28 September 2010

We Are New Birth Missionary Baptist, and They Are Us

(And we are Bishop Eddie Long.)

We are the Zen Studies Society, and they are us.
(And we are Eido Shimano.)

We are the Archdiocese of Boston, and they are us.
(And we are Cardinal Law and his priests.)

We are New Life Church, and they are us.
(And we are Ted Haggard.)

We are the wards of Irish orphanages, and they are us.
(And we are the priests, brothers and nuns who ran them.)

We are the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, and they are us.
(And we are Rabbi Baruch Lebovits.)

All my ancient, twisted karma
(and that "my" means "our," too)
Stemming from greed, anger and ignorance
(in every last one of their manifestations)
Arising in body, speech and mind
(in every nook and cranny and recess and organ)
I now fully repent
(and would ask everyone else to please do the same)

26 September 2010

Not Quite On My Own

I don't know what it is, but I have this deep, abiding attraction to the eremitic life. I've had it as long as I can remember, certainly back through high school, when I read Catherine De Hueck Doherty's Poustinia for the first (then second, then third) time. I devoured Porter's Road to Heaven as soon as I heard about it, and I sat captivated for hours through Gröning's Into Great Silence and Burger's Amongst White Clouds on more than several occasions. OK, on many occasions. I check up on items relating to eremitism and solitude on The Hermitary website. If there's such a thing as eremitic geekdom, I suppose I'm a charter member.

When I put down the book or shut off the DVD player or quit surfing, though, I stop, and I wonder: is this a mere fantasy on my part, or am I telling myself something about myself that I've always known but have never really wanted to hear or act on? It's not totally a fantasy, since I really do keep quiet and alone most of the time, build my schedule around zazen, and try to avoid unnecessary entanglements as best I can.

But I know there's room to go further. Much further. And I'm not there yet.

Not even close.

25 September 2010

On Practicing (Not to Mention Teaching in) Two Traditions

Maybe it's me, but I found trying to practice two religious traditions at once an impossibility. It wasn't because I couldn't make sense of how the two went together; it was because I found that practicing what each on its own terms had to offer was the work of a lifetime. And even if I could tell myself that I was doing one thing in doing both, I knew that I stood quite alone in that estimation. In my heart of hearts, I knew that playing both sides of the street was an ego game that served nothing so much as satisfying my own sense of self.

The arguments in favor of practicing two traditions at once are as compelling to me as the arguments in favor of having multiple spouses. Yes, it's quite interesting. Yes, it brings to light things you might otherwise miss. Yes, it opens you up to being more than you could be with just one.

But none of that gets to the point of the exercise, now, does it?

(It may well be the case that one finds that one is in the process of moving out of one tradition and into another, and that one is finding one's feet for a time. One isn't ready to commit wholeheartedly in the new direction just yet; one isn't ready to untie the old moorings just yet. I get that. But at most, it is a transitional phase that sooner or later leads to one settling back into the tradition of origin or else moving on to the new one.)

Which brings me to those who would serve as spiritual leaders in more than one tradition.

I won't say that the mass celebrated by a sanctioned Zen teacher/Roman Catholic priest isn't valid or that he can't really pass students on koans. Of course the jobs can get done, in much the same way that one can be a decent cake baker and and a decent cellist. There no logical contradiction involved at all.

I won't say that the sanctioned Zen teacher/post-denominational minister can't be both a skillful expositor of the Buddhadharma on one day and an inspiring preacher on another. I know from teaching diverse courses in a curriculum how easy it is to move from Descartes in the morning to Democritus in the afternoon without missing a beat and without the students ever suspecting anything about the other course.

I will say that what I find lacking in both of those instances is singleness of heart, a truly rare commodity in a society of multitaskers. Singleness of heart isn't a virtue in someone who can't see past the end of his or her nose; it's a virtue in one who, being well aware of the vast array of highways and byways and the many treasures that lie along them, nevertheless humbly submits to the discipline of one alone and, forsaking all others (to borrow from the marriage analogy again), commits to depth rather than breadth of coverage.

Maybe it's me, but I don't know that I could fully trust or respect anyone other than the single-hearted to guide me -- or even just to walk with me -- on the path.

22 September 2010

Brother Shodhin?

James Ford posted on his blog a dialogue between Kyogen Carlson and himself on some proposals to standardize Soto Zen priest training in the US. It's an interesting and revealing discussion, if for no other reason than it shows that the labels, 'practitioner,' 'priest,' and 'teacher,' do not fall out neatly or intuitively in the contemporary context. They are going to befuddle us for some time to come.

I admit I found myself leaning toward Carlson's side in the debate. The spirit I most resonate with in what he has to say is shown in his point that for him those who are ordained live at or pretty close to the temple. The order of their day, the kinds of decisions they do or do not make, the kind of clothing they don, their rearrangement of lifestyle to square more completely with practice -- all of these strike me as appropriate points to consider in demarcating someone who has taken ordination from one who has not. Then it's not an "ontological vs functional" issue, as Ford wants to make it, but a "form of life" issue. It's not that priests are "differently marked souls" or that they "do a certain kind of service in the sangha," but that they live a life that is more clearly, obviously and, to outside observers, publicly molded by the Dharma.

I often wonder whether the issue of ordination in Zen overlooks a model that's available to us in the West: that of profession in a non-monastic religious order. On this model, one commits to a more practice-centered form of life for its own sake. One does not stand in the position of having something the rest of the community needs (like a Christian priest would have the authority to administer sacraments or a sanctioned Zen teacher would have the authority to confirm insight); rather one makes oneself available for bearing witness to the Dharma and for serving the Sangha.

Who knows? We're still in the infancy of Zen in America. Everyone I speak with about Zen ordination comes at it from their own set of background assumptions and experiences, and I know I'm trotting mine out here, that's for sure. But while we, like the baby, are learning how to stand and walk, there's no harm in taking hold of a few more of the stable elements in the landscape while finding our feet.

21 September 2010

Memento mori

I don't use a mala much, but when I do, I recite on every bead Śāntideva's recollection from the Bodhicaryāvatāra: "My foes will become nothing / My friends will become nothing / I too will become nothing / Likewise all will become nothing."

Now that I think of it, maybe I should up that practice some. Why?

The simple recollection that everything is in the process of going away is sometimes just enough to keep me from setting all manner of ego-centered and hence harmful consequences into motion. Nothing I want to do is that important. No point I want to make in a debate is that decisive.

20 September 2010


Most people on the planet are completely unknown to one another. Except for a small circle of kin and acquaintances, we come and go without the least acknowledgment. Even then, life-long friends are few, and relatives grow up, marry, move away, lose touch, or die. We have no living memory of family members four or five generations back -- what kind of pie they preferred, what ticked them off, whether or how they buttered their toast, how they sneezed, what pet phrases they had, how they liked their eggs, how ticklish they were, what they were allergic to, whether they could carry a tune -- and in four or five generations we will be equally unknown.

Why fight it? Why wait?

I find it much more interesting to settle into my obscure place in the universe with everything else that is not particularly known. What great company to keep!

17 September 2010

Buddha Doesn't Love Me, This I Know

The Buddhadharma does not comfort me.

The Buddhadharma challenges me to leave what is small, ego-driven and dark-dwelling behind. The Buddhadharma tells me it’s going to hurt and that hurt is part of the process. The Buddhadharma gives me the choice between comfort and life. The Buddhadharma holds out to me untold kalpas of work.

And I say, “Bring it on.”

16 September 2010

I Live in a Zen Center

I live in a Zen center. It’s not a vihara, wat, monastery, hermitage, rectory, friary, priory, skete, lavra, convent, abbey, cloister, charterhouse, or any combination of them. It’s like some of them more than others, and there are times when I wish it were like others more than it is.

It’s quiet, and I like that. It looks and feels like a place where practice occurs, and I like that, too. No space in it is exclusively mine, but that’s just fine with me. There’s not a lot of space for keeping a lot of personal stuff, either, but I don’t have much anyway, so that’s cool. The 2nd floor kitchen sink and bathroom tub drain slowly, but otherwise the place is in excellent repair.

I live alone, except when my daughter or an out-of-town friend visits, or when there’s sesshin, or when there’s an overnight guest of the center. The first floor space is available for sangha business throughout the day and when there are sittings, so there is some come-and-go traffic, but not a lot and nothing distracting.

Someone once said to me that living here was like living in a fishbowl, but I’ve not found that to be the case at all. It may help that it’s been a Zen Center to me for 14 years and home for just over 14 weeks; I kind of knew what I was getting into. To tell the truth, sometimes I wish people didn’t feel so compelled to hightail it out of here after a sitting in the name of accommodating me.

I like that my move-in date and my ordination date were less than a week apart. I will essentially have always lived here as a priest, as a home-leaver. I don’t know how long I will stay here. I’m not looking to move out, but I’m also not inclined to say I’m going to live here for the rest of my life. I do know that this isn’t a “time out” from my normal life. This is the new normal, or at least a variation on it.

Perhaps it’s all for the best that living here is not like living in other kinds of religious houses. I don’t know. As with most everything else connected with this new life of mine, there’s no definite form, not too many people to share it with, and yet no limits to how far I can run with it. It always seems to come back to that, doesn't it...?

15 September 2010

Miles From Nowhere

I know the way.
I know what has to be done.
I know just how much it costs.
I know there's no other option.
And yet another day goes by, and I don't budge.

Śāntideva hit the nail right on the head:
We who are like senseless children shrink from suffering, but love its causes. We hurt ourselves; our pain is self-inflicted!

13 September 2010

Today We Buried My Grandmother

My grandmother died last Thursday, and today was the funeral and burial. She was 94, cogent to the end, in decent enough health for her age, and she died peacefully. I loved her, though I probably could have shown it better in all kinds of ways. I know she thought the world of me, and that makes the preceding sentence really hard to read again right now.

Of all the memories that come back at a time like this, there's one that for me comes back more vividly than any other. Along with her siblings, my grandma used to take care of her mother, we called her "Busia," at the end of Busia's life. When I was about 11 or 12, a year or two before Busia died, we were visiting, and my grandma had me go with her to go take care of Busia one day. Busia was about 82 or 83, had had diabetes for most of her life, and the diabetes at this point had led to her feet becoming severely ulcerated. Grandma would go over and wash and dress Busia's feet. Rather than have me wait in the front room or something like that, grandma insisted I come and look at Busia's feet, not from a distance, but up good and close. I remember the look in Busia's eyes. I remember the feet. I remember my grandma, on her knees, washing and dressing Busia's feet while she sat in a chair in her kitchen. She made me look at my great-grandmother's ulcerated feet.

I was just a kid, and I know I resisted going into that kitchen and looking. But grandma knew that, kid or not, I was certainly old enough to know something real about this world, about this life, and about doing what needs doing. And for that direct pointing at reality, more than for anything else I can take from her life, I am indeed most grateful.

12 September 2010

10 September 2010

What it Might Take to Become a Chair

On Sunday we heard some of Tangen-Roshi's words in teisho. What we heard were his recollections of when, as a 18- or 19-year old, he resolved to become like a chair:

When I was eighteen or nineteen years old, I resolved to become like a chair. That was because a chair doesn't refuse its services to anybody; it just takes care of the sitter and lets him rest his legs. After it has served its purpose, no one gets up and thanks or offers words of kindness to the chair. It will more likely get kicked out of the way. What's more, the chair doesn't grumble or complain or bear a grudge, but just takes whatever is given. When there is a job to be done, it puts forth all its energy without picking and choosing according to its desires. I was thinking, "wouldn't it be great to have such a heart."

I wrote on a big sheet of paper, "Be like a chair", and every day took note of how close I came. If even a little dissatisfaction arose, I would regard that as an embarrassing state of mind for a chair. I considered how thoroughly I was of use to others. A chair doesn't plop itself down on top of the sitter, right?

I immediately found myself echoing his thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have such a heart!"

And then I noted just as quickly, "I really don't have one."

I've been thinking a lot this week about what it might take to have one. I'm not one for generalities, so I find looking at specific cases much easier to work with. Today while driving my daughter to school, for instance, I could count at least three times I was quite "un-chairlike": (1) when someone insisted on passing me on the right on Ridge Ave., I sped up in order to keep her from getting back into the left lane (turns out she had no intention of getting back into the left lane after all); (2) when coming off Hollywood onto the start of Lake Shore Drive I was quite impatient with the driver of the clunker of an Impala in front of me that would not (probably could not) accelerate as I wanted him to; and (3) while stopped on the Ashland Ave. bridge over I-290, I honked at a the guy in front of me to close the gap between him and the car in front of him, because I thought it was excessive.

All that in the space of the 7:00 hour. And I'm sure I'm forgetting some, too!

Driving is just one of many ways my un-chairlike heart shows up, so just staying off the road won't really help much. (I actually thought about doing just that!) I could cut off all the ways in which it shows up, but that wouldn't get to the root of the issue, either.

I know full well what's going on here. I'm still so very much enamored of the idea I have of myself that whenever the world doesn't march to its tune, I react, not at my bogus idea but at the world: "She's not driving like I want her to!" "He's not moving along like I want him to!" The list could -- and does -- go on.

Back to the mat, then, back to the mat. Just let go of the one thing that will then let go of it all. And then I might become like a chair.

09 September 2010

The Three Jewels Order of the Cloud-Water Sangha

"I am an ordained member of the Three Jewels Order of the Cloud-Water Sangha."

I realize that if I said that out loud, just about no one, not even most of the members of my local sangha, would have the vaguest idea what it meant. Funny thing is, I'm not so sure, either, but I think I have some clue.

The Cloud-Water Sangha is a loose affiliation of those centers that have as their teachers either Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede or someone whose sanctioning comes through him. The Rochester Zen Center web page (www.rzc.org) lists the centers with links to their web sites.

The Three Jewels Order is an order of priests and layfolk in the Cloud-Water Sangha who have made service to the Dharma the/a major trajectory in their life. The priests are priests, with everything that goes with that. The lay-ordained are layfolk who have upped their time and energy and practice level in such a way that they are recognized by the rest of the sangha as senior members, with whatever goes with that.

Today I received an email from Gerardo Gally Sensei in Mexico in response to one I sent him. I've never met him, but I heard an mp3 of a teisho he gave in Rochester this summer, and I had wanted to let him know I found it helpful in addressing a matter of common concern. His response was warm, engaging and genuine. When he said he hoped we would meet soon, I believed him.

When I was working in Germany I got to know Robert Goldmann Sensei and his wife, Gisela, and other members of the Berlin sangha. Any time I happened to be in Berlin, I sat with the group and socialized with Robbie and Gisela. Each time we would kind of pick up where we had left off, prompting the three of us to remark how apt Master Hakuin's line in the Zazen Wasan was to the situation: "In going and returning we never leave home."

Last fall I spent a week at the Rochester Zen Center, getting to know Roshi, the resident staff and many sangha members. I spent some time with Trueman, who had recently(ish) been ordained, and talked about becoming priests, our respective trajectories, etc. I never felt the least bit out of place.

In the day-to-day run of things, it's all too easy to think that the outer limit of the sangha is the roster of members of this particular temple. I'm finding it important to remember that my sangha includes Dharma brothers and sisters in New Zealand, Mexico, Sweden and Finland, Germany, Scotland, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York, as well as Illinois. I can go (and have gone) to them for refuge, and I hope that they would find here a place they can call home and people they can call kin, too. I hope to get to know more of them in the near future.

What an appropriate name for our motley band: cloud-water, unsui -- here, there, nowhere, everywhere!

08 September 2010

No Books. OK, Maybe a Few.

Yesterday I was asked by a dear friend, Dharma sister, and current intern at Wisdom Publications to write a review of a newly released or forthcoming book to post here. In a quick follow-up email, she said that of course there was no pressure to do so, if I didn't want to do book reviews on here.

I was grateful for the easy out. I don't want to do book reviews on here.

I earn my keep as an academic. I've had to read books for a degree, for a job, for a living. I used to own many hundreds of books, books I just had to have, books that no one who did what I did could be without, the latest books, the classic books, the "this will transform the landscape of x studies" books, books that chronicled the "P vs Q Debate." Then I went abroad for three years and left all the books on the shelves in my office. When I returned, I realized that a) I hadn't opened many of them in many years, b) the ones I had opened I could easily nab from the library if I needed to take a look again, and c) I really didn't find that most of them in the end had terribly much to say. So I took pretty much all of them off the shelves (I kept back those I needed for use in the classroom), put them in the hallway outside my office door, stuck up a "Free Books" sign over the lot of them, and felt the cool breeze of liberation waft in as they disappeared one after the other.

I have never regretted doing that. Not once. I don't miss them at all.

I still own a few books. The Connected, Long and Middle-Length Discourses of the Buddha (Wisdom gets a plug, after all), a few Mahāyanā sutras, some Zen records, some books of Chinese poetry, and some field guides. Except for the Pāli canon, perhaps, I wouldn't even replace those if a fire or flood or friend took them.

This is one of those things one comes to on one's own. I've heard of Zen teachers forbidding their students to read. I get the idea, but I don't think that's the way to go about it.

For me, it's a renunciation issue. Renunciation isn't a forced march to annihilation. It's what happens when, having first aroused bodhicitta (using the language of the tradition), one sees the pursuit of something else as utterly beside the point. One then sets aside that something else, not in order to see more clearly, but because one has already begun to see more clearly.

I found books to be a distraction for me, something of a waste of my time, something that kept me from something better. It's not that occasionally I won't get a real itch to buy some title or another. I do. But if I let it sit in the Amazon cart overnight, I'm usually free of the itch by morning.

For you they may not be a distraction, so read on! But I won't point out the good ones or the bad ones for you. You'll have to figure that out by yourself.

07 September 2010

In the No Comprendo Zone Again

I don't understand what is being offered when I see advertised, for $120, a one night a week for six weeks "exploration" of the first koan, mu.

You see, I know someone who passed the first koan on their first stab at it. But I also know someone who passed the first koan after some thirty years of consistent, dedicated practice -- including more sesshin days than some teachers had under their shukins before they were sanctioned. Sometimes the fruit is ripe; sometimes the fruit needs to stay on the vine a while. Such is the nature of practice. Such is the nature of our life. Such is the nature of the first koan.

I have watched the dead come back to life with mu, and I will never stop bearing witness to that reality. If I do nothing else as a Zen priest, I will attest to the transformative power that is unleashed when the ego dies its first real death in mu.

So I don't understand what's supposed to happen on those six consecutive fall evenings. I see that discussion is involved. Really? Of all things, more discussion? It says, too, that there will be dokusan. At $20 an evening, though, its hard to imagine anyone will get rung out quickly for starting off their demonstration by opening their mouth. Nothing in my training leads me to make sense of any of this. Nothing at all.

But there must be something to this, right? I mean, such a program must assuredly be a skillful means for breaking through the hold the self has on someone. It simply has to be worth the participants' time and the money as a way of putting an end to dukkha, right?


I clearly don't understand.

05 September 2010

Beethoven's Tenth

Today in teisho we heard a bit from Tangen-Roshi of Bukkokuji. I had heard much about him, but not anything from him, so I poked around on the net and found this, which brought instant tears to my eyes:

"The last evening before I joined the army during the war I went to my room and I sat there listening to the gramophone, an old one, no electricity, Beethoven's Symphony No 9, again and again, at two o'clock I wrote on the sleeve: 'I am listening to it now, maybe the last time'. I joined the air forces and the day my last flight was due the war ended; if my last flight was just a day earlier, nobody of you would be sitting here. But I went back home, the record was still where I left it, I opened it and the inscription was there. But I didn't listen to it any more. After the war I met a nun who introduced me to the Dharma. She took me to the zazen in Kannon temple in Tokyo and then when I heard the Shiseigando Sutra, even though I didn't understand the meaning because I didn't have the written text, I knew this was the harmony I was seeking. I couldn't stop crying, it was raining when I was going home, but the rain of my tears was even bigger. I didn't listen to the classical music anymore. Beethoven is powerful, but the silence is even more powerful. This is the Tenth Symphony of Beethoven."

And at this very moment, we, too, are listening, maybe for the last time.

04 September 2010

A Theravādan in Mahāyanā Clothing?

A friend and Dharma brother mentioned to me yesterday that he had been listening to podcasts or somesuch out of the insight meditation community, and he had been struck by the frequent references to morality, ethics, and the practice of the pāramitās in them. He offered that he rarely heard such references in Zen talks, hearing instead rather frequent mention of enlightenment, awakening, and the like. He wondered aloud whether that might not have something to do with the kinds of shenanigans that just about every Zen center and temple has had to put up with from many "enlightened" teachers.

I don't know the answer to that question at all.

I do know that I find myself these days reading in the Pāli canon more than in the records of the Zen masters. I do know that I could stand to benefit from a fortnightly or monthly precepts recitation and repentance ceremony (I notice that some Zen centers have incorporated this into their schedule). I do know that from "All beings are already enlightened" it does not follow that "I am enlightened today." I do know that even if all beings will one day attain the heights of Buddhahood, I'm still very much in the lowlands of ego and attachment. And I do know that poo-pooing the ideal of arhatship is something I can never do, since I don't know that my pinky toe has come even remotely close to entering the stream.

I've developed such a gag reflex when the word 'enlightenment' or its relatives is used in reference to anyone other than Śākyamuni that hearing the question, "Was the monk enlightened?," when working through a koan is getting harder and harder to endure.

I sometimes wonder if that means I should trade in my black and blue robes for saffron or ochre. In the end I think that what it really means is that, at least for me, the generosity and expanse of the Mahāyanā vision can never be uncoupled from the humility and patience that Theravādan practice embodies.

02 September 2010

Radical Solitude

I'm spending time these days working through the pāramitā of kṣānti, or patient forbearance, and one of the things that continues to strike me about this pāramitā is the way in which it points to our thoroughgoing aloneness.

One is invited to consider that everything that affects oneself -- whether arising from within, as in the case of mental phenomena, or arising from without, as in the case of external phenomena and the actions of others -- is not oneself and neither adds to nor detracts from one's essential nature. Hence, neither praise nor blame, neither boon nor bane is cause for elation or distress, since, in the end, they are not oneself. Knowing this, one is able to receive benefit without getting a swelled head and to endure abuse, pain and insult with a soft, open heart.

I recently heard a dharma talk that looked at the way in which even the closest of friends and kin tend to shy away from or neglect us in times of greatest need and distress. Far from an occasion to wag a finger at the unhelpful or absent, or to complain about their self-centeredness, the kṣānti pāramitā would have me see this as a reminder that I am in no way diminished by their (lack of) actions. In fact, I should be grateful for the occasion to realize that from the very beginning I have never been other than myself and that this has always been sufficient.

01 September 2010

Zen Priest Practice, Too?

"Learn by heart you must let the people eat you up." Teresa of Calcutta