Real Zen for Real Life
Bret W. Davis is a Professor of Philosophy and the T.J. Higgins, S.J., Chair in Philosophy at Loyola University Maryland, where he also directs The Heart of Zen Meditation Group. He earned his PhD in Philosophy from Vanderbilt University.
Fluent in Japanese, Professor Davis has spent more than 13 years studying and teaching in Japan. He studied Buddhist thought at Otani University and Japanese philosophy at Kyoto University. He also trained as a lay practitioner at Shōkokuji, one of the main Rinzai Zen monasteries in Kyoto. In 2010, he was formally recognized as a teacher (sensei) and director of a Zen center by Kobayashi Gentoku Rōshi, the abbot of Shōkokuji.
Professor Davis has presented academic papers at international conferences in more than a dozen countries and has been invited to lecture at such distinguished institutions as Harvard University, Boston College, the University of Tokyo, Kyoto University, East China Normal University, the University of Munich, the University of Freiburg, and the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London. For his research sojourns in Japan and Germany, he has received grants from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, the German Academic Exchange Service, and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. He also received the Nachbahr Award for outstanding scholarly accomplishment in the humanities from Loyola University Maryland.
Professor Davis is the author of Heidegger and the Will, the coeditor of Japanese and Continental Philosophy and Engaging Dōgen’s Zen, and the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Japanese Philosophy.
01: What Is Zen? Recovering the Beginner’s Mind
Professor Davis introduces you to the concept of Zen by explaining that you need to clear your mind of anything you think Zen might be in order to understand what Zen actually is. Further explaining this, the practice of clearing the heart-mind, or emptying of our cup, is a Zen meditation in order to properly set out on the path of Zen. He will debunk common Western interpretations of what Zen is not, while introducing what we can take away from traditional Zen teachings and apply in modern Western culture.
02: The Zen Way to Know and Forget Thyself
Reflect on how Zen helps you understand who you really are. Professor Davis first helps you move past superficial titles you might use to define yourself and understand more about who you really are through holistic meditation. As he walks you through a brief practice meditation—whether it’s your first time or you’re a pro—he’ll help you understand how to better empty your mind and leave the meditation with “less” than you came in with: less stress, less mental clutter and emotional agitation, fewer attachments and prejudices—fewer things that close, rather than open, our hearts and minds.
03: Zen Meditation: Clearing the Heart-Mind
Professor Davis helps you achieve a better intellectual understanding of meditation by breaking down the different methods of meditation, providing tips on how best to prepare, and addressing how to overcome common blocks to meditating properly, such as anxiety about wasting time, fear of silence, or feelings of boredom. He breaks down five important benefits of successful meditation and reveals how it can help give rise to an inner confidence that is both firm and flexible.
04: How to Practice Zen Meditation
Moving you from learning about Zen meditation to actually trying it, Professor Davis walks you through setting up an optimal time and place for your practice, determining which positions work best for you. He provides an in-depth explanation of the best ways to properly breathe and how to focus on your breathing, in order to calm the “monkey mind”—a common term used to compare a hyperactive mind to a monkey swinging from one branch to another.
05: The Middle Way of Knowing What Suffices – Meditation Checkup: The Middle Way of Meditation
As Professor Davis notes, “It is impossible to understand Zen Buddhism without learning something about the teachings of the Buddha.” This lesson provides explanations and applications of basic Buddhist teachings. Professor Davis analyzes the traditional concept of the Middle Way through stories and diagrams and looks at how we have reinterpreted the meaning in the context of modern western culture.
06: Embracing the Impermanence of Life
Continuing to follow the philosophical journey of the Buddha, Professor Davis breaks down the doctrine that became the framework for the Buddha’s other teachings: The Four Noble Truths. Through anecdotes, examples, and parables, you’ll gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the goals of the Buddha’s teaching. Professor Davis will challenge you to examine and potentially reconsider desires you may have previously had.
07: The True Self Is Egoless – Meditation Checkup: Lead with the Body and Physical Stillness
Moving on from an exploration of the origins and meanings of common Buddhist principles, Professor Davis introduces the first of three lessons focused on the philosophical core of Zen Buddhism—which he admits, up front, may be the most intellectually and emotionally challenging. The crux of this lesson focuses around how we are not, and can never be, exactly the beings we deeply desire to be, and how the true self may be ungraspable.
08: Loving Others as Yourself
Spend this lesson looking further into the interconnected nature of the true self and what it means to say that “the whole world is you.” Bringing in examples from other world views, particularly focused on the teachings of Jesus, Professor Davis explores the concept of self and others. With a focus on the senses and coexistence, this lesson shows you how to “taste” the oneness of all life without losing sight of the real differences between individual lives.
09: Taking Turns as the Center of the Universe – Meditation Checkup: From Mindless Reacting to Mindful Responding
What happens when two persons who have had a realization of their true self meet? Do worlds collide? Is the world big enough for more than one true self? Look at how we are united in our differences as you explore the answers to these questions and more. Examine the idea that to realize oneself as the center of the universe requires, paradoxically, letting go of all self-centeredness.
10: Who or What Is the Buddha?
Take a step back with Professor Davis to look at who Buddha actually was, as you explore the various meanings of “Buddha” across the various traditions of Buddhism. Looking at Buddha through the lens of Western examples, you’ll gain a deeper understanding of how the meaning of “Buddha” is by no means restricted to a historical teacher, but rather an appellation that means “awakened one” or “enlightened one.”
11: Mind Is Buddha: If You Meet Him, Kill Him! – Meditation Checkup: Dealing with Unavoidable Pain
In this lesson, Professor Davis continues to discuss Zen’s understanding of the Buddha. You’ll look more closely at the manner in which the term “Buddha” is used in Zen, beginning with the idea that “mind is Buddha” and ending with what is perhaps the most shocking statement in any religious tradition, namely Zen master Linji’s admonition, “If you encounter the Buddha, kill the Buddha!” Examine the idea that Zen is all about freeing ourselves from our fixations on the ones we already have.
12: Dying to Live: Buddhism and Christianity
Take an in-depth look at how Eastern and Western religious beliefs and philosophies can work in tandem as Professor Davis addresses our most entrenched attachment. He focuses namely on our attachment to our egos. Examine how in Zen, as in Christianity, in order to truly live, we must undergo a great spiritual death and rebirth.
13: Zen beyond Mysticism: Everyday Even Mind
Discover how altered states of consciousness can manifest during meditation—and why you should ignore them and focus on the ordinary. The goal of Zen practice is to get rid of the things that crowd your mind, not add new clutter. Learn how to attain and keep the “everyday even mind” rather than reach toward the mystical or the superficially profound.
14: Engaged Zen: From Inner to Outer Peace – Meditation Checkup: Dealing with Distractions
What does it mean to achieve peace? Should we punish evil or enlighten the ignorant? Take a closer look at how Zen Buddhism frames inner peace as the means to attaining outer peace through practice and example. Also look at the ways Zen Buddhism can give you invaluable insight into the ways we conceive of justice, peace, and personal responsibility.
15: The Dharma of Karma: We Reap What We Sow
Karma is not about comeuppance. Rather, it is about your own behaviors and how they shape the person that you are—or who you want to be. Examine the meaning of “situated freedom” and learn the truth about karma beyond the simplistic ideas of reward/punishment or retribution. Gain a more thorough understanding of your own role in karma as a concept of cause and effect and its relationship to free will.
16: Zen Morality: Follow and Then Forget Rules
Zen teachings on morality have often been distorted to present the idea of being “beyond good and evil.” In reality, Zen Buddhism takes a view of morality that is more complex than this duality, instead focusing on how to alleviate suffering in ourselves and others. Examine the concept of a morality that is not dictated by fixed rules of right and wrong and learn how to confront moral dilemmas through the lens of reducing harm.
17: The Zone of Zen: The Freedom of No-Mind
What does it mean to be free from ego and selfishness? In the Zen concept of “no mind,” you are able to free yourself from binary thinking and achieve a more childlike state of openness and wonder. Look closely at how zazen (Zen meditation) can help you live in the moment and be present in every step of your own journey instead of obsessively focusing on end results or future outcomes.
18: Zen Lessons from Nature: The Giving Leaves – Meditation Checkup: Three Ways of Breathing In and Out
Freedom and responsibility, according to Zen, are not found by way of transcending the forces and flows of nature, but rather by getting back in touch with them. Learn about the practice of samu, in which you engage wholeheartedly with the task at hand, no matter how insignificant that task may seem. Professor Davis reveals his own personal journey as you discover how to become a part of the give-and-take of nature, embrace gratitude, and release yourself from the weight of expectation.
19: Zen Art: Cultivating Naturalness
Is it a paradox to cultivate spontaneity? Perhaps, yet as you will learn, Zen teaches us how to develop our human capacity for participating in nature in ways that offer both structure and originality. Look at the Ways of Zen—the cultivated artistic and creative methods of Zen practitioners—and see how form and discipline can lead to greater freedom and creativity in your own pursuits.
20: Zen and Words: Between Silence and Speech – Meditation Checkup: Chanting as a Meditative Practice
As you will see, the Zen stance on the written word can seem contradictory. Zen is a practice that both values poetry, stories, parables, and other writings, yet also encourages practitioners to “go beyond words” and embrace silent meditation and reflection. Dig into this seeming contradiction to understand why Zen values the power of the language, but also acknowledges its many limitations.
21: Zen and Philosophy: The Kyoto School
The West has long made a distinction between philosophy and religion, but East and South Asian practices like Zen (and others) don’t feel the need for this binary division. Look closer at how Zen emphasizes a holistic approach to both practicing and understanding its tenets and see why Zen is more than an intellectual exercise. Learn about the Kyoto School and its approach to acknowledging philosophy as a part—but not the whole—of Zen Buddhism.
22: Just Sitting and Working with Kōans – Meditation Checkup: Walking Meditation
Delve into the two major Japanese schools of Zen: Sōtō Zen and Rinzai Zen. First, examine the direct approach of the Sōtō school, in which the practice of sitting and clearing the mind to a state of “nonthinking” is emphasized above intellectual exercises. Then, turn to the “pressure cooker” Rinzai approach, which focuses on kōans and examining the paradoxical nature of being to work towards enlightenment. As you will see, there is no absolute path to Zen.
23: Death and Rebirth: Or, Nirvana Here and Now
Is change a disruption of continuity, or a part of that continuity itself? In Zen Buddhism, change is an accepted and acknowledged part of life, with death merely being another change every living thing must face. Delve into the core teachings of Zen surrounding life and death and better understand why it is important to face your own mortality and embrace impermanence to live fully here and now.
24: Reviewing the Path of Zen: The Oxherding Pictures – Finding a Zen Community
Bring your exploration of Zen Buddhism to a close as you follow Professor Davis through a commentary on a beloved Zen text: Ten Oxherding Pictures. This series of illustrated poems, recreated from the work of a 12th-century monk, portray the path of a Zen practitioner through the stages toward enlightenment and offers a glimpse into the cyclical nature of self-discovery. After all, the journey is the destination.