29 July 2010

Minimal Guidance

Contemporary Zen in America, at least as far as I know, has no equivalent of something like Benedict's Rule to govern ordained life. The 10-ish pages of 8.5 x 11 paper I was given to begin my novice training contained a nice long reading list, some basic guidelines (solid zazen practice, short hair, blue or black clothing, no collars, new name), and some scant impressions of what kind of life was being aimed at. And that was it.

I found myself looking at the Vinaya. I took out Dōgen's Eihei Shingi. I read about the Baizhang Qinggui. The Vinaya was exacting to the point of being unhelpful; the others were general to the point of being the same.

I was reminded of a line in Francis' Testament where he is describing the beginnings of his new way of life: "No one showed me what I ought to do."

So here I am, free to gestalt my own new way of life. I can honestly say that I cannot remember anything else I've embarked on where there was so little set form and yet so high an aspiration. This truly is the antithesis of hoop-jumping, requirement-fulfilling, or expectation-meeting.

Maybe that is what is so unsettling. I am, I am beginning to see, a free man, free to simply be there in the unfolding of each new moment and each new day. No one is showing me what to do, and I have no idea of what lies ahead.

23 July 2010

The Great Silence

Perhaps one of the things that first drew me to Zen was the fact that it was a silent practice. Of course there is the silence of the zendo and the silence one encounters when the monkey mind stops a-chattering, but it is more than that. It is the silence of the apologia that were never written, the sermons that were never delivered, the hymnody that was never composed. It is the silence that after a three sentence interchange says, "Enough talk! Let's have tea." It is the silence of Gutei's finger, Hakuin's one hand, Nansen's circle on the ground, my daughter's cut toe, the oriental lily in the vase, the traffic jam on the Ryan, and the time spent with an old friend.


13 July 2010

The Small Joy of Koan Work

When we hear about koan work it is often in the context of sesshin, where the order of the day is to dive deep, burrow long, press on, strive harder – you know the drill. And if we’ve read The Three Pillars, we’ve been amazed and astounded at the nothing-short-of-miraculous accounts of the sundering of heaven and earth as some unsuspecting “N.N. – [pick your everyday bourgeois profession]” breaks through to kensho in the strangest way and place possible.

Depending on our disposition we may find such talk intriguing or off-putting, and it is easy to see how some folk go in for koan practice and others not so much.

But what gets me most about koan practice, what I find myself utterly humbled by and grateful for, is not the earthmoving and the pyrotechnics. It is that small, barely perceptible, instant when, despite all the demonstrations of the koan I’ve rehearsed in my head on the mat, despite whatever depths of the Dharma I think the koan is teaching me, despite whatever I think about myself and the teacher and the practice, the koan comes alive in the dokusan room, and – I’m struggling to find the right words here, so bear with me – I am the koan in a way I could never have anticipated yet which is so right that nothing else could possibly be going on just then and I don’t even know it at the time but only notice it afterwards and even then just barely. This certainly doesn’t happen all the time, or even much of the time, really. And when it does, it isn’t all that dramatic (onlookers, and even the teacher I suppose, would find nothing remarkable). But when it does, I walk out of the dokusan room ever more disposed to press on with practice, because I have had a small sip from a source that I again know is nothing other than what I myself am when everything else is set to the side. And I would drink deeper.

06 July 2010

One Month

Probably the biggest surprise to me about being a priest is just how little it matters on the one hand, and how very much it matters on the other. When I go to the grocery store, for example, no one would know I'm a priest. But I know, and so I find that I keep checking myself: just this.

The way I look at it is that they don't have to know I'm ordained; but if they were to find out, they shouldn't be surprised by it based on what they see. Now that I think about it, that's a tall enough order to keep me on my toes for quite some time.

02 July 2010

Dharma Gates

The Maha-Rahulovada Sutta contains a brief formula that, seems to me, captures the essence of the renunciant life: "This is not me. This is not mine. This is not what I am." Recalling these lines allows one to put the thing back down, to set the momentary idea one has of oneself to the side, to let go of the situation that is causing one such pain, such pleasure, such preoccupation.

It is a difficult practice, of course, and I see the wisdom in pursuing it in an eremitic or cenobitic setting. Not that attachments won't arise; but they will likely be fewer and farther between than in everyday life.

Which brings me to this crazy life of trying to pursue this practice in the context of family, work, social life, grocery stores, retail outlets, and all the rest. I'm finding that there is no rulebook here, no "three robes, one meal and you're done." And there isn't even the rule that one should practice in this way. Others will piece this life together differently.

But for myself, I'm finding that I more and more frequently feel the need to stop, let go of the grip, and move on. When I don't, I see almost instantaneously the suffering that arises – for myself certainly, but also for others, for things, for the world. I can almost watch the suffering unfold, and then I know that I had the chance not to set this into motion, but did all the same. And then the next situation arises, the next moment appears, and another dharma gate opens wide.

The way to Taishan? Straight ahead, of course!