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The Zen Commandments: Ten Suggestions for a Life of Inner Freedom

The Zen Commandments: Ten Suggestions for a Life of Inner Freedom

by Dean Sluyter
The Zen Commandments: Ten Suggestions for a Life of Inner Freedom

The Zen Commandments: Ten Suggestions for a Life of Inner Freedom

by Dean Sluyter


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The Ten Commandments tell us how to behave, but they don't say much about the inner awareness from which outer behavior springs. Do the right thing, of course— but better yet, find your inner light and doing the right thing becomes as natural as breathing. THE ZEN COMMANDMENTS offers ten powerful nudges toward that light.

Drawing on sources from Zen stories and the Bible to jazz and rock 'n' roll, from American movies to Tibetan meditative techniques, Dean Sluyter steers clear of dogma and emphasizes what works— a sort of spiritual street smarts. He shows that the state of boundless freedom and happiness isn't something distant or exotic, but is right here, while you're stuck in traffic or taking out the trash. And revisiting the Ten Commandments, he shows how on a deeper level they offer some surprising enlightenment wisdom of their own.

“The book is extremely well written and joyously entertaining.”
—Publishers Weekly
“With sparkling clarity and wit, Sluyter's ten suggestions lay out the practical essentials of the path. My suggestion is: listen to this guy.”
—Lama Surya Das, author of Awakening the Buddha Within
“Dean Sluyter clearly presents simple but profound ways to live one's life consciously and skillfully. He teaches that the source of universal truth not only rests in the heart of every one of us, but is the essence of what ultimately brings us true happiness and freedom. This is a wonderful book with rich wisdom and deep insight.”
—Rabbi David Cooper, author of God Is a Verb
“No matter what your religion (or lack of it), this book shows how to live the kind of life people ache for. It turns out to be pretty simple.”
—Jane Cavolina, co-author of Growing Up Catholic

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781585420841
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/19/2001
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.59(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Dean Sluyter has taught literature and led meditation workshops for more than twenty years. He currently teaches at a private school in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


No beer left.
I'll sit and drink
The sky.


I grew up about a mile from the spot where the pivotal scene of Gone with the Wind was filmed—the one where Scarlett O'Hara, starving and desperate, shakes her fist at the sky and swears, "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again? Through the rest of the film we watch her fulfill her vow ... sort of. She struggles to attain the perfect home, business, marriage, and family, she gets everything she sets her sights on, yet none of it works out quite the way she had hoped. There's always some problem, and her hunger is never satisfied. As the movie ends, she's still scheming: "After all, tomorrow is another day."

    Sometimes it seems as if, like Scarlett, we're spending our lives dealing with problems and hustling for the things that are supposed to fulfill us. Yet fulfillment is always just beyond our grasp, in some indefinite tomorrow. The First Suggestion addresses this predicament.


Consider the waves of the ocean.

    At any given moment, a wave is limited in space: extending from Point A to Point B, it's just so big and no bigger, isolated by the troughs that separate it from other waves. It's also limited in time: it arose at some moment in the past and will crash against the shore at some moment in the future. And it's never at rest but is in constant, turbulent motion.

    Like waves, allthe things I encounter are limited, isolated, and in motion, and so am I. From my Point A to Point B is just 5'10" and 153 pounds, and not only my body but my personality, history, philosophy, social status, net worth—everything I might identify with Me is dwarfed by the much larger totality of Not Me. Within the great expanse of time it's a frighteningly short span from the moment of my birth to the moment when I will crash against the shore we call death. And both I and all the other finite, wavelike beings undergo the turbulence of constant activity and change, often creating new problems and limitations as we slosh up against each other.

    Most of us respond to this situation by looking for ways to swell up our Me wave as big as possible. If I can inflate myself with just a few more buckets of money, knowledge, affection, muscles, prestige, sharper clothes, cooler attitudes, more intense sensations, maybe I'll finally overcome limitation and become the King of All Waves. Or maybe I can overcome the ravages of time and death by freezing all waves in place—after I get them to stop sloshing and line up my way. Then everything will stay the way I want it and I'll live forever.

    But history books and the tragedies of Shakespeare are full of people trying these strategies, and they haven't worked yet. Perhaps, then, I might be ready to try a new strategy. I can begin by noticing that I've considered only the surface of life, the world above Dotted Line C. If I look beneath it, I find that something underlies my little wave—the vast ocean, from which I arise and into which I eventually subside.

You cannot conceive the many without the one.


Unlike waves, the ocean is not limited to puny sizes and shapes, and while wave after wave crashes into oblivion, the ocean lives on. What's more, the ocean connects every wave to every other wave, dissolving isolation, and it's immune to the turbulence of change—even when there are tempests at the surface, the ocean rests in its bed in perfect tranquility.

    What I want to do, then, is be more like the ocean. What separates me from it? Amazingly, nothing. The closer we look for the division between wave and ocean, the clearer it becomes that there isn't any. Dotted Line C is merely an imaginary structure in a diagram. In fact, there's no such "thing" as a wave, no such limited, self-existent object. It's just a function of the limitless ocean, a way the ocean expresses itself. So my quest to overcome limitation has been misdirected all along. Instead of trying to swell my wave higher or manipulate the other waves to suit me, I can just settle into my overlooked base till I fully experience that I've been ocean all along.

    Of course this is just an analogy (and a very old one, by the way). What is that ocean? Here words tend to break down. We can say it's not anything that is, but the is-ness by which all things are. We can say it's the boundless awareness-space within which all boundaries are experienced. We can also say it's what you really want whenever you think you want anything else. Or we can say it's where the sound of the bell goes as it fades into silence, where the knot goes when it's untied, where the steeple goes as it tapers into the sky. And if we like this kind of language, we can say it's the kingdom of God, the ground of Being, the Over-soul, Brahman (vastness), shunyata (emptiness), Tao, Allah, infinity, eternity.

"I don't call it anything,"

Said Frankie Lee with a smile.


Since all names are inadequate anyway, perhaps that's our wisest course—to agree not to label it and focus instead on how to experience it. We're not talking about believing in the ocean or singing its praises, but being good scientists and checking out the situation for ourselves through direct, immediate experience—diving into the ocean.


How can we dive in? Essentially, by letting go and doing nothing. Anything else will result in our splashing around and churning water, creating more turbulence. Instead, we need to take a break from all that doing and just rest. Of course, we already rest when we sleep, but then we fall unconscious and stop experiencing. Instead, we need to consciously do nothing, take it easy alertly, repose in wide-awakeness: Rest in Openness.

    So, time for some lab work ... or, rather, nonwork. Please sit someplace where you're comfortable and out of people's way.


    Pull your shoulders up to your ears and then drop them. Settle into the seat—let it take all your weight. Because we're so used to speeding along on the expressway of doing, we can start with a bit of breathing practice as a sort of deceleration lane, an offramp to nondoing. Take a slow, full breath, hold it for a few moments, then let out a deep sigh, as if breathing out through all your pores, letting go of everything, all burdens and decisions, stress and distress: Ahhh! Do this a few times.

    Then just sit. That's all. Don't try to concentrate on anything or feel a certain way. Don't resist thoughts or pursue them; as they arise, just let them go. Simply continue to be—just relax and remain aware, naturally open, as you already are. Practice this way for a little while, and then we'll discuss it further.

    Nothing to it ... literally.

    In Zen this alert nondoing is called shikantaza, "just sitting." People often call it "meditation," but again we're probably better off not calling it anything. Otherwise, it can sound like something that requires effort: concentrating on this, blocking out that, assuming solemn attitudes or adopting arcane beliefs—all merely new, improved ways to churn the water. Instead we just sit, just be, and let whatever happens happen.


In fact, openness exists naturally, from moment to moment of our actual lives, while sitting practice just attunes us to recognize it in those moments. You could be walking down a forest path or a supermarket aisle, singing in the choir or slamming in the mosh pit, tooling down Pacific Coast Highway on your Harley or crawling through the Lincoln Tunnel in your Chevy—as long as your awareness is open wide and you're resting in each moment of simple experience, allowing it to unfold spontaneously.

I am become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me....


We're all attracted to activities we find conducive to this union of alertness and restfulness. For some people golf or gardening, dancing or shooting hoops, taking Communion or sitting back with a cigar provides just the right balance of elements. My father was always happiest when he was sailing his boat in the Catalina Channel, vigilantly trimming his sails while serenely losing himself in the clear horizon. We can't sail our boats all the time, but by resting in openness we can sail through life. We can develop a new habit of attentive tranquility that is content-free—like sitting back with a cigar, only without the cigar.

    So the way to boundless experience is to not seek boundless experience or any particular experience beyond whatever presents itself. This nonseeking does take practice, not to get "better" at "doing" it, since there's no doing involved, but to give our old seeking habit some road upon which to run out of gas. Sooner or later, we give up and just let the infinite (or whatever you want to call it) engulf us. By definition, the infinite is everywhere and everything; ocean can never be absent from even the smallest drop of wave. We've simply been distracted from it by our constant compulsion to look somewhere else for something more.


This one change changes everything. As we gradually learn to leave off distractedness and rest in openness, we stop looking for fulfillment outside of the way things already are. Till now we've gone through life pushing and pulling—trying to push the undesirable away from us and pull the desirable toward us. It's such an entrenched habit that we persist even when there's no payoff, when it only creates frustration. Stuck in the traffic jam, we keep trying to push the cars out of the way with our mental bulldozer; spotting the luscious babe (or hunk), we keep trying to extend our mental tendrils and pull her (or him) within copulation range.

    But resting in openness, free from the agitation of pushing and pulling, we can just witness the situation. This doesn't mean to suppress our anger at the traffic if it arises or our lust for the babe if it arises, for those arisings are also part of the situation we're witnessing. But it means we don't get lost in the arisings either, don't fixate on them.

Elevate the scope of 360-degree global awareness.


To be open is to be receptive to all 360 degrees of our experience, not stuck in the five or ten degrees where we're pushing or pulling.

    Watch a child get a vaccination and see how he ignores the hundreds of square inches of skin surface that feel fine, perversely squeezing his whole attention into the hundredth of a square inch that's in pain. Most of us are experts at this, fixating on our stresses and traumas, maintaining them as carefully as an album of family photos.

We tend our pain meticulously through the familiar process of thinking about it. The more we think around our emotional pain the more we cripple ourselves with the artificial intensity of it.... We could allow our pain to dissolve into the skylike openness of direct experience; but somehow we feel more secure with our pain as a reference point.


Now, though, as we grow increasingly at home with that 360-degree "skylike openness of direct experience," we find our cozy habit of cultivating and magnifying problems melting into it like summer clouds.

    Being open to 360 degrees doesn't mean keeping track of everything, like some kind of fish-eye security camera. Whenever we notice we're fixating we just let go, and then remain naturally receptive to whatever appears. We can also reclaim this receptivity a few degrees at a time. For example, right now, take a few moments and notice all the layers of sound (the voices in the next room, the air conditioner or the radiator or the rain dripping off the leaves ...). Or notice the full range of your peripheral vision, which is surprisingly wide; then, each time you realize that your visual attention has narrowed into its old tunnel, relax out into its full range again. Or as you sit through a lecture or a business meeting, notice your tactile sense: the pressure of your butt against the chair and your feet against the floor, the varied textures of clothing against your skin, the temperature of the air on your face and hands. Or notice thoughts and feelings as they emerge, shift, and vanish—notice how they, in a way, are also sense objects of a subtler kind.


As panoramic receptivity gradually replaces limited fixation, every situation becomes a glimpse of limitlessness. Let's say you're stuck at a red light and you find yourself gripping the wheel, straining subtly forward, fixated on trying to make the red light turn green. Of course straining can't turn the light green a moment sooner, although it may turn your knuckles white. So rest in openness instead. Liberated from pushing and pulling, from trying to turn the situation into what it isn't, sit back and relax into the richness of what is—the weight of your body against the seat, the morning light glinting off glass and chrome, the chug of idling engines, and the multicolored river of car bodies, each enfolding the mysterious, shadowy figure of a driver.

    And maybe, with your freer vision, you'll even notice that you can cut over a block to a clearer street. By helping us see out of our ruts, openness leads to open-mindedness, receptivity to new experiences and ideas. It does this by freeing us from a third habit, along with pushing and pulling: ignoring, the screening out of "irrelevant" experiences that aren't obviously desirable or undesirable. Then the mind starts to function in a more playful, fluid, creative way, to explore the wide world of possibilities beyond the horizon of our old thoughts and plans, to notice overlooked solutions and wonderful surprises.

The end men looked for cometh not,
And a path there is where no man thought.


    As we unlearn the habit of ignoring, we regain the freshness of a child's perception. (Jesus said, "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.") We again behold in wonder the dust particles that swim in a sunbeam, or an airplane as it miraculously hums and booms across the sky, or our own surrealistically foreshortened reflection in the toaster or cereal spoon. We again see magical shapes in the clouds, even as we seamlessly handle our grownup responsibilities. There's no conflict between these two modes: we can be childlike without being childish.

If, when hearing that I have been stilled at last, they stand at the door, Watching the full-starred heavens that winter sees, Will this thought rise on those who will meet my face no more, "He was one who had an eye for such mysteries"?


    Life, it turns out, is never stale. What made it seem stale was our pushing, pulling, and ignoring it. "Boredom," says Ram Dass, "is just lack of attention." In this perpetual freshness of open attention, you don't need to keep jumping off bridges on a bungee cord or jumping into bed with different partners just to know you're alive. Compulsions and addictions naturally start falling away. You can, if you like, be a Buddha of the Burbs, mowing the lawn in summer amazement, shoveling the snow in winter amazement. Your life regains and retains that new-car smell.


All this comes from just resting open to each moment as it is. Ironically, though, such ease requires vigilance—our penchant for getting caught up in things is so powerful. One of my teachers recommends deliberately interrupting our busy-ness at least fifty or sixty times a day.

When you find yourself in the thick of it Help yourself to a bit of what is all around you.


If you have an alarm on your watch, you can set it to go off at odd intervals and remind you to take an awareness break, even for a few seconds. When you're watching television or working at a computer, occasionally look away from the screen, breathe out (Ahhh!), let your mind decompress, and simply be, relaxing into the panorama of the moment's experience. When you're caught up in an intense, engrossing conversation, air it out with tiny, sporadic moments of silence in which you let the forgotten, wider totality of existence break through. When your awareness feels pinched by the pressure of some problematic life situation, step back from the problem, drop out of the pinchedness, hang out in openness.

    Does this opening up and dropping out sound like spacing out—evading responsibility? Actually, by refreshing the mind, it helps us deal with life more effectively. Our responsibilities are still there; we just start to see them in a wider perspective. True, we may see that many things we worried about are out of our hands. Then we can conscientiously handle the things we can do something about and let the rest go, rather than keep bashing our heads against them. But that's a good thing—that's a relief.

Fortunately, we're not in control.



In fact, this dropping-out process is so important, it's mandated in the Ten Commandments:

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.

The sabbath is the day of rest, and to keep something holy is to use it as a means of opening to the infinite. The whole idea of sabbath is a temporary withdrawal from limited worldly activities (waves) in order to reconnect with the limitlessness (ocean) that some people call God. Here we're practicing this principle on the most profound level, resting not only one day out of seven and not only from the physical activities of our jobs, but gradually learning to be in a state of utter rest seven days a week, sixty seconds a minute, transcending and silently witnessing all physical and mental activities, even while performing them.

   Then we also fulfill the First Commandment:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.

The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzraim, is a plural noun with associated meanings of "confines, constrictions, narrow places," as well as "anguish, distress, worries." Thus the first sentence can be read: "I am the ultimate reality, the wide-open limitlessness that has freed you from the anguish of all narrow limitations." Note that the phrase "brought you out," past tense, implies that we're already free. There's nothing for us to do, just refrain from re-enslaving ourselves, from getting caught up again in pushing and pulling at the multitude of limited experiences; stop submitting to their power, making them "other gods" as if they were ultimate. Instead let go (as Moses tells Pharaoh), rest in openness, and experience that the only ultimate is the one that is right here, now, amidst all the limitations. We could paraphrase the Commandment as: "I am the supreme, oceanic boundlessness that has saved you from all wavelike turbulence and constriction. Don't go back to it by mistaking any single wave for the whole ocean."


Well then. What does it all come down to?

    Taking out the trash.

    After all this fancy cosmic talk, there you are, taking out the trash again—perhaps not one of your favorite activities. This presents you with a choice. You can grumble, narrowing your awareness into a vaccination-sized throb of resentment. Or you can distract yourself with a fantasy of being elsewhere (like those bumper stickers: I'd Rather Be Waterskiing). Or, instead, you can rest from both resentment and fantasy, and open into the awareness of what's actually there—the weight of the trash bag pulling on the muscles of your arm, footstep on gravel, footstep on gravel, footstep on gravel, the smell of night air, the receding of the noise and business within the house, the crickets or cicadas or rumbling traffic, the stars or fog or moonlit clouds, and perhaps a taste of the subtle, silent, indefinable Whatsis behind it all. Suddenly it's as rich an experience as you could possibly want.

    The mundane is the sublime. Jesus says, "Knock and it shall be opened unto you." That is, give your undistracted attention to whatever presents itself, and its stubborn opaqueness will open unto you, revealing glorious transparency. One Zen practitioner described this experience as feeling "free as a fish in an ocean of cool, clear water after being stuck in a tank of glue."

    To see it, there's never anything else you need or need to get rid of, not a pinch more or less than whatever's at hand. Wherever you are is the perfect place to rest in openness. Everything's grist for the mill, as long as the mill wheel is turning—as long as you're paying effortless, panoramic attention. Then it's all vast openness: washing the dishes, cleaning the kitty litter, listening to annoying political opinions, making love or stubbing your toe, dying or being born. You'll forget a million times, and a million and one times you'll remember: Oh, yes ... this is it ... just this ... rest in this.

    Everything points to it. It fills all directions. We peer through telescopes to see into the depths of space, but we're in deep space all along—there's nowhere else to be. Contemplating a mountain plateau or a sparkling sea may give us some feel for openness, but the real thing is everywhere, even in the most cluttered storeroom or crowded subway car. It has (it is) unlimited room for everything, including all our clutter and claustrophobia, without ever becoming a drop less vast.

Enlightenment is nothing other than the spontaneous experience of all possible structures as equivalent to open space.


When everything is equivalent to open space, nothing impinges on us. We finally discover that all the closedness that we thought was hemming us in was a mistake of perception—a sort of optical illusion. Every little wave is measureless ocean, including the one called Me.

You, therefore, are the infinite. "I am not the infinite" is a mere illusion. From illusion springs separation wherein all sorrows have root.


    So ... what? So enjoy being, and cut the root of sorrows. Sit down and "meditate" in silence; get up and navigate through activity: either way, just relax and remain aware. That's it—your job is done. Again and again, and with growing clarity, we discover that, no matter what's going on, we can find perfect freedom by resting in openness to the totality of present awareness. As long as we're caught up in this or that, pushing or pulling, trick or treat, we're in the land of Mitzraim, the house of slavery. As long as we're resting in openness, wherever we are is the Promised Land.

The narrow straits of our tribulation are limited: but the large way whereby we pass along hath no end.


Table of Contents

What It's All About
1. Rest in Openness
2. Act with Kindness
3. Notice the Moment
4. Recognize Teachers
5. Keep It Simple
6. Be Devoted
7. No Appointment, No Disappointment
8. Bless Everyone
9. Connect the Dots
10. Be a Mensch and Enjoy the JokeAppendix: Attention! At Ease!
Selected Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“The book is extremely well written and joyously entertaining.”
—Publishers Weekly
“With sparkling clarity and wit, Sluyter's ten suggestions lay out the practical essentials of the path. My suggestion is: listen to this guy.”
—Lama Surya Das, author of Awakening the Buddha Within
“Dean Sluyter clearly presents simple but profound ways to live one's life consciously and skillfully. He teaches that the source of universal truth not only rests in the heart of every one of us, but is the essence of what ultimately brings us true happiness and freedom. This is a wonderful book with rich wisdom and deep insight.”
—Rabbi David Cooper, author of God Is a Verb
“No matter what your religion (or lack of it), this book shows how to live the kind of life people ache for. It turns out to be pretty simple.”
—Jane Cavolina, co-author of Growing Up Catholic
“Equal parts inspiring, quirky, fascinating, and fun … CINEMA NIRVANA will make you look at film and faith in a new light.”

 “Sluyter is the movie guru I have longed for. He mines deep spiritual wisdom from classic films with tremendous humor and grace. Virtually every page contains jaw-dropping insights and laugh-out-loud surprises.”
–Lama John Makransky, Prof. of Buddhism and Comparative Theology, Boston College

“Dean Sluyter has one of the freshest voices in spiritual writing today. From the common ore of pop culture he extracts the gleaming diamonds of dharma-wisdom. Take this jolly ride with him and you'll never see movies — or your own life — in the same way again.”
–Lama Surya Das, author of Awakening the Buddha Within

“Entertaining and thoughtful in turn, Cinema Nirvana compels you to watch the movies in the way a buddha might see them.”
–Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs

“If you spliced together DNA from Quentin Tarantino and the Dalai Lama, you'd get Dean Sluyter and he'd write this amazing book.”
–Michael Gelb, author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci

“From its opening title straight on to its finale, Cinema Nirvana is original, amusing, and on the ball. It will help you stay awake at the movies and dream more in real life.”
–Kate Wheeler, author of Not Where I Started From

“Dean Sluyter's Cinema Nirvana is flat-out brilliant. I have lived with these classic movies and these core teachings my whole adult life, yet I constantly felt blown away by the freshness and richness of the dharmic connections Dean perceives in every scene.”
–Lewis Richmond, author of Work as a Spiritual Practice

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