27 October 2010

Nothing to Offer

I was asked to be involved with a student sitting group at the university where I teach.  The few regulars are dedicated and sincere.  One who recently graduated is coming to the center occasionally now, and he will be participating in this weekend's sesshin.

We sit for 40 minutes (20 minutes, posture change, 20 minutes) once a week at 10:00pm.  Afterwards one or the other of them might ask a question about things that come up as they sit.  Then they're off to the rest of their evening, and I'm off to sleep. 

I sometimes wish I had more to give them besides providing some bare-bones instruction and serving as the timer, but it really is enough for now.  The forces that brought them to sit at this point in their lives are being touched with their practice.  I get the sense that they are grateful for having this chance to sit, and they're completely un-zenny, and that by itself is a wonder to behold!

24 October 2010

My Issue X

Let's call my issue xX can pull me away from whatever I'm doing and take me to a very different place.  I go through periods when it seems like all I can think about is x.  I sometimes take money that's going to be spent on something else and find a way to spend it on x.  I rearrange my schedule to make room for x.  When I'm down in the dumps, I tell myself I need x.  When things are going really well, I tell myself I deserve x.

Then I get mad at myself for being so wrapped up in x in the first place, for not having the backbone to resist, for once again not living up to the kind of picture I have of "how I should be."

If others found out about x, depending on who it is, I'd be anywhere from mildly embarrassed to thoroughly mortified.  I often feel that, because of x, the rest of my life is somehow a sham.

I think of how grand it would be not to have x as part of my life.  I imagine other, x-free, me's.  I project to a day when, at long last, I will be done with x.  I figure I'm the only person on the planet with such an x to deal with.

And then I wake up.

23 October 2010

So Many Lives!

6.7ish billion of them.  Each one of us playing out our little script.  Each one of us fretting for ourselves and those we hold dear.  Each one of us with our joys and sorrows and dreams and fears and regrets.

There are times I find it almost unbearable, this sheer complexity and wonder of our humanity.  No easy answers at all.  No handy theory to wrap us all up in.  While I am here there is so much else going on, every imaginable activity, every walk of life, every pathology and every mark of health.  All at once.  Neverending.  Everything and everyone involved with everything and everyone else.

And not just the people, but the spiders, stray cats, possums, flies, krill and whales, too.

And not just the critters but the asters, magnolias, bamboo and ginkgo, too.

Oh my goodness, yes, we are large: we contain multitudes.

May we all be at ease, at least as best we can!

May we all be at ease.

21 October 2010

Bodhidharma Came from the West for This?

I recently came across the title, Jesus Died for This?: A Satirist's Search for the Risen Christ.  I'm not going to buy or read the book, so this is no commentary on it, but I found the premise intriguing: a sympathetically sardonic look at a tradition one loves.

Here's my problem: I'm all too ready to engage in that kind of pastime myself.  Flip my switch, and I can jokingly rip just about anything to shreds, even something I love.

I do not know the author, so this is not about her.  But I do know about me, and I know that when I start in on something like this, I am not doing anything but making myself look good by making others look, well, not so good.

So I say: Yes, Bodhidharma came from the West for all of this!  Every last bit of it.  My foolishness included.

16 October 2010

Every Day is a Good Day

This weekend I'm visiting one of my daughters at college.  This is my first time visiting a child, now an adult, on her turf.  Here I am the outsider, here I am the guest (though I still got the bill at the restaurant, and I paid for the stuff on the trip to the Wal-Mart!).  I find I'm flashing back to when my parents would visit me at school, and how nice it was to see them but how nice it was when they left.  Now I'm on the other side, becoming a dad in this new kind of way.

I love this life.  I love this life.  I love its springs and its falls.  I love its babies and its grandparents.  I love its closeness and its distance.  I love every day, every single day, with everything I expect and with everything that surprises.  I love being sick, and I love being well.  I love not knowing what lies ahead tomorrow.  I love not remembering what happened yesterday.  I love not knowing what I will find myself being in five minutes, or five months, or five years, five decades, or -- yes -- five kalpas.

15 October 2010

Come, Bodhisattvas, Eat!

I keep running into a lot of blog chatter about how it really doesn't matter if one does not live much differently post-ordination than pre-ordination.  I find myself asking what the point, then, would be.

In our lineage, priests
a) wear simple blue, black or gray clothing, in that order of preference
b) keep the hair short for women and very short (buzzed though not shaved) for men
c) wear shirts that have no collars or only a band collar
d) avoid animal products in clothing as practicable and
e) if men, keep the face clean-shaven.
Beyond that, there is an expectation of living a "pared-down" life, though that will, of course, be subject to circumstances.  In any event, opulence and luxury, adornment and focus on fashion, are to be avoided.

By and large, it's pretty easy not to stand out in a crowd this way.  A navy sweatshirt with blue jeans isn't distinctively "Buddhist priest" wear.  But with no collared shirts, neckties are out.  With the color restriction, most sports team insignia apparel is out. OK, so there are a few situations where one doesn't blend so easily in, but this is hardly oppressive. 

And yet there is grumbling even about something as simple as this!

It is one of the marks of Baby Boomer thinking that requirements are by their very nature pernicious.  The Boomers gave birth to "Generation Optional:"  everyone gets choices, because choices are by their very nature empowering.


Last I heard, Zen was a practice of avoiding picking and choosing, a practice of renouncing the multiplication of choices in favor of a mindful, straightforward life, characterized by equanimity.  I'm not there yet, but I have to say I find that I'm much freer to attend to better things when I'm not worried about updating my phone or mixing up the wardrobe or the rest.  While not quite a No Comprendo Zone issue, I do wonder why there's so much resistance among Buddhist ordaineds to letting such stuff go.  What is that?

I do not believe one can be "nonattached" in mind only.  Nonattachment is demonstrated in truck with everyday life.  Maybe it's what koan training has done to me, but I can't shake the view that commitment and insight have to be demonstrated.

12 October 2010

Leaving the World

Leaving the world is not the same thing as leaving the planet.

"The world" is the domain of human culture and interaction.  And it is not singular.  We speak of "the art world," "the wide world of sports," "the academic world," and "the world of fine dining." Magazine titles include Runner's World, Swimming World, Guitar World, Fishing World and Bridge World. 

So when we hear of hermits "leaving the world," or of monastics or priests "leaving home," it doesn't mean disappearing altogether; it means taking leave of a certain kind of structured human domain with its rules, expectations, fashions, criteria of success and failure, heroes and villains, internal history, and the like. It means attempting to live a life unhindered by these concerns.  These persons still engage in any number of activities with other people; they just do it on different terms and on a different schedule.

If such persons strike us as odd, it is perhaps more a measure of our inability to imagine ourselves free of these concerns than it is anything about them.  They make us confront our own attachments, and we, seeing them with a heart that is at all receptive, understand how far it is we have yet to go.

Let us hope they never disappear:
With folded hands I beseech
The Conquerors who wish to pass away,
To please remain for countless eons
And not to leave the world in darkness.

11 October 2010

Karma = No Magic

Yesterday I was asked a few questions by a visitor to the Center who is taking a course in religious diversity at a local Lutheran seminary.  One of his questions was, "What do you understand by karma?"  I was grateful that other things intervened, leaving no time for me to answer his question.

I've been thinking about it, though, and I think my short (and probably my long) answer would have been something along the lines that understanding that there is karma is the same as not believing in magic.  It means trusting that effects follow causes, that biological beings get sick and pass away, that there's no such thing as a free lunch, that the mess I've created is mine to deal with as best I can, that some fences can never be mended, that much of what I think and do arises because of forces beyond my control, and that I am perfectly imperfect all the same.

08 October 2010

"Outside us no Buddhas"

The first lines of Master Hakuin's Zazen Wasan are always arresting to me:
From the very beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice,
without water no ice,
outside us no Buddhas.
They stop me in my tracks, because they remind me that the Buddhadharma isn't something to discuss, read about, promulgate or advertise; it is this very life in every last one of its movements and moments.  There is no "other life," "better life," or "future life" -- only this very life.  Buddha(hood) isn't some faraway personage or state; it's this very body, as Hakuin says at the end of the chant.  The Dharma isn't anything to "believe in" any more than my pulse is.  It doesn't register on a Pew Research Center survey, that's for sure!

Outside me no Buddha.  It's no one else's job to "be Buddha" so I can kick back and relax.  If not me, then no one else, either.  The essence of the Bodhisattva vow.

06 October 2010

Update from the No Comprendo Zone

I see that an Oak Park Zen teacher is offering any number of classes on how to "live a more effective life."  I heard today that a couple of Dharma brothers are involved with a local institute that helps one "live a bigger life," "a life of more."

I''m a dolt.  I just don't understand.

Why is it Bashō's pissing horse or Ryōkan's naked moon or Rengetsu's cherry blossom kindness draw me like a 10 Tesla magnet, while promises of a "shit-gotten-together life" leave me utterly at sea?  Why is it I'm considering cutting my income in half in 10 years while others are looking to triple theirs in 5?  Why is less vastly more attractive to me than more?

I don't know.  I just don't understand.

03 October 2010


Like most Zen Buddhists in America today, I was neither born into a Buddhist family, nor did I begin practice at an early age. I was 32 before I read the first line of a Buddhist sutra, and I was 35 before I set foot in a practice center or temple. Like many Zen Buddhists in America today, I have a Christian history. Mine is a Roman Catholic history, and the expression of that Catholicism is Franciscan.

Tonight the daughters and sons of Francis of Assisi gather to mark his death. To my knowledge he is if not the only then certainly one of the very few non-martyred Christian saints whose actual process of dying is the focus of sustained remembrance. And why? Francis did not preach resurrection; he lived the gateway to resurrection, the emptying and death of the self. So great was his lowering of the mast of the self that he is said to have borne in his body the signs of the highest expression of selflessness Christianity has to offer: the marks of the crucifixion, or stigmata. As he was dying he asked to be placed naked on the bare earth. He knew the gateway, and he went straight through, holding on to nothing.

I grew up in a Franciscan parish and attended five years of Franciscan seminary as a youth. I don’t know how many times I read and reread Francis’ writings and life long into adulthood. I have absolutely no doubt that Francis’ kissing a leper in a great moment of tossing aside all picking and choosing, his bald act of stripping off his clothes and identity before his family, bishop and fellow citizens thus walking unarmored into the world, his candid and unglossed following of the injunction to “sell everything you have,” his patient blessing of the cauterer’s iron that would probably do more to seal him in his blindness than cure it – all of this and more played a major role in opening me up to the path I follow today.

To my brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of Francis and Clare: peace and all good!

And thanks.