30 August 2010

In the No Comprendo Zone

I don't understand the motivation to make the Dharma look good by making disparaging comments about the content or practices of other traditions.

I really don't understand it when such comments reference the speaker's experience as a child: "When I was in Sunday School...," "In confirmation class I asked the teacher x, and she said...," "In fourth grade the priest said y, and I thought...". At that age the boys thought girls had cooties and sex was icky. Good thing most people don't base their adult dating habits on their pre-adolescent worldviews! So why does the third-grader's smartass comment about some aspect of religion count as an enlightened slam-dunk on a millennia-old tradition?

Or, perhaps more to the point, why does one's third-grade self, which is many decades long gone, still demand a hearing? Any why do teisho-givers yield the floor to it?

28 August 2010

Nothing Special

"I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes." Thoreau, Walden

So I got some new clothes this summer. The sangha outfitted me with two robes, a shukin, a rakusu, a kesa and a zagu. I should like to think that, in this case, the clothes confirmed the newness of the wearer, though that is something for others to judge. Except for excessive wear and tear -- but, really, how worn can anything but the everyday robe possibly get? -- I can't imagine having any reason to replace or add to anything in that stack.

Which brings me to the temptation I suppose many feel to go a-shopping at "Boutique Zen": brocade rakusus and kesas of various designs and colors, coordinating malas for the wrist, flowing Japanese silk britches for ceremonial occasions, tabi, samues that will never, ever, be used to actually work in...

Oh, yeah, the samue.

While in the Japan Center in San Francisco earlier this month I passed a shop that had a small rack of samues in the front of the store. I took a look. There was one that was touch-it-and-your-fingers-are-blue-for-a-day indigo (cool!). Nice construction. Button waist. Zippered fly. Pockets in the pants. Roomy top (I'm not skinny). Appropriate sleeve length. Decent price (compared to what is usually asked for something like this). The shopkeeper, finding out I was ordained, offered to cut me a discount. He practiced at Page St. and sat with the Dharma Punx. Nice guy.

I bought it.

I understand that the samue is a point of some contention in my lineage. Bodhin Roshi sees it as yet another Japanese accretion that is best left in Japan, but his ordained dharma heirs all wear one. Here in the heartland, it really is pretty funny seeing a middle-aged, middle-class white guy on the street in a samue. On the other hand, when worn with a rakusu it seems to have become a clearly recognizable mark of Buddhist belonging that bestows a bit of "dharma cred" on the wearer.

I'm conflicted. Something tells me I should have one, and something tells me that it's silly to have one. I anticipate an occasion or a setting where I would be expected to wear one, and I have the sense that I would not even begin to feel at home on such an occasion or in such a setting.

It hangs in the closet. If it hangs there for the next two years without me putting it on, I'll pass it on to someone who values it more than I do, for by then the conflict will have settled of its own accord.

26 August 2010

A Little Secret

For the past 10 years or so I have kept a list -- an actual list -- of the things I own.

It started after I had realized, for what I then hoped would be the last time, that I owned things that I neither remembered I had nor actually needed or wanted. I figured that if I listed it all in black on white I would get a clearer sense of the scope of my possessions.

I was instantly ashamed, so I started paring down.

The list has been shrinking-to-steady ever since. I'm now down to a point where I cannot in all reasonableness pare much further without significant changes in my basic lifestyle. I need a car to get to work in Indiana, for instance, and only if I leave my job can I begin to think about going carless. There is a small number of things I own simply because my one kid stays here from time to time, and I need to make her comfortable as well. Who knows? In a few years, some of that stuff might be able to pass on as well.

Today I happened upon a website listing a bhikkhu's permitted and prohibited possessions. Aside from a few items, I noticed that my list and the bhikkhu's list were not terribly far apart, all things considered. I'll now look at those few items again as well. Maybe they could go, too.

Seems to me that the tradition has outlined a reasonable life for those of us who would be home-leavers. A very reasonable life.

21 August 2010

"What I think we’re looking at is a dying off of Zen in the West within the next twenty years."

So blogged James Ford about a month or so ago on his Monkey Mind site.

To be honest, if Christianity had come to the West from elsewhere some 50ish years ago, I have no doubt the prognosis would be equally grim. It's not a matter of the efficacy of the practice, and it's not a matter of the profundity of the sutras or scriptures, nor is it a matter of how lofty the ideals are yet how reticent our nature is to live up to them.

It's a matter of not having enough non-lay practitioners setting down the ugly, rough, subterranean foundation on which to support the edifice. Yes, Layman Pang and Vimalakirti had deep insight, enough to spar with the very best. Nevertheless, the vessel of the tradition was borne by the full-timers, the lifers, who had nothing else to do but serve the establishment of the practice. They parked their asses in one spot, didn't go on vacations and sightseeing trips, and were tough as nails. They endured hardship and cold. They knew hunger and loneliness.

The generation to whom Zen has been entrusted in America wanted the cake and the eating. They wanted marriages (though maybe not families) and the abbotship. They wanted careers and the transmission. They wanted the rigors of the practice and they wanted to make it accessible to the multitudes. They wanted to open a field of merit and make money at it.* Maybe they wanted to be Zen and Christian, even. Who knows? In all of this, they were truly WASP-Americans, or quite the Baby-Boomers or their wannabes. But they were not sustainably Zen. Or anything else, for that matter.

I'm all for lay practice in Zen. But it has to have a solid touchstone somewhere, and that touchstone -- as it has been for every spiritual practice known to humans since the dawn of agriculture and cities -- can only be the hermitage and the monastery. What hubris to think that Zen in the West in the 20th/21st centuries could be an exception to that rule!

The future of Zen, if it is to have one, is going to be prepared quietly by small groups of men and women who will live apart, who will not seek to expand the temple's membership, get invited on the lecture circuit, or publish the next book. These men and women will practice hard. They will keep their own counsel and demand far more of themselves than anyone would probably think prudent. They will become the Anthonys, the Dogens, the Brunos and the Rinzais of today, and the success of their efforts will be known in, oh I don't know, about 10 to 15 generations.


* My goodness, how far would Christianity have gotten in the British isles and northwestern Europe if the Celtic monks had charged the equivalent of $900 sesshin fees for their service to the laity as some places currently do?

19 August 2010

The Four Requisites

According to the Buddha, there are four requisites for living a life devoted to practice:

food sufficient to prevent the affliction of hunger and adequate to maintain the health of the body;

clothing sufficient to appear socially decent and conducive to the protection of the body from any harm from the natural environment;

housing which gives sufficient safety and security conducive to one’s serious engagement in the culture of the mind;

and medicine and health care which cures and prevents disease.

Pretty straightforward, it would seem. What I pause on is 'sufficient'. I clearly have sufficient, and I clearly have more than sufficient. To tell the truth, I sometimes can't believe just how well-off I am. I want for nothing.

Now, how to get to the sufficient alone?

16 August 2010

"When what happens is not what you expect…"

"...forget about it, and return to yourself." (Stonehouse)

I recently spoke with a guy who is coming out from under a teacher scandal at the temple where he has been practicing. We've had our troubles here, to be sure. In his last interview before his recent death, Robert Aitken Roshi did not flinch at calling Eido Shimano "a crook." If you have enough money, you can buy into Genpo's "Big Mind" and its offshoots.

In the end, none of this matters. When I sit on the mat, I do not confront others' malfeasance; I confront my own. The "endless blind passions" that I vow to uproot are none other than mine. The fetters I have created for myself are mine alone to break. And no matter how long I stay at this work, more work will have to be done.

I find I have nothing to say about the people involved or the deeds they've done. I don't think I would have anything to say to them, either. What an immense delusion it would be for me to think that I, through a few words, could change the course of the life they have created for themselves!

12 August 2010

Dharma Brother

You know you've found dharma kin when you get to that point where words fail in describing the depth of your aspiration, and the person on the other side of the table understands you all the same, because his aspiration is just as deep.

10 August 2010


"Beautiful, isn't it?" my friend asked. "Indeed it is, but alas, how sad," I thought to myself while tears of wonder filled my eyes at what I saw.

03 August 2010

The Clown Act

Yesterday I performed my first public act as a priest: conducting a memorial service at a local funeral home. I loaded up the car with altar, figure, incense, candles, flowers, fruit, cloth, kesu, mat, and all the rest, headed over, set things up, disappeared for a while, then came back to do the service. Afterward I gratefully accepted the dana, joked around with the funeral home owners, packed it all back up, and headed home.

My name has now been added to the clergy-on-demand list at the funeral home, but I'm not expecting to fill my calendar with requests. The one owner asked about my fee, and I explained that in Buddhism we don't charge for the Dharma, so he put down "free will offering." I asked what the Presbyterian gets. He said the Presbyterian minister and the Catholic priest each fetch between $150 and $200. The rabbi's fee starts at $450. I kidded that he should be sure to mention the Buddhists between the Catholics and the Jews, just to see what that would bring in!

All joking aside, I became convinced yesterday of the utter rightness of not putting a price on the Dharma and how important it is to simply respond as best I can to requests made of my time and energy. I hate to admit it, but going into the funeral home at noon my thoughts about the service were about me and what I could bring to it. Leaving the funeral home at 3, I knew that the service was about something much more subtle and profound and that I was just a bit player in the whole thing. If my work on behalf of the Dharma brings such gifts as this insight in its wake, it would be a shame to insist on adding cash to them as well.