also the concept of ‘original Buddha’ that is the Buddha of kuon ganjo, a lot of this is based on the various translations and transcriptions of the Lotus Sutra (chapter 16 the Juryo chapter), the chapter where ‘Shakyamuni Buddha (Gautama Buddha) drops the bombshell that he originally gained enlightenment, not under the papal tree in Gaya, but in the remote past of gohyaku-jintengo (500 dust particle kalpas) ago.

 

I often unknowingly (or certainly not intentionally) approach bold statements in Buddhist writing with an air of scepticism and suspicion, so when I saw the statement that Nichiren Daishonin was the original Buddha, I had to take another look at the evidence, so I’ve been doing quite a bit of digging around and have found the whole thing is very interesting.

 

Now that the (SGI) Rotherham & Doncaster district has been disbanded, it’s been decided (on my behalf) that my new district is now Sheffield, when I recently mentioned to a leader that I would try and attend meetings in other areas, and kind of just ‘float’ about, he got his feathers a bit ruffled.

 

I guess that’s always going to be a problem when you mix systems of religious hierarchy and an individual’s freedom of faith, it can be seen the world over in each spectrum of religion and belief system.

 

So this time my struggle is with the concept of faith, faith isn’t a concept I came across very often when I began my Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition, however now in the Nichiren tradition it is a cornerstone of the practice, having faith in the ‘mystic law’.

I know the importance of deep faith, as my Mother was dying of cancer her strong Christian faith kept her strong and was a great support for her, it was that lesson (her final lesson, I guess)that set me on my own spiritual quest, to find my own religious path.

 

I’m hoping that, the more research and study I do, the more I understand, then gradually my faith with grow stronger, although I expect that sometime in the future I’ll have to close the books, and as the Zen tale tells us take that first step off the hundred foot pole.

Practice standing

As the only person to turn up to Monday’s class, I had in effect a private class with Sifu.

It was good to have some in depth instruction from Sifu on basics, we did a lot of kicking practice on the kick shield, my hips were aching afterwards, it must be over three years since I’ve done kicking on pads.

We also spent a lot of time on the first form, just getting comfortable standing, and looking at the energy levels in the fuk sau.

On Monday nights out side the room we use at the gym, we regularly have a couple of folks doing pad work, they must think we’re funny, just standing there, breathing and allowing our arms to move in a relaxed natural way – must seem a far cry to the ‘blood and guts’ martial arts they’ve seen on TV.

I asked Sifu, about practice at home, he told me to practice standing, as in the first form, not necessarily doing the whole form as a set form, obviously practice the form, but also just to stand, and just move the hands into position, or work on certain sequences that I’m struggling with (3rd section tan sau part) but mainly practice standing.

He told me that when he trained with Chu Shong Tin, in Hong Kong, they would stand doing first form for two hours, have a quick meal break, then go back and do another two hours.

I’m not what those folks hitting the pads outside, would have thought of that.

It did feel a bit awkward going through drills with Sifu, I remember several years ago training with Sensei Derrick at the short-lived Heckmondwyke (White Rose Aikido) dojo, on one particular occasion I was the only student and it felt really awkward throwing sensei about, as both of us were people of few words, despite the near decade I spent training with Sensei Derrick, we didn’t have many conversations, but at this class, I remember telling him that I felt that I was going one step forward and two backwards, his response was something that I’ll never forget “as you’re making progress, you’re noticing faults that have always been there, but now you’re at the level to perceive it”

Another week and yet another Aikido dream, it involved Sensei Acaster driving Ian and me to a White Rose Aikido Dojo.

So that’s it for this week, now I’m off to practice standing….

Many branches, same root

Recently at Wing Chun, I was having a word with a Peter a senior classmate about the first form Sil Lim Tao, when Sifu came over and joined the conversation about the hand transitions in the first section.

Sifu told us than we he trained in Hong Kong with Chu Shong Tin (whose lineage we follow)he was taught that the transition come from the wrist being at right angles to the forearm, before the little finger rotates underneath to face forward.

However one of his teachers Sifu William Lai a long time student of Chu Shong Tin, makes the transition via the tan sau (with the palm up) hand position, as does the head of our parent association Master Samuel Kwok.

So both my Sifu and his teacher of this lineage (Sifu Lai), both taught this form by Master Chu Shong Tin yet both seem to do this hand transition differently, I wonder who initiated the change, the teacher or the student?   Is it the student’s responsibility to pass on their teacher’s art undiluted, or is it the duty of the student to surpass their teacher?

Remaining true to our roots, and spreading our branches.

I’ve seen this many times before in during my ‘Aikido years’ training with students of O’Sensei or second generation students, even though they came from the same source i.e. O’Sensei their techniques were vastly different.

Sensei Riley (7th Dan Shihan) the senior instructor of White Rose Aikido, used to explain this, as different students picking up on different things while watching the same technique, so some may focus on the hands, some the feet, others may look at the overall movement, etc, etc.

Of course we also have the fact that O’Sensei himself changed the way he taught Aikido, you have the pre-War (WWII) harder strongly Ju-Jitsu based training, compared to the post-war lighter more flowing style.

So it would also depend on when the students trained with O’Sensei – as to what kind of Aikido they were exposed to.

Many branches, same root.

I my personal experience in both Karate (Wado-Ryu) and Taekwondo, I’ve seen various teachers make changes to kata and poomse, as they re-interpret the forms to suit their own understanding and application of the form.

(The whole topic of ‘Bunkai’ and application deserve more space that I can give here, and will appear in a future blog…)

Again is this a question of  right or wrong?  Or is it a natural evolutionary process?

How many changes and adaptations can we make to the forms, before they become new forms and not the forms of our teachers?

When I taught Taekwondo at the Ki-Taekwondo clubs, I always taught the Taegeuk and Poomse forms, to the strict guidelines set out by the World Taekwondo Federation, I didn’t see it my place to change the form to suit the application, as I personally saw this as a disservice to my students, who may for whatever reason change clubs at a later date, so their Taekwondo would be ‘pure’ in that sense.

So as well as respecting the root’s of our past, we also have to nurture the seeds of the future.

Nostalgia, it’s not what it used to be..

I was watching a repeat of the ‘Goldbergs’ TV show the other day, one of the episode storylines was based around the video rental store, video rental stores – remember them?

In this age of ‘on demand’ video streaming, try explaining to our children that one day when daddy was your age we had to walk or drive to the video rental shop and pay to rent a film, then take it back the next day….

“That’s right pumpkin, Daddy had to go to the rental shop and choose a video, making sure he got a VHS and not the smaller BETAMAX, tapes, ..no we didn’t have them on the hard drive, ermm no we didn’t store things on clouds in those days, we used video cassettes, well pumpkin there like bigger versions of Daddy’s music cassettes..no not CD’s, no not USB sticks, well its like a plastic thingy….just go back to your tablet”

As Shakyamuni Buddha told us over 2,500 years ago, everything is in a state of impermanence. Is all this change for better or worse – well that’s certainly not for me to judge, I suppose that we can either try to hold back these changes like King Canute on the beach trying to hold back the tide, or embrace them (well in my case a quick cuddle rather than a full on embrace).

It seems that 2017 is going to be a nostalgic year for my subconscious, as yet another week and yet another Aikido based dream, this time I was on the mat training, Sensei Riley (White Rose Aikido) was teaching kokyu nage defence from a Shomen uchi attack, after class I remembered that I had left my weapons at the side of the mat, and had to go round a labyrinth of corridors and stairways to get back to the dojo (room at sports centre) to find that the sports centre staff had cleared away the mats and were setting the room out for football or some other sport, my weapons along with many others were just laid on the floor, so I took them and went home…again if I were to analyse the dream – maybe removing my weapons (whilst leaving the others there) is symbolic of my leaving the club?

I think I’ll come back to the theme of nostalgia and the martial arts in a future blog…

However in other news, Sifu talked us through the grade syllabus for Red 1 & 2, as we haven’t had our syllabus’s yet, Sifu is looking at grading us (me and Raybin in a couple of weeks). In Mondays class was good we covered a lot of pad work, forms and chi sau, I really want to brush up on my form, and pass with some high marks.

Wednesday my wife and I had our first prospective adoption meeting, one of many if this is the route we decide to take, we have a ‘cooling off’ period (due to Karen’s fertility treatment last year) so our next meeting is in May, which gives us plenty of time to do some reading and research the subject a bit more, the whole process is looking like an 18 month journey at least.

This weekend we have our ‘Chapter kick off’ for the East & South Yorkshire Chapter of the SGI UK, I spoke to Marcus during the week and apparently our district is being disbanded and we are returning to a group status attached to Sheffield – I’m hoping to get some more info at the Meeting on Saturday.